DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of these characters. Rob Tapert, Renaissance, etc, these are their babies, I'm just borrowing them.
SPOILERS: Since XWP is long over there really aren't any, but for anyone interested this story takes place just (and I mean just) afterthe 3rd season finale, SACRIFICE Part 2.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Beneath the Surface
By Kirk Baldridge
Though you couldn't always tell it by looking at or listening to him, Charon was a man who thrived on order. He wanted everything to happen the same way, at the same time, every day. As the ferryman of the underworld, souls got carried across the river at regular intervals, like clockwork.
Whenever anything went wrong, which was rare, Charon did not react well. Many a new soul had cringed from a foul-mouthed rant by the ferryman. The only thing worse than having his schedule thrown off, by stubborn mortal spirits or Cerebrus running loose, was one of the rarely pleasant occasional visits from his boss, Hades. The lord of the underworld rarely ventured down to the river. Usually it was to greet an especially important spirit such as a king or to personally escort one of the damned to Tartarus.
Other times, like now, Charon had absolutely no idea why Hades was there. He checked his scroll. As far as his records showed there were no important or infamous figures waiting. Except, of course, for the priests of Dahak the dark god. Everyone on Olympus had breathed a sigh of relief when his entry into the world was aborted, and a lot of the creatures in Tartarus were slavering to get their hands, not to mention claws and teeth, on the spirits of anyone who was foolish enough to serve him. "You here for them?"
Hades, he of the black armor and constant scowl, walked up behind his old friend. "Who?"
"The Dahak guys. I know everybody wants a piece of them. Thought maybe you were going to take care of them personally." Charon sneered. "Wouldn't mind watching that myself."
"Consider it done," said the god. "I'll get you a front row seat to their new home in Tartarus." He looked around, his eyes scanning the throng of people on the other side of the river. His lips were tight, his brow furrowed. "But that's not actually the reason I'm here."
"Who you looking for, Hades?"
"A familiar face. If we don't do something quickly, we'll..." Hades' eyes widened. "There!" He pointed, and a bolt of lightning shot out of his fingertip. The crowd parted as it struck the ground at the feet of a pale, sad-faced girl, whose strawberry-blond hair swung through the air as she turned. "Hello, Gabrielle."
The bard didn't seem at all surprised by Hades' presence, or awed by his pyrotechnic display as the other spirits around her were. She crossed her arms and glared at the god.
"Hades. Did it work?"
"Yes. The spawn of Dahak was destroyed, his plans for domination along with her, and you saved Xena's life. As well as the lives of the untold hundreds of thousands of mortals who would have fallen to the dark one. You are a true hero, Gabrielle, worthy of an honored place in the Elysian Fields."
The bard sighed. "I don't feel like a hero."
"Be that as it may, because of your heroism I have been authorized to offer you a choice. One few mortals ever receive." Gabrielle blinked, and in that instant Hades was standing at her side. "It seems you have friends you may not even be aware of. Artemis petitioned my brother Zeus to grant you a special dispensation, because you saved the world and thus her Amazons from the horrors of Dahak."
"What kind of dispensation?"
Hades smiled, slightly. An almost unthinkable sight in the underworld. Even Charon was shocked, and stumbled back into his boat. "Your life. I can give it back to you, if you so choose."
"Y-You can really send me back?"
"Under normal circumstances it would not be allowed. I have made exceptions a time or two in the past, but it's usually a family thing involving Hercules. In your case, yes. The Fates will permit it, because they feel they erred in the judgement they used concerning Xena's lifeline and Ares. The karmic line would not be adversely effected either, because I don't believe you were actually meant to die this day."
Hades shook his head. "You'll find out, in time. What do you say? Do you want your life back?"
"Of course. What do I have to do? Get some ambrosia?"
"Nothing like that. I'll just..." Hades started to raised his hand. "Uh oh."
Hades' usual frown intensified, as did the darkness around him. "I just realized. Your body was destroyed. There is nothing for me to send you back to."
Gabrielle's face fell. "Oh."
"Atremis is going to be furious." Hades, as per usual, began to pace. "She has her father's temper, and I really do not need my neice hounding me right now."
Charon, who had been listening the whole time, now clared his throat. "Uhh, Hades?"
"Yes, what is it? Can't you see I'm busy?"
"There's a big ol' empty vessel up on Earth. Right near Xena too. Why don't you plop blondie into it, 'til you can figure our what else to do with her?"
Hades nodded. "Of course!"
Gabrielle looked from god to ferrymen, and back again. "What's a vessel? What are you two talking about? Hey, I don't want to be stuck in some jar on a shelf or anything."
"No, no, it's nothing like that. It's much more complicated in fact." Hades turned. "Tell you what. Charon's right, this is the best way. I'll put you back in the mortal world so you can calm Xena down, 'cause I think we both know how she tends to get when you die. As soon as I come up with a way to put you in your own body again I'll let you know, all right?" He held up his hand, fingers ready to snap.
"Wait a second. Can't we..." Gabrielle's entire world turned white. She opened her eyes to a throbbing headache, and a dull ache in her stomach that luickly went away.
'By the gods, what happened?' She couldn't remember much after falling into the pit with Hope, and hearing her daughter scream as she was consumed by the flames. She sat up, slowly, and put a hand to her head. The chain and leather bracer on her wrist jingled as she moved her long, skinny arm.
Gabrielle froze. She didn't wear bracers, and while she knew her arm wasn't exactly thick and muscular it wasn't particularly skinny either. As a matter of fact her skin was a different shade. She looked down, her eyes widening as she recognized the black leather armor she was wearing.
'Callisto.' Charon's words about an empty vessel echoed in her head. 'He put me into Callisto.'
What confused her now was how Callisto could be dead. She was a god. The only way to kill her would be using the Hind's blood dagger, and Xena... she stopped and looked around.
Where was Xena?
Nearby, it turned out. The warrior was kneeling beside the pit where she had last seen Gabrielle, sobbing. Xena, crying? Gabrielle couldn't remember the last time she had seen that.
'I should go to her.' The blonde put her hands down flat on the floor and pushed herself up with one surprisingly easy motion. Her muscles hadn't even strained. This body really was strong . She clenched her fists and chuckled softly, as she felt the energy roiling within her.
Xena raised her head. Through a haze of tears she saw Callisto; standing, breathing, alive. Something within her snapped. Clenching the Hind's blood dagger tightly in her hand the warrior princess got up and lunged at Callisto, who held up her hands. "Xena, wait! No!" She side-stepped the blow easily enough, then grabbed Xena's arm when she went for another strike. "You don't want to do this!"
"Like Hades!" Xena jerked her hand out of Callisto's and spun around, dropping down to leg-sweep the blonde's feet out from under her. "I killed you once!" She held the dagger up. "I can do it again!" When she went to thrust it into Callisto's heart the goddess caught her wrist with both hands.
"Xena, please. I'm not who you think I am." Gabrielle was amazed that she could not move Xena's hand back any further. Either Xena was stronger than even she imagined, or else Callisto was less so.
"You're not the bitch who helped Dahak's spawn kill my son?"
Callisto shook her head. "No. This may sound crazy, in fact I know it will, but...I'm Gabrielle."
The sheer insanity of this statement threw Xena. She momentarily lost her grip, and Callisto took advantage, by shoving her hands aside and rolling out of the way. But the warrior was not caught off-guard for long, she flipped backwards and held the dagger up to ward off the attack...which never came.
"Xena." Callisto's arms remained at her sides. "It's me. I swear, by any god you name, that I am Gabrielle. Hades put me in this body because it was the only one available. He said he's going to try and find a way to get my body, my real body, back. But there's no telling how long that will take."
Xena hesitated. Callisto wasn't exactly known for being creative, except perhaps when killing people, and there was no reason she could think of for her to be making up such a ridiculous story. Still, she wasn't taking chances, and she certainly wasn't taking what Callisto said at face-value. "You're crazy."
"You lie as often as you breath. Why should I believe anything you say?"
"I don't know. If I were you I probably wouldn't believe me either. But I really am Gabrielle."
"Tell me something. Something that only Gabrielle and I would know."
"Aren't you supposed to ask me? Isn't that how this usually works?"
Xena frowned. "You're a god. I can't be sure you won't pull something if I give you the information first. So you tell me." The warrior made sure the dagger was ready to use at a moment's notice.
"Have it your way." Callisto crossed her arms. "Lets see, something only you and I would know? Oh, how about where we first met? The clearing outside of Potedaia, where Draco..."
Xena shook her head. "Everybody knows that story. Try again."
Gabrielle realized convincing her friend was going to be more difficult than she'd hoped. And it certainly didn't help matters that she was distracted herself every time she heard Callisto's voice coming from her mouth. "Okay, something more private then. How about how I lost my blood innocence? It was in Britannia. I killed Meridian to save Khraftstar, but it turned out he was working for Dahak all along."
Xena's eyes narrowed. At the time Callisto had been trapped in lava along with Velasca. She would not have any way of knowing about Britannia, except..."Hope."
"You were working for Hope. She was Dahak's child, and he probably told her about Meridian. Hope could have told Callisto about it too."
"By the gods, Xena! You can be so frustratingly stubborn!" That gave Gabrille an idea. "Just like the first time I kissed you. I mean, really kissed you. After that whole thing with Velasca. We were getting ready for bed, Ephiny had just left and I made some comment about you looking better alive than dead. You laughed, I laughed, and then I kissed you. You should have seen the expression on your face." The blonde smiled. "Kind of like the one you're wearing now."
The dagger in Xena's hand wavered slightly. Callisto had no way in Tartarus of knowing about that. But what she was saying was insane. Wasn't it? "Gabrielle?" The warrior stopped herself. "No! Look, if it really is you then tell me...when did you and I make love for the first time?"
Callisto smiled. "I thought you weren't going to ask me any questions?"
"Answer me!" Xena brandished the dagger.
"Okay, okay. Calm down." Callisto put her hands on her hips in a very Gabrielle-like manner. "It was a couple of days after our first real kiss, actually. We were still with the Amazons, and I was down at the river, bathing, when you snuck up from under the water. I thought you were mad at me about the kiss. Instead, you threw me down on the river bank and...well, let's just say the Amazons got quite an eye, and ear, full."
Xena let her arm drop. She and Callisto had once switched bodies thanks to Ares. It was certainly plausible that Hades could have done something similar. "Gabrielle? Is it really you?"
"You believe me?" Gabrielle smiled. "Thank the gods." Her eyes were filled with tears as she moved to embrace the warrior, who tensed but did not pull away. "Xena. I love you so much."
Xena could sense no malice whatsoever, coming from the woman she had once considered her worst enemy. It was most certainly not Callisto inside. "Oh Gabrielle. I was so sure I'd lost you."
"You did. But I'm back now. And Hades willing, I'll have my own body again soon too."
"Let's get out of here," said Xena. "I don't like this place."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know what you mean. Too many bad memories. Hope. Ares. Dahak."
Gabrielle put an arm around the warrior. "I'm just glad it's all over."
Elsewhere in Greece the god of war himself appeared--in a flash of thunder and lightning--in the middle of one of his few temples not touched by Dahak's followers. His priests sensed their lord's mood immediately and were practically knocking eachother down to get out of his way, while the infuriated Olympian dropped into his throne and tossed his head back.
"I do not believe this!" Ares gestured, and one of his statues transformed into the image of Gabrielle. "That plan was foolproof! How could this worthless little pissant of a bard screw it up?" He fired a lightning bolt, shattering the statue into a million pieces. "First she steals Xena from me..." He reformed the statue, then destroyed it for a second time. "...and then she ruins my chance to rule this pathetic mudball of a planet!"
Ares felt a wave of hot air pass through the temple, and then all of the torches lining the walls suddenly erupted into flames several times higher than normal. He leaped to his feet as the air in front of him started swirling into a column of fiery ash, which became like a vortex--sweeping up the remains of the Gabrielle statue. The war god looked on in amusement as one by one his priests were sucked out of their hiding places and dragged kicking and screaming into the vortex, where they were instantly burnt to a crisp.
Then the column collapsed in on itself, the vortex fizzled out, and the priests lifeless bodies fell to the floor at the feet of a small, obviously feminine figure in a long red robe. Pale hands slowly reached up and drew back the hood, unveiling a familiar face frame by locks of strawberry-blonde hair.
Ares' eyes widened. "Hope?"
"Hello, Ares." The daughter of Gabrielle had her mother's face and eyes, and a voice that made it sound like she was chewing on rocks. "Miss me?"
Ares stepped down off his throne, shaking his head. "This can't be. I saw you fall into the lava. You told me your body was mortal. How could you have survived?"
"I didn't. Technically. You're right, I did fall into the lava. Lava is fire." Hope smiled. "My father's embrace. You see, Dahak saved me. He allowed me to return again, as he did once before when my mother made the mistake of burning my body. Fire is part of my heritage, and it will always resurrect me."
"I see." Ares filed this information away for possible later use. "And why are you here, now?"
Hope touched her bulging belly. "We still have work to do. Our child is almost ready to be born."
"Yes. But only the first. Once all six are in place, and they have bathed in the blood of the fallen Olympians, my father can finally take his rightful place as ruler of this world."
Ares sneered. "I'll just have to keep you safe until then. After all, if someone were to kill you then Dahak would be completely cut off from the world, woldn't he?"
"Unfortunately." Hope stroked the war god's chest and smiled. "But then again, you'd never let anything like that happen to me, would you lover?"
Ares put an arm around her shoulders and shook his head. "Of course not."
They left the temple and traveled north until the sun went down, then stopped to make camp for the night. Xena unpacked Argo and brushed the horse down while Gabrielle dug a fire-pit.
"I usually do that."
The warrior nodded. "I know, and I appreciate it. But Argo's till trying to figure you out. You feel like Gabrielle to her, but you look and smell like Callisto."
With the power of her borrowed arms Gabrielle was able to dig a pit in only minutes. Her legs weren't even the slightest bit tired from all the walking either. "Xena?" She stood up and brushed herself off. Godhood didn't keep her from getting dirty, apparently. "I'm going to get some kindling."
"You want my sword? Or the chakram?"
"Neither. I'm gong to try another way." The blonde flexed her arms as she walked into the woods, searching for an appropriately large tree. "Ah hah." She found one with a trunk bigger around than she could reach her arms, and branches that were all thicker than her legs. "This'll do." She grabbed the lowest branch, which was so thick that it would probably have taken her nearly half an hour to cut with Xena's chakram, and pulled. With less effort than it took to draw a sword the branch snapped, and she caught it easily. "Whoa."
It looked like something Hercules might use as a club, and Gabrielle knew it had to be heavy, yet to her it didn't feel any heavier than her staff. She gasped. "My staff!" She had left it behind at the temple. It was one of her most prized possessions. "By the gods. I don't want to go back there." She felt a void forming in the air nearby, and saw a flash of light. The staff was now laying at her feet. She smiled. "I could get used to this."
Xena, now sitting by the empty fire-pit, looked up to see Callisto--no, Gabrielle she reminded herself--with an enormous branch in one hand, and her staff in the other. "Where'd that come from?"
Gabrielle sat down across from the warrior. "I just kind of thought about it, and it appeared."
"That certainly makes things easier, doesn't it?" Xena dug into one of her the saddlebags while Gabrielle started breaking the branch into more manageable pieces. "Damn it!"
"No flint." Xena arched an eyebrow. "Think you could zap us up some?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No. I knew where the staff was and it came to me. I have no idea how to make things out of thin air." Her eyes widened. "Except one. Fire."
"I've seen Callisto do it plenty of times. How hard could it be?" Gabrielle pointed her hand at the pit but nothing happened. "Okay. Maybe I just have to concentrate more." Her brow furrowed as she focused, thinking about fire, but when there was still no reaction she felt herself getting ngry. "Why won't this...work?!" Flames erupted from her fingertips and ignited the kindling. The results proved to be more explosive than she was expecting though, it sent a fireball several feet into the air and forced them both to scatter out of the way. Once she remembered that fire could not hurt her she calmed down, but was still embarrassed. "Oops."
Xena made a less than happy face as she slapped the front of her leathers, which had been scorched. It appeared the flames had also singed several strands of her hair. "At least we have fire now."
"I said I'm sorry."
Later they dined, on a rabbit Xena caught, then lay around the fire and talked.
"So you killed Callisto?"
Xena nodded. "The way she was talking after you fell into the pit, I just couldn't control myself. I couldn't stand the thought of her running around loose when you were..."
"It sounds like you did the right thing. If she really did find a new reason for living, a new purpose, then she'd be even more dangerous than before."
"Plus if I hadn't killed her, you probably wouldn't be here now." Xena sighed. "I'm just sorry it had to be Callisto that Hades put you into."
"Callisto left a trail of blood throughout Greece. Sooner or later, we are bound to run into the family or friends of the people she killed. I know. I still do. And you'll get the same kind of treatment I do from time to time. They may curse at you, spit on you, or worse. Are you sure you can handle that?"
The blonde shrugged her shoulders. "Do I have a choice?"
"Yes, actually. We can go away. Out of Greece. Where no one knows Callisto. Maybe a cruise?"
"Me? On a boat?"
"I don't think you have to worry about getting seasick anymore."
"That is true."
Xena lay down and pulled the blanket over her. "It's something to think about."
"I know. And I will." Gabrielle watched the warrior closer her eyes. "Good night, Xena."
Gabrielle was not the slightst bit tired. In fact, just the opposite. There was energy boiling inside her, trying to get out. She stared at her hands, which had actually generated fire earlier, wondering if this was how Ares and the other Olympians felt every day. "I should write about this!" She thought about her scrolls and one appeared in her lap. "Yes, I could definitely get used to that."
When Xena woke the next morning, just after dawn as usual, she yawned and reached toward the bedroll next to her to wake her companion. But the bedroll was empty, and as the warrior sat up she realized the blankets had not even been touched. There was a folded piece of parchment laying there though.
I went down to the river. If you want
to join me, we can have fish for breakfast.
The warrior stood up and stretched. "Fish for breakfast? Sounds good."
But when she got down to the river there was no sign of Gabielle. Until she noticed Callisto's armor and boots sitting on the ground near a tree, which meant Gabrielle had to be somewhere close by. She certainly wouldn't be walking around the woods naked.
Xena kneeled at the waters edge to wash her face. She wasn't worried--after all what could hurt her friend while she was in Callisto's body--just confused. Gabrielle's note said she was going to the river, so where was she? The warrior stood up and looked around. "Gabrielle? Can you hear me?"
There was no response, but Xena did sense something. A presence, on the very edge of her consciousness. She felt something similar, though more intense, when Ares was around. The warrior heard splash behind her and was turning just as a figure surfaced. Callisto, naked and soaking wet.
"Gabrielle? What were you doing?"
The blonde rung her hair out. "Xena, this is incredible. I don't have to breath!"
"I just counted to a thousand underwater, and I feel fine. You should try this, Xena. Hey, do you think maybe we could find you some more ambrosia?"
Xena was amused by her friend's enthusiasm, but tried not to show it. "No."
"Spoil-sport. Oh! I just remembered." Gabrielle bent down and pulled up two fish on a string. "Breakfast! See? I told you I could do it."
"You caught those yourself?"
"No, I had Poseidon stop by and do it for me. Of course I caught them myself. Xena, my speed and reflexes are so much better now. I just think it and it happens."
Xena peeled off her leathers and sat her sword on the bank, within easy reach, then waded into the river. "I'm so happy for you. But right now, I need a bath."
"I know. You smell like Argo." Gabrielle recoiled at Xena's glare. "Sorry. Nose is enhanced too. Look, you take your time here. I'm going to start breakfast."
Xena waited until the bard was dressed and on her way before she spoke again. "Gabrielle?"
"Try not to burn the forest down, okay?"
Xena fell back into the water laughing, while Gabrielle just shook her head. "Great. Just great." She mumbled to herself as she was walking away. "Now she thinks she's a warrior comedian."
Shortly after breakfast they headed out again, with no particular destination in mind. But for a change they were actually talking about where they were going.
"Gaul?" asked Xena.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No."
"How about the land of the pharaohs then? I hear Cleopatra throws a wild party."
"It's tempting, but no."
"By the gods, no! I don't ever want to set foot in that place again! You want to go to Britannia, Xena? That's fine by me. But you'll be going alone."
"It was just a thought. Okay. What about Chin?"
Gabrielle stopped and made a face. One that looked especially odd coming from Callisto. "Xena, do you want a chakram shoved up your..."
"Fine! Then where do you want to go?"
"Why do we have to go anywhere? I'm not afraid of few bad words. Let them yell, curse or spit. I'll deal with it and move on. That's a part of life."
Xena shook her head. "I have to admit you've changed in these last few years Gabrielle, and I don't just mean on the outside. You're not that little girl I met in Poteadia anymore."
"I know. Could that little girl do this?" Gabrielle turned and shot a bolt of flame from her hand. It ignited a bush and would have set fire to the underbrush around it if the blonde did not wave her hand and cause the fire to fizzle out. She smiled at the expression on Xena's face. "I've been practicing."
Gabrielle frowned. "There's still one of Callisto's powers I haven't been able to figure out."
"The thing she and Ares and the other gods do, where they go from one place to another in the blink of an eye. I want to do that too, but I have no idea how to make it work."
"Maybe you're trying too hard."
"No, I think there's a trick to it that I'm mssing. I can bring things to me, so..."
"That could be it."
"Remember what you said about the staff? That you were only able to bring it to you because you knew where it was? The same could be true of your moving yourself around. Ares and Aphrodite and the other Olympians, might not have the same limitation since they were born to this stuff, but maybe you have to be really familiar with the place you want to go. At least until you get used to using the power. Concentrate on some place like your house in Potedaia or the Amazon camp where Ephiny is."
Gabrielle nodded. "Okay." Her brow furrowed. "I've got it! What about..." Her eyes widened, just before she was swallowed up by a pillar of flames and disappeared.
Xena blinked. "See?"
Back in Ares' temple, the war god stood back and watched in stern silence as three specially selected midwives tended to Hope. The daughter of Dahak was thrashing around on his altar, screaming, as the mass within her belly moved first one way and then the other.
"Soon," Ares hissed. "Very soon."
Cyrene was pouring mead for a patron in her tavern when a pillar of flame suddenly erupted in the center of the room. Tables and chairs were overturned as people scrambled to get out of the way while the owner herself went quickly behind her counter and grabbed a sword.
A black leather-clad, blonde-haired figure appeared within the flames. They dwindled away, while the woman in question opened her eyes and smiled. "It worked!"
"Callisto!" Cyrene cautiously stepped out from behind the counter brandishing the sword. "What in the name of all the gods are you doing here?"
"Cyrene, it's me."
"I know who you are witch! I'd never forget that face. Xena's told me how you became a god, but I don't care. I'll be damned if I'm going to let you hurt anyone in this village again."
Gabrielle shook her borrowed head. "No, Cyrene, you don't understand. I'm not Callisto. I'm Garielle."
"Is that a fact? So last time you and my daughter switched places. Now it's you and her friend? What's wrong? Is it really that uncomfortable in your own skin?"
"Look, I know how hard this is for you to believe Cyrene. But it really is me. Gabrielle. See, Callisto and I both died recently. Hades let me return to life, but ended up having to put me into Callisto's body until he could find a way to get mine back." The blonde stopped and shook her head. "By the gods. Hearing it said outloud now, I know it's the truth and I'm not sure I believe it."
"That makes two of us," said Cyrene. "Get out of my tavern!"
Gabrielle frowned. "You Amphipolis women. Look, that sword can't hurt me anyway. So please, put it down and let's just talk like civilized people, okay?"
"Only if you promise not to hurt anyone else in Amphipolis. If you're here to play some sort of sick game or to get someone to use against Xena, take me and leave the others out of it."
"I'm not..." The blonde sighed. "Fine. I promise I will not harm anyone in Amphipolis."
Cyrene lowered her sword. "Let's go in the back. Alina, watch the counter for me will you?" A pretty young girl near the bar nodded, while the tavern owner directed Callisto into a back storage area and closed the door behind them. "Okay. Talk. What could you possible have to say to me?"
It took Gabrielle less time to convince Cyrene of who she was than it had her daughter. The blonde just brought up a very private and rather embarrassing conversation the two of them had during that period Xena and Callisto's bodies had been switched--which involved sex--and Cyrene stopped her about halfway through.
She then touched the face of the woman who had tried to kill her not so long ago. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm sorry I just popped in. I'm still trying to get a sense of what Callisto's body can do. I thought of a place I was familiar with, and somehow I just ended up here."
Gabrielle's eyes wideed. "Oh gods! I'd better get back to her. She's going to be worried."
"Is everything okay? Between the two of you, I mean?"
"Of course. Why do you ask?"
"I just remember how hard it was on you both when it was Xena in Callisto's body. I can't imagine it's any easier now that the situation is reversed."
"It's not. But we're making do." Gabrielle hugged the older woman. "Good-bye, Cyrene."
"Good-bye, Gabrielle. Give my love to Xena."
"I will." The bard thought about Xena and where she had last seen her, and was engulfed in flames.
Xena was sitting against a tree, sharpening her sword, while Argo grazed nearby. She felt a familiar tingling and looked up just as Gabrielle reappeared out of a pillar of fire.
The blonde dropped her arms and smiled.
"Welcome back." Xena stood up and sheathed her sword. "Where'd you go?"
"Amphipolis, actually." The warrior arched an eyebrow. "I don't know. I was trying to think of a place I knew and for some reson, Cyrene's tavern just popped into my head. So I went with it."
"Did you see my mother?"
Gabrielle nodded. "She's fine. She sends her love, by the way."
"Good. It's past mid-day now and I know this area. There are no good animals for miles." She whistled for Argo, and then climbed up on the horse's back. "There's a village a few miles ahead. Why don't we go there and stock up on supplies, then decide where we're headed next?"
"Sounds good. Hey, do you want me to..."
Xena shook her head. "I prefer to walk, thanks. You can zap on ahead if you want. We should catch up to you, in about an hour or so."
"That's okay. The whole thing makes me feel light-headed anyway."
Ares returned to his temple, after having spent half the day on Olympus.
He had been called to an urgent meeting of all the gods, where the Fates told a distressing tale that Dahak's evil was not eradicated after all. Zeus ordered Poseidon, Hades, and Hera, his eldest siblings, into the private council chambers, while his offspring were told to stay on-guard.
The war god was relieved they didn't suspect his involvement with Dahak. Nor did they seem to be aware of the fact Hope was in his temple. He told Athena, goddess of war, he would be busy for the next several days planning a big battle and didn't want to be disturbed. She, in turn, agreed to assign some of his lesser duties to Discord and Terror, who had taken over for Strife.
Ares smelled the invigorating scent of blood and death, though not the presence of his aunt Celeste--who was the physical manifestation of death. He was thankful for that, at least, as she would no doubt have informed her older brother Hades of who and what was in the temple. The war god stumbled upon the tattered, bloody remains of the three midwives in the throne room and found Hope sprawled across the throne itself. She was sweaty and bloody herself, but had a look of contentment on her flushed face.
"I trust all is well?" "What in the name of...me, happened here?"
"Our son," Hope replied. "The Destroyer was quite famished when he emerged, and since his birth was at an end I saw no further need for the midwives. You weren't fond of them, were you?"
Ares shook his head. "Not particularly, though mom might have something to say about their disappearance. I'll just deny everything, as usual."
"So where is the little bundle of joy?"
"Right behind you," said Hope. "Though I'd hardly call him little."
Ares turned, and for the first time in a long time the god of war truly knew fear as he looked up into the face of a monster. He actually took a step back as his offspring snarled at him.
The beast, for he could think of no other word to describe it, easily stood four or five heads taller than him and was far broader and more massive than any warrior under his command. Its hide was the color and consistency of slate, with several rows of dagger-like spines running the length of its back and arms. Two wicked-looked blades, each as long as swords, curved out of his elbows and over its huge, clawed hands. Its head was wide and oval, with more spines, a huge toothy maw and tiny red eyes.
"Say hello to daddy," said Hope. "Be very still, Ares. Those blades can kill even you."
"Impossible. I'm a god."
"It doesn't matter. The Destroyer is just that. He can destroy you, me, anyone with a divine origin. His body can also absorb any of the energies your kin may use against him and become stronger. Trust me, our son is uniquely suited to the task at hand." Hope lay her head back and smiled. "With his siblings in place, no one on Olympus, or any other pantheons of pathetic gods in this world will have a chance against us." The child of Dahak laughed, and soon so did her monstrous offspring, though it was clearly just parroting her.
Ares, though, had a look of cautious concern on his face.
Xena and Gabrielle were on the road to Athens.
They had no specific plans. That just happened to be the direction they were going, until something came along to change their minds. Something usually did.
Gabrielle sighed. "You take all the fun out of this game when you guess it after only five tries."
"Sorry. But how many white-haired warriors do we know?"
"I don't feel like playing anymore anyway."
"When did you suddenly become such a sore loser?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, it's not that. We don't have time for this. We're about to be ambushed. I can hear armor rattling in the trees around us."
"I know. Three more have been following us since we passed the flat rock a ways back."
"Do you think they're after you or me? I mean, Callisto?"
"Maybe. Most likely they're just robbers."
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder. She couldn't see anyone but she was able to hear the sounds of three other sets of footsteps now. "So what do you want to do?"
"I'll be the distraction..." Xena swatted Argo on the rump, urging the horse out of the line of fire. "...and you can sneak up on them."
"Me?" The blonde smiled. "That's a switch. Thanks." She was swallowed up by flames.
Xena, meanwhile, drew her sword and waited. It wouldn't be long. The would-be robbers were doubtless getting really concerned and confused by now. She and Gabrielle had not yet come around the corner like they expected, and now they were probably wondering where the blonde was.
"You'll find out soon enough." A half dozen men jumped out of the trees in front of her, while three more came from behind. The warrior took stock of their worn, dirty armor and rusty swords, and came to the conclusion that they were not very good bandits. "Hello, boys."
"Told you she saw us," said one of the ones in the rear.
"Yeah," said another. "But where's her friend? The blonde? I didn't see her take off."
The biggest, ugliest, and dirtiest of the men, whose horned helmet tacitly identified him as the leader, gestured with his sword. "It's been a real bad year for us, lady. So make it easy on yourself. Give us your armor, that pretty sword, and any gold you might be carrying. And maybe we'll let you off easy."
Xena looked him right in the eye. "And if I refuse?"
"Then we'll still take the armor, the sword, and the gold, you'll just be in a lot more pain."
One of the men grunted. "I'd rather have what's between those long legs of hers."
Flames erupted behind him, and Gabrielle sneered. "Men are such pigs." She tapped him, lightly, in the head and he went down like a stone. The other two men made unintelligible sounds and charged at her. She ducked a sword and punched the man wielding it in the stomach, knocking him into the trees. But the other man got lucky and put his sword through her back. The tip came out her chest, right between her breasts.
"Gabrielle!" Xena was momentarily distracted, and two of the other men jumped on her. One slapped the swod out of her hands, while other two kicked her legs out from under her. But even as she went down she tucked both arms under her head and spun herself around. She drove the heels of both boots into the groin of the nearest man with enough force to crack something, and even as he dropped to his knees, shrieking in pain, she flipped back to her feet and jump-kicked the other man in the face.
Gabrielle glanced down at the sword sticking out of her chest. Surprisingly, it didn't hurt at all, and it wasn't any more difficult to breath either. So she turned to face the wide-eye man behind her. "You know, it's not nice to hit a lady when she isn't looking." She backhanded him, and he went flying back into a tree. He slid to the ground, out cold. "Unfortunately for you, I never claimed to be a lady."
Three more men came at Xena. She was unarmed, so she kicked the sword of the man laying at her feet into the stomach of one of her attackers, doubling him over. Then with a ululating battle cry she steppd up onto his back, threw herself into a spin in mid-air, and took out the other two guys at once. She landed in front of the leader and punched the man beside him in the face, knocking him out as well. "Hi."
Gabrielle, still with the sword sticking through her, walked up behind the warrior. "You guys really are not very good at this, are you? Maybe you should consider another line of work."
"W-Wh...what are you?" The gang leader was literally shaking in his boots as he dropped his sword.
"Just travelers," said Xena. "Who've better things to do than play tag with idiots like you. So do yourselves a big favor." She violently sheathed her sword. "Go...home!" The men who were still conscious gathered up their fallen comrades and limped away as the warrior turned to her friend. "Are you all right?"
The blonde nodded. "I was kind of afraid they would mess up the armor, but it's lucky for me Callisto doesn't wear a whole lot." She touched the blade of the sword. "Still...this doesn't do a whole lot for my image, and I can't actually reach the hilt. Would you mind?"
"Oh, right." Xena grabbed the sword and jerked it out all at once. She could see the flesh mending even as it was being perforated again. "And you don't feel a thing?"
"It was tingling, a little, but I've had worse papyrus cuts." Gabrielle rubbed her flat belly. "Thanks."
Xena tossed the sword aside and whistled for Argo.
"I think you're being too hasty."
Ares sneered. "And I don't remember asking for your opinion. I'm the god of war! This is what I do!"
"No, you do what Dahak tells you to!" Hope poked him in the chest. "Don't forget, you're not a partner here. My loyalty is to my father, and he says we wait. So we wait!"
Ares pointed at the Destroyer, which at the moment was knocking over one of his statues. "That...thing can take care of everyone on Olympus right now, and you're telling me to wait?"
The war god clenched his fists. "You now, I've had just about enough of you and Dahak!"
"Watch your tongue, Ares. You're not the only god around, you know. Any one of the others would side with us in a second if it meant surviving Dahak's purge." Hope ran her hands up and down her body. "Not to mention these great perks. A chance to be with this body, and to father a new race of titans?"
"Don't say that word." Ares grabbed Hope by the throat. "In fact, don't say anything at all!"
"Ares!" Hope couldn't breath, and her words came out even more hoarse than usual. "What are...you doing?" His hand tightened, and she was starting to see stars. She couldn't concentrate enough to use her powers, and she was suddenly very scared. "Father! Help me! Please!" Every torch in the place erupted into flames. It got the attention of the Destroyer, who stuck his finger in some of them and smiled as it tickled his flesh. The ground shook and a thunderous roar shook the room. "F-Father..." Her vision started to go black.
Ares smiled "I finally figured it out, you see. You're his conduit. His power flows through you, at least until all six of his great-granchildren have been born. Until then he can not manifest, physically, on Earth so if something happens to you beforehand he loses out. His power fades as your life ends. He can't touch me. But I can certainly touch you." With a flick of his wrist he snapped Hope's neck, and everything stopped. The torches went out and it got eeriely quiet, except for the sounds of the Destroyer's heavy breathing. "You were good my dear, but we both know this relationship was doomed. As soon as you had your six Destroyers, there would be no more need for me. I would be the first Olympian to get 'purged' I imagine." He turned and walked toward the monstrous creature. "The only thing I regret, is missing out on the power of six of these big beasties. One will have to do. At least I know I don't have to worry about any interference from you or Dahak."
The Destroyer turned as Ares approached him. He saw the lifeless body of Hope in the war god's arms, and felt nothing. It had no soul, no feelings other than anger which could be molded, focused and used to the advantage of whoever was in charge. Ares held Hope's body up to the creature. "Hungry?"
"I'm still not so sure about this."
Xena and Gabrielle were in Athens, on their way to the section of the city where the temples were located. The few people who reacted to Callisto's presence, who pointed or whispered, backed down or turned away whenever the warrior glared at them.
"We need to find out how much longer you're going to be in that body."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know. But Ares? Why do we have to come all this way to talk to him?"
"Because, there are no temples to Hades that I know of. And since I don't particularly feel like swimming to the underworld right now, this is our only way to get in contact with him."
"What about Hercules? They're related. Can't he just call out to Hades or something?"
"Maybe, but he's not here and it would take longer to find him than do this." Xena stopped, and put a hand on the blonde's shoulder. "Look, Gabrielle. I don't like this anymore than you. But as much as it pains me to say this, we need Ares right now. He can put us in touch with Hades, and as long as we contact Ares in his temple he'll be less confrontational. Besides, I've still got the Hind's blood dagger. Trust me."
"Maybe, but he's not here and it would take longer to find him than do this." Xena stopped, and put a hand on the blonde's shoulder. "Look, Gabrielle. I don't like this anymore than you. But as much as it pains me to say this, we need Ares right now. He can put us in touch with Hades, and as long as we contact Ares in his temple he'll be less confrontational. Besides, I've still got the Hind's blood dagger. Trust me."
"You I trust. It's him I'm worried about." Nevertheless, Gabrielle followed the warrior into the temple. "Look at this place. All these tapestries and renderings. Ares sure is proud of himself."
"They all do. I think the overinflated ego comes with godhood."
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"You're not a real god," Xena corrected. "Neither was Callisto. Ares and his clan have been around for hundreds of years, or more, and that's got to have an impact on your personality. Plus, bear in mind he's not human. Ares is basically a force of nature given form, though he often acts like a spoiled brat."
Thunder and lightning crashed and Ares appeared--sprawled across his throne. "Now, now, is that a nice thing to say about your mentor?"
"I knew you'd show up sooner or later," said Xena. "I could smell you coming."
"Flatterer." Ares lurched to his feet when he saw the blonde. "Callisto? How could you be here? I saw Xena kill you with my own eyes."
Gabrielle smiled. "Looks can be deceiving. I'm not who you think I am."
"Is that right?" Ares leaned in a little closer, and saw something in Callisto's eye that startled him. He took a big step back and gasped. "Gabrielle? How did you get into Callisto?" He shook his head. "No, let me guess. Hades is involved in this whole thing isn't he? I'd know my uncle's handiwork anywhere."
"You're smarter than you look," said Xena. "Of course you'd have to be, wouldn't you?"
Ares sneered. "I'm so glad you stopped by. Both of you. There's someone here I'd like you to meet." He pointed and they turned to see the monstrous shape of the Destroyer as he swept aside two statues and stepped out of the shadows, blood on his lips and claws. He growled.
"By the gods!" Gabrielle backed away. "What is that?"
"My son," Ares replied. "And, incidently, your grandson. The Destroyer."
Xena shook her head. "That's impossible. Hope was killed before she ever gave birth."
"Wrong again. She was saved by Dahak. He sent her to me and I hid her until she had junior here."
"So where's Hope now?" Xena asked. "Resting up after your latest tryst?"
Ares chuckled. "Oh, she's resting all right. Permanently. I got tired of her lording Dahak over me, when I knew I could do so much better on my own. So, I killed her. And this time, she won't be coming back. The time of Dahak has passed. It's just me and the Destroyer now. Isn't that right, son?"
The creature nodded.
Gabrielle didn't know whether to cry or scream. She had given her life to stop Hope, and Dahak, and to save her best friend. Now it looked like it was all for nothing.
Xena sized up the beast. "Destroyer, huh? It doesn't look so tough to me."
The creature lowered his head and grunted, then suddenly, almost casually, backhanded the warrior. Xena never saw it coming. Though merely a glancing blow it struck her chestplate hard enough to crack it almost in two. The warrior was knocked across the room, and crashed into the far wall with enough force to leave a vague imprint of her body before sliding to the ground, unconscious.
Ares laughed. "That's my boy."
Gabrielle fought back the urge to rush to her friend's side, and instead turned to face the Destroyer. As worried as she was about the warrior, she knew she would never be able to do anything to help her while this monster was looming over them both. She gritted her teeth.
"It's your turn Gabrielle," said Ares. "But you'd better make it quick, because junior here's worked himself up an appetite. And you're both at the top of his menu."
The Destroyer took a step toward Gabrielle and, without even thinking about it, she took another step back. The beast was huge. Then she stopped herself, remembering Xena was counting on her, steeled her nerves and started rubbing her hands together. It didn't take much concentration to find the anger within this time--what happened to Xena was more than enough to get her blood bubbling.
Gabrielle produced a bolt of fire from each hand. They washed over the Destroyer, who spread his arms and let out a howl. To her shock the flames did no discernable damage as they were absorbed into the monster's hide and gave his already massive physique a few more inhuman bulges of muscle. After a moment or two, he lowered his head and sneered at the wide-eyed blonde.
"Nice try," said Ares. "Care to have another go?"
Gabrielle did so, only this time she tried something more powerful--lightning. It took more concentration than the fire but soon enough the air sizzled with bolts of pure energy, and the thrill of channeling so much raw power was invigorating. It made her skin tingle as it arced across the room, striking the Destroyer's chest and spreading across his entire body with enough voltage to electrocute dozens of men. Again the creature howled, and again it received no real damage. Like the fire it was soon absorbed into him.
"In case you haven't figured it out yet, you can't hurt him," said Ares. "No god can." He smiled. "But he can most certainly hurt you. Show her, boy!"
Once more the Destroyer barely seemed to move, other than swinging his ape-like arm in a wide arc. The blade extending from his elbow sliced clean through Callisto's armor and tore into the flesh underneath. The impact of the strike sent her plummeting head over heels backwards, where she hit the ground and finally slid to a stop, her chest throbbing and her mind reeling in confusion.
"W-What...happened? I thought gods were supposed to be invulnerable?"
Ares shook his head. "Not to him. Just think of those blades as Hind's blood daggers, except that unlike the real thing you need more than just a glancing blow."
Ares shook his head. "Not to him. Just think of those blades as Hind's blood daggers, except that unlike the real thing you need more than just a glancing blow."
Gabrielle lurched to her feet and looked down at her chest. Her breasts were bared and there was a gash at least two hands long between them, going nearly from her neck to her navel. The flesh around it had swollen, but there was no blood and the pain was already starting to go away.
Ares leered at the half-naked bard. "You know, I think I'm beginning to get what Xena sees in you."
Gabrielle didn't bother to cover herself. It wasn't important right now, and it was too late anyway. She rushed to Xena's side and threw her arms over the warrior. "Hang on," she said quietly. "I'll get us out of this!" Fire engulfed the two of them and they disappeared from the temple.
Gabrielle was so desperate to get herself and Xena away from the Destroyer, that she had not given any thought to where they were going She had no particular destination in mind, which meant it was random; they could quite literally have ended up anywhere she had ever been. So after the two of them rematerialized she opened her eyes, and found her surroundings both pleasing and somewhat surprising.
They were on the ground, in front of a statue to the goddess Artemis. Her subconcious had landed them right in the middle of the Amazon community. The handful of women in the area were so startled by their arrival that, for a few moments at least, they did nothing but stare. At length a single young woman, a redhead wearing the garb of a warrior-in-training, drew her sword and stepped forward.
"Halt! Identify yourself at once!
Gabrielle nodded and rose slowly, her hands held out, palms up. It was sign of acquiescence which any Amazon in the community would be able to recognize. "I am...well, it's complicated. But I can clear this whole thing up, if you'll just take me to see Ephiny."
The mention of their Queen's name spurred all the Amazons in the immediate vicinity into action. Over a dozen grabbed their weapons and encircled the blonde, whose face was uknown to them. They either didn't see, or didn't recognize, Xena, who was still laying unconscious on the ground behind her. All they knew was that a woman had appeared out of thin air in the middle of their supposedly secure camp and was calling for their Queen. Velasca's rise to godhood was still a recent memory for some, a scary story for others, and it didn't take much supposition for them to imagine something like that had happened again.
"Drop your sword," the redhead commanded.
Gabrielle recalled her name as being Mina. "Okay." She decided cooperation was called for in this situation. Or else she might end up having to fight the entire Amazon tribe, and many of them were her friends. "I will." Slowly she drew the sword from its place on her back and tossed it aside, then removed the half dozen daggers she could feel in various places on Callisto's ody. "But I still need to speak to Ephiny."
"So speak." The Queen herself--Regent really, since Gabrielle was still technically Queen--stepped through the crowd and crossed her arms. At her sides were her two closest friends and advisors, Eponin and Solari. "But, you better watch your tongue. My warriors have the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later."
It was then Gabrielle noticed the bows and crossbows being leveled at her. "Look, Eph..."
"Wait. I know you don't I?" Ephiny's eyes widened. "You're...Callisto! Guards! Everyone! Back away!" In a flurry of activity the Amazons did as they were told. "She's a god!" Murmurs rippled through the crowd, as cries of "Not again!" and "Like Velsaca?" passed from woman to woman, warrior to warrior.
Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not Callisto. I mean, yes this is Callisto's body, and yes you do know her, but it's not her inside." She took a deep breath. "I'm Gabrielle."
A number of the Amazons laughed. Ephiny was not one of them. "How dare you! Gabrielle is my friend and our Queen! You're the monster who tried to murder our children!" The Queen-Regent drew her own sword. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't bring the full wrath of the Amazons down on you!"
"Because it wouldn't do any good." Xena sat up, the two sides of her chestplate falling away. "Like you said, she is a god. You'd just be wasting your time."
Ephiny started, as if seeing the warrior for the first time. "Xena?" She watched Callisto offer a supportive hand, help Xena up, and put an arm around the warrior to support her. "But, you hate Callisto. So she's telling the truth? That really is Gabrielle in there?"
Ephiny chewed on her lip for a moment, then nodded. "I've been through too much not to take you at your word, Xena." She turned to 'Callisto'. "I'm sorry for doubting you, Gabrielle."
"It's okay. I've been getting that reaction a lot lately."
"Lower your weapons," Ephiny ordered. "Our Queen has retured to us, though her face is different. Solari, you and Eponin go get the Queen's chamber ready for her and Xena." The two advisors nodded and rushed off. "Ready a feast! Tonight we celebrate!"
The girls and women clapped and cheered and went in different directions, each one of them knowing their task without having to be told. Everyone had a place in the community.
Xena's armor was ruined, but Ephiny got the tribe's smith to work on a new set. She promised it would be ready before they left and then Ephiny invited the duo back to her hut. They told her everything that had been happening the last couple of days, leaving the Queen-Regent stunned.
"So let me see if I understand. You died..." she said to Gabrielle. "...but Hades agreed to return you to life. Only he put you into Callisto's body instead of your own and you haven't heard from him since. How are you supposed to get back into your own body?"
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "I have no idea. Maybe I'm not. It's possile I'll be stuck in Callisto forever. I mentioned that to Xena, and you know what she said?"
"If it comes to that we'll deal with it." Xena was straddling a chair beside Gabrielle, holding a mug of ale. "Right now, I'm more concerned with this Destroyer."
"It was really that tough?" Ephiny asked.
Gabrielle nodded. "It knocked Xena out with one hit." Out of the corner of her eye she saw the warrior flinch at that. "And you saw what it did to me." She pulled down the front of the long Amazon tunic she was wearing--since Callisto's clothing had been ruined as well--to show a long, jagged scar. It no longer bothered her and she knew it would probably be gone by morning, but it was a sign of the Destroyer's power. "If it can do something like this, I don't imagine even the Olympians will have much of a chance against it."
Ephiny sighed. "I'm so glad I sent Xenon to visit his grandfather and the Centaurs. If this gets as bad as the thing did with Velasca..."
"It won't," said Xena. "We shouldn't have come here. We can't involve you in this. Any of you."
Gabrielle nodded. "Xena's right. Even all the Amazons and Centaurs together wouldn't have a chance against the Destroyer. No one does, unless we can find its weakness."
"And what if it doesn't have one?" Ephiny asked.
Xena frowned. "It must. Every living thing has a weakness. Even the gods."
The Destroyer watched with an expressionless face as Ares tore his own temple apart. He ripped down tapestry after tapestry, knocked over the last of the statues, and then blasted yet another whole in the back wall with a bolt of lightning. Still the creature did not move, though it did do something else.
Ares turned. This was the third time he had heard the Destroyer try to speak, but the first time any of the words were actually understandable. "What?"
The war god glared at him for a moment. "You can tell that?"
Ares fell into his throne and shook his head. "I'm mad because Xena got away. She knows about you and me and she got...away!" On the last word he threw another bolt of lightning.
It struck the Destroyer, who had moved into a position to intercept it at the last minute. The creature grunted as he absorbed the energy into his body. His arms and legs swelled with instantaneous muscle growth. "Why that is problem?" His voice was still coarse, but at least his words were clearer.
"You don't know Xena," said Ares. "Or else you wouldn't be asking that question. Each time she's given a chance to recover from a defeat she ends up coming back even stronger than before. That was one of the traits I admired in my warrior princess. But since she's opposing me now, it's damned frustrating."
"She...is nothing...to us...father."
Ares blasted a hole in the floor and snarled. "No, you don't get it! This is what Xena does! She always comes up with a way to win. No matter the odds."
"She has weakness."
"Her heart. She cares for the blonde one."
"The blonde one...you mean Gabrielle? What about her?"
"She is...Xena's weakness."
Ares arched an eyebrow. "You just gave me an idea." He started to laugh, and the Destroyer joined him. And for the first time, the war god got a sense the creature knew what it was doing.
Xena walked into the smith's hut, with Gabrielle and Ephiny right behind her.
"You asked for me?"
The Amazon blacksmith, a brunette even taller and broader in the shoulders than Xena, turned from the fire and wiped her forehead. "I'm Hannah. And yes. I finished your new armor."
"Aready?" Gabrielle asked. "That was fast."
"I had already started when the two of you arrived. It was meant to be a gift from the Amazons to Xena." Hannah swept back a curtain at the rear of the hut, and everyone gasped.
The design of the armor hanging from a cooling rod was exactly the same as Xena's old, exept that it had been forged from a strangely cool silver metal. Xena traced a finger along one of the circular patterns then turned and faced the smith. "This metal...where did you get it?"
Hannah blinked. "What?"
"It's obviously not bronze or iron." Xena's eyes narrowed. "In fact I've only seen metal like this once before, but that shouldn't be possible." She glared at the smith. "Where did you get it?"
"Xena, calm down," said Ephiny. "What's gotten into you?"
The warrior pointed at the silver breastplate. "That...is the metal of Hephaestus."
Gabrielle gasped, again. "What?"
"It's a top secret formula that Gabrielle and I destroyed all the samples of. There's no way you should be able to have any. So I'll ask you one more time...where did you get it?"
Hannah sighed. "From my forge. Where else?" Her beautiful Amazonian body disappeared--replaced instead by a dark-haired, leather-clad man with a scarred face and a bad limp.
"By Artemis!" Ephiny drew her sword. "Who are you? What have you done with Hannah?"
"No, not Artemis," said the man. "Though you're very close."
Gabrielle studied the armor, then gasped. "Hephaestus!" She nodded. "You are Hephaestus aren't you? Hercules described you perfectly."
The god of fire, forging and craftsmanship, among other things, bowed his head. "And you, present appearances aside, are Gabrielle. You know, they're still talking about you on Olympus."
"Why are you here?" Xena asked.
"Right to the point then? I can respect that. Okay. Hades sent me to apologize to you Gabrielle. He hasn't found any way to restore you to your original body yet." Hephaestus gestured toward the armor. "Then I heard the smith here...who is fine, by the way..." He glanced at Ephiny before continuing. "...she's just taking an unexpected nap in the middle of the day...saying you needed a new set, so I decided to give her a hand."
Gabrielle smiled. "Wow, Xena. It's incredible, isn't it?"
"It's not the only thing I brought," said Hephaestus. "My sister, Artemis, asked me if I'd make something for you too, Gabrielle. Since you are her Queen and you did help save the world and all." He snapped his fingers and a set of clothing similar to the ones she wore in her real body appeared beside Xena's armor. "I call it...armail. It looks and feels just like normal material but will stretch and conform to your body--whichever body you end up in, that is--and it's stronger than chainmail. It also can't be cut or burnt by anything short of a sword made from my metal or, I suspect, Xena's chakram. So you better not get on her bad side."
"Speaking of bad sides," said Xena. "I think we're all about to be on Ares'." She and Gabrielle told Hephaestus of the Destroyer, Ares, what it had easily been able to do to Callisto's body and what Ares said to them about Dahak and Hope. "Assuming he's telling the truth about any of it, of course."
Hephaestus' face was even more grim by the time they finished. "Oh, he is. Though I wasn't sure even I believed it until just now. Zeus put Olympus on high alert after the Fates said Dahak is gone, but an evil nearly as great has arisen in his place. Backed by one of our own."
"Can the gods stop it?" Gabrielle asked. "Will they even try?"
"You'd better hope so, for the sake of the world." Hephaestus turned and disappeared.
Ephiny shook her head. "What is it with you and gods, Xena?"
Later that evening after dinner Xena lay on the bed staring at the ceiling while Gabrielle undressed nearby. The blonde couldn't help noticing the unusually stern look on her friend's face.
"What's the matter?"
The warrior blinked and lifted her head, as if she was hearing her for the first time. "What?"
"Something's obviously bothering you. What is it?"
"Are you serious? Ares. The Destroyer. Maybe the end of the world?"
The blonde nodded. "I know, but we've got the Olympians on our side now. Without Dahak to worry about, Zeus and the others can go after Ares and his...spawn."
"Yes. But will they? You said the Destroyer absorbed your powers. What makes you think it won't be able to do the same thing with any of the Olympians?"
Gabrielle frowned. "So you're saying, what? That we should just give up? That it's hopeless? Come on Xena. I'm not buying it. I know you better than that. There has to be a way."
"Maybe. But maybe not. We've never fought anything like this creature, Gabrielle."
"You think I don't know that?" The blonde turned, letting her tunic fall to the floor. She caressed the now fading scar on her chest. "Don't forget, he hurt me too."
"Aww...that looks painful. Tell you what." Xena smirked. "Why don't I kiss it and make it better?"
Without another word, Gabrielle joined the warrior on the bed.
Early the next morning, Xena and Gabrielle emerged from Hannah's hut clad in the armor Hephaestus had made for them. She had looked them over and been duly impressed by the god' skill. She wasn't even angry that he had used his powers on her, thought it was likely she wouldn't have said anything even if she was. The Amazons were, as a general rule, very respectful of the gods.
"I've never felt anything like this," said Gabrielle. "My old clothes weren't this comfortable."
"Mine either." Xena shifted her body from side to side, noting that her new armor was lighter and fit better, and she knew from personal experience how strong Hephaestus' metal was. "The next bandits who try to attack us are in for a rude surprise." She smiled, slightly, and Gabrielle did too.
The next instant the blonde cried out and fell to her knees, clutching at her head as tears of pain streamed down her face. She seemed to be in agony.
"Gabrielle?" Xena couldn't see or hear anything that might be hurting her friend. "What is it?"
"I feel...so much pain...the blood...it's..." Gabrielle gasped. "Lila!"
Xena frowned. "Your sister? What about her?"
"She's in dager! Something's happening in Potedaia!" Gabrielle lurched to her feet. "I have to go! I have to help my family!"
Xena grabbed the blonde's hand. "Then I'm coming with you."
"Hang on!" Gabrielle swept her hand around and the two of them were engulfed in flames.
Potedaia itself was in flames when Xena and Gabrielle arrived.
It was a war zone. Many buildings were on fire or had been burnt down all together, and the stench of death was in the air. Bodies littered the streets, and walls were soaked in fresh blood.
"Oh gods." Gabrielle paled. "Oh gods, no. What happened?"
Xena's eyes narrowed. "I think I know." She drew her sword. "Show yourself you bastard!"
Gabrielle felt it too now and angrily turned in the direction where Ares appeared a moment later. "You son of a bitch!" The blonde threw a fireball that Ares ducked. "Monster! How can even you do this?"
"Hey, you've got the wrong god. I'm here strictly as an observer." Behind and above Ares, the Destroyer stepped into view atop the roof of a building. "He's the monster here."
"This is sick," Xena hissed. "Even for you. Why did you do this? These people were harmless."
"Clearly. Most hardly even put up a fight at all." Ares glanced over his shoulder. "What was the name of that one farmer? The one who hit you with the pick-axe? Oh yes, Herodotus."
Gabrielle gasped. "My...father?"
"That's right." Ares shook his head. "Poor dumb fool didn't know when to quit. I told him we weren't going to do anything to his daughter, but he and his wife attacked junior anyway." He glanced up at the Destroyer. "Tell Gabby here what happened to her parents, son."
The Destroyer rubbed his belly. "They were delicious."
Gabrielle didn't know whether to cry, scream, or throw lightning. None of them would have been very effective under the circumstances. "And my sister? What did you do to Lila?"
Acquiescing to his father's command, the Destroyer brught his hand out from behind his back. He was holding the bruised and bloody body of Lila, Gabrielle's younger sister. It was impossible to tell if she was still alive. He lifted her high above his head. "Father? Wanna play catch?"
Gabrielle screamed. "No!" She disappeared one instant and reappeared the next right beside the Destroyer. "Let her go! Please! Don't do this, please! Let her go!"
The Destroyer smiled. "Okay." He tossed Lila away from the building with one hand, and with the other grabbed the blonde by the throat so she could not go after her sister.
But as fast as he was, Xena was just a little faster. She charged at Ares and dropkicked him in the chest. Even as the war god staggered back, just barely remaining on his feet, she used him as a springboard to throw herself into a high-arced backflip that brought her into position to catch Lila.
The Destroyer, seeing this, snarled.
Gabrielle realized he was distracted, even if it was just momentarily, and used both hands to pry his fingers just far enough apart to slip out of his grip. She disappeared in a pillar of flames.
Xena, meanwhile, drew the Hind's blood dagger.
Ares saw this and shook his head. "I don't think so." He disappeared too.
But the warrior was not deterred. She spun around and threw the dagger. It stuck in what appeared to be thin air, until Ares materialized with the hilt sticking out of his chest.
His eyes widened in shock as he fell to his knees. "You've got...to tell me...how you...do that." With a last, raspy groan his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
The Destroyer howled. "Father!"
Gabrielle reappeared beside Xena. They both looked around as the sky overhead grew dark with clouds. Flashes of lightning shot earthward and thunder crashed around them. The ground trembled. A god had died and the world was feeling the effects. Then it passed, and everything returned to normal.
Xena jerked the dagger out of Ares' chest. "One down"
"Where's the Destroyer?" Gabrielle asked. There was no sign of the creature. "By the gods, how can anything so big move so fast?"
"Stay on your guard," Xena warned. "There's no way it's going to give up this easy."
But with the immediate threat out of sight for the time being, Gabrielle turned her attention and her concern to her sister. "Lila?" She kneeled by Lila's frighteningly still body. "Lila, please." She checked for a pulse, and to her shock and dismay felt nothing. "Don't do this to me." The tears welled up once again. "Lila!"
Xena squeezed her friend's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle." She had realized the girl was dead as soon as she caught her, but didn't want to say anything. "Is there anything I can do?"
A huge black blade peirced Xena's back and erupted from an area between her breasts. It had gone right through the metal of Hephaestus like it was butter. Blood trickled out of the warrior's mouth as the Destroyer twisted the blade inside her body, tearig up even more of her internal organs.
"You can die," the creature hissed. "For Ares."
Xena and Gabrielle's tear-filled eyes met once more, and the warrior mouthed the words 'I love you'. Then with a last gasp she slumped forward, the sword dropping out of her hands.
The Destroyer shook Xena off his blade and frowned. "She died too easy." He looked at Gabrielle. "Will you be more fun for me?"
Gabrielle's tears stopped, and instead bolts of energy filled her eyes. "First, my parents...then my sister..." With each word her voice got louder, and was accompanied by peals of thunder. "...and now...Xena?" Crackling spheres of lightning formed in her palms. "No more! Do you hear me? NO MORE!"
"Do it," The creature held his arms out. "And make me stronger!"
Gabrielle threw her head back and screamed as she was engulfed by a monstrous bolt of lightning. It seemed to tear her body apart piece by piece, leaving nothing but smoldering footprints on the ground were she stood only a moment before. The Destroyer saw this, and laughed.
"She killed herself?"
"NOT QUITE!" Another bolt of lightning arced down out of the sky, striking the Destroyer from behind so hard that even he momentarily lost his footing. As he recovered though, his body now easily absorbing the energy, his ears detected the sound of popping air like something being forced into a void. He turned, arms outstretched and hands ready, as Gabrielle reappeared behind him.
But the blonde grabbed his arms, at the base of the blades. To the Destroyer's surprise, when he tried to pull his hands back he could not break the girl's grip. She violently twisted her wrists, snapping off each of the blades and causing the creature to howl in pain. Those howls became shrieks as Gabrielle attacked with a vengeance, ripping into him with his own weapons and shredding his flesh like so much papyrus. At one point she nearly eviscerated him, and one blow even sliced off his left hand. She slit his throat from three different directions and gouged his eyes out, obliterated his heart and was working on the rest of his internal organs when she vaguely became aware of energy flashing behind her as several Olympian gods appeared.
Two of them, Hades and Hephaestus, she recognized immediately. But the third, a woman in golden armor, was kneeling beside her before Gabrielle realized who she was. "Artemis?"
Goddess of the hunt and moon she was the matron of the Amazons, and one of only two Gabrielle gave any real reverence to. "Stop now my Queen," said the auburn-haired beauty. "You did it. The beast is long dead." She took a lock of blonde hair in her fingers and smiled sadly. "You've won."
"You call this winning?" Gabrielle jerked to her feet and turned the blades on Artemis, who recoiled. "Everyone I love is dead! And where were the mighty Olympian gods when my home was being wiped out of existence? Tell me where you were when my family was being slaughtered!"
Artemis sighed. "I mispoke, and for that I apologize. I wanted to be here for you, Gabrielle. I truly did. But our father forbid it. Once he learned Ares was aligned with Dahak, Zeus ordered the rest of us to remain on Olympus and stay out of mortal affairs. Even though many of us disagreed..."
"...it was not our place to argue," said Hephaestus. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I thought my armor would protect her. I had no idea the Destroyer would be able to do anything like that."
"So why are you here now?" Gabrielle asked. "Any of you? It's all over. There's nothing for you to do unless you can bring them back from..." She looked up at Hades. "...the dead. Can you?"
The god of the underworld shook his head. "I'm afraid not. There are too many. Most of Potedaia was killed. As we speak, Charon's boat is overloaded. I had special dispensation for the release of your spirit. I'm afraid no such permission exists for anyong else. Including Xena."
"That," said Artemis. "Is why we're here. There is a way you might be able to save them on your own. Something only a god can do, which Zeus would never allow from any of us."
Gabrielle tried not to get her hopes up. "What's that?"
"Time-travel," Hades replied. "True gods aren't allowed to interfere with the flow of time, but your ascension to godhood was arbitrary. And secondary at that, since it was actually Callisto. Zeus cannot say or do anything to try and stop you from traveling whenever or wherever you please."
Artemis nodded. "You alone can go back in time and prevent the deaths of those who have fallen at the hands of my brother and his...spawn. It would be as if these last few days never happened."
"Why limit it to these last few days?" Gabrielle stood up. "Why can't I just go all the way back, and stop us from ever going to Britannia in the first place? Avoid Dahak all together?"
"That's a bad idea," Artemis warned. "Oh, you are certainly capable of doing so. But the further back you go, and the more things you try to change, the larger the disruption you cause in the time stream. It might be best for you to limit your travel and actions to as short a time as possible."
Hades nodded. "Bear in mind, Xena and your family won't be the only ones who return. So will Ares, though his actions will not have occured. You might also have to deal with Callisto and Hope if you go back far enough. And remember that with Callisto alive again..."
"...I'll cease to exist. I realize that." Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "I don't care. I really don't. Just so long as it undoes all this bloodshed." Her eyes filled with tears again as she looked upon Xena. "Someone please, tell me what to do. How do I make this happen?"
"Close your eyes," said Artemis. "And concentrate. Picture a place. A time. Focus your energy on that period. It isn't all that different from traveling within the world, and you've mastered that already. This should be easy." She slowly backed away from the bard. "Are you ready?" The blonde nodded. "Now, go." Gabrielle gasped as her body was enveloped in flames. When they faded, she was gone.
"The Fates be with you," Artemis whispered.
THREE DAYS EARLIER...
Gabrielle watched helplessly as Xena and Hope faced off. Dahak's daughter had the power of her mind, but was evenly matched against the sheer force of will of the warrior princess. They seemed to be at a stalemte, first one would get the advantage and then it would shift to the other.
Ares, still laying on the ground after being blasted by Callisto, taunted her. He reminded her of the bargain he'd struck with the Fates which said Xena would die if she killed Hope. Naturally, the warrior princess was perfectly willing to sacrifice her own life to stop Hope and Dahak, but Gabrielle was not willing to stand by and lose her if she could do anything to stop it. 'You're too important to the world, Xena.'
Gabrielle made up her mind then and there. She planted her staff and used it to vault over the obstacle between her and... "Hope!" But she only got a few more steps before a nimbus of flames appeared in-between the bard and her daughter. Impossibly, it was Callisto, who was standing behind her. "What?"
"Sorry," said the blonde. "Not this time." 'Callisto', who was really Gabrielle, of course, held up her hand and hit her past self with a minor burst of her power. It knocked Gabrielle back, without doing her any real damage. Then she turned to face the wide-eyed Hope.
Hope frowned. "Who are you?"
"Don't recognize me? Maybe this'll help." Gabrielle reached out with her dwindling power, and the Hind's blood dagger shot out of Xena's hand. She grabbed out of mid-air. "It's about time I finished what I started." She grabbed the front of Hope's robe and lifted her off her feet. "The poison didn't work. Let's see how you feel about this." A little effort was all it took to throw both of them into the pit.
They plummeted toward the boiling lava. Hope screamed for her father.
'Callsto' shook her head. "Even Dahak can't help you this time." She drove the dagger into Hope's stomach with one hand, while grabbing a passing ledge with the other. Their fall ceased at once, and the pain in her arm paled in comparison to the spinning stars she was seeing. She could feel her body discorporating, and she knew she didn't have a whole lot of time left. "I get the last laugh you know."
With her dying breath, Hope spat up blood as she cursed the blonde. "You...what?"
"I finally figured it out. You survived last time because of Dahak, didn't you? The lava...the fire...he saved you. It didn't occur to me then, but now I'm prepared. When Dahak absorbs you into his essence to save you, he'll take in the blood of the Hind too. It's in you, and soon it'll be in him."
Hope gasped. "No."
"Yes." Gabrielle felt strangely hollow. "I think it's time. With Callisto alive...I can't be." She kissed her daughter on the forehead. "Say hello to your father for me."
Callisto's body just seemed to dissolve and Hope once again resumed her fall. As she got closer to the lava her skin burst into flames and she screamed. "Father! No!"
High above, Xena and Gabrielle gazed down into the pit and saw only plumes of flames.
Callisto giggled. "I never knew I had a twin."
"This is...disappointing," said Ares. He shook his head and disappeared.
"Xena? Do you have any idea what's going on?"
"Not me," the warrior replied. "I was hoping you did."
Callisto cocked her head. "I wonder what else there is in the world I don't know about?" She spun in a circle and vanished in a pillar of flames, still giggling.
"I guess it's over," said Gabrielle. "By the gods. I was so afraid I was going to lose you, Xena."
The warrior put an arm around her bard. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere."
"I love you, Xena."
"I love you too, Gabrielle."
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