DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of these characters. Rob Tapert, Renaissance, etc, these are their babies, I'm just borrowing them.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By Kirk Baldridge


PART I: Bloodsword

"...and with a dryad bone plunged deep into his heart, the wine god Bacchus stumbled back, howling in pain and rage. Unable to maintain his physical body any longer he exploded, returning his immortal essence back to the hallowed halls of Mount Olympus. Free of the god's evil influence, all of his innocent young victims as well as the mighty warrior princess who had saved them were returned to normal." She paused to stand up. "Thank you." The crowd in the tavern began to cheer and clap as the bard smiled and bowed. Several men and women gathered around the stage to congratulate her in person, and also to drop a few dinars into the glass sitting by her feet for that very purpose.

She took it all in stride, smiling and shaking hands as the crowd began to disperse. Eventually, most returned to their tables and their own conversations, leaving the bard free to pick up the donation glass. She didn't give much attention though, for she was too busy scanning the tavern, her sharp green eyes passing over all of the smiling faces as she searched for one in particular.

The armor-clad warrior was watching her from a rear table, a stern expression on her face. She was nursing the cup of port in her hands, and seemed to be waiting for something. As the bard approached her table the ebony-haired woman looked up, her beautiful sky-blue eyes sparkling even in such dim light. "Very nice..." She smiled ever-so-slightly as the red-haired woman dropped into a chair across from her. "I do not think I've ever heard it told quite that well before."

Gabrielle blushed. As much as she enjoyed the crowd's reaction to one of her stories, this was the only praise that really meant something to her. "Thanks. It's nice of you to say that."

"You make it sound as if I never compliment you..." Xena's words trailed off as she remembered back to some of those other taverns they'd been in. "Oh." She reached across the table and clasped the bard's hand. "I guess I don't, huh? At least, not as much as you deserve." Gabrielle started to reply but the warrior shook her head to stop her. "Look I know I don't say this often, but you have a real gift, Gabrielle. It always amazes me how easily you can captivate people you've never met before, with just the sound of your voice. They'll gather around and listen to you for hours...I can't do that."

Gabrielle tried to hide her surprise. Xena, the warrior princess, admitting there was something she couldn't do? This was a remarkable day indeed. "Well, I don't know where all this came from, but thank you, Xena. I know how difficult it is for you to express yourself like that."

"It's not expressing myself I have a problem with..." the warrior said quietly. She glanced around. "It's doing it in public. I always feel like people are staring at me, wherever we go."

"Well, did you ever consider it's because you are such a gorgeous woman?" asked Gabrielle. Heedless of any eyes that might be upon them, the bard leaned across the table and planted a loving kiss right on Xena's lips. "I for one, love a little attention every now and then." She couldn't help but chuckle as Xena's cheeks reddened in embarrassment. "Sorry, I couldn't resist."

Xena finished her drink, and then stood up. "Look, why don't we just go up to the room?"

"What, are you ashamed of me?" the bard asked in mock irritation.

"Not in the slightest. But tell me, do you really want the attention that would result from my taking you, right here and now, on this table?" Without waiting to see if Gabrielle was following her or not, Xena headed for the stairs at the back of the tavern, smiling slightly as the bard beat her to them.

Gabrielle was waiting by the time Xena got up to the room. The warrior took her own sweet time about it too, because she knew that the anticipation only served to get her lover all the more excited. As she approached the door she took off her scabbard and chakram, knowing they would both just be in the way soon enough. Inside, the first thing she did was lock the door, before casually tossing her weapons on to a chair and looking around for Gabrielle.

The bard was stretched out across their bed, completely naked, and watching her every move. "So..." With a sensuous smile she pushed herself up on her elbows, thrusting her full breasts toward the warrior. "Do you see anything you like, warrior princess?"

Xena was staring unabashedly as she removed her armor piece by piece. "Definitely." As cryptic as ever, she didn't say anything else until she had stripped down to bare skin as well. Then she spread her arms. "And what about you?"

"Mmm hmm..." The bard's hazel green eyes twinkled appreciatively as she gave her lover the once over, then she reached out to her. "Come on over here, Xena. Don't be shy." Gabrielle took the warrior's hands and pulled her down on to the bed, kissing her with fervent passion. They remained in that position for several minutes, as their tongues explored each other's mouths, and their hands roamed freely over one another's bodies. Not at all surprisingly it was the bard who took the initiative, by catching Xena's hands inches from her breasts and after a moment, shaking her head. "Uh uh, it's my turn, remember?"

Gabrielle rolled Xena over, onto her back, and straddled the warrior. She began gently tickling Xena's ribcage, smiling at the way she bit her lip in order to keep from laughing. "Pity the poor warrior princess, who can't even take a little friendly torture. Well I can be gentle too...when I want." The bard cupped Xena's breasts, kneading and caressing the soft flesh, feeling the soft brown nipples hardening at her touch. As the warrior's laugh grew into a moan of pleasure, Gabrielle leaned down and drew Xena's left nipple into her mouth, lovingly attending it for several moments before she turned her head to do the same to the right. Xena gasped and started to put her hands on the bard's shoulders, but was stopped as Gabrielle grabbed her wrists, instead forcing both hands to her sides. Without saying a word the bard held her lover's wrists there as she kissed her way through the warm valley between the warrior's breasts, and continued down.

Xena arched her back, crying out softly as Gabrielle's warm lips found her inner thigh. She moaned when they nuzzled the triangle of dark hair between her legs, teasing but never quite touching. The warrior writhed around in pleasure and frustration, unable to touch the bard because her hands were being held at her sides. Of course they both knew she could break the hold easily, but that would ruin the game, so she just lay back and enjoyed the erotic ministrations.

At long last Gabrielle's wickedly fluid tongue parted her gentle folds and Xena went rigid, her entire body was begging for release. The bard released Xena's hands so she could wrap her arms around the warrior's hips, and in return, Xena entwined her fingers into her lover's strawberry-blond hair. For what felt like an eternity, Xena's pleasure continued to build, until she could contain it no longer.

"Gaa--bree--elle!!" Xena's back arched, her hips bucking and tensing against the bard's tongue as the orgasm overwhelmed her. Still shuddering, she fought to catch her breath as Gabrielle slid up the side of her body, and kissed her passionately.

"Feeling any better?" the bard asked mischievously.

"Gods, yes." Xena wiped her forehead and kissed her lover back. "I...you...that was incredible."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I had a good teacher."

"Really? Well..." Xena rolled Gabrielle over, and straddled her. "I believe it's time for a refresher course, don't you?" Smiling, she proceeded to duplicate, in great detail, everything which had been done to her. But, she did it at a much more torturously slow pace. The warrior, who could be so fearsome in battle, gently caressed each of her lover's heaving breasts with lips and tongue, paying extra-special attention to the hardened pink nipples and the trembling reaction she got from nipping at them. As Gabrielle reached for her, she returned the favor of earlier by grabbing the bard's wrists in an unbreakable grip, and pulling them to her sides.

By the time Xena made her way down to the pale red-blond hair between Gabrielle's legs, the bard was soaked in more ways than one. She centered in on Gabrielle's hard button, wrapping her tongue around it, manipulating it directly while releasing the bard's hands to slide several fingers into her lover as well. Crying out in undiluted pleasure, Gabrielle dug her fingers into Xena's hair and arched her back, feeling the explosive fire within as they built to a fevered pitch. At length her hips began to buck seemingly of their own accord as her orgasm erupted, and she tossed her head and wailed in ambrosial ecstasy.

Xena slid up to kiss the person who meant the most in the world to her. "Fair is fair..."

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena, both conqueror and conquered this day, and lay her head upon her shoulder. "Gods woman, you DO have many skills."

Sated, for a time at least, they snuggled close and eventually drifted off to sleep.

Early the next morning Gabrielle sat on a stool outside the stable, reading one of her scrolls. Xena was getting Argo ready to travel, for they intended to make it to the village of Lyra by nightfall. The bard took out her quill, and was just about to add to this tale of her recent encounter with the goddess Aphrodite when she noticed an off movement out of the corner of her eye. At the far end of the street, she saw several men beating and kicking someone who lay motionless on the ground between them.

"Xena!" Gabrielle jumped up, dropping both scroll and quill, and reached for her staff.

A moment later the warrior appeared at the doorway. "What is it?"

"Look!" The bard pointed. "Someone's in trouble!"

"Come on!" Xena drew her sword and raced toward the fight, Gabrielle hot on her heels. As soon as she was close enough, the warrior's face took on a familiarly exhilarated look. "Ayiyiyiyiyiii!" All five men stopped what they were doing and looked up, startled, as Xena's powerful legs propelled her over their heads. She rolled into a series of mid-air flips which brought her down in the center of the melee. "Hello boys!"

Before it had even registered on them what was happening, Xena had taken down one man with her perfectly executed spin-kick, disarmed a second with a swipe of her sword, and broke the knee of a third with the heel of her boot. Meanwhile, Gabrielle caught up, just in time to catch the other two men by surprise. She swept one's feet out from under him and then, as he hit the ground with a thud, twirled around and knocked a club from the hand of the second. It was at this point that the men who were still conscious realized just how badly they had been outclassed by the two women, and they apparently decided to live and fight another day. Throwing down their weapons, they gathered their wounded comrades, and ran like Hades himself was after them.

Xena waited a moment, to make certain they were really gone, before she sheathed her sword and dropped to one knee beside the victim. His purple and black robes were covered in dirt, and his own blood. "Hey, can you hear me?" Getting no response, she checked for a pulse, and found it growing fainter by the moment. From the extent of his injuries, the warrior knew he would never survive long enough to get a healer. "He's dieing..." she said over her shoulder. "There's nothing I can do."

"Do you know him?"

Xena shook her head. "No, I've never seen him before."

"Why do you think those men did this to him?"

"Robbery most likely. His attire is a little fancier than most in these parts, and those scum probably saw a guy like this as an easy target." It was one thing for to die in battle, but like this? Xena sighed. "Well we may not be able to save him, but the least we can do is..." Her voice trailed off in surprise as the man reached up and with a last effort of strength, grabbed her wrist.

"P-Please..." He gasped, coughing up blood. "Are...are you...Xena...?"

The warrior nodded. "I am."

"Thank...the Gods..." The man's hand dropped from her wrist, and fumbled towards a pocket in his robe. "The Oracle...at Delphi...she asked me...to...to..." He was abruptly seized by a tremendous fit of coughing, and by the time his body settled, he was dead.

"Why would an Oracle send him here?" Gabrielle asked, wide-eyed.

"He came here looking for me, apparently." Xena reached for the pocket he'd been trying to get to. "I think he was trying to say he was bringing me something, and I'd like to know what was so important that it cost him his life." She pulled out an intricately carved bronze medallion. It was familiar, though only to her. "A Celtic knot..." the warrior said under her breath. "M'Lila."

"Xena?" While Gabrielle hadn't actually heard what the warrior said, she did see Xena's body tense up as she looked at the strange medallion. "What is it? What's wrong?" Abruptly, Xena rose, still clutching the object in her hand. She spun on her heel and marched right back into the stable, leaving the bard to follow a step behind her in confusion.

Xena emerged a few moments later, already in the saddle. "Are you coming?" There was a real urgency to her voice as she extended her hand, and Gabrielle realized this was no time to question the warrior. She took Xena's hand, allowing herself to be pulled up without a word. The mare snorted, unaccustomed to the double load, but nonetheless obeyed her mistress's command and took off at full gallop.

Nearly an hour passed before Gabrielle got up the nerve to ask Xena what was wrong again. When they first started traveling together, she had made the mistake several times of pushing Xena too far during one of these moods, and it still scared her to remember how angry the warrior used to get. Now, though, she was starting to get worried, Xena had been fiercely sullen ever since finding that dieing man in the street. And what was it she called that necklace? A sell-tick knot?

Finally, curiosity got the better of the bard. She cleared her throat. "Uh...Xena?"

"What is it, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle licked her lips. "Something's obviously bothering you. That man back there...that medallion he gave you...do you want to talk about it?"

"No!" Xena gritted her teeth. I can't do this to her. But how much do I tell her? She knows about Niklio and Caesar, but I never mentioned M'Lila. What if it drives her away? By the Gods, you're doing THAT by staying so quiet and yelling at her. "Look I'm sorry I snapped at you, Gabrielle." She signaled Argo to stop. The bard's face brightened. "It's kind of a long story, are you sure you want to here this?"

"Of course." Gabrielle leaned forward in the saddle and kissed the warrior. "I love you, Xena. There's nothing you could tell me that I can't handle." She wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. "So, go ahead...whatever it is I WANT to hear it. Really."

Before saying anything, Xena took a deep breath to clear her head. "Do you remember me telling you about a man named Julius Caesar?"

"Sure. He was a Roman nobleman, right?" The warrior nodded. "He broke your legs and left you to die on the beach. That's how you met Niklio as I recall. What does that have to do with this?"

"During my encounter with Caesar, my army and I also ran across a stowaway on our ship. A runaway Gaelic slave girl, whose name I later found out was M'Lila. When I found her, she fought us, using moves unlike any I had ever seen before; spins and flips and kicks. She fought all of us nearly to a standstill before we managed to slow her down enough to get hold of her. It was amazing..."

Gabrielle watched Xena's face as she talked about M'Lila. The warrior's eyes were sparkling, her face aglow. This woman must really be important to her.

"Eventually..." Xena continued. "We did manage to catch her, but at a high price. One of my men died in the attempt and his friend wanted revenge, but I stopped him. I'd never seen anyone move the way M'Lila had, and so I made an agreement with her; she would teach me what she knew, and I would spare her life. Of course, she had no real choice but to agree, who wouldn't? So, M'Lila taught about pressure points and, later on, how to do many of the fighting techniques she'd demonstrated so eloquently."

A nagging thought entered Gabrielle's mind. For several moments after Xena grew silent she debated whether or not to actually ask the question. Eventually though, curiosity won out, as usual. "Xena, forgive me if this is none of my business, okay? But, were you and this M'Lila woman...intimate?"

Xena's face hardened. By the Gods she's quick, I'll grant her that. I started this, might as well finish it. "Yes, Gabrielle, we were. Even up to the time she died."

The bard gasped. "She's dead? Oh Xena, I'm sorry." It didn't surprise her to hear that her lover had been with a woman before her. While she'd never come out and said it, Gabrielle always assumed Xena once used women the same way she used men, to get what she wanted. But, the only other person I've ever heard her talk THAT way about...is Marcus. "What happened to her?"

"Caesar." This time, Xena spit the name out as if it was a curse. "After his men left me with two broken legs, I just hung there for hours, fading in and out of consciousness, waiting to die. M'Lila found me, and managed to get me to Niklio's just in time for him to set my legs." She sighed. "For once in my life I believed everything was going to be okay, that I could actually be happy. That didn't last long." Her eyes narrowed in anger. "I suppose one of the guards M'Lila fought to save me must have told Caesar I had escaped, because he sent some men to hunt me down. When they showed up I tried to help her fight, the Gods know I really tried, but my legs hurt SO much!" Tears poured down the warrior's face now. "One of the Romans had a crossbow and he aimed it at me. I never saw it, but M'Lila did. She...she..."

Gabrielle pulled Xena close as she began to cry uncontrollably and just held her, gently rocking the warrior as she sobbed the grief out of her system. "Shh...it's okay..." the bard whispered. "Everything is going to be okay, Xena. Just let it all go, that's good."

Finally, after several long minutes, Xena lifted her head from her lover's shoulder and wiped her eyes. While it made her feel better to get this all out, she couldn't help but marvel at how at ease she was expressing emotions to Gabrielle. It wasn't that long ago when tears were a sign of weakness to her, and now she cried so easily with this lovely young woman from Potedia. "I'm all right..."

The bard couldn't help noticing the detached tone in her lover's voice. It was an abrupt personality shift she'd become all too familiar with since they'd begun traveling together. Xena was going back into her 'warrior mode', where she felt the most comfortable. There would be no more big emotional talks today it appeared. "So do you feel up to continuing your story?"

Xena shrugged. "There's not much more to tell. M'Lila leapt in front of the crossbow bolt, taking it in the back before I even knew what she happening. She sacrificed her own life to save me...and, she died in my arms." She flinched slightly as Gabrielle lay a hand on her arm to comfort her, but didn't notice the look of supreme hurt on her lover's face as she pulled it back. "I don't remember much after that. Ares took over my heart that night, the darkness in my soul was complete when the light of my life was extinguished."

Gabrielle turned away, a tear in her eye. She must have really loved M'Lila. I've never heard her say anything like that about ME. When the ensuing silence became unbearable, the bard decided to speak up again. "Okay, I think I understand what's going on. The medallion that man was carrying, reminded you of M'Lila, right?" The warrior nodded, but said nothing. "So where are we going? To visit her grave?"

"No..." Xena replied, her voice barely more than a whisper. "At least, not yet. Right now, I want to have a talk with the Oracle at Delphi, and find out where the Celtic Knot came from." She glanced over her shoulder. "But I know this might be uncomfortable for you..."

Gabrielle held up her hand. "Wait, I know where this is going, and you can forget it! You are NOT going to go on without me; I won't be left behind in some village, waiting, hoping that you're all right. I love you Xena, with all my heart, you know that. We're in this together, for better or worse, no matter what. Get it?"

"Got it." Xena smiled slightly. "However, now that you're finished with your little speech, and it was very well put by the way, I think you should know something. All I was going to say, is that I know riding Argo might be uncomfortable for you. I thought maybe you'd like to get down and walk for a while."

The bard's face turned several shades of red. "Oh."

Xena chuckled. "So, on or off? We have to get moving if we want to make it to Delphi by nightfall."

"Okay, okay." Gabrielle climbed off Argo, clutching her staff to her chest. "But let me ask you one more thing first. Did you love M'Lila?" She looked up in time to see the warrior turn away, hiding her eyes. "I mean it won't change how I feel about you or anything, I'd just like to know."

Xena's turned back, her eyes red. "I-I'm not sure, Gabrielle." She snapped Argo's reins and headed northward, sparing only a single glance to see if the bard was following or not.

Gabrielle stayed close behind, shaking her head. I don't believe this. Xena lied to me. I saw it in her face. She knows exactly how she feels, she's just not talking. It hurt her to see the warrior in this kind of pain, but Xena's shutting her out was far more painful. Damn it Xena, I thought we were past this!

As the sun was going down, Xena realized that despite her best efforts, they were not going to be able to get to Delphi by nightfall. The terrain between was rough and rocky, and she had to slow Argo considerably; both to keep the mare from injuring herself and so Gabrielle could keep up. Since they were still hours away from the city, she decided it was best just to stop for the night, and get an early start in the morning.

Gabrielle was noticeably distant as they set up camp. She unfurled their bedrolls and unpacked their supplies while Xena dug a pit and started the fire, without either of them saying a word. The bard seemed to be making a deliberate effort to look anywhere but at Xena, and the warrior was painfully aware of that fact. By the Gods I'm doing it again! Why?! Why do I always push away those who care about me? She shook her head. No, I know why, and she should know it too!

Xena stood up and sheathed her sword, which she'd been sharpening. Taking a deep breath, she approached Gabrielle, who was crouched by the fire. "Mind some company?"

The bard shrugged her shoulders. "Enough fire here for the both of us. I don't mind sharing."

Xena wasn't blind to the double meaning in Gabrielle's words. "Look, I think I owe you an apology. Several in fact." She sat down and put her hands in her lap. "I know I should have told you about M'Lila sooner. But ever since Lemnos, after you and I made love for the first time...it's started me remembering the past. Borias, Marcus, M'Lila, they're all gone. They're dead." She put her hand on the bard's shoulder. "Gabrielle, I've come to believe that it's just too dangerous for anyone to be with me. Don't you see? Everyone important in my life, whose only crime was in daring to love me, has died. I just get so scared sometimes, I am afraid that if I let you get too close to me, that you'll die too, and I couldn't allow that to happen! There's no way I could bear to lose you Gabrielle, you're the most important person in my life!"

"And I feel the same way." Gabrielle cupped the warrior's cheek, and they both smiled. "I love you Xena, with all my heart and soul, and I'm not afraid. I love you and I know you love me too. Even if you don't actually SAY the words, I know the truth. I know how you really feel." She leaned up while Xena bent her head, and their lips came together and kissed with a seething passion. Warrior and bard wrapped their arms around one another, as they tumbled back on to the nearest bedroll.

Xena broke the embrace first, but only for so long as it took her to lean back and remove her armor. Stripping down to her shift took only a few moments, which left her hands free to help Gabrielle slip out of her clothes as well. She took the opportunity to caress every inch of bare skin as it was exposed, leaving the bard shuddering even before she was fully nude.

"You are SO beautiful..." the warrior mumbled , leaning forward to kiss the sensitive flesh between Gabrielle's heaving breasts.

The bard's back arched as she moaned. "Gods...please..."

Hearing the need so obvious in her lover's voice, Xena stripped off her shift and gently lowered her body on to the bard's. Both women just reveled in the feeling of bare skin against bare skin, until Xena finally nudged a knee between Gabrielle's thighs, urging her to spread her legs further. She complied, and the warrior gasped as she pressed the wetness of her own center against that of the bard's.

Gabrielle threw her arms around Xena's shoulders and cried out as they began to build a delightful rhythm of heat and passion, the two of them moving together as one. She raised her legs and gripped Xena's hips, as her climax continued to build within her writhing, sweat-covered body. The bard dug her fingernails into her lover's back and tossed her head as the orgasm erupted, and the sheer force of her release pushed Xena over the edge as well. Simultaneously, they cried out each other's names.

For several long minutes the lover's just lay there and held one another, catching their breaths and waiting for the tremors to subside. At length, Xena found the strength to roll to one side and Gabrielle snuggled up beside her, both feeling safe and warm with the nearness of the other as they drifted off to sleep.

Neither woman was in any condition to notice the shadowy figure watching them from the upper branches of a tree at the edge of the campsite.

As they were packing to leave the next morning, Gabrielle couldn't help noticing that something seemed to be bothering Xena. The warrior's face was sterner than usual, and she kept looking around as if she was expecting something to happen. The bard knew better than to say anything at first, she just cinched up Argo's saddlebag and scratched the mare behind her ears, earning a pleasant whinny. Meanwhile, Xena was dousing the fire, but as she stood up and wiped her hands that same odd look came over her face again, and one hand drifted down toward her chakram.

Curiosity finally got the best of Gabrielle. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm not sure." The warrior shook her head as she approached Argo, and took the reins. "I get the feeling that we're being watched, but there's no one out there. Not that I can see or hear at least."

Gabrielle could see the tension in Xena's face, and recognized it for what it was. Mostly anger for not being in total control of her surroundings, but also a little bit of concern as well. For me, no doubt. She is worried there is danger she can't protect me from. Gods, that's part of the reason I love her so. The bard reached for her staff as Xena flung herself up into the saddle. "I wouldn't worry too much about it Xena. If there IS someone waiting to ambush us out there, I'm sure they'll get to it in good time. Or maybe, for once, they'll do the smart thing, and just walk away."

Xena shrugged. "I suppose you're right." She offered her hand. "Do you want to ride or walk?"

"Well, how far is it to Delphi?"

"Even if we don't hurry, we should be there by mid-day."

"In that case, I think I'll just walk." Xena snapped the reins, and Gabrielle fell into place beside Argo. "Say, do you want me to tell you a story? You know, to pass the time?"

The warrior considered her options. Gabrielle was giving her the choice, a far cry from the talkative young girl she had met two years ago. Back then, the bard would launch into one fast-paced story after another, followed by a round of oftentimes personal questions about her life and her adventures. Xena would ignore it as long as long as she could, but sooner or later her temper flared and she would verbally lash out, emotionally wounding Gabrielle and making herself feel bad in the process. It's a real miracle she's stuck with me as long as she has. I don't know exactly why she chose to follow me, but I thank the gods every day that she did. "Sure...but, could you make it something nice for a change? How about a love story?"

The bard's face lit up as she smiled. "Okay. It all began outside a small village called Potedia..."

It was slow going.

Gabrielle's attempts to lighten Xena's mood, by telling some of her funny stories, were constantly interrupted by the warrior's abruptly riding off to scout the area. Convinced they were being followed, she was determined to confront the problem and get it out of the way rather than wait for it to come to her.

As the bard watched her lover ride off once again, she felt a cold chill run up and down her spine. She looked around, eyes wide. For a moment she even considered calling out to Xena, but decided against it on the chance of alerting whoever was watching her. Let's just get this over with!

Then, out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle thought she saw movement. She turned around to face it, only to find a wide-branched tree casting a huge shadow. "I guess I must have seen some of the branches move..." she said with a chuckle. As she turned back in the direction Xena had gone, the bard was shocked to discover that she was no longer alone.

He, at least she guessed it was a he, was wearing black leather from head to toe; including a face mask baring only his eyes, light armor, and studded gauntlets. In darkness, she realized, he would likely have been invisible if not for the bloody red emblem painted in the center of his chest armor. Two swords crossed at the hilt, it was unmistakably the sign of war.

Gabrielle raised her staff. "Who are you?" She was nervous, the sign of war did not usually get displayed in such a open manner. "What do you want?"

The stranger didn't say anything. Instead, he reached over his shoulder, and drew a sword from some unseen scabbard on his back.

"I guess that WAS a stupid question, huh?" The bard licked her lips. Xena, where are you? "I don't suppose there's any chance we can talk about this, is there?" He raised his sword and, still without saying a word, came running at her. "Guess not!"

As the man charged Gabrielle crouched down and swung her staff, intending to knock her attacker's feet right out from under him as she had done so many times before. But to her surprise he leapt into the air without even the slightest warning and flipped right over her, easily landing behind the bard. Even as she started to turn, the man managed to surprise her again by kicking her feet out from under her, and the impact knocked the air out of her lungs and the staff out of her hands at the same time. He stepped over her prone body and raised his sword for the killing blow.

"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiii!" The chakram whistled through the air and struck the man's sword. It didn't knock it from his hands as intended, but he was distracted long enough for Xena to come cartwheeling down the hill. Driving both feet into the man's chest, she sent him flying head over heels backwards but he too moved into a series of cartwheels and landed on his feet once again. Xena caught her chakram as it glanced off a tree, and dropped to one knee beside the bard. "Gabrielle?" she asked worriedly.

"Watch out Xena..." Gabrielle rolled over and looked up, teary-eyed. "This guy's good."

Xena nodded. "I noticed." She looked at the black-garbed man, who had apparently lost his sword during the acrobatics display, and then helped the bard stand up. They both turned to face the unarmed man, only to find he was no longer alone, now two others stood on either side of him. "Uh oh."

"For the love of Zeus!" Gabrielle found her staff laying nearby and picked it up. "Why are these things never easy, Xena?"

"I don't know, bad luck I suppose." The other two men drew their swords, and Xena did the same. "You boys work for Ares eh? Why am I not surprised?!" Like Gabrielle, she had recognized the emblem on their chests and it's association with the god of war, but she had never seen these particular outfits before. Maybe his followers are trying a trying a new look. "Let me guess, he sent you to beat some sense into me, right? Well then..." She twirled her sword and smiled slightly. "...come on! I've got places to go and things to do!"

Something was wrong here, and they both knew it. Ares HAD sent men after them before, many times in fact, but they usually seemed boisterously fanatic, ranting and raving about how he was going to rule the world. At the same time, they were adamant about serving their master by bringing Xena back into his fold, a plan usually to be accomplished by attacking Gabrielle. However, these men were not acting that way, they were eerily quiet and, for the moment, not making a move against either of them.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, I don't like this. Who are these guys?"

"I have no idea. Stay close, the last thing we want to do is get separated." She would never admit it, but Xena was scared, though not for herself. I'm NOT going to let anything happen to Gabrielle. I'll keep her safe, even if I have to die trying!

It didn't take an Oracle to see how tense the warrior was, and Gabrielle knew why. Gods above it's all because of me! She's so worried about me, she's hardly thinking about herself. This always seemed to happen any time they got into a fight, it had once annoyed her, but now Xena's love and concern endeared her to the bard. I feel safe just knowing she's by my side. Three guys against the warrior princess? HAH!

"Gabrielle! Get down!" The bard didn't stop to think she just ducked, and moments later the chakram whistled through the air right where her head had been. It rebounded off the side of one of the men's masks as he swung his sword, and he stumbled back, but recovered just as quickly. "What were you doing?!" Xena snapped, more angrily than she had intended. "Day-dreaming?!" Without waiting for a response, she caught the chakram as it returned, then turned just in time to parry a sword thrust. "You can't allow your mind to wander like that. These guys are good...pay attention or you're dead!"

Gabrielle felt her cheeks flush in embarrassment as she stood back to back with the warrior. By the Gods, now she's mad at me! However, she was even angrier with herself. I won't let her down again! Gritting her teeth, the bard stepped forward, and swung her staff at the unarmed man, who had been trying to sneak up on her. It was a rather clumsy swing, but it did cause him to back off, as intended. I can't!

Meanwhile, Xena was somewhat surprised to feel the impact up and down her arms every time she parried the sword blows of the two men attacking her. These guys are strong...REALLY strong! What've I gotten Gabrielle into this time? More troubling to the warrior was the fact that she couldn't seem to make any headway against her attackers. They're keeping me on the defensive...I can barely even fight back! It was especially tough since she was trying to keep an eye on Gabrielle at the same time.

Hearing the warrior grunt and hiss behind her, made Gabrielle realize just how hard Xena was pushing herself to keep those two men at bay. They're tough, they're strong, and she doesn't know what to do about it! I can't believe I... The bard frowned as she realized her unarmed attacker had grabbed her staff, but he wasn't trying to do anything, he just stood there staring at her. "Hey! What are you doing?!" She started to pull, to her it away from him, but the black-garbed man just held on with one hand. "I said...let...go!" To her surprise he did, just as she was pulling as hard as she could. For her effort, Gabrielle landed on her back near Xena's feet. She was out of breath and lost her grip on her staff, leaving her defenseless. The black-garbed warrior saw this as a chance to attack, and raised his spiked gauntlets.

Xena's face narrowed in anger as she stepped away from the two men attacking her, drawing and pitching the chakram in one movement. It struck the red war emblem on his chest, easily piercing the light armor and tearing the leather and flesh underneath. He stumbled back, no blood emerging from the wound as he shuddered once and then collapsed, the chakram sticking halfway out of his ribcage. She had no time to celebrate though, when the other two men continued their assault, and Xena parried a sword then followed it up with a kick. The heel of her boot connected with his left knee and she heard the satisfying crunch of bone, but the black-garbed warrior didn't even seem to notice. What is keeping this guy up? Magic?

"Xena, go up!" The warrior too reacted without conscious thought, she simply leapt straight up in the air and allowed Gabrielle to swing her staff at ground level. It connected with the heels of both men, and their feet were knocked right out from under them; but while one landed flat on his back the other twisted to land on his hands then flipped back over to his feet once again. "I got one!"

The warrior gritted her teeth as she brought her sword down into the chest of the fallen man. He shuddered a few times and then lay still. Xena yanked her sword loose, frowning when she realized there wasn't any blood on the blade, then turned to face the last man. For a moment or two they faced off, then he surprised them both by simply sheathing his sword. He took a step back, bowing slightly at the waist before he turned, and ran into the shadows of the nearby tree, where he promptly disappeared.

Gabrielle watched him go, slowly shaking her head. "What in Hades's name was THAT all about?"

"I have no idea..." Xena mumbled as she sheathed her own sword, and helped the bard to her feet. "But...let's not hang around to find out, okay?"

They arrived in Delphi shortly thereafter; Xena made sure Argo was stabled and taken care of, while Gabrielle checked the local inn to see if it had any rooms. She offered to make an appointment for them with the Oracle as well, but the warrior insisted on doing that herself. The bard noticed how on-edge Xena was since they arrived in Delphi, she was quiet and stern, though it was a difference in attitude only Gabrielle was close enough to her to recognize.

It's probably all the bad memories this is bringing up for her. Gabrielle saw how much her lover was hurting, and she hurt in return. She understood how it felt to lose someone she loved. Both Xena and Perdicus died on me, but at least SHE came back. Thank the gods! The bard closed her eyes for a moment at the thought of her late husband. Perdicus. We had so little time together. I know you can hear me, and I miss you...but I think we both know it just was not meant to be. It's time I moved on with my life...and my heart belongs to another. She walked out of the inn and looked toward the stables. Xena was just emerging, and the bard's face lit up as their eyes met. Gods, I love her so much.

Xena felt her heart swell as she saw Gabrielle, and in spite of herself she smiled slightly. I don't how I got so lucky...she said to herself as she approached the bard. ...but I just hope I can one day find the strength, one day soon, to TELL her how I feel.

"So..." Gabrielle said as she looked up at the warrior. "...did you get everything squared away with the stable-master?" She knew how protective Xena was of Argo, and that she made an effort to make certain the mare had the finest accommodations, no matter how argumentative the locals.

Xena shrugged. "Oh yeah. I can be very...persuasive, when I want to be." She crossed her arms. "How about you? Did you find us a room?"

"Of course. I paid for two nights, 'cause I didn't know how long we'll be staying..." The bard left her question open and unasked, she still wasn't sure what Xena hoped to accomplish here. I mean, what can this Oracle tell her about a dead woman? She's just...NO! I have to stop thinking like that...I'm not competing with M'Lila...I don't have to! Xena and I love eachother, and that's what matters!

"Hey!" Xena touched her lover's shoulder. "Something wrong? You look a little flustered."

Gabrielle caught her breath before responding. "No, I'm okay, I just got lost in thought for a moment. Um...do you want to go talk to the Oracle now?"

"Are you sure you don't need to lay down for a while?" Xena asked. "Get some rest?"

"I told you, I'm fine Xena. Really." Gabrielle slipped her arm through the warrior's, and smiled. "Now come on, let's go find out what's going on, shall we?"

Some time later, Xena and Gabrielle were in the viewing chamber of the temple, waiting for the Oracle to make her appearance. It was quite large and ornately decorated; including a number of jewel-encrusted vases, multi-colored tapestries, and plants of all shapes and sizes. But, the most impressive feature was the array of statues arranged throughout the chamber, of the various gods and goddesses in a variety of poses.

Despite their peaceful surroundings, Xena was somewhat uncomfortable. Rules of the temple prohibited any weapons, and while the bard had willingly left her staff outside, the warrior was more reluctant to part with her sword and chakram. To her dismay, they even took away the breast-dagger she kept as a back-up. But knowing how valuable the Oracle was to the people of Delphi, Xena decided to put up with it.

At least...she decided...they let me keep my armor. The warrior put her hands on her hips, and felt the lump of the hip-pouch where the celtic knot was held. Of course, that brought back yet another painful memory and she closed her eyes. M'Lila. By the Gods, I'm sorry...I'm sorry I couldn't save you, and I'm sorry I allowed myself to sink into the very darkness you were trying to save me from. I miss you, M'Lila.

"Xena?" She opened her eyes, to find Gabrielle staring at her from across the room. The bard was standing in between two statues, and looked somewhat concerned. "Did you hear me?"

"No. I'm sorry, I was just thinking. What did you say?"

"I was just talking about this statue of Aphrodite. It's well done, but it doesn't look much like her."

Xena nodded. "Maybe not. But somehow, I doubt the artist ever actually met her. After all, not everyone gets to have a close encounter with the goddess of love Gabrielle."

"I suppose that's true." The bard turned to the other statue. "This isn't a bad representation of Ares though. I mean, the beard and mustache are a little off, but overall...it really captures his intensity. I just wish I could meet the artist, I would like to compliment him..."

"HER..." a melodic voice strongly corrected. Xena and Gabrielle turned, to find an exquisite woman observing them from an open doorway. Her light brown skin was flawless, she had radiant green-gray eyes and ringlets of lustrous black hair flowing to the small of her back, held in place by a thin golden band. The elegant look of her robes and the two attendants flanking the woman confirmed her station. "Pardon my intrusion. I am Marina, the Oracle of Delphi." She clasped her hands together and smiled warmly at the bard. "And Gabrielle you might like to know that the woman who sculpted these statues was named Olurra. A most extraordinary artist, she had the ability to merely look at stone and discern what it was going to become before she ever put hands to it. It was a real delight to watch her work." The Oracle's face saddened almost imperceptibly for a moment. "Unfortunately, you will not have opportunity to speak with her, as she died early this year. She was one of my dearest friends, and it pleases me to accept your compliments on Olurra's behalf. Thank you."

"Y-You're welcome..." Gabrielle glanced up at Xena and was surprised to find the warrior staring wide-eyed at the Oracle. "Um...you obviously know my name, so allow me to introduce..."

Marina nodded. "Xena, the warrior princess. Yes, I know."

"Have you two met before?" the bard asked.

"No, not exactly." The Oracle smiled. "Xena? Is something wrong?"

M'Lila. The warrior shook her head. "It's amazing. You look so much like her." She frowned. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude, you just remind me of someone I once knew."

"Yes. I know. Isn't that why you are here?" Marina approached them, she put one hand on the warrior's chest and one on the bard's. "The love you two feel for each other would be obvious, even if I didn't possess the gift of True Sight. Yet you both are holding something back as well. Xena, you must not feel ashamed that you also loved M'Lila, and Gabrielle the place in your heart where Perdicus still resides does not diminish the love which you feel for Xena." She stepped back, and clasped her hands behind her back.

The warrior cleared her throat. "Marina, I need to ask you a question." She drew the celtic knot necklace from her hip pouch, and held it up. "Before he died, the man I got this from said he had recently been to see you. Do you know something about M'Lila, or is this all some incredible coincidence?"

Marina smiled. "Xena, there are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. Rescuing the baby, siding with Hercules, even choosing that clearing outside of Potedia to try and make a new life for yourself...don't you see? It was all meant to be."

"You're talking about my destiny, aren't you?" Xena frowned. "That is exactly what M'Lila tried to tell me. She said I had a destiny which I was supposed to choose, and you know what? I did!" She reached down, and took Gabrielle's hand, much to the bard's amazement. Such public displays of affection were rare for the warrior. "My destiny is right here, Marina. Gabrielle is my destiny. I don't know what sort of game you're playing, but I'm not in the mood. So if you have something to say, then SAY IT!" Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand gently to try and get her to calm down, but she was wise enough not to interrupt. "Otherwise..."

"Are you threatening me, warrior princess?" The Oracle's eyes narrowed. "I am not accustomed to be spoken to in this manner, especially here, in my own temple." Her attendants moved forward, but Marina stopped them with a single gesture. "However, I will forgive it this time, for I know you are a volatile person. Believe me Xena, I did not send the necklace with the intent of angering you, or making you uncomfortable in any way. I realize it reminds you of M'Lila, and for the pain that memory brings you, I'm sorry."

"So? Why DID you send it to me?" Xena took a step toward Marina, which her attendants apparently took as a threat. They moved between the Oracle and the warrior, crossing their arms over their chests, in an obviously defensive posture. Neither of them was armed, but they were ready to protect their charge, even in the face of a clearly superior opponent. "Call 'em off, Marina...I'm NOT in the mood!"

"I can do nothing, Xena. If my attendants believe I am in danger, they'll do whatever it takes to make certain I am protected. Until the threat is over, they may not even listen to me."

Gabrielle finally decided to get involved. "Xena, please...what's the matter with you?" Hesitantly, she put her hand's on her lover's waist, and felt the warrior tense ever-so-slightly. "Didn't you hear what she said? Marina, I am sure you had a reason for sending Xena that necklace. Why don't you tell us what it is, and maybe we can all just sit down and talk about it. Please?"

Oracle and warrior locked eyes for a few moments, but it was Marina who lowered her head first. "Yes, I think you are right Gabrielle. This is neither the time or the place for conflict, especially considering what is ahead for the two of you."

"What do you mean?" the bard asked. "Do you See trouble for us?"

Marina placed a hand on each of her attendant's shoulders, and they lowered their arms. "I shall tell you what you need to know. First though, let us go somewhere more...private."

A few minutes later, the three of them settled into the Oracle's private chamber. Xena and Gabrielle sat side by side in a pair of incredibly comfortable chairs, while Marina was reclining across a small couch. The attendants, who were normally stationed outside to guard against intruders, stood inside on either side of the door in order to keep a close eye on Xena. Both warrior and bard had declined offers of food and drank, and were waiting for the Oracle to begin her explanation.

When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Xena held up the necklace. "Well?"

Marina smiled. "Ah, always the impatient warrior. You should really try to relax every now and then Xena, it's really better for your state of health." Xena started to retort, but Gabrielle clasped her free hand lightly, and she settled for merely sneering at the Oracle instead. "In point of fact...I obtained that particular celtic necklace just under two years ago. It was given to me by a traveling merchant from Thrace, in thanks for the Seeing I gave to his ailing daughter. He did not know the origin of it's design, not did I, but it seemed important that I possess it nonetheless. Shortly thereafter, I began to experience a recurring vision, which I later realized had something to do with the strange necklace I had so recently received."

"I saw bizarre images, unformed and dark, unlike any visions I had experienced before. I could not make sense out of much of it, it was more little more than a waking dream in many respects. Only three figures in this vision were prominent enough that I was able to distinguish them, and even then I did not know what to do with what little information I had gleaned." She paused. "First, I saw a dark-haired woman, strong and silent, who seemed to radiate both darkness and light at the same time. There was another woman beside her, smaller than the first, and she seemed more than willing to talk...she spoke to me of love, forgiveness, and something about ending a cycle of hatred." Xena and Gabrielle both tensed slightly at her words, but the Oracle either didn't notice, or did not choose to react as she continued her story.

"The third figure in my vision was even more indistinguishable, I could not see him clearly at all. There was a sense of darkness and evil around him, unlike anything I have experienced before or since. He was standing in between the two women, preventing the smaller from reaching the larger, who seemed to be fighting against his darkness as well as her own. He never spoke or moved, but the image of two great flaming swords was crossed in front of him, blazing as bright as the mid-day sun. As the visions ended he would start to laugh, and it was a sound which chilled me to my very soul. I usually woke in a cold sweat, I was often screaming, and even then I knew I would not be able to get back to sleep for the rest of the night. So I spent the hours until morning with a parchment, trying my best to record what I had experienced in as much detail as possible."

"This is all a fascinating story..." said Gabrielle. "Really. But what does it have to do with Xena?" She, like the warrior no doubt, had recognized much of the symbolism in the Oracle's dream.

Marina steepled her fingers. "Patience, I'm coming to that." She sighed. "Eventually the visions passed, and I was able to return to what I laughingly called my normal life. I put the necklace, and the overwhelming sense of dread I had received from the visions as a result, behind me and thought nothing more of it...until recently. Last week the dream-visions returned, stronger and more violent than before. I was wracking my brain, trying to get some idea of what I was seeing...what I was supposed to do about it. As the restless days and nights went on, I was eventually able to put names to two of the faces in my vision, a warrior and what I perceived to be a bard as well...Xena and Gabrielle. The man was, and still is, a frightening enigma I can't identify."

"That still doesn't explain WHY you sent me this necklace...:" said Xena. She was no longer angry, but rather curious, and one look at Gabrielle told her the bard was riveted.

"No, it doesn't, does it?" The Oracle leaned back in her seat. "Well, after I found names for the dream-figures, my course became somewhat more clear, especially when I felt a sense of sorrow and danger any time I thought about those involved in my vision. Thinking you were in trouble, or would be soon, I sent a runner named Arin to find either or both of you. I gave him the celtic necklace, for I sensed that it was important to one of you. My attendants tell me you returned alone, can I conclude Arin did not survive?" Xena nodded, while Gabrielle just lowered her head and looked apologetic. "Do not despair young one, I foresaw his death many years ago, Arin knew his time would come, and he was prepared to accept it. But now that you're here, I must warn you about a coming darkness. It...it..."

Marina's face grew serious, her lips taut. "Evil comes...danger is approaching. The two of you must ally your-selves with those who are as part of you, thought the truth may be hard for either you to know or understand. I warn you that while the four are stronger than the two, in the end, it is only a dark heart which can survive that which threatens to overwhelm the light." She slumped forward, out of breath, and from the paleness of her face, barely half-conscious as well.

Gabrielle gasped. "Xena, she was Seeing! Marina must have been having a vision right here in front of us and we didn't even realize it. Amazing."

Xena got to her feet and approached the Oracle, noting over her shoulder how the attendants didn't take their eyes over her. "Be quiet, Gabrielle. I've known people who have visions, and they take a lot out of people." She touched Marina's arm gently. "Are you all right?"

"I-I'm fine..." The Oracle slowed raised her head. "I'm sorry if I did or said anything to upset you. Sometimes, I just lapse into a vision like that." She looked from Xena to Gabrielle, and back again. "Look I don't know if what I've said today can be of any help to either of you, but I just felt you needed to be warned. Now, if it's all right, I would like to rest, I'm rather tired."

Xena nodded. "Okay, we'll leave. But Gabrielle and I will probably stay around Delphi for a couple of days. So if you See or think of anything else..."

"I will let you know at one," said Marina. "I promise."

Later that day, Gabrielle watched as Xena angrily paced from one side of their room to the other. The warrior hadn't said two words to her since they left the Oracle's temple, and the bard was growing more concerned with each passing moment of silence.

Finally, she just couldn't take it anymore, and cleared her throat. "Xena?"

"It's Ares!" Xena spun around, her eyes narrowing. "He's playing some kind of sick game. He must have sent those men we fought to get our attention, and now he is toying with poor Marina's mind. We have to figure out what he's up to, and stop him!"

Gabrielle nodded. "Okay. But how do we do that? I mean, you're not just going to call Ares down and ask him what's going on...are you?" She stared at the warrior, studying the wide range of emotions which crossed over her face before she turned away. No! She IS considering it! "Xena?"

Before answering, Xena removed her weapons, and carefully placed them on a table by the bed. Then, she fell into a nearby chair and sighed. "Of course not. I've had enough of him to last a lifetime." For a moment she just stared at the bard. "But we have to do something Gabrielle. If Ares IS involved..."

"Then I'm sure we'll find out soon enough. Xena, we're alone, and we're safe here." Gabrielle spread her hands in an open invitation. "Come on, let's just relax for a while, okay? Please?"

Xena stood up. Gabrielle could be insatiable at times, and it WAS an enticing proposition. Besides, whenever the bard said please, there was no way she could deny her. "Well..." She began to undo her armor. "I suppose I can spare a FEW minutes."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh, warrior princess, you underestimate me." As soon as Xena had stripped down to her shift the bard reached up and pulled her down to the bed. She straddled the warrior, and pulled off her own top as they began to kiss passionately. Casually the bard kissed her way down to Xena's chest. She had just pulled her lover's shift open and was gently taking one of the warrior's nipples into her mouth when they both heard a loud noise outside their door.

Before Gabrielle could say anything, Xena slid out from under her and reached for her sword. The warrior was on her feet in an instant, her every sense alert. When nothing else happened after a few moments, she took the time to slip back into her leathers and moved toward the door, while Gabrielle slid out of bed and looked around for her top. The door was still bolted tight, so Xena unlocked it and then opened it just a crack, to gaze out into an empty corridor. She frowned. "Nothing."

Gabrielle appeared at her side, fully clothed. "We heard something Xena."

The warrior angrily threw the door open and turned her back. "But there's nothing out there!"

"I wouldn't exactly say that..." Gabrielle pointed. "Look."

Xena turned to find a dagger sticking out of their door. It was long and thin, solid black, and had a parchment rolled around the handle. "What's this?" She removed the parchment, unrolling it to read while Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. THE TEMPLE. NOW! It wasn't signed, but where a signature would normally be, there was a familiar seal, two swords crossed. "The Oracle!"

Xena and Gabrielle approached the temple cautiously, wary of a possible ambush, and they immediately knew something was wrong. In their previous visit the front doors had been closed and guarded, no one was allowed entry without being identified and disarmed, but now they were thrown wide open, and the attendants were no where to be seen.

The warrior drew her sword as she stepped inside the door, while the bard twirled her staff nervously. "I don't understand...why would someone attack the temple?"

Xena shook her head as she looked down the main corridor and saw nothing but shadows. "An Oracle would be a valuable commodity, Gabrielle. She could be held for hostage, I'm sure the people of Delphi would pay any amount to get her back...or more likely, someone might think they could get great use out of her abilities. Either way, I'm more troubled by the fact we were sent a personal invitation. Someone's going to a lot of trouble to get us here, which means we're probably walking right into a trap."

"Is that wise? If someone IS in there, and they're waiting for us..."

"We don't have a lot of choice." Xena lay a hand on the bard's shoulder. "Besides unless you forget, we were attacked just before we came here to Delphi. Chances are those men weren't working alone, Ares or not, and we may have led them right to Marina."

Gabrielle's face paled. "You're right. Gods, I hadn't even thought of that!"

"One way or the other, this is our responsibility. But, if these guys inside are as strong as the ones we fought before, you might be better off..."

"Wait, let's not got through THIS again." The bard looked the warrior sternly in the eye. "We are in this thing together, Xena. No matter what! I'm not afraid of danger, believe me, or I would have given up this life of ours a LONG time ago." She raised her staff. "Besides, whether you like it or not, I CAN fight. This thing is not just for show you know, and I'm not some helpless little village girl who needs to be protected anymore. I fight by your side because I am your best friend, your lover and, I thought...your equal in this relationship!"

Xena was clearly stunned by her outburst, after all, the warrior princess was not accustomed to being spoken to such a manner. Back with my army I would have had anyone who even THOUGHT about talking to me that way drawn and quartered. Even now, Gabrielle is the only person in the world who can get away with it and she knows it! The warrior lowered her head, and sighed. "You're right, I'm sorry. It's just...I get so worried about you sometimes, Gabrielle. I'm afraid if you stay with me long enough my darkness, and the danger that seems to follow me around like a curse, will destroy you as it has all the other important people in my life. And, I care too much about you to let that happen, Gabrielle."

"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle threw her arms around the warrior and they embraced for long moments. Eventually, she leaned her head back and they kissed. "Now..." She stepped back and raised her staff. "...let's go, we've still got an Oracle to save, remember?"

Xena nodded and, as usual, led the way. But one thought was still foremost on her mind. I won't let anything happen to you, Gabrielle. I swear it!

With no sign of anyone, good, bad or otherwise, in the first few prayer rooms, Xena and Gabrielle proceeded to the viewing room. It was in shambles. All of the plants had been uprooted, the beautiful tapestries ripped off the walls and torn to shreds, and all but one of the statues was shattered.

Xena's eyes narrowed in anger when she realized whose statue it was. "Figures!"

"They left Ares' statue." Gabrielle shook her head. "It MUST be those guys we fought earlier. Xena, this is all our fault...what are we going to..." Something whistled through the air, but Xena lashed out and caught it scant inches from the bard's face. "Whoa!"

It was a dagger, the same kind as what had been thrown at their door. Xena spun around, to find another one of the black-garbed men watching them from a doorway. He had a belt of daggers strapped about his waist, and was just drawing another one.

Xena threw the dagger back at him, it struck the man's hand as he was raising his own dagger, and the impact knocked it deep into his chest. For a moment he just stood there, staring down at the hilt of the dagger sticking out of his heart, and then he crumpled into a black heap. She nodded.

Someone began to clap. "Oh, very good, Xena. Nice reflexes. I'm almost impressed."

"Who's there?" The warrior turned, on the lookout for danger, while making sure to keep Gabrielle behind her body as much as possible. "Show yourself! I don't fight shadows!"

"On the contrary." He stepped out from behind the statue of Ares, another man in a solid black outfit with the sign of war on his chest. "You already have. And, you shall again." Two more appeared in the doorway behind them, followed by two more where the dead man lay. All, except for the one by the statue, drew a sword from an unseen scabbard on his back. "Allow me to introduce us Xena. We are the Bloodsword, followers of the god of war, and we have come to teach you a lesson!"

Gabrielle glanced nervously at Xena, who took a step forward. "Frankly, I don't give a snowball in Hades who you are...I just want to know what you've done with Marina!"

"Now calm down Xena. You must know that the Oracle is far too valuable for us to harm." He shrugged. "Her attendants, on the other hand, were not smart enough to stay out of our way. They couldn't fight very well, but I must say...they screamed great!"

Xena's body virtually quivered with rage. "If it's a fight you want...try me...!"

Though she wouldn't actually say anything, Gabrielle was getting worried. She knew Xena, more than anyone she had ever met, was capable of turning her anger into strength. At the same time, she did have a temper, and even Xena could lose control if she was pushed too far. Please Xena, be careful.

Xena took another step forward and twirled her sword. "So? Who wants to die first?!"

"All in good time. You see, we know you, Xena. You're used to setting the pace in a battle, getting everything to go your own way and using it to your advantage. But that is not going to happen here! We have other plans in mind for you. You were foolish to turn your back on Lord Ares...he who gave you the power and the passion to become the warrior princess! He has granted you the ultimate honor, of being his Chosen, and we are here to be the final judges of your true worth!"

"Really?" Xena snorted. "If this is the best he's got, Ares is really losing his touch!"

"Blasphemy! You dare to mock the God of War?!" He gestured, and all four of the other Bloodsword warrior's charged at them.

Gabrielle felt, rather than heard, the two Bloodsword's coming up behind her. She spun around, swinging her staff as hard as she could, and connected with the mid-section of one of the men, doubling him over. But to her surprise the second man easily avoided her strike by leaping over her, and landing to her right. The bard gritted her teeth as she turned to face him, realizing that neither man was going to be as easy to defeat as a part of her had hoped. I have to focus...or I'm dead!

Xena was silently impressed. These Bloodsword more a formidable group, they attacked as one and were just as strong and tough as the one's from before. As she parried a series of bone-jarring sword strikes, she allowed herself to experience a momentary pang of fear, though again not for herself...she was worried about Gabrielle. I am having a hard time with these guys. Xena kicked hard at one of the men and he managed to avoid the blow, but the other just took his place, and she just blocked a sword aimed at her side.

Nearby, the bard was having her own problems. For each sword thrust she could just barely knock away, she received another, and the effort was beginning to make her arms hurt. Gods, these guys ARE strong! She'd been aware of their strength since their last encounter, and thought herself prepared, but then she hadn't expected to be fighting two at once. I'm not sure I can handle this! For a brief moment Gabrielle considered asking Xena for help, but then she remembered her own words outside the temple, and decided it would be best if she stood or fell on her own.

The warrior princess was grievously aware of Gabrielle's condition, and what sort of toll this battle was taking on her young lover. Xena knew that she had to end her own battle soon, for the way the bard was beginning to wear down she might soon be injured...or worse. The mere thought of Gabrielle's being hurt was enough to fuel Xena's anger even further as she leapt straight up, and kicked her two opponents in the face. One was knocked completely off his feet, but the other recovered in time to come at her once again, and Xena was able to use his own momentum to knock the Bloodsword's weapon out of his hands.

Gabrielle was breathing rather heavily, and yet she found herself no closer to victory than before. Neither one of her attackers showed any signs of slowing down, or even being affected by her occasional lucky blows, not that she was ready to just give up. She ducked as one of them swung his sword and brought her staff up at his exposed ankles, knocking him right off his feet. But she had little time to celebrate this minor victory, for in that moment she also lost sight of the other Bloodsword. Where did... Too late, she realized he was behind her, with one arm wrapped tightly around her neck before she even had a chance to react, and he used the other hand to swipe the staff out of her hands. Xena...I'm sorry!

Chuckling, Xena blocked a punch from the unarmed Bloodsword, then she dropped down and leg-swept both feet out from under him, running him through with her sword as he fell. HAH! These guys aren't nearly as good without their weapons! Figures! The other man came at her as she was withdrawing her sword, and though he did manage to avoid her first swipe, subsequent slashes and several kicks to the chest were too much. He went down in a bloody heap even as she got to her feet, angry victory on her face as she turned to see how Gabrielle was faring in her own battle.

Her expression went from satisfaction to terror in a matter of moments. Gods no! One of the Bloodsword's had disarmed Gabrielle and gotten an arm around her neck, leaving her helpless for the other, who was just about to come at her once again with his sword. No! Not again! Xena drew the chakram from her belt and hurled it at the exposed back of the Bloodsword holding Gabrielle, and he went rigid as it was embedded between his shoulder blades. Unfortunately his arms were still locked tight around the bard, who no longer appeared to be putting up much of a struggle, and the other man was now attacking as well. Never again!

"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiiii!" Xena propelled herself up and over Gabrielle and her dieing attacker as they slumped to the ground, landing right in front of the other Bloodsword. He was startled by her abrupt arrival, and that brief moment of hesitation gave Xena the opportunity to try and disarm him. Even then he managed to counter, but as he made his next swing she stepped forward to avoid it, and rolled across his body. Before he could turn she brought her sword down on his back, and he never made a sound as he collapsed, still shuddering even as the triumphant warrior princess sheathed her sword.

The heat of battle was all but forgotten now, replaced by fear and worry, as she fell to one knee and rolled the now dead Bloodsword off a much smaller frame. "Gabrielle?" Nothing happened for a few moments, and Xena's eyes brimmed with tears. "Gabrielle, please...wake up." There was a note of panic in her voice as she put a hand on the bard's shoulder and shook her gently. "Gabrielle?!"

All at once the bard's back arched, and she began to shudder and cough violently. "Xena..." Gabrielle's voice was hoarse, it must have hurt for her to speak. She nodded when Xena repeated the question, and swept a lock of hair out of her face. "Y-Yeah...I think so. Throat...is sore...though..."

"I don't doubt it. These guys were strong, you're lucky he didn't break your neck."

Gabrielle touched her throat, certain that bruising would take shape there soon. "Well...not for lack of trying, I can assure you." She accepted Xena's hand to help her stand, and looked around for her staff, while the warrior retrieved her chakram. "Wait, what about the other guy?"

Xena inwardly cursed herself for forgetting about the lead Bloodsword. She turned toward the statue of Ares, but not surprisingly, the black-garbed man was gone. After a moment, her eyes narrowed further. "Gabrielle can you walk?" The bard nodded, and was surprised when the warrior grabbed her arm. "Come on. We defeated his warriors, now he might try to take it out on Marina!"

They burst into the Oracle's private chamber, weapons drawn and ready. Unlike the viewing room, which had been thoroughly and deliberately demolished, this inner room was in relatively good shape, only a few pieces of furniture had even been damaged. There was, however, blood on the carpet, though no sign of the whoever had spilt it. Marina was sprawled on her bed, she'd been tied hand and foot and was unconscious but appeared to be otherwise unharmed. She wasn't alone in the room either.

"Well, you two certainly took your time getting up here." The remaining Bloodsword was straddling the open window, hands in his lap. "I was about to leave. I thought I'd have to do it without saying goodbye and I didn't want to be rude."

Xena twirled her sword. "Oh no, you're not getting away so easily!"

"Would you care to make a wager on that, warrior princess?" Chuckling, the Bloodsword let himself fall back, right out the window.

Gabrielle gasped. "Gods! Xena, we're on the second level!"

The warrior too was taken aback, as she sheathed her sword and raced to the window. After several moments she turned, her face tight, unreadable.

"Is he dead?"

Xena shook her head. "No, he's gone. He hit the ground hard. Then he stood up, brushed himself off, saluted to me and then just walked away."

"But that's humanly impossible. How could..." Gabrielle raised her head, their eyes meeting as they both came to the same conclusion at the same time. He WASN'T human!

"Let's worry about him later..." Xena finally said. "Right now we should check on Marina." She untied the still unconscious Oracle, while Gabrielle went to fetch her some water. By the time she got back, Marina's eyes were beginning to flutter open. "Can you hear me?" No response.

Gabrielle held out the dipper. "Here, Xena...try giving her some of this."

"Right..." Xena poured a few drops down Marina's throat, and the Oracle started to cough. The warrior gently patted her on the back until she was able to breath normally again. "There you go, take it easy. Everything's all right now Marina, you're safe."

Gabrielle looked upon the face of her lover and smiled. It was at times like this she was most amazed by Xena, how the usually stern warrior was, for a few moments at least, replaced by the caring, nurturing woman. It never lasted for very long, nor in truth would she want it to, for that dichotomy was a big part of why she loved Xena so much. Gods, I am SO lucky!

Marina wiped her eyes as she looked up at the worried face of the warrior. "Xena...y-you came back, just like I knew you would." She smiled, weakly, and Xena returned the favor. "I-I just...I just wish..." She closed her eyes and started to cry. "Gods Xena, they killed them! My attendants, my friends, they slaughtered them without so much as a second thought, and put their bodies in a store-room! I couldn't do ANYthing..."

"Nor should you have tried. They would have killed you too." Xena's face reddened. "It's all because of me. I am sorry Marina, I'm so sorry!"

Marina shook her head as she sat up. "No. Don't apologize, Xena. I'm the Oracle, remember? I knew there was a darkness coming for me and mine, I-I just never foresaw anything like this. Those men...they were monsters, I can't imagine...did you know them?"

The warrior stood up and crossed her arms. "Not until today. They call themselves the Bloodsword, followers of Ares, and I think they came here after me. You just got caught in the middle."

"The god of war...THAT might explain my visions. If Ares is that man I saw..." Marina's entire body suddenly tensed up, and her eyes seemed to glaze over as her breathing slowed. Xena and Gabrielle recognized the signs this time, they stayed silent as she went into one of her visions. "North...you must go north. Soon will be a time of great sorrow, for when the light is extinguished by darkness they will be gone. Find them before it is too late, but...beware the man who strives to release himself from a cage not set." She slumped forward, momentarily out of breath, and Xena turned to Gabrielle.

"What was that all about?"

The bard shook her head. "Maybe the Bloodsword come from the north, they may have a fortress up there or something." She lay her staff on her shoulder. "But what I don't understand...is that part about beware the man who strives to release himself from a cage not set. Who could she be talking about?"

Xena's eyes narrowed as she considered the possibilities. "I don't know, but if we come across someone who

is trying to release himself, let's not help him okay?" She turned back to Marina, who was staring plaintively up

at them. "So how are you feeling?"

"Fine I suppose." The Oracle tried to smile, but didn't succeed. "I want to thank you...BOTH of you, for being here, for trying to help. I just...I just wish..." Her body was again wracked with sobs. "Gods, I just wish you had been here to save my friends!"

Xena fought the urge to go to Marina, to console her. Oracle's usually shied away from physical contact, as it tended to provoke unwanted visions. Besides, no matter how similar her face may be...this is NOT M'Lila. The warrior grimaced as she realized what she was thinking. Gods, this is maddening! I am with Gabrielle now, and M'Lila is dead. I have to let her go!

Gabrielle came at her side. "Xena what are we going to do?" She spoke quietly, so as not to disturb Marina. "I mean, we have to find some way to stop these men before they kill again."

"We will. But since the Bloodsword were here, and they murdered those women, because they were following us-it's our responsibility to help out however we can. Once that is done however, we are going to take Marina's advice and go north. We're going to track those monsters back to their hideout, and do whatever it takes to see to it that they never hurt anyone again!"

Xena and Gabrielle left Delphi two days later. They had assisted Marina with the funeral arrangements for her attendants, most of whom had no families, and were buried in the public cemetery. But several of them were like family to her, and the Oracle insisted they be laid to rest in her own private mausoleum. In thanks for their help, Marina allowed Xena to keep the celtic knot necklace, gave Gabrielle some brand new scrolls, and promised the two of them would have sanctuary in Delphi if they ever needed it.

Night fell, and after having been traveling almost the entire day they finally decided to set up camp. They had spoken little since leaving the city, both women were too wrapped in their own thoughts. Gabrielle started a fire and prepared their food, while Xena rolled out their bed and untacked Argo.

The bard held her hands out over the fire to warm them. "Xena, where do you think these Bloodsword creeps came from anyway? Ares is the chosen god of warriors, and they're usually very vocal about their allegiance to him, yet...I've never heard of these guys."

"Me neither." Xena finished brushing Argo's mane, then joined the bard by the fire. "You know, once upon a time, I used to make it a point to keep track of anyone who might oppose my army. And, while I realize that I am no longer exactly 'in the know', we should have heard SOMETHING about warrior's as formidable as these. So I would say they're either top secret, or else so brand new that no one had ever heard of them."

Gabrielle watched the warrior's face for a few moments. "I know that look, Xena. You're planning something, I can tell. Come on, give!"

"No. Not yet." Xena took off her bracers, and reached back to undo the buckles holding up her chestplate. "I DO have something in mind, but I am not ready to discuss it just yet, okay?" That being said, she extended her legs, silently asking for help with her boots. It was an indulgence, clearly, since she was capable of undressing herself; but Xena had reluctantly come to realize that these nightly rituals helped her to relax. At least, as much as I EVER do. She shook her head.

Gabrielle knew better than to push any further as she pulled off Xena's boots. The warrior was never talkative under the best of circumstances, but when she was formulating a plan in her mind like this, Xena could become downright tight-lipped. The bard smiled. Of course, there was one way she was guaranteed to part the warrior's lips. "Well, if you're not in a mood to TALK..." She leaned forward and nuzzled Xena's neck. "...I'm sure we can find something else to pass the time."

"Gods, you are insatiable." Xena threw her arms around the bard, kissing her passionately, and the two of fell back on to the bedroll.

Around mid-sun the following day, they were going along at a brisk pace when Xena abruptly pulled back on the reins, drawing Argo to a stop. Gabrielle glanced up and started to say something, but the warrior raised her hand, calling for silence. She cocked her head to one side and listened as the bard raised her staff, wondering if she should be worried or not. Moments later, Xena slid off Argo and handed Gabrielle the reins. "Wait here, I'm going to go check on something..."

Before the bard could so much as open her mouth to protest, Xena had stepped into the trees and was out of her sight almost instantly. A few minutes later, she seemed to just reappear at Gabrielle's side, causing the bard to nearly jump out of her boots. "Xena!" She clutched her chest. "How many times, have I asked you not to do that to me? You nearly scared me half to death!"

The warrior shrugged. "Sorry. I thought I'd been in this area before and I was right. There used to be a temple just north of here, and I wanted to see if it was still there. It is."

"A temple? To whom?" Gabrielle already expected she knew the answer.

Xena saw the look on the bard's face and nodded. "Ares. Years ago, this region was involved in a particularly brutal war between two valleys. A temple to the god of war was one of the first structures built by those on the defending side, and was the only one respected by the invaders." She crossed her arms. "But the war lasted so long, and cost so many lives, that when it was finally over, those few who survived wanted nothing more to do with Ares. The temple's been abandoned ever since."

Gabrielle's eyes sparkled with understanding. "So...it is the perfect place for the Bloodsword to hide out." She handed the reins back to Xena. "What are we waiting for? Let's go."

"Hold on. We can't just go charging head-long into this thing. We don't know how many of them there are, or how fortified the temple is, we have to...to..." Xena's head jerked up and she grabbed the bard's arm. "Quick, go stand over there with Argo and don't make a sound."

Gabrielle did as she was told, and lead the mare off the path while Xena drew her sword. She knew better than to argue with the warrior, something about the tone of Xena's voice and the narrowing of her eyes told the bard trouble was coming. Lowering her staff, she waited, and wasn't at all surprised when a Bloodsword stepped out of the trees a few moments later. Uh oh.

"Ayiyiyiyiyii!" Bloodsword and bard both looked up as Xena plummeted out of a tree, and she brought down her sword down into the small of the black-garbed warrior's back. He collapsed without a sound, she pulled her sword out and turned to Gabrielle. "Are you all right?"

The bard nodded. "I'm fine, he never got close. How did you know he was there?"

Xena sheathed her sword. "Even the most stealthy of warrior's can step on a twig out here. He gave plenty of advanced warning, and..." She crouched down, and fingered the Bloodsword's clothing. "...I believe, a way into the temple as well."

"Xena, I'm not so sure I like this idea."

The two of them were alone on a trail to the temple, having left Argo in a clearing with enough food and water to support herself for several days if necessary. She wasn't tied either, so if they did not return for some reason the mare would be able to make it back to civilization.

Gabrielle walked with her staff across her shoulders, both hands lashed to it. But they were not held tight, she would be able slip loose at a moments notice. She wasn't worried about her appearance however. "I mean, we're walking right into their den!"

"It's the only way, Gabrielle." Xena was a little ahead of her, holding on to a rope loosely tied to the staff. Her voice was somewhat muffled by the fact that she was wearing the Bloodsword's clothing. The armor concealed her shapely figure, and the mask hid her face. "They'd probably recognize me in a moment, but with a little luck, they'll just think you're prisoner and let us inside. Simple."

"Yeah, a little too much so." The bard frowned. "When does ANYTHING work that easy for us?"

Xena shrugged. "Hey, there's a first time for everything. Let's just see what happens, all right?" She frowned as the Bloodsword guarding the door caught sight of them both, and turned their way. "Okay, it's time. So stop talking, and act captured."

One of the three Bloodsword a up his hand as the duo approached, while the others just watched. For several moments he looked up and down Gabrielle's body, clearly liking what he saw, then he turned to Xena and made a series of rapid hand gestures. A hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach alerted the warrior to the seriousness of their situation...obviously the man she was impersonating was meant to understand the gesture. Finally, she did the only thing she could think of besides drawing her sword, she nodded.

For a heartbeat, the Bloodsword continued to glare at Xena. Just when she was beginning to think she might have made the wrong choice, he turned and motioned for the doors to be opened.

Within the walls of the temple, they were surprised to find dozens of more Bloodsword. Many were having a training exercise, sparring open-handed, while others were cleaning and sharpening their weapons, swords and axes mostly, but some had maces, spears and even heavy crossbows. Gabrielle was wide-eyed, stunned by the sheer number of black-garbed warriors, while Xena's eye was more jaded. At their peaks, her armies had been a fair sight larger than this, but she was more concerned with how such a massive organization could be created without anyone knowing about it.

They passed through the throng, examining their surroundings as inconspicuously as possible, and most of the Bloodsword gave them little attention. Those who did stared openly at Gabrielle, a fact that did not escape the warrior's attention. Something got the bard's notice as well and, knowing it wasn't safe to talk; she nudged Xena's boot with her own. The warrior followed her gaze to a door on the far end of the room; and while it was one of several, it was the only one being guarded. Xena and Gabrielle's eyes met and the warrior nodded, they were going to investigate further.

Both guards watched the duo closely as they approached the doors. Neither one moved or reacted, they just stood there, and took a moment for Xena to realize they were waiting for something. Whatever was behind this door was obviously quite valuable to require extra security, they were most likely waiting for some sort of pass-word. No...the warrior corrected herself...not a password, these guys don't talk. So how do they...hey, can it be THAT simple? It was a long shot, she knew, but Xena decided to try it anyway. She raised her hands and did a version of the hand gestures the guard outside had made toward her.

After a visible moment of hesitation, one guard came forward, and cupped Gabrielle's chin. He roughly turned her head from side to side, looked up at the staff 'holding' her hands, then he slowly ran a gloved hand between the bard's full breasts. She shuddered in revulsion, but did not otherwise react, while Xena had to bite her lip to keep from ripping the Bloodsword's arm off and beating him to death with it. Finally the guard stepped back, he nodded to Xena and then motioned for the doors to be opened.

Once the door was closed behind them Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. "Gods..." she whispered. "That was close." She felt it somewhat safer to talk here, because both guards had remained on the other side of the door, and they were at the mouth of a long, dark and otherwise empty corridor. "Xena, how did you know? I mean, to risk trying those hand gestures..."

"Call it an educated guess Gabrielle. In our encounters with the Bloodsword only one of them has talked, but I knew they had to have some way to communicate. So I gambled on what you told me about hand-signs being true, that they can mean more than one thing. That guard outside was probably saying something like 'take the prisoner to the dungeon', so I thought a variation might be taken as..."

Gabrielle nodded. "...I'm taking the prisoner to the dungeon." She clasped the warrior's arm. "Xena, that was a brilliant piece of observation. Most people can take years to pick up on that."

"Well, I had a good teacher." Gabrielle's face beamed as she smiled, and Xena found herself wanting to throw her arms around the bard and smother her with kisses. But, this wasn't the time or the place, so she took a deep breath instead. "Let's keep moving. We still don't know what's waiting for us."

The bard steadied her grip on the staff and followed.

A long, winding corridor led them down to what appeared to be a storage area that had been converted into a secondary altar room. One wall was covered in weapons of virtually every imaginable size and shape, several of the familiar crossed-sword banners hung from the ceiling, and there was a massive statue of Ares located in the exact center of the room. A large square hole had been cut in the ceiling, which they guessed led straight to the surface, as it admitted a bright ray of sunlight to shine down and illuminate a strange-looking object at the base of the statue. Housed within an ornate golden pedestal, it was a large orb which appeared to have been created from a burnished ebony crystal, which seemed to glow with it's own inner darkness. Standing around it were a half dozen men, five of them with bald heads and flowing blood red robes, the other wearing the full black body outfit of a member of the Bloodsword.

Xena and Gabrielle were watching this from an open, unguarded doorway, standing on either side so as to be out of sight to those inside. The bard had since untied her staff and was holding it ready, they had both agreed the 'prisoner' disguise was no longer necessary, or safe for that matter. If any of the Bloodsword attacked her, a moment or two to bring her weapon into play could be a moment or two too long. But the warrior had chosen to remain in the Bloodsword's outfit for the time being, insisting that any confusion concerning her identity would still work in their favor.

The bard looked up and caught Xena's eye. "What do we do?" she mouthed.

Xena held a finger to her lips, then pointed from her ear to the room. Gabrielle nodded, and the warrior cocked her head in an effort to hear what the men inside were saying. A moment later her efforts proved needless as an angry shout erupted from the Bloodsword.

"It's not ready?! Why?! We need the Nightstone at peak capacity for the darkfall this afternoon..." There was a long moment of silence as one of the robed men spoke, then the Bloodsword drew back and hit him with force enough to knock him back into a wall. "Fool! If a sacrifice is required, then bring one of the virgins in here and I will...what?!" More mumbling. "ALL of them?! You incompetent buffoon!" He stepped forward and, almost too fast for the eye to follow, snapped the fallen man's neck like so much kindling. "Now, as for the rest of you...we have to be ready in less than an hour. Can you do it?!"

Xena frowned beneath the mask. So they've got something planned for later today, but what? And why does it require a blood sacrifice? She risked a glance at the bard, who was staring intently at the Nightstone. Thank the gods Gabrielle's not a virgin anymore, or she'd be in even more danger.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle shifted her staff to the other hand and leaned closer to the door, trying to hear what the men inside were saying. The darkfall? Why does that sound familiar? The bard was so wrapped up in her own thoughts she momentarily lost her grip on the staff, and it slipped out of her hands. She reacted in time to keep it from hitting the floor, the commotion was enough to draw unwanted attention.

"What's going on out here?!" A heartbeat later, the Bloodsword appeared in the doorway. "Who..." By some chance he saw Gabrielle first, and chuckled. "So, Xena's little friend. I don't know how you got in here little one, or why, and I don't really care either. You've seen too much." He drew back his hand. "After all, didn't you ever hear that curiosity killed the bard?" Before he could bring his hand down, a vise-like grip clasped his wrist, and he turned to see another Bloodsword. "What do you think you're doing?!"

"Don't even THINK about it." Xena released her hold and swung her right leg up at the same time, kicking the Bloodsword square in his masked face. The impact knocked him head over heels and into the altar room, but he recovered at the last moment, to barely land on his feet. "Nice move." Having recognized his voice she decided she had a score to settle, and pulled off the mask. "But your luck just ran out murderer...and you've got a lot to answer for back in Delphi."

"Xena? I might have known." He laughed. "As for Delphi, well...thanks for the invitation, but I'm afraid I have to pass." He gestured toward the Nightstone, and the robed men hiding behind the statue. "See, there is a more pressing engagement awaiting me right here."

Xena drew her sword. "I'm sorry. Did you get the mistaken impression I was giving you a choice?"

The Bloodsword shrugged. "You can't threaten me, Xena. You're good, maybe even one of the best, but even YOU can't hope to defeat all the warriors I have assembled upstairs."

"Maybe, maybe not. But they're not here, you are!" She twirled her sword. "Now, I want some answers. Who ARE you guys anyway?!"

"I told you...we are the Bloodsword. We follow the edicts of the god of war..."

Xena shook her head. "Don't give me that. I know Ares, and even though he and I aren't exactly on speaking terms any more, this isn't his way. If he WERE going to kill me, he wouldn't send a bunch of half-witted warrior wannabe's like you!" The Bloodsword clenched his fists, and the warrior princess smiled slightly. Her prodding had worked, he was getting angry. "He would come and tell me himself. For that matter, he would try to take me back to his side one last time. He's so predictable."

"Silence! Do not speak of our master in such a manner! You may be his Chosen, but you ARE inferior, and we are here to prove it. You aren't worthy of his praise."

Xena's ice-blue eyes narrowed. "I get it. Kill me, and you get in Ares's good graces, right?"

"Crudely put, but essentially correct."

She nodded. "Well, you're forgetting one little thing. In order for your plan to work, which--knowing Ares as I do, I doubt it would anyway--you have to go through me, first!"

The Bloodsword bowed at the waist. "It will be a pleasure Xena. We--the Bloodsword--were assembled solely for the purpose of serving the god of war. He's destined to rule the world, and we have every intention of being there, by his side, when he does. And now, with our time of destiny near at hand, only one thing still stands in our way... YOU! I've been waiting a long time to test my skills against the mighty warrior princess!" He laughed as she twirled her sword. "What's this? Do I scare you, Xena? Do you fear my power so that you feel the NEED for a weapon?"

He's trying to use my own tactics against me. Trouble is, he's right. Xena scowled angrily for a few moments, then slowly sheathed her sword. At that point, Gabrielle came forward. "Uh, Xena...I don't mean to tell you how to fight or anything, but don't you think you need every edge you can get with this guy?"

"I won't use a sword on an unarmed opponent. Trust me, I'll be fine." Xena turned, keeping a close eye on the Bloodsword, and squeezed the bard's shoulder while whispering into her ear. "Still, I want you to promise you'll be ready to run in case he gets lucky. And, if those guys hiding behind the statue try to get out of here to warn the ones upstairs...make sure you stop them."

Gabrielle nodded. "I will. Just be careful."

"Always." Xena turned and moved into a unarmed fighting stance. "Whenever you're ready."

They locked eyes from across the room, neither of them moving and hardly breathing, each silently daring the other to make the first move. With nothing else to do but watch, Gabrielle stood by the door to make certain no one else entered the room, or interfered with the two combatants. Just as the waiting was becoming intolerable, the Bloodsword leaped into action, literally.

He jumped backward, flipping head over heels several times before landing in the outstretched arms of Ares's statue behind him. Unbalanced by the additional weight, it started to rock back and forth, threatening to topple over at any moment, but he used a forward movement to leap free. He flipped through the air and came down at Xena like a black blur, only to miss the thrust-kick when Xena rolled underneath him.

As he landed, Xena spun around and kicked the Bloodsword in the back, sending him into a wall. She felt the impact throughout her entire leg, it felt like kicking a stone wall. He recovered quick, too quickly for even Xena, and managed to ram one rock-hard shoulder into her chest with tremendous force. Off-guard and out of breath, Xena hit the ground hard and didn't immediately rise.

Gabrielle's face paled in fear. Gods Xena, no!

Xena's eyes snapped open as the Bloodsword came at her again. She reached up in time to catch the foot that had been aimed at her side. She flexed her arms trying to throw him off his feet, but he pivoted on his other heel and succeeded in remaining upright, albeit momentarily unable to attack further as Xena got to her feet. Both of the warrior's stopped and eyed one other again, mentally analyzing the strengths and weaknesses each noticed in the others fighting style.

Sensing a lull in the battle, Gabrielle took a moment to glance over her shoulder. The corridor was still vacant, and she could see three bald faces peeking out from around the still wobbling statue of Ares. At that, her brow furrowed. Three? The Bloodsword had killed one of them, she could see his body, but there was still supposed to be four of them left. As she looked left she detected movement to the right, and barely raised her staff in time to parry the thrust of a dagger from the other robed man. "Whoa!" He stumbled back, she twirled her staff. "It's not polite to sneak up on people!"

"Blasphemer! You defy the will of Ares!"

Gabrielle nodded. "Sure. As often as I can. He's a pompous, arrogant..." Wild-eyed, the robed man charged at her, dagger extended, and the bard realized that her attempt to goad him into carelessness had worked, in fact, a little TOO well. Still, it was a rather clumsy attack, she was able to spin around and avoid the charge. He rushed past her howling wildly and she swung her staff into his back for good measure; the added momentum sent him face-first into a wall. He stood there for a moment, then the dagger slipped out of his unconscious hand and hit the ground, his body following in the next instant.

Xena smiled. Good. She remembered that move I taught her. The Bloodsword, apparently realizing her focus was divided, chose that moment to attack. He swung his fists at her one after another in quick succession, and though she was able to block his punches with her bracers, the stance left her legs vulnerable. He kicked with a sudden ferocity, and the heel of his boot struck the top of her knee just above the bracer. There was an audible popping sound that even Gabrielle could hear, but Xena didn't react.

Instead, she grabbed the Bloodsword's shoulders and brought her other knee up into the shoulder with force enough to double him over. As he went down, stunned but most likely not really hurt, Xena brought both fists against the back of his head just as hard as she could. He hit the ground with loud gasp as she stumbled back, barely able to keep her footing. Gods, I think he dislocated my knee.

Gabrielle started to smile. "Thank Artemis this is over..." she whispered.

"Not quite." Xena stared disbelievingly as the Bloodsword rose to his feet, seemingly none the worse for the blows she had given him. "That was good Xena." He laughed. "But surely that's not ALL the legendary warrior princess has to offer!"

What is keeping this guy on his feet? Xena remembered back to Delphi, when he had jumped out of a second level window and hit the ground without suffering injury. He MUST be touched by the Gods. Maybe Ares gave him power in exchange for service . Not that it mattered to her one way or the other. I've fought the real thing, so what's one godly servant more or less?

The Bloodsword apparently found the concerned look on their faces quite hysterical. "Oh, this is priceless. Is the warrior princess actually at a loss for words? I'll tell you what Xena...let's make this a bit more fun. Go ahead and use your sword, 'cause you obviously can't beat me without it!"

Arrogant son of a bacchae! Xena glanced at Gabrielle. The bard was shaking, she was clearly scared. Gods, I never even considered what would happen to her if I lost. I have to end this, here and now, or else they might hurt Gabrielle after they're done with me. She slowly drew her sword. "Well, since you offered SO nicely, how could I possibly refuse?" The warrior hoped that she could live up to her own bravado, her knee was throbbing with pain. "Shall we?!" It still didn't feel right to be using her sword on an unarmed opponent, but this a unique situation, and a unique opponent. After all, if he IS touched, I may NEED my sword.

The Bloodsword spread his arms. "Here...take your best shot. Come on, a free one, on me!"

Xena frowned. He's just going to stand there and let me hit him? That doesn't make sense, it's gotta be some kind of a trick. Still, it was an opening, and one she could not pass up. Doing her best to ignore the pain in her injured knee she ran straight toward the Bloodsword, and her powerful legs propelled her into the air at the last moment. She landed behind him and her knee screamed in agony, it was enough to make her gasp outloud, but she pushed it aside as swung her sword. The Bloodsword started to turn, but as fast as he was Xena proved to be even faster, and brought the blade down upon his back and shoulders. It tore through armor and skin, and he dropped to his knees, and Xena realized there was no blood on her blade. What in...?

Without warning, the Bloodsword reached up and grabbed the blade of her sword. "Time's up!" He pulled on it so hard that, coupled with his inhuman strength and the excruciating pain in her knee, he was actually able to take it from her. "And I don't think you'll be needing THIS anymore, either." He raised the sword and twirled it in his hand a few times. "Hmm...nice feel, good weight, I like it!"

Xena stepped back, wincing at the building weakness in her knee, and put a hand on her hip. "If you think I'm just going to stand here and let you kill me with my own sword, you're out of your mind!"

"Oh really? And what exactly are you going to do about it?" He laughed. "We both know I'm stronger, faster, and a better fighter. You CAN'T beat me Xena!"

"Are you suggesting I just give up?" She slipped a hand under the waist-band of her stolen breeches. "Now, why would I want to do that, when I could do...THIS!" Xena drew her hand out and swung it toward the Bloodsword, who noticed the silver and gold blur streaking toward him a moment too late. The chakram embedded in his chest cavity and he just stood there for a moment, staring down at the weapon in wide-eyed disbelief, until his entire body collapsed into a black heap. Gods. She felt a sense of relief as the blood-rush of battle faded, to be replaced by an unrelenting pain in her right knee. NO!

"No, Xena!" Gabrielle raced forward as the warrior's leg gave out, and she slipped one arm around Xena. "Is it BAD?" she asked worriedly.

"My knee...is dislocated..." Xena hissed. She nodded toward the Nightstone which, she was surprised to see, seemed to be glowing with a faint inner black light despite the fact everything else in the room was even harder to see than before. "Help me over there, would you? I need to reset it before it's too late."

Gabrielle nodded, and led Xena to the Nightstone, where the warrior placed her knee against the pedestal. "Is there anything I can do to help?" She knew what Xena was going to do, had in fact SEEN her do it with her arm after the first battle with Velasca, but that didn't make the idea of it hurt any less.

Xena shook her head. "No, I have to do this...mySELF!" She slammed her knee into the pedestal, and another loud pop filled the air. Even though the warrior didn't react, it was enough to make the bard wince. Xena took a deep breath, then tested her leg and found it stronger. "That's better."

"Now!" someone cried. Xena and Gabrielle turned to see the other three robed men racing toward the door. It was apparently a last-ditch effort to escape.

"Oh no you don't!" Gabrielle pitched her staff like a spear, it flew through the air and entangled the feet of the first man, who dropped like a stone. He tripped up one of the men behind him as well and the two of them fell to the ground in a tangled heap of black-clad arms and legs. But the third was no so easily caught, he leaped over his fallen comrades and raced down the corridor, yelling at the top of his lungs for help.

Gabrielle's face fell. "Gods Xena, what are we going to do? He'll have the others down here in a few moments, and even YOU can't fight them all!"

It was against Xena's very nature to run from a fight, but she knew that the bard was right. We have to find a way out of here, and fast! The only question was, how were they supposed to get past all of the Bloodsword in the upper chamber. UP...that's it! She raised her head and looked out the hole in the ceiling, only then realizing why it had gotten so dark in the room. "Gabrielle, look!"

The bard gasped. "The sun! It's gone!" It wasn't really gone of course, but the sun--which should have been right over the Nightstone this time of day--was almost totally hidden behind the moon. "An eclipse. Xena, can the Bloodsword have been talking about this when he mentioned a darkfall?"

Xena was silent for a moment. "Gabrielle, we have to get out of here." She stepped away from the Nightstone and looked around. "Let me just get my sword and..." Her eyes narrowed. "Hey!"

With the eclipse, and no torches in the room, it was hard for Gabrielle to see what Xena was looking at. Or, in this case, NOT looking at. "The Bloodsword! Where did he go?"

"Nowhere!" A studded, leather-covered fist lashed out and struck the bard's jaw, knocking her to the ground. The Bloodsword strode out of the shadows, he was holding the chakram in the other hand and had tucked her sword into his belt. "Now Xena, that wasn't a nice thing to do."

Before responding, Xena glanced worriedly at Gabrielle. The bard was stunned but conscious. "I don't know who...or what...you are, but I'm not going to let you hurt any more innocent people!" Two sounds alerted her to approaching danger; a dull roar from down the corridor warned her that the other Bloodsword were coming and behind her, the Nightstone seemed to be giving up a humming sound.

He laughed. "And what exactly are you going to do about it? By now Xena, even you have obviously figured out you can't kill me, and my friends will be here any moment now. It's over!"

"Maybe." Xena saw a huge group of Bloodsword coming around the corner, and her eyes narrowed. "Maybe not!" She drew her breast-dagger and threw it, but the Bloodsword simply ducked.

"You're going to have to do better than THAT, warrior princess."

The dagger struck a barely visible lever in the wall near the open doorway. "Oh, I wasn't aiming at YOU!" She smiled slightly as a stone door fell into place, it sealed them inside but at least now the other Bloodsword could not interfere either. "I just wanted to make sure no one else joined the party."

"Very good, Xena...I'm impressed."

"That just makes my day." Xena moved in a fighting stance. "Now, I want some answers. What are you? My chakram has killed with less impact than that, and I know I didn't miss..."

"No, you definitely didn't miss." The Bloodsword ran his hand up and down his undamaged chest, visible by way of a jagged tear in his torso armor. "See, I'm immortal...even your precious chakram can't do me any lasting damage. Try as you might Xena, you CAN'T kill me." The Nightstone started to emit a loud trilling sound now, and she could feel heat emanating from it as well. "Not that it matters. The time of the darkfall is upon us, and in a few moments, you shall be dead Xena!"

She sensed the attack a moment before he actually threw the chakram, and so Xena was easily able to catch a weapon which she'd spent years training to use anyway. "That was pretty pathetic!"

The Bloodsword drew Xena's sword. "Enough! The Nightstone needs one more blood-sacrifice before it shall be strong enough to open a portal." He twirled the sword. "And, while YOU are anything but innocent, there is a delicious irony in using the warrior princess's blood to appease the god of war!"

"Are you just going to stand there and talk?" Xena asked. "Or are you going to fight?!"

He charged at her, sword held up and ready, but something grabbed the Bloodsword's left foot and threw him off-balance. Gabrielle released her grasp on his ankle and smiled as Xena was able to jump out of the way of the descending blade at the last moment. The sword pierced the side of the Nightstone, and the Bloodsword's eyes widened in shock when he realized what he'd done. "NO!"

Ignoring him for the moment, Xena helped Gabrielle stand up. "That was a nice move. Thanks."

The bard nodded. "Don't mention it. Ow...my jaw's going to ache for a week."

"NOOO!" Still holding on to the sword, the Bloodsword writhed in agony while bolts of black lightning arced up the blade and engulfed his entire body. "IT WASN'T...SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN...LIKE THIS...!!!" His voice trailed off as he was seemingly ripped apart piece by piece, leaving behind nothing but the smoldering hilt of a sword extending from the Nightstone.

Gabrielle was both shocked and sickened. "By the gods!"

"That's why I've never used magic, or allowed it in my army. It's too dangerous, too unpredictable."

Suddenly a wave of shimmering black light erupted from the Nightstone. It washed over both women and they shuddered at the daggers of cold and fear throughout their bodies. It happened again and again, with the same icy results, but each time there was an added danger...the entire room was beginning to shake. Each tremor got stronger and stronger, until it felt as if they were at the center of a great earthquake.

"W-What...is g-going...on...?!" the bard cried.

Gabrielle lost her footing more than once, and even Xena was barely able to stay upright. "I don't know, but I think we'd better get out of here! Now, before this whole place comes down around our ears!"

"But how? The door is closed...we're trapped!"

"Always the optimist!" Xena threw her chakram up, and it embedded into the ceiling near the hole. "Hurry, go get your staff before it's too late!"

Gabrielle did as she was told, clambered over the bodies of the robed men, and grabbed her staff. "Xena, can't we save these men too?!"

The warrior leaped up and grabbed her chakram with one hand, then held out the other. "I know how you feel Gabrielle, but we don't have time. We may not make it out, as it is, ourselves." It was almost impossible for them to hear eachother now, and chunks of stone were starting to fall from the ceiling. "Come on! Give me your staff, and I'll pull you up!" Another violent chain of shockwaves struck, and Xena almost lost her hold. She even had to try several times just to grab the staff. "By the gods Gabrielle, HURRY!"

Climbing all the way to the surface proved to be an enormous effort for both of them. Gabrielle found that she barely had the strength necessary to brace her back against one wall and use her legs to push off the other, the continuing tremors below didn't help either. Xena's back, on the other hand, was more than strong enough, but her recently dislocated knee was still giving her trouble. For every few feet they were able to climb, the shaking would drop them back one, and so it took twice as long besides.

Her breath coming in ragged gasps Xena reached the surface first, but without pausing to rest she tossed her chakram aside, and dropped to her stomach to help Gabrielle. "Give me your hand!" She heaved the bard out of the hole, and they embraced.

Gabrielle dropped her staff and lay her head upon the warrior's chest. "Thank the gods we made it. Oh Xena, I was so worried about you down there."

"Believe it or not, so was I." Xena leaned the bard's face back and kissed her passionately. "But from the look of things, I'd say we made it out just in time. Look."

Gabrielle turned, and gasped when she realized that the entire temple appeared to be collapsing in upon itself; it was nothing but a pile of smoking rubble in a matter of minutes. Even the shaft they had so recently emerged from started to emit smoke and dust as it's own hand-made walls caved in. "It's really over this time." The bard shook her head. "Do you think we'll ever know what this was all about, Xena?"

The warrior shrugged. "Probably not."

Gabrielle entwined her fingers in Xena's, so they could walk hand in hand, and they paused just long enough to pick up their weapons. "I'm sorry you lost your sword, Xena."

"It's just a piece of metal, Gabrielle. The important thing is that you're safe, and we managed to stop whatever Ares and his Bloodsword were trying to do."

Gabrielle nodded. "At least we don't have to worry about anyone using the Nightstone again."

Part 2: Nightstone

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