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 II: Nightstone

Janice Covington was not having a good day.

First, she received an urgent telegram summoning her to the Macedonia airport, where she was forced to wait the better part of three hours for the customs agents to release the crate from New Jersey into her custody. The person who shipped it had neglected to include all of the correct postage and related handling fees, forcing her to pay the fine out of her own pocket. When all was said and done, she had barely enough money left to fill the truck with gasoline so she could make it back to the dig site, meaning she was not able to eat lunch as planned. The rumbling in her stomach just added to her anger.

"Stupid, stupid! Damn you, Kleinmann!" She slammed the truck door, nearly catching her leather jacket in the process, and tossed her hat into the other seat. Her hair, more red than blond, lay tangled across her shoulders as she ran her fingers through it. "Maybe I should have just asked Xena to leave him in that tomb!" The young archeologist took a deep breath and looked into the back of the truck, where a single crate held the culmination of her father's life's work.

The Xena scrolls.

A legendary warrior in ancient Greece, Xena was said to be the greatest warlord and one of the most powerful fighters of her time, or any other. Janice had grown up hearing her father, Harry Covington, talk about all of the many adventures that Xena the warrior princess undertook in her life; often competing with warlords, gods and monsters of all shapes and sizes. She used to curl up by his feet and sit for hours, listening as she told one tale after another; some he admitted to having made up, while others came from the very scrolls she had so recently managed to uncover. Finding the Xena scrolls had been the driving passion in her father's life, so much so that he permitted his reputation to be ruined in order to fund the search; and he came to be known as a grave robber willing to do anything for money. Little did Harry Covington know his daughter would pick up where he left off after he died.

Not that Janice had set out to earn a bad reputation, being the daughter of a notorious 'grave-robber' did that for her. She was more concerned with finding the scrolls and proving her father correct, than what other people thought of her, and so the fledgling archeologist threw herself into her work. With a single scrap of parchment, the very same one she carried in her pocket to this day, she found herself on the trail of what she and her father considered to be the greatest archeological find of the century.

The Xena scrolls.

Shaking her head, Janice started the engine, and roared out of the airport parking lot so fast that dirt and dust was kicked up behind the truck. Once on the road, actually it was more like a heavy path, again she still found it hard to believe how much her life had changed in the past few months.

First, a piece of parchment said to originate from one of the Xena scrolls turned up in a private collection, and after she confirmed it was authentic, Janice practically had to sell her soul in order to get it. The parchment, one of three in fact, eventually led her to a long-hidden tomb in Macedonia...a tomb dedicated to the ancient god of war, Ares. Inside, with help she didn't want from some people who she felt had no business in an archeological dig, she found not only the remaining scrolls but the entombed spirit of Ares as well. It was only with help from a centuries dead spirit...Xena the warrior princess herself, that they were able to survive. Not that she could tell anyone that of course, not without the risk of losing what little credibility she had earned with those few fellow archeologists who dared to consider her a colleague.

Now that she had all of the scrolls in her possession again, after a foolish mistake on her part resulted in most of the scrolls being sent with that idiot Jack Kleinmann, Janice found herself replaying the events of these past few weeks over and over in her mind. No, there was only one person she could talk to, and no matter how much she disliked the thought, she was waiting back at the site.

Melinda Pappas was not having a good day either.

It had certainly begun well enough, better than expected in fact. At breakfast that morning, she and Janice ate together, and for once they actually had a pleasant conversation. The taciturn archeologist was very intelligent and could be downright witty when she wanted to. But right in the middle of the meal Janice received an urgent telegram calling her to the airport--some problem with the scrolls being sent back to them by Jack Kleinmann no doubt--and stomped off the site in a huff.

With nothing else to do, especially since Janice had told her not to leave the tent until she got back, Melinda decided to put her free-time to good use. She grabbed one of the few scrolls Jack had not accidentally taken with him, and set out to translate it. In fact, it was her talent for deciphering ancient languages which brought her to Macedonia in the first place. While going through her late father's belonging's, she discovered an old telegram from a then unknown Dr. Janice Covington, asking for his help with a translation. Since she had already settled his estate, Melinda decided that a trip to an exotic local like Macedonia might be just the sort of adventure she was looking for in her life.

As it happened, the raven-haired South Carolinian beauty proved so out of place on the isolated dig site, that she almost got more adventure than she bargained for in the form of several armed men. They cornered her in a tent, and would probably have caused her grievous bodily harm, or worse, if not for the timely intervention of a scrappy young archeologist wearing leather and a fedora. To Melinda's amazement, Janice was able to fight off all three of the men single-handedly, and then the two of them--with help from Jack Kleinmann and the less than trustworthy Smythe--found the long buried tomb of Ares. Inside, they managed to find the Xena scrolls, but in the process Smythe and his minions were killed by the trapped spirit of Ares himself. To prevent the god of war from being released into their world again, they received help from a most unexpected source; Xena, the warrior princess, who was seemingly reincarnated within the body of her descendant, Melinda.

When it was all over, and Janice had sealed the tomb once again, Melinda asked if she could stay on with the expedition for a while. With her father gone, there was nothing waiting for her back in South Carolina, and truth be told, Melinda had actually grown quite fond of the archeologist. Janice agreed, however reluctantly, stating that her skills as a translator WOULD be useful. Eventually, they packed up and moved on to a new site, which had been located thanks to the descriptions found in one of the scrolls. Meanwhile, Melinda longed to be more than just another employee to Janice, she strived each day to become a friend to the archeologist, who seemed to be alone even when she was in a crowd.

Melinda looked up from the scroll she was translating and, for the hundredth time in the last hour, checked her watch once again. Several hours had gone by since Janice left for the airport, and her anger at being left behind had begun to change to concern. Where IS she? On the chance that perhaps Janice had returned to the site but not to the tent, she decided to go out and look for her. As she opened the tent-flap and got a face full of moist, hot air she was again reminded of why Janice insisted she change the way she dressed, at least for the duration of her stay. Here, lighter clothing was a necessity.

It had not taken the southern beauty long to realize that long skirts and high heels were entirely inappropriate for traipsing around archeological sites, even if she did stay in camp most of the time. So, she switched to khaki pants, loose blouses, and boots. Of course, that served only to accentuate her tall, curvaceous body, and draw unwanted attention from many of the men on-site. Wolf-whistles and cat-calls had been fairly commonplace, at first, until Janice finally put her foot down...after that few of them even looked at Melinda cross-eyed as long as the archeologist was around.

Distracted by her own thoughts, Melinda took little notice of how far she'd gone from the tent until she found herself near some of the other living quarters. By the time she realized it, several gruff-looking men had stepped on to the path in front of her, and another behind her. While Melinda didn't know most of their names, one was all too familiar to her...Zagrias Orman. A particularly large, tattooed and mean-spirited man, he still liked to make suggestive comments toward her whenever he thought he could get away with it, but Janice's presence usually did not give him the chance.

Too late Melinda realized she was surrounded, and remembered why she wasn't supposed to leave the safety of their tent unless Janice was with her. No one, even Zagrias, would dare intrude upon Dr. Covington's private quarters. Everyone in camp was aware of the archeologist's fiery temper, most had been on the receiving end at one time or another, and none of them wanted to experience it again. That was why Janice, however reluctantly, insisted that Melinda move into her tent, to put an end to the chance of any of the men taking liberties with the southerner in the middle of the night.

Behind her horn-rimmed glasses, Melinda's sky-blue eyes widened. "Oh my."

"We been waiting for you..." Zagrias snarled. "It was sure nice of you to come all this way." He gestured, and the men around him rushed into action; one clamped his sweaty hand over Melinda's mouth before she had the chance to scream, a second grabbed her arms and a third her legs. "Take her into my tent..." he ordered. "So we can have us a little privacy!"

Janice navigated the winding hill trail down to their tent with surprising ease, despite carrying the crate full of scrolls on her shoulder. Along the way several of her workers offered to help her with the load but she refused; now that the Xena scrolls were in her possession again, no one was going to touch them but her...and perhaps, she amended to herself, Melinda. At the thought of her would-be partner, the archeologist's face fell. Dammit, I shouldn't have treated her that way...I ran out this morning, and I think I yelled at her too. It's not Mel's fault Kleinmann is an idiot. She resolved to try and find some way to make it up to Melinda, if possible, AFTER she found the strength to apologize.

She took a deep breath before stepping inside. "Hey I'm back...I got..." Immediately, Janice was struck by how quiet it was, TOO quiet. "Mel?" A quick look around told her the tent was empty. "Damn it!" Thinking fast, she wrapped the crate in a blanket and shoved it under her bed for safe-keeping, then grabbed her revolver. "If I've told her once, I've told her a thousand times, don't go outside without me!" Once it was loaded, she shoved the weapon into it's hip holster, and grabbed her bullwhip. "I swear, this keeps up and that woman is going to drive me to an early grave!"

Melinda struggled as best she could, but the two men holding her down were just too strong. Tears streamed down her face, and she desperately wanted to cry out, but that had already gagged her. I can't believe this...my ancestor Xena used to pound away on men like this for breakfast, and I'm as helpless as a kitten. Why didn't I listen to Janice?! She knew what Zagrias was planning, they were quite explicit about their intentions, and that scared her as much as anything ever had in her life. No, please...not like this...

Zagrias stood at the foot of the bed, arms crossed, while his third man was outside, guarding the door. "Well, looks like I finally get to see what boss-lady finds so special about you. She keeps you all to herself and I mean to know why." He stepped forward and ripped Melinda's blouse open, to which she whimpered, revealing a red lace bra underneath. "Hm...nice so far. I..." The attention of everyone in the tent was diverted by what sounded like an argument outside, followed by a brief but intense struggle. "Arylos?!" He frowned when there wasn't an immediate response. "Arylos, what is going on?!"

Without warning, the tent flap flew open, and Janice Covington stepped inside. She was seething with anger, face red, and had a half-smoked cigar clenched between her teeth. Her revolver was still in it's holster, but she had her whip held out and ready. "Sorry Zag, he's taking a nap!"

Zagrias's eyes widened somewhat. "I might've known. How did you find us?"

"You have to ask?" Janice nodded toward Melinda, who Zagrias's other men had been smart enough to let go of as soon as the archeologist made her appearance. "She can't take two steps around here...without every man in the place going bug-eyed. You're in BIG trouble, Zagrias!"

"From you?!" He laughed. "I'm sick and tired of you're acting all high and mighty Covington. We're gonna do what we want with your lady-friend, and you ain't gonna stop us!"

Janice spit the cigar out, and ground it under her heel. "You wanna make a bet?!"

"Yeah." Zagrias gestured toward the archeologist. "Get her boys!" The two burly-looking men hesitated for a moment, and then rushed her both at once.

Janice ducked as the first man took a swing at her, and kicked his feet out from under him. As he fell she spun around and snapped her whip, seizing the second man's arm. He was so startled by her action that she was able to pull him closer, and drive a roundhouse punch that shattered his nose. By then the first man started to get to his feet again, but the archeologist kicked him in the side of the head, and he lay still.

"Not bad, doc..." Zagrias smiled, but it was false arrogance, for the anger and fear was obvious on his face. "I guess I should've known better than to mess with your lady." He saw the archeologist's cheeks redden slightly at the barb. Got her. "Any chance we can just walk away from all this?"

Janice gritted her teeth. "It's not up to me, Zagrias. Mel, what do YOU want to do?"

It took Melinda several choked tries before she could catch her breath. "I-I don't care..." She was still fighting back tears. "J-Just...get him...out of here..."

"You heard the lady." Janice's eyes narrowed. "Get the hell out of here, Zagrias! And if I EVER see you on my site again, I will personally see to it you never touch another woman again!" She kept a hand on her pistol until Zagrias and his men had stumbled out of the tent. Only then did she slip the whip back on her belt, and rush to Melinda's side. "Mel? Did those bastards hurt you?"

"N-No..." Melinda looked right into the archeologist's eyes. "God Janice, I was SO scared."

Janice nodded. "I know." She wanted to pull the southerner close, to comfort her, but decided against it. "I'm sorry, Mel. Those guys were bad apples, I knew it when I hired 'em, but they worked cheap. But I never should never have left you here alone with 'em. I'm so sorry..."

Melinda clasped the archeologist's hand, and shook her head. "Janice no, it's not your fault. You warned me not to go out of our tent, but I didn't listen."

"Well, don't you going thinking it's your fault either. Mel, those guys tried to take advantage of you. Four of them and one of you, there was nothing you could do to stop them." Janice looked toward her feet. "I'm gonna make sure nobody touches you again Mel, I swear it."

"I appreciate that, Janice. Really. But can we just go back to our tent now?"

Since her blouse had been ruined, Janice gave Melinda her jacket to wear until she got back to the tent. It was a tight fit, and didn't close in the front, but it offered a measure of cover from prying eyes. The translator was as white as a sheet and shivering uncontrollably, and she wouldn't release a death-grip on Janice's hand until they were actually back within the safety of their own tent. It took some gentle prodding, as well as several hot cups of coffee, before Melinda would relax enough to let Janice leave again. She insisted it was necessary as she still had to inform her sentries not to let Zagrias and his friends on the site under ANY condition.

Janice returned, a few minutes later, to find Melinda sitting on her own cot and reading one of the scrolls from the open crate by her feet. The stern archeologist was momentarily taken aback; for while Melinda had covered her legs with a blanket, her thin lace camisole top left little to the imagination. She found herself mesmerized by the gentle rise and fall of Melinda's full breasts as she breathed, and only when Janice felt her cheeks flush did she clear her throat.

Startled, the southerner raised her head, sky-blue eyes widening. "Oh good, Janice."

"How are you feeling?"

"Better, thank you." Janice noticed that Melinda was making no move to cover herself, and as a result, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her not to stare. "By the way, you might want to have a look at this. I found something interesting in this scroll."

Janice crossed the tent in a few anxious steps, and sat down on the other cot. It took her only a few moments to realize that Melinda had apparently moved their beds closer together while she was gone. "So, what did you find, Mel?"

"I do believe, I may have stumbled upon a clue as to the location of Amphipilos." Melinda could not help but smiled as she saw Janice's face light up. Widely thought to be Xena's birthplace, the lost village of Amphipilos was as much the 'holy grail' to Janice as the scrolls had been to her father. But for some unknown reason, a true account of it's location had never been discovered. "Now, everything you've told me, says it was located in the Thracian province right?" She continued without waiting for an answer. "Well, according to this...Xena wanted to take Gabrielle to Amphipilos for a special Solstice festival. No specific route is given, but apparently, the two stopped along the way to see an old friend, a healer named Nicklio, living on Mount Nestus."

Janice's eyes widened. "Nestus...of course! I've heard some of the men talk about it, but I guess I never made the connection. Mel, you may just be on to something here!" She absently patted the other woman's leg before getting up for a cigar. "Nice work." After lighting it, a new smile took her face. "I've got some good news of my own. I talked to Huissan on the way back, and it looks like they've got this new site just about excavated. With a little luck, I should be able to get inside by tomorrow." The archeologist lowered her head for a moment. "Uh, if you want, you can come with me."

"Really?" Melinda was somewhat surprised by the offer, for a number of reasons. After her curiosity set off a trap back in Ares's tomb which had nearly injured Janice, she wasn't sure the archeologist would ever want her around her anywhere near this new site or any other. But even more exhilarating than knowing the archeologist was actually inviting her along, was the tingling sensation left behind from where Janice had put a hand on her leg. Why is my head spinning so? She smiled. "I'd like that, Janice. Promise me one thing?"


"I get to stay in charge of my own body this time?"

Janice shrugged. "Sorry Mel, but that's between you and Xena."

The archeologist had been searching for the Xena scrolls for several years when she learned about a recently unearthed structure in Macedonia. According to her sources, markings on one of the outer walls were similar to those on the scrap of one of the scrolls she had already found, so Janice went to investigate. Artifacts believed to have come from the period when Xena was said to live were found in the ruins, and she decided to risk what remained of her own money to fund the excavation herself. The structure proved to be the tomb of Ares, where she had eventually found the scrolls.

For the determined daughter of Harry Covington, however, that was just the beginning. By finding the scrolls she had fulfilled her father's ultimate quest, the most important archeological find of the century, Janice saw the artifacts as merely an important step in her career. As far as she was concerned the mere existence of the scrolls proved to her that Xena the warrior princess WAS more than just a legend, but she had serious doubts the rest of the 'scientific community' would be as forgiving. They demanded absolute proof, so she wanted to find more evidence before she revealed her findings to the world. To that end, she reluctantly adopted one of her father's most well known--and condemned--practices, selling off some of her non-Xena related artifacts in order to keep her exploration going.

Two months past, shortly after she collapsed the excavation above the tomb to prevent any chance of Ares's escaping, Janice got word about a recent earth tremor somewhere in Greece. It was a particularly isolated region of the countryside, with little or no historical value to anyone else, but some of the scrolls she and Melinda had translated to that point led them to believe Xena once frequented the region. For a second time she pushed her finances almost to the breaking point in order to arrange an expedition and set up a site. Recently she had been rewarded for her efforts, with the discovery of an underground complex of indeterminate size. Over the last three weeks her workers spent nearly every waking hour digging, carrying out dirt and shoring up tunnels in order to make them safe for her to go down.

Now, it was time to see whether their hard work would pay off.

Janice stepped out of the tent, and took a deep breath. It was a rather hot and muggy day, the perfect time for an underground expedition--where she hoped it would be cooler. She put on her hat and then took the revolver out of it's holster to make sure it was loaded. Satisfied, she holstered it again, adjusted the whip hanging on her other hip, and then glanced over her shoulder. "Me! You coming or not?!"

"I told you, I'll be there in a moment. Honestly, Janice..."

The archeologist crossed her arms. Unbelievable. Where the southerner's calm, lax attitude had, at first, really gotten on her nerves, it didn't seem to bother her as much any more. In fact, there was a time when she'd would not have allowed any woman on her site for ANY reason, never mind a spoiled brat trying to live on her father's reputation. But it hadn't taken Janice long to realize that Melinda wasn't that way at all; her naiveté was real and in some ways, quite refreshing. She could also be witty and charming, usually without even realizing it, and she was undeniably beautiful. Beautiful? Now where in the world did THAT come from?

More and more, Janice was finding herself confused, sometimes even to the point of being at a loss for words whenever Melinda was around. She would stop and stare at the southerner, then get red-faced and turn away if Melinda happened to realizing she was staring and look back. It was very distracting, and she knew she should probably be annoyed, but she wasn't. In fact, her first reaction to thinking Melinda was in trouble had been one of fear and concern rather than irritance at having to go through so much trouble for another person. Why does this have to happen to me NOW? I've lived without it for so long, why...She turned as the tent flap was opened behind her, and Melinda stepped out. Whoa!

The southerner's clothing caught her a little off-guard. Unlike the conservative pants and blouses she usually wore, the dark blue shorts and sleeve-less white top tied in a knot to bare her flat stomach, this outfit seemed to be designed to draw attention rather than dissuade it. "What do you think?" Melinda held her arms up, and did a little twirl. "Is it me?"

Janice licked her lips. "Uh..." Each step caused Melinda's breasts to shift beneath the thin top. "Do you really think it's appropriate for excavating?"

"Why not? I like to dress like this in the summer, it gets hot in South Carolina." Melinda's face fell. "You don't like it do you, Janice?"

"I do, I do. I'm just not used to seeing you in such...revealing clothes." Janice shook her head. "And, I'm more worried about the men. They could get ideas from that outfit." I know I am.

Melinda shrugged her enticingly bare shoulders. "I'm not worried about them, Janice." She reached down and clutched the archeologist's arm. God, I just wish I could tell her what I'm thinking. How I feel. "As long as you are with me, that is."

Woman, you don't know what you're doing to me. "I'm here for you Mel. Don't worry."

They entered the excavation a few minutes later. Because the two of them would be going in alone, strictly for security reasons she insisted, Janice saw to it she and Melinda were well-prepared. They had enough food and water for them to live on for several days if necessary, plenty of climbing rope, water-proof matches, two lamps and a bottle of oil for them both. Once inside, she lit the lamps with her cigar and turned.

"Here you go."

"Thanks." Melinda took the other lamp and looked around. "Wow. So, what do you think this place is, maybe another tomb?"

Janice shrugged. "It's too early to tell. But just remember..."

"I know, I remember. Don't touch anything that looks suspicious."

Janice gave one of those wry smiles that the translator found so disarming. "No in YOUR case Mel, I think we would both be better off if you didn't touch ANYTHING." She held the lamp up to see the tunnel ahead of them and led the way. "You coming?"

Melinda stared wistfully at the archeologist for a moment before following her.

"Oh Janice, come here. Look what I found!" Holding her lamp close to read some markings on a wall, Melinda heard the archeologist appear behind her.

It became easier to read when light from the second lamp added to the first. "What've you got?"

Melinda pointed. "According to this...we're in a temple." She grew silent for a moment. "This section's hard to make out, but I think it's dedicated to...to...oh my!"

"Mel?" She recognized a stab of fear in the translator's voice. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Hey sky-blue eyes widened as she turned. "Ares."

"Oh no." Janice put a hand to her forehead and sighed. "Of all the temples in Greece we could have found, it's got to be the god of war? Just great."

The translator chuckled nervously. "Well I don't like it any more than you, but at least we don't have to worry about meeting Ares himself. He's still busy in Macedonia, isn't he?"

Janice nodded. "Unless you're planning to go back and dig up his tomb again."

"Goodness, no. I got more than my fill of him the last time. So did Xena."

She said it so casually that it took Janice a moment to realize the significance of Melinda's words. "Wait a sec here, Mel. You mean to tell me you know what Xena was thinking?"

"Of course. Janice, she WAS in my mind, after all." Melinda's eyes glazed over for a moment. "I can remember a lot of what Xena was thinking and feeling while she was...here."

The archeologist started to spit out her cigar, then remembered where she was and thought better of it. "Why didn't you mention anything about this before?"

"I don't know." Melinda withered slightly under Janice's stern gaze. "You were so mad after realizing Jack had taken the scrolls, it didn't seem all that important. Besides, it's not always so clear, I just get these flashes of her memory sometimes." She paused, and noticed the archeologist still didn't take her eyes off her. "Okay, okay, I'll tell you next time...will that make you happy?" Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. What would Janice say if she knew what Xena was thinking about HER?

Upon awakening to see Janice for the first time; the warrior's first reaction had been an overwhelming need to pull the smaller woman closer to her. So much love and joy, followed by a rush of confusion, as the determined archeologist looked so much like her beloved Gabrielle. For some time, Xena's fading memories and what she'd managed to piece together from the scrolls, Melinda had been aware that their ancestors were much closer than either of them realized. But Melinda had purposefully neglected to mention it to Janice, because she knew how much the archeologist disliked the thought of being related to Gabrielle.

Xena loved Gabrielle, so desperately that it scared the warrior princess sometimes. For days after Macedonia, Melinda resisted even looking at Janice, the emotions that had been running through Xena still tended to flare up whenever the archeologist was in her sight. At first, she'd mistakenly confused those feelings with her own, unable to tell for certain where Xena's love for Gabrielle ended and her own admiration for Janice began. But, in recent weeks that became a moot point, as Melinda had finally realized that her mind was only now catching up to where her heart had already been residing for so long. So now, I've just got to find the strength to tell Janice how I really feel.

The archeologist cleared her throat. "Let's keep moving Mel. We're just wasting lamp-light." Janice shook her head as Melinda fell into place behind her. Why was she staring at me?

Down on one knee, Janice used a wire brush from her pack to sweep away some of the dirt from a block in the floor. She and Melinda split up a few minutes ago to search this corridor in opposite directions, and she'd seen this marker out of the corner of her eye. Unfortunately, it was so badly faded from age and all of the rubble that had likely fallen on it when the rest of this structure collapsed, that she could only make out a vague symbol of two crossed swords, and a few words.

"Hmm...this way...our destiny...in shadows? No wait, that's not right." The archeologist stood up and crossed her arms. "What IS that word?" While she too could read some ancient languages, her skill with ancient syntax was not as practiced as Melinda's. "Damn!"

"Janice?" As if on cue, the translator peeked her around a corner. "I heard you swear, are you all right?"

She was worried about me? "I'm fine."

"Well, I found an open room down here, you might want to take a look at..."

"In a minute, Mel. I need you to take a look at something for me first." She pointed at the markings. "What do you make of that? Something about our destiny in shadows, right?"

Melinda studied it for a moment. "Close. That last word is not shadows, but darkness." She looked around. "I think what it actually says...is come this way for our destiny to darkness. But it seems to be pointing away from the chamber I found. What do you want to do?"

"Let's check your find first. We can always come back and follow this marker later." Janice smiled at a fleeting look of surprise on Melinda's face. She wasn't expecting me to take HER lead.

When they first started on this dig, Janice's workers had told her that this structure was not just buried, but it had apparently caved-in upon itself centuries ago. Of course, she knew that lessened the chance of finding any artifacts intact inside and would increase the length and price of the digging time, but several swords and a few other weapons taken from the rubble convinced her it would be worth it.

Now, she was glad she'd come. This large chamber Melinda discovered was an impressive sight indeed; there was writing and various other carvings all over the walls, and even from here she could see broken weapons in the rubble her workers had left behind. Even of no Xena-related artifacts were found, what WAS here would be enough to keep them busy for days, maybe weeks.

Whoa. Janice looked appreciatively at Melinda, who was studying a diagram on one of the walls. Incredible. I never got this lucky on a site before, not until SHE showed up. Damn, I'm SO glad that I didn't push her away when I had the chance. Try as she might, the archeologist could no longer deny her attraction in Melinda, after all the WOMAN was incredible in more ways than one. Now, the only question is...how am I supposed to make such a gorgeous creature notice ME?

"Janice?" Seeing that the archeologist was staring at her, Melinda turned. "What's wrong?"

"Huh? What?" Janice shook her head. "Sorry Mel, what did you say?"

"I asked if anything was wrong?"

"No. Everything's fine." Janice approached the translator. "Did you find something?"

Melinda shrugged. "I'm not sure." She pointed to the wall, where age, and the earth tremors which brought the structure to their attention in the first place, had filled the diagram on it with jagged cracks. "I think this is some kind of a credo, or maybe a warning, but it's so damaged I can barely make it out." For a moment she was silent, chewing on her lower lip as she studied the markings. "Hmm...it looks like...the sword of blood, to bring his fury down upon the world. I think."

"Sounds about right. Ares's followers were a fanatical bunch."

The translator shuddered. "I remember hearing him talk while Xena was inside me. Can you imagine the power he could have offered Hitler, had he escaped?"

"Yeah. He's doing fine without help from the god of war." Janice lay a hand on Melinda's shoulder and leaned a little closer to the wall. "So, do you see anything on there about Xena?"

"N-No..." Melinda felt her knees weaken at Janice's touch. "But this is a big place, and she WAS important to Ares. There's bound to be SOMETHING."

Janice nodded. "If so, we'll find it. Right now, I think we should sit down and rest for a while. Even down here we can suffer from heat stroke if we're not careful."

"Y-You're right, Janice." Tell her! "Now that you mention it, I DO feel a bit light-headed."

The archeologist noticed Melinda's face WAS flushed. "Come on Mel, let me get you some water."

"Okay." Melinda leaned against the wall for a moment, then slid to the ground and pulled her knees up to her chest, while Janice dug through her pack. God, this is ridiculous. I think I'm going out of my mind. Why can't I just TELL her?

"Here you go." The archeologist passed Melinda a canteen, then sat down next to her and took a swig out of another. They sat there, side by side, and drank in silence for a few minutes, until Janice cleared her throat. "So, are you feeling any better Mel? How's your head?"

"I-It's better, thank you." Besides, it's my heart I'm having a problem with... "Janice, would you mind if I were to ask you a personal question?"

"Go ahead." She started to take another drink.

"Have you ever kissed a woman?"

Janice nearly choked on the mouthful of water. "W-What?" She coughed several times before she was finally able to catch her breath. "What did you say?"

Melinda licked her lips. "I don't mean to pry, I'm just curious."

"Yeah, but what brought this on?" Could it be? "Where did this question come from?"

Well, no turning back now. "Janice, I'm sorry, I don't know how else to tell you this." Melinda leaned forward and after a moment, clasped the archeologist's hand. "But I-I think I'm falling in love with you." There, now it's out. She held her breath, and Janice's hand, nervously awaiting her response.

"I..." Noticeably, Janice did NOT pull away. "Geez Mel I...I..." What is wrong with me?! Isn't this what I said I wanted? Damn it woman, come on! "That is, Mel...are you sure about this?"

Melinda nodded. "I'm sure that I've never felt so strongly for anyone else in my life. I knew, from the very first time I saw you, that you were something special. Beautiful, passionate about your work, and I need to know if I could possibly share in that passion. Janice, I desperately want to kiss you..." A hand seemed to clamp around her heart, as she saw a stunned, almost terrified look on the archeologist's face. "But, if you don't feel the same way, I-I'll understand." No, I won't...don't lie.

"No!" Janice immediately regretted her outburst as she saw the hurt in Melinda's eyes. "I-I mean, you just took me by surprise is all." She took a deep breath. Oh what the hell. Go for it. "Mel, you're not alone. I tried to fight it for so long, but it's no use. God, you're so beautiful, I just never thought it was possible for a woman like you to feel this way about somebody like me."

Tears welled up in Melinda's eyes. "Oh Janice." She released the archeologist's hand and leaned forward, her lips parting slightly, but somewhere along the way lost her nerve.

Janice, however, wasn't one to quit so easily once she'd made her mind up. She cupped the back of Melinda's head and pulled the other woman's face to her own. Their lips met, and after a moment, she felt the southerner's body relax against hers. They wrapped their arms around one another, while Janice parted Melinda's teeth with her tongue, and gently probed the inside of her mouth.

Melinda finally had to pull her head back, gasping for air. "Oh my goodness!" The archeologist smiled. "Next time, I should remember to take a breath first."

"A bit overconfident aren't we? You're so certain there's going to BE a next time?"

The southerner recognized a playful gleam in Janice's eyes. She's daring me. She doesn't think I'll do it. Well I'll show her! Before she knew what she was doing, Melinda had grabbed Janice's surprised face and started to kiss her with passion even she didn't know she possessed.

Janice was breathing hard this time when they finally broke the embrace. "God woman, you're full of surprises today. Guess it'd sound strange now, but you're the first woman I've ever kissed."

"Really?" Melinda touched her still-tingling lips. "Well, you certainly couldn't tell by me."

The archeologist got to her feet. "If you enjoyed that, maybe we should go back to the tent. I'm sure we could find SOME way to make you feel even better."

Melinda's face turned bright red. "Why Janice Covington, you are a wicked, wicked woman."

"Is that a fact?" Janice arched an eyebrow. "So, you're saying you wouldn't be interested then?"

"I didn't SAY that...this is all just so NEW to me."

"Me too. I don't normally go around kissing my partner."

Melinda started to respond, until it finally dawned on her what Janice had said. "Partner?"

Janice shrugged. "Why not? I mean, we're friends, right? And we already travel around together anyway, so I figure we might as well make this...whatever THIS is, more official."

"You REALLY want me around?" Melinda stood up and put her hands on the archeologist's shoulders. "And be honest with me, Janice."

"Have it your way." Janice gently pulled the southerner's face down, and kissed her again. "So, is that honest enough for you, Melinda Pappas?"

Melinda nodded. "Now I know how Gabrielle must have felt, the first time." She regretted saying the words as soon as they passed her lips. The change in Janice's face was immediate, and unmistakable. Her eyes darkened, her jaw tightened, and she cleared her throat as she turned away. "J-Janice, I..."

"We've got a lot of work to do here, Mel." The archeologist put her hands on her hips. "I think we better start by gathering everything we can out of here and cataloguing it. We'll take what we can top-side before nightfall, and then get a fresh start in the morning."

Melinda watched Janice walk away, her back turned, and tears poured down her face. I'm sorry. Inwardly, she cursed herself for having made such an unthinking mistake. Being related to Gabrielle was still a touchy subject with Janice, and a mere mention of the bard's name could set her off. She had ruined the intimacy of the moment by making what was intended to be a joke. I'm so sorry.

The find turned out to be an impressive one indeed.

Over the next several days, Janice catalogued literally dozens of weapons; swords, axes, crossbows. Age and wear had taken their toll on most, they were rusted and broken, but she estimated that even in this condition all of the weapons would be extremely valuable to museums and private collectors. Every so often, they also came across a skeleton in the rubble, many with shards of ebony armor still adhered to their bones, and she saw to it they were reburied as soon as they were found. This part of the temple had since become a tomb, even if it was not intended that way originally; and while she had no problem claiming their weapons, the idea of desecrating human remains was wrong even to the daughter of the infamous Harry Covington.

Melinda made herself scarce while Janice was working. She spent all of her time in their tent, pouring over the Xena scrolls, and trying to decipher as many of them as possible. It was a difficult task, for even in Ares's tomb a number of them had deteriorated to the point of being almost unreadable. Even so, with each new translation, she became more and more involved in the lives of their descendants. Xena and Gabrielle had undertaken some incredible adventures in their travels; numerous encounters with Ares and the other gods as well, fighting side by side with the legendary hero Hercules, and of course meeting the Amazons--whom Gabrielle went on to lead as Queen--but that was only a part of the thrill.

Several of the later scrolls were about to Xena and Gabrielle--two women in love--rather than warrior princess and heroic bard. They described the feelings when they first met, their growing friendship, and the first time the writer realized she was in love. She recognized how, after it was recorded they had made love for the first time, a discernible change occurred in the tone of the writing, it became less dramatic and more intimate. In some cases, the retellings of their encounters were so explicit as to cause the southerner to blush repeatedly, and they often sparked her own passions, which made Melinda all the more sad she had offended Janice.

Unfortunately, the stubborn archeologist never gave her a chance to apologize. She spent days in the temple, making certain the excavation went smoothly, and never even appeared to eat. By the time she returned to their tent to sleep it was always so late that Melinda would already be asleep. In addition, she was up at the crack of dawn, gone before the translator even opened her eyes. The unresolved tension between them grew every day, and they both knew that sooner or later, something had to give.

One afternoon, Janice was walking past their tent when she heard a strange sound from within. She stopped a moment, listening intently, and finally recognized it as quiet sobbing. Mel? Worriedly, the archeologist pushed the tent flap open and peered inside. "Mel? You all right?"

Melinda was sitting on her cot with one of the scrolls in her lap. "Janice?" She dabbed at her red-rimmed eyes with a handkerchief, and nodded. "Oh, I'm fine. Really. I just got wrapped up in this." The translator held up the scroll. "It's just SO sad."

Janice came into the tent and sat down on her own cot. "What is it?"

"A story, but it's different from the other scrolls. The handwriting, the pacing, it's like the person who wrote it was not comfortable with putting down their thoughts on the parchment. In fact, given the subject of this scroll in particular, I'd guess it was written..." She raised her head. "...by Xena."

"Xena?" The archeologist leaned forward, her brow furrowed in concentration. "Really?" That WAS unusual, the warrior princess wasn't known to be an expression person, which is where SHE came in. Gabrielle. "So, the story...what's it about? What's so sad?"

"You know Argo? Xena's horse?" Janice nodded. "Well this is a personal account of how she...died." Taking a deep breath Melinda went on to read the scroll aloud. It told the tragic tale of a battle gone so horribly wrong, when the mare was struck by a volley of arrows that had been meant for Gabrielle. By the time Melinda finished reading she crying again, and even Janice was a little teary-eyed. "Poor Argo."

The archeologist turned her head for a moment, as she wiped her eyes while trying not to let on she had been crying. "It's said Argo served Xena faithfully for years."

"Oh yes, she was a constant companion, second only to..." The translator caught herself just in time, and she lowered her eyes as she put the scroll aside.

Janice tucked one hand under Melinda's chin, and gently raised her head. "Hey. It's okay. Don't stop because of me. You can say the name Gabrielle."


Janice shook her head. "No buts. Look Mel, I have to apologize. There's no excuse for my just shutting down on you, like I did the other day. Especially not after everything we said, and everything we...did." She caressed Melinda's cheek, and smiled. "Believe me, it wasn't what you said, not really. I am related to Gabrielle and you're related to Xena, I can live with that. It's just, that kiss was so much more intense than I expected, I guess I got a little flustered. When you mentioned Gabrielle I panicked, and in order to keep from blowing up at you I shifted my confusion toward her instead. But, that's no excuse, not really..."

"It's okay. I guess be both made mistakes." Melinda took Janice's hands in her own and they both stood. "I'm certain about one thing however, and that is how I feel about you." She stepped forward, put her arms around the startled archeologist, and kissed her with a fervent passion. When she finally broke the embrace, her bright blue eyes were smoldering with desire. "Janice Covington, I think I love you."

After several long moments, Janice raised her head, and her own eyes were dark, and sad. "I-I wish...God Mel, it's so hard for me. I'm scared...my heart's beating a mile a minute, and I swear I can hardly breath whenever you are around. But love? That's a whole 'nother ball game."

"I know. It's not always easy to say the words." Melinda shrugged. "Lord knows it's taken me this long to get up the nerve to tell you how I feel about you." She shook her head. "Look, it doesn't matter if you SAY it or not Janice, I know you care about me."

With silent longing, Janice slowly ran her fingers up and down Melinda's neck, and under her chin, smiling as the taller woman trembled at her touch. "Well, I appreciate your understanding. Maybe I can't SAY it right now, but if you'll let me, I'd REALLY like to try and SHOW you."

"Now, there's that wicked streak of yours again..." Melinda tried to sound convincing, but the lilt of her voice and the trembling of her lower lip betrayed an inner fear. "But Janice, before this goes any further I think..." The southerner's voice cracked as Janice leaned up to kiss her collarbone. "...I think there's something..." Her breath caught in her throat as the archeologist undid the top two buttons of her blouse, and lowered her lips to lightly kiss each new exposed patch of skin. "...you should know..."

Janice undid the last button, then swept her blouse open and admired the fullness of Melinda's breasts within her thin, red lace bra. "Oh?" She fingered but did not undo the front hooks, chuckling as the red-face translator closed her eyes and moaned quietly. "And what is SO urgent, it can't wait until...after?"

"I'm a virgin." It came out so matter-of-factly, and Melinda opened her eyes to silence. "Janice?"

The archeologist took a step back, her hazel-green eyes wide. "What?"

"I'm a virgin." Melinda fidgeted. She wasn't embarrassed, far from it. It felt so good when Janice was touching her, and now she just wanted her to finish what she had started.

"Why didn't you TELL me?"

"It never seemed important before. I just thought you should know. I might have no experience, but I am more than willing to learn." She took Janice's hand, and held it over her heart. "I trust you."

Now, it was Janice's turn to fidget nervously. With her hand on Melinda's chest, she could feel the gentle rise and fall of the southerner's breast as she breathed, and the rapid beating of her heart, which beat almost as fast as her own. "Mel, I'd love to oblige, but there's one little problem."

"What is it?" Melinda kissed the palm of Janice's hand. "Go ahead Janice, you can tell me."

"I..." The archeologist took a deep breath. "Mel, I can't. I mean, I WANT to, believe me, but I don't know how to be with you any more than you do."

Melinda was surprised. "You're a virgin too? But I thought..."

"You thought I knew what I was doing?" Janice shrugged. "I was just going with what felt right." She peered into the southerner's eyes. "What? Is it really so hard to believe? After my mom ran out on us, Dad and I spent all out time on the road, going from dig site to dig site as we looked for the scrolls. I thought it was great for me back then, but it never left much time for a social life. And, I was never much interested in those few guys I DID meet anyway..." Abruptly, she began to tickle the valley between Melinda's breasts, and smiled as she received a quiet moan for her effort. "What about you Mel?" she finally asked. "You're smart, gorgeous, and I happen to know your daddy left you a pretty sizable inheritance after he died. How come you don't have a line of suitors a couple of miles long?"

"Because, I'm hardly my mother's daughter. Momma wanted me to settle down and get married like she did, as all 'proper' southern women are supposed to do. But she died when I was still young, and that just left me to be raised by my daddy. He was more concerned with my education and my happiness, rather than with my being a 'proper' young southern lady. I asked him to teach me how to read ancient writings, he did..." Melinda captured Janice's hand as it was heading for a return engagement between her breasts, brought it to her mouth, and then kissed each finger in turn. "...and I am glad, 'cause that's how I met YOU."

Janice's cheeks flushed. "God Mel, I want to touch you SO much, but I-I don't know..."

"Neither do I." Melinda slowly took off her blouse and tossed it over a chair, then she took Janice's hand and led her to the rear of the tent. "But why can't we learn? Together?" She sat down and pulled off her boots, then stretched out on the cot and lifted her legs to wiggle out of the tight blue shorts. Smiling, she dropped them off the side of the cot, leaving herself clad in only her undergarments. "So?"

Janice whipped off her hat and sent it flying across the tent, where by luck or chance it somehow landed on a hook near the door. Then slowly, almost teasingly, she began to unbutton her shirt, only to change her mind at the last moment. The archeologist closed her eyes and pulled it off over her head, revealing she wasn't wearing a bra at all. She tossed the shirt aside and opened her eyes to find sky-blue eyes admiring her bare breasts, and the firm pink nipples hardening in excitement. "Like what you see, Mel?"

"Absolutely." Melinda held out her hands. "Come here." She laced her fingers into Janice's, and pulled her to the cot, where she claimed the archeologist's mouth with a passionate kiss. During the embrace, Janice put her hands on Melinda's arms, and casually eased the straps of the bra off her shoulders. The translator's breathing and her own pulse quickened as she fumbled through several attempts to unlatch, it before getting the lacy red material off and tossing aside.

Janice leaned back to admire the southerner's full, firm breasts. "Damn woman." Her nipples were bigger, dark brown, and already beginning to harden as the archeologist looked on. "You are SO beautiful!"

"So are you." Melinda put her hand on Janice's leg, and fingered the light brown material. "Um...won't these be in the way?"

"For what we've got in mind? Definitely." The archeologist stood up, and as she'd done with her shirt, pulled her pants off in one sudden, fluid movement. Apparently, she didn't wear ANY undergarments at all, and stood there completely naked except for her knee-high boots.

"Don't you EVER take those off?" Melinda asked. Truth be told, she wasn't paying much attention to Janice's boots, her interest was in the archeologist's lean, tanned body.

Janice shrugged. "Only when I take a bath."

"Well, I don't really care...come here." Melinda smiled as Janice slid into bed next to her and, before she could say anything else, kissed her hungrily. They held eachother close while kissing, maintaining the embrace for so long that both women finally had to pull back to catch their breath.

"Speaking of being in the way..." Janice smiled as she ran her hand down Melinda's inner thigh, and caressed the southerner's sex through her remaining undergarment. A shudder ran through Melinda's entire body as she moaned, and her eyes rolled back in her head. "Hm, they don't seem to want to come off. Let me try again." The archeologist caressed Melinda's center more forcefully this time.

The southerner's back arched as she cried out. "Janice...don't...don't...stop..."

"I won't." she whispered. Janice held her breath as she moved her hand harder and faster. I just hope that I'm doing this right. She'd pleasured herself before of course, and always found it quite enjoyable, but it wasn't the same when doing it for another person.

Melinda's entire body was writhing now, her hips bucking to meet Janice's touch, and her fingers dug into the sheets. "Yeeesss...feels...SOO good...!" Her back arched, thrusting her sweat-covered breasts upward. "Oh...it's so..so...JANICE!" An explosive climax overwhelmed the southerner, her body shuddering almost painfully, and she had to bite her lower lip to keep from screaming any louder. She fell back on to the cot, still trembling, while Janice snuggled close and kissed her neck.

"How was that?" the archeologist asked nervously.

"Oh it...it was..." The southerner seemed to be having a hard time catching her breath. "Janice, you're such an incredible woman...are you sure you've never done this before?"

"First time. Must have been beginner's luck." Janice ran her hand across Melinda's breasts, smiling at the feel of rock-hard nipples against her palm. "Mel, what do you want me to do?"

"No, Janice, not you." Melinda turned her head to face the archeologist's. "I want you to feel this good too. I have to return the favor..." She stopped Janice's protest with a finger to her lips. "No, it's my turn." She leaned forward and kissed Janice on the shoulder. "Okay?"

"I-I don't know Mel." Janice licked her lips. "Are you sure?"

"Why not?" The archeologist gasped in surprise as Melinda rolled her on to her back, and slid her leg over to straddle her slim hips. "Fair is fair." Melinda cupped Janice's breasts, gently kneading and squeezing them, and her eyes brightened as she teased her nipples to tiny red points. "God Janice, your breasts are so soft, and I do so want to taste them..."

The southerner lowered her head and took her left nipple into her mouth. Janice's back arched. "Mel!"

"Yes, Janice..." Melinda moved to suckle the other breast as well. "I'm right here."

Janice's eyes were little more than slits as she threw her head back. "Feels good...so good..."

"Talk to me, Janice..." Melinda nuzzled the sensitive skin between Janice's breasts. "Tell me how it feels, what you want. I need to hear your voice."

"Please!" Janice's back arched. "Mel, I-I need...I need..."

Melinda raised her head. "What? Janice, tell me, I'll do it for you."

The archeologist moaned. "It's...too much...I need...release..."

"Oh." Melinda tickled Janice's center with her fingertips. "Am I doing this right?"

Janice's body quivered as the southerner's hand teased the moist blond hair between her legs. "Yes Mel, just like that...oh please...yes!"

Melinda smiled. "I just want to please you Janice."

"You are." The archeologist bit her lip as an boundless heat grew within her. "Oh Mel, you are!"

"Open your eyes Janice." Melinda increased the tempo, moving her hand harder and faster. "Please. I want to see you, and I want you to see me."

Janice groaned, deep and loud, but somehow found the strength to raise her eyelids. Her dark green eyes met the shimmering blueness of Melinda's, and she groaned. "Uh huh! Yes! Just like that!" The archeologist's hips, seemingly of their own accord, started to buck and tense against Melinda's hand. The fire within grew to be too much, and her body rose off the bed as her climax exploded. "MEL-IN-DA!" The southerner could not respond, she bit her lip as the force of Janice's release brought her over the threshold a second time.

For long minutes they lay together, arms wrapped around each other, hips touching. Finally, Janice raised her head and turned to kiss Melinda. "Thank you."

The southerner opened her eyes and smiled. "No Janice, thank YOU."

Later that evening, after they eventually fell asleep in one another's arms, Janice awoke with a start. She lifted her head and, after her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, took a look around. As far she could tell, everything was fine; the tent was empty, the flap still closed, and nothing seemed to have been disturbed. My imagination must be playing tricks on me. Melinda stirred in her sleep, and the archeologist turned to gaze in wonder at the vision of loveliness curled up beside her. Damn, I can't believe it. A couple of weeks ago, I could hardly stand to be around this woman. Now, I can't get her out of my mind.

Not so long ago, if someone had told Dr. Janice Covington she would fall in love with an uptight, spoiled brat like she had first taken Melinda Pappas to be--she would have laughed in their face. Beyond the obvious, 'love' had never been high on the archeologist's list of priorities, she just never really found the time for it. Nor was it uncommon, during her world travels, to occasionally meet someone who demonstrated an attraction to her, but Janice's gruff demeanor and obvious lack of interest was more than enough to drive them away. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on anyone who would otherwise dare to be her friend as well. That, coupled with the fact her father's quest to find the scrolls kept constantly them on the move, from country to country, had left Janice an interminably lonely person.

Until now. Something had changed recently. Impossible as it seemed, Janice was actually happy, she just felt so lucky to be alive whenever Melinda was around. More importantly she felt...needed. Mel's here, and she's in love...with ME. I don't know why or how, but I think this is the real thing. The mere possibility was enough to make the archeologist's heart swell with joy. Not just that someone loved her, but the fact she might be capable of actually returning that love, it thrilled and terrified her at the same time. If only Dad could see me now. I used to laugh whenever he said I'd have someone in my life sooner or later. Guess he was right, and what's more it took finding the Xena scrolls to bring us together. Thanks Dad... Janice laid her head back down on the pillow by Melinda's, and closed her eyes.

A few minutes later, after her breathing had slowed to reveal she was finally asleep again, one of the shadows near a wall started to move. It slid out the tent flap and was gone.

Melinda awoke slowly, hesitantly, like she didn't want to start the new day. She felt so warm and comfortable, snuggled next to...to...now she did open her eyes. The southerner turned her head, frowning when she realized that she was in bed alone. "Janice?" Concerned, she sat up and glanced around, her anxious blue eyes noticing almost immediately that the archeologist's clothes were not were they had fallen the night before. "Janice?" Why would she leave without telling me? She breathed a sigh of relief when she caught sight of the archeologist's gun laying on a table. Janice wouldn't have left the weapon behind if she planned on being gone long, and had there been trouble she would certainly take it with her.

Satisfied that everything was all right, and silently hoping Janice would be back soon, Melinda slid out of the bed and looked through her bag for something to wear. A wry smile brightened her face as she decided against wearing a brassiere this time, it would most likely get in the way. Instead, she selected a pair of khaki pants and a tight blue-black halter top she had bought in Europe. As she was getting dressed, the southerner considered how the clothes were more revealing than what she used to wear. They clung to her every curve in such a way she would once never have been comfortable with, yet somehow she found the notion of showing off her body to Janice to be extremely appealing.

Melinda's memories of their night together were still fresh in her mind. It was enough, in fact, to cause a flush to rise in her cheeks. Technically speaking, they hadn't actually made love, and she WAS still a virgin, but still, she felt closer to Janice, than she ever had to anyone else in her entire life. I knew there was something special about her the first time I laid eyes on her. That made her think back to a story her father had told her when she was young, but repeated many times over the years. 'Once upon a time, all people had four legs and two heads, until the gods threw down thunderbolts and split them in two. So they had two legs and one head, but were left with a desperate longing to be reunited with the other half of their soul.' Maybe it IS true. Maybe I've FINALLY found the other half of MY soul.

Shaking her head, Melinda finished pulling on her boots, and then reached up to tie her hair back. "I do hope Janice gets back soon. I'm starting to get hungry."

"Well if it's food you want Mel, I can sure accommodate you." She spun around to find Janice standing in the tent opening, brandishing a metal tray with a cloth over it. Smiling, she stepped inside. "If, on the other hand, it is a continuation of last night you're hungry for...I'll have to put THIS down first."

"What is it?" The southerner's eyes glimmered as Janice approached. Right now BOTH possibilities sounded very appetizing to her.

"Breakfast. I was going to bring it to you in bed, but you're already up." Janice sat the tray down on the other cot, and then turned to steal a kiss. "I hope you enjoy it..." she said as she removed the cloth. "Because I really don't think I can send it back."

Melinda gasped. "Grits? Bacon and eggs? Orange juice?" She raised her head. "Janice, it looks delicious. But where did it come from?" Since joining the archeologist's expedition, she'd become accustomed to more meager fare; often times just bread and cheese, or dried meat and just water to drink. Occasionally, a local would give a chicken or two to the archeologist in thanks for work on a dig site, and they had fresh meat for a few days. Still, it never lasted, and THIS was totally unexpected.

Janice took off her hat and shrugged. "I special ordered it for you the other day. It took some doing, but they finally got it all the way out here."

"Oh Janice, this is wonderful. Thank you!" Melinda wrapped her arms around the archeologist, who returned the embrace happily, and trailed kisses from her forehead down to her mouth. "You're SO amazing...going to all of this trouble for me!"

"Hey, it's not JUST for you. I'M hungry too."

Melinda's eyes grew hooded as she recognized the tone. "Oh? And, tell me Janice Covington, what exactly is it you're hungry FOR? Hmmm?"

Janice nudged the southerner in the ribs. "Food first. Trust me, you'll need the energy."

They both laughed before sitting down to eat.

"Some of the workers heard us yesterday." Janice timed her statement perfectly, just as Melinda was bringing the glass of orange juice to her lips, and she was rewarded with the southerner's nearly losing control of herself as she coughed and gasped to keep from choking. The archeologist lay back on the cot and dropped her hands by her sides, a satisfied look on her face.

Melinda put the glass aside and wiped her mouth. "What are you saying? Janice, they HEARD us?"

"Well, we WERE pretty loud." Janice shrugged. "Seriously, I wouldn't worry about it. Most don't really give a damn what goes on as long as they get paid, and some of 'em are sort of jealous in fact." She frowned when the southerner's face turned several shades of red. "Mel, I know you're embarrassed, and I'm sorry for that, but you don't regret what happened... do you?" Her voice held a tremor of uncertainty and fear.

"No...oh God no." Melinda sat down and took the archeologist's hands in her own. "Janice, I love you. I truly do. And I could never regret anything we did together. NEVER."

"Good." Janice sat up and kissed the southerner. "Because I've been thinking...I want to do so much more for you, Mel. I-I've heard things, stories, that are supposed to be SO great." She gripped Melinda's shoulder. "Will you let me try, Mel? Do you trust me?"

Melinda nodded. "Of course, Janice. Always." They kissed for some time, until Janice lowered back her to the cot. The archeologist's hands roamed freely as she removed Melinda's clothes, causing her to moan, before she paused just long enough to undress herself. Janice then lowered her head and began to nuzzle the southerner's breasts, teasing her nipples to hardness with her tongue and then suckling each in turn. "Ooh!" Melinda's back arched as she gasped. "Janice...feels...so good..."

Janice kissed the sensitive skin between Melinda's breasts and raised her head. "Believe me Mel, you haven't felt anything yet." She began to slowly kiss her way down the southerner's body, leaving a fiery wetness upon her stomach and her inner thigh, while her hands drifted up to caress Melinda's breasts.

"Yeeesss!" Melinda's head snapped from side to side on her pillow. "Janice...unh!" Her back arched again, as the archeologist's mouth grazed--but did not actually touch--the dark triangle of hair between her legs. "Please, just...a little..." A second time, and her hips bucked. She bit her lip and moaned. "Oooh!"

Janice raised her head. "Mel, don't fight it. If it feels good, if you want to cry out, go ahead."

"But...but...the workers..."

"...aren't here." Janice smiled. "I gave 'em the day off so we could be alone. Make as much noise as you want, it's okay." She brought her hands down to caress the southerner's hips, tickling her thighs with her fingers, and her tongue made the briefest contact with Melinda's sex.

Melinda tossed her head back and dug her fingers into the sheets as her body shuddered with pleasure and a ragged cry escaped her lips. "Oh God, Janice! I...I..."

The archeologist wrapped her arms around Melinda's hips to try and hold her still--her fair skin glistened with a fine sheen of sweat, and she was writhing and gasping--and nuzzled the dark triangle of hair. Melinda's entire body arched almost to the breaking point it seemed, and she let out a shrill scream. Finally, at that, Janice raised her head again. "Mel?"

Somehow, Melinda found the strength to open her eyes. Her body was quivering, and she opened her mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. The glazed look on the southerner's face seemed to question the reasons behind talking at this juncture.

"I've never done this before...I-I don't know if I can do it right. If you want me to stop Mel, you'd better tell me now, 'cause I don't think I'm going to be able to otherwise." The southerner shook her head. "Are you sure?" A frantic nod this time. Janice lowered her head and--gently, almost worriedly--probed into Melinda's fragrant sex with her lips and tongue. It penetrated the southerner's center, brushing against her hard button, over and over as if she was stoking a flame that would not be contained.

Melinda's entire body convulsed, and again, arching off the cot. Her hips bucked against Janice's tongue, her hands rising from the bed to entwine themselves in the archeologist's strawberry-blond hair. "JAA-NICE!" She was overwhelmed by an eruption of heat and pleasure from the very core of her being, unlike anything she had ever experienced as only the third--and by far most powerful--climax of the southerner's life washed over her. It was several minutes before she stopped shaking and was able to start breathing normally again. By then Janice had climbed up her body again and was kissing her on the neck.

"Are you okay?" the archeologist whispered. "You almost sounded like you were in pain."

Still trembling slightly, Melinda put her arms around Janice. "God, it was...it was...Janice, words can't begin to describe it. I didn't know it could be like that. How...?"

"I heard some of the guys talking. They figured I must be good at it, with all the noise you were making, and I wasn't about to tell them the truth, so I just went along."

The southerner's icy-blue eyes widened. "You ARE a quick study."

Janice shrugged. "I just wanted to make you feel good."

"Well, you certainly did THAT." Melinda chuckled nervously. "Oh...my. If I had known it would be like this, I would have seduced you a long time ago."

"YOU seduced ME? I think you've got things a bit confused here, Mel."

"Oh really? Who kissed who first down in the temple?"

"I kissed you, remember?"

Melinda's brow furrowed. "Right." She bit her lip. "Well, it doesn't matter. You did THAT for me, now...it's my turn to return the favor."

Janice shook her head. "No Mel, you don't have to..."

"I know. I know I don't." Melinda cupped Janice's face and kissed her. "But, I WANT to." She slid down, and hungrily took the archeologist's left nipple into her mouth, suckling it to hardness for some time, before turning to provide the same attention to the right as well. "I do." Janice began to moan as she kissed her way down the archeologist's body, and caressed both inner thighs with her tongue.

Janice's eyes were closed, she tossed her head back and gasped. "That DOES feel good!"

Melinda tried to remember everything Janice had done, so she could duplicate the actions. She wrapped both arms around Janice's firm hips, and nuzzled the mound of pale hair between the archeologist's legs. Tentatively, she snaked out her tongue to probe the musky folds, and felt Janice's body go rigid. Faster, harder, she wanted to explore every inch of this most intimate locale, and by sheer instinct centered her intentions on the archeolo-gist's slick button.

"Yes! Oh yes don't...stop Mel..." Janice's own head tossed from side to side, hips bucking as the southerner's inexperienced and yet gloriously fluid tongue brought her closer and closer to release. It was nearly unbearable now, the heat and desire building within her threatening to explode outward with tremendous force. "Mel!" Her back arched painfully as the climax erupted out of control. "Mmm...mmmh..." Breathless now, she was all smiles as Melinda curled up beside her, and they kissed.

"How did I do?"

"Absolutely incredible. You talk about MY being a quick study."

Melinda lay her head on the archeologist's shoulder, and sighed. "I love you, Janice Covington."

"I-I love you too, Mel." Janice bit her lip. I said it. I REALLY said it.

In due time, after kissing and caressing eachother for a while, they drifted off to sleep. Later, Melinda decided she needed to take a bath, so Janice sat outside the bathing tent and cleaned her revolver. She had already had a bath herself, while waiting for their food to arrive, and they both agreed that if they went in together, it would more than likely led to them both requiring another bath.

The archeologist finished with her revolver and shoved it back into it's holster. Then she stood up and pulled on her hat, determined to slip inside and ask what was taking so long anyway. But she'd barely taken two steps before the tent flap opened, and her heart skipped a beat. Melinda was wearing a pair of tight-fitting shorts and a surprisingly revealing halter top. And, where she usually wore her hair up in a bun or a bob-tail, it now flowed loose upon her shoulders. "Feel any better?"

Melinda nodded. "Much. In fact, I feel...invigorated."

"Good." Janice crossed her arms. "Because I thought we could take another look around the temple. There IS still that one corridor I never followed. If you're feeling up to it that is..."

The southerner gasped. "Oh Janice, in all the...excitement, of the last couple of days..." They both blushed. "I forgot to tell you about what I found. One of the scrolls mentions a temple belonging to Ares, which a group of mysterious warrior's took over. Xena and Gabrielle had some sort of encounter with them, and apparently it was buried in a cave-in." She frowned. "There is more...but it was hard to read, and I wasn't able to finish translating it before..."

Janice shrugged. "So bring it with you. I want to pick up a couple of things from the tent anyway."

Melinda shook her head. "I-I don't think I can fit."

"How are you going to know until you try?"

"But, what if I get stuck?"

Janice sighed. "You won't. Just come on."

The archeologist was close to losing her temper. After going back to the marker she had found, they traveled a long winding corridor which gradually sloped downward until they were well underground. It led to what first seemed to be a dead-end, but was actually just a stone doorway that had been shattered and collapsed in upon itself. Apparently the recent earth tremors had shifted the rocks enough that a good-sized hold was visible, and sensing there was more to be found on the other side, Janice had since managed to squeeze through. However, the southerner had taken one look at size the hole, and balked.

Melinda licked her lips. "But..."

"Unbelievable." Janice put her lamp down and glared out the hole. "Mel, would you please come on?! There's no reason for you to wait out there, and what if I need your help in here?" She gave a knowing smile. "Or, what if I need YOU in here?"

After a moment, the southerner handed Janice her lamp and plunged through the hole. It was a rather tight fit, and had she been wearing more clothes she could very easily have gotten stuck, but with Janice's help she just managed to squeeze through. Finally on the other side, Melinda brushed herself off while the archeologist took a look around. She saw rocks, thousands of them it appeared, some stacked seven and eight feet tall. They had no doubt filled the room once upon a time, but the recent seismic activity had made the entire room a great deal more accessible.

"Wow." Melinda held up the lamp. "Janice, what is this place?"

"I'm not sure." The archeologist nodded toward the middle of the room, where several large rocks had shifted off what appeared to be the remains of an old statue. "But from the looks of it, I'd guess this is some secondary altar room...only, I don't understand why it would be way the hell down here." She crouched by the base of the statue, and knocked some loose rocks away from a small plaque. "Hmm...Ares, god of war, lord of chaos. Ruler of the world, by word of the sword of blood."

Looking over Janice's shoulder, Melinda began to shake her head. "Now wait a minute...I know that symbol. I saw it on the wall upstairs." She began digging through her pack. "And, if I'm not mistaken, I also saw it..." The translator pulled out a scroll. "...on here. Only, I think I was reading it wrong before..." Her sky-blue eyes darted from the scroll to the plaque and back again several times. "Yes! I thought so. It doesn't actually say the 'sword of blood', it's a name...the Bloodsword."

Janice got to her feet and brushed off her hands. "Huh. Never heard of them."

"Neither have I. But according to this scroll...Xena and Gabrielle had several encounters with the Bloodsword that nearly cost them their lives. In the end it led them to a temple--this temple apparently--and it was destroyed in the process." Melinda held the scroll up to the light. "It also mentions a mysterious object, a black orb called the Nightstone, I think. It had some connection to the...the...darkfall. Whatever THAT is."

"I don't know about the rest, but darkfall is the old name for a solar eclipse." Janice put her hands on her hips, and frowned, her way of concentrating. "Come to think of it, I seem to remember reading somewhere there's one scheduled for later today. A total eclipse of the sun." She shook her head. "Damn. It's too bad the Nightstone's not here, I'd be curious to know what it has to do with an eclipse."

"Maybe it IS." Melinda pointed to something on the scroll. "Listen to this. 'Thus the villain was defeated, and the collapse of the temple of Ares assured that the evil of the Nightstone would be buried forever.' So, if this IS the same temple then it SHOULD still be here. Somewhere."

Janice's eyebrow arched. "Really?" She reached into her pack and drew out a pick-axe. "Well in that case, let's do a little digging!"

"Over here! Janice, come here!"

They had been moving rocking for the better part of an hour, with no sign of anything except a lot of dirt, and more rocks. According to the scroll, the Nightstone had been in the lowest level of the temple when the cave-in occurred, and since they hadn't found anything deeper than this room, they knew it had to be somewhere in this area. The southerner had decided to begin her search near what was left of the statue, while Janice started over on the other side of the room.

Now, as Melinda stood up and brushed off her legs, the archeologist appeared. She had dropped her pick-axe and was just carrying the lamp. "What is it? Did you find something?"

"You tell me." Smiling, the southerner pointed to a space behind two large rocks, where her light illuminated a mass of dark, twisted metal. It appeared to be the remains of some sort of a container or pedestal, but it was not solely what had drawn Melinda's attention. To the right lay a great black orb which, depending on what angle it was viewed from, appeared to have been formed out of metal, crystal, or the very shadows around it. Glinting in even this dim light, it was undamaged by time or all the rocks that had been stacked upon it for centuries, and it would likely have been considered flawless if not for the hilt of a sword emerging from the top.

Janice studied the artifact for a moment. "From the look of it, somebody was trying to destroy the Nightstone, and lost their sword in the process."

Melinda shook her head. "It's not just ANY sword. It belonged to Xena."

"Xena? Are you telling me she left her sword behind? On purpose?"

"It's not like she had a choice." The archeologist turned to look at her. "It seems they were fighting one of the Bloodsword, and somehow he managed to get Xena's sword. Apparently, he died when THAT..." She gestured toward the Nightstone. "...happened. Then, when the temple started to collapse, and the sword was the least of their worries...Xena and Gabrielle barely got out with their lives."

Janice's eyes seemed to glaze over as she stared at the Nightstone. "Xena's sword. It's more than I could ever have hoped to find after the scrolls." After a moment, she shoved one of the rocks aside and reached in to grab the hilt of the sword. "Maybe I can pull it out, and..." The archeologist cried out, and jerked her hand back with a start. "DAMN! It's hot!"

Melinda approached her worriedly. "Janice? Are you all right?"

"Yeah." The archeologist flexed her fingers. "I'm fine. But WHY is it so hot?"

"It's the magic in the Nightstone. The scroll says it's some sort of a powerful evil..."

Janice shook her head. "Magic? Mel, come on...I don't buy into that any more than I do curses."

Now it was Melinda's turn to be stunned. "Janice, how can you still believe that, after what happened to us in Macedonia? We met Ares, the god of war! Or don't you think HE was real either?"

"Of course. I saw his power, and I heard him talk. But Mel, you have to admit, there's a big difference between

a real live entity like Ares, and a hunk of crystal like this. Now..." Janice drew a pocket watch from her jacket. "If memory serves, the eclipse is about three hours away. If we hurry we ought to be able to get the Nightstone up to the surface by then, and see what kind of a reaction it has, if any."

Melinda bit her lip. "I don't know Janice, what if Xena and Gabrielle were right? What if it IS evil? I don't think we should take it out of the temple at all."

"Don't be ridiculous. Mel it's a rock, a big, black rock with a sword in it. How dangerous can it be?"

It took some effort but they did eventually manage to get the Nightstone to the surface, albeit with continued protests from Melinda. First, they had to clear more rocks out of the door so they could get in and out, and that took nearly an hour by itself. Then, since she knew first-hand that it was hot, Janice rigged up a towing system utilizing a canvas tarp, some rope, and a wheelbarrow. Of course, they had to move slowly, so as not to damage the artifacts, which just added another hour to the already exhausting process. When they finally got the stone out of the temple Janice decided the safest course of action would be to hide it in their tent, where she could be fairly assured it would be safe from prying eyes.

After all the hard work, Melinda insisted she needed another bath, and asked if Janice wanted to join her. Her intent was clear, or should have been, but the archeologist got so wrapped up in her work she didn't even seem to notice. She did, however, take the time to inform Melinda that the eclipse was coming--the moon was already almost upon the sun--and that she should return before it began. Feeling as if she had been casually dismissed, the southerner left in a huff.

Janice heard the tent flap being pulled open behind her, but she didn't bother to turn around. "Hey, what took you so long?" In all honesty, she had barely noticed the passage of time, for sitting cross-legged in front of the Nightstone with a can of powder in one hand and a tiny brush in the other as she tried to get a recognizable set of fingerprints off the hilt of the sword had taken most of her concentration. It was no easy task either, for there was so much heat radiating from the entire artifact now--a discernible increase from when she first started--that sweat poured down her face and each sprinkle of powder was vaporized on contact. A part of her had begun to wonder if the rest of the sword could possibly be intact. "I think the eclipse is starting..." Through the wall of the tent, she had noticed it seemed to be getting darker outside.

"It IS!" The archeologist's back stiffened. It was not Melinda's quiet, dulcet voice, but one much more deep, gruff and unfortunately familiar. "But believe me, that's the least of your worries!"

"Zagrias." Janice spit the name out like a curse. "What in the hell do YOU want?!"

"That should be obvious Doc. I want it all...the scrolls, and anything on this site. And that includes whatever that thing is you've got there." She heard the unmistakable sound of a revolvers hammer being cocked. "Now, I want you to stand up, nice and slow, and keep your hands where I can see 'em!"

Inwardly cursing herself for having left her revolver and whip out of arms reach, Janice slowly got to her feet, holding her hands up. "You know Zag..."

"Shut up! Now turn around, slowly. Do it!"

A rage barely kept in check burned within Janice's heart as she did what she was told. Zagrias and two of his men were standing there, but only their tattooed ringleader was armed. Huh. Doesn't even trust his own men to have weapons around him. Figures. "You've got guts Zag, I'll give you that. No brains, but a lot of guts." The archeologist only hoped she sounded braver than she actually felt, for there was a growing ember of fear mixed with anger. Not for herself of course, she wasn't afraid to die, but for the only person in the world who REALLY meant something to her. "Where's Mel?!" she hissed.

"Oh, your girlfriend?" Janice visibly flinched at the words and Zagrias smiled. "Don't worry Doc, now that we know how much she means to you, I wouldn't dream of doing ANYTHING to pretty Miss Pappas. At least, not without YOU watching!"

"You son of a..." Janice took a step toward Zagrias, stopping only because he raised his revolver and aimed it at her head. No, damn it! That's MY gun!

Zagrias saw what she was staring at, and chuckled. "You know Doc, I'm disappointed. It's not like you to just leave your weapons laying around." He shook his head. "I guess love'll do that to you, huh?"

Janice took a deep breath to keep herself from snapping at him again. If Zagrias DID have Mel--and so far she had no reason to think he didn't--a misplaced comment might get her hurt. Or worse. "Look Zagrias, I don't care what you do with me, but leave Melinda out of this!"

"Or what?" He heard a measured threat in her voice. "Unless I'm missing something here Doctor Covington, I am holing ALL the cards. You're outnumbered, I've got you're gun, and..." Zagrias snapped his fingers, and the tent flap was yanked open behind him. A third man entered, this one even meaner looking than the others, and he was holding a jagged-edged knife to Melinda's delicate neck. The southerner was tied at the wrists, and had a piece of cloth stuffed in her mouth. "...most importantly, I have HER!"

Other than the fact her cheeks were wet and her eyes swollen red from crying, Melinda didn't look particularly the worse for wear. Apparently, they had captured her on the way back from the bathing tent, because she was dressed and neither her brown pants or khaki shirt appeared to have been damaged. For one desperate moment her eyes met the archeologist's, and she mouthed the words 'I'm sorry'.

Janice tried to shake her head comfortingly. No! She thinks this is HER fault. Damn it, if it wasn't for ME, she wouldn't be here at all. She turned back to Zagrias, her eyes narrowing. "I'm only going to say this one time so listen up Zagrias. If you're going to take the scrolls and the Nightstone and whatever else, just do it and get the hell out of here!" The archeologist gritted her teeth. "But if you so much as touch one hair on her head, I swear I will hunt you to the ends of the earth to make you pay. By the time I'm done with you, you'll be begging me to kill you, do you understand me?!"

"Oh, yes. Completely." Zagrias gestured for Melinda to be brought forward, then he tangled his fingers in the southerner's hair and yanked her head back. Tears of pain streamed down her face, and she whimpered. "How's THIS, Doc?! I'm not touching ONE hair...I'm touching them ALL!" He laughed. "So, tell me Covington, what are you going to do about it?!"

Janice could barely see through the rage and fear clutching at her heart. No! Damn it! Once, it occurred to her, if someone like Zagrias had been stupid enough to try and threaten her like this, she would have just rushed at him, consequences be damned. But there was someone else's life she had to consider now. What do it do? In a moment of desperation, the archeologist's wide green eyes darted around, and caught sight of something gray by her feet. It took only a moment to realize it was the can of powder she'd been using on the Nightstone, and a flash of inspiration struck. Hey! She stepped back, lining it up with her foot, and permitted her shoulders to sag in mock defeat. "Okay Zag, you win. You've got me."

"It's 'bout time you realized that." The barrel of the revolver wavered slightly as Zagrias laughed. "You know, if I'd seen it was this easy to whip you sooner, we could have had this over and done with a long time ago." He glanced back at Melinda. "I'm really going to enjoy..."

"Hey!" Janice drew his attention with her shout. "There's just one thing more, Zag."

He sneered. "Oh? What?!"

"THIS!" Janice kicked the can of powder as hard as she could and sent it spinning end over end, straight into Zagrias's face. It struck him hard, right between the eyes. Roaring in surprise and pain, he lurched back, blinded by all of the powder. More importantly, he lost his hold on both Melinda and the revolver at the same time. She was also pleased to see the southerner move to get out of Zagrias's reach, she obviously knew what was going on. Good Mel, but now it's my turn! The archeologist charged at Zagrias with an enraged glare on her face, and slammed her shoulder into the big man's stomach with all of the force in her much smaller body. The impact was enough to knock Zagrias off his feet and back into his men, all four of them tumbling to the ground in a tangled heap of angry flesh. One never rise, having been impaled on his own knife, but when the other two tried to help Zagrias to his feet he shoved them away with a grunt.

"Forget ME you idiots!" he roared, still wiping at his eyes. "Get HER!"

But Janice would not give them the chance. She ducked and twisted around their clumsy attacks, all the while trying to figure out what to do next. Then, out of the corner of her eye she noticed that her whip was still laying on the table near the door, where she had left it. Stupid, arrogant fool didn't even bother to pick it up when he went for my revolver. The archeologist waited until both men were coming at her, and then jumped so that they would run into each other instead. While they were trying to regain their bearings she rolled to her feet near the table and reached for her whip. It had been given to her by a friend of her father's, and her eyes seemed to light up as soon as she had the weapon uncoiled in her hand. Oh yes...thank you Dr. Jones!

"Argh! Come here you little bitch!"

Janice spun around, her whip up and ready, only he wasn't talking to her. One of the men had tried to go after Melinda instead, and even though her hands were tied she had still succeeded in kicking him in the knee for his trouble. He stumbled back, limping now, but recovered just as quickly and came at her again. "Oh no you don't, creep!" The archeologist lashed out her whip, wrapping the end around the man's neck, and then used his own momentum to yank him back off his feet. "That's no way to treat a lady!"

Melinda pulled the gag out of her mouth. "Janice, behind you!"

"Wha..." Realizing she had momentarily lost track of the other man, Janice acted without thinking and ducked a moment before the jagged blade of a knife would have ripped into the back of her head. "Son of a...it ain't nice to sneak up on a lady either." She snapped her whip up into the man's face and he cried out, clutching his hand against his bleeding cheek. "Then again..." The archeologist grabbed his other wrist and before he could try to stop her, jabbed the knife into his ample gut hilt first. He doubled over, gasping in pain and from lack of air, and dropped the knife at the same time. "I'm no lady!" She kicked her would-be attacker in the head and he fell like a sack of potatoes.

"Janice!" Melinda appeared at her side, having worked her hands free in the interim. "Are you all right?"

The archeologist shrugged. "I'm fine. This was pathetic, what a bunch of amateurs. Zag, you're going to have to do a lot better than that if you want to...to..." He was gone. One moment he had been standing near the door of the tent, and now he was gone. "Damn! Where did he...?"

"Over here, Doc!" Zagrias was standing behind, and very near to, the Nightstone. "You know Covington, it's a real shame we have to be enemies. You have such great taste in women, and artifacts! I mean, this one comes with it's own accessories!" He reached for the sword.

Janice shook her head. "Zag, no! Don't! It's..."

"Oh shut up!" Zagrias wrapped his hand around the hilt of the sword, and almost immediately, he grimaced in pain as the skin of his palm began to smoke from the heat. "I don't...care!" He started to pull, and it shifted. "I'm gonna...hack you...to bits...with your own...FIND!" With one last tug he managed to get the sword free and in a last moment of clarity, they saw the sword was indeed fully intact.

But in the next moment, all hell broke loose.

Without warning, tendrils of lightning-like black energy erupted from the breach left by the sword. It engulfed Zagrias and the sword so rapidly he barely had the chance to grasp what was happening, and his screams were muffled by a cocoon of mystical ebony energy. It wasn't long before his whole body was no longer visible, and just a few moments later before his frantic struggling ceased as well.

Melinda was pale and wide-eyed. "Oh my!"

"Yeah." Janice watched Zagrias's surviving men, awakened by all the commotion, get to their feet and run out of the tent in terror. "Mel, do me a favor."


"If we survive this, remind me never to get involved with Ares again."


They both started as the blade of Xena's sword burst from the front of the energy-cocoon. It seemed to ripple for a few moments and then gave out entirely, leaving a single figure standing in the middle of the tent. Zagrias, a big and burly, bronze-skinned man was gone--replaced by an equally massive being, but one cloaked in what appeared to be leather armor from head to toe. A heartbeat later his eyes--the only part of his ebony-clad body still visible--snapped open. He spread his arms and laughed menacingly. "FREEDOM!"

Janice took a step back, shaking her head. The archeologist felt movement and looked down to see Melinda's hand slipping into hers, a comforting embrace she accepted gratefully. Somehow, that small contact made them both feel a tiny bit better.

The man in black looked around. "What's going on? Where am I?!" His voice became a throaty growl. "What happened to the temple?!"

Without thinking, Melinda spoke up. "It collapsed."

He spun around and raised the sword, having apparently noticed them for the first time. "Xena! I should have known..." His dark eyes narrowed. "Foolish woman, do you truly believe changing your clothes will deter me? I would know your traitorous face anywhere!"

Whoa! Janice frowned. This guy knows...knew...Xena?

"I see you've tried to disguise your 'little friend' as well." He laughed. "Funny, but in those outfits, SHE looks more like a warrior than you do, Xena."

Melinda was shaking as she turned to Janice. "He thinks I'm Xena..." she whispered. "What do I do?"

The archeologist shrugged. "Play along, talk to him." Melinda looked stunned. "No, Mel, think about it...if he IS from Xena's time, can you imagine the things this guy could tell us?" Janice smiled. "Besides you don't have to worry...I'm right here with you. I promise, I won't let anything happen to you."

"Okay, I'll try." Melinda took a deep breath and, with Janice's hand resting comfortingly on her arm, turned to face the black-clad man, who was glaring back at them. "I-I've been meaning to ask you something..." She tried to sound at least a little like her ancestor, but with her accent, it wasn't easy. "What IS your name? You did not tell me the last time." It was a shot in the dark, she only hoped that he and Xena had not had this conversation sometime in the distant past.

He was quiet for a moment, as he seemed to consider her question. "Very well. I suppose I can grant you this one boon, warrior princess...seeing as you ARE a formidable foe. My given name is lost to time, but I am called Martyr by my loyal followers."

"You mean the Bloodsword?" Another gamble. Melinda already knew the temple had been run by a group known by that name, and it was likely this...being, was one of them.

Martyr nodded. "Of course." He glanced at the Nightstone. "Why have you released me Xena? After our last encounter, I had expected to remain a bodiless spirit for the rest of eternity. But now, I am flesh again, albeit in a much weaker form than before. This...shell...is pitiful. Still, I suppose it will do."

"What happened to Zagrias?" Melinda asked. "The man whose body you seem to have taken over?"

Janice held her breath. Be careful, Mel.

"Oh, was he a friend of yours, dear Xena? Well, I'm sorry to say, he's long gone. You see, there's only room in this body for one spirit at a time and my immortal essence takes priority." Martyr laughed. "I must admit, when I helped to create the Nightstone those many years ago, THIS was not exactly what I had in mind for it's use. But then again, you don't know it's origins, do you Xena?!"

Melinda shook her head. "No, I don't. Would you tell me, Martyr?"

"You're being unusually inquisitive today, warrior princess. And civil. During our last encounter, I was trying to kill you, and you returned the favor." His eyes narrowed. "Now, I can see you don't even have your chakram with you. What IS going on around here, Xena?! What are you up to?!"

"N-Nothing...I'm just trying to..." Melinda fought to keep her voice from cracking. "I mean..."

"Enough!" Martyr took a step forward, and twirled the sword. "I don't know who you are woman, but you are certainly NOT Xena. The warrior princess may be many things, but she's not a coward, and she lets her actions speak louder than her words!" He aimed the sword right at Melinda's face, and she flinched. "Now, I want some answers, or else! Who are you, and where are my Bloodsword?!"

Janice cleared her throat. "Listen, sword-for-brains, don't you EVER threaten her!"

"So, the mouse has a voice eh? And who might you be, little girl?"

"Don't call me that!" Janice's anger got the better of her, and she lashed out with her whip, but Martyr caught the end of it. "Son of a..."

Martyr jerked the whip suddenly, pulling Janice off-balance and she stumbled forward. He grabbed her by the neck, and laughed. "Temper, temper. Didn't anyone ever tell you to think before you act?" With an effort that he was obviously trying to hide, he lifted her off the ground using one hand. "Now, I am going to say this one more time...who ARE you?!"

Janice tried desperately to pry his fingers from around her neck, but his grip was too strong. He applied just a little more pressure, and as her air was cut off, black spots started to appear before her eyes. It wouldn't be long until she passed out--or worse. Fear gripped her heart. Damn it, NO! I can't go out like this! With each passing second it was becoming harder and harder to think. Mel, I-I'm so sorry.

"Not gonna talk, huh?" Martyr asked. "Guess I'll just have to..." His eyes widened as something struck him in the back and he stumbled, losing his grip on Janice at the same time. Barely conscious and gasping desperately for air, she crumpled into a heap on the ground, while Martyr made a startling discovery. "I-I felt that! I actually felt pain! But how can that be?!"

Behind him, Melinda was holding the remains of a wooden chair. She dropped it and took a deep breath as he turned to glare at her. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't let you hurt her!"

Martyr's dark eyes narrowed. "You may look like Xena, but you are certainly not her. The warrior princess would never waste such an advantage with such words!" He shook his head. "I don't know who you are, and I no longer care. If this foolish attempt at deception is over I must find the other Bloodsword and determine what has become of our quest."

"I don't know how to tell you this, but I think your quest ended a long time ago." Melinda continued after she realized she had Martyr's complete attention now. "The temple of Ares, where we found the Nightstone? It was destroyed, and your followers along with it I presume, centuries ago."

"Centuries?! Impossible, I never got an opportunity to open the portal before...before..." Martyr gasped. "She tricked me! Xena made me strike the Nightstone by mistake, it must have reabsorbed all of the power that it had granted me, and my physical body along with it." He shook his head. "By the Gods...we created the Nightstone to allow us to journey through time, but not like this! With my Bloodsword turned to dust long ago our cause is lost, we have failed Ares, and all thanks to Xena's damnable interference!"

Behind him, Janice struggled to get to her feet. "Well, you know what they say...live and learn."

Martyr raised the sword. "Insolent little...do you mock me?!"

Still massaging her throat, the archeologist shrugged. "If it makes you feel any better, Ares himself continued to fail against Xena long after your little movement died out."

"Now you dishonor the name of the god of war! You will pay for such blasphemy!"

"Hey, I didn't..." But it was too late. Confused and angry, Martyr was no longer listening as he charged at her with an angry battle roar. Janice barely managed to duck under the first several strikes, but she got the distinct feeling the Bloodsword would be able to keep up this pace a lot longer than she. "Melinda!" she said at the top of her lungs. "Find my revolver!"

The southerner nodded, and went to do just that. "Whoa!" Janice found that momentary distraction to nearly be her undoing, as another swipe of the sword nearly took her arm off. At the last second she tried to move out of the way, but despite her best efforts the blade still made contact. It sliced not only through her leather jacket but deep into the flesh beneath as well, drawing blood. She grabbed at the injured limb and hissed in pain, then turned and kicked blindly at the Bloodsword.

Martyr easily stepped out of the way and laughed. "You're easily distracted, I like that. As I recall..." Another swipe of the sword cut into Janice's khaki shirt, just above the belt, but didn't actually touch her skin. "Gabrielle had the same problem. You two seem to share more than just a pretty face!"

Why must I always be compared to HER? Janice frowned. Her arm was still bleeding heavily, and the ongoing loss of blood was beginning to make her light-headed. I can't keep this up much longer. Come on Mel, find the damn gun already!

"I'll give you credit for one thing..." said Martyr. "You're not bad at evading my attacks. But tell me, don't you have ANY offensive ability?!"

Arrogant bastard, I'll show him. Janice ducked under a sword strike so close it shaved a few hairs off the top of her head, and brought a knee up between Martyr's legs with all the strength she could muster. He staggered back, almost losing his footing, and howled in agony. "How was THAT?"

"THIS..." he hissed. "...is why...I hate...pain..."

The archeologist nodded. "Yeah, you and me both."

"Janice!" Melinda came running toward her, waving the revolver. "I found it!" She tried to move past Martyr without his seeing her. "I found..." Her sky-blue eyes widened as the Bloodsword reached out and grabbed her wrist in an iron grip. "Stop it! Let go of me!"

"Where do you think you're going?!"

Melinda tried to pull away, but he was just too strong. "Janice, here!" She tossed the revolver to the archeol-ogist, but was yanked off her feet for her trouble. "Oh my..."

The Bloodsword's eyes narrowed. "Pathetic. You may look like Xena, but you're NOTHING like her." He spun around and without warning threw Melinda like a rag doll across the room. She started to scream until she went right through the far tent wall like so much tissue paper, and struck the ground with a thud. He laughed. "See? I could NEVER do THAT to Xena!"

"You son of a bitch!" Janice raised her revolver and fired, for the first time in her life feeling the overwhelming desire to actually kill another living being, albeit one possessed by an ancient spirit. The bullet struck Martyr in the stomach and he was knocked back into the face of the Nightstone which, unbeknownst to anyone else, had already begun to tremble, and was emitting a low hum. His body arched painfully as he was engulfed in tendrils of crackling black energy, until it finally disappeared, along with the bullet wound in his stomach. Realizing that he was no longer injured, the archeologist frowned. "What the hell?!"

Martyr's eyes snapped open, and he took a step forward. "Now I understand! The Nightstone has healed me, and revealed my true destiny! Ares will rise again with my help!" He pointed to the darkness outside. "Once more the darkfall is almost upon us, and it is almost at the peak of it's power. Once I've opened the portal, I shall simply alter my destination and travel back to a point before we lost to Xena. And this time, I can make sure I get it right!"

"Over my dead body!" Janice's eyes widened. What am I saying? Why should I worry about trying to protect someone who has been dead for centuries, when the woman I love may be injured or worse? She holstered her revolver and ran outside to check on Melinda.

The Bloodsword shook his head. "I thought as much. She shares Gabrielle's face, and her cowardice as well. I have no more time to waste on them, for I must prepare the Nightstone." He turned his back on the two women, and approached the artifact. "Now let's see..."

"Mel?" A frightened archeologist dropped to one knee beside her raven-haired lover, and gently touched her shoulder. "Melinda? Can you hear me?" No response. "Oh come on Mel, don't do this to me." Nothing. "Please Mel, don't leave me! Not like this." The southerner stirred, she turned her head side to side, moaning, but didn't open her eyes. "Mel?" Before anything more could happen, Janice heard a muffled explosion and felt a wave of heat wash over her from somewhere behind.

She turned in time to see what was left of their tent being blown outward by some unseen force. Martyr stood surrounded by their scattered belongings and, having thrown down Xena's sword, was holding the Nightstone in his hands instead. His head was thrown back, and his entire body was awash in the strange black light being given off by the ancient artifact, which every so often also emitted a wave of heat.

"What the hell is he up to?" Janice looked down as the southerner moaned again. "Mel?" She swept a lock of silky black hair out of Melinda's face and touched her cheek. "Mel? Come on, I know you're in there. Mel, come on, please! Talk to me."

"J-J..." Melinda's eyes fluttered open for a moment. "J-Jan...Janice...?"

"I'm right here." The archeologist smiled. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."

Melinda slowly shook her head. "N-No...Janice, you have to...stop him...stop Martyr..."

"What?" Janice frowned. "Mel, I can't! I can't just leave you here."

"Forget...about me." The southerner weakly clasped Janice's shoulder. "I'll...be fine. But Martyr...I don't know how I know...but the Nightstone...has to be stopped. Please..." Melinda's hand slid to the ground, and her eyes rolled back in her head. "Stop..."

Tears streamed down Janice's face. "Mel?" Damn! I've cried more the last couple of days than the whole rest of my life. "Mel?" She touched the southerner's neck and felt for her pulse, it was weak but constant. Oh, thank God. I don't know why she wants me to do this, but for her...I will. The archeologist's face hardened as she got up, took a deep breath and started toward Martyr, around whom the previously unfocused mass of energy was beginning to take on a vaguely rectangular shape. I'm going to take care of this creep once and for all! As she got closer, she began to realize that the air around Martyr seemed to be alive with static electricity, and she was beginning to feel the heat more and more.

"Hey you!" Janice's face was already flushed as she shouted at the top of her lungs. "Knock it off!" He didn't even seem to notice her, but instead continued to mutter the same words over and over again. Unfortunately, it was not any language the archeologist recognized. "Have it your way! If this is how you want to play it...!" She drew her revolver, and pulled back the hammer. "Don't say I didn't warn you!" But, am I supposed to shoot him, or the Nightstone? Mel told me to stop them both. "Ah, to hell with it."

Janice aimed and fired all at once, the bullet striking Martyr's left shoulder, and the impact twisted back--away from the Nightstone. As soon as the Bloodsword lost contact, there was an immediate reaction in the artifact, it began to shudder violently and give off an even louder hum. The occasional waves of heat and force increased in speed and intensity, and more than once she was nearly bowled off her feet. At the same time the mysterious ebony energy--which had been forming into something similar to a mid-air doorway--was rippling and churning as if made of so much water.

The archeologist's hazel green eyes widened. "Uh oh."

"NO!" Martyr, who was clutching his shoulder, stood. "Do you have any idea what you've done?"

"Sure." Janice gritted her teeth as she raised her revolver and fired again, the bullet striking Martyr's stomach this time, and the impact doubled him over. "More or less." She turned to aim at the Nightstone. "Well, maybe, maybe not." Once again she fired, but the bullet never struck it's target, as another wave of heat and force from the artifact deflected it. It washed over her, and she trembled. "Hmm..."

The archeologist frowned as a black-clad hand clamped down on the barrel of her revolver. It was ripped from her grasp and tossed aside while Martyr--who was bleeding heavily from both wounds--hissed in pain while he grabbed her by the collar. "You stupid little bitch, thanks to you, the portal is unstable! Now I'll have to wait for it to settle before I can try using it!"

Janice shrugged. "So what, your flight has been delayed?"

"Insolent little..." Martyr heard a sound, a moan, and turned his head to see Melinda beginning to stir. "Okay, seeing as how you have dared interfere with my plan, it's only fair I return the favor. I'm going to do to your little friend over there what I should have done to her double centuries ago." He lifted Janice before she could react, and sent her flying with a wave of his arm. Laughing, he spun around and stalked toward Melinda, mumbling to himself. "Here Xena!"

Janice landed, hard, and rolled to a stop--the breath momentarily knocked out of her. As she sat up she found herself so close to the Nightstone, that the heat it was giving off was almost unbearable. She also felt an almost imperceptible pull coming from the mystical doorway, which continued to surge and ripple before her eyes. The archeologist put a hand down to brace herself in order to stand up, and was surprised to feel cold metal instead of dirt. "What the...?" Glancing down, she saw a sword. No, not just any sword...it's Xena's! She recalled how Martyr had cast it aside when he went to pick up the Nightstone, and grabbed it as she got to her feet. "Maybe now I can..." She heard a shrill scream. Mel!

The Bloodsword, who had grabbed Melinda by the hair, yanked her head back. "Shut up, woman!"

"Martyr!" He raised his head and growled when he saw Janice standing to one side of the Nightstone--which had continued to float in mid-air even after he dropped it--with the blade of Xena's sword aimed toward it. "I am going to say this once time! Let her go...now!!" After a moment, when he didn't move, she drew the sword back and prepared to strike. "I'm not kidding here Martyr. I'll do it, cause I'm betting you don't want this piece of crap to become a pin-cushion again. Now get the hell away from her!"

Surprisingly, Martyr did as he was told. "Of course. But I warn you..." He took a step toward Janice. "You toy with forces you could not possibly hope to understand. The Nightstone is a delicate instrument, created by the blending of the life's blood of a thousand fallen warriors, from a thousand distinct battlefields. If you attempt to so mindlessly rupture it with that sword, you will suffer a most horrible fate."

"What makes you so sure? After all, you survived."

Martyr shook his head. "The Nightstone is a receptacle of pure evil. Only those darkest of souls can touch it, and possibly hope to survive. Only a select few individuals, the most black-hearted, can receive great power as a result, becoming members of an elite cadre of warriors...the Bloodsword. In my case, I was granted immortality for my loyalty." He crossed his arms. "Unfortunately, my body was destroyed during the battle with Xena. But, my soul lived on within the Nightstone, which preserved my consciousness all these centuries...until the sword was finally removed. I was able to take over the body of this body, the one you call Zagrias, because he was so deliciously amoral as to make the transformation simple." The Bloodsword's eyes narrowed. "But in spite of the way you would have others believe, I can sense you are truly 'good' at heart, and the Nightstone wouldn't need to strain to see you destroyed!"

"Wait a sec, why are you telling me this?" The archeologist shook her head. Something didn't make sense. "If that's true, why not just let it kill me? Why do you care what happens to me?"

Martyr's eyes narrowed. "In truth, I don't. But, the Nightstone must remain intact for me to use the portal. It is a doorway to our past and to my future, and if were damaged in some way there's no telling when it would send me. If I survived at all, that is. I need the Nightstone. So, I shall make you a deal." He pointed at Melinda, who had finally opened her eyes and was looking back at him. "Allow me safe passage through the portal, and I will leave your friend there alive. Otherwise..."

Janice licked her lips. Damn it, what am I going to do? If I let him go, and he's telling the truth, he'll go back in time to kill Xena and Gabrielle. They're OUR ancestors, so what happens to Mel and I if they're not able to reproduce? Do we just cease to exist? Not that her other alternative was much better. If I go ahead, and hit the Nightstone anyway, he'll kill Mel for sure. It's a lose lose situation.

The Bloodsword saw the indecision on her face, and laughed. "What's it going to be?!"

After what seemed like an eternity, Janice lowered the sword and sighed. "All right, you win. Leave Mel alone and you can go."

"Oh no no, it's not that simple little lady." Martyr grabbed Melinda's arm and lifted the raven-haired beauty to her feet. "I'm going to the portal and SHE is coming with me!" He shook the still dazed southerner, who opened her eyes and moaned. "Got it?!"

"Like hell!" The archeologist resisted the urge to raise the sword. "She's not going anywhere!"

Martyr shook his head as he moved slowly toward the portal, dragging a reluctant Melinda with him. "Believe me, I have no intention of carrying this annoying little Xena-wannabe all around Greece with me. I just want her as... insurance, in case you decide to get brave before I reach the portal."

Janice gritted her teeth. "You'd better not hurt her!"

The Bloodsword laughed. "Oh please! What makes you think that you could stop me?" He and Melinda were nearly to the portal. "You can go ahead and try and attack me, but you must realize that I can snap her neck like a twig before you even take a step!" He stumbled, almost but not quite losing his hold on the southerner. "This body is more damaged than I thought. I may have to find a new one when I get back."

"You're forgetting...one...thing..." Melinda's voice was weak, pained, but he still heard her.

"Oh really?" Martyr stopped just short of the portal. "And what might that be?"

The southerner raised her head, and gave a wry smile. "ME!" She brought her boot heel down on his foot, so hard that they could hear something crack. As he was yelling in pain Melinda shoved him as hard as she could and turned to run, but she was only able to take a few steps before her legs gave out.

However, that was more than enough for Janice. "Martyr!" She charged him, waving the sword.

The Bloodsword moved into a fighting stance and waited. As soon as Janice attacked he reached up in order to try and catch the blade, but his wounded arm couldn't support the wait. "Aaargh!" He bellowed as it slipped through his grasp and tore across his chest, drawing blood. "You...witch!"

"I don't want to kill you, Martyr!" Janice swung the sword again, clumsily, and cut into his wounded arm this time. "But if you force me, I will!"

Martyr dropped to one knee, gasping for air. "Just like...Xena...always interfering..." He looked up to see the sword being poised above his head. "Do it. If you think you've got the courage, which I doubt, go ahead. Kill me, I dare you!"

Janice's arms were trembling; she desperately wanted to strike him down, and end their misery. But, there was a larger part of her that refused to let her kill, no matter how hard she tried to convince herself she really wanted to. It was a sense of honor and decency, which had been instilled in the archeologist by her father. While Harry Covington had done a number of things in his time--many of them illegal--he had never once taken a life, and as a result he made certain his daughter knew how important it was to preserve life above all else. NO! Damn it, if I kill him, I won't be any better THAN him.

Martyr laughed when he saw her arms wavering. "I knew it! You ARE a coward!" He reached up and grabbed Janice's belt, pulling her forward before she knew what was happening. The Bloodsword rolled back and kicked his boots up hard into her stomach, flipping the archeologist up and over him in one sudden movement. But, as it turned out, he had made one huge miscalculation, in judging his surroundings, and threw her head over heels into the Nightstone.

Janice struck the floating artifact back first, screaming when the heat from it caused her leather jacket to burst into flames. She tore it off her body as she slid to the ground, and was surprised when the Nightstone followed a moment later. It landed, hard, a series of spider-webbed cracks appearing all over it's otherwise smooth ebony surface, and the low hum it had been giving off turned into a shrill whistling sound. In addition, it began to emit lightning-like bolts of energy, some of which came dangerously close to striking the archeologist, who was just too stunned to get out of the way.

"NO!" Martyr's dark eyes went wide, as he saw the damage to the Nightstone, and the effect it was beginning to have on the portal. "NOO!" It shimmered like glass, and seemed to be growing ever more slightly transparent by the moment. "By the Gods, I have to get out of here while I still have the chance!" He barely wasted another glance at the archeologist's still form as he charged toward the portal.

Meanwhile, having finally regained her bearings, Melinda got up to her hands and knees and started crawling toward her lover. "J-Janice?"

Without warning, a particularly violent bolt of energy erupted from the Nightstone and struck Martyr. He was lifted off the ground as it pierced his body, causing him to writhe in silent agony for several moments before he just slumped forward. Before it finally dissipated, allowing the Bloodsword to fall to the ground in a smoldering heap, it arced down and touched Janice's side, singing her shirt and the flesh beneath. The archeologist's body arched painfully--her hand tightening reflexively around the hilt of the sword--and she screamed. For one heart-wrenching moment her bright green eyes were wide open, glazed in terror and pain, and the next she sank back into blissful unconsciousness.

"Janice?! Janice!" Melinda frantically touched the archeologist's neck, startled at how hot her skin was, as if she was suffering from a burning fever. She felt for a pulse and was relieved when she found Janice's heart was still beating as strong as ever. "Oh, thank God." The southerner looked over her shoulder as another lightning-like bolt of energy burst out of the Nightstone, this time striking the portal itself. It released a fiery wave of heat and ebony light which washed over them both. Suddenly, the concussive waves of force they had been feeling all this time seemed to reverse themselves, drawing things toward the portal instead.

The Nightstone was first. Being the closest object to the portal, and with nothing to hold it down, it rolled up to the crackling black entryway and disappeared. As a result the pull increased tenfold, and the portal began to rip up grass and dirt of the ground underneath and around it. Martyr's lifeless body was drawn in as well, like a grotesque mannequin it twisted in the wind until it vanished into the darkness as well.

At that point, Melinda started to really feel the pull as well. "Oh my." She dug her fingers into the ground and did her best to hold on. It might well have worked, until she realized that Janice--who was still unconscious and therefor unable to defend herself--was being drawn inexorably toward the portal. "No...Janice!" The southerner released her desperate hold and reached for her lover, too late realizing her mistake. "Oh NO!" Her face paled as the power of the portal became irresistible to either of them. "NOOOO!" They were drawn helplessly into it, and with one last discharge of black light and heat the mystical void finally collapsed in upon itself and, except for a scarred ring of earth, left no sign that it had ever existed at all.

Part 3: Family Ties

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