MY SOUL TO KEEP
"Debts of Wrong and Right"
Queen Melosa was furious.
She had realized some time ago that the new presence in the cursed gem with her was that of Gabrielle, but so far she'd been unable to communicate with her successor. The Amazon was afraid that perhaps she had been nothing but a disembodied soul for so long that what little personality, what little humanity, she retained had ceased moons ago. ‘Is this really Tartarus?' she wondered. ‘Maybe this is nothing but a cruel trick of the Gods and the eternal damnation they devised for me?' But she quickly halted such thinking, for she knew that way madness surely lay. Her one hope, the thing which did allow her to remain at least partially human, instead of simply a collection of disassociated atoms floating in the ether of the damnable stone, was that there was at least the possibility of escape. Not to her body, which had been burned long ago in a majestic, magnificent pyre, but to her true final reward: The Elysian Fields.
And the Amazon Queen knew that Gabrielle was her best hope for that. In all likelihood, her last hope for a release from this maddening prison. So, she tried once more to communicate with the Bard-Queen.
Autolycus carefully disentangled himself from the woman next to him, gently crawled over three others, and quietly made his way out onto the balcony. There, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and gazed across the beautiful Grecian landscape to where the sun was just peeking over the far horizon. As Eos spread her rosy fingers across the plain below him, he smiled and tipped his head to her, greeting her with a pseudo-military salute that used only two fingers. ‘One of these days,' he thought to himself, ‘I'm going to have to meet her. I'll bet she has some great jewels.' Despite what he'd told James last night, he knew he'd be up at dawn, he always was; it was his favorite time of the day. Which, he realized, was odd for a thief; appreciating the banishment of the shadows of the night. But, he reasoned, given his enormous ego, he far preferred to make his thefts in the bright light of day so that everyone could be that much more impressed by them. "Hard to receive the accolades due me if no one ever gets to witness my genius," he grinned.
Then, he heard the sounds of the women in the next room beginning to stir and he realized that some of his talents were best appreciated under cover of darkness. A moment later Lissla joined him on the balcony, looking every bit as radiant as the dawn herself.
"Morning, sleepyhead," he smiled, kissing her lightly on the forehead.
"I figured you'd be out here," she replied, snuggling next to him and sleepily greeting the dawn. "Why didn't you wake me?"
"You looked so beautiful, lying there, with a bit of drool running out the corner--Ow!" he chuckled as she punched him hard on the arm.
"You may have the others snowed, Auto, but I know you haven't got a romantic bone in your body," she huffed, turning her back to him.
"Doctors figured out years ago that despite the common term for it, there really isn't a bone involved at all, just muscles," he said in mock-seriousness. "So, you're probably right."
"Oh...you," she giggled, whirling around and favoring him with one of her most wicked grins. "You always make me laugh."
"It's a gift," he shrugged, pulling her close. "Or a curse, depending on what I'm trying to accomplish."
After a few moments spent simply enjoying the nearness of each other, Lissla said softly, "Auto, I'm getting married. I met someone and he's wonderful and kind and gentle and--"
"Around a lot more than I am," the thief finished for her. "I know, Liss. Why do you think nothing's happened between us recently? Not because of disinterest, I assure you. And certainly not because of any, shall we say, physical limitations on my part. No. I just realized that you and I were destined to be friends, no matter how much I might wish otherwise. I hope you'll be very happy, sweetie. I wish it could have been me that made you complete, but it wasn't."
"Oh, Auto! You'll always be my friend! My dear, wonderful, lovely friend! That won't change," she promised.
"I know it won't," he nodded, hugging her close. But the moisture in his eyes betrayed his feelings that something precious and wonderful was dying in his grasp and he abruptly wiped the tears away before stepping back. "I've gotta go, Lissla. I've got something important to do. I expect to get an invitation to the wedding, though."
"Auto, I'm not going anywhere...Well, I will be moving out of the P-N-P and getting private quarters with my husband, but other than that it's going to be the same," she said, frowning. But she knew he was right, that things would change, no matter how much neither wanted them to. "You'll see. And you'd damn well better come to my wedding!"
"I'll be there. See you later." He leaned down and kissed her and then leaped from the balcony, landing as lightly as a cat on the grass below.
Lissla waved goodbye as he ran off and then went back inside to pack her things.
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle...Please say you can hear me," a voice called out, startling the Bard. And yet...she could have sworn she knew that voice...from somewhere.
"I hear you," the Bard replied. "Where are you?" She knew that the gem was still sitting on the nightstand next to Xena's bed and that her companion was still sleeping off all the wine she'd drank the night before. "Who are you?"
Then, a familiar form shimmered into existence in front of her and Gabrielle cried out, "Queen Melosa! But...how?"
"Thank Artemis you can see me, Gabrielle," the Amazon smiled, stepping through the ether and embracing the confused Bard-Queen.
"Ephiny told me that she watched Velasca kill you in a fair challenge," Gabrielle explained.
"Xena might have been able to beat me fairly, but Velasca could never have done it," Melosa replied, frowning. "While we were fighting before the entire tribe, Kerai used this accursed gem to capture my soul. At that instant, Velasca ran her sword through my heart and to all those watching it looked as if she'd killed me in fair combat. After Velasca became a God, Kerai and her other supporters escaped in the aftermath of her attempt to destroy you."
"I never did quite believe that someone like Velasca could have defeated you fairly, no matter how many times she tried to convince me otherwise," Gabrielle nodded. "And, from the way Ephiny constantly neglected to include the word ‘fair,' I suspect she had doubts, too."
"Ephiny is a dear friend and a wonderful politician; it's due to her efforts that peace has been maintained with the Centaurs and that the word Amazon no longer causes people to react with fear or hatred," Melosa agreed. "But she's no leader, no Queen, Gabrielle. It's time for you to take your place as active Queen of the Amazons and lead them to their rightful place in the order of this world."
"Perhaps, but in case it slipped your mind, right now neither of us are in a position to do much of anything," the Bard scowled, glaring at their surroundings.
Easing his way back into the bedroom, James was unprepared for the sight of an angry Amazon sitting up in bed. "Where were you?" Troya growled.
"I went down to Hephaestos' temple to thank him again for this body and to pick up my staff," he said, showing Troya the silver staff. "I left you a note."
"Oh. I thought you might have snuck off to help Xena in her plan to get Gabrielle's soul back into her body," Troya said, slightly embarrassed.
"No. Xena and I will leave at daybreak to do that, and I don't have to sneak off to help her, but help her I plan on doing," he said with a frown.
"Why? Xena can do it on her own! She doesn't need your help! We just found each other! And now you're running off after Xena again!"
"Troya! Are you jealous of Xena? I mean, you have to know that there's nothing between me and Xena. Right?"
"It's not Xena I'm jealous of!" Troya said bitterly as she got out of bed and started to dress.
"If you're not jealous of Xena, then why are you acting like this?" he asked in honest confusion.
"You're in love with her. Aren't you?"
"WHO?" he nearly shouted.
"Gabrielle! You got yourself killed once trying to protect her and I heard stories last night about how you moved her body around while you were just a spirit! Now you're walking out of my life to try and recover her soul for her body!"
Moving rapidly, James went to Troya's side and tried to pull her close into a hug. "Who told you about that?"
"Autolycus was telling Lissla all about it last night," she said with her voice cracking.
"You're being silly. I only love you! Gabrielle is a dear friend and she needs my help. That's all there is to it. Besides, I don't stand a snowball's chance with Gabrielle. You know as well as I do that her heart belongs to another."
Troya resisted the hug for a few moments before allowing herself to relax into his arms. "Really? You're just doing this for Xena and Gabrielle's friendship?"
"That's all. I promise."
"Then you won't mind if I come along?" Troya whispered into his ear as she returned the hug.
"What?! Of course I mind. I have a metal body that can't be destroyed and Xena is Greece's finest warrior. We're going into what is bound to be a dangerous area, and I don't want you coming with us and getting hurt!" James said.
Troya pulled away with a look in her eyes that let him know instantly that the bard had worded that very badly.
"I am an Amazon warrior! I can handle myself in battle! You and Xena are going up against rebel Amazons. How do you think you're going to get close to them? You need my help to try and infiltrate their village. Besides which, I'm not asking for your approval on going! I am telling you that if you go, then I'm going!" Troya nearly shouted into his face.
"I just thought that you would want to stay and guard Gabrielle's body while we're gone. She is your queen after all," he said in what he hoped was a reasonable voice.
"I come from a different tribe than Gabrielle's, so, really, she isn't my queen but I still think of her as if she was. Her body will be well protected here without my watching over it." Troya, glancing out of the window, added, "It's nearly dawn. We better not keep Xena waiting." So saying, the Amazon walked out of the room, stopping only as long as it took to gather up her sword from beside the bed.
Rolling his eyes, James looked skyward. "Artemis, why did you have to make your Amazons so headstrong and so beautiful?" He waited for a moment, but Artemis chose not to answer.
Running to catch up to Troya, he yelled, "Wait for me."
He didn't manage to catch up to the determined Troya until she had reached the door to Xena's chambers. The Amazon immediately banged on the door and, after a few moments, Xena opened it. If she was suffering from all of the wine she had drank last night, it was not apparent in her appearance. She was every inch the no-nonsense Warrior Princess. Raising her eyebrow at Troya she said to James, "What's she doing here?"
"I'm going with you and James to restore Gabrielle's soul!" Troya said defiantly.
"Don't forget me!" "Or me!" Voices rang out behind Troya and James in the hallway.
Turning, all three watched as Tara came running up with Salmoneus bringing up the rear, wheezing all the way.
Xena, looking over all of them, just placed her hands on her hips. "Look! We are going into rebel Amazon lands. These are women who would rather kill a man than look at him," she said with a pointed look at Salmoneus.
"Well, umm, maybe I should stay here and watch over the place, then," Salmoneus said with a nervous laugh.
"Yeah, you do that," Tara turned and told him. "But I'm a woman. The Amazons won't have a problem with me," she said, turning back to look at Xena.
"No. They'll just kill you because you're a friend of mine," Xena told her in a dry tone. "I am depending on you to stay here and help guard Gabrielle's body." Xena pointed at the Bard's body, which was resting on a cot beside the bed in Xena's room. "I don't want to have to have James get inside and move her around. We could get in a battle and he could get kicked out of her body at a bad moment and then where would Gabrielle's body be?"
"Um, Xena, there's a problem about that anyway. It seems that once I entered this metal body that Hephaestos made for me, I sort of bonded with it and I can't get out now. Oh, if I tried really hard I might be able to leave this body, but it hurts worse than Tartarus to do it. I've already found that out," he added with a grimace.
Xena looked slightly irritated to hear that news but then she nodded. "I wanted you to stay in that body and help fight if it comes to that anyway."
Troya stepping a few steps nearer to Xena, stated, "If James goes, then I am going."
Xena opened her mouth to respond to her, but then she saw the love that Troya had for James shinning in her eyes and just nodded her head. "You may come in handy, being an Amazon."
Troya gave a quick nod of her head.
Tara started to whine. "How come she gets to go and I don't? You don't need me to stay here and guard Gabrielle's body. Who's going to try and take it?"
Xena, lowering her voice to a dangerous tone, said, "Tara, I am going to have the crystal with Gabrielle's soul inside of it with me at all times. I will die before I let anything happen to it, but if something happens to her body while I'm gone, all of my efforts will be wasted. I want you to stay and protect her body. I am depending on you to do this!"
Tara, with one more stomp of her foot and a pout on her face, finally agreed.
Hearing the flapping of wings, all of them looked at the window and saw Athene's owl fly in. "I'm ready to go, mates!" the owl said happily.
"No. I want you to stay here. If something were to happen at the compound, you have the best chance of finding us and telling us," Xena told the owl in a no-nonsense voice.
The owl, with his feathers dropping slightly, landed on Tara's shoulder. Tara, still with a pout on her face, started to idly pet the owl's feathers in commiseration with him.
"What about Autolycus? Is he going to come with us?" James asked Xena.
"No, for the same reasons I told Salmoneus: Being a man he will stick out."
"If he sticks out, what about James, here?" Tara said in a smug voice.
"James doesn't have to worry about the Amazons killing him. Autolycus does. And if James needs a place to hide, he can always just walk into a lake or river and disappear. He doesn't need to breathe, remember?" Xena told Tara.
"If we come across any Amazons I can always just stop moving. One look and they'll think I'm just a statue," James smiled at Tara, who just threw him a dirty look and then hurled herself down on the bed.
Xena walked over to the stand beside the bed and picked up the crystal that Gabrielle was in. Holding it in her hand, she noticed that the stone was glowing twice as brightly as before. "We will have you back in your body before you know it, Gabrielle." Then, not caring who was watching, Xena lightly kissed the stone before tucking it down into her cleavage.
Salmoneus, who was still standing at the door, said with a grin, "Well, at least that has to be the safest place for her to be. She doesn't have to worry about prowlers." Looking up to see Xena looking at him, he ducked his head back out of the doorway and his voice came floating back, "I guess I'd better start walking around, patrolling the place."
Xena, with a last adjustment of her weapons, announced, "Right! Are we ready to go? Then, let's get out of here and go hunt rebel Amazons!"
Ephiny was torn between duty to her Queen and her friendship with Xena.
The Regent had at first not believed it when some of the tribe had come to her with news of their Queen's death. Then, she learned that Xena had left the country with the Queen and put aside the rumors as exaggerations or misunderstandings. But then she received incontrovertible intelligence that confirmed the death of Gabrielle. Oh, there was some nonsense about the Queen not being technically dead, that her soul had been stolen and imprisoned in a rock or something, but Ephiny knew better than to believe such wild stories. What she couldn't understand was why Xena herself hadn't brought the Queen's body to the village, where it belonged. Even so, she had firmly argued against any suggestions by her Amazon sisters that the Warrior Princess might herself be somehow responsible for Queen Gabrielle's death. Xena would never do anything to harm her. She clearly loved the Queen. Didn't she? Ephiny thought she did, but there was a nagging part of her which knew that her friend and Queen was in constant danger just because she traveled with the former warlord. And that made her wonder if perhaps Xena felt guilty over what had happened to Gabrielle and had for that reason not brought her to the village, where she belonged.
At any rate, after the urgings of many of her sisters, she had decided to take a small group to the XenaVerse complex and find out for herself what was going on. No matter what, though, she was determined to bring Gabrielle's body back to the village and give it a proper Amazon funeral.
After leaving Lissla, Autolycus stole into the nearby woods until he reached a familiar clearing. He loved this spot; the way the sun broke through the canopy of leaves; the way the motley flowers seemed to be more lovely than elsewhere; the way the mist played about the trunks of the trees in the early morning; the way the place made him feel: peaceful, at one with himself and the world...and one other.
Even though his brother was buried far from these woods, this was the place where the King of Thieves felt closest to him. Malycus had been a simple merchant who'd had the misfortune of being a little too successful. At least in the eyes of Tarsus, a rival shopkeeper. So, Tarsus arranged for Malycus to be killed, thereby eliminating the competition between them, literally. Young Autolycus had been devastated by his gentle older brother's death and, renewing a family tradition begun by his grandfather- -Also named Autolycus, who was rumored to have been the son of Hermes, the God of thieves himself--he had stolen everything Tarsus owned, leaving the murderous merchant a broke, and broken, man. From that day onward, Autolycus had perfected the family craft until he laid claim to the admittedly self-proclaimed title of the King of Thieves.
But he had always wondered how his brother would have felt about that. Malycus had been a kind, thoughtful, and honest man. How would he feel about having, however inadvertently, turned his little brother into the infamous King of Thieves?
Autolycus was well aware of the popular idea that the dead could hear the thoughts of the living, but he needed to hear the thoughts of his late brother. Thus, when he heard about the Ankh of Osiris being entombed, and found out about its unique property of allowing the living to communicate directly with the dead, he had determined to steal it so that he could at long last learn his brother's reaction to the way his life had turned out.
The irony of having stolen something to find out his brother's thoughts on his larcenous lifestyle was not lost on the King of Thieves as he removed the golden treasure from where he'd hidden it by strapping it to his back. He held the ankh in front of him with both hands, seeing not the precious stones embedded in the golden surface and the enormous wealth he could get for the priceless artifact, but only a way to answer the question which had haunted him for years. "I hope this thing understands Greek," he said quietly. He then closed his eyes. "Malycus? I know you can hear me, but now I need to hear you. Follow the sound of my voice and guide my thoughts, help me unlock the secrets of this thing so I can hear you again. Are you here?" But the object in his hands did not glow and he felt no presence, other than the regular spirits that made their home in the forest. "I'm confused, Malycus. I'm beginning to think it might be time to hang up my crown, settle down with one woman, and have those kids you always wanted before it's too late. And to wonder if I should ever have become a thief in the first place. Oh, sure, I've done some good, but I'm no hero, no Hercules or Xena. Yeah, I started out noble, but somewhere along the way it stopped being about you and started being about me." Autolycus opened his eyes and saw that all held in his hands was a lump of metal adorned with precious stones. He closed his eyes and concentrated harder. "I began to enjoy the notoriety, and the money wasn't bad, either. And let's not forget the women..." A wicked smile slowly spread across his handsome features and he stood quietly for few minutes, recalling fond memories. "Whoops! Where was I again? Oh, yeah...being a thief, being the King of Thieves I should say, became the end in and of itself. It no longer mattered why I'd first stolen. The only thing that mattered was the title. Even when I ran into Tarsus later, my first thought had been to simply regain my title as King of Thieves. It was only after he taunted me with your death that I changed my focus to avenging you." He shuddered at the memory of how close he'd been to slicing the man's throat with his own sword. "But a friend stopped me. She reminded me why I'd become a thief in the first place, and asked what you would think if I killed him. That's when I realized that I had to know what you'd think about my becoming a thief. Why I stole this damn thing from another friend..." His voice died away as he let the ankh fall to the leafy forest floor and he dropped to his knees.
"Hmm, I think I'm detecting a definite pattern here," he said softly.
Tara sat with her back against the wall of the room where Gabrielle's body lay, awaiting the return of Xena, James, and Troya, who had gone after the Amazons who had stolen her soul so that they could restore it. The Warrior Princess and the pair of new lovers had left the XenaVerse complex hours ago, leaving Tara and Salmoneus behind to guard the body, despite the young woman's pleading to accompany the trio.
Then, to make things worse, Salmoneus had returned far too soon from his patrol for her liking.
"So, now that I've told you all about myself, why don't you tell me how you first met Xena?" Salmoneus suggested after several moments of uncomfortable silence following the long version of his life's story.
"I helped them recover the Urn of Apollo from some guys I used to hang with," she sighed. "No big deal."
"I've seen the urn...nice piece of merchandise, er, artwork. What did you do after that?" he inquired, swinging his feet back and forth as he sat on the cot next to Gabrielle's body. At first, the mechanical, oddly un-lifelike breathing had disturbed him, but now he found it almost soothing.
"Oh, nothing special. Found some new people to hang with, people who appreciated my talents and, like, accepted me for who I am, ya know?" she said vaguely. "They didn't try to change me or make me something I wasn't. And they helped me to refine my skills as a warrior."
Salmoneus nodded and then suddenly coughed and jerked his head toward the doorway. "We've got company."
Tara jumped to her feet and her sword flew from its scabbard. "What do you want?" she demanded, seeing a group of women dressed in the traditional garb of Amazons.
"I am Ephiny, Regent to Queen Gabrielle. I've come for her body, to take her back to her village and give her a proper Amazon funeral," the leader of the women stated, ignoring the sword and gesturing for her companions to sheathe their own weapons.
"But she's not dead!" Salmoneus blurted out.
Ephiny regarded him coldly. She then looked over at the body lying on the table and saw for herself that the breasts rose and fell with life. "Then...the story is true. Her soul has been stolen!" the Regent exclaimed, dropping to her knees as the other Amazons did likewise. "Queen Gabrielle still lives!"
"Sort of. She's not really able to do much right now except breathe," Tara explained, gazing thoughtfully at Ephiny and sheathing her own weapon. "Not very useful as Queen, unless, like, you just need a figurehead."
Ephiny stood up and faced the younger woman. "Who are you?"
"Tara. I'm a friend of Xena and blondie, er, Gabrielle," she replied.
"Then kindly inform Xena that I have taken Gabrielle's body to our village for safe-keeping until she has the means to restore her soul." Ephiny motioned to her companions and they moved toward the body.
Tara, however, stepped in front of them. "Not so fast. Xena left me to guard Gabrielle's body, so, where she goes, I go."
The Regent regarded her silently for a few seconds and then nodded. "Very well, you may accompany us. You," she looked directly at Salmoneus, "can tell Xena where we have moved the Queen."
"I'd love to, but I also promised Xena that I would watch over Gabrielle," the merchant replied a bit nervously. "So, if it's all right with you ladies, of course, I'll be coming as well."
"Well, I must give you both credit for being such loyal friends," Ephiny sighed. "Fine. We'll leave Xena a note in place of the Queen." She nodded to one of the Amazons who immediately scribbled a hasty note on a piece of parchment and pinned it to the room's table with her dagger.
"Satisfied?" Ephiny asked as the Queen's body was removed from the cot and placed on the shoulders of four of the Amazons.
"It'll have to do," Tara shrugged.
"I'd feel better if we told--" Salmoneus began, but catching the disapproving glare in Ephiny's eyes, said quickly, "Works for me."
Ephiny nodded and the women and the merchant exited the room and then stole out of the complex, careful to avoid any of its inhabitants.
As they traveled through the woods on their way to the Amazon village, over a dozen women, wearing markedly different outfits from those of Ephiny and her tribeswomen, dropped from the trees and surrounded them. Ephiny's hand closed around her sword's hilt and she was about to order her sisters to attack when she felt a blade at her throat. She looked over and saw Tara shaking her head.
"Just keep your cool, Ephiny, and nobody dies," the young woman said, reaching down and carefully removing the Regent's hand from her sword.
Tara was, like, way proud of herself.
After she had left Xena and Gabrielle, following the return of the Urn of Apollo, she had tried to emulate the Warrior Princess by roaming the countryside and helping those in need. Trouble was, she wasn't nearly as skilled a warrior as Xena and more often than not wound up taking a beating for her troubles. When she wasn't just flat out laughed at, of course.
Then, one day she'd come across a woman defending herself from a trio of burly men with large swords, small brains, and raging hormones. The woman had been wounded in the battle prior to Tara's arrival and likely would have been killed, or worse, by the thugs had she not charged them. Caught off their guard, she was able to fell one of them with a lucky slice across the back of his knees before he even turned around. As he toppled to the ground, Tara had plunged her sword into his back and finished him. The woman had taken advantage of their confusion and dispatched a second by driving her sword through his neck. The last one turned to Tara and grinned evilly and then attacked.
A fierce fight had ensued, but the smaller, faster, more dexterous woman had been able to outmaneuver her larger, slower, and clumsier opponent and eventually run him through the gut to end the battle. But not before she herself had been seriously wounded. She had collapsed next to the strange woman in a pool of their mingled blood, sure she would never wake up.
But she had woke up. In the underground village of a group of Amazons who worshiped a figure encased in black rock. She learned from Cintel, the woman she'd defended, that the entombed woman was no less than the Goddess Artemis and that the Goddess had been imprisoned by Ephiny, a cruel, cunning Amazon from another tribe, who had hidden the secret to freeing Artemis within the soul of Gabrielle, Xena's companion and the Queen of the tribe of which she was the Regent. The evil, ambitious Ephiny, Tara was told, intended nothing short of becoming the absolute Queen of the Amazons by removing the threat of Artemis and then taking over as Queen of Gabrielle's tribe, the largest of all tribes in the Amazon Nation. Her new friends, including the usually aloof High Priestess called Kerai, had helped her to recover from her wounds and then trained her in the various skills which the Amazons were adept in.
But even though she did become fairly proficient in the use of the staff and bow, the weapons of choice for Amazons, Tara had elected to retain the sword as her primary weapon, in honor of her hero, Xena.
Once the theft of the element from Gabrielle's soul--Something Kerai called the Right of Caste--had been botched, she had been sent to Xena with strict instructions to keep an eye on the body of the Queen and to alert Kerai and the others when it would be safe for them to retrieve the body so as to bargain with the Warrior Princess for the return of the gem.
When Tara inquired why they didn't go to Xena and tell her the truth about Ephiny and why they needed the gem, Cintel and Kerai had convinced her that Ephiny had Xena completely taken in and that, without proof, the suspicious Warrior Princess would never believe them. Especially not after they'd appeared to have purposely stolen the soul of the Bard.
Tara agreed with them and then, following their return from Alexandria, had sent word to Cintel and the others, via a trained dove similar to those used by Pegasus Pizza, that Gabrielle's body was ripe for the taking. Unfortunately, Ephiny and her Amazons had arrived before Cintel and Tara's friends, but as the young woman had counted on, they caught up to them in the woods.
"Tara! But I thought you were friends with Xena and Gabrielle?" Ephiny gasped as the newcomers relieved her tribeswomen of the Queen's body.
"You're one to talk, you back-stabbing--" Tara snarled, raising her hand to strike the confused Regent.
"Tara, that's no way to treat a prisoner. Besides, we need Ephiny to deliver a message to Xena," Cintel, a beautiful woman with flowing auburn hair, smiled. She approached the younger woman and hugged her close. "We'd worried that something had happened to you..."
"Nah, just took a little side-trip to Egypt," Tara grinned.
Cintel nodded. "Tell Xena that if she ever wants to see her friend," she gestured toward a frightened Salmoneus, "or Gabrielle restored again, she is to go to the bridge over the cooled lava river and wait. Oh, and tell her to be sure to bring the stone."
Ephiny's eyes burned with fury. "I'll see you dead for this, Cintel! We should have searched harder after you escaped and made sure--Unhh!" the Regent gasped and fell to her knees when Cintel struck her sharply across the mouth.
"Quiet! Just deliver the message to Xena and save the ranting for your sisters!" Cintel snarled, kicking the woman hard in the ribs and sending her sprawling. "And don't even try to follow us or we'll kill the man. Understood?" Ephiny wiped the blood from her lips and nodded. "Good! Come on, my sisters! Back to our home in victory, with the sure knowledge that soon the Goddess will be freed from her prison!"
The renegades ran off into the woods, leaving Ephiny and the others angry and more than a little worried what Xena's reaction would be.
Autolycus was still disappointed that he hadn't been able to get the Ankh of Osiris to allow him to communicate directly with his brother's shade, but he realized that just talking to himself and voicing his concerns aloud had been a very cathartic experience. He tucked the precious treasure into his jacket, intending to return it to its rightful place in Ptolemy's tomb the first chance he got, and leaned back against a tree and thought about things he hadn't paused to consider since Cupcake had decided to marry Prince Alexandros and broken his heart.
But his contemplations on domesticity's pros and cons were cut short when he heard the sound of a large company moving through the woods beyond his small clearing. Peering through the foliage, he was shocked to see over a dozen women leading Salmoneus at spear point. He was even more surprised to see Tara with them, chatting amicably with the leader of the women.
But his heart absolutely sank when he saw that they also had the Bard's body. He quickly surmised that they were the renegade Amazons who had stolen Gabrielle's soul and quietly followed them to discover where they were headed and to rescue Salmoneus and Gabrielle's body if he could.
Athene's owl, having fallen asleep shortly after Salmoneus arrived back in the room and begun to tell Tara his life's story--And, really, can you blame him?--had awakened when Ephiny and the Amazons had arrived, but decided to keep quiet and just follow them, keeping an eye on the Bard's body. When the renegades attacked and Tara revealed her true loyalties, he had been watching from the branches of a nearby tree. And, when he spotted the King of Thieves following after them, he decided he could be most useful by finding Xena, James, and Troya and filling them in on what had happened.
Unfortunately, whatever link he'd had with James while the bard was in his spirit form had been sundered when he had entered his new metal body and bonded with it. So, the owl, muttering angrily to himself, flew off to search for the trio the good-old-fashioned way.
A flaxen-haired woman emerged from her hiding place near the half-hidden mouth of a cave as Cintel and the others approached. She smiled and greeted her victorious sisters and watched proudly as they entered the cave which lead to their underground village, frowning only at the round merchant as he was dragged and prodded along.
When they had disappeared into the depths of the earth, she turned to resume her sentry position and was momentarily startled by the sight of a man standing a few feet from her.
"I am Autolycus, the King of Thieves, and I really hate to do this, but..." He reached into a pouch on his belt and then threw a handful of sparkling dust into the surprised woman's face before she could even draw her sword. She began to sway unsteadily as the sleeping powder rapidly took effect and then toppled forward into Auto's waiting arms.
He quickly and quietly dragged her behind some bushes and then looked down at her clothing, judging her build against his, and nodding approvingly. "Now, this, on the other hand, I will definitely enjoy," he smiled, bending down and removing her outfit.
After shedding his own clothing, he had put on her skirt and halter top and then tied the naked woman up and gagged her, just to be on the safe side--And certainly not because he sort of enjoyed doing that sort of thing!--and then put on her mask to complete his disguise. He then made his way back to the cave and descended into its torch-lit recesses, hoping that torches were the only lights in the village.
Salmoneus was more frightened than he'd been in a long time.
As the merchant was led into the darkness of the tunnel, the first thing he realized was that it was a lot lighter down here than it should have been. Emerging from the tunnel into a huge cavern, he discovered the reason for that: An enormous pool of bubbling lava lay in the center of the chamber, casting an eerie, orange glow over everything. In addition to the pool, there were also several small rivers of lava running throughout the grotto and a couple of dozen straw huts, similar to those he'd seen in Ephiny's village. And, everywhere he looked were beautiful, albeit heavily armed and not very friendly looking, women.
Were it not for the fact of the half-dozen spears prodding him into a small cave, he would have thought himself in the Elysian Fields.
"Guard him, sister," Cintel ordered an Amazon standing by the mouth of the cave. "But if he proves too troublesome, kill him."
Tara's eyes lit up in shock. "You're kidding, right, Cin?" she questioned, glancing nervously at Salmoneus.
Cintel turned and viciously backhanded the younger woman, knocking her off her feet. "I never kid. Guard her, too, sister," she ordered, shoving Tara into the cave with the confused merchant. "And kill her if she tries anything." She then stalked off towards the hut occupied by Kerai.
"But...Cintel, I thought we were friends?!" Tara howled, throwing herself at the guard. The older woman easily pushed her back into the small cave and then drew her sword and held it to the sobbing girl's chest. "I saved your life!!"
Cintel paused and turned around, gesturing to the guard to remove her blade. "True. Very well, I return the act and now spare your life, and guarantee your safety until this business is finished. Once the Goddess is freed, she can decide how to deal with such a devoted fan of her enemy, Xena," the Amazon informed her. "But if you try anything before that, you will regret it. Understand?"
Tara shook her head. "Why is Artemis Xena's enemy?" she inquired.
But Cintel just laughed and walked away.
Autolycus, wearing the clothing of the unconscious sentry, entered the huge cavern and whistled under his breath. "Now I know where all the bees have been hiding their honey. I haven't seen this many gorgeous half-naked women since...the last time I infiltrated an Amazon village," he said to himself. "Speaking of which, I recognize that one." His gaze followed Cintel as she strode away from the improvised jail. As she passed a large, crudely carved statue sitting on a pedestal in the midst of the village, his attention was suddenly drawn to it. "And that one," he shuddered, rubbing his arm with the memory of how she had broken it for sport.
Then, approaching and more closely examining the figure seemingly carved of black rock, he was shocked to discover that it was warm to the touch and seemed to pulse slightly from within, almost like the beating of a heart. He stepped back and gazed up into the cruel, but beautiful face and realized with horror that the "statue's" eyes were glowing. "Oh, no, not her! I barely survived our last little chat! I've gotta get Sal and get out of here!"
He looked around and spotted the Amazon standing in front of a small opening in the cavern wall.
The guard looked up when she saw one of her sisters approaching and cocked her head, trying to place the mask's owner. "Darse?" she questioned, recognizing the mask but not the odd figure wearing it. "Aren't you supposed to be on sentry duty at the main entrance?"
"I sent Darse on a break, now it's your turn," Auto said, lowering the mask and blowing a handful of sparkling dust at the woman.
But the guard dodged the cloud of sleeping powder and drew her sword. "Nice try," she smiled, pressing the tip into Auto's throat. Feeling a tap on her shoulder, she instinctively turned and found Tara's fist speeding toward her face.
"I am so sick and tired of being jerked around by people I think are my friends!" she hissed as her blow knocked the Amazon out cold.
"Funny, I was just about to say the same thing," Salmoneus replied, catching the unconscious guard. He gently laid her down on the ground and took a good look at Autolycus. "What is it with you and dresses, anyway?"
"Very funny, Sal. Listen, we don't have time for a witty exchange right now. These crazy broads are trying to resurrect Velasca!" he whispered, slipping into the small cave. "You've got to get out of here and warn Xena!"
"What do you mean ‘you?'" Tara asked suspiciously. "What are you going to do?"
"I've got to get Gabrielle's body away from here!" he replied.
"Salmoneus can warn Xena alone. Let me help you!" Tara insisted.
"Do I look like a total moron? You betrayed Xena and Gabrielle once, what makes you think I should give you another chance to do it?" he demanded, glaring angrily at the young woman.
"Look, it's a long story, but I swear that I didn't mean for Xena or Gabrielle to get hurt," Tara told him.
"Uh-huh, and I should believe you because..."
"Well, I did see an Amazon she thought was her friend hit her and pretty much tell her that she was as good as dead," Salmoneus offered weakly.
Tara looked up at the King of Thieves with eyes longing for revenge and Auto nodded. "I'm probably going to regret this, but, all right, you can come with me."
"I'm afraid not, Autolycus. None of you are going anywhere. Ever."
Autolycus turned around and saw Cintel standing behind him with a dozen Amazons, all armed and smiling in a way which made the thief extremely nervous. "Wish I could say it's nice to see you again, but, well, it's not," he shrugged.
"That's okay, I know someone who will be overjoyed to see you again," the Amazon replied with a wicked grin. She gestured to some of the others and they went in and retrieved the unconscious guard's body. "This time, I'll leave a more suitable force to keep an eye on you." She scowled as the first guard was carried away and then indicated five of her most fearsome, beautiful warriors. "Enjoy your remaining moments of life. I'm sending two of my best warriors to meet Xena and get the gem. And, when they return, the Goddess will be freed and your lives will end." She turned and walked toward the hut which served as Kerai's quarters, leaving the quintet of women behind.
"Well, there goes that plan," Auto sighed, removing his own clothes from a pack on his back. "Cover the kid's eyes while I get back into my own clothes, Salmoneus."
"Who's gonna cover my eyes?" Sal whined.
"Just close them, you idiot," Tara growled. "Hurry up, will ya? His hands are all, like, sweaty and gross."
"Hey! Is it my fault I sweat when I'm nervous?" the merchant asked.
"Sal, you sweat when you breathe," Auto shot back, donning his clothes.
Tanna cautiously approached the five imposing guards. She was tempted to forget it, but then her need to know the fate of her blood-sister gave her the strength to continue.
"What do you want, Tanna?" inquired one of the five, recognizing the woman.
"I know that you are holding the man my blood-sister was sent after and I need to talk to him, to learn what became of her, whether she lives still or if she is dead," she replied, standing proudly and staring into the light colored eyes of the other.
The guard nodded and stepped aside and Tanna unhesitatingly entered.
"Rasilla?" Salmoneus gasped, seeing a woman enter the small cave. But then he got a better look at her and realized she was younger than Rasilla had been and her eyes were green, instead of brown, and her hair was a bit lighter shade of brown. "No. Who are you?"
"I am Tanna. Rasilla is my blood-sister. Where is she?" the stranger demanded.
Autolycus and Tara both moved as far away from the pair as they could to give them as much privacy as possible as Salmoneus sadly related Rasilla's fate to her sister.
Xena, riding on Argo, glanced over to her left to where Troya was riding her dark brown mare. She then glanced to her right to where James was running alongside. Xena would have preferred for James to ride with either her or Troya, but while his metal body was nearly indestructible, it was also very heavy. Too heavy for poor Argo or Troya's horse to carry it.
When they had started out, the Warrior Princess had feared that James would slow her down too much, but his metal body proved that it could run as fast as Argo and he, unlike Argo or Troya's horse, did not need to stop to rest or for water.
By mid-afternoon they had reached the clearing where it had all began when Gabrielle's soul had been taken. Pulling the heavy-breathing Argo to a stop, Xena quickly dismounted and started to search for any clues she might have missed that could give them some idea as to where the rebel Amazons were based.
Troya dismounted more slowly and, walking over to James, she asked, "How are you doing?"
"Fine. Couldn't be better. Feel like I could run for now till forever," he smiled at her.
Troya, shaking her head at his endurance, of which she had had some experience last night, walked over to where Xena was examining the ground. Pointing a short distance away at one of the largest trees in the area, she announced, "I'm going to climb that tree and see if I can see any movement from up there." Xena jerked her head in a terse nod to show she had heard her.
"James, are you going to walk over there with me?" Troya asked him with a coy smile.
"No. I'll stay here and help Xena check the grounds. I can't climb too well in this body and I'll be more help here," he told her while watching Xena closely.
Troya frowned but then just nodded and ran over to the tree and started to climb.
Moving over to where Xena was standing and looking back the way we had come, he started to speak, "How are you doing, Xena?"
"Fine. Why wouldn't I be?" she replied with her warrior mask fully on. "I'm not the one in trouble. Gabrielle is."
James debated briefly with himself whether to let Xena's lie pass or speak out. The knowledge that he was in a metal body that was nearly impossible to destroy helped him reach a decision. "That's Centaur droppings and you know it, Xena! You're hurting and upset and I know it. I've watched you with Gabrielle's eyes, and with my spirit eyes when I was in spirit form, and your I'm-too-tough-to-feel act doesn't work with me. I can see that you're upset and nearly frantic with worry."
He paused and stared deeply into the blue eyes of the Warrior Princess, and saw the pain etched in them in high relief. "I saw you on the trip out here raise your hand to your cleavage countless times to check and make sure the gem with Gabrielle's soul in it was safe. I also know that while you are standing here, you're also looking back in the direction of the XenaVerse complex. You're worried sick about Gabrielle's body!"
Xena's iron will cracked a little and, when she turned to face him, it was not one of Greece's most feared warriors looking at James but an emotionally spent woman.
"What if I can't find that Amazon priestess? I will have failed Gabrielle again!" she cried, her voice cracking slightly.
"Xena, you haven't failed Gabrielle."
"Yes, I have! If I'd been here, those Amazons would never have been able to steal Gabrielle's soul in the first place. And, I failed her in Alexandria when I couldn't find a way to release her from the stone!" Xena finished in a low voice.
James then did something that no one but perhaps Gabrielle herself would risk doing: He grabbed Xena by the arms and forced her to look at him. "Xena, you are the most skilled, fierce warrior that has ever lived, maybe will ever live, but you're still only mortal. You can't be everywhere at once and you can't know what's going to happen before it does! Now, we are going to find this priestess and we will make her restore Gabrielle's soul to her body! I promise you!"
Xena pulled herself together with a visible effort. "You're a good friend, James. Thank you for helping me and Gabrielle."
"Hey, that's what friends do. Besides being dead gives me a lot of free time," he smiled.
Xena looked like she was about to say more, but hearing Troya shout, they both looked up to see her running toward them.
"There's a woman headed this way. It looks like she's wearing Amazon clothing, but I couldn't be sure from this distance," Troya told them, pointing to a direction in the woods.
Xena, with her warrior mask now firmly in place, stepped a few paces away from James and folded her arms. "If the Amazon is headed this way, let's see what she has to say. And, I promise you that she will answer some questions!"
Within a few moments the sound of someone running and breathing hard could be heard getting closer. Finally, running around a tree, a woman with curly blond hair could be seen.
With a "Thank the Gods I found you, Xena!" the Amazon warrior slid to an exhausted halt and collapsed to her knees.
"Ephiny?!?" Xena shouted with surprise.
As Ephiny ran, questions kept coming to her mind, "What if I can't find Xena? Was it a mistake to have the other Amazons split up to find Xena? Maybe I should have ordered my Amazon sisters to track the rebels and took the chance of them killing that man, Salmoneus. Cintel didn't tell me when to have Xena at the bridge. How long will she wait before she harms either Salmoneus or Gabrielle's body?"
Rounding a tree that was in her path she spotted Xena standing in a clearing with a woman dressed in Amazon clothing that Ephiny did not recognize. Standing between the two women was a man with a golden tan that the Regent did not recognize either. Collapsing to her knees and trying to regain her breath, Ephiny examined the two strangers more closely. The unknown woman was wearing clothes that proclaimed, to those who knew how to read it, that she was of an Amazon tribe that lived near the sea. Ephiny knew of that tribe, but her tribe had not had contact with them for many years. The man was more interesting. What Ephiny first took to be a tan, she could now see was metal! This unknown man with Xena was wearing a mask of golden metal over his face.
"How strange!" Ephiny thought.
Xena waited impatiently for Ephiny to regain her breathing enough to talk. "Ephiny, why are you out here!" she finally said a trifle too sharply.
"They got Gabrielle!" Ephiny finally managed to rasp out.
"WHAT!!" the Warrior Princess yelled as she started to reach out to grab Ephiny's arms and drag her to her feet.
Xena was stopped from doing anything she might have regretted later by James quickly placing his hand on her shoulder. "Easy, Xena. Give her a chance to get her breath back."
Ephiny, who had almost managed to regain her normal breathing, had her breath stolen from her again as she realized that the man who was calming Xena was not wearing a metal mask but was actually made of metal. She could tell because when he spoke to Xena she could see that the inside of his mouth and his tongue were the same metal as the outside. "What are you?!" she asked in shock.
"That's not important right now. What is important is who has Gabrielle?" James told her in a low soothing voice.
Being reminded of the message she was to deliver to Xena, Ephiny quickly told them about hearing that Gabrielle was dead and then hearing that she was alive and then dead again. She told them of traveling to the complex and finding Gabrielle's breathing body. She told them of her decision to take Gabrielle's body back to the Amazon village for protection and of Tara's betrayal and Salmoneus' and Gabrielle's capture. "Cintel wants you to bring a stone to the bridge over a cooled lava flow. She seemed to think you would know where she is talking about."
Xena looked up at the late afternoon sky. "We can be there by dark if we leave now."
"Xena, is it really true that Gabrielle's soul is trapped in a stone?" Ephiny asked her in a low voice.
Xena, reaching into her cleavage, pulled out the stone and held it up for Ephiny to see. The Regent walked over to Xena's side and, reaching out one finger, she lightly caressed the crystal. Ephiny instantly felt the warmth come over her that she always associated with the gentle Bard-Queen's presence. The crystal flared brightly for a moment and then faded to a muted glow once again. Xena, without another word, replaced the crystal back to where she had removed it and started to mount up on Argo. Looking down at Ephiny, she asked, "Why couldn't you have left Gabrielle's body at the complex where it would have been safe?"
"Xena! If Tara had planned on betraying you, Gabrielle's body wouldn't have been any safer at the complex than it was on the road," James reproached Xena.
The former warlord shot an ugly look at him but then nodded her head. "I'm sorry, Ephiny. I'm just worried about Gabrielle."
Troya mounted her horse and, lowering her hand, helped Ephiny to get up behind her.
"What about him?" the Regent asked Troya, pointing at James.
"He doesn't need a horse. He runs as fast as one by himself. Oh, by the way, I'm Troya and golden boy there is James."
Xena and Troya urged their horses to a full gallop and James easily ran alongside Troya's.
Not having to breathe hard while running, he started to tell Ephiny about the battle with Dahak, Barney and Hope. About the weird circumstances of his death and why he didn't stay in the 'Fields'. He told her about what had happened to Gabrielle and the trip to Alexandria in the hopes of finding a cure. He told her of meeting Anubis and finding out that the only one who could restore Gabrielle's soul was the priestess who had performed the ritual. With each word Ephiny's eyes became wider and wider with wonder.
It was at the point when James was telling her of Hephaestos making him a body of metal because Athene wanted to honor his sacrifice, and then finding out that he could use it as a body, that she stopped him.
"You're saying that not only have you met most of the Gods and Goddesses, but Hephaestos himself made you this body?" she said with a note of disbelief.
"You don't have a problem with any of my story except that part!" he laughed. "The proof is right here before you!"
No other words were spoken as they raced to reach the bridge. None from James because he was watching his step in the fading light, and none from Ephiny because her mind was occupied with trying to absorb what she had seen and been told.
Xena and Troya had to slow the horses to a slow walk in the gathering gloom of night, but James, being in a metal body that he did not have to worry about hurting, ran ahead. Reaching the rise that lead to the rope bridge he stopped and looked around and then turned and ran back to the ruined village which Xena and the rest were just entering.
"Shall we stay and camp for the night here? We can be ready to meet the rebel Amazons in the morning when they arrive," Troya asked Xena.
Before Xena could answer, James spoke, "We don't have to worry about the rebel Amazons meeting us in the morning; there are already two of them here, or maybe I should say there." He pointed back over his shoulder toward the hill where the rope bridge was.
"What?" Xena asked, dismounting quickly from Argo.
"They're camped out on a new rope bridge across the gorge. Actually, it's pretty smart. They have torches burning on either end of the bridge so they can see anyone coming, and, being camped in the middle of the bridge, it makes it nearly impossible for anyone to sneak up on them. Of course, it also makes them terribly vulnerable to sniper attack by bow," James added.
"They know that no one else is likely to be in this area but me, and they know that I'm not going to kill them until I know where Gabrielle's body is," Xena replied in a low growl. "Come on, let's get this over with!"
"Xena, wouldn't it be smarter to wait for morning?" Troya asked getting off her horse and helping Ephiny down.
"No! I'm not leaving Gabrielle in these bitches' grasp any longer than I have to!" Xena said, moving angrily in the direction of the bridge.
James reached out and grabbed Xena's arm. She tried to jerk her arm out of his grasp, but when it failed to dislodge his grip, she turned and gave him her best 'warlord look.'
"Xena, you've been pushing yourself all day long. You haven't rested or eaten anything all day and Ephiny, after running for most of the day to find you, has ridden without rest or food either. You need to hunt for something to eat and then rest," he informed her. "Those Amazon rebels won't do anything to Gabrielle's body or Salmoneus yet. They need that crystal for some reason and they're not going to risk your wrath until they get it," he told Xena gently, waiting till she relaxed before letting go of her arm. "I'll go to a point where I can watch them all night without being seen and I'll report back to you if they move or have any company tonight, all right?" he asked.
Xena looked like she was going to argue some more until she saw Ephiny collapse exhaustedly against a broken stone pillar. "Fine!" she hissed unhappily. She spoke a little louder to Troya and Ephiny, "I'm going to hunt us something to eat. While I'm gone, you two set up camp. James is going to keep an eye on our two Amazon 'friends' tonight and we'll confront them tomorrow."
"I'll go with James and keep an eye on the rebels," Troya said.
"Troya, don't be silly. I don't need to eat or sleep. You do. Stay in camp and rest, tomorrow is going to be a busy day." he said, kissing her gently.
Just like Xena before her, she looked like she was going to argue but then just nodded her head tiredly. "All right, but I don't like being separated from you. Please be careful."
Kissing her once more, James told her in a low voice only she could hear, "Count on it. There's still a lot I want to share with you. A whole life, as a matter of fact. After we finish helping Xena and Gabrielle, we're going to take a long vacation together and really see what my metal body can do." With a last smirk and wink to Troya, he left to find a good place to keep watch on the two rebel Amazons perching on their makeshift platform on the bridge.
Tanna tried to hate the man sitting next to her.
She really tried to build up some intensity of feeling against this comical, yet noble, merchant who had been the indirect cause of her blood-sister's death. But she couldn't. The more she listened to him talk about her older sister's last days, the more she came to realize that, even though Rasilla might have simply been using him to get close to the gem, he had genuinely cared for her and was deeply moved by her murder. From his recounting of their first meeting on board the ship and the way he had tended to her wounded arm and given her money for the voyage, to the final kiss he bestowed on her unfeeling lips, it was clear that Salmoneus was someone who was not easy to hate.
Dislike, perhaps, especially when he went off on a pitch for his latest scheme, but not hate. In fact, the more the two of them talked, the more Tanna felt herself developing decidedly different feelings for the man. Feelings which had very little to do with his prior relationship to her blood-sister.
"So, what's the plan?" Tara asked Autolycus as Salmoneus and Tanna talked quietly.
"Plan? We're in a cave being guarded by five heavily armed women with orders to kill us if we even look at them funny. There is no plan other than to wait for Xena and James to show up and rescue us," Auto replied.
Tara scowled. "That's it? We wait for someone else to save our sorry butts??!" she hissed. "And here I thought I was in the presence of the resourceful King of Thieves, not the pathetic Prince of Fools."
"Leave Joxer out of this!" Autolycus shot back. But the young woman's words had started him thinking. "You're right, though. I am the King of Thieves, and one heck of a ladies' man. Stand back and watch me charm the masks off those babes."
Tara smiled as he walked over to the Amazon guards and began to talk softly to them, twirling his mustache with a flourish as he did so. Suddenly, two of the guards turned around and punched him in the face, sending him flying back into the cave. He landed in front of Tara and, eventually, after a couple of minutes of groaning, looked up at her.
"They're just playing hard to get," he said, trying to wink but having trouble because his eye was already beginning to swell where one of them had hit him. Then, his face abruptly dropped into the dirt.
"Sure they are, Auto," Tara snickered, patting the unconscious man's head. "Sure they are."
"I need to go, Salmoneus," Tanna said, regretfully standing up and brushing her skirt back down. "If I stay any longer, they'll begin to suspect...how I feel."
"Maybe you should blacken my eye?" the merchant laughed, struggling to understand his own feelings for this woman.
"It would need to be at least a broken bone to make it convincing," she replied without smiling. Salmoneus' eyes got very large and she suddenly grinned like a fool. "Gotcha." The man breathed a deep sigh of relief and she added, "I'll do whatever I can for you and your friends, but don't get your hopes up, okay?"
"Too late," said Sal, shaking his head and taking her hand in his and holding it for a few moments more.
"Tanna? Are you all right?" inquired one of the guards, poking her head into the cave. "Is this dog bothering you?"
Tanna suddenly kicked out, barely catching Sal on the chin, but the merchant was quick and he threw himself backwards as if she'd really nailed him. "He was, but he won't be doing much of anything for a while." She chuckled and followed the guard out, not daring to risk looking back and silently thanking Salmoneus for his alert reaction.
The merchant cautiously opened one eye and then slowly sat up when he saw that the Amazons were gone. He looked over to where Autolycus was lying on his face in the dirt and asked Tara, "Is he all right?"
"He's just sleeping off his latest attempt to charm our captors," the young woman replied with a soft laugh. "Five times. You'd think even his ego would get the message by now."
"You haven't known him very long, have you?" Sal asked, moving closer to her and examining Auto's bruised and battered face. Still, he realized that it was nothing compared to the beating his ego must be taking and felt some measure of sympathy for his cocksure friend.
Autolycus flew back into the cave and landed in a crumpled heap beside Tara and Salmoneus. "I'm wearing them down," he groaned. "They're definitely weakening."
"Yeah, from hitting you so much," Tara replied.
The King of Thieves opened his mouth to respond, but then simply passed out and his face dropped into the dirt.
"Sal, you think your friend will be able to get us out of here?" Tara asked, the fear in her voice showing a bit.
"Sure she will," he lied. "And don't forget about Xena."
"Not much chance of that," sighed the young woman, worrying what the Warrior Princess would do to her when they met again. "Do you think she'll be angry?"
"Xena?" Sal questioned. Tara nodded. "Angry? Nah, she'll be homicidal. Maybe you would be better off taking your chances with Cintel and the other Amazons."
"You're not helping, Sal," she stated.
"I'm not the one who betrayed her," he reminded her. "But I do think once she hears your explanation of how they tricked and used you when they found out you were friends with her, that she will be understanding..." Tara smiled in relief. "...and only maim you a little."
"Great," she huffed, frowning again.
Salmoneus snickered quietly to himself and wondered what was keeping Xena, James, and Troya so busy.
Just as the dark of night was starting to give way to the light of a new day, James could hear Xena quietly walking up behind him. "Did you sleep at all?" he whispered quietly without turning.
"Tartarus! Hephaestos made your ears sensitive," Xena whispered back as quietly. "How are you doing?"
"Bored stiff. Almost as if I was made out of metal. Our little Amazon friends down there haven't moved all night. Which isn't hard to understand. They've tied ropes from themselves to the bridge so if they fall asleep, they won't fall to their deaths," he answered, taking a step back from the tree where he had been watching the bridge. Out of the corner of his eye, James could see Xena give a slight smile at his `bored stiff' comment before her face became solemn once again.
"How is Gabrielle this morning?" he asked, continuing to watch Xena out of the corner of his right eye. One of Xena's hands went to her cleavage to check on the crystal.
"Fine, I think," she replied curtly. A few moments passed and then Xena turned to face James fully. "Do you think Gabrielle's soul knows what's going on out here? I mean, do you think that Gabrielle is still Gabrielle? I wish she was here now, I don't express myself very well."
Finally, taking his eyes fully off of the two dozing Amazons on the bridge in the distance, he turned and faced Xena. "I know what you mean, Xena. You're worried that Gabrielle might have lost some of herself, being trapped in the crystal for such a long time. You're also worried that being trapped in the crystal might seem to Gabrielle like being in a closed box. That she can't hear us or know what's going on." Xena gave a sharp nod showing that was indeed what she feared. "Well, I've never been trapped in a crystal, but from what I've seen of the way the crystal glows brighter when you hold it or when Ephiny touched it, I think it's safe to say Gabrielle knows what is going on out here. As for Gabrielle losing herself being in there alone, I imagine that she's keeping her essence active by going over her stories or maybe even creating new ones."
Xena was about to torture herself with more fears when she felt the crystal nestled inside her cleavage pulse with warmth and felt Gabrielle's presence gently comfort her.
James noticed the slight flash of light and the relaxation of some of Xena's tense facial muscles, but hearing Ephiny and Troya quietly moving up to their position, he said nothing.
Troya walked up to stand beside James and, putting her arm around his shoulders, she turned his head gently and kissed him. "Good morning, my love," she whispered.
James could see over Troya's shoulder as Ephiny, with eyebrow raised, turned and looked at Xena. After a moment of silence, she finally found her voice. "Umm, how do you want to handle this, Xena? I mean the rebel Amazons, of course," Ephiny faltered.
James could feel a grin threatening to break out on his face and he fought it with all his concentration. `It's not everyday that you get a chance to shake the cool of the Regent of the Amazons,' he thought to himself.
"The rebels want me to bring them the crystal and that is exactly what I am going to do. They are going to take me to where Gabrielle is and restore her soul back to her body. After that, they can do whatever they want with this blasted crystal," Xena hissed in a quiet voice.
"But, Xena, those Amazons will most likely just kill you and take the crystal!" Troya said, allowing her voice to raise slightly in volume.
"Two Amazons? I don't think so. I'm a lot harder to kill than that. Besides, I was thinking of sending James down to talk to them for me."
The look of stunned surprise on James' face must have been mirrored on Troya's and Ephiny's because Xena gave an evil chuckle and grinned. "Okay, this is the plan," she said as she crouched down to draw in the loose soil with a stick.
As the sun fully came up to shine on the rope bridge, the two extremely uncomfortable amazons both came awake at nearly the same time. Lyra looked across the rickety makeshift platform they were sitting on to her Amazon sister, Criva. Seeing Criva open her eyes sleepily, she yelled, "Criva! You were supposed to stay awake on watch!"
"What's the big deal? It's not like anyone can sneak up on us on this bridge," Criva snarled at Lyra. Criva hated high places and being ordered to stay on the bridge until Xena showed up was starting to erode her nerves.
As Lyra stood to stretch, she caused the rope bridge to start to sway. Which caused Criva to shut her eyes tightly in fear and clutch the rope tightly that tied her to the bridge. If Criva had had her eyes open and had been looking up, she would have seen a certain Warrior Princess running along a tree branch on the side of the gorge, leap off into space, do a triple flip and start to plunge to her apparent death in the middle of the gorge. At the moment when Xena reached the apex of her leap, however, her whip lashed out and caught the branch of a tree on the other side of the gorge and she swung safely to the other side.
Hearing a noise from one side of the gorge, Criva opened her eyes and started to look in that direction when she heard Lyra gasp and point at the other side. Scrambling to her feet to stand beside her Amazon sister, she saw what appeared to be a golden statue of a man walk up to the bridge.
Without a word, the golden man started pulling on the ropes of the bridge as if he was going to rip them apart and plunge the two Amazons to their deaths.
Lyra and Criva quickly retrieved their bows and started firing at the strange metal man. Rapidly shifting back and forth on their feet to compensate for the swaying of the rickety platform due to the pulling of the ropes, the two Amazons were hard pressed to hit their target, but thanks to their skill with the bow, several of their arrows did strike him. And immediately snapped harmlessly upon hitting the golden man in the chest.
The Amazons were concentrating so hard on the golden specter before them that they did not even realize that the swaying of the rope bridge was more from the woman warrior coming up behind them than it was from the tugging of the golden man.
Criva fired her last arrow and watched it shatter on the creature's forehead. A few seconds later Lyra fired her last arrow and missed completely. Looking at one another, they both nodded at the same time and, untying their ropes, started to draw their swords.
Suddenly a woman's voice from behind them said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Criva, reacting instantly, drew her sword and, whipping around, swung it at Xena's head. The Warrior Princess easily ducked the swing and Criva, overbalanced and with a shriek, flipped over the hand rope of the bridge. The Amazon woman who all her life feared heights plunged to her death and was gone.
Xena, shaking her head, looked at the remaining rebel amazon. "Well, you want to do this the hard way or are you going to be smart?"
Lyra looked at Xena and then, carefully pulling her sword, she threw it over the side of the bridge. Holding up her hands, she said, "I will take you to where my sisters are holding Gabrielle's body."
Reaching the side where James was standing, the rebel Amazon Lyra walked a wide berth around him. Xena had tied her hands behind her back using the same rope that she had used to tie herself to the bridge. Ephiny and Troya came up from where they had been hiding in the trees.
Ephiny glared at the rebel and, through gritted teeth, asked her, "Are you going to take us to where you are holding the queen?"
Lyra glared right back at her, but finally nodded her head. "Our underground village is half a day's ride from here in that direction." She jerked her head back the direction we had come from and started to walk that way but was pulled short by the rope Xena held.
"This is all about Velasca, isn't it?" Xena asked her.
"Yes! Our Goddess will be freed from her prison of stone and then we'll see who will be left standing. Shall we go now?" Lyra asked Xena in an arrogant voice and again tried to walk away in the direction she had shown.
Again she was brought up short when Xena refused to move. "Not that way we won't!"
"You think she's lying to us about their village being in that direction?" Troya asked Xena.
"Oh, no. I believe that an entrance to their village is probably in that direction, but not the only entrance. That one is just the entrance where we are supposed to go. It's probably heavily guarded. There has to be another entrance. Think about it. Velasca was trapped in lava. Now, that lava would have cooled but then it would still be rock. Too heavy to carry a half a day's ride to transport it to an underground village and risk someone seeing it. And why have us meet here? There's an entrance nearby, isn't there? If you two were able to kill me and get the crystal, you were to return by that entrance, weren't you?" Xena asked in a no-nonsense voice. Lyra refused to answer and just glared at Xena.
Stepping forward, James spoke in a deep, grating voice, "Golem get the pretty woman now?"
"What is that thing?" Lyra asked with a note of fear in her voice.
"Something I found in a ruined temple. He's very loyal to me and Gabrielle, but every now and then he wants a woman to play with."
Lyra was staring at Xena with open terror in her eyes now. James took advantage of her staring at Xena to wink at Ephiny and Troya over the rebel Amazon's shoulder.
"Golem promise not to tear open this one like the last one, Mistress."
Xena, biting the inside of her mouth to keep from laughing, said thoughtfully, "I don't know, Golem. The screams of that last one gave Gabrielle nightmares for weeks. And all that blood!"
"Keep that thing away from me! There is a secret entrance down that path there." Lyra gestured with her chin toward a trail that ran nearby. "It ends at a rock face, but if you dig in the dirt, you'll find a rope. Pull on the rope and it will open a passageway."
"Very well. Let's go!" Xena gestured for the Amazon to lead the way and handed over the end of the rope to Ephiny. Letting Ephiny and Lyra get a few paces ahead, she turned and looked James up and down with a smirk. "Golem?"
"Well, it worked, didn't it?" he replied with a grin.
Troya came up beside him. "I'd better be the only woman you get to play with!"
James grinned at her and replied, "Golem like pretty woman Troya. Play long and hard with her later!"
Lyra, walking ahead with Ephiny, was glad to get away from that metal monster and couldn't understand why Xena and the other woman who stayed behind were suddenly laughing so hard.
Upon reaching the rock wall and finding the rope, James pulled it and, sure enough, a door opened in the rock face. Ephiny started to enter the passage pulling Lyra behind her but he stopped her with a gesture. "Let me go first. Just to be careful."
Lyra, hearing his normal speech patterns, turned and glared at Troya. "He's not some kind of animal at all, is he?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. You haven't partied with him before," Troya replied throwing him a kiss.
Sticking his head into the dark passage, James felt a very large metal axe come smashing down on it, and promptly shatter into several pieces. Reacting quickly, he grabbed the Amazon warrior standing inside the passage and hurled her out to Xena, who took her out with one punch.
Troya came running up to him. "Are you okay?"
James stepped back from the darkness of the passage into the light and struck a pose. "Did she muss my hair?"
Troya started laughing and Ephiny and Xena just rolled their eyes.
"Why don't you get into her outfit, Troya," Xena suggested, indicating the guard she'd knocked out. Troya nodded and quickly slipped out of her clothes and into those of the rebel Amazon.
"How do I look?" she asked, striking a fetching pose of her own.
"Beautiful, as always," James replied softly.
"It'll do," Xena nodded. "Let's get going."
With a grand gesture and a bow, James asked them, "Ladies first?"
Xena raised her eyebrow and he quickly stopped being silly and led the way into the passage.
The owl was quite flustered.
As the cranky bird flew above the forest, searching for some sign of Xena, James, and Troya, he began to regret not following the renegades to their lair. But that was a decision he couldn't undo and so he flew on, heading for an opening in the trees over an old river of lava that had long since cooled. His golden eyes suddenly spotted the broken body of an Amazon warrior lying on the rocky surface of the hardened flow and he knew he was in the right area. He dropped low and just managed to spot Ephiny as she entered some cave, leading a strange woman on a rope behind her.
"Hey! Hold up there, love!" he called, diving out of the morning sky and startling the Regent.
Ephiny paused and looked back as the weary bird fluttered to a landing in a tree beside the cave's entrance. "What do you want?" she asked, recognizing Athene's sacred owl.
"I was wondering what had happened to you," Xena said, exiting the cave, followed by James and Troya. The owl was a bit surprised to see Troya wearing rebel attire, but then he saw the naked form of another woman lying near the cave's entrance and understood.
"I've been looking for you since yesterday, love!" he gasped out. "I saw what happened with that girl and this one's warriors," he said, gesturing at Ephiny with a tired claw. "And, I saw Autolycus sneaking after the renegades after they left with Salmoneus."
"Damn," Xena swore softly. "That means they've not only got Gabrielle and Salmoneus, but Autolycus as well."
"They might not have caught him, you know," James pointed out. "He's pretty clever."
"Yeah, but he's also a man," Xena reminded him. "He'll stick out like a sore thumb in a village of women. Besides, you didn't see him the last time he tried to infiltrate an Amazon village. I did."
"Not a pretty sight," Ephiny affirmed, shaking her head. Then, she looked at the owl and smiled. "Say, you know where my village is, don't you?"
"Of course I do! I'm the bloody owl of the Goddess of Wisdom, love!" he replied.
"Good. I want you to fly there and bring Solari, my lieutenant, and all of the warriors to this spot. I don't plan on letting any of these treacherous bitches escape this time," she snarled.
"More flying?" the owl whined.
"Get going," Xena said quietly. "We're counting on you."
The owl scowled and then awkwardly took off and rose steadily, if slowly, into the morning sky.
"Ephiny, perhaps you should stay out here and wait for Solari," Xena said thoughtfully. "And have our friend here," she nodded at Lyra, "show you where that other entrance is and guard it, too."
The proud Regent of the Amazons made as if to protest, but then, thinking of the wisdom behind Xena's words, nodded.
"All right, you two, let's get going. James, you lead the way. When we reach the village, we'll send Troya in to see if she can't locate Autolycus and Salmoneus before you and I surrender," Xena informed them.
"Surrender??!" James questioned.
"We can't go in fighting. Who knows what they'd do to Auto and Sal, not to mention Gabrielle. Besides, if we want Gabrielle restored, their priestess is the only one who can do it. Once she's done that, though, all bets are off and we take these scum out. Hard. Okay?" Xena asked, grinning wolfishly. "Oh, and Tara is all mine. Understand?"
James and Troya nodded and the three of them descended into the tunnel.
Autolycus groaned painfully and slowly struggled to his feet. "They can't hold out much longer," he coughed, staggering toward the five Amazons who were guarding he, Salmoneus and Tara.
"Yeah, their hands are bound to break on your face sooner or later if this keeps up," Tara grunted, watching as Salmoneus attempted to prevent the punch-drunk man from getting even more hurt.
"Auto, listen to me!" the merchant hissed, shaking him by the shoulders. "Give it up! They are not only not interested, they're dangerous! Just sit back down and relax. You need to save your strength. You'll need it when Xena comes and busts us out of here."
"I don't need no help getting those busts, er, busting out of here!" he spat back, shaking loose from the merchant. He started toward the guards but suddenly stopped and pointed to a woman approaching the cave. "Hey, isn't that James' lover, Troya?" he whispered.
Salmoneus and Tara joined him and followed his gaze. "It sure looks like her," Sal nodded.
"What's she doing here?" Tara asked.
Auto grinned. "She came with Xena and James, of course. We're practically home free," he added, waving discreetly to Troya. She nodded slightly and then quickly walked away, blending into the crowd near the statue in the center of the village.
Watching from the shadows of the tunnel's entrance, Xena and James saw Troya gesture toward a hole in the cavern wall being guarded by five large women and then join the majority of the village's inhabitants as they gathered around a statue carved of black rock.
"You ready?" she asked James. He nodded. "Let's get this party started." She emerged from the tunnel and yelled out, "I'm here, Cintel! And I've got your gem. You ready to deal?"
From across the cavern, near where she and a company of Amazons waited to ambush the Warrior Princess, Cintel whipped her head around and bared her teeth in fury. "I'm ready, Xena! No tricks, though, if you ever want to see your friends again!" She gestured to the quintet of guards and they quickly brought out their prisoners, forced them to kneel, and held their swords to their throats.
Xena was shocked to see Tara kneeling between Auto and Sal, but she quickly gathered her composure and reached into her cleavage and removed the glowing gem. "And I've got this! So, why don't we just cut the threats and get this over with."
"Agreed. Meet me at the altar near the Goddess," Cintel nodded, heading for the spot herself, closely followed by her contingent of troops.
"Stay close, and keep alert for any tricks," Xena whispered to James as they made their way toward the center of the village.
James nodded, but his attention was instinctively drawn to where Troya stood among the rebels, so far undetected in her borrowed clothing.
Reaching the statue, Xena and Cintel stood facing each other, contempt clouding the beautiful face of the Amazon while bored indifference covered that of the Warrior Princess.
"I'm almost glad it worked out like this. Saves us the trouble of having to hunt you down," the Amazon sneered. "Who's your friend?"
"This is James. He's here to make sure you keep your part of the deal," she replied, allowing a smirk to break her composure.
"And how is he going to do that?" Cintel laughed.
"Show her," Xena grunted.
James nodded and walked over to a large boulder on the edge of the square and easily picked it up. Then, as Cintel and the other renegades watched in amazement, he crushed it into a fine powder.
He walked back over, brushing the dust from his hands, and stood beside Xena.
"Any more questions?" the Warrior Princess inquired.
"Enough of this foolishness!" an imperious voice rang out. Everyone turned and saw Kerai descending from her hut, dressed in the full regalia of her High Priestess attire. "We are here to free the Goddess, not to compare the size of our breasts!"
She was followed by four Amazons dressed in similar, if not as ostentatious, outfits who carried the death-like body of the Bard on their shoulders. They gently laid her down on the stone altar near the statue and then backed away as Kerai approached Xena and held out her hand. "Give me the stone," she commanded.
Xena scowled and reluctantly removed the gem from her cleavage and, after a lingering kiss, handed it over.
Kerai smiled and then walked over to the altar and held the glowing stone with both hands over the inert body of the Bard. As she began to chant in a language Xena couldn't understand, the gem began to glow even more brightly...as did the statue's eyes.
"You're making a mistake, Kerai," Xena stated. "All of you are if you think Velasca will be grateful. She was a selfish bitch before she became a God, and becoming divine only made her worse."
But Cintel and the others paid no attention to her warning as they watched the stone slowly begin to break away from the statue, revealing the pale flesh beneath.
Then, with a brilliant blast of light, the last of the stone shattered and Velasca stood revealed in all her beautiful, terrible, glory.
Gabrielle felt a distantly recalled sensation.
The Bard/Queen noticed that the shining figure of the former Amazon Queen was beginning to fade away and reached out to embrace her one last time. "Melosa, I can feel my body again!" she cried as she tried vainly to touch the phantom figure. "But I can't feel you! I'm leaving, Melosa! Returning to my body again! Farewell, my friend!"
As the Bard's soul vanished from the stone, she could just barely hear the voice of its other prisoner: Remember me...
While all eyes were on Velasca's newly freed form, only Xena had noticed that the color had returned to Gabrielle's cheeks and that her breathing had become less mechanical. Then, hardly daring to believe the testimony of her eyes, she saw her beloved Bard cough and open her eyes. Xena was next to her in an instant, enfolding her in her strong arms and gently stroking her strawberry blonde hair. "You're back, Gabrielle," she said softly. "Tell me it's really you."
Gabrielle, enjoying the protected, familiar feeling of being near Xena, nodded as the tears poured from her emerald eyes. "It's me, Xena. I'm really here," she sobbed, digging her fingers into the hard flesh of the Warrior Princess' shoulder blades. She inhaled deeply, letting the scent of the former warlord fill her entirely.
James, noticing that Gabrielle had been restored, rushed over and grinned at the Bard's confusion. "Yes, it's me," he smiled. "What's the plan, Xena?"
"You get Gabrielle out of here while I clean out this rat's nest, starting with the head rat herself," she said, jerking a thumb at Velasca, who was stepping down from the pedestal her ‘statue' had been on as the renegades all chanted her name.
"Xena, no! I can't, I won't leave you!" Gabrielle protested. She pulled back and looked into her companion's blue eyes and saw a trace of fear in them.
"Velasca is going to try to kill you, Gabrielle. If you stay here, you just make it that much easier for her. We've got to take her out before she regains her strength," Xena said desperately, watching as Velasca slowly approached them. "See the way she's walking? She's still weak from her long imprisonment. This could be our only chance!"
"Our only chance is right. I'm not going anywhere," Gabrielle stated, climbing unsteadily from the altar and leaning against Xena for support, seeing as how the muscles in her legs had apparently forgotten how to stand.
"No. ‘Our' as in James' and mine. Once she's safely out of here, come back and we'll shut this place down permanently," Xena said to James.
James' eyes suddenly got quite large as he spotted Velasca beginning to call forth divine lightning. "We may have to alter that plan a bit, Xena!" he cried, grabbing both the Bard and the Warrior Princess and shielding them with his body.
But the self-proclaimed Goddess of Chaos lashed out instead at the renegades chanting her name, scorching a large number with bolts of blue-white electricity and leaving their charred skeletons in the wake of her destruction.
"What are you doing, Goddess??!" shrieked Kerai as her sisters screamed in terror and began to flee the cavern as Velasca's bolts continued to decimate them. "We are your friends! We are your followers!"
"I'm a GOD!!! I don't NEED friends or followers!" Velasca cried, blasting the High Priestess and knocking her backwards and into the frightened faces of her attendants. "I don't need ANYONE!!!"
Xena struggled from James' protective grasp and hissed, "Get her out of here! Now!" She then hurled her chakram at Velasca and nodded when it struck the Goddess on the arm and left a bright mark in its wake. "Remember me, Velasca?"
The fire-haired Goddess turned and, clutching her wounded arm, smiled evilly. "Xena. How nice of you to attend my coming out party," she purred. "Especially since it's also going to be your funeral!" She hurled a lightning strike at her, but Xena dove out of the way at the last second, trying to draw Velasca's attention away from where James was making for the main entrance of the cavern with a struggling Gabrielle.
But the Goddess seemed to sense what Xena was up to and twisted around and blasted the fleeing figure with a powerful bolt of lightning. It struck him full in the back and the electric shock carried through his metal frame and went straight into Gabrielle. As he pitched face-first from the force of the blow, James fortunately had the presence of mind to roll over so that his weight didn't crush the Bard in his grasp.
"NO!!!!!" Xena screamed, hurling her chakram again. This time it scraped across Velasca's cheek, leaving another bright mark.
"YES!" countered the Goddess, laughing insanely as Xena rushed over to the still form of the Bard.
James shook his head and looked down at Xena holding Gabrielle in her arms, gratefully noting that the Bard's breasts rose and fell with life, and then looked over at Velasca and his God-forged eyes burned with rage.
Meanwhile, when Velasca had turned on those who had freed her, Troya had quickly seized advantage of the confusion and rushed up to where Autolycus, Salmoneus, and Tara had also made use of their guards' distraction and turned on them. Autolycus had driven his head into the belly of one of them, causing her to drop her sword as she was knocked into her sister Amazon. Tara had swept her leg around and knocked the guard with her sword at her throat off her feet, then grabbed her weapon and plunged it into the downed woman's chest.
Salmoneus had simply dropped to his stomach and rolled into the Amazon next to him, knocking her off her feet and into the last guard.
Troya arrived just in time to knock out the second guard to be bowled over by Salmoneus with the pommel of her sword. She then quickly took out the other one with a kick to the gut, followed by a hard right to the face.
Meanwhile, Tara had engaged the second Amazon Auto had knocked over while the King of Thieves dodged the fists of the one he'd attacked. Troya easily laid his adversary out cold with a vicious chop to the back of her neck. Tara, meanwhile, defeated her opponent by ducking beneath a sword thrust and catching the off-balance Amazon in the chin with the hilt of her sword.
"Thanks," Autolycus said, shaking Troya's hand.
"Don't mention it," she smiled.
"Oh, believe me, I won't," he chuckled.
When a strange Amazon ran up, Troya immediately assumed a defensive posture. But Salmoneus rushed over and embraced the newcomer, holding her tightly. "Your friend is a fast worker," she said to Auto.
"Tell me about it," shrugged Autolycus. "Hey! Where do you think you're going?"
Tara, who had started for the village center, turned and called back, "I've got a score to settle with Cintel! Don't wait, just get out of here and leave these chicks to me and Xena!"
"Not likely!" Auto shouted. "But the kid does have a point. You three better high-tail it outta here."
"And what are you going to do?" Sal asked.
At that moment, Velasca's lightning bolt struck James and lit up the entire cavern. When the smoke cleared, Xena was already beside the fallen man, cradling Gabrielle in her arms.
"I'm going to get Gabrielle to safety," Autolycus replied, the determination glinting in his brown eyes like diamonds in sunlight.
Fear and rage filling the eyes of the Amazon, Troya stated, "And I'm going with you."
"I'll get Salmoneus out," Tanna assured them.
"No, my place is here, helping my friends," Salmoneus said, but not very forcefully.
"Sal, how can I put this delicately?" Auto said thoughtfully. "You're a class Alpha klutz. If you stick around, you'll probably not only get yourself hurt, but end up hurting the rest of us when we have to bail your butt out of trouble! So, take Tanna and get the heck out of Carthage! And that's an order, buddy!"
Salmoneus nodded and then, after wishing Auto and Troya good luck, he and Tanna made their way to the main entrance of the cavern, completely ignored by the fleeing Amazons who also crowded the exit tunnel.
Velasca reveled in her restored power.
Her only thought, as she continued to indiscriminately blast those around her, was to destroy. Not just the hated would-be queen and her pet wolf-bitch; not just her former Amazon sisters, nor the ones who had foolishly expected her to be grateful for releasing her; not just the Goddess Artemis, who had betrayed all Amazons when she urged them on the path of peace; but everything. Every person, beast, and God would fall to her divine wrath. All that lived and breathed would feel the fury of her disappointment.
The world itself would burn in her self-righteous rage and she would at last have the tranquillity she sought.
She watched with detached amusement as the metal man gained his feet, knowing she could easily destroy his God-forged frame, but then her attention was drawn to a familiar figure in black and green as he rushed to Xena's side.
"AUTOLYCUS!" she cried, holding out her hands and summoning a whirlwind that swept the King of Thieves up from where he stood and, after bouncing him around the cavern a bit, deposited him at her feet.
"Hello, Velasca," he grunted as he staggered upright. "Divinity suits you. You're more beautiful than ever."
"If you think you can appeal to my better nature, forget it," she said, reaching out and picking him up by his shirt and holding him off the ground. "I haven't got one."
As her grip tightened, cutting off his air, he managed to croak out, "So I noticed."
Tara sliced and hacked her way through the frantic horde of Amazons trying to escape the horror they'd foolishly worshiped and released until she spotted Cintel kneeling next to Kerai's smoldering body. The High Priestess was amazingly still alive, even though her face and chest were badly burned. Cintel was holding her hand and trying to comfort her friend in her last remaining moments of life.
"Don't worry about her, Cin. You'll be joining her in Tartarus soon enough!" Tara exclaimed, holding her sword up defensively.
Cintel turned and Tara saw that half of her face had been nearly torn off by one of Velasca's blasts. "I taught you, you fool! Do you really think you can beat me?" she hissed, drawing her sword.
"Let's find out!" Tara shouted, stepping forward and slashing at the Amazon's neck.
Cintel easily blocked the attack with her sword and then caught Tara with a left to her jaw. She followed that up with a boot to the chest that left the younger woman flat on her back and gasping for breath.
"Oh, get up, Tara. I'm not finished teaching you yet," she sneered, waiting for the girl to gain her feet. "Today's lesson is how to die!" She lashed out, driving the point of her sword into Tara's left shoulder.
Tara bit her lip to keep from crying out and danced backward, freeing herself from the blade. Then, while Cintel's right arm was still extended, she brought her own weapon up and sliced it neatly from elbow to wrist.
Cintel just laughed and casually switched the sword to her left hand. "You didn't forget I'm just as skilled with either hand, did you?" she mocked, lunging forward and striking the surprised girl in the thigh.
Tara dropped to one knee, blood running down her chin from where she had nearly bitten through her own bottom lip, but still managed to raise her sword. The Amazon nonchalantly kicked it aside, knocking the weapon from Tara's grasp, and reached down and grabbed a handful of the girl's tightly braided dark hair. Cintel raised her own sword as she prepared to slice it across the exposed throat and chuckled, "Lesson's over, dear. But you'll be happy to learn that you passed with high marks."
"Not today, Cintel!" Tara cried, pulling a dagger from her boot and plunging it deep into the gut of the Amazon. "Today you're the one who passes...into Tartarus!" She pulled the knife free and then kicked up, nailing Cintel in the chest and knocking her to her back.
The Amazon struggled to rise, but then simply dropped to the ground, her sword falling from her lifeless fingers.
Tara groaned and slowly, painfully, climbed to her feet. She looked around and saw Xena holding Gabrielle while Troya looked on in shock, and James heading toward Velasca, who was choking the life out of Autolycus. She spotted an Amazon's body with a bow and a quiver of arrows and quickly let one fly into Velasca's back.
Xena, satisfied that Gabrielle was still alive, but knowing she wouldn't make it without medical attention, looked up at the Amazon standing nearby. "Troya, I need you to get Gabrielle out of here," she said, her voice slightly cracking. "Find a healer--Ephiny's Amazons are sure to have brought along several--and save her life for me. I'll make sure nothing happens to James."
Troya nodded and then scooped the still body of the Bard from Xena's arms, which were obviously reluctant to let her go, and told the Warrior Princess, "Don't worry, Xena. I'll see that she gets treated. Just be sure you and James are around to see her recover."
"We will be. Count on it," Xena smiled, putting her hand on the Amazon's shoulder and squeezing it affectionately. Then, she bent down and whispered, "Be good and heal quickly, Gabrielle. I need you."
Then, Troya headed for the exit carrying Gabrielle and Xena turned to where Velasca was "playing" with Autolycus. As an arrow thudded into her back--From Tara, of all people, Xena noted with a grim smile--she once more hurled her chakram. This time it buried itself in the chest of the Goddess, causing her to drop the King of Thieves.
As James closed in on her, Xena drew her sword and called out, "Okay, Velasca, it looks like the party is winding down. Time to put you to bed...forever!" She raced over the rocky ground and desperately tried to think of a plan to defeat the Goddess. But her thoughts were mostly filled with concern for the safety of Gabrielle.
Velasca looked down at the chakram embedded in her chest and, with a laugh, she pulled it out with two fingers and disdainfully dropped it to the floor. The wound in her chest closed as soon as the chakram left.
"It's not that easy to kill a GOD, Xena!"
Velasca closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them again they were milky white, glowing with the power of a Goddess. Suddenly, a globe of crackling energy surrounded Velasca completely and, with a scream of rage, it exploded outward. Like ripples radiating out from a lake when a stone is dropped in it, the energy shot out in all directions. The first one to be caught by the energy wave was Autolycus. It picked him up from where he lay at Velasca's feet and threw him through the air to crash into some rocks 20 feet away. The wave continued to race outward, sweeping the floor clean of the burnt bodies of rebel Amazons and stones. Xena saw it coming and tried to brace herself for the impact, but when the wave hit, she was still thrown like a rag doll.
Seeing Xena thrown so easily, James threw himself to the floor, hoping that the wave would pass harmlessly over him. But as the wave hit him, it still drove his prone body several feet back before he stopped. Sitting up, he saw that there was now a perfect circle of cleared area around Velasca of about 20 feet. The Goddess of Chaos watched as Xena shakily got to her feet. Tara lay where she had been thrown, moaning in pain, and Autolycus lay tangled in the rocks where he had landed, one of his legs bent at an impossible angle.
Velasca was gloating in her mind at the impending defeat of the mighty Warrior Princess, but, like a small insect, an irritating thought intruded into her mind: "Where is Gabrielle?" Velasca wanted to break the little would-be Amazon in half in front of Xena to destroy her world before she sent them both to Tartarus. Velasca extended her Goddess abilities until she could sense Troya, half carrying, half dragging Gabrielle's limp body out of the cavern. Troya had almost made it to the tunnel leading out when Velasca, with a thought, sent one of her whirlwinds to drag her and Gabrielle back.
The whirlwind dropped Gabrielle roughly in front of the Goddess and then slammed Troya's body a few feet to the side.
"Xena! Watch as I barbecue your little Bard!"
With a cry of rage, both Xena and James tried to reach Gabrielle before Velasca could carry out her threat, but, down deep, they both knew that there was no way either could make it in time.
Velasca, with a cruel laugh, pointed her finger and sent a fireball toward the barely conscious young woman lying on the ground.
Suddenly, Troya leapt in front of the fireball, shielding Gabrielle's body with her own. There was a cry of pain from the Amazon and an intense flash of light as the fireball struck her.
In a moment frozen in time, they watched as Troya's burnt skeleton swayed for a moment and then fell in pieces to the ground in front of Gabrielle.
Throwing his head back, James screamed in rage, pain and utter misery. The terrible cry rang out in the cavern and just kept going, till even Velasca covered her ears from the sound. Small rocks fell from the ceiling and cracks appeared in the floor from the force of his scream of agony. One of the cracks in the floor appeared directly behind the golden metal man and widened to reveal a sluggish flow of lava. As the loud echoes of the scream faded away, Xena could see that James was still locked in position, with his head thrown back, mouth open wide and eyes staring straight up in grief.
She was just about to throw herself at Velasca once again when she heard the sound of wings flapping and saw Athene's owl fly into the room and land on her shoulder.
Velasca started to stalk toward Xena and, as she passed James' metal form, she casually backhanded it and watched as it fell back into the crack in the floor and sank into the lava. She raised her hand a second time and aimed at Gabrielle but then stopped and, with a look of rage, she pointed off to the side and fired a lightning bolt, apparently at nothing.
"What's going on?" Xena said in a low voice.
"It's James! He's buying you some time to get Gabrielle out of here by insulting Velasca. Being a Goddess, she can hear and see him in his spirit form," the owl whispered into Xena's ear. "Ooh, what he just called her! I never knew he knew words like that!"
Xena watched as Velasca turned her back on them and started to move away, still firing lightning bolts at thin air.
"I can't just leave with Gabrielle! Someone has got to stop Velasca!"
The owl ruffled his feathers and then told Xena, "James says he has an idea, but you have to get Gabrielle out of here! She's dying!"
Suddenly, Velasca stopped and looked around. "Where are you, Tin Man!"
Finding Kerai's body and discovering, remarkably, that she was still just barely alive, James quickly entered her body and confronted her spirit to spirit.
In a shadowy plain they met. He in the spirit form that was a mirror of his once-living body and Kerai appearing as a small ball of light.
"You have to help me stop Velasca once and for all!"
"No! She is my Goddess!"
"Your Goddess has killed most of your sisters and you're dying because of her!"
"I will not help you to defeat the Goddess!"
James finally realized that he wasn't talking to a normal person's spirit, but to that of a true religious zealot. "Then you force me to do something that I did not want to have to do!"
Reaching out with his spirit hands, he closed them around the ball of light and, with a massive surge of concentration, crushed the ball.
Velasca was still stalking around, ignoring everyone else in the cavern, looking for the spirit of the metal man who hurled some of the worst of Amazon insults at her she'd ever heard.
Suddenly coming to a stop, she turned around and faced Xena as she was picking up Gabrielle's unconscious body to take her out of the cavern.
"Oh, you're not going anywhere!" she hissed at Xena, hurling a lightning bolt at her.
The Warrior Princess leaped away at the last minute, but landed awkwardly due to Gabrielle's weight throwing her off-balance.
"Time to die," Velasca grinned, electricity dancing on her fingers.
Xena's eyes widened slightly as she saw the body of the High Priestess sit up behind Velasca. It held out the crystal and started to mutter something in a low voice.
Velasca took a step toward Xena, but suddenly gave a jerk, as if something behind her had tugged at her clothing. Turning to see what it was, she had just enough time to give out a roar of frustration and then disappeared in a flash of light.
The body of Kerai collapsed to the ground and the gem rolled toward Xena's foot. Picking it up she could see a miniature version of Velasca banging on the inside walls of the crystal and occasionally the stone would flare as Velasca hurled lightning bolts at the walls of her new prison.
Xena was frantic.
She looked around desperately for some sign of life, but, other than the owl on her shoulder, she was the only one moving. Gabrielle lay in her arms, her battered body having gone into some kind of shock after receiving the jolt of divine lightning. Autolycus' crumpled form lay dashed against some rocks about 20 ft. away and the Warrior Princess desperately hoped that the worse he had suffered was a broken leg. Tara was sprawled atop the remains of Kerai's hut; Xena couldn't tell how badly she was hurt. And, the Warrior Princess wasn't in great condition herself, although her own wounds were largely superficial. Still, that last shot had left her right ankle in considerable pain and she doubted whether she could walk out on her own, let alone carry Gabrielle.
Then, things took a decided turn for the worse.
"Ares," she sighed, as the God of War flashed into existence a few feet away.
He reached down and picked up her sword. "You dropped this," he sneered, holding it out to her. "And, if you plan on running yourself onto it, you'll need it. Or have you changed your mind? Oh, she looks bad. And so do the rest of your friends," he added, shaking his head in a patronizing fashion. He waggled the sword at her. "Well, aren't you going to take it?"
Xena stared up into the pitiless eyes of the God of War and knew he was calling her bluff.
While she might have sacrificed her own life to save her soul from this monster, she realized that she could never do so at the cost of her friends' lives. Especially that of Gabrielle. Her soul was a small price indeed to pay for the life of her beloved Bard.
"Don't do it, love! There's something you should know--Awwwk!!" the owl cried when Ares sizzled his feathers with a shot of electricity.
"Quiet, you flying feather-duster! Well?" Ares looked down at Xena and then at the sword.
She glared at the God and slowly shook her head. "Save her, Ares, save all of them, and I'll join you," she said through gritted teeth.
Ares smirked triumphantly. "Oh, no, Xena. Remember what I told you a few nights ago? You're already on your knees, but I want to hear you beg me for their lives," he hissed. "And make it extra special for the blonde."
"The lady doesn't beg, Ares," boomed a familiar voice. "You of all people should know that by now."
"NO!!!" Ares howled, turning to where Hercules and Iolaus, followed by Joxer, Ephiny, and a dozen Amazons were entering the cavern. "I can NOT believe you're here! Now!!"
"What can I say, I have impeccable timing," Hercules shrugged.
Ares snarled and then literally flew across the cavern and landed with both feet on the demi-God's chest, driving him to the ground. "I was so close! So close!" he shouted, jumping off and then leveling a kick that caught Herc in the chest just as he sat up and hurled him to the cavern's wall.
When Ares leaped after him, Iolaus motioned to Joxer, Ephiny and the Amazons. "C'mon, we'd better check on Xena and the others," he advised, racing toward the Warrior Princess.
He was shocked to see that she was crying. "Xena, are you all right?" he questioned as an Amazon healer bent over Gabrielle as Joxer looked on, a worried expression on his clownish face.
"I'm fine, Iolaus. Now," she added with a smile. "How...?"
"You can thank Joxer for that. We took him back to the XenaVerse complex, after he ‘helped' us with the warlords, and we learned that Gabrielle's body had been taken by Ephiny and her Amazons. Joxer convinced us to go with him to see her and we arrived at Ephiny's village just as Solari and the rest were preparing to come and meet you. We decided we'd better tag along. Just in case."
"I'm grateful you did," she replied. "How is she doing?" she asked the healer attending to Gabrielle.
"Not good. But I think I can stabilize her condition long enough to get her back to the XenaVerse complex and the temple of Asclepius," the woman said, administering some sort of herbal compress to the Bard's blackened chest. "She should make it."
Xena nodded and finally allowed herself to collapse against Iolaus, causing the owl on her shoulder to fly off and see how Autolycus was doing.
Meanwhile, Hercules met Ares with a beautiful right uppercut that literally launched the God of War up into the roof of the cavern. He struck his head and then dropped to the floor.
Hercules was on him before he could recover and grabbed him by an arm and proceeded to flip him over his head, slamming him into the ground. He then repeated the move in the other direction, again banging him into the ground. After a couple of more times, Ares finally broke free of the grip on his wrist and retaliated with a couple of well-placed kicks to Hercules' face.
But the demi-God was able to dodge one of them and snagged Ares by the ankle and began to spin around and around, faster and faster, until the two of them seemed to blend together into a small tornado.
"NoOoOoOoOoO!!!!!!!!" screamed Ares as Hercules finally released him and he went sailing up and crashed into the ceiling again. This time, however, he plummeted straight down into the large pool of lava that dominated the cavern.
"Whoops," Hercules shrugged. As he started to walk over to where Autolycus' leg was being attended by several Amazons, he suddenly turned and watched as Ares emerged from the lava, burning with rage and indignation.
"We'll settle this another time, brother!" he cried, as his smoldering form began to vanish. "And, I'm not through with you, Xena! I almost won today. One day, I will!"
"Give it a rest, Ares," Hercules scowled. The God of War disappeared in a particularly brilliant flash of light, leaving the lava that had coated his body behind in a smoking pile. But the demi-God knew that he would be back, some day, when his pride and his power had recovered. He also knew that Ares had been right about almost winning Xena back, his sensitive ears having picked up their brief exchange, and worried for his friend.
"Autolycus, how's the leg?" Herc asked, nodding to the owl on the thief's shoulder.
"Hercules! Thank Zeus! Ow! Watch it, lady, that's flesh and bone, not one of your dolls!" Autolycus reminded the healer working on his shattered leg. "Ouch! I've always wanted to play doctor with an Amazon, but this isn't exactly what I had in mind. Yow! That smarts!"
"I'm glad to see your libido has survived intact," Hercules laughed.
"Aww, Herc, you know me. It'd take more than a crazy Goddess to finish off the King of Thieves. Just ask Discord," he added with a wink.
Hercules shook his head and wandered over to where Xena was still sitting with Iolaus as the healers prepared Gabrielle for travel.
Iolaus looked up and nodded, smiling, and Hercules nodded in understanding. "I'm gonna check on the girl," the blonde Hunter said, gracefully releasing Xena and standing up.
"Her name's Tara," Xena said. "She's a good kid at heart, but she has an uncanny knack for picking the wrong people to run with."
"Sounds like you when you were younger," Herc said to Iolaus.
"What do you mean ‘when I was younger?'" the Hunter shot back with a grin.
"Let me know how she is, okay?" Xena asked.
"Sure, Xena," Iolaus said as he walked off.
"How are you doing?" Hercules asked, sitting next to the Warrior Princess.
"Much better, now that you're here," she replied with a slight smile.
"Save the heroic act for somebody else, Xena," Hercules gently scolded. "I heard you and Ares and I know that it must have torn your soul out to even consider his offer."
Xena nodded and suddenly found her blue eyes filled with tears again. "I couldn't do it, Hercules. I couldn't save them this time. If you hadn't come along..." her voice trailed off as the full horror of what she'd been willing to do hit home.
"Xena, you're not a God, you're not even a demi-God, like me," he smiled. "You're just a human being, but one with an incredible capacity to make the seemingly impossible happen. But not because of any ‘powers' or ‘divine abilities,' but because of your inner strength. Because of your heart. Because of your soul. You're twice the hero I am, Xena, because the stakes are so high for you."
"But that's just it. Don't you see? Sure, the stakes are high for me, and I willingly accept that. But this isn't about me," she said desperately. "It's about Gabrielle...and the others. I nearly cost them their lives today, and it's not the first time."
"And it probably won't be the last," Hercules agreed, nodding his head. "But no one forced them to be your friends, Xena. They knew what the risks were and they took them because they wanted to. And, if you think you'll never have to worry about them joining you again, you're just fooling yourself. Especially where Gabrielle is concerned." Xena looked up at him and then over to where the Bard was just being picked up and placed on the litter the Amazons had made from the wreckage of one of the huts. "I worry about Iolaus all the time, every day, in fact, but he's a grown man, just like Gabrielle is a grown woman. They can make their own choices and we've no right to tell them they've made the wrong ones. Especially when we would make the same ones ourselves in their positions."
"You're right, of course," Xena sighed, struggling to her feet.
"Of course," Hercules smiled, steadying her.
"Tara will be all right," Iolaus informed them, walking up and taking the other arm of the Warrior Princess and placing it around his shoulders. "She's just got some cuts and scrapes and had the wind knocked out of her. She's a tough kid, the healer said."
"I know," Xena nodded, smiling as they followed the healers out of the cavern.
Freeing himself from the body of the 'high priestess of Velasca', James looked around. Without a body there was little he could do to help Xena and the rest of his friends but he was determined to at least have the owl tell Xena that he was still around and comfort her. Before he could float the several yards that separated them, Ares appeared in one of his typical flashes of light and started taunting Xena.
‘I wonder if I could pull off that crystal trick one more time and give Velasca a roommate?' he thought to himself. Unfortunately, James could feel the knowledge that had been taken from Kerai already starting to fade. Becoming desperate to do something to stop Ares, he did not notice Hercules' and Iolaus' arrival until the former called out to his half-brother. Relaxing once he realized that Hercules and Ephiny's Amazons had everything in hand, James became aware of a presence beside him.
Looking to his left, he saw Celeste standing there.
"We really need to stop meeting like this," he grimly joked with her without smiling. "You're not here for Gabrielle, are you?" James asked, suddenly very worried.
"No. Her destiny is still to unfold with Xena. I am here to guide you back to the other side. There is someone waiting to see you there."
James' eyes were drawn against his will to look at the sad burnt remains of Troya. "Troya. We barely had time to get to know each other and now she's dead and it's all my fault." Celeste frowned but did not correct his statement.
"Owl, make sure that Troya gets the Amazon funeral she deserves," he yelled out to the owl.
The bird turned his head to face him and bobbed it up and down to show that he heard him, but said nothing, as he was busy concentrating on what was happening between Iolaus and Xena.
"I'm ready. Let’s go," James said, turning to look Celeste in the eyes.
"We are already here," she said with a trace of humor in her voice.
Looking around, he saw that they were standing in Hades' throne room and that Hades was sitting on his throne with a slightly disgusted look on his face.
"I wish you would give me some kind of warning when you do that," James said, turning to look back at Celeste, but she was already gone.
"I know. Irritating isn't it? She was always doing that to me when we were growing up as young Gods, too," Hades said with a brief smile. Returning his features to his usual solemn look, he said, "What am I going to do with you?"
"Return me to the Fields so I can be with Troya?" James asked hopefully.
"You're already free to visit the Fields any time you wish to see Troya. But your unique situation still exists. You're not really dead and not really alive and, being in that condition, the magic of the Fields still cannot work on you. Troya will wake up each morning in the Fields with no knowledge of the day before, but you will remember each day."
"So Troya will not miss me?" James asked with a curious mixture of sadness and relief.
"No. To her, you will just be on an errand for the day and when she sees you again it will seem like no time has passed at all."
"Can I see her now?" I asked Hades.
"Of course. Any time you want to see her, just think of her and you will be drawn to wherever she is in the Fields."
James thanked Lord Hades and, closing his eyes, thought of Troya. Opening his eyes, he found himself standing in a forest glade looking toward a small lake where Troya was standing.
Troya turned and, looking at him, she called out, "Isn't it beautiful here? I'm so happy that you brought me to this lovely place for a vacation. How long can we stay here?"
"Forever, my love. Forever," James said softly.
Gabrielle felt an incredible sense of peace.
She looked around her and, at first, thought she was back in the crystal, but then the mists parted and she found herself in an infinite vista of rolling green hills and babbling brooks.
Definitely not the crystal, she decided. Illusia? she wondered. But she didn't hear any music and there was no sign of Joxer. Besides which, she was still dressed. It must be the Elysian Fields, she said to herself. Of course, that meant she was dead.
"Not dead, Gabrielle," said Queen Melosa, appearing in a flash of white light. "But not wholly alive either."
"What happened?" the Bard-Queen asked.
"James took over the body of Kerai and used the knowledge he gained as a result to imprison Velasca in the gem," she explained.
"No, that's not what I meant. What happened to you?" Gabrielle clarified.
"When he imprisoned Velasca, he also freed me," she smiled.
"What now?" the Bard-Queen inquired, looking around her and admitting that it was beautiful, but hoping she wouldn't be staying nevertheless.
"Now, my friend and heir, I restore that which was stolen from you," Melosa said, touching a fingertip to Gabrielle's forehead. A pulse of light flickered from one woman to the other and Melosa nodded. "You are Queen of the Amazons once more. Lead my sisters well, Gabrielle, and remember that we dead can hear your thoughts." The former Queen looked around and a contented smile covered her face, bathing it in a warm light. "I must go to my final reward now, and you must return to the world of the living. Thank you, Gabrielle, for everything."
"Goodbye, Melosa, I hope you'll be happy," Gabrielle said, feeling herself being drawn back to her body. "I'll do my best to be worthy of the honor you've restored to me."
Xena paced nervously back and forth in the outer temple while the God tended to Gabrielle within. She had been reluctant to leave, but Asclepius had been very insistent this time and she had finally relented and allowed Hercules to lead her away from where her beloved Bard lay fighting for her life. "Besides," the God of healing had told her, "this time I can help her, so there's no need to worry."
Which, of course, didn't keep her from worrying as she stalked the outer temple like a panther in a cage.
"Explain to me again what happened?" Autolycus asked the owl sitting on his shoulder. He'd had quite a bit of wine to numb the pain in his leg while he waited for the God's healing touch and was having trouble understanding exactly how Velasca herself had ended up in the gem which was currently back in Xena's cleavage.
The owl ruffled his singed feathers and scowled. "Why don't you explain it to him, love?" he suggested to Tara, who was sitting next to Autolycus. "Maybe he'd understand it better coming from you."
"I'm still clueless about what happened to James. As for Velasca, all I can say is good riddance to bad rubbish," she replied. Her own wounds had been dealt with by the Amazon healers, but she was waiting to see how Gabrielle fared, like Joxer, Ephiny, Hercules, Iolaus, Salmoneus, Tanna, and most of the residents of the complex, before finding a bed and getting some much-needed sleep.
"Listen, you two, it's very simple," the owl began. "Since a God or Goddess is essentially a purely spiritual being, when James trapped Velasca's soul in the crystal, he, in effect, trapped her That's why there was no body left behind. Understand?"
Tara and Auto looked at each other and shrugged. "More wine?" he asked, holding up the bottle at his side.
"Definitely," Tara grinned, raising her glass.
"Are you sure she's old enough to be drinking, mate?" the owl asked.
"Today she's old enough," he said, nodding his head as he filled her cup and then took a long drink from his own goblet. "Tomorrow might be another story altogether. Now, why is Velasca trapped bodily in the gem again?"
The owl sputtered indignantly.
"She'll be all right, won't she, Iolaus?" Joxer asked nervously.
"Asclepius is doing everything he can for her, Joxer," the Hunter replied, laying a hand on the would-be warrior's shoulder. "But if Xena doesn't stop that pacing, I'm liable to get motion sickness."
They both laughed, but the apprehension was still there.
Salmoneus held Tanna tightly in his arms, or, perhaps it was the Amazon who held him tightly. They were so intertwined it was difficult to tell who was the holder and who was the holdee.
"I've spoken to Autolycus and he agreed to present your case to Xena with me. Then, if we can convince her that you're genuinely sorry for ever having followed Cintel and the others, she'll put in a good word for you with Ephiny," he said softly.
"I don't know how I can thank you for this second chance at life, Salmoneus," she smiled warmly. "Well, come to think of it, a couple of ideas do spring to mind."
The merchant blushed as she whispered them into his ear.
"You're sure none of the renegades escaped?" Hercules asked Ephiny, but his eyes were watching the Warrior Princess as she continued to pace back and forth in front of the archway that led to the inner temple.
"Apparently Velasca herself destroyed most of them," the Regent replied, shaking her head sadly. "The few who did survive were captured when they emerged from the tunnel and taken to my village. We'll do our best to reintegrate them back into our tribe, but I fear we may end up having to lock them up for their own good; the experience seems to have driven them insane."
Hercules sighed deeply. "I guess that's how some people deal with things beyond their control," he said softly, his eyes still on Xena.
Finally, the solemn God emerged from the temple's inner sanctum, nearly colliding with the Warrior Princess, and announced that Gabrielle was going to be fine. "She's still weak from her ordeal, and I can't do anything about that, but her body and soul are both intact and well on the road to full recovery," he informed them.
Without waiting for his permission, Xena raced inside as the others in the lobby cheered and hugged each other in relief.
"Gabrielle!" Xena exclaimed, seeing the Bard awake and sitting up on the healer's altar. She rushed over and threw her arms around her, hugging her close. "You should be resting."
"Oh, Xena, I feel fine," she replied, holding her companion, once again enjoying the sense of safety she felt in her presence. "I'm just a little tired, that's all. And hungry."
Xena laughed. "You just tell me what you want and I'll run and get it," she promised.
"Right now, all I want is to hold you and know that I'm really here," the Bard whispered.
Xena nodded. "You're here, Gabrielle. And you're never leaving again, if I can help it," she stated.
"I love you, Xena."
"And I love you, Gabrielle."
All of the XenaVersians, extras, Hestians, and Amazons, both from Gabrielle's tribe, including Ephiny and Solari, and from Troya's tribe, gathered to pay tribute to James for once more sacrificing himself for the sake of his friends, and to honor the Amazon warrior Troya, whose supreme gift had saved the life of Gabrielle; her Amazon sisters would later give her remains a proper, private, Amazon funeral. Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Iolaus, Joxer, Autolycus, Tara, Salmoneus, and Tanna--Who had rejoined Gabrielle's tribe on a probationary status after Xena had agreed to vouch for her--were also there to say goodbye. As were several of the Olympians: Hephaestos, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Artemis, and, of course, Athene and her owl. The Smith had forged a plaque from his special metal that would last forever with the inscription:
James Davis and Troya
Bard, Warrior, Heroes
They gave their lives for their friends
And their sacrifice will not be forgotten
So long as this Memorial remains
After the dedication, as James would have wanted, Lissla and Tina threw a party/wake at the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace and they all exchanged stories and fond memories of the pair until the wee hours of the morning.
Xena and Gabrielle, opting to sleep beneath the stars when they finally left the celebration of two extraordinary lives, spread out their bed rolls next to a small campfire just beyond the walls of the XenaVerse complex. The Warrior Princess had tried to make Gabrielle sit down and let her do the work, but the Bard had insisted that she was fine and proceeded to do it herself.
"I've never met anyone so pig-headed," Xena sighed, smiling discreetly as she lay down.
"I have," the Bard snickered.
The two of them lay on their backs next to each other looking up at the pre-dawn sky in silence for a while.
"Xena, Hercules told me what happened and I want you to know that I'm very disappointed in you for not saving us on your own," Gabrielle said quietly. Beside her, Xena suddenly stopped breathing as the air rushed out of her lungs in shock. "I mean, really, why didn't you just pick all three of us up, kick Ares' sorry butt, and then fly out of there. You can do anything, you know," she continued, trying not to laugh. "And, while you were at it, you could have ended disease, famine, and war. Heck, I'm surprised you didn't just chuck the whole planet and start over from scratch."
Xena frowned and said softly, "All right, Gabrielle. I get the point."
"But with your amazing powers, why stop there? Why not make a whole new universe, one that works exactly the way you want it to?" Gabrielle was softly chuckling now and Xena was hard-pressed not to join her. "And, he was right about me not going anywhere, too. Face it, lady, you're stuck with me."
"Damn, I was afraid of that," Xena sighed. But then, unable to hold back the joy any longer, she began to laugh. Which, of course, made Gabrielle start laughing, too. They instinctively rolled toward one another and held each other, giggling as the sun began to creep over the horizon.
"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Gods my soul to keep," Gabrielle said quietly as she lay in Xena's arms. "If I should die before I wake--"
"Somebody made a big mistake," Xena finished for her. "Good night, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Xena."
Then, hearing Argo whinny, they both added, "Good night, Argo. Good night, Velasca."
From within the crystal suspended on a leather strap around the horse's neck, the Goddess of Chaos screamed and launched a fresh barrage of lightning bolts at the walls of her prison.
DISCLAIMER: No renegade Amazons, insane Goddesses of Chaos, egomaniacal Romans, or vengeful Gods of War were harmed during the writing of this fan fic. However, a certain Warrior Princess learned that even she can't do everything; a street-fighting Xena-wannabe discovered that maybe honesty is the best policy, especially when dealing with friends; an undead bard found that love can hurt much more than loneliness, but is worth the pain; a Bard-Queen found that the love of friends, especially one very special friend, can make all the difference in the world; and the King of Thieves realized that sometimes you can’t do anything to change your destiny, and that you’re probably better off if you don’t even try to.
Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed it!