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September 10, 2015

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Disclaimers: Read ‘em and weep.

The following tale is a post-FIN Xena and Gabrielle story. It is my take on what might have happened approximately ten years after the sixth season of the TV show (we all know how it ended). If you don’t agree with my depictions of the characters, stop reading, you fool. If you enjoy them, give me a metaphorical pat on the back. I like those.

The characters of Xena (not the new one), Gabrielle, Eve, Aphrodite, Autolycus, Ares (R.I.P), the manifestation of Callisto, Ephiny’s ghost, Amarice’s ghost, Joxer’s ghost, Eli’s ghost, and Cyrene’s ghost (that’s a whole lot of ghosts) are from the TV show ‘Xena : Warrior Princess’ and belong to Studios USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal/NBC Universal, or whoever the Tartarus owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. Not even a teeny infringement. I’m only borrowing the characters this one time for your reading pleasure and to fix those little elements of FIN 1&2 that we didn’t like so much. All the other characters in this story are mine (including young Xena/Gena), so don’t steal ‘em. I may hand over Daemonicus for the right price, though. He’s too mean, and he isn’t housetrained.

Do not post/share/relist this story or any part of it anywhere on the internet without permission from the author (that’s me). It’s not nice to do that, and I will kick up a fuss. And remember, I created Daemonicus. Who knows what dark and crazed, kick-your-ass brain cell he came from.

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This story contains quite a bit of violence and death due to the vast amount of swords, warriors, soldiers, chakrams, big-booted feet and mean-punching fists, sais, black slime, and a raging Gabrielle. Readers who are disturbed by, or sensitive to this type of depiction, may want to read something other than this story. Why would you read a Xena story if you fainted at the mention of a battle anyway?

OK, so…I’m not sure exactly when our wonderful Xena and Gabrielle lived – died, lived, died, time-traveled, resurrected, died, lived again? – but I believe they had heard of a calendar of some sort…could have been the Roman calendar, BCE (that’s ‘Before Common Era’ – am I thinking about this too much?). Never mind. While watching the show during the creation of this story, I noted the repeated use of days, months, years, minutes, etc (someone even mentioned science at one point. What??) So, I don’t have a problem with a candlemark here and a moon there, but I probably won’t be using phrases such as, “many winters ago,” or “it was only a turning of the hourglass later,” unless I feel like it. Xena and Gabrielle, and many other characters, used our modern-day measurements for time, and that’s good enough for me. 😉

Oh, and another thing…there is NO sex in this story. No, don’t shout at me. I refuse to write these particular characters in full-blown (pardon any pun), erotic scenes. I have enough trouble writing X and G as it is without the burden of who would be on top, or who would be boss over whom (it would totally be Gabrielle). So yeah, lots of love and ‘moments’, even a few kisses, but no terribly naughty stuff. You have been warned!

Any constructive comments, wonderfully gushing reviews, or escapee globules of black slime can be sent to the author at her email address. You know the one…or you should.

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Full Circle

By W Arthur

“You do realize I can’t stand you, right?”

“I know, Ares. So why did you call on me?”

“Because…I’m desperate. How do I stop Daemonicus?”

“I have a feeling you already know the answer to your own question.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why would you have called on me, of all people, in the first place?”

“Just gimme the damn answer.”

“Are you willing to accept the consequences?”

“At this point, it doesn’t matter. I’ll do anything…”

Prologue

I am weary. For more than ten years now, I have been traveling distant lands, fighting the good fight, helping people in jeopardy, healing the sick and wounded, and bringing hope to the ones who had given up. There always seems to be someone who needs the Warrior Princess. I hate it when they call me that.

Word began to spread of the new warrior with the golden hair, and soon the villagers seemed to know the “savior with the chakram” was headed their way. Some called me the Chosen One, and some, other names like the Battling Bard. That one seemed to catch on, and I can deal with it, but I know in my heart that I am not the Warrior Princess. She was unique. She is gone.

I may have been strong all these years, and outwardly I still seem so, but I have a vast hole in my heart. I hid it well and denied its existence for it was the only way I could continue to move on. It feels like someone took one of my sais and drove it through my chest, twisted it around a few times and left it there, letting it rot my muscle from the inside out. And it can’t be removed. No one can stop the pain I feel, the pain I push aside to help others, the pain I bury time and time again to try to keep moving and breathing every day. The only person who could heal me, who could take away the agony, is gone. She left me. She chose to believe the word of a betrayer over my love for her. I still struggle with that, but I try not to think about it often because I still love her with everything I am.

I am writing this now because I need to purge the feelings I have nurtured and allowed to manifest all this time. I thought I would continue to feel close to Xena after she was gone, and I have. I always will, for my soul is one with hers. But there is a different distance, even when she stands there in front of me. It’s a distance I cannot traverse…until now. I will go to be with her soon.

This is the first time I have picked up my quill for almost three months. That’s when I arrived back in Greece. I didn’t want to come home because it would mean giving up possession of Xena’s ashes. I promised her I would lay her to rest beside her brother. I have broken that promise for as long as I could. But she broke her promise to me. She said she would never leave me.

When I sailed away from Jappa, I felt a sense of purpose, like there was something I must learn from her death, or that a special destiny would be revealed to me. I trusted that she would stay close to me while I righted all the wrongs in the world. And I did right a lot of wrongs…and she did stay with me to a certain extent. She appeared from time to time, but as the seasons passed it became harder to cope with. She would be there with me in spirit, and sometimes she would speak to me. We would have conversations, and she’d talk like nothing had changed. But things had changed, and one thing she would never explain to me was where she had ended up. Was she in Tartarus? Did she make it to the Elysian Fields? My gut told me she was somewhere in between, and it hurt me to think of her in limbo, belonging to nowhere.

On occasion, her spirit would reach out to touch me. The touch was like a ghosting of energy, a breeze, a figment of my imagination, and it was nothing close to the way she felt before. I craved contact with her, but when she tried to quell that craving it was a concoction of pure frustration, agonizing love, and desperate sadness. What did I expect? I don’t know. There’s no flesh and blood anymore, no warm skin, no solid body for me to feel connected to. No Xena.

I remember when she was still here, the day she told me about what happened to those villagers in Jappa so long ago. I argued with her that day. I understood her need to seek redemption, but what I will never understand is how she could take Akemi’s word and let herself be killed for it. As far as I can tell, the villagers died in a savage fire caused by a few angry men who began to abuse a drunk, grieving woman. Yes, she was a warrior and had turned to defend herself with rage, but there was no deliberate killing on Xena’s part. So why was she taken from me? Why did she feel guilty…guilty enough to be killed and to refuse me my soul’s mate for the rest of my days? I wish I had the answers, but they can only be found within her mind, and she has never talked about the why.

I ache without her, especially since I told her during one desperate argument to leave me alone. I remember it like it was last night.

“Just go, Xena! And this time…just…go.”

“G-Gabrielle, are you saying goodbye? I can’t…I don’t want to go.”

“I don’t care! This is torturing me, Xena. How can you stand it? It’s like parading something in front of me that I need more than life, but I can’t ever reach out and take it. So please don’t tell me what you want because I wanted you. That’s all I ever wanted, and you took that away from me.”

“But you know why…”

“Yes. I do. And was it worth it? Did you free all those souls?”

“I don’t know. I think so…”

“You think so? You don’t even know?” I was shouting at this point. “I can’t live like this anymore. Leave me alone.”

“You’ll never be alone.”

“I am alone!”

Xena hasn’t appeared to me since that night, the night before my final day of traveling to Greece. I miss her desperately. I want to be with her, and I need to go to her now.

Another thing Xena told me during our time together was what had happened the day she met me, the day she saved the people from my village. She had decided that was to be the day she would die. She had intended to quietly end her life, and perhaps, end her pain. She said she couldn’t take it anymore, but then she saw me and something changed within her. Xena somehow knew she had to save us, and unbeknownst to her, her life’s path was to alter forever. But her feelings of quiet surrender, of not being afraid of the end, and feeling exhausted by the struggle of living are something I never understood. I do now.

I have given so much. I have fought for justice. I have saved innocent lives, and I have performed selfless deed after selfless deed. I even commanded armies in Egypt and lands further north, leading them gloriously into battle against their enemies. I have been injured more times than I can count. I am a fearless warrior, but no great destiny has been revealed to me, and I can’t fight anymore.

I have seen so much, and I have come to understand Xena better through my experiences. A day came less than ten months ago when I drove my sword into the chest of a ruthless warlord, but what scared me was not the fight beforehand, not the strength with which he managed to almost knock me unconscious, but the smile on my face when the air left his lungs with his final breath. The fact that I smiled…that scared me. That’s when I decided to come home. It was becoming too satisfying to see them die, and I knew it had to be over.

So I have returned to our homeland. I haven’t seen any of the gods since my arrival, and I am thankful for that. Perhaps in my absence, they have forgotten about me and will leave me alone. I do miss Aphrodite, though. But I feel like love has left me now, so I don’t expect she’ll have anything to say to me. That thought alone makes me desperately sad. Am I not capable of love anymore?

I sought out an Amazon tribe upon my return here. I found a queen by the name of Cyane. She had taken the name and seemed to be a wise ruler. She had a large tribe of strong sisters, and I felt instantly welcomed for they knew of me and listened intently as I told of my adventures. I left every scroll I have written since Jappa with them. I’d made sure to include new methods of healing I discovered on my travels and unique battle strategies I felt would enhance the ones already used by the Amazons. The scrolls tell of places I have been and things I have done, but never what I have felt. I couldn’t face my feelings, and I never mentioned Xena in any of my tales. Ironic, since she was all I ever wrote about before. I had buried it all too deeply, and I’ve never released it until now.

I’ll send this parchment to the Amazons when I am done with it tomorrow. Let it serve as a final record of me, Gabrielle of Potidaea, the young village girl who dreamed of traveling with a mighty warrior princess an age ago, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Now, I need to rest. My camp is in a small, secluded area tonight, and I will try to drift into Morpheus’s realm like I always do. I never seem to truly sleep anymore, and sometimes I wonder how I manage to rise every morning. A long time ago, Xena teased me mercilessly about being able to sleep amidst a horde of stampeding centaurs, and she was right…but not now. Now I barely close my eyes for more than a few moments at a time. Sleep brings dreams, dreams of better days when I could look into those ocean-blue eyes and see the soul of my mate, smell the scent of her, touch her skin, and feel warmth and love like never before. I can’t stand to wake from those dreams. But sleep also brings nightmares of the most gut-wrenching type. I never thought I’d find Xena’s body like that. It was too much for the strongest of hearts to bear. Those dreams, those torturous visions, I will do anything to avoid.

I can’t stand how much I miss her. My soul is incomplete.

Chapter 1

Gabrielle dropped the quill onto her furs and gently rolled up the parchment. With a creak of her neck, she yawned and wiped the tears that had just spilled over her lower lids. She pulled her saddlebag toward her, took out a small, wrapped piece of nutbread to make way for the scroll, and lay back against the fallen log. She fleetingly felt Xena sitting sharpening her sword on the log right next to her, and she shook her head to erase the memory. Another winter was settling in, and a tug on the collar of her cloak allowed a rush of chilled air to venture under the thick material causing a brief shiver down her spine. Her eyes soon became hypnotized by the dancing flames of the dwindling campfire while she chewed on a small piece of the bread.

She knew she was doing the right thing now. A stillness had settled over her spirit, and since Xena wasn’t anywhere around and couldn’t read her thoughts – she didn’t think – she was free to do something she knew her mate would never allow. As the stars twinkled above her, Gabrielle thought back to the people she had met on her lonely journey. A few suitors had propositioned her over the years, but she could never accommodate someone new. She had been alone for far too long, but there was no one in the land of the living that could assuage her emptiness.

Gabrielle sighed heavily, blowing a puff of visible air from between her lips, confirming to her that it would be a bitterly cold night. She pulled herself to her feet and stood for a few moments to listen. Finding no reason for alarm, she threw a few more small branches on the fire and sat back down on her furs. She checked her weapons, and with her chakram and sword by her side, and her sais still in her boots, she rested her head on her hands to settle for another dreamless, sleepless night.

She was not too far away from Amphipolis now. She had needed another night to gather her courage. Giving up the urn was going to be more difficult than she had ever realized, and she glanced at her saddlebag now, knowing that Xena’s ashes were secure inside. She reached out to the bag that was level with her head and pulled it a little closer. Another tear left her bleary, green eyes, and she brushed it away with agitation.

“Soon, my love. Soon…”

At that very moment, a bright shower of pink and gold sparkles filled the air next to the campfire, and Gabrielle sat up with a start. The Goddess of Love appeared in her usual spectacular fashion making Gabrielle smile unwittingly since she hadn’t experienced anything like it in so long.

Aphrodite crossed her arms over her voluptuous chest. “Well, if it isn’t the Battling Warrior Bard Babe.”

Gabrielle couldn’t quite decipher the expression on her old friend’s face. Was it hurt? Maybe anger? Not sure what to say, she went with the standard greeting. “Aphrodite, it’s good to see you.”

“Really? Really?! Well how come Yours Truly didn’t get to hear of your return? Hmm? And how come you stayed away so long?”

“I thought you god types knew everything…and I…I didn’t want to…come back, so…”

Seeing her bosom buddy struggling for words, Aphrodite softened her features and stepped a little closer. She fluffed her dress out before she sat on the log, and gave a half-smile when Gabrielle turned around on her furs to face her. “I can see what you’ve been through, hon. Things haven’t been the same here without you.” She looked deeply into the weary traveler’s eyes then lowered her own gaze to the fire. “Hasn’t been the same without her either,” she admitted.

Gabrielle held back her tears. “I couldn’t stand to give up her ashes. I couldn’t come back.”

“How come you’re back now then? And what I heard when I arrived…you said soon. Soon, what?”

“I want to be with her, Dite,” Gabrielle whispered, but her words gradually became pleadingly loud. “I need to be with her. I’ve done so many things for others…for the gods-be-damned greater good…for more than nine years, and I can’t go on. I need to do something for me now. I love her, and only her. Surely you of all people can see that?”

Aphrodite could see everything in Gabrielle’s eyes: the pain, the passionate plea, the acceptance of things to come, and the memories of things that once were. She saw strength and weakness. She saw love and hate mingled with fear and courage. Gabrielle was everything, a pure heart and a great warrior, a gifted bard and a devoted soulmate.

“I can see it, but your plan is a teeny bit flawed.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll notice I’m not quite as…flamboyant as I used to be. Let me tell you what’s been happening here since you and your tall, dark, and deadly left.” Aphrodite slid off the log and scooted next to her old friend like it was just yesterday she’d seen her last.

Gabrielle didn’t protest when Aphrodite flicked her fingers toward the flames sending a bolt of sparkle toward the fire, making it soar upward for a moment before it died back to a satisfactory blaze. She remembered the move so clearly. It didn’t seem like a decade since she’d witnessed it.

Aphrodite sighed. “So much has happened. I had no idea you were here ’til big bro came to tell me…”

At the mention of Ares, Gabrielle bristled. “Not sure I want to talk about him.”

“Oh, but we must. It’s so not what you think. Like I said, so much has happened. You see, Ares had a new challenge, and it was keeping him very busy. Tell me, when did you get back to our shores?”

“About three months ago.”

Aphrodite nodded and flicked her hair over her shoulder. “Makes sense. Have you seen Xena’s spirit, you know, since it happened? Did she stay with you?”

“She…appears to me sometimes, but I got angry and told her to leave me alone just before I got here. Why?” Gabrielle answered, grinding her jaws to stave off her tears.

“How did she seem to you when she appeared?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did she still have her fire, her darkness?”

“Um…well, no. She was very loving and regretful most of the time…almost timid actually. Why?” Gabrielle was getting the feeling she didn’t want the answer.

“I’m just trying to work out why her darkness was able to escape when she wasn’t even killed here.”

Gabrielle’s breath hitched. “Escape?”

“Sweet Gab, her darkness was taken when she died. I don’t know how. It seems to be a bigger problem than even Ares predicted. There’s a new god…demon…something here that, well, we don’t know where it…he…not sure what it is…came from, but it’s powerful and seems to have taken evil from many souls. It consumes darkness. Its face can change into the faces of the souls it stole from, or so I’ve heard. It’s super weird. Anyway, Ares was having trouble…”

When Aphrodite’s voice drifted to nothing, Gabrielle leaned forward to catch her attention. “Ares was having trouble what?”

“He couldn’t win the fight. It was more than he had ever faced before.”

“Oh, gods…so he’s not the sitting God of War?”

It was silent for long moments before Aphrodite spoke again. “He’s dead.”

Gabrielle was stunned. “But he’s a god. How can he be dead?”

“He gave up his godhood and his mortal life for one last chance to defeat pure evil.” Aphrodite hung her head low.

“I’m sorry, Aphrodite.” Gabrielle placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “But what last chance do you have without Ares?”

Aphrodite turned to look at her. “You have to understand something before I tell you. Ares…he was watching you when you came back to Greece. You’re a warrior, and he…he knew why you had come home.”

“How could he know?”

“I’m not sure, but you are going to end your life, are you not?”

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped slowly as her green eyes widened. “How did he…? But…”

“Sweetie, you can’t end it. You have a destiny.”

“Wait a gods-damned minute…”

“Hey!”

“Sorry, but I don’t want to hear about this destiny. I make my own destiny.”

“Hear me out!” Aphrodite almost shouted, making Gabrielle stare at her.

“Wow, you have changed.”

“I’m just totally uber-stressed, and this new presence is even drowning my love out. It’s a total bitch. This might be the most important conversation we’ll have, so please listen to me.”

“OK.”

“Ares was watching you up until maybe a moon ago. That’s when he made the decision. He made it because he hasn’t been the same since news of Xena’s death got back to us, and he’s been in constant battle with this new…thing. It seems to be calling itself Daemonicus. He…it seems to be a combination of evil, taking the darkness from dead warriors, warlords, murderers…anyone with hatred of any sort in their hearts, to fuel its power. Its reach is far…farther than just Greece, it seems. It’s a god of sorts…a demon of pure evil, I think. It’s becoming too powerful.” Aphrodite twisted the pink material of her dress around her finger as she spoke. “Now that Ares is gone, Daemonicus will take over…oh, let’s just call it a dude. He’ll take over Mount Olympus if he hasn’t already, and that will be the end of it for me, for everyone. And rumor has it he is now morphing into something even more powerful. We’ve tried everything to fight him, and our last hope is that you can kill him.”

“Me?” Gabrielle asked incredulously. “I have no idea why you’d think-”

“You have no idea what you and Xena had…have, and how important it was…is.” Aphrodite continued while Gabrielle just gaped at her. “The love between you and Xena was unique. That much you know, but what you don’t know is the power you both hold. That power is our last chance to defeat the evil.”

“Aphrodite, I’m just…I…”

When nothing else was forthcoming, the goddess smiled. “Ares died to bring Xena back to life.”

Gabrielle was silent. The words hung heavy in the air for an eternity until she decided she really was awake and this was not some idiotic dream. “That’s not funny, and it’s not possible either,” she said angrily. Tears began to roll down her face, and the flames caught each droplet in their flickering light.

Aphrodite reached out to catch one and frowned when Gabrielle flinched a little. “It wasn’t meant to be funny, and it is possible. Go check your urn. You’ll find it’s empty.”

Gabrielle’s stomach heaved violently. She grabbed her saddlebag and roughly opened the straps. She undid the buckles she had fashioned in a harness around the urn, and gulped repeatedly before she opened the lid. She hadn’t looked in it for many seasons. It was empty. “No! What have you done?”

“Gabby, she’s not there anymore. When you got back to Greece, Ares was desperate. He knew what you were preparing for. He knew you would give up the urn before you ended your life. He also saw his opportunity to bring back the power of love. He gave up everything for this last chance to stop Daemonicus, but he couldn’t bring Xena back until she was within his reach. You and Xena are our last hope. You must help me, and you must be together to do that. I’m hoping Xena came back with her dark side intact, but it’s up to you to-”

“No! You’re lying!”

Aphrodite stood up and grabbed an infuriated Gabrielle’s shoulders. “It is all true. Listen to me! You need to go to her!”

“How in Tartarus can I go to her when I don’t even know where she is?”

Aphrodite softened when more angry tears burst out of Gabrielle’s eyes. She pulled her friend into a hug. “Remember when you followed the path of peace?” When she felt a nod against her shoulder, she continued. “You were on the right track…just needs a little adjusting. You can fight for love. A contradiction in terms, I know, but it’s necessary and true.” She pushed Gabrielle back a little to look into her eyes. “You need to find Xena. I don’t know where she is, but I do know where you must start.”

“Where?”

“Amphipolis. There, you will bring the past, the present, and the future together. When that happens, you will figure out the rest.”

“That sounds too much like a riddle, Aphrodite.” Gabrielle stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest.

“I know. I have limited information for you. Ares was rather vague about things. Just go…go to Amphipolis.” And with that instruction hanging in the cold, night air, Aphrodite vanished.

Gabrielle stood and glared at the spot where Aphrodite had been for a few more minutes. It all sounded so ridiculous to her. Ares is dead and Xena is alive? “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stick to my plan and head out in the morning.”

“No, no, no.” Aphrodite appeared again…without her sparkles.

“Wh-I thought you had gone!”

“Quit being so angry all the time,” the goddess said as she approached. “Listen to me, Gabrielle.”

“No. I’m done with listening. I’m done with fighting. I’m done with everything.”

Aphrodite sent a sharp line of light toward Gabrielle. “Sit down.”

Gabrielle fell to the log that lay just behind her. Her legs had given way, and she couldn’t get back up. “What did you do?”

“I’m trying to make you listen for a minute. What happened to the old Gabrielle…the one who was all compassion and patience and love?”

Gabrielle sighed. “She doesn’t exist anymore.”

“I don’t believe that,” Aphrodite said as she crouched in front of her friend. “Look at me, Gabrielle. I have changed too. Do you know what changed me the most?” When Gabrielle shook her head in defeat, Aphrodite smiled sadly at her. “The moment that changed me the most was when Ares told me he had to die.”

Gabrielle blinked a few times and stared into Aphrodite’s eyes. “Why did that change you?”

“Because for all his flaws, he was still my brother. I was so scared…”

“It had gotten that bad?”

“Yes, Gabrielle. I felt weak. What could I do to end the darkness? I wear a pink dress, for Elysia’s sake. Please, do as I said and go to Amphipolis. Remember…the past, the present, and the future. I know you can do this.”

When Aphrodite suddenly vanished once more, Gabrielle was able to stand and spin around on the spot to look for her. “Aphrodite?”

There was no reply this time. Gabrielle was alone again. She tried to replay everything she had been told. It sounded completely absurd to her.

“The past…Xena is the past? Am I the present? But I’m also the past. Who is the future? Damn it.” She stomped across the campsite and began to gather her things. There was only one thing for it. She was going to Amphipolis tonight. There was no way in Tartarus that she could rest now anyway.

***

It was still dark when Gabrielle approached the edge of Amphipolis, and as she walked silently along the narrow path she recalled a different kind of darkness that had befallen the town the last time she was here. The haunting had been a difficult thing to witness, especially for Xena. They had learned of Cyrene’s death, and as much as that had hurt, the reason behind it had created more pain in their hearts. As usual, Xena took on the guilt of not being there to help her mother when she needed her, but how could she have known? How could she have helped when Ares had entombed both her and Gabrielle in a cave of ice?

Gabrielle began to recall the moments after awakening from that death, but when a small light appeared around the next tree trunk, she stopped in her tracks to scan the few buildings that had come into view. After moving from the path to the cover of the trees, she noticed that each window in every house had candlelight or oil lanterns burning throughout the night. Amphipolis looked inhabited.

Gabrielle had thought Aphrodite had told her to come here to perhaps leave the urn – even though it was empty – and find Xena’s body lying in the ruins. Her heart had been lurching every few minutes at the thought of that vision, but now it seemed that there was much more to find here. She eased forward without making a sound. Ever cautious, her feet instinctually found the softest, quietest spot on the forest floor, leaving her approach unheard by even Xena…if she was indeed here.

As she came to the corner of the nearest house, Gabrielle stopped to gather her nerves. For some reason, this was scarier than fighting the toughest of warlords or stopping the bloodiest of battles. Was she going to see Xena again, alive and real? Was Aphrodite telling her the whole truth? Could it really be that easy?

“I doubt it,” Gabrielle muttered to herself as she moved into the dim candlelight of the first window.

Before she could get more than a few steps farther, a swift figure dropped from the upstairs window of the house, performing a cartwheel on the way down to land perfectly balanced in front of her. The athlete completely blocked her path, and in a flash, Gabrielle had her sais in her hands, ready to defend herself in battle. The sight of a chunky, metal candlestick in the hand of a woman made her pause, but her senses were still on alert. The woman was clearly a warrior, as was evident from her stance, her acrobatic entrance, and her powerful build, but Gabrielle couldn’t make out her facial expression until the woman moved forward into the frame of the window’s illumination. Now, Gabrielle could see a perplexed look in the dark-brown eyes that were fixated on her.

“The Battling Bard of Greece,” the woman gasped out as she lowered her candlestick.

“Well, that’s a new one,” Gabrielle replied with a cynical edge to her tone.

The woman once again stared at her, but only for a moment until she found her voice again. “Apologies, Gabrielle. I’m very surprised to see you. It is you, right?”

“That’s my name, yes. But how do you know me?”

“I’ve learned everything I can about you. We are grateful for your return, but we are always on alert because soldiers of Daemonicus can appear at any time, so I’m sorry about the welcome I gave you.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Xena.”

“Hah…” Gabrielle laughed humorlessly. “I don’t think so.”

Xena answered her immediately, almost as if she was expecting such a response. “No, no. I am not your Xena, but my name is Xena. I was named after her. She is forever a hero among the people of Amphipolis…a legend we are proud to speak of.”

Your Xena, Gabrielle echoed sadly in her head. “I see,” she said aloud. “When were you born?”

“It was back when you and Xena were trapped by Ares…in the cave. When I was born, you had both done so much for people all over Greece…all over the world…and I am proud to be named after her.”

Gabrielle swallowed hard as a wave of grief passed through her. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had told her they were in any way proud of Xena. In fact, she couldn’t remember if she had ever heard it before. “Then I am honored to meet you, Xena.” She choked a little when she said the name, but she recovered well and returned her sais to her boots.

Xena bowed slightly, offering the path to Gabrielle with a swipe of her hand. “Your daughter is here. Let me take you to her.”

Gabrielle flinched, and her expression became one of horror and uncertainty. When her face paled, Xena was quick to shake her head frantically.

“Oh, no! Eve. Eve is here.”

Gabrielle coughed out the breath that had lodged in her windpipe. “How do you know so much about me?”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you know about my…about Hope?”

Xena bit her lip while she formulated her answer. She indicated to Gabrielle that they should begin their walk into the town while they talked. “Like I said, Xena is the legend…but you, Gabrielle, you made the legend. I wanted to know so much about the hero I was named after, but I also wanted to know as much about her life as I possibly could. You became her life. I want to fight for love, just like you taught the real Xena.”

Gabrielle stopped and held this Xena back by her arm. Fight for love…

The way Xena had said it was almost like it had come straight from Aphrodite. Love seemed to be the key in their fight with Daemonicus. Did this Xena hold a part of the puzzle? Was she the future Aphrodite spoke of?

“You are also real,” Gabrielle said with a hint of melancholy. “I think I may need your help, so could you come with me to see Eve?”

Xena seemed to analyze Gabrielle for a few seconds before she nodded. “Yes. I’d be honored. Eve lives at her grandmother’s old inn. Of course, it’s not an inn anymore.”

“What is it now?”

“Eve came back here a few years after the haunting. I had also returned home with my mother by then, and we saw how the place had suffered from the passing of time and the neglect. When some of the townspeople arrived to help us rebuild, they needed a place to heal, both physically and spiritually. Eve was instrumental in leading us back then, and she is still a town leader now. She is very important to us, and we appreciate that she stayed after the revival. We couldn’t have done all this without her,” Xena said, spreading her hand out toward the street ahead. “The Amazons also offered their assistance. They taught us how to defend ourselves while Eve taught us about love, life, and what she had learned from Eli’s teachings. In an agreement with the Amazons, Eve offered them goods from our small market, and so they are always around to assist us, should we need it. They were living peacefully in the forest, not far from here. We were all doing fine until Daemonicus-”

“How do you know of Daemonicus?” Gabrielle interrupted, coming to a halt again.

“Everyone knows of Daemonicus. He has consumed so many lives that we can’t fail to know about him. His mighty soldiers’ battles with Ares have been the source of great tales told by traveling bards. From what I have heard, he is becoming more powerful every time he consumes the darkness from each dead warlord or follower. He makes them his undead…and they can only be killed by ending Daemonicus himself. Well, you can slay them for a while with a sword, but he just absorbs them again. I have much to tell you, Gabrielle, but it can wait for a short time. Please come inside. It’s cold out here,” Xena offered as she opened the heavy door in front of her.

Gabrielle hadn’t even noticed they were standing outside Cyrene’s old place. Most of the windows had light emanating from them, just like the rest of the town. “Why do the people here burn candles throughout the night?”

Xena sighed. “They think it will keep Daemonicus from taking them. He is the darkness. They fear any darkness now, and they feel that the night will invite him into their homes if they don’t try to keep it at bay.”

“Right…but I doubt it will stop him,” Gabrielle said as they walked through the door.

“I know it won’t,” Xena responded quietly.

***

As they walked into the lounge area that used to be the main room of the tavern, Gabrielle noticed a painting of Cyrene, the type of painting you see as a memorial when someone has passed away. But it was when she noticed the painting of Xena next to it that she had to hold her stomach for fear of vomiting right there on the coarsely woven rug. She watched with pain barely hidden in her eyes as the young Xena entered a room in the back, lifting the curtain to allow Gabrielle to pass through as well.

Gabrielle quickly crossed the expanse of floor and ducked her head in thanks. This next room was much smaller, and it was held in the light of about twenty candles. There, in front of the fire, was Eve, sitting on a rocking chair and sharpening her sword.

Since Xena had moved to block her view of Gabrielle, Eve stood to greet her in the normal way. “Xena. Why were you out there at such an hour? Is everything all right?”

“We have a visitor, Eve,” Xena said cryptically and a little nervously.

Eve’s body tensed, her old warrior skills always ready just under the surface, but when Xena stepped aside and Gabrielle was revealed to her, her face became one of sheer surprise and delight. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she approached Gabrielle with her arms open. “Gabrielle…”

With a sad smile on her face, Gabrielle accepted the embrace and held onto the woman who was essentially her only child. “It’s so good to see you, Eve.”

Eve pushed back but kept a hold of Gabrielle’s shoulders. “It is so good to see you too. I never thought I would…”

Her tears returned, and young Xena watched from the sidelines as she tried to hold back her own emotion at the touching reunion. She reminded herself that she had to retain her strong, impenetrable façade in front of Gabrielle. That’s what Gabrielle would expect of a true warrior, and Xena wanted to be the ultimate warrior for good, just like her namesake. She also guessed that Gabrielle was restraining her emotions since she herself had become an ultimate warrior after Xena’s death. Everyone had heard about Gabrielle. She was a legend in her own right.

“I had no idea you had come back to Amphipolis, Eve,” Gabrielle said, breaking into Xena’s thoughts.

“I hadn’t, not for a long time. When I heard of Mother’s death…well…I felt I had to return here. I couldn’t leave her hometown in ruins. It felt so wrong to me. I realized I could do some good wherever I was, so after I had traveled for a while, I came back.” Eve grasped Gabrielle’s arm gently to lead her across the room. “Please sit. You must be so tired.”

Gabrielle allowed herself to be guided, just this once. “I’m always tired, but I feel there is no rest coming to me yet. Aphrodite sent me here, and I’m still trying to figure out her little puzzle.”

Xena came to sit across from them at the fire to watch Gabrielle and Eve as they spoke. Since Eve had no problem with that, Gabrielle knew the young warrior was trustworthy. And anyway, she absolutely believed that this Xena was a part of the puzzle.

“What puzzle?” Eve asked as she sat next to Gabrielle, placing a pitcher of water and some fresh-baked bread in front of them.

Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her face briskly with her hands. “Just before I got here, I was planning…well…let’s just say I had made some decisions. She came to me to let me know that my decisions meant nothing, that they were the wrong decisions, and that I did indeed have some sort of destiny.”

“Which is…?” Eve said tentatively.

“To kill Daemonicus. She gave me a clue where to start, but I’m still trying to figure things out as I go along.” Gabrielle looked up into Eve’s eyes. “She also told me that Ares is dead. He was sacrificed to bring Xena back.”

Eve sat stiffly upright. “You mean…Mother is…she’s here somewhere?”

“So it seems,” Gabrielle replied rather flatly.

“You don’t believe Aphrodite?”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore. All I know is that Xena’s ashes have disappeared from the urn I was carrying.”

“Oh, Gabrielle. I…I don’t know what to say.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “It seems we are all somehow a part of the plan to end Daemonicus. Aphrodite told me to find the past, the present, and the future in order to win the fight. I’m beginning to think that I am the past…maybe Xena too…and you are the present, Eve, which makes Xena here…” Gabrielle said, her body flinching at using her beloved’s name on someone else. “The future.”

Xena had noticed that every time Gabrielle addressed her, she had some kind of unpleasant reaction, much as she tried to hide it. Since she still had much to tell Gabrielle, and she knew now that they were destined to bring about an end to the darkness together, she decided to offer a solution to the problem. “Gabrielle, please call me Gena. When my brother was little, he couldn’t pronounce the zee part, so he always called me Gena. I’m pretty used to it, and I don’t mind. Really.”

Gabrielle’s tension seemed to ease up at those words, and she smiled genuinely at the young warrior. “You are very intuitive…Gena. I thank you for your kindness.”

“The last thing I want to do is hurt you, so this way is better…and anyway, it will become a little confusing when we find your Xena and have to work together as a team.”

At that, Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Right,” she said after a long pause. She still didn’t quite believe they would see her Xena alive again.

“There is so much for me to take in,” Eve said, standing as her hands began to fidget. “Mother is alive. I just…where can she be?”

Gabrielle got up and took Eve’s hands into her own. “I don’t know. Aphrodite just told me to start here. She didn’t say much more. I had hoped that Xena would come home, but…”

At that moment, a young boy blasted through the front door of Eve’s home and ran into the room they now stood in. “He has destroyed Hestia!” he shouted.

Eve quickly approached him and gave him a little shake to calm him. “Slow down, Talmax. Where did you hear this?”

“Jonah said it. He just got back from Athens. Hestia is no more.”

Gabrielle looked at the boy. He was young, maybe thirteen or so, and he seemed terrified. If what he was saying was true, it meant Daemonicus was killing gods? Eve didn’t look very surprised by the news which made Gabrielle frown.

“Eve, you must tell me what has been happening here while I was gone.”

“I will, Gabrielle.” Eve turned back to Talmax. “Run home now, Talmax, and make sure to stay indoors with your family. It will be all right.” When the boy nodded at her and left the house with a worried look still etched on his face, Eve began to slowly pace the room. “I can’t believe he got Hestia,” she began. “Most of the gods have been destroyed by Daemonicus. There were only a few left after Mother…well, you know what happened there, but now…now only Aphrodite remains here on the surface. Apollo was one of the last to go, and we believe Celesta has been entombed with her flame. Nobody knows where she is.”

Gabrielle glanced at Gena – who had remained very quiet throughout – before she walked in front of Eve to stop her incessant pacing. “How has Aphrodite managed to escape his wrath so far?”

“Aphrodite won’t fight.”

“And Hestia would?” Gabrielle asked disbelievingly.

“She must have, and I’m sure Aphrodite could if she tried, but she won’t. The other gods all tried to fight Daemonicus to defeat him, and they failed. But not Aphrodite. She hides, and the people will help conceal her because of who she is. When all is said and done, they want love, not war or hatred, but Daemonicus is growing in his power. He knows that with Ares gone, the anger that most people can usually control is unleashed. People make mistakes when they’re angry. He’s counting on that. Makes them easier to kill, and when they die, the anger they cannot control is consumed by him.”

“By the gods,” Gabrielle said quietly. “Well, maybe not anymore. By Aphrodite, I guess.” She slumped down into the chair by the fire again, deep in thought.

Gena felt the tense silence to her very core. She had something to tell them, but for some reason, she felt it wasn’t time yet. “What are you thinking about, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle looked up and shook her head. “I was just remembering something Xena told me once.”

“Would you share it with us?” Eve asked.

“It was just something Ares had said to Xena a long time ago. It was one of the times he had lost his godhood. His sword had been stolen from him, and everyone, including me, felt their anger rise to the surface with great force. With no sitting god of war, normally-peaceful people lost the self-discipline to control their rage. I just wanted to punch everybody I met. Of course, that time, he was just mortal. Now…he’s dead, so there’s no telling what effect, if any, it will have on us.”

Gabrielle stopped talking and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. As she stared at the floor, she realized she needed more information in order to try to solve the problem they currently had. “How did Ares die? Do you know?”

Gena’s response was to pin her lips tightly shut and shrug, but Eve got up and began to pace again.

“We’re not sure. I asked Aphrodite once, but she conveniently vanished at that point.”

Gabrielle turned to Gena. “Do you know?”

Gena just shook her head, but the look in her eyes didn’t fool Gabrielle.

“Gena, if you know something, you must tell me. Do you realize how important this could be?”

“Why is it important if you can’t do anything to change it now?”

“Because it may be a clue to killing Daemonicus…or it may not, but I need to know,” Gabrielle said while watching every little muscle twitch on Gena’s face.

When she couldn’t stand the scrutiny anymore, Gena got up and went around the room, checking in behind the drapes and opening every door to search behind it before closing it firmly again. Once she was satisfied that they were completely alone, she flicked her wrist to invite Eve into a huddle with Gabrielle. It was only then that she spoke quietly. “She confided in me once, and I found her a hiding place. This whole thing is torturing her. She barely has the confidence to reveal herself anymore.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrow rose slightly. “Aphrodite?”

“Yes.”

“But she revealed herself to me.”

Gena nodded. “I know, and that tells me that you are here to make things right.”

Eve popped her head out of the huddle to make sure they were still alone. “So what does that have to do with the death of Ares?”

Gena bit her lip for a moment. She wasn’t sure if she was allowed to tell. She felt like she was betraying the trust of a goddess, but defeating Daemonicus was so important and these people were the only ones she trusted completely, so she began hesitantly. “When Ares came to the realization that he couldn’t win in a fight against Daemonicus, he was desperate to find a solution. You see, if Daemonicus consumed the world, the gods would surely die…all of them. No followers means no gods. Daemonicus wants to rule all. So Ares had a choice…to die and let pure evil take over the world, or to die and leave behind a chance of slaying the darkness that would follow. He knew that love was the way, but he just didn’t have a clue how to win a fight using love as a weapon. He knew that you and Xena had a love beyond anything he could understand. It was then that he realized how important Xena was to…well, everything. When he found out you were back in Greece, he made the deal. I’m not sure who it was with, but he made it…his one chance to end the demon before it was too late.”

“So he took the chance to bring her back, but he didn’t know for sure that she could win?” Gabrielle asked, firmly pushing her feelings for Xena to the very depths of her heart to try to focus on the task at hand.

“I guess so. It was a risk…and apparently, for the deal to work he had to die at the hand of…” Gena paused to cough the dryness away from her throat.

“Tell us,” Eve pleaded.

“Love,” a familiar voice behind Gabrielle said.

Both Eve and Gabrielle spun around on instinct, but Gena just looked sadly at the arrival of the goddess who wore her black gown and a pained expression.

“Aphrodite, what do you…?” Gabrielle’s question stalled when she began to understand what Aphrodite had said. “You?”

“Yes, Little One. Can I still call you that?” Aphrodite said as she sat on one of the chairs by the fire.

Gabrielle followed her and knelt down on the floor in front of her. “I’m still little, aren’t I?”

“Not in your heart, your courage, your wisdom, and your skills as a warrior. Then again, you always had those things in abundance.”

“Tell me what happened, Dite. Please…” Gabrielle whispered.

As the others settled opposite Aphrodite, she gazed into the fire until her eyes glazed over. “For his death to mean anything, to mean Xena’s return, Ares had to be killed by the Hindsblood dagger…and by love. You have to understand it was our last resort. I’m not sure how, but for us to rid the world of this evil, love must conquer Daemonicus. That meant the Goddess of Love killing the God of War to bring back the ultimate coupling…the ultimate mortal power of love. Ares had even lost his sword in his final battle with Daemonicus. He knew he was never going to win. For me, for everyone to survive in any way, he had to take the only chance he had left to salvage something out of all this. He gave up his godhood, and then…I had to kill my own brother. His mortal body fell to the ground, and his blood was on the dagger in my hand. So you see, if Xena doesn’t join with you again, Gabrielle, we are all doomed.”

“That’s an awful lot to put on my shoulders, Dite,” Gabrielle said before she inhaled a deep, deep breath.

“You’ve carried worse, my friend. You and Xena both have. I believe in you.”

“So what you said about the past, the present, and the future…?”

Aphrodite blinked and turned to Gabrielle then. “You’ve figured that part out already. Xena is the past, Eve is the present, and Xena number two here is the future. You need them all to win the fight.”

Gena frowned and waved her finger in the air. “We’re missing a piece of the puzzle, though. If love is the way to defeat Daemonicus, why are we not using the most powerful, the most intense, and the most pure source of love in the universe?”

“I wondered when you’d figure that one out,” Aphrodite muttered. “I know I’m part of the plan, so I’ll have to come with you, but what I don’t know is how I can help you. I can’t fight. It’s that simple.”

Gabrielle was having a hard time getting used to this sullen goddess who was a mere shadow of her former friend. “Hey,” she said, placing her hand on Aphrodite’s knee. “We’ll figure it out. I know we will, but right now, I need some rest. You should all sleep, conserve your strength.”

“What about you, Gabrielle?” Aphrodite asked. “You told me you don’t sleep anymore.”

“I’ll try to close my eyes for a while. Maybe I can figure some things out while it’s quiet.”

Eve stood and cracked a few bones in her back. “I’d better up my practice sessions. Will you spar with me tomorrow, Xena? I mean, Gena?”

“Sure. Come wake me when you’re ready. It’s almost morning now, but a few candlemarks of sleep is all I need.” Gena got up and turned to leave, but before she did she looked over toward Aphrodite and Gabrielle. “I will make up your room before I retire to my own, Gabrielle. Aphrodite, I assume you’ll be…you know?”

Gabrielle looked between the three women before belatedly thanking Gena. When Aphrodite just nodded at Gena, she was a little curious about what that had meant, but before she could ask, Eve approached her.

“I am so happy to have you back, Gabrielle. It’s been too long,” she said, hugging Gabrielle warmly.

“I know, but I’m here now.”

“And I’m so thankful. Goodnight,” Eve said as she let go. “Your room is at the end of the hall…the one you always used to stay in when Grandmother-”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle interrupted gently. “I love you, Eve.”

“Love you too.”

When Eve left the room, Gabrielle turned to Aphrodite who still sat next to her waiting for the question that would follow. “What did Gena mean?”

Aphrodite leaned forward to whisper near her friend’s ear. “This is where I hide.”

Gabrielle craned her neck a little to look into her eyes. “You stay here?” she whispered back.

Aphrodite nodded. “See you soon then.”

“Wait,” Gabrielle said as the goddess got up to leave. “Tell me where, in case I need you.”

Aphrodite pulled Gabrielle to her feet and held onto her hand. “You won’t need me, but I will tell you. There’s a secret room.” She leaned in so that her cheek touched Gabrielle’s. “It’s right behind yours…the bookcase. You’ll see it when you go upstairs. So, tonight I will feel even safer than I usually do.”

“But I can’t do anything if another god tries-”

“He’s not a god, Little One. I’m not sure what he is, but he can’t just snap his fingers…if he even has any…and appear in my room. That rumor about him morphing into something more…I think it’s true. He’ll still have a physical form, but after Ares died, Daemonicus started sending his minions out to do his dirty work. He’s powerful through them, but I believe if you get to him now, you may have a fighting chance. Some brave warriors have caused him injury in the past, but no one has been able to weaken him enough to end him. He seems impossible to kill. I believe he’s a demon…just think of Bacchus, but feeding off the darkness. Evil instead of blood.”

“Even Bacchus had a weak spot. He could be killed by a Bacchae.”

“True. So if you find Daemonicus’s weak spot, you can hack it into pieces.”

Gabrielle was surprised at the Goddess of Love having such a blood-thirsty expression on her face. “That’s not a very nice image.”

“I know, but I have faith that you’ll stop him somehow.”

Gabrielle sighed at that. “If all you’ve said is true, I need to find Xena first.”

“It’s all true,” Aphrodite said as she walked away. “Rest now, Gabby.”

Chapter 2

Gabrielle had rested to a degree, but the next day, after only a few moments of sleep when she just couldn’t fight it, she felt like she had been kicked in the head and dragged through Tartarus the wrong way. “Is there a right way to be dragged through Tartarus?” she muttered to herself as she slipped her katana into its sheath.

She never went anywhere unarmed these days, and here in Amphipolis would be no different. She had kept her katana from when she was in Jappa as a constant punishment and reminder of what had happened there. Was she torturing herself? Yes, she was, because she should have denied Xena her last wish and dumped those ashes when she had the chance.

Every day since then, the sword she carried was her welcome burden. There was no happiness for her anymore, so she may as well keep her misery close. She had tried to change things and be happy, but it was never within her reach. She could smile with the villagers she saved, and she could laugh at the most gullible of warlords, but in her heart and soul, she was never truly happy. Only one thing could bring about such a change in her, and Aphrodite had told her that it had come true. So why was she not more positive about the future?

She puffed out a breath of air in her irritation as she walked down the staircase. She was adamant that she would dismiss those thoughts and focus on the day ahead. She had no idea what it would bring, and the only thing spinning around in her head was how she was going to kill Daemonicus. She had yet to experience anything to do with him, but she was sure that was going to change very soon.

Gabrielle paused for a moment when she reached the door to the room they had been in last night. It seemed there was no one inside the house this morning, and when she heard the clinking of swords out back, she rushed through the kitchen and barged out of the rear door. There, she found a rough, dusty area of ground surrounded by trees. It was large, flat, and littered with tree stumps that had many chips and dents in them. The sound of the swords once again drew her attention, and over to her right she saw Eve and Gena sparring aggressively.

Gabrielle relaxed her tense posture a little and watched the two powerful women as they parried and dodged, swung their swords and blocked every strike, but when she noticed Gena preempting Eve’s moves, she realized that perhaps she could teach the young warrior a few things. Gena had obviously sparred with Eve many times, and as much as Eve was an incredibly skilled fighter, even she had her regular moves that had worked for her time and time again. Gena had learned them, it seemed. She had also learned Eve’s one weakness: an old injury to her left ankle that she had received in battle many years before. Gabrielle vaguely wondered when it was that Eve had decided the way of peace was not her calling. She would remember to ask her daughter about that later.

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes as Gena went on the offensive, swiping at Eve’s left ankle and almost backing her into a corner. Eve leapt into the air, somersaulting in a backwards triple-flip over Gena in a move so reminiscent of Xena that Gabrielle clamped her jaws together in an attempt to resist the usual swell of heartbreak that would inevitably make her cry. The sparring finished with a loud clash of swords, both opponents brought to a standstill with a smile on their faces.

Gabrielle shook herself off and approached, offering a round of applause. “Very impressive, both of you.”

“Gabrielle, good morning,” Eve said as she ducked her head in thanks. “Did you manage to sleep?”

“I rested a little.” After Gena offered a welcome, Gabrielle turned to her. “Are you ready for me, Gena? I’d like to see you spar with someone you don’t know.”

Gena lifted the blade of her sword back until it rested against her shoulder. It was obvious that she was a little taken aback by the statement, although she did manage to recover her faculties quickly. “I don’t want to spar with you, Gabrielle.”

“Why not? You won’t hurt me.”

“Oh, it’s not that. It’s just that I want to win,” Gena answered with a small smirk.

But Gabrielle wasn’t smiling, and she raised her eyebrow when she realized that Gena needed to learn an important lesson. “If the win is your focus, you’ll lose against a skilled stranger. I saw you spar with Eve, and I know how good she is, but you know her left ankle is her weak spot. When you’re in battle, you won’t have time to figure out your opponent’s weaknesses if he’s as skilled as you are.”

“I’ve been in battle before,” Gena said a little defensively.

“And you’ve survived, so far.” Gabrielle removed her katana from its sheath and gave it to Eve since it would give her an unfair advantage in this fight. When Eve automatically handed Gabrielle her own sword, Gabrielle turned back to face Gena. “If your sole focus is on being the winner, you’re not giving your full attention to the fight. It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey to get there. Every single move your opponent makes should be your only focus. Every moment it will change and shift into something new. You have to be aware of each and every movement…let that very second be your focus. But even as that second must be what you concentrate on, you must also try to predict the opponent’s move by what he is doing in that second. Don’t think they’ll do what you expect. It’s never that simple. I ask you to listen to me, as it’s the only way you’ll stay alive.”

Gena nodded reluctantly. She had managed to stay alive so far, but deep within her she knew that Gabrielle was right. Gabrielle had lived through things Gena could barely conceive of, and she had traveled for many years with Xena, learning from her along the way. She had also traversed distant lands on her own and experienced so much of the known world. Gena wasn’t stupid enough to ignore her advice, so she decided to commit it to memory right then and there. It was when Eve backed away from them both that she realized she had taken her eyes off Gabrielle for a split-second. It was her first mistake. When she looked back up at her in a panic, the Battling Bard of Greece’s sword was coming right at her.

Gena was shocked into action, and she was astonished to find that even though Gabrielle looked like she hadn’t eaten a proper meal in quite some time, she was still a force to be reckoned with. The strikes were swift and sure, the kicks to knock Gena off balance were strong and more distracting than the biggest of warlords. Gabrielle gave her no time to recover as she twirled around on the spot and let the point of her sword come within a hairsbreadth of Gena’s body. How she had missed slicing her up, Gena was unsure, but she did know that Gabrielle moved with the stealth and swiftness of a ghost.

Gena jumped back as the sword came at her again, and when Gabrielle launched into another spin, Gena thought she had her opportunity. She was wrong. In a move Gena had never seen before, Gabrielle backtracked as soon as she had begun her spin, and since Gena had anticipated the sword coming from the right, she was caught out by Gabrielle’s attack from the left.

Gabrielle stopped the sword so abruptly that it looked like she had hit a rock, when in fact the blade was only just touching Gena’s side.

Eve shook her head in awe. “You are an incredible fighter, Gabrielle.”

“I’d have to agree,” Gena said breathlessly.

“Do you see what I meant by trying to anticipate the next move, Gena? You just assumed I would continue with my spin, when in fact I had planned to distract you in order to win.”

Gena’s shoulders drooped. “And it worked.”

Gabrielle gave her a small smile. “Good. And thank you, Eve. You are also an incredible fighter, but I’m curious. What made you stray from the path of peace?”

“That’s very simple. Necessity,” Eve said plainly. “Daemonicus will be the end of the world as we know it if we let him take his darkness into every soul. We’ve had to fight the soldiers to defend the town.”

“Do they attack Amphipolis very often?”

“Not often, but I fear now that they’re coming.”

Gabrielle frowned. “Why do you think that?”

“Because things are changing…”

“You mean our battle with evil, don’t you,” Gabrielle said, not so much a question, but a statement of fact.

Eve gritted her teeth. “Yes…and something else,” she hissed.

“Are you OK, Eve?”

“I’m fine. I think I’ve been feeling the effects of Ares’ death.”

“You feel the rage?”

“I think that’s what it is. Don’t worry, Gabrielle. I can control it.”

“Maybe so, but you were connected to him for a long time, Eve. You’ll feel it more than I do, more than Gena does.”

“Perhaps it has less to do with Ares, and everything to do with Daemonicus. He’s made a lot of people angry. I’m still with you one hundred percent, Gabrielle. I hope you’re not worried about that.”

“No. I’m not worried,” Gabrielle said. “But I might be if Xena comes back feeling it.”

“We have no idea how Mother will return. That, in itself, is worrying me.”

Before Gabrielle could answer, Gena suddenly said, “We need to go see Colarra.”

Gabrielle turned to her. “Who’s Colarra?”

“She’s an oracle in Thrace, well known for her visions of the future. Maybe she’ll know about Xena, and what we must do to defeat Daemonicus.”

“I think where we need to go is Mount Olympus,” Gabrielle replied.

“Why?” Gena asked as they all began to walk back into the house.

“Where else would Daemonicus want to rule the world from?”

“But Mount Olympus is a wreck, Gabrielle. Why do you think Aphrodite doesn’t go there anymore?”

“OK, but even though he wants it all, he probably won’t be hiding on top of the mountain,” Gabrielle said quite adamantly. “If he’s scum, he’ll want to hide under the surface. Demons like their hovels underground.”

Gena closed the door behind them once inside. “Well, there is a vast cave system at the base of Mount Olympus. Nobody dares to enter it because it’s so complex and terrifying, and those who have in the past, never returned.”

“Exactly.” Gabrielle took a tankard from a nearby shelf and filled it with light ale from the barrel that Eve was leaning on. “It’s dark, it’s disgusting, it’s dangerous and black with filth…sounds about right.”

“If that’s the place,” Eve said, passing out a tankard to Gena and filling one for herself. “We should delay in going to Thrace. It’s in the wrong direction anyway. We should just go straight to the cave and kill Daemonicus.”

“But it’s not possible yet,” Gabrielle said, wondering where she was getting all her instinctual knowledge from. “Something’s still missing.”

“Xena,” Gena whispered.

“Yes, Xena…but there’s something else we need, and I haven’t quite figured out what it is. I mean, we can’t just walk up to Daemonicus and say, hey, we’re here to kill you with love. We have no clue how to do it yet. We don’t have a weapon that can kill a demon, or whatever he is.”

Eve got up to start pacing slowly in front of the fireplace. “I bet it’s the power of all our love together that’ll defeat him. The past, the present, and the future unite in love.”

“Not sure I’d take that bet, Eve,” Gabrielle said as she took a gulp of the refreshing beverage. “Unless we have some sort of weapon, I can’t see how love will even make a dent in his existence.”

“But what other option do we have, Gabrielle?”

“There’s always another option. Just give me a little more time to think, OK?”

“All right. Let me know when you’re ready.” Eve pulled down in her warrior tunic. It was nothing like the old one she had back in the days of Livia, but it was smart and commanding, and it suited her well. “I’ll start on dinner. Maybe we can manage to eat a meal before we change the world.”

When she disappeared into the kitchen, Gabrielle stared into the hearth. No flames flickered there, but she could feel a burning in her soul, like some grand event was about to turn the tide or bury the sun. Some kind of storm was coming. Eve was right. Things were about to change.

Gabrielle just wished she knew what that storm would look like, and how they were going to stop it. It would be another restless night for her weary body and her dark thoughts.

“Thank you,” Gena said, breaking the quiet.

“For…?”

“For teaching me a lesson or two. I know I can be resistant sometimes, but I do want to learn from you, Gabrielle.”

“I’ll teach you all I can.”

Gena nodded. “I will learn from Xena too, I’m sure.”

Gabrielle felt a wave of pain sweep through her. “I’m sure,” she answered quietly.

Gena was so confident that Xena would be back soon, so why did Gabrielle have a sense of doom swirling around her soul?

***

It didn’t seem to be anywhere near morning when Gabrielle rose from her bed, her sais in her boots as always, and her chakram clipped onto her belt. She gazed from the window at the stars above, and when she absently wondered if Xena was seeing these same stars, the ache in her heart began to intensify.

“Should I go find her? Where do I even start?” she whispered to the night. She knew that if Xena was able, she would somehow make it to Amphipolis, but how much longer could they wait?

Gabrielle realized that this was the main reason she was stalling in leaving for Mount Olympus. She knew they had time constraints, but she wanted to find Xena before going into the fight. They needed her. All five of them should go together.

Gabrielle had noticed that Eve was doing everything she could to control her anger, and she was also aware that Gena had been pretty twitchy too, but no true anger had revealed itself in the young warrior so maybe she was stronger than Gabrielle had thought. It made her think of her own anger. Where was it? Why was she coping so well? She came to realize she had been angry for so long that she just didn’t feel any different now that Ares was gone.

“That’s pretty sad,” she muttered as she lifted her katana from the bed, sheathed it, and headed outside. If she couldn’t sleep, she would walk, and maybe get more of a feel for the town’s new layout. She didn’t care that a distant thunder was rumbling loudly, meaning it would probably rain soon. It wouldn’t stop her taking a stroll, and just as the thought had passed through her mind she heard the thumping of heavy raindrops on the porch roof out front.

Once outside, Gabrielle walked in the pelting rain and found that a lot of the buildings she remembered in Amphipolis had remained. They had been reinvigorated and painted to brighten up the place, but there were also new buildings, large and small, that flanked the old and even supported them where they were joined. She rounded the corner where the blacksmith’s used to be and wandered along the middle of the street, ever focused in case of any unusual noises or sights. When she came to the next corner, she turned, only to stop abruptly when she saw a body lying in the middle of the street, shadowed by a large statue on a pedestal that she couldn’t make out in the dim light.

GAB FC1

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes to try to get a clearer picture of the person through the haze of the rain. She drew her katana to hold it ready in front of her, and with her soaking wet bangs threatening to blur her vision, she moved closer to the body, knowing in the pit of her soul who it was. Once she stood over the woman wrapped tightly in thick, hessian cloth, she sensed that there was no threat around them, so she crouched down to turn the woman over.

“Xena,” Gabrielle gasped out as the face of her one true love was revealed. As she placed her hand over Xena’s mouth to feel for breath, her taut body shuddered in relief, and her tears merged with the rain on her cheeks. Xena was alive.

Gabrielle gave her a quick check for any serious injuries. She couldn’t really see anything through the heavy rain, but she did notice a strange weapon lying on top of Xena’s limp hand. She didn’t get a chance to think about it much as a bright flash temporarily blinded her before a loud and threatening clap of thunder rumbled overhead. The next wave of lightning was just as fierce, and when it seemed to strike just outside the town walls, she knew she had to do something fast.

Gabrielle was too far from the old inn to shout for help, so she scooped Xena’s shoulders into her hands and tried to lift her on her own. The rain was pounding now, making her hands slip on Xena’s skin. Since Gabrielle didn’t want to risk dropping her, she laid her gently back down and hovered on her hands and knees over her in the hopes that her torso would shelter Xena’s face from the violent weather. She looked around to try to find something to use as a litter of sorts: something to pull Xena along on, rather than dragging her through the mud. There was nothing, but when she looked directly behind her, she saw Gena coming quickly to her aid.

“Is that her? Is it Xena?” Gena asked while scrambling to her knees to assist Gabrielle.

“Yes. Help me get her inside.”

Gena took a firm hold of one of Xena’s arms while Gabrielle took the other one, and together they managed to lift her upright and drag her back to Eve’s home. By the time they got there, only Xena’s feet had become thick with mud. They placed her down on a comfortable cot near the fire where Gena quickly wiped the clumps off her feet.

Gabrielle swiped her hand across her own face to remove the short, sodden hair that had swarmed forward from the weight of the rain. She unhooked her chakram, detached her katana from her body, and went to Xena’s side.

“Gena, get me some warm water and clean rags. I need to wash her to tend to these injuries.” When Gena disappeared to carry out the task, Gabrielle assessed Xena’s body. She was covered in gashes and bruises, the blood long since congealed and the purplish marks in various stages of healing.

“How long have you been here, my love?” Gabrielle said quietly to herself.

Xena’s hair was matted to her head, the cloths around her body, sodden and dirty. She appeared to be free from major injury, so Gabrielle was confused as to why she was so poorly. Something else that confused her was that Xena’s skin was caked in some kind of black tar or lava substance.

When Gabrielle touched it, it was sticky and thick and freezing cold. She had never seen anything like it before, but just as she was wiping the goop off her fingers, Xena’s voice startled her.

“Exhausted…that’s all,” she said, seemingly sensing Gabrielle’s worry.

“Xena?” Gabrielle leaned over her to allow Xena to see her. “Xena, I…I…”

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered even though her eyes remained closed. “I’m so…sorry.”

That was all she could say before she was unconscious again. Gabrielle just stared at her until Gena came back into the room with a bowl of warm water and some clean rags. Gabrielle took the items from her and placed them on the floor beside the cot, and then turned back to Gena to place a hand on her shoulder.

“I need you to go back outside. There was something lying next to Xena out there. I’m not sure what it was, but you need to bring it here.”

“I’m on it, Gabrielle. Be right back.”

“Gabrielle?” Eve had awakened and was now rushing across the floor toward her. “Mother,” she whispered when too much air left her lungs for anything else.

“She’s OK, Eve. I found her outside on the street. She says she’s just tired.”

Eve looked at Xena’s relaxed face. “She spoke to you?” It was pretty evident that Xena was out for the count.

“Only just. She said she was tired…and sorry.” Gabrielle continued to wash the blood and black gunge off Xena’s skin while Eve broke down at her side. “Hey, she’ll be fine. I just need to get her clean and warm.” When Eve’s sobs became too much for her, she paused for a moment to grab her daughter in a tight bear-hug. “Come on now. We need to be strong for a little while longer.”

“I know. It’s just…she’s home.”

Gabrielle inhaled shakily. “It seems that way.”

“You’re expecting her to disappear again,” Eve said as she leaned her head on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

“I…I just know I won’t be able to fully appreciate how amazing this is until we’ve defeated Daemonicus. There’s always something to be done for the greater gods-be-damned good.”

“I heard that,” Aphrodite said as she approached from the other room. When no apology was forthcoming from Gabrielle, she moved to stand beside Eve, and it was then that Xena was revealed to her. Her tiny gasp was followed by a whispered, “It worked.”

Gabrielle nodded silently as she continued to gently clean Xena’s arm and hand. She knew what her friend was talking about. Ares had died for Xena, and he had indeed brought her back…somehow.

Aphrodite sat on the other side of the cot and held Xena’s hand in her own. She grimaced at the amount of black slime on Xena’s skin. “She’s been fighting.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle said. “But with what?”

“This black stuff,” Aphrodite said while picking some of the slime up on her finger. “It’s Daemonicus.”

Gabrielle froze in place until Eve put her hand on her forearm and rubbed gently.

“Not quite,” Eve said quickly. “What she means, Gabrielle, is that this is what happens to the insides of the soldiers Daemonicus takes. His darkness is like a disease. It slowly spreads and eats away at the insides of all who come into contact with him. It starts with their hearts and minds, and it feeds on everything else once they lose the will to fight against it. The soldiers that we’ll come across are completely consumed by it.” She removed her hand to let Gabrielle continue with her work before slipping her arm around her shoulders. “This is the reason Aphrodite has to hide here.”

Gabrielle frowned for a moment while she tried to work that one out. When nothing came to her, she dragged her eyes away from Xena and looked up at the goddess. “Why are you hiding here? I mean, can’t you just appear when you want and disappear when there’s trouble?”

Aphrodite dropped her gaze to Xena’s hand. “I can’t do that as often as I used to, Gabby.”

“Why not?” Gabrielle requested as she moved the warm, wet rag to clean Xena’s leg, carefully avoiding the biggest gash. It would need special attention.

“Daemonicus devoured the souls of those he killed in his first wave of attacks. Now he doesn’t have to kill directly because he has so many soldiers. He has the time now to do that morphing thing I was talking about, to become even stronger. As you can see,” the sullen goddess said, spreading her hand out to the body that lay in front of them. “He fills them with this evil, this darkness, and once that happens they are incapable of love. It’s become such an uber-huge problem, Little One. Daemonicus is ridding the world of love, and when love disappears from the hearts of the people, there are less left to believe in it. If people stop believing in love, I lose followers. Every time I lose a follower, I lose-”

“Your power,” Gabrielle finished for her.

“It really sucks,” Aphrodite said as the tears filled her eyes.

“Hey,” Gabrielle said to catch her attention. “Look at the hand you’re holding right now, and look at me. Feel the love she has inside her…feel my love. We’re here to fight the soldiers. That much is already clear. We’re going to conquer Daemonicus. But Dite, even if we can’t, your vulnerability won’t make us love you any less.”

Aphrodite’s tears overflowed and spilled down her cheeks. “I know that. I think I’m just…just emotional because I want the world to be a love-filled place, and I want you to be happy again, and I know that I can’t ever go home. Too much has changed.”

“You could go home one day.”

“Mount Olympus is covered in this stuff,” Aphrodite said, moving her finger through a spot of gunge on Xena’s hand. “It’s totally black now. Everything.”

“Then we know for sure where to find Daemonicus.” Gabrielle got up from her knees to rinse the washcloth again, and after she did so she moved around the cot, signaling with her hand that Aphrodite should trade places with her.

Once she had started to clean Xena’s left side, Eve sighed loudly and sniffed away the remnants of her tears. “I’m going to check up on Xe-Gena. She’s been gone too long.”

“Good idea,” Gabrielle said before she turned back to Aphrodite. “I was going to ask you to give me some privacy, but I think I can undress her with you here. I may need some help anyway.”

Aphrodite nodded. “At least I can be useful for something. I’ll grab a robe from upstairs. Gimme a sec.”

Gabrielle watched as Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, shuffled quickly across the room. “Never thought I’d see the day when she shuffled anywhere,” she muttered to herself before her eyes landed back on Xena’s face. “You’d better be staying with me this time. I don’t have the strength for any other outcome.”

When Xena just snored a little in her deep slumber, Gabrielle allowed herself a small smile as she began to loosen the filthy, hessian wrap.

***

Outside on the street, the rain had filled every indentation it could find, including the one where Xena had dropped the strange-looking object she had carried with her. Gena had been trying valiantly to extract it, but it was stuck fast in the mud. When Eve approached from behind her, she swirled around on the spot, ready to take down whoever was sneaking up on her.

“Whoa! It’s me,” Eve said, already in a defensive stance.

“Sorry, Eve. I’m a little jumpy right now, and this damn thing won’t budge.”

“Let me help.”

As the rain soaked through Eve’s clothing, she tried to keep her head facing down so that her sight wouldn’t be affected by the streaming water. The strange object was protruding from the mud at a funny angle, and all she could see was something that looked like the hilt of a sword. If it was a sword, the blade had buried itself good and deep in the ground.

Once Eve had placed her hands over Gena’s and pulled on it with all her might, she blew out a mighty breath due to the effort expended. “We’ll have to dig it out. You go that side, and I’ll dig here,” she said as she got to her knees.

“I don’t understand why it’s stuck,” Gena shouted over the storm that seemed to be growing by the second. “When it lay in Xena’s hand it seemed to be right there on the surface, and now it’s so deep we can’t pull it out?”

Eve glanced over at her as she continued to dig. “It might just be because the street is filled with potholes, and the rain is the hardest I’ve ever seen it.”

Gena gave a shrug as her hands went deeper into the hole she had created. When she felt the end of a short, blunt blade, she frowned deeply. “It’s not a sword. It stops right there,” she said as she pushed the object from underneath.

When it popped out of the ground, it seemed to jump directly into Eve’s hand. “What in Tartarus is it?”

Gena simply shrugged again before waving her hand in the direction of the house. “Let’s get inside and take a proper look.”

***

While Eve and Gena had been outside, Gabrielle had managed to clean Xena’s wounds and redress her in a shift that Aphrodite had found in the bedroom. Xena would still need to bathe when she felt more alert, but for now, Gabrielle had done a reasonable job of removing the black slime that thankfully hadn’t managed to invade any of her injuries. Gabrielle didn’t know if it could have affected Xena in any way. She just hoped that when those blue eyes opened, she would see her soulmate looking back at her.

“Aphrodite,” she said quietly. “How does the darkness of Daemonicus enter the host?”

Aphrodite stopped tapping her fingers on the mantle and moved away from the fire that now burned in the hearth to try to warm Xena slowly. “Only through a fatal wound by one of Daemonicus’s soldiers…or Daemonicus himself. She’ll be fine, Gabby. She’s just sleeping.”

“Maybe. I guess I’ll be more convinced when she wakes up and holds a conversation with me.”

“Once we see her eyes, we’ll know for sure.”

Gabrielle turned to look at the goddess who now stood next to her. “What do you mean?”

“Her eyes will be pure black if she has been taken by him. No use in looking now, though. She needs to be conscious.”

“Oh,” was Gabrielle’s only reply.

It was then that two very drenched women came through the door. Gena sniffed away the raindrops that ran to the end of her nose before she laid the item they had found on the table. Eve went to gather a couple of thick rags from the kitchen to dry them both off. The rain had chilled them to the bone, and once Gena got her teeth-chattering under control, she signaled Gabrielle over to the table.

“This is what we found. It’s the strangest looking weapon I’ve ever seen.” When Gabrielle stood beside her, Gena pointed to what should have been the sharp end. “It looked like the hilt of a sword when it was in the ground, but this other part looks like a rounded bottle of some kind. It’s made of glass.”

But Gabrielle wasn’t looking at the glass. Her eyes were focused on the handle…more specifically, what was engraved on the handle. Without a word, she went to retrieve something from beside Xena’s cot. When she returned, she laid two leather armbands on the table. “Xena was wearing these on her upper arms. They were hidden by the wrap she wore, and they have the same mark on them as the weapon.”

“What do the letters mean?” Gena asked.

Gabrielle shook her head. “I’m not sure,” she said while rubbing her fingertip over the symbols spelling out PoE that were stamped on a metal medallion attached to each armband.

As Eve scrubbed over her hair with a drying rag, she took one of the bands in her other hand. “She must have collected these things before she came home, and she fought off Daemonicus’s soldiers to do it. What I can’t figure out is why.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t know yet either, but something is driving our mission to end the darkness. These have something to do with it. I don’t know what plan Ares had in mind when he sacrificed himself, but it would’ve been nice if he had left us instructions instead of giving us these cryptic clues.” After she heard an almost-silent choke next to her, she turned to Aphrodite. “Sorry, Dite. I know you miss him. I guess I’m just a little frustrated. I am grateful he saw fit to return Xena to me.”

But on the inside, Gabrielle could not stop the unsettling feeling that Ares had placed a condition or two on Xena’s return. After all, what was it that the God of War had always wanted? He’d never stopped trying to get Xena to join with him…and he was now dead.

Gabrielle gulped away the bile she could feel churning around in her stomach and went back to sit on a small stool next to Xena’s cot. There was no change to Xena’s condition, and Gabrielle just hoped that she was simply recuperating from a difficult fight and an arduous journey. When Eve and Gena went into the kitchen to clean the thick mud off the weapon, Aphrodite followed, leaving Gabrielle to sit there thinking about what was to come, and to watch Xena’s face for any signs of consciousness.

***

An hour later, Gabrielle’s eyes were drooping as she fought to stay awake. It was barely noon, but having Xena here in the room with her seemed to make a difference to her insomnia. She really wanted to take a nap, but with what had happened already today, she also wanted to stay awake to figure out the next step in their mission. When her head lolled to the side yet again, she stood up abruptly and went to fetch a salve from her pack. Xena’s deepest cuts had dried and sealed themselves now, so Gabrielle wanted to numb the pain for her.

“What’s that?” Eve asked as she walked through the door.

Gabrielle held up the tiny jar in her hand. “This? This is a salve I created during my travels. It cools the sting and numbs the pain on injuries like these,” she explained as she pointed to Xena’s leg.

“What’s in it?”

“Ah. It’s a secret. My secret recipe,” Gabrielle replied with a grin.

It was the first time Eve had seen her display even a slight hint at humor, and she wanted to encompass Gabrielle in a huge hug in celebration, but she didn’t think it would be welcomed just yet so she settled for a smile instead. “So, I’ve put Mother’s weapon in a safe place. Gena and I examined it before she left to check on the horses. I really can’t see how it can harm Daemonicus. Once we cleaned it up, we saw that it has some strange reflective surfaces inside the glass tube. The hilt is made of a heavy alloy covered in gold, but the tip of the glass container is so blunt, it can’t possibly be used to cause harm, especially to a demon.”

Gabrielle pursed her lips as she gently massaged the salve into Xena’s wounds. “It has some kind of power, Eve. I have faith that we’ll figure it out when the time is right. And who knows…maybe Xena already has a clue how to use it. I just wish she would wake up.”

Before Eve could reply, a sudden ruckus followed by screams outside in the street propelled her into action. “It’s them.”

“Them?” Gabrielle was on her feet and reaching for her katana immediately.

“The soldiers of darkness,” Eve said as she ran out the door.

“Damn.” Gabrielle moved over to a window where she could watch over Xena and also see outside. When she noticed at least seven soldiers dressed in black running past, she knew she had to help defeat them. After closing all the shutters and bolting them, she left the room, thinking she could at least take a few of them down while guarding the front door of the house. Nobody was getting near Xena when she couldn’t defend herself.

Outside in the street, Eve had been joined by Gena, and four Amazons came running into the fight from behind the soldiers, almost like they had chased them into Amphipolis.

“Six against seven,” Gabrielle muttered to herself even as she leapt into action. With her katana at the ready, she focused on the two soldiers who were heading for the smallest Amazon in the group. “Let’s even the odds.”

Swords clashed and battle cries filled the air. As Gabrielle engaged the soldier, she saw his eyes, full of blackness and nothing else. She also realized that the battle cries were coming only from the women. These soldiers didn’t make a sound, which was almost as eerie as the look on their faces when a sword ran through them.

Gabrielle jumped back when her first strike had little effect. The angry-looking soldier just came at her again once he had straightened up. She managed to deflect his fast, continuous strikes, but after a few minutes of the same, she was tiring and he wasn’t. It was only when some instructions were yelled at her did she inflict any significant damage.

“Gabrielle! You need to slice him open! Stabbing won’t work!” Gena cried as she ran across the street to help an Amazon in distress.

Gabrielle waited for her chance which came right after her opponent had tried to take a stab at her head. She whipped her katana out to the side, and in the most powerful swipe she could muster, she sliced his stomach completely open. The katana was so sharp that it immediately did the trick. The black lava oozed quickly from the wound, causing the soldier to drop his sword and use his hands to try to keep his insides…on the inside. As he fell to the ground, Gabrielle grimaced and checked behind her in case anyone had managed to get near the house, but it appeared that all seven soldiers had been beaten. She turned again just in time to see Eve partially decapitating the last one, the blackness spilling from his open neck as he collapsed into a large puddle.

When Eve finally approached her, followed by the others, Gabrielle’s grimace deepened. “This stuff is disgusting,” she said as she tried to rub some of the slime off Eve’s shoulder. “So why doesn’t stabbing them work?”

“It does. It just doesn’t work fast enough. When the darkness leaks out of them slowly, they have time before they drop so they can still kill their victims. They need to be sliced open fully so that their strength dwindles almost immediately.”

“Ah,” Gabrielle said while noticing that the four Amazons had their heads bowed. “Thank you for helping us.”

One Amazon nodded, but she still didn’t look up. “Always, Queen Gabrielle. We had tracked them here from the outskirts of town.”

“Oh, I’m not a queen anymore.”

“You will always be a queen to our nation,” the Amazon replied.

“Please, don’t bow,” Gabrielle requested as she tried to catch the leader of the troop’s gaze. “What’s your name?”

“I am Marae. These are my sisters, Phala, Mirasee, and Torrin. We were on perimeter duty tonight.”

“Perimeter duty? You guard Amphipolis?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes. For many reasons, but we are happy to serve Eve. It is mutually beneficial, and she is a sister Amazon as her rite of caste dictates. We know of everything Livia did, and Eve has told us much of her road to redemption and her journey with Eli. The past is the past. We are all on the same side now.”

“It seems we are. Would you like to come join us inside?”

Marae shook her head. “No, but I thank you for the invitation. We must remove the bodies and resume our duties.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Right.” When the four women left, she turned with a sigh to Gena who had stood protectively behind her while she spoke with the Amazons. “I’ll help them if you stay and watch the house.”

“No, Gabrielle. Please stay with Xena, and I’ll help them before I come in. Eve, you should go inside too…get some warm broth ready to heat me up,” Gena teased.

It seemed that Eve and Gena had been friends for a long time, as was evident from the grin on Eve’s face. Fighting the soldiers of Daemonicus had brought them closer together, as well as their common bond over Xena. Gabrielle was heartened to think of Eve having someone to back her up in times of need, and someone to laugh with in moments of relief. Eve had taken on the role of big sister to Gena, an obvious benefit to them both.

Moments later, Gabrielle was in the house standing over Xena as she continued to sleep. When Eve threw a drying rag at her, she caught it easily and removed the worst of the drips from her hair and face.

“Let me take your katana, Gabrielle,” Eve said, her hand reaching out to receive it. When Gabrielle just looked at her with her eyebrow raised, Eve smiled. “I’m going to wash the swords in the kitchen…unless you want to keep the slime?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and handed over the katana. Once Eve had left the room, she sat down next to the cot and removed her boots. They were soaked through, so she put them in front of the fire before returning to Xena’s side. The tiredness hit her again, the heat of the flames doing nothing to help her stay alert.

“It’s exhausting fighting them, isn’t it?” Eve said quietly as she came back from the kitchen.

“Yes. They seem to be relentless.” Gabrielle looked at Eve when she stood with her back to the fire to dry off her clothing. “I thought you were washing the swords?”

“They’re steeping in a cleaning solution. We usually have some time between attacks.”

“Daemonicus isn’t targeting Amphipolis…”

“We don’t think so, Gabrielle. He attacks every village. It’s like his soldiers have us on a rotation. If they had any sense, they would attack one place until they conquered it, and then move on.”

“Let’s hope they don’t think of that, then.” Gabrielle took Xena’s hand into her own. “I wish she would wake up.”

“She will. What I think you need to do, is sleep,” Eve said, smiling when Gabrielle just puffed out a breath of air in response. “I know what you’re afraid of…and if Mother is here with you, maybe the nightmares won’t come.”

“How did you know I have nightmares?”

“If I had been through what you’ve been through, I’d have them too,” was all Eve said before she began to leave the room. “Try to sleep. Gena and I will be here to watch over you both.”

“Thank you, Eve.” Gabrielle looked around her once Eve had gone. This room was like a snug compared to the large living room out front. Gabrielle surmised that Eve used the front room for when the townspeople came for guidance and healing, but this room was more personal, a place where Eve read a scroll of an evening or meditated in the quiet. The walls were rough and stained a dark-red color, the fireplace dominating the space. The cot Xena lay on was in the corner, and a few chairs and stools were strewn around the room and under the table that stood near the door. It was a very simple place, but warm and friendly.

As Gabrielle’s eyes trailed back around toward Xena, she caught sight of something on the mantel that she hadn’t noticed until now. She stood to get a better look, and when it was revealed to be something very familiar to her, she gasped. “Xena’s original chakram? But how…?”

On closer inspection, it appeared that Eve had commissioned a metalworker to construct a replica chakram, perhaps in honor of her mother’s death. With tears threatening to fall, Gabrielle inspected it, running her fingertips around the surface where the same markings and gems made it hard to distinguish it from the original. “Beautifully made,” she whispered to herself as she put it back in place.

When a yawn forced its way out of her mouth, she shuffled back across the floor and unhooked her own chakram as she went. After placing it on the stool she had been sitting on earlier, she repositioned her sais next to it and made sure she could reach them from the cot. She couldn’t fight it anymore. She had to be with Xena whether she had resolved her inner turmoil or not.

Just for a nap, she told herself.

A slight odor still came from Xena’s skin, an odor that could only be attributed to Daemonicus’s slime, but Gabrielle didn’t care at this point. She was still damp with the rain, and some of that very same slime stained her own clothing. And anyway, she really needed to lie down. She scooted onto her side and insinuated herself against Xena. With her right arm wrapped over Xena’s stomach, she tried to relax her muscles and sink into the pillow. Ignoring the smell that disrupted the first iota of bliss she had felt in years, she closed her eyes and surrendered to her exhaustion.

Five minutes later, when the Amazons lit the first fire under the hollow carcasses of the demon soldiers, Gabrielle was asleep.

***

The first thing Xena became aware of when she awoke was her body. She wiggled her fingers against the side of her thigh and realized that her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her. The skin against her fingertips was warm, and she could feel every movement. She really was alive. Her fight with the hordes of evil defenders around the base of Mount Olympus hadn’t been a horrid dream after all. She vaguely remembered running away and being covered in their black blood – or whatever it was – and heading for home.

She had been compelled by something to retrieve the weapon and armbands, for what purpose, she hadn’t known at the time. Now that she was really awake, the information she had somehow acquired became much clearer, but she refused to travel any further down that road just yet. First, she had to figure out where she was.

Did I get home? Am I in Amphipolis? Her mind was still a little fuzzy about where she had ended up, and she figured it was time to try to open her eyes. Just before she did, she felt the heat of a real, living, human body next to her. The body was wrapped around her, an arm over her torso, a leg curled around her leg…and soft hair against her cheek that could only mean one thing.

Gabrielle had found her and she was now lying in her favorite spot.

Xena had to blink away the gritty dryness as her eyes opened to take in the room. The warm glow of the dwindling fire kept the room alight, but Xena could see daylight trying to get in through the heavy drapes, which meant Gabrielle was sleeping during the day.

I must have been so exhausted I slept right through everything, Xena thought to herself. And Gabrielle…she must be exhausted if its daylight and she’s snoring. Snoring?

Her brief, mental smile never reached her features, but if it really was Gabrielle snoring beside her then she might actually be in Elysia. As she carefully turned her head, she spotted the chakram on the mantel, but her glance at it was fleeting as she had much more important things to look at.

Gabrielle’s face was so close that Xena had to crane her neck just to see her. She was still asleep, and as tears trickled down Xena’s cheeks she analyzed the woman she had longed to be near, to touch, and to kiss for so many years. Yes, she had seen Gabrielle during her visitations, but that wasn’t the same as being here with her and seeing her anew with real eyes once more.

Xena couldn’t lift her arm since Gabrielle was lying on it, and the other one was heavy and painful, so she just stared at Gabrielle instead. Xena noticed she really hadn’t aged much at all in ten years, and she was more beautiful than ever to Xena. She did have some tired, gray circles under her eyes, but Xena knew whose fault that was.

What did I do to you? If I could take it all back, I would. More tears fell silently.

Xena didn’t want to speak in case she disturbed Gabrielle’s slumber. As much as she wanted to begin the healing process with her, she was afraid that it wasn’t even possible. Could Gabrielle heal from what had happened? It scared Xena to think that maybe she couldn’t. Gabrielle had been pretty angry at her the last time she had visited. Maybe that would always be the case now.

Xena had so many questions she wanted to ask, but perhaps more importantly, she had so much to say to Gabrielle, so much to explain and apologize for. She hoped she’d get the chance sometime soon, but for now, looking at Gabrielle’s sleeping face was all she could handle.

She had barely finished her analysis of Gabrielle’s delicate eyelashes when a loud thud was heard outside the room they were in. A man’s voice boomed out – a voice she recognized even though it was a tad huskier than it used to be.

“Eve? Eve, are you here?”

Xena frowned. “Eve is here?” she croaked.

“Eve!” the voice bellowed.

The door suddenly swung open and in burst a very anxious Autolycus. “Xena?”

Xena hadn’t even opened her mouth to respond when Gabrielle’s instincts kicked in. She launched herself off the cot and up onto her feet. Her sais were in her hands before Autolycus could blink.

Gabrielle shook herself awake. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw who had spurred her into action. “Autolycus…”

“Gabrielle,” he gasped as they closed the distance to hug one another.

Eve came running through the door. “What’s wrong, Autolycus?”

“Oh!” He jumped when he heard her behind him. “Eve…the soldiers. I think our secret’s out. They’re coming for her.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “Xena?”

“No. Aphrodite. She’s the last of the gods. His elite guards are leading an entire army of demon soldiers just over the northern ridge. I’ve never seen so many at once, and they’re headed this way.”

Gabrielle wanted to know what he meant by elite guards, but at that moment Gena came into the room and gasped out loud, making all heads turn to see what she was looking at.

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped a little when she saw Xena’s cobalt eyes watching her. “Xena,” she breathed out. She rushed over to the cot and grabbed Xena’s hand, but Autolycus’s voice broke into the moment.

“We need to move, people! We have to evacuate the town.”

Eve was still staring at Xena, but after she ran over to the cot to hug and kiss her, she backed up what Autolycus had said. “There’ll be time for much-needed reunions later. I can’t believe we have all this going on when you’ve only just returned to us, Mother, but he’s right. We need to move.”

Xena, still grasping tightly to Gabrielle’s hand, spoke up finally. “I know that, Eve.” She suddenly looked frantically around her. “Where’s the Magnador?”

“The what?” Eve asked.

“The thing I had with me…”

“Oh, it’s safe. We have it here…and those bands you were wearing.”

Xena let out a long breath through puffed-out cheeks. “Good. Now, I need to know how long I was out.”

“Two days,” Gabrielle said quietly. “You’ve been here almost two days.”

“Damn it.” Xena shook her head. “All right. We don’t have much time. I was dumped at Mount Olympus, and I was running almost constantly for two days after that. That’s four days down.” With Gabrielle’s help, she stood from the cot. “Autolycus, it’s great to see you, but I need you to coordinate the evacuation. I assume we’re in Amphipolis, so please get the townspeople to safety. There’s a place in the next valley south of here, plenty of places to hide.”

“Consider it done, Xena,” Autolycus said with a tilt of his head. “I’ll take the Amazons with me.”

Xena gave him a nod, although she didn’t know what Amazons he was talking about. “Eve, please find me something to wear, and you…who are you?”

“My name is Xena, but please call me Gena for now.”

Xena’s eyebrow curled slightly. “All right. Good to meet you, Gena. Can you get the Magnador and the bands, and bring them to me?”

“Of course.”

Everyone vacated the room to focus on the tasks at hand. There was no time to dwell on emotions. It was imperative they win this fight, and they all knew it. Only when it was over would there be time to catch up…if they succeeded. They had a few days of travel ahead of them, and now it seemed they might have an army on their tail.

Xena was somehow aware that Aphrodite had to come with them. She knew she was part of the plan, but not entirely sure how she could be of any help. “Gabrielle,” Xena said, her voice barely a peep.

“I know. You want us to talk, but there’s no time right now.” Gabrielle sighed, still not letting go of Xena’s hand. “I need that too, Xena. I just can’t deal with everything at once.”

“I know. Let’s get this done. I have this feeling we need to cover long distances?”

“From what I’ve pieced together so far, we need to go to Mount Olympus,” Gabrielle said sympathetically.

“I just came from there.” Xena let out a long sigh. “This is going to be tough…but we can rest every second night. I’m so sorry about this.”

Gabrielle didn’t reply since Eve had returned with some undergarments and boots for Xena to wear. When Gabrielle saw that there was no protective clothing that was suitable or that would fit Xena, she left the room to find her larger saddlebag.

Xena watched her go with sadness and longing filling her soul. It was heartbreaking to see Gabrielle’s quiet suffering, and it was torture for Xena to know it was she who had caused it.

“Mother, are you sure you’re up to this?” Eve asked as she placed the clothing on the cot.

“Yes. I have to be. I need to fight this one last time. Maybe then, we can live in peace for a while.”

“Maybe…” Gabrielle said from behind Eve. “I saved these,” she added, holding out her hands.

“My leathers?” Xena said with disbelief. “How did you…?”

“I dug them up…” Gabrielle stumbled and didn’t finish the sentence. “I have many skills, Xena. Your armor is there too.” She stepped back once she had deposited the items next to the clothing.

“I-I guess I’d better get dressed.”

Eve nodded. “We’ll give you some privacy.”

“Gabrielle can stay,” Xena said quickly.

But Gabrielle was retreating with Eve. “I have things to do before we leave. I won’t be long,” she said, sending Xena a strained smile to appease her.

“Guess I deserve to beg a little,” Xena said to herself once they were gone. She was misreading Gabrielle’s distant behavior somewhat, but as she pulled on her old battle dress she remembered Gabrielle’s hand continually holding hers after she woke, the looks she gave her that were hard to disguise, and the gentle, rhythmic massage of Gabrielle’s thumb on her palm. She had thought it was affection, and maybe it was, but it could also have been due to painful memories and torrid apprehension combined. Xena wondered if Gabrielle might be teetering on the brink of a breakdown. Nah, she’s stronger than I always gave her credit for. I need to remember how much I didn’t see before, she thought, recalling all the times she underestimated Gabrielle in the past. With a shake of her head, she brushed it off since she was always the one telling everyone that focus was required before a battle, and she chastised herself for being grumpy and distracted already. “I only just got here and I’m being an idiot,” she muttered as she struggled to attach the simple clasp of her armor.

“I’m not sure what you were talking to yourself about,” Gabrielle said, startling Xena since she had managed to sneak up on her. “But you’re not an idiot. Here, let me help you with that.”

When Gabrielle came to stand in front of her to fasten the clasp, Xena just gulped and gazed silently at her. She wanted to surround Gabrielle with her body and soul, to show her how much she loved her and how sorry she was for everything.

“Stop that,” Gabrielle said without looking up.

“I didn’t do anything,” Xena replied with a mild pout.

“You’re gazing at me. You can’t do that until we’ve talked things through, and we can’t talk things through until we’ve dealt with Daemonicus.”

When Gabrielle finished with the armor, Xena sighed. “Thanks. I guess my fingers aren’t quite up to speed yet. What did you put on my cuts anyway?”

“How do you know it was me who treated you?”

“I doubt you’d let anyone else do it.”

Gabrielle turned away since Xena was right and she had almost smirked at that. “It’s a salve I created. I used it many times in battle. It cools the sting and numbs the pain.”

Xena got the sense that Gabrielle had used it, not just many times, but about a million times in battle. She wanted to know everything Gabrielle had been through, all the things she had experienced and every sight she had ever seen. Xena had tried to follow her to a certain extent over the years, but her visits were rare. Wherever she had ended up had been difficult to leave. It had all been so confusing, and there was so much of Gabrielle’s life she had missed.

“Mother,” Eve said when she popped her head in the door. “A woman called Colarra has arrived. It’s funny. Gena talked about her the other day. I suppose, being an oracle, she would know that. Anyway, she’s asking to see you.”

“Me?” Xena said with a frown.

“Yes. She says she must talk with you.”

“All right. Send her in,” Xena said, offering Gabrielle a seat next to her on the cot.

When Colarra entered, she focused immediately on Xena. “My child,” the old woman said as she sat opposite them. “You have traveled far…as have you, Gabrielle. My name is Colarra, and I see your next journey will be a difficult one.”

“What do you know of my journey?” Xena asked as she watched Colarra carefully.

“I know that you have been sent to defeat the darkness. You have been given the gift of the Magnador.”

“And…?”

“Do not be impatient, my child.”

“I don’t have time to sit here right now,” Xena said, her eyes narrowing as Colarra held up her hand.

“I know that. You must take your daughter with you. You must also take young Xena. She is part of the key.”

Now Gabrielle was getting annoyed. “I already know of all this, Colarra. Do you have anything useful to tell us?”

“Just make sure you protect the Magnador. If it breaks, you will fail.”

“That’s great,” Xena said sarcastically.

“Remember Illusia,” Colarra warned.

“Wh-what do you know of Illusia?” Gabrielle stammered.

“Remember the black eyes of your counterparts. Hatred can only be overcome by love. You realized it then, and you’ll realize it now. Daemonicus is filled with hatred and evil. Love is the way.”

“OK,” Xena conceded. “Can you tell us how we’re supposed to use the Magnador?”

Colarra shook her head. “You will know when the time comes. Not every battle is fought with a blade. Trust in yourself.” She got up to leave, but before she disappeared she turned back to Xena. “I had to see you with my own eyes. You’ve come back complete, Xena. You have taken back your darkness. That is all I needed to know.”

Xena and Gabrielle sat there beside one another with identical puzzled looks on their faces. A few moments later, Gabrielle frowned and sighed.

“She wasn’t a very good oracle, was she?”

“Not really. I just wonder if she thought I had returned as pure evil…or maybe without my fight. Or maybe she’s trying to tell us something about the battle we’re about to face.”

“What do you mean?”

Xena took Gabrielle’s hand, hoping that it wouldn’t be withdrawn. When Gabrielle accepted the gesture, Xena spoke. “Marcus once told me that love is the strongest power in the universe. It’s stronger than evil…it’s even stronger than death. He said those exact words to me, and I think he was right. Maybe we’re coming at this battle from the wrong direction. Yes, we’ll have to fight off the soldiers, but when it comes to Daemonicus it won’t be a battle at all…not the way we usually think of it, anyway. We do need Aphrodite, but I don’t think she has to fight either. What if we need to use her to overpower him?”

“That’s sounds a little sadistic, Xena. How do you mean, use her? We can’t just stand her in front of him and hope for the best.”

“I agree, but remember what Aphrodite said to you…that Ares couldn’t beat Daemonicus. They fought one another to a standstill, again and again. Ares only knew love as selfish, cruel, and conditional, and he would never understand how to stop fighting.” Xena rubbed her temples at the memory of Ares only ever loving her, but she was right. It was cruel and selfish, and he had wanted her to join him as his partner in crime, making it conditional. That wasn’t love.

“How do you know what Aphrodite said to me? How do you know all this?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe that’s the point. I’ve been returned with the knowledge we need to win.”

Gabrielle was a little skeptical once more. “If that’s true, then we may have Ares to thank. Don’t forget, he died to bring you back, Xena.”

“I know that, but ultimately, he still did it for another purpose…to win a fight.”

Gabrielle couldn’t argue that point. “OK. So you’re saying that the reason we can defeat Daemonicus is because the love we have is selfless, pure, and unconditional?”

“Right,” Xena said, hoping that Gabrielle wouldn’t say her love had changed.

“Will that be enough?” Gabrielle asked with a worried frown on her face, and her eyes looking anywhere but at Xena.

At least she didn’t deny it was true, Xena thought. “I don’t know.”

Their conversation was interrupted by Gena who rushed through the door with the Magnador in her hand.

“Here. The bands are there too. We’re ready when you are. We have three horses saddled up. We can ride most of the way, until it gets too rugged.”

Xena took the items from her. “Thanks, Gena. Any sign of those soldiers yet?”

“No, but we should leave now. We’re pretty much the last to go.”

“We’ll be right out,” Xena said with a nod.

Once they were alone again, Gabrielle stood to gather her weapons and pull on her boots, hoping they had dried out a little. When she turned back to Xena, she saw something she never thought she would see again. Her soulmate stood tall with her familiar battle dress covering her body and her armor in place, just the way it used to be. The only things missing were her chakram and sword.

“Here,” Gabrielle said, unclipping the yin-yang chakram from her belt. “You should have it back.”

“I think that’s yours now, Gabrielle.”

“No. I have my sais and my katana. You should have your chakram. Your sword is in my room upstairs. We can get it on the way out.”

Xena took the chakram in her hand, gripping it lightly at first to feel its weight and form. It was as if she had used it only yesterday, but just in case she was a little rusty she threw it toward the window frame where it pinged off the wood then bounced off the mantel, coming back to rest in her hand without making a sound.

“See? You should have it,” Gabrielle said resolutely.

“Perhaps, but you should take that one,” Xena suggested, pointing to the one on the mantel. “I have this really strange feeling we’re going to need it.”

“But I don’t think that one is real. Isn’t it just a prop?”

“It looks exactly like my old one in every sense. Why don’t you try it out?”

Gabrielle looked at her, raising one eyebrow in what Xena thought was a mighty good impression of her. When Xena nodded and flicked her hand toward the mantel, Gabrielle walked over and took Eve’s replica into her grasp.

“Maybe you should hide,” Gabrielle suggested, her voice so close to teasing that for a second it felt like old times again.

“Nah. I trust you,” Xena replied as she sat down to tighten her boots. The words were barely out of her mouth when the chakram came whizzing past her head, ricocheted off a lantern on the wall, kissed the table across the room, and landed back in Gabrielle’s hand with a shloop sound that made Xena grin. “I guess it works.”

“I guess so,” Gabrielle muttered as she clipped it onto her belt. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be…” Xena smiled as she bowed to let Gabrielle leave the room first. All it did was make Gabrielle slightly uncomfortable, and maybe a little shy as she averted her gaze and walked out the door.

Once they had collected Xena’s sword and scabbard from upstairs, they met Eve in the front room. There was no sign of Aphrodite. In fact, Xena had yet to lay eyes on her.

“Where’s our goddess?” she asked Eve.

“She’s under heavy disguise outside on one of the horses. She’ll be riding with me. That leaves two horses for you guys.”

Xena was glad of that. It meant she could hopefully ride with Gabrielle. “May I hitch a ride with you?”

Gabrielle scratched through her short hair, making sure her nails scraped her scalp, more to keep her alert than anything else. “Yes.” She moved closer to Xena. “I’m not letting you out of my sight,” she added in a whisper.

Xena caught her eye for a few seconds and realized how much panic Gabrielle was holding deep inside. “That’s fine with me. Let’s go.”

As they mounted, the rain stopped, and when Gabrielle positioned herself behind Xena, she slipped her arms around her waist. It was such an old and familiar move that Xena felt a wave of pain sweeping through her soul. She felt the tears rising and pretended to have something stuck in her eye until the urge to cry had passed. When she was sure things were under control, she covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own before turning to look at Aphrodite who was hidden under a dark-brown, hooded cape.

“You ready for this?”

Aphrodite glanced up at her. “It’s good to see you awake, Xena, but I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for this.”

“Why?”

“Just a feeling.”

Xena nodded. She had been experiencing the same daunting feelings. “We’ll be fine. We’ll make it work.”

“I hope so,” Aphrodite said as she grabbed around Eve’s waist.

With strained looks on each face at the dangerous task that lay ahead, the group set off for Mount Olympus just as the last of the townspeople left with an Amazon team who would lead them to safety. If Daemonicus’s soldiers did come to Amphipolis looking for the last of the gods, there would be nobody here to kill. Since that’s all they were out to do, Xena hoped that the buildings would still be standing when she returned.

And I will return, she said to herself defiantly. With a nudge to her powerful horse’s ribs, they set off. She knew they would ride non-stop now until the horses needed to rest, and going by the muscle, bulk, and spirit of their steeds, they wouldn’t be stopping until tomorrow night.

Chapter 3

As they rode across the hillside toward the Amazon forest, Gabrielle had her wits about her, ever alert to any potential attackers, but her attention would occasionally shift to Xena’s hair, her back, and her breaths as her ribs expanded and contracted in Gabrielle’s arms.

Gabrielle was feeling disconnected from reality. She had been so alone for so long, and having Xena back in the exact same condition she had left her that day in Jappa, was more than a little surreal. As she sat there behind her, she tried to convince herself that it was all real and that it would all be OK once this fight was over, but her optimistic inner voice wasn’t fooling anyone. Something was weighing heavily on Gabrielle, like there was going to be some huge price to pay for this chance to be with Xena again. That was the reason she could not give in to her desire – the desire to surrender to everything and fall into Xena’s arms professing her undying love and forgiveness.

Xena’s eyes scanned the horizon ahead and the edge of the Amazon forest to their right. The trees were tall and densely packed, but she knew there would be no attack from Daemonicus’s soldiers hiding in the woods. For one thing, the Amazons would guard their territory fiercely, and for another, she felt no sense of danger. Not yet, anyway.

What she did feel was Gabrielle’s fingers tentatively trailing through the hair that hung down her back. She closed her eyes briefly at the memory of that touch many years ago, but she daren’t react to it now for fear of Gabrielle becoming uncomfortable like she did earlier. For now, she would simply enjoy the closeness and let Gabrielle come to terms with things at her own pace.

On her way home after retrieving the Magnador, Xena had thought it might be different when they were reunited. Gabrielle would fall into her arms and tell her how much she had missed her, and they would live happily ever after in a little house of their choosing. Everything would be explained by Xena and forgiven by Gabrielle. She had known it wouldn’t really be that simplistic, but she had wished it.

No, Xena had much more to do to convince Gabrielle that she would never leave her again. She had said it too many times in the past, and yet she had also left her many times, breaking her promise over and over. For some insane reason, Najara popped into Xena’s head. She had left Gabrielle then too, without even asking her if she had wanted to stay with the mad woman of the light.

How ironic, Xena thought. Here we are on our way to destroy the darkness, and that’s exactly what Najara thought she was doing before she was captured. OK, maybe this is just a little bit different, but ironic, nonetheless.

Xena shook her head at her train of thought before she realized that the shaking might disturb Gabrielle’s impromptu grooming session. Thankfully, it didn’t, and Xena indulged in a small grin to herself because for now, Gabrielle seemed somewhat relaxed.

As with everything else in their lives – and deaths – nothing was relaxed for very long. Both Xena and Gabrielle heard it, Gena saw it, and Eve felt it. Aphrodite kept her head down, but her eyes were focused on the trees. Someone or something was moving through the forest at a faster pace than them. Gabrielle had the replica chakram in her hand, ready to throw it as Xena tried to calm the spirited mare they were riding. But Eve, who was leading the troop, held her hand high in a halt signal since the feeling she was having was not of danger. As they all watched the dark spaces between the trees, an Amazon troop appeared and moved to circle them. Only one Amazon rode a horse, and she arrived last guarded by two more warriors. Gabrielle immediately recognized Marae who stepped forward to allay their fears.

“Hello again, Queen Gabrielle.”

“Marae, please don’t call me that anymore, OK?” Gabrielle said, leaning out to the side to see around Xena’s torso.

“Apologies…Gabrielle. Hard habit to break. We have come to wish you well on your journey.”

“That’s very good of you.”

Eve eyed the young Amazon. “That’s not the usual procedure, Marae.”

“It is not, Eve, but our queen wanted to see you all before you left.”

Everyone looked at the woman on the horse. She wore a mask above her beautiful, beaded, leather and fur outfit. When the mask was lifted, Gabrielle’s eyes widened perceptibly, and Xena’s jaw dropped a little.

“Varia,” Gabrielle said as she began to dismount.

Varia held up her hand. “No, Gabrielle. Please don’t get off your horse. I know you have limited time to travel and much ahead of you. I just had to see this with my own eyes.” She shifted her gaze to Xena. “You have returned. I had heard of Ares’ death, but I didn’t think it could work. Welcome back, Xena.”

While Aphrodite kept her face hidden hoping to avoid any conversation, Xena dipped her head in a small nod as Varia moved her horse to flank theirs, nose-to-tail. When she offered her arm in a warrior’s handshake, Xena took it in a firm grip.

“You have ruled long and well, Queen Varia.” Her almost playful emphasis on ‘queen’ was not missed by the Amazon.

“I do try. There was this warrior a long time ago who gave me some good advice.” With a small grin, Varia nudged her horse forward a step to make sure she was right next to Gabrielle. “I can’t believe you’re home. The Amazons have missed you all these years,” she said as she leaned in for a hug that was courteously returned.

Xena couldn’t help but feel a pang of hurt and maybe a slight thread of jealousy at the fact that Gabrielle hadn’t greeted her like that. Of course, Varia hadn’t done to Gabrielle what Xena had done.

“I have missed the Amazons too, Varia.”

When the hug was over, Varia shifted in her saddle and grimaced. “I’m not as young as I used to be, unlike you two. You seem to have traversed time and space to get here. I just fought my way through it.”

Gabrielle smiled at her, but it was full of melancholy. “You look well, and you’re not old, Varia. I really would like to catch up, but we have to go. We’ll see you when we get back.”

Xena was quick to agree since she assumed Gabrielle’s ‘we’ meant them both. “We’ll be back as soon as it’s done.”

“You had better be,” Varia said specifically to Xena like she knew Xena’s secret. She kept Gabrielle’s hand in hers but nodded at Xena in a show of support. “Go now. Go with the strength of the Amazons behind you. I know this is your battle. You have all been chosen. We’ll do our best to protect the people of Amphipolis.”

“I’m grateful to you,” Xena said seriously.

“Bye, Varia,” Gabrielle added.

Gena just waved, having seen Varia and her crew many times over the years, but Eve gave Varia a warm smile that was missed by the others. She would tell her mother about that later.

When they had resumed their journey, Eve left her position guarding the rear to speak to Xena and Gabrielle. “I’m sorry I hadn’t mentioned Varia to you. Even given our past, she has become an important part of my life. She asks me for advice and recognizes my position in the Amazon nation. It seems we all converged here after you were both gone. Autolycus, me, Varia, the Amazons…we all came here.”

Gabrielle leaned her cheek on the back of Xena’s shoulder without even thinking about it. “It’s truly OK, Eve. We haven’t exactly had time to just sit and chat since I came back. I look forward to hearing all your news after this is over.”

“I’ll be glad to share it with you,” Eve said before she pulled her horse back into line. “Hey, Aphrodite,” she added while glancing over her shoulder. “You’re very quiet.”

“I’m just not feeling good right now. I feel like I’m about to fall off a cliff and drown.”

“I promise we’ll take care of you.”

“I hope so. I think I’m getting weaker.”

***

After six hours, the journey was progressing steadily and without incident. They were making good time, and the horses had only required a brief stop for a drink.

As they left the edge of the Amazon forest, the rugged terrain took them higher across the lands that Xena used to know so well. She watched now as the heavy thunder clouds that followed them turned an even murkier shade of gray. They rumbled across the skies, threatening to saturate the team of travelers with rain, but not a drop had fallen yet. Xena remembered the days when she and Gabrielle would stroll side by side under the warm rays of the sun. She wondered if she would ever see the sun again. In fact, she wondered if she would ever take a relaxing stroll with Gabrielle again.

Gabrielle tapped Xena on the shoulder. “Are you wondering the same thing I am?”

I doubt it, Xena thought sadly before her eyebrow rose a little. “Which is…?”

“That its approaching nightfall and we haven’t seen more than a small group of villagers on the run. Where are Daemonicus’s men?”

When a low thudding sound gradually climbed to a steady stampede, Xena almost rolled her eyes. She shook her head as ten soldiers dressed in black came running across the peak of a nearby hill. “There they are,” she deadpanned.

Gabrielle swiftly dismounted. The soldiers were blocking their path, so Xena rode quickly over to Eve’s horse and handed the mare’s reins to Aphrodite. Eve was already on the ground with her sword in hand, and by the time Xena and Gena had joined them to make a barrier between the soldiers and the goddess, there was only a short distance between both sides. The clash of swords was soon all around them as the silent fighters tried to carry out their most important mission: to kill the mortals and capture the last remaining deity. But these soldiers were no match for the four warrior women. Gabrielle’s katana took three of them out in one swipe, slicing their bellies open with ease. As they dropped to their hands and knees, she went on a rampage against two more, and with her katana flying high in a figure of eight, she took off their arms before their blades had a chance to come near her. With five down, the remaining five were killed by the others without delay, and once the ground was covered in the black, oozing puss they were filled with, Xena stood speechless at what Gabrielle had done. When she had been in limbo, she had only come to Gabrielle in her quiet moments of contemplation. She hadn’t seen anything like this before.

Gabrielle noticed her condition now, and came rushing toward her with a worried expression on her face. “Xena, are you hurt? Where did he get you?”

Xena snapped out of her little stupor when Gabrielle started checking her arms and torso for injuries. “I’m fine, Gabrielle. I just…I’ve never seen you fight like that, not even when…”

Gabrielle flicked her head to crack the tense bones in her neck. “I guess you didn’t. You only came to me when it was quiet and I was thinking about…things. Why was that?”

“I think it was part of my punishment, part of my torture. To see you when you were suffering the most was more painful than anything else.”

Gabrielle’s face was expressionless. Anything else? I think I’ve got you beat, Xena, she said to herself. She really wished she could stop feeling so hurtful, but she wasn’t sure how to purge her devastating memories just yet. “We should keep moving. I don’t want to be on these rocky paths when it gets dark.”

Xena nodded somberly. “Agreed.” As they moved away from the defeated soldiers who were now just bubbling piles of dark lava on the ground, she turned to Gena. “What happens to them when they’re killed?”

“It’s said that Daemonicus absorbs them again. He just uses their energy and the darkness inside them to create new soldiers,” Gena answered with a grimace.

“How does he do that?”

“I have no idea.” Gena had always wondered if it was some sort of magic or trickery. How could Daemonicus take back his fallen soldiers from great distances away? Was he some sort of god after all?

***

Night had arrived, and as the group of intrepid warriors came upon a hilltop shelter, Gena dismounted her beautiful tan and white mare. The others stopped to watch her as she examined underneath her horse’s hoof, before releasing the foot with a “Damn it.”

“Is she lame?” Eve asked worriedly.

“Yes. She started limping a few minutes ago. There’s nothing trapped in her shoe, so I’m not sure what’s wrong.”

Xena nudged her horse forward while doing a mental calculation of how much time they had…she had. “We can rest here for a bit. If she’s not sound in a few hours, we’ll deal with it then.”

“Do we have time for that?” Gabrielle asked from behind Xena.

“Yes. Let’s make a fire and replenish ourselves a little.”

While Gena picked the dirt from her horse’s feet and rubbed a cooling balm on its legs, Gabrielle set about collecting firewood. Eve unpacked some food they had brought, and Aphrodite used some of her dwindling power to light the damp wood pile after Gabrielle had arranged it inside a circle made of the stones Xena had collected.

“The shelter’s useless. It’s falling down and the roof’s full of holes. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain until after we eat something,” Xena said as she rearranged a couple of the stones.

Gabrielle nodded but didn’t look at Xena as she heated her hands near the flames. “We’re not stopping for long anyway. Can’t afford to waste any time, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem to be running out of time, Xena. Four days down, you said back at the house. You just expect me not to notice these things, but I do.”

“I didn’t realize I had said that.”

Gabrielle just gave a sarcastic smile, and Xena was getting more and more worried about the cold look on her soulmate’s face and the sharp edge to her voice. Either Gabrielle just wasn’t prepared to ever forgive her, or she was so very close to losing it completely. No matter what was about to happen, Xena was the cause of Gabrielle’s troubled heart, and she realized she might have to instigate an argument to get any sort of emotional reaction out of Gabrielle. If they went into this battle carrying this sort of tension, they would lose. They were supposed to be fighting evil with love. Did Gabrielle still love her?

“Gabrielle, we’re going to fight the ultimate darkness. Daemonicus is pure evil, and we’re supposed to kill that evil with love. If we go in there with you feeling rage or hatred toward me, we will lose. That’s a certainty. I’ll grovel and apologize to you for the rest of my life…” Xena almost choked since she wasn’t sure how long that would be. “If that will help you to forgive me, but there needs to be love here, otherwise what’s the point in trying?”

When Gena, Eve, and Aphrodite heard her words, they sensed an impending confrontation and backed away from the fire a little. Gabrielle’s teeth were grinding together, her cheeks rippling with the movement of her jaw. Her eyebrows were set in a deep frown and her normally calm, green eyes were burning like the flames that reflected in them. Gena wondered if it was the rage that came with Ares being dead, but Gabrielle was the one out of all of them who could control that type of anger the most, so she figured it must be something else.

“Do you expect me to just change how I have felt for the past ten years, in two days, Xena?” Gabrielle said a little too calmly.

“No. I don’t expect it to be quite so easy-”

“Easy?!”

Xena’s mild and deliberate antagonism had worked as the calmness in Gabrielle’s voice disappeared.

“Let me try to explain something to you,” Gabrielle said, letting the hardness in her tone shine through.

Xena knew this wasn’t going to be pleasant, but she had to hear it nevertheless. “All right.”

“Close your eyes, Xena.” When Xena had reluctantly done what she was told, Gabrielle began her chilling story in a quiet and eerie voice. “Imagine, if you can, that I had taken you on a trip to Jappa to right a wrong from my past. And imagine when we get there, that I had left you without telling you what I planned to do. Imagine I had gone off to let myself be killed. You get no say in it, even though you’re my soulmate and I always told you I would never leave you. Imagine that after my death, my spirit had asked you to go find my body and burn it, because bringing the ashes to Mount Fuji’s fountain was the only way to bring me back after I had righted that wrong. And now…imagine finding that body, the body of the woman you love more than life itself, hanging in a village square…naked, bloody, battered, and headless.”

Xena’s tears were filling the space behind her eyelids. “I get it, Gabrielle. That’s enough.”

“No. You don’t get it, and you will listen.” When Gabrielle saw the other three attempting to leave, she stopped them. “You need to hear this too. If you know what I’ve been through, you might understand the change in me better.” She gathered her courage to retell the story of the day Xena died. “Imagine having to risk your life in a fight to be able to retrieve my body, then having to cut it down. Imagine being sick to your stomach as the corpse slides through your arms and falls to the ground because you can’t keep holding it after seeing where my head once was. You wrap it up and demand to be given my head. That in itself is a sight that will make you want to die inside. Once you’ve wrapped it up with my body, take it with you to build a funeral pyre. Then burn me and wait until my ashes cool. Crawl around on your hands and knees to collect up every tiny piece of ash you can find.  Take my ashes in an urn on your trek to the top of Mount Fuji. But when you get there, you have another battle to fight, this time with Yodoshi. Imagine my ghostly spirit is weakened by my fight with him, and you panic as you have little time to get past Yodoshi before I am truly gone. You risk your life again to fight him.”

By this point, everyone but Gabrielle had their eyes closed. Gabrielle couldn’t. She just stared at Xena’s face as she continued.

“You do fight him, and you do replenish my spirit with some of the water from the fountain, but during the fight the urn has fallen off the side of the cliff, so you risk your life again to get it back. And when you finally make it to the fountain after all of that, my spirit stops you from bringing me to life. You will never see me alive again, never touch me again, never laugh with me again. Now carry that story with you every single moment for ten years. See it in your nightmares every time you fail in your mission to stay awake, and feel it run through your soul in your solitary moments of painful contemplation. It will never, ever be easy.”

When Xena opened her eyes, her tears flowed freely and she when she tried to speak, it came out as only a whimper. She swallowed the cries that she wished she could scream out loud until she felt she could say something quietly. “I can’t ever be redeemed for this, can I?”

“This isn’t about you, Xena,” Gabrielle responded just as quietly. “This is about me.”

“It’s about me too, Gabrielle. You and I…it’s my fault. Will you ever be able to forgive me?”

“I’m working on it.”

Eve wiped away her tears and moved to Gabrielle’s side. As her arm went around Gabrielle’s shoulder, she said, “None of us can know how this feels for you, Gabrielle. All I know is that you are someone I love dearly…unconditionally. More than anything right now, we need to feel love.”

Gabrielle stared into the flames of the fire. “I do feel love. I love her so much it hurts…and I love you. I just don’t know how to vent this anger.”

Hearing Gabrielle say she still loved her, gave Xena the confidence to offer a possible explanation. “Gabrielle…” She waited for Gabrielle to look at her before she went on. “I promise you I’ll do anything to help you overcome what I’ve done to you. Maybe…maybe once we’ve killed Daemonicus, the effects of Ares’ death will somehow be released, and you’ll be able to vent that anger because it won’t seem so powerful, so overwhelming. You can vent it on me, if that’s what you need.”

Gabrielle just looked at her for a few achingly-long moments. She looked at her long, dark hair. She looked at those familiar and hypnotic eyes, and she looked at the dampened cheeks that continued to be soaked with Xena’s tears. Somehow, Gabrielle felt a little lighter, like telling these people – especially Xena – about what she had gone through, had lifted her burden somewhat.

“Maybe,” she said quietly with a nod to Xena.

Xena’s lips were trembling as she tried to stop herself from bawling like a baby. She saw a glimmer of hope in Gabrielle’s face in that moment. They might be able to work through the nightmare she had put her beloved through, and that was all Xena wanted to focus on…after they had killed Daemonicus.

Gena had suddenly gotten up to check on her horse again, but Xena knew she was wiping away her tears in private before anyone could see them. She knew this because Gena was a budding warrior, and it was what she used to do when she wanted to seem impervious to everything.

Throughout Gabrielle’s story, Aphrodite had sat quietly with her head low, but she looked up at Gabrielle now to see her staring at a stick as she poked it into the fire. Xena was lost in her thoughts while she stared at Gabrielle, and Eve still had her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder.

“There is so much love here. That’s why it hurts this much,” Aphrodite said looking around at them all. “Gabby, you even feel love for Gena because she’s been so considerate and supportive since you arrived. Eve loves Gena because they’ve known each other for years and they’ve been through a lot together. They’re practically sisters. The love between you three is obvious,” she added, pointing between Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve. “And of course, I’m the goddess of love so what else would I want to feel?”

“What’s your point, Aphrodite?” Eve asked with a subtle hint of humor.

“Well, duh. Love, of course!”

Eve grinned at her before she heard a snort from Gabrielle beside her. “At least someone thought my teasing was funny.”

Gabrielle smiled, and Xena caught a glimpse of it before it faded again. She wanted to see that smile every day for eternity.

“M’lila’s still lame,” Gena said as she rejoined the group. “She can’t continue with us, so I guess I’m walking from now on.”

“M’lila?” Xena said as she stood and walked over to the horse.

“Yes. I named her after your friend.”

Xena patted the horse’s rump gently. “Yes, she was. It’s a good name.” She lifted M’lila’s back foot and pressed hard around the area just inside the shoe. When M’lila flinched, Xena nodded to herself. “It’s her shoe. It must have slipped and given her a bruised sole. We can take the shoe off, but we can’t put a new one on. She’ll need to stay behind.”

“I’ll send her home,” Gena said as she removed the saddle and hid it in a nearby bush.

“Will she be OK on her own?”

“Yes. She’ll make her way back to Argo easily.”

“Wha…? Argo?” Xena said, her face contorting in her confusion.

“Mother,” Eve said as she got up to repack her saddlebag. “Argo the second is still with us. She’s back in Amphipolis. I didn’t bring her on this trip because she’s a lot older now, and anyway, she won’t let anyone ride her.”

Xena looked between the four women before she started pacing around the fire. “She’s at home too. You all ended up in Amphipolis.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle said. “I don’t think there’s any great mystery here. They all returned when they heard of your…your death. It seems I’m the only one who didn’t come back.”

“You’re here now. That’s all that matters.” Without even batting an eyelid, Xena had lifted her chakram, thrown it, and taken out two soldiers who had been sneaking up on them for the past minute or so. “We need to get moving,” she said as the chakram returned swiftly to her hand.

Nobody questioned it, and it wasn’t long before they were setting M’lila free and heading once again for Mount Olympus. Gena traveled on foot for miles until Eve swapped places with her while ordering Xena and Gabrielle to stay together on horseback since they were older and everything. It seemed Eve was trying pretty hard to get a rise out of them, and this time it worked. Xena and Gabrielle snorted in-sync before glancing at one another over Xena’s shoulder. It was tough to see the look in each other’s eyes in the dark, but somehow Xena knew that Gabrielle had turned a corner after she had told them the story of Jappa.

When Gabrielle squeezed her midriff gently, Xena covered her forearm with her own as their horse carried them closer to their dark destination.

***

The next day brought a few more attacks by Daemonicus’s army, but it wasn’t until moments before the last one that something new appeared. Xena and Gabrielle rode behind Eve and Aphrodite while Gena scouted ahead on foot. When both horses simultaneously freaked out, Xena scanned the area for trouble, but nothing was evident until four figures appeared directly in front of them, completely out of nowhere.

Xena tilted her head a little as she frowned. “Gabrielle,” she whispered. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“If you’re asking if I’m seeing Joxer, Ephiny, Amarice, and your mother, then yes, I’m seeing that.”

“Oh,” Xena said as if they were both crazy. “Good.”

“Grandmother?” Eve whispered.

It was only after she was addressed that Cyrene spoke to them “They’re following you. You must take care. I know it will be hard for you…especially you, Gabrielle…but you must behead them. It takes them much longer to reunite with Daemonicus that way.”

Before Gabrielle or anyone else could respond, the apparitions disappeared and eight soldiers stealthily approached from behind. Xena performed a triple, backward somersault off the horse and was mighty impressed when Gabrielle did exactly the same, coming to land just a fraction to her right. They immediately moved into their defensive position, back to back, and with Xena’s battle-cry ringing in everyone’s ears, they both attacked. Gena was quick to return to the fray, and Eve was slicing and dicing in a matter of seconds.

Cyrene’s words were echoing in Gabrielle’s ears, so she twirled out of the circle of her opponent’s sword and whipped her katana high at shoulder level. His head was taken clean off by the ultra-sharp blade, and it bounced across the dirt and into a nearby crevice, leaving his body to melt onto the ground. His sword clattered against Gabrielle’s boot making her jump out of the way as if burned by it, but she didn’t have long to maneuver before her next attacker came forth. Since he came at her from a sharp angle, her katana only managed to get his hand. Still, it came clean off, but not before he had cut a large gash in her arm.

Gabrielle hissed at the pain, and as the blood trickled over her skin she felt her rage explode. She leapt high up into the air and threw her katana straight back down with extreme force. It split the soldier’s entire body in two and buried itself in the soil. When Gabrielle landed, she grabbed her weapon, and with her other hand she pulled her chakram out of its clip. She sent it flying across the battle to slice deeply into the neck of a soldier who was attacking Gena from behind while she was fighting off her main opponent. When the chakram embedded itself in a tree trunk, Gabrielle moved swiftly past Xena – who was happily in the process of killing two soldiers at once – and finished off the injured attacker before retrieving her chakram.

By the time they were done with this fight, the earth was sodden with blackness again, but they were all panting heavily. Both Eve and Gabrielle had been injured, Xena was covered in dirt and black slime, and Gena was busy spitting some of the goop out of her mouth.

“How did you get so dirty?” Gabrielle asked Xena as she sheathed her katana.

“One of ‘em got me on the ground. I rolled through it just to escape him. Thought he had me for a second there…”

“Never. You had him. I saw that, and I knew you were fine.”

Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s arm. “You’re not. Let me take a look at that.”

“It’s OK, Xena. I’ll just bandage it.”

“Please, let me?”

Xena was on the verge of begging, so Gabrielle nodded her assent. Once they had regrouped under the shelter of a nearby tree, Gena assisted Eve with her injuries while Aphrodite held onto the skittish horses that had previously dispersed, but seemed to return after the clatter of swords had died down.

“Well,” Xena said as she cleaned Gabrielle’s bloody wound. “That was different, huh?”

Eve blew out a breath. “It sure was. They’re getting harder to kill.”

“No kidding,” Gabrielle muttered while she winced at the stinging pain. “Is it deep?” she asked Xena.

“Deep enough to need a stitch or two, but not deep enough for you to worry about it…”

“Well, that’s something. Aphrodite, could you tie up the horses and grab my saddle bag?”

“Sure.” When Aphrodite came to kneel next to them, she looked thoughtful. “I was just thinking that maybe I should use some of my not-so-powerful powers to just zap myself to Mount Olympus and hide there until you arrive. Then Gena could ride with Eve, and you’d make better time. And anyway, I’m useless here. I don’t really know how to use a sword.”

“No,” Xena answered quickly. “Your powers are weakening because Daemonicus is getting stronger. He must have run out of warlords and moved on to feed on the goodness in innocent people now, just like Aiden.”

“Who?” Aphrodite queried in a high-pitched voice.

“Never mind. It’s just the same old crazy demon with a different face. Anyway, my point is, we need you to be as powerful as possible when we finally come up against it, so using your powers for a little trip isn’t worth it. And if the soldiers were to find you in your hiding place, we’re all doomed. We’re here to protect you, so you’re staying with us and that’s that.”

“She’s right, Dite,” Gabrielle added. “These soldiers are trying to take you since they seem to have killed every other remaining god but you.”

“Except Celesta,” Gena interrupted.

“Yes, but we believe she’s been entombed for eternity, so really, Aphrodite is the last deity we know of. She must be the last blockade in Daemonicus’s path to ultimate power, to ultimate evil. He wants it all.”

Xena looked up from her task and met Gabrielle’s gaze. “He got Apollo, Morpheus? Everyone?”

“Yes. All of them.”

Xena frowned at that. “He really does want it all.”

“What about what we saw before the attack?” Eve asked. “Do you think they were a trick?”

Gabrielle shook her head vehemently. “No. They warned us about the attack. We might not have seen those soldiers in the dark. Black against black would have been impossible to spot.”

“They were here to help,” Xena confirmed. “I’m just trying to figure out why it was those four people who appeared.”

“Well, that’s easy,” Aphrodite said quietly. “I hate to harp on like a broken parrot, but it’s all about love.”

After reimagining the lineup in her head, Xena curled her eyebrow. “Hmm,” she said as she stitched up Gabrielle’s wound. “You might be right. Mom is obvious…lots of love there. Ephiny was like our sister, so yes, love. Joxer…gotta love him, and he has the heart of a lion. And Amarice…?”

Gabrielle lifted her hand to touch Xena’s face briefly. “Of course we loved Amarice. Think about it, Xena.”

Xena’s eyes focused on Gabrielle. “After what I went through with her between worlds, with Alti and searching for you…yes, I’d say there was love.”

Gabrielle’s gave a tiny nod. “And she was there when we were crucified. She helped Joxer and Eli.”

“That she did.”

Eve gently interrupted. “Come on. We’d better keep moving. We’re all tired, but we can rest tomorrow night. I know a place where it’s safer, protected on three sides by cliffs. We can rotate the watch and get some shuteye.”

“I know the very place you mean, Eve,” Xena said with a small smile to her daughter. She offered her hand to Gabrielle who took it and pulled herself up onto her feet.

With some water consumed by the humans and the horses, they set off with their eyes and ears open to the possibility of an attack from any direction. Xena and Gabrielle led the way for a while, with Gena bringing up the rear on foot. She intermittently spun around to check behind them while Xena and Eve looked ahead, and Gabrielle checked above them. They wouldn’t rule anything out at this point, and they suspected their battles were only going to get tougher.

Chapter 4

It was a day later when they approached the outskirts of a village just south of Lete. Xena hoped to be able to buy another horse here which would mean they could travel much quicker to Mount Olympus, but as the village came into view the scene that greeted them was not a welcome one.

From their viewpoint up on the hill, Xena could see the carnage. The battle was ongoing: villagers against soldiers. The multiple dark stains on the grass to the left of the small houses merged into one another, showing that the fight was already over for those people. A quick count of the soldiers revealed that there were only sixteen of them, but it had been enough to overpower the inexperienced villagers who were losing their lives.

“Xena, we should approach from the north,” Gabrielle said with some urgency.

Xena nodded. “I know that, but Gena is already half way down the hill, so I guess the element of surprise is out of the question.” She pulled her horse around to head off in a canter. “Eve come with us. Aphrodite, whatever happens, stay on that horse.”

No reply was necessary since Xena and Gabrielle were charging into the fight at full pelt. Eve followed with a “yah” to get her steed moving, and before long they were passing Gena who was now leaping over a large rock to attack one of Daemonicus’s minions.

When Eve leapt off the horse, Aphrodite gathered up the reins and moved out of the kill zone. Xena and Gabrielle seemed to be slicing heads from horseback for now, which in itself was a sight to see.

The four of them managed to eliminate eight soldiers before running round the biggest of the houses to take on the other eight who were chasing the last few survivors through the village square.

Gabrielle performed an almost-impossible sideways flip off the horse and landed right behind one of the soldiers. He turned so swiftly and viciously that he managed to thump the hilt of his sword into her temple, sending her reeling for a few seconds before she regained the presence of mind to avoid his second blow.

Xena wasn’t faring much better against these more powerful men in black. She was only just holding off a soldier who was the same height as she was, but he seemed to have the strength to rival Ares himself. He was damned powerful, and she was struggling to get the business end of her sword anywhere near him.

Gena was fighting the good fight about twenty feet away, but as Xena kept track of her from the side of her eye, she realized the young warrior was doing more dodging than striking. These guys were tougher to beat, and when Eve who was sweating with the effort of her own epic battle shouted Gabrielle’s name, Xena was so busy avoiding a stabbing that she couldn’t even look to see if her partner was in trouble. But she needn’t have worried.

Gabrielle had heard the warning. She was dealing with her own opponent quite well, so she knew that someone else was coming at her, probably from behind. Her senses heightened beyond belief, she crouched down quickly and heard the clash of swords as they came together above her head. The two soldiers had sliced through each other, and while they were oozing black goop from their stomach wounds, Gabrielle twirled in her shrunken position, her katana amputating their legs just below the knees. After she rolled across the muddy ground to escape their fighting circle, she watched as they tried to come after her on their stumps like disemboweled zombies. She heaved a sigh of relief when they collapsed onto the dirt and melted a few seconds later.

Getting to her feet, Gabrielle carefully spun around to survey the battle. Gena and Eve were holding their own against single opponents, but Xena now had two soldiers circling her, and she was covered in little nicks and scratches. When she saw Gabrielle coming to assist her, she shook her head vehemently while managing to take a chunk out of one of her attacker’s necks.

“No, Gabrielle! The children!”

At first, Gabrielle wasn’t sure what she meant, but when she heard a scream coming from behind one of the huts nearby, she sprinted around the corner to see the last two soldiers finishing their job. There were bodies everywhere, large and small. As one of the soldiers plunged his sword into a prostrate villager’s torso, the other one hovered on his hands and knees over a child. Gabrielle was horrified, and as she ran toward him to try to prevent the murder, she realized she was too late. She froze and watched as the soldier of darkness placed his hand over the child’s face. The blackness began to spread onto the boy’s cheeks like a cancer, until his entire head was dark as if burned.

This is how they take their souls? Gabrielle thought as she tried to stifle the urge to throw up.

The victim’s face began to melt away under the soldier’s touch. He was dead, and as much as Gabrielle couldn’t do anything to save him now, she could avenge his death the only way she knew how. The other soldier who had killed the boy’s father now stood up, his task complete, and Gabrielle knew that had to be her cue. She charged at both of them with her katana held high, not knowing that Xena had been standing behind her for the past few seconds. Gabrielle jumped high into the air at the last minute, confusing the closer henchman so much that he had no time to see her katana come crashing down on his head. It split straight through before Gabrielle turned to take on the second soldier who was only just finished his sadistic task. The boy’s blackened, lifeless, and now-deformed body lay at his feet, and as he concentrated on Gabrielle, Xena silently slipped in behind him and gave Gabrielle a virtually unnoticeable signal with her eyes before she lopped off his head. His body still attempted to advance on Gabrielle, but it only took a sideways leap to avoid him. He tripped on a rock and fell to the ground where his disgusting insides leaked out to cover the earth in a pool of black, syrupy blood.

Xena and Gabrielle just stared at the aftermath of battle around them for a few moments until the sound of hoof beats jump-started their brains.

Aphrodite had obviously been watching the fight and had brought the horses when she saw it was clear. “You guys need to rest and get fixed up. That was too close this time.”

“Nah. We had ‘em,” Xena said in a drained voice. She put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Hey. You OK?”

Gabrielle blinked to snap her gaze away from the young boy’s body and onto Xena’s face. “I am. I just never saw anything like that before. He…he just…”

“I know,” Xena answered quietly. “I was standing behind you.”

Gabrielle just nodded somberly and took Xena’s hand to walk back to the horses. She fleetingly worried about Eve and Gena, but she figured Aphrodite wouldn’t be sitting there if they weren’t all right.

Xena and Gabrielle led their horse back into the village square where Eve and Gena were sitting on the back of a cart laden with soft hay. They looked thoroughly exhausted, and Xena knew Aphrodite was right: they needed to rest. What good would it do to keep going until they couldn’t stand up anymore? They’d never win a fight like that. But in the back of Xena’s mind, she thought of the amount of time she had already spent here. This was day six. Her secret countdown was progressing too fast for her liking.

***

“How much longer can we keep this up?” Gena asked as she poked at the campfire.

“Until we get to that cave and kill Daemonicus,” Gabrielle answered in a low voice.

It was silent for a few minutes after that stark statement. Their injuries were tended to and tonight’s dinner was turning slowly on a makeshift spit above the fire. A slain pig from the village of Lete was their meal tonight, supplying them with some much-needed sustenance and energy. It appeared they had acquired a horse, too…a living horse. It had followed them out of the disaster area and was one of the only survivors of the attack. Gena had been befriending it ever since, and she believed she could ride it with a simple halter.

“They’re getting stronger, the closer we get to Mount Olympus,” Aphrodite said, her fear-riddled words breaking into everyone’s thoughts.

“They are,” Xena confirmed. “But don’t give up hope yet. We’ve still got some fight left in us.”

“Right,” Gabrielle whispered unconvincingly as she stitched up one of Xena’s cuts. “And what happens when we get inside that cave, Xena? Will we ever get out again?”

Xena looked into her eyes. “I have to trust that we will. We have the Magnador. There’s got to be a reason I was compelled to find it.”

Gabrielle sighed before she snapped the thread with her teeth. “I hope you’re right.”

Aphrodite slouched down in a very un-Aphrodite-like fashion. She pulled her cape tighter around her neck to stave off the chill she seemed to be feeling lately. “I know I’m losing my power. What if I’m useless by the time we get there?”

“You are Aphrodite,” Xena said. “You can’t be useless in this fight. You are love.”

“So are you, and so is Gabrielle…and so is Eve. You get my drift here? It’s why we were chosen, but at least you guys can slice up the bad guys.”

“We don’t need you for that,” Xena replied gently. She didn’t want to go on and tell the goddess what she suspected they did need her for. And anyway, she wasn’t sure she was right about that yet, so she would keep it to herself.

An hour later, Gena and Eve were curled up asleep next to one another, and Aphrodite was huddled in her cape next to the fire. Her eyes were closed, but Xena knew she would simply be resting. Goddesses didn’t need to sleep.

Xena sighed and watched Gabrielle who sat quietly opposite her. “What are you thinking about?” she asked, hoping that Gabrielle would speak her mind.

“Me…my memories,” Gabrielle said, her face etched in worry and deep thought as she gazed at the flames. “I remember something from a long time ago, something about you. I remember Caesar. He told me once that you feel, that you care…not exactly good attributes for a true warrior, he said. I know he was wrong about you, but I…I don’t know. I think I just stopped caring. That’s why I came back.”

Xena continued to watch her through the dancing fire. “Gabrielle, you said to me a long time ago that if anything should happen to you, I should promise not to become a monster. You came home to die because you felt that monster within, didn’t you?”

“How do you know what I felt?”

“I just know how it feels. And I know you.” When Gabrielle didn’t respond, Xena got up and moved around the fire to sit beside her. “You also told me that the cycle of violence and hatred can be overcome with love and forgiveness.”

“Where are you going with this, Xena?” It wasn’t said with any malice, but Gabrielle didn’t look at her until the answer met her ears.

“Forgive me. I don’t think you have truly forgiven me for what I put you through.”

“You have my forgiveness. I just need some time to adjust. I still don’t truly believe you’re here…or that you’re here to stay.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I can’t believe Ares would let you come back without conditions. He’s dead. Wouldn’t he want you to join him in Tartarus, or wherever he has ended up?”

Xena couldn’t fault her logic, and she couldn’t keep the truth from her anymore, either. “There was one condition.”

Gabrielle gulped back her fear. She had known it couldn’t be as easy as Xena just appearing alive again. “I need to know.”

Xena couldn’t bear to give her more bad news. She wasn’t sure Gabrielle could survive it.

“Tell me, Xena.”

“All right. The condition he set was…that after ten years of death, I get ten days. If in ten days we’re not successful in killing Daemonicus, I’ll return to-”

“No!”

“Hey,” Xena said quickly as she held Gabrielle in place beside her. “We are going to succeed. Failure is not an option for me. I’m staying with you this time, no matter what. Trust in me, Gabrielle. I know that’s a lot to ask, but please…?”

Gabrielle’s nostrils flared as she tried to keep her rage and hurt at bay, and also her tears. This would be a true test of her strength in more ways than one. If she were to lose Xena again, it would be the end for her. “We can’t lose. I…I can’t lose you.”

“You won’t. We won’t,” Xena assured. Her eyes were set on Gabrielle’s for long moments, and this time, Gabrielle didn’t break the contact. Xena could see the undeniable love that was still there, but it had been buried carefully in order for Gabrielle to function during the worst of times. Xena just hoped she could begin to convince her beautiful warrior that the worst of times were almost over. “I miss you,” she whispered.

Gabrielle blinked and looked away in a reaction of self-preservation, but it only took a few seconds for her heart to break at what she had done. “I miss you too,” she said as she looked at her knees. “Do you know where you were? I mean, where did you go after…?”

Xena took a deep breath and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. “I’m not sure exactly. Some kind of underworld, maybe? All I can remember is that it was a special kinda limbo. Not a harpie in sight. Every moment, I was forced to relive all my bad decisions, all the painful memories that came from those bad decisions, and I felt the most excruciating guilt I have ever felt.”

When Xena stopped talking, Gabrielle looked at her. She saw agony in Xena’s gaze, and as Xena averted her eyes, Gabrielle moved over to kneel between her feet, lifting her chin with one finger. “What caused that guilt?”

“Leaving you…” Xena continued to avoid looking at Gabrielle, her eyes almost closed in her efforts.

“Can you tell me why you had such guilt about that? Weren’t you supposed to avenge those souls and be redeemed for it?”

“That was all a lie. Not sure why I thought Akemi was telling the truth back then. She lied to get what she wanted the first time I met her, and she lied again in Jappa. Those souls were freed when Yodoshi was killed. She just didn’t expect me to succeed.”

“So your excruciating guilt was because you were fooled by her again?” Gabrielle knew she was being jumpy and reactive, but she was teetering between lingering anger at what had happened and her desperate yearning to give into it and hold Xena.

“My guilt was unbearable because I should have known that you are the single, most important person in my world. You wanted to bring me back, and I didn’t let you. I was so gods-be-damned consumed by my own need for redemption.”

Gabrielle removed her finger from Xena’s chin and turned away from her. “I think ten years in torturous limbo is enough payment of your debts, Xena.”

Xena heard the long-suffering tone in Gabrielle’s voice and the pain in her heart. “I agree. I’ll never make a mistake like that again, Gabrielle. The only relief I got was in coming to you when I could…but even that was hurting you beyond anything I can imagine. I’m sorry.”

“So basically, I told you to stop coming to see me, therefore condemning you to more agony.” Gabrielle flopped down to sit on the furs. “I’m sorry too.”

Xena was quick to try to hold her. “You have nothing to be sorry about, Gabrielle. Nothing.”

“Please just stay back. I can’t…not yet.”

“All right,” Xena said as calmly as she could. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle said, hoping it wasn’t something particularly heart-wrenching.

“Why did you stay away from Greece for so long?”

“I…I felt that some purpose would be revealed to me if I traveled and helped people, just like we used to do. And I think…I couldn’t give you up. I’m sorry I didn’t do as you had asked. I didn’t bring you home, but I just didn’t want to let you go.”

Xena nodded. “I realized too late just how much I didn’t want to let you go either.” When she saw the pained look on Gabrielle’s face, she tried to keep talking to prevent them both from breaking down. “When we were on that boat, right after…you know…I wondered how long you would carry my ashes around with you. I knew you would do great things, but I should have told you to take my ashes home first.”

“Why did you want me to take you back so quickly?”

Xena wasn’t sure she wanted to answer that, but she would never hide anything from Gabrielle again, no matter what it was. “I had asked you to take me to Amphipolis, not just because I wanted to be near Lyceus and my mother, but because I knew that wherever in the world I had died, it would be there in Amphipolis that I’d have the best chance of returning. I always thought Ares might not let me rest…and here I am. It’s just for a different reason to what I had imagined.”

Gabrielle blanched at that. “Are you trying to tell me it was my fault that you were dead for so long?” She couldn’t stomach that thought and gagged on her own saliva.

“No, Gabrielle. I did this. It was all me. If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine. I should have let you know every thought I ever had, every plan I ever made, and I should have let you throw my ashes in the fountain that day. If I had known then what I know now…”

“But Xena, if I had just come back right away…if I hadn’t been so selfish in wanting to keep you with me, you wouldn’t have had to suffer-”

You were suffering, Gabrielle,” Xena interrupted as she tried again to take her love into her arms.

“No. I did this,” Gabrielle said defiantly as she stood up. “I let things get to this point, not you.”

Xena watched her as she paced back and forth across their campsite. Gabrielle was determined to punish herself. It reminded Xena of her own feelings before she had died, but now, everything seemed so clear to her. The love she felt for Gabrielle was whole, and every time she looked at her, it grew exponentially. It was all-encompassing, and Xena wasn’t afraid of it anymore, but there was still a distance she had to traverse. Gabrielle continued to be in excruciating emotional pain, for everything she had been through since Xena’s death, and everything Xena had put her through before that. The guilt should have been burying Xena right now, but she felt a certainty, a pure devotion that could not be denied. She would try for the rest of her life to make Gabrielle understand what she could feel in her heart. Gabrielle was her one and only soulmate, and seeing that soulmate like this was more than Xena could bear.

“Gabrielle, sit down.”

Her voice was deep and commanding, and Gabrielle turned to see a strange look in Xena’s cloudy, blue eyes, so she went to sit where Xena pointed. When she felt Xena’s body move closer to her, the hardened shell around her heart begin to crack. All Gabrielle wanted to do was hold onto Xena and never let her go again. The faint and familiar scent of her partner wafted into Gabrielle’s nostrils, giving her the dilemma of wanting to either hug her or hit her. The agony of memory and the desire of the now battled it out inside her. It was incredibly confusing to feel the way she did. This moment felt like the closest they had been physically since Xena’s return – apart from when she had tended to her injuries and slept next to her unconscious body – and Gabrielle knew it wouldn’t take much more to break her hardened spirit. Still, she held onto it for now, as it was the only thing keeping her strong enough for this one last fight…the most important fight of their lives.

Xena’s quietened voice broke her train of thought. “Gabrielle, you are not to blame for any of this. If anything, you will be the savior of all of us. It was me who let myself be killed. It was me who listened to and believed the word of someone who had betrayed me before, and it was me who stopped you from bringing me back. All through our travels together, I was seeking redemption to try to undo my past misdeeds, but I’ve had a long time to think about it, and I finally understand that the only person I now need to seek redemption from…is you.”

“I don’t want you to feel indebted to me, Xena. I want you to allow yourself to live a happier life, to smell the flowers now and again. Remember I tried to make you do that once?”

“I remember.”

“I just want you to love your life, not suffer your way through it,” Gabrielle pleaded.

“I can do that now, as long as I have you,” Xena explained quietly, hoping for a positive response.

“You have always had me.”

Moments passed where the only sound was the crackling of the burning sticks in their dying campfire. They both sat staring into the weak flames until Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena’s knee, open palm up. It was an offering that Xena would never refuse, and she immediately placed her own hand on top of it, clasping her fingers around Gabrielle’s until they both gave a gentle squeeze at the same time.

Gabrielle rubbed her thumb over a cut on Xena’s hand. “It has started to bleed again. It might need a stitch.”

“It’ll be fine. Please don’t move away right now.”

“I won’t, but I’m worried, Xena. Those soldiers are getting so hard to kill.”

Xena gave a tiny nod. “I truly believe we can do this. I’m back for a reason, and I intend to stay. We should be much closer to Olympus by tomorrow night, arriving the day after. That gives us time to get inside Daemonicus’s lair and do what we need to do.”

“What are you expecting to find there? I mean, I’ve heard he’s changing into something stronger, but I don’t really know what form he takes. Is he like Hope was before she emerged from that thing, or is he more like Dahak…a force unseen?”

Xena pursed her lips in thought. “I actually have no idea, Gabrielle. If he was like Hope, it would be easier, but I know he has many soldiers around him and that they’re not human anymore. If they’re getting harder to kill as we approach Olympus, I’d imagine they’ll be near impossible to kill at those caves. The Magnador must be the answer.”

When Xena’s words drifted into silence, Gabrielle looked down at their joined hands again. “We have to win this fight…but if we don’t, we must make sure we both die.”

Xena was startled out of her thoughts, but before she could say anything Gabrielle had placed her finger over her lips.

“I don’t want to be here without you any longer. We succeed together, or we fail together. There is no other option. Do you understand me, Xena?”

The almost-timid but determined quality of Gabrielle’s voice was haunting, but Xena could see in her eyes that there was no argument to be had.

“I understand. Together…no matter what.”

Gabrielle breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was like a tightening band around her heart and lungs had been cut, giving her the sense that she could commit herself to the fight regardless of its outcome. She picked up the stick near her feet and poked at the fire. When it sparked up a little, she moved to lean her head on Xena’s shoulder.

“You rest now. I’ll take first watch,” Xena whispered before she kissed Gabrielle’s hair.

“Not for long. You need rest too, Xena.” The words were barely out of Gabrielle’s mouth when she felt herself letting go, and by the time Xena’s arm was around her back to support her, she was asleep.

***

Three hours later, Xena sat there completely focused on staying awake and listening for danger, but she still inhaled a sharp gust of breath when someone appeared directly in front of her without any warning. Thankfully, she didn’t jump out of her skin and wake Gabrielle whose cheek was still plastered against her shoulder.

“Hello, Xena.”

“Mom…” Xena gasped.

“It’s good to see you right where you belong, my child.” Cyrene’s voice was wavering and ghostly, much like her semi-transparent body. “You will never know what she has been through, Xena. Have patience.”

“I will…I mean, I’m trying.”

“I know that. I can see into both your souls now. You have learned so much. Do you remember when you prayed for Gabrielle? You prayed that the light inside her would never go out?”

“I remember, Mom.” Xena was close to tears.

“That light did go out, Xena. It went out a few years ago when she decided that living was just too difficult without you. But that light is not permanently extinguished. It can be ignited again. You must give her time and love now. Give her your full commitment and support.”

Xena reached up with irritation to brush away her tears. “Did you just come to make me feel guilty about the past?”

“No. I’m here to tell you that she is the most important thing in this life. You are destined to be together. You must remember that when you enter that cave.”

“I already figured that out.”

“I know, but you’ve been given this final chance, not just to conquer Daemonicus, but to get it right with Gabrielle too. I’ve come to help you.”

Xena heard Gabrielle mutter in her sleep, but she kept her eyes on her mother’s ghost that stood on the other side of the fire. “Where are your…um, friends?”

“They are around. We’ll be staying for a little while. Amarice is quite a powerful spirit.”

“Yes, she is. Did she bring you to us?”

Cyrene nodded. “Yes, but we had some other help. Just do as Mother tells you, and it will be fine.”

“What does that mean?”

“Just do as you’re told. Move quickly tomorrow. You must reach the base of Mount Olympus early the day after. Listen to me. I know best.”

“Really?” Xena asked with her eyebrow raised in mild disbelief.

Cyrene’s tone changed to one of light teasing. “Yes. Mothers are supposed to guide their children. I didn’t have much of a chance to do that with you in life, so I’m here to nag you now.”

Xena grinned. “See you soon then?”

“Yes, soon. Remember, move quickly tomorrow. Rest now.”

Cyrene disappeared leaving Xena with misty eyes and a new pain in her chest. She truly missed the people she loved, the people now lost to her. She realized that the person curled into her side under her left arm was the greatest gift anyone could ever receive, and they were both here. Last chance, her mother had said.

“No more mistakes. Full commitment and support,” Xena echoed. “And everything else I can give. She’s my whole life.”

“Who is?” Gabrielle asked groggily as she rubbed her eyes.

“Who do you think?” Xena retorted, one side of her mouth creeping upward.

Gabrielle blinked and looked at her, finally rising through her sleepy fog. “Oh. Me?”

“Yes, you. My whole life.”

Gabrielle smiled. “The one we’re going to have after this fight?”

“Yes. The fight we are going to win,” Xena said with a confidence she hoped wasn’t misplaced.

“We’d better.”

Xena pulled Gabrielle back to her shoulder gently, glad when she didn’t resist. “Do you remember when the Persians were coming…through Tripolis?” Xena asked as she rested her cheek on Gabrielle’s hair.

“Yes.”

“I said then that I was done with paying for my past deeds, and that my only responsibility was you. Why did I forget that?”

“Because I told you to. I told you to stay and fight that day, even if it meant my death,” Gabrielle said, realizing that they had both been willing to leave the other in the past for the greater good. “Maybe it’s time we were a little more selfish, huh?”

Xena’s eyebrow rose high on her forehead. “Maybe.”

***

Xena awoke from her nap to find Gabrielle standing guard, looking out into the forest with her katana blade resting over her shoulder. “Is there someone out there?” she said, hauling herself to her feet.

“No, it’s OK. I checked. It was just a deer.” Gabrielle turned to Xena and stifled her grin. “Uh, your hair…”

When Xena saw that tiny sparkle in Gabrielle’s eyes again, she feigned ignorance. “What? What about my hair?” she asked, making the most childlike, innocent face she could muster.

Gabrielle approached in silence and stepped up onto the rock that just happened to be in the perfect spot right in front of Xena. She reached up and pulled her fingers through Xena’s hair to flatten the rather large knot of swirls that made it stand out at a funny angle. Once she was done, she tightened her lips in a restrained smile. “Never mind. It’s gone now.”

“Huh. Thanks.”

Xena watched her walk away toward Aphrodite, while over on the other side of the fire, Eve was only just awakening. As her eyes opened, she let out a little yelp of surprise, or maybe it was shock. In front of her, Joxer suddenly sat with his legs crossed and his chin resting in one hand like he had been sitting there the whole time.

“What in the…?” Eve spluttered as she sat up.

“Hi,” Joxer said with a sympathetic look. “This is kinda awkward, huh?”

Eve was puzzled at first until she remembered why Joxer would appear as a ghost. “I…I guess it is. I’m so sorry, Joxer.”

“No, no. Don’t worry about that. You didn’t kill me. I know that now,” Joxer said gently. “That was Livia. I heard all about you from Eli. Me and him, we’re buddies. We hang out sometimes, and of course, Amarice and I are buddies too, ya know?”

“Right.”

“Listen, I just wanted to get the awkwardness and introductions out of the way because things are gonna get a little hairy from here on in. Just know that you can all trust me to help out, ‘cause I’m trustworthy, I’m big-hearty…I’m Joxer the Mighty.” Joxer jumped to his feet, combed his fingers through his gray – but short – hair, and lifted his hand in preparation of his performance. “Ohh, Joxer the Mighty, he’s very lively, even when he’s just a ghost, he’s still the one ya love the most, frolics in Elysian Fields, but comes to help when evil steals the happiness and joy from all, we’ll end the hate with love not war, I’m Joxer…Joxer the Mighty! Ohh, Joxer the Mighty…”

Joxer faded away mid-rendition, and when Eve blinked and looked round, she saw Xena and Gabrielle watching her.

Xena smiled at her as she approached. “You all right, Eve?”

“Yes,” Eve said as she got to her feet. “He really is love and forgiveness, isn’t he…?”

“Always has been, always will be.” Xena patted her shoulder before she crouched down to wake Gena who opened her eyes while grunting at the intrusion. Once she realized who was waking her, she offered an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Xena. I’ll be ready, like, now.”

“No rush. We just have a demon to kill and a world to save.”

Gena stared at her for a moment until she realized that Xena was teasing…kind of teasing. She nodded and rushed off to empty her bladder.

Xena just shook her head and helped with gathering up their gear while Aphrodite picked up the last two wineskins and hooked them onto the horse’s saddle. They had run out of water and would have to stop somewhere for refills. Gena rushed back from relieving her bladder in the bushes and wound a simple halter around her new horse’s head, forming reins out of a rope she had in her bag. Leading him over to the rock Gabrielle had stood on earlier, she jumped onto him without a problem. Thankfully, he had a long, thick mane that she could grab onto for extra stability should they need to gallop, which was a distinct possibility now that they were nearing Mount Olympus.

“Ready,” she said with a nod toward Xena.

“Let’s move out then.”

It was only an hour later that they came across a strange phenomenon running through the grasses underfoot. Xena dismounted to get a closer look. Dark streaks were winding through the land as far as the eye could see up ahead of them.

“What are they, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“I’m not sure,” Xena said as she crouched to touch the snaking lines. When her hand came away with a black, chalk-like substance coating her fingers, she frowned. “Like ashes, maybe.”

“It’s really black. Do you think it’s somehow linked to Daemonicus? I mean, like a trail or something?”

“Hmm, I don’t know.”

Eve’s eyes scanned right out to the horizon. “The lines look like…they look like veins. Up ahead, they join into each other to form thicker lines. I think we’ve come to the last leg of our journey. This is what Joxer meant.”

“You mean, about things getting hairier?” Xena asked.

“Yes.”

“I think she’s right,” Gena added. “These look like Daemonicus’s lifelines. I think the further out they go, they’ll disappear…maybe underground, so we just don’t see them. This might be how he retrieves his fallen soldiers.”

Xena was following her logic. “So you think the closer we get to Mount Olympus, these things will get darker…or become more like the black slime?”

“Not just that. You said they look like veins, Eve. I think they are veins. We should be careful in case they move.”

“You believe they could take form,” Gabrielle stated plainly.

“Maybe not take form, but they seem to be alive,” Gena confirmed.

Xena nodded before mounting the horse again. “Anything’s possible. Everyone stay more alert than ever. Let’s pick up the pace.”

Chapter 5

They were at full gallop. Gena had experienced a couple of anxious moments where she had lost her balance on her bareback horse, but for the most part she had stayed upright. Covering this much ground, they were ahead of time, and they were moving so fast that they hadn’t encountered any soldiers.

About thirty miles from the start of Mount Olympus, Gabrielle knew they’d have to stop. It was getting dark and the horses were exhausted. When she spotted a little cove surrounded by shrubbery and rocks, she pinched Xena gently on the shoulder before pointing.

“Over there…a good spot to rest, and easy to guard for the night.”

Xena agreed with a nod and led the troop toward their safe haven for the next few hours under the stars. She noticed as she dismounted that the clouds had completely cleared. The sky was beautiful tonight. It reminded her of so many nights when she and Gabrielle had stretched out on their furs and laughed as they pretended to argue about the star formations. We might be able to do that again someday, she thought with new hope for the future. This is night seven. I’ll know in three days if I even have a future. With a sigh, she waited until Gabrielle had removed the last of their meagre belongings from the saddle before untacking the horse to let it relax for a while.

Once all three equines were loosely tethered to a nearby tree, four warriors and one goddess sat on their bedrolls contemplating the dangerous and important mission they were on. Aphrodite leaned back against one of the rocks, shoulder to shoulder with Gabrielle who was checking her wounds while Xena snacked on some of the leftover pork they had from last night’s dinner. Gena was picking dirt and small stones out of the horses’ feet, and Eve was sitting scrutinizing something she held carefully in her hand.

“I wonder what PoE stands for…” she said aloud.

Xena realized she was looking at one of the armbands. “I still haven’t figured it out,” she said around a few pieces of meat. “I thought at first it might be the name of the maker, but…” She shrugged to finish her sentence.

“Where did you find these, Mother?”

“In a cluster of rocks near the base of Mount Olympus. I was returned right next to them, so I doubt they even have a maker. Something created them, otherwise they wouldn’t be here, but I think it might be something more godly than mortal.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Eve said. “Any ideas, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle stared at her for a few seconds as if she hadn’t heard her. “The O is small, right?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think it’s a name, but it does mean something.”

Eve frowned. “Something happened when Gena and I were digging the Magnador out of the ground in Amphipolis.”

Xena looked up as she passed some little pieces of meat to Gabrielle. “What?”

“Well, it was stuck fast, but when Gena managed to push it from underneath, it just…I don’t know. It just jumped straight up into my hand.”

Gabrielle did that staring thing again, her mouth halted mid-chew. “PoE…I know what it is.”

When Gabrielle just sat there chewing again, Xena gave her a good-natured glare. “Well…?”

Gabrielle offered a fleeting smile. “I know you were sent to retrieve these things, Xena, but I believe Eve is the one who is meant to use them. She is the messenger, after all.”

Xena’s eyes widened when she immediately made the connection. “The power of Eli.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle confirmed. “Eli is the way of love. He’s somehow a part of this too.”

Eve moved closer to them. “If he is, then we really do have a fighting chance.”

Aphrodite sat and listened to all this with a worried look on her face. They all knew she was a part of it too, but what she was afraid of was, what part? Her powers were disappearing, she couldn’t help defend against the soldiers, and if Daemonicus was a demon-god, she had no idea how she could help to end his reign. “This isn’t going to end well for me, is it?”

Xena tried not to react to the question for she feared Aphrodite would not like her prediction of events to come. “We don’t know what will happen, Aphrodite.”

“Right, but we’ll know tomorrow, I guess.” Aphrodite pulled some of her goddess curls around to her mouth and began to chew on them like a nervous child. Whatever happened, she had the feeling she would never be able to appear in a cloud of sparkles again.

***

It was the middle of the night, and Gena was on watch. In the moonlight, she could see the black stripes that covered the earth and curled around each other like slithering snakes. She believed that was why Gabrielle had chosen this spot to rest. They were on solid rock here: not exactly comfortable to sleep on, but a little safer than lying on Daemonicus’s filth.

Gena sighed as she got up to do a three-hundred and sixty degree rotation of their campsite. When nothing appeared out of the ordinary, she sat back down on her perch and continued to polish her sword with a rag.

On the other side of the campfire, Xena was awake but lay with her eyes closed, her hand resting on Gabrielle’s arm. While she thought about what was to happen tomorrow, she listened to every sound around her. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Gena. She just knew that Gena wouldn’t know how to really listen. She recalled the time when she had taught Gabrielle to listen, not just to the sounds, but to what’s behind the sounds. It threw her mind violently back to Jappa, and tears sprung to her closed eyes, unbidden.

Suddenly, she heard it. There was nobody rustling in the bushes, nobody running toward them, but there was a sound barely audible to the human ear.

Xena opened her eyes, and when she saw Amarice standing over Gabrielle, she only needed to say one thing. “Where?”

“Above you, on the rock,” Amarice said before she vanished into thin air.

Xena was on her feet in an instant, sword in-hand and looking up to the ledge of rock that surrounded their camp. “Gena!”

As Gena rose in response, a soldier launched himself down on top of her. Since she was already holding her sword, she managed to injure him immediately, but he came at her again and sliced clean into her thigh. She screamed out at the pain and was about to retaliate when the soldier’s head came clean off, hitting her on the shoulder before it fell to the ground.

Gabrielle’s razor-sharp responses – and her razor-sharp katana – had come to the rescue yet again. Xena was in the process of dealing with the other soldier who had tried to land directly on Aphrodite. Since Xena had managed to take off his arm in her first attempt, she didn’t have too much trouble finishing the job this time. When his headless body fell to the ground, she dragged it out of the campsite before the black slime spread everywhere. Eve and Gabrielle did the same with the other attacker while Gena held her gaping wound together to try to stop the bleeding.

“If Amarice hadn’t warned me, they would have gotten us that time,” Xena said after she had disposed of the soldiers head.

“Amarice was here?” Gabrielle asked, wiping off her katana with a grimace on her face.

“Yeah. Only for a second.” Xena handed her sword to her partner. “Could you do mine while I sew up Gena’s wound?”

“Sure. The thread is in my saddlebag, left pocket.”

Aphrodite had already grabbed the thread by the time Xena had turned around. “Hurry. There’s a lot of blood. It’s…it’s…”

Xena smirked. “Grody?”

“Yeah, totally.” Aphrodite showed her displeasure, but even as she did so she collected a piece of padding from her bag to use as a bandage. “You could use this. It’s the finest Egyptian cotton, but you need it more than I do.”

Gena forced a smile through her gritted teeth. “Thanks.”

Xena was trying to pry Gena’s fingers off her leg. “You’re gonna have to let go.”

“It really stings.”

“I know. Let me take a look.” When Xena finally got to see the wound, she hissed her inhale. “Ouch. Don’t look at it. Here…I’ll tell you a story while I do this, OK?”

Gena just nodded while Eve settled down next to her mother to push Gena’s flesh together while Xena sewed. Gabrielle stood guard with her newly cleaned katana in one hand and her chakram in the other, her sharp eyes scanning the entire area.

“Aphrodite, could you find me something to bind this with once I’ve stitched it? There should be something in the bag next to the Magnador,” Xena said.

Since Aphrodite was clutching said bag to her body, she rummaged inside and found a length of thick twine. “This will have to do. Let me know when you’re ready for it.”

“OK, a story…hmm.” Xena decided to tell the first one that came to mind, and it was actually a story about winning a fight without more bloodshed, so she thought it might be a good motivator. “Many years ago, Gabrielle and I were taking a shortcut through a warzone-”

“Of course,” Eve said under her breath.

Xena gave her a look, but she knew Eve was trying to be funny. “Anyway…we came across our friend, Ephiny, who was heavily-pregnant and hiding from the soldiers. She had been on her way to Athens to give birth, but her husband had been killed, leaving her to navigate the danger alone. It was a senseless war, men fighting over territory, as usual, but there was so much hatred in the minds and hearts of the men that they just continued to fight until their last breath. Especially the Mitoans…they were so hell-bent on killing that they were blinded to any other option. Gabrielle joked that I should stop the war…”

“Should’ve known to keep my mouth shut,” Gabrielle added before Xena continued on like she was totally expecting the input.

“And so while we helped Ephiny to a place of safety, I injured and captured a Mitoan general to put my plan into action. We reached a Thessalian healing temple not far from there. Gabrielle and I set about helping as many of the sick and injured as we could.” Xena stopped when Gena growled a little at the pain. Since she was not-so-gently sticking her needle through a particularly raw and ragged piece of skin, she apologized. “Sorry. So anyway, while Gabrielle was tending to the Mitoan general’s injuries she told him one of her stories. Not long after that, Gabrielle ventured outside to help another casualty, but while she was out there she was seriously injured. We had been saving soldiers and villagers alike, but when I saw that Gabrielle was my next patient…I got scared. What if I couldn’t save her? It was terrifying. I did my best, but it wasn’t good enough. When she stopped…breathing, I felt like my life had ended.”

Xena froze momentarily. The memory of what it had felt like to lose Gabrielle for only a few minutes hit her all over again, and she couldn’t possibly imagine losing her for ten years. She turned her head to look at her soulmate. “I’m so sorry.”

Gabrielle was already watching her. “I guess we’ve come full circle in more ways than one, huh?”

It was said with such tenderness and compassion that Xena knew without doubt that she had been forgiven. She suddenly felt to her very core just how much she had to be forgiven for. It took a quiet question from Gena to break her gaze at Gabrielle.

“What happened next, Xena?”

Xena gulped and focused back on her stitching. “I went a little crazy, thumping Gabrielle on the chest and screaming at her, but looking back, I’m so glad I did. She lived and went on to teach the general a lesson even while she recovered in sleep. She had stopped the war without more bloodshed.”

“How did she do that?” Gena asked. She had read the stories, but hearing them for real was a true gift, and it kept her mind off her painful wound.

“Something in that story she told the Mitoan general really stayed with him, and everything he experienced in the temple after Gabrielle’s words of wisdom seemed to confirm what she’d said. It taught him to see things more clearly, to see them from the other side of the battle, and to find peace in himself. She told him that life is what you make of it, and I think that started to truly sink in after Gabrielle was hurt. You see, Gabrielle always used words to make her way in the world. She is a true warrior for peace. Gabrielle is love and compassion.” Xena had almost forgotten that anyone was listening to her, and after she leaned in to cut the thread with her teeth, she looked a little sheepish. “All done. Eve, can you clean that off and wrap it?”

“Yes. Aphrodite? The twine…”

“Thank you, Xena, for fixing me up, and for the story,” Gena said sincerely.

Xena nodded and stood to make her way over to Gabrielle who was doing a visual sweep above her. Once she felt Xena next to her, she sighed.

“That was a beautifully-told story, Xena.”

“It’s all you, Gabrielle.”

“No. Those were your words,” Gabrielle said before she glanced at her and smiled. “Never saw you as a bard before. Full circle, indeed.”

“Maybe,” Xena conceded.

“Definitely. I’m standing here ready to kill anything that moves out there, and you’re almost moving me to tears with your tale of times gone by.”

“You were moved?”

“Yes. Just because you can’t see it on the outside, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it on the inside. You should know that better than anyone.”

When Gabrielle turned to her again, Xena took the opportunity to look deeply into her eyes. “You know me better than anyone.”

Gabrielle just nodded and resumed her guard duties. Xena leaned in to kiss her on the cheek and got a small smile in response, making her feel much better about their relationship. She wanted to make every day better for Gabrielle, and when they had completed their mission she intended to do just that. But right now, she silently moved back across the campsite to check on Gena.

“How you holdin’ up?”

Gena stood to prove she wasn’t going to be stopped by her injury. “I’ll be fine to continue whenever you’re ready.”

“Take a load off, Gena. We need to rest for a while.” Xena picked up her sword and began pacing back and forth slowly. “You guys sleep. Gabrielle and I will keep watch.”

***

Thankfully, the rest of the night had been quiet, and it was now the morning of day eight in Xena’s countdown. They had a fair distance to cover, but Xena was confident they would reach their destination sometime this afternoon. She suspected the chill in the air was not just winter settling in, but also their proximity to evil. She shivered and fleetingly wondered why she was the only one with her arms bared. Because I’m an idiot? Nah, because I’m tough.

Shaking her head at that train of thought, she watched as the others finished packing up their things. As she prepared the horses and gave them some water from a nearby stream, she decided she was impressed with the choices Eve had made. Two of their steeds had been carrying two humans and bulging saddlebags the entire way, and still they were ready for more when they set off on the last leg of their journey to Mount Olympus.

By the time they arrived at their final destination, they had encountered two more troops of Daemonicus’s soldiers which left all four warriors moderately injured, completely exhausted, and covered in blood, dirt, and black slime. Gabrielle had the least amount of injuries. Her older wound was healing already, and she had only received two more: a large bruise on her left temple and a deep cut to her forearm that had gone right through the coat she was wearing. Gena was still suffering from her recent leg wound and had also been slashed across the neck twice – thankfully not too seriously or she wouldn’t have been standing there right now. Eve had been close to serious injury when, in the last fight, one of the soldiers had knocked her to the ground and brought his sword down on her so quickly that she only had seconds to roll out of its path. Her hand had almost been amputated, and if it hadn’t been for Xena she might have been killed. Xena’s injuries were many, but thankfully minor. Still, every little cut she had was stinging so much that her skin felt burnt and slightly numb to the touch. But there was no time to deal with any of it right now. They had to keep moving.

Two of the entrances to the dark system of caves below Mount Olympus could be seen from the viewpoint where Gabrielle stood surveying the expanse of land between them and their next target.

“I can’t see anything moving between here and there, which makes me suspicious,” she said to Xena who was standing right behind her looking over her head.

“It makes me suspicious too. We still haven’t come across any of that elite guard Autolycus spoke of. You’d think this demon would have them right here.”

The land was still covered in the black lines, and it was clear now that they all radiated from Daemonicus’s lair, but here at ground zero there were so many lines that they almost merged into one another, covering the whole place in a dark cloak.

Gena stepped up next to Gabrielle. “They’re glistening over near the cave entrances.”

Gabrielle looked at her. “How can you see that?”

“I can’t, really. Someone told me once that the veins are full of the black lava just outside the caves. Men have tried to go in there and kill Daemonicus before, you know…but they never seem to return.”

“But we have help,” Xena said calmly. “And that help is trying to tell us something right about now.”

When she pointed out over the land, everyone saw the apparition. Ephiny was appearing and disappearing, and she moved like she was showing them the safest path to the correct entrance in the rock.

“She wants us to go now,” Gabrielle said, sensing her sister Amazon’s urgency. “Aphrodite, you stay in the middle of us all. Hold onto the Magnador, and at the first sign of real trouble, try to get yourself out of here.”

“I don’t think I can, Little One. I’ll just pray to…myself that there isn’t any trouble you can’t handle.”

Gabrielle blew out a breath. “I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get. Let’s go.”

They followed Ephiny’s lead and crossed the darkened grasses together. When they approached the beginning of a tunnel entrance they thought was the way in, Ephiny shook her head.

“There’s a better way. Only three people have found it in the past, so the soldiers won’t be guarding it.”

Gabrielle trusted her, even in spirit. She flicked her hand in the air to signal for the others to follow her, and a few minutes later they arrived at a hidden, if slightly compact, tunnel entrance.

Xena looked at it with distaste. “We have to go in there? I can barely stand up in it.”

Gabrielle bit her lip. “It does look…restrictive. We don’t have a choice though, do we?”

Xena shook her head and tried to push her worries aside. “OK. Me and you in front, Aphrodite in the middle, and Gena and Eve at the rear.” She turned to her daughter. “Whatever you do, stay close. We need to stay together.”

“You don’t need to worry about that. We’ll be right behind you,” Eve replied.

Gabrielle grasped hold of Xena’s arm. “Do you remember the last time I told you that everything had changed?”

“After Dahak…” Xena said seriously.

“You have a good memory, Xena.”

“I just remember you speaking to me in the tone of voice you just used, Gabrielle. You feel it again, don’t you?”

“Yes. Everything is about to change.”

“More than Daemonicus?”

“No matter what happens in there, the world will change.” Gabrielle seemed to lapse into a sort of trance. “And so it shall come to pass, the Messenger will bring about the Twilight of the Gods. And at its completion, love will be our guiding light.” She had said it so that only Xena would hear it, and it was another confirmation of Xena’s suspicions about Aphrodite’s purpose here.

“Gabrielle?”

“I’m fine, Xena. Something else is here…something not evil. We need to go inside now.”

As soon as she said it, both Ephiny and Amarice appeared inside the tunnel, waving their arms to invite the warriors to follow them. The tunnel was completely dark, save for the occasional break in the stone that let in a slim ray of light in at various points along the way, but as they ventured deeper into the cave system, they would have been completely blind had it not been for the torch of flames that Amarice held.

Ephiny faded out of sight, but Amarice remained and suddenly stopped them from moving forward.

“Wait,” she whispered. “Xena, throw your sword onto the ground in front of you.”

“What?”

“Just do it, Xena. Trust me.”

Xena gave a little shrug and did as Amarice had asked. When she threw her sword down, an enormous, sharp ax came flying out of a cavity in the tunnel wall and clanged loudly as it embedded itself in the opposite wall. Xena was horrified for a fleeting moment before she turned to give the ghost a nod of thanks. Amarice had just saved their lives. These tunnels were booby-trapped.

Once Xena’s heart-rate had slowed again, she looked at Amarice. “This is how he keeps the mortals out?” she asked in disbelief.

“Only in this tunnel. That’s why we chose to lead you here. The soldiers are in the main entrance. You would never have made it past them. No one really knows about this tunnel…and the people who do happen to stumble across it never make it out alive.” Amarice sent a beam of light into a small in-shot in the tunnel wall, just below where the large blade had stuck fast.

Gabrielle winced when she saw a pile of three dead bodies in various stages of decomposition. “They’re definitely not alive. Thank you, Amarice.”

“No problem. You must make it, and it’s my duty to help you. This way,” the spirit said as she moved onward.

Xena grabbed her sword off the ground and checked on the others behind her before following Gabrielle. “If you were wondering where Ephiny went, she’s right behind us,” she whispered to her partner.

“Good,” Gabrielle said in a strained whisper. “Without them, we’d be in pieces by now. It seems that this fight is important in all worlds. Gods, mortals, spirits…it’s more important than we ever imagined.”

***

An hour must have passed as they walked farther and farther through the maze of tunnels. A few more traps had been pointed out by Amarice, and set off by either Xena or Gabrielle without injury to anyone, but when they came to a crossroads in the claustrophobic tunnel system, Amarice halted the group once more.

“This one’s going to be tricky,” she said while she seemed to be doing some sort of calculation in her head. “Gabrielle, you must be at the front.”

“Why?” Gabrielle asked, genuinely curious.

“Because Ephiny will guide you through the dark here, and you will be the sister Amazon who will know the way. You must all join hands to form a chain.”

Xena was looking a little skeptical. “Is this another trap?”

“Yes,” Amarice said worriedly. “But we cannot set this one off. We can’t stop it, but we can outrun it.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.” When Amarice just shrugged, Xena sighed. “OK, just hurry.”

“You must run toward the trap quickly, then turn left into a smaller tunnel. You won’t be able to see the turn in the dark, but I know Ephiny can guide you, Gabrielle. Please believe in that.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I do…I will. Now which way?”

Amarice pointed down to the right. “Just step on the ground about two paces in to set off the trap, then run straight forward no matter what you see or hear. Turn when Ephiny tells you.”

Gabrielle nodded once again, and when they had all joined hands, she tugged on Xena to get them all to move. When she stepped on the booby-trap, a snapping sound was heard, followed by a deep, growling rumble that continued to get louder and louder.

“What in Tartarus…?” Xena said, but suddenly had to crouch and run when Gabrielle practically yanked her arm out of its socket.

Only Gabrielle and Xena could see the sparks coming off the giant, round ball of rock as it scraped the sides of the tunnel and came hurtling toward them at speed. Gabrielle briefly thought about turning and running away. It was terrifying to think that she could be running toward a certain and grizzly death, but she had to trust in what was meant to be, so she kept going until she felt a gentle breeze in her ear accompanied by the whispered words, “Turn now.”

Gabrielle immediately changed direction even though, as far as she was aware, there was nowhere to go. She ran until there was a signal to stop, and when she almost ran into the ghost of Joxer she slammed on the brakes which caused Xena to run right into her back. Aphrodite, Eve, and Gena pretty much did the same, and they all ended up in a panting bundle of people at Joxer’s feet.

“Get off me,” Xena grumped when Aphrodite’s hand landed on her face.

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” the goddess muttered as she clambered onto her knees. “This is so super unladylike.”

Xena just gave her one of those don’t-even-talk-to-me looks. “You’re the only one who isn’t covered in Daemonicus goop, so I think you’ll survive.”

Aphrodite huffed a little as she flicked some of said Daemonicus goop off her cloak.

Joxer just stood there with his arms folded until they were all on their feet again. “You made it. Be thankful for that. The tunnel behind you was blocked when you set off that trap. Didn’t wanna tell you that earlier in case you chickened out…”

Gabrielle frowned. “Not cool, Joxer. What if I had decided to turn around?”

“But ya didn’t. I knew you wouldn’t. Come on. It’s this way.”

***

As they ventured along the smaller tunnel, Xena spotted a soft light up ahead. It seemed that the ghosts had all left them now, so she and Gabrielle led their group toward the light. When they got closer, the tight tunnel began to grow in diameter until it opened out into the most enormous cavern Xena had ever seen.

“In the name of Eli…” Eve gasped as she came to stand beside her mother.

No one else spoke as they all stared at the cavern. The pure black walls were lined with torches perched high in their cradles, but what was capturing everyone’s attention was what appeared to be carved into those walls. A most devastating sight of human faces, all of them either screaming or frozen in an expression of sheer horror, greeted the warriors’ eyes no matter where they looked. The walls were also lined with the largest black veins any of them had seen yet. The veins seemed to be moving, reminiscent of a snake consuming large prey in one bite. The bulges moved along inside the veins, slowly and all in one direction.

Xena looked up and saw that the ceiling to the vast cavern was the same as the walls. The dark faces of doom seemed to dance in the dwindling light of the flames as it made its way up to touch them with its glow. It was eerie, bone-chilling, and altogether inhuman.

Gabrielle pulled her katana from its sheath. “We should follow the movement in those veins. I’m guessing that’s Daemonicus’s next meal in there, which means if we follow it we’ll find him.”

The others drew their weapons and moved when Gabrielle did, and it wasn’t long before they came into the main part of the lair. Opposite where they stood was another tunnel entrance with many veins running into it, but to their right, a raised platform of rock held the hideous sight of Daemonicus himself.

Xena’s face scrunched in disgust, but at least her prediction that he might be like Hope before she was reborn, was correct…or at least it appeared to be correct.

Daemonicus seemed to be attached to the platform, a vile creature nesting on a bed of black flames. The network of thick veins culminated all around him and fed into his vulgar form from all directions. Daemonicus himself was larger than human. He appeared to have a head, but it was so black that it wasn’t clear if there was a face to this creature of evil. Tendrils of black slime clung to the ceiling above him, oozing out of the mouths of the horrified-face carvings to drop onto Daemonicus and be absorbed by him. His torso resembled a large, dark cloak flowing into the flames below, but every few seconds the mass changed shape.

When the tightly-grouped band of warriors moved closer to him – with Aphrodite stuck in the middle and their weapons drawn – they could see what caused the changes in Daemonicus. Masses of entangled legs and disfigured arms moved and churned as if trying to escape their captor. They were distorted and stretched by the black slime that seemed to bubble out of every orifice. Daemonicus’s head was also large, black, and ghostly in its appearance. At first glance, it looked like he had no face, but as with his body, the remnants of his victims tried to make themselves known, and every now and then a new face would manifest as it rippled by and vanished behind his head.

“Gross,” Aphrodite said quietly.

“It is,” Xena agreed before a reflective glint on Daemonicus’s face caught her attention. She narrowed her eyes, and when she realized what it was, she felt a shiver run through her. “He’s watching us.”

Chapter 6

Gabrielle was about to respond to Xena’s statement when a familiar rumble could be heard in the distance. She spun to face the other tunnel’s entrance. “They’re coming. We don’t have much time. Xena, what are we gonna do? We can’t get near those flames.”

“No, we can’t.” Xena grabbed the bag from Aphrodite and pulled the armbands and the Magnador from it. After stuffing the armbands onto her wrist for safekeeping, she stopped all movement when the Magnador began to glow gently with pure white light.

Behind them, four apparitions manifested in a row, all facing Daemonicus, all glowing with that same white light.

Xena frowned. “I don’t think we need to know what to do. It has already been written.”

“Seems like it,” Gabrielle said.

Eve stared at the bands when they began to shake violently on her mother’s wrist. When the white light sparked out of them, Xena yelped.

“Ow!”

“Take them off, Mother,” Eve said anxiously.

But Xena didn’t have to take them off, and as Eve’s arms rose against her will, the armbands flew from Xena to Eve, sliding up her arms until they sat just under each shoulder. The Magnador glowed brighter, and somehow Eve knew it was time to take hold of the hilt.

Just after Eve had turned to face Daemonicus, the four ghosts of their loved ones floated off the ground. Xena just watched them until Gabrielle suddenly threw down her katana and grabbed at her own hand.

“Gabrielle!”

“Xena…I think I’m…”

Gabrielle’s right palm began to spark and spit shards of white light, and each time it did so, she winced and shied away from the brightness. She was compelled to place her palm on the back of Eve’s shoulder, and as soon as she had done it Xena’s left palm began to spark too.

Once Xena was in position behind Eve’s other shoulder, she realized they were not going to be in control of what happened next, and when the rumble of the approaching soldiers grew louder, she looked to Gena for the answer.

“Gena, you need to head them off at the entrance to that tunnel. Use the katana!”

“By myself?!”

“Yes. This is your part in all this. Hold them off until it’s done.”

Gena looked terrified, but she immediately carried out her mission without question. She grabbed the katana off the ground and ran toward the noise.

The light coming from Xena and Gabrielle’s palms shot through Eve until it came out of the PoE symbol on the front of the armbands. Eve seemed to feel no pain, and when she held the Magnador out in front of her, Xena knew it was time.

“Aphrodite! You need to move in front of Eve. Stand with your back to her!”

“Why?” Aphrodite shouted above the increasing noise, which now included Daemonicus’s moans of protest.

“Because it’s time! You must do it!”

“What’s going to happen to me, Xena?”

Xena didn’t have time to spare her feelings anymore. “We need your goddesshood! Look at the Magnador, Dite!”

Aphrodite did, and she saw it was now bursting with light that was filled with sparkles…her sparkles. “You knew this all along, didn’t you?!”

Xena was getting stressed. “I suspected, but you can yell at me later! If you don’t do this, you’ll be killed. Don’t you want to live?”

Even as Aphrodite moved into her position, she protested. “As a mortal?” she shouted.

“Yes, a mortal, but at least you’ll be alive!”

“Xena, they’re coming!” Gena screamed over the ruckus.

“It has to be now, Aphrodite!”

“Will it hurt?” the goddess asked while staring at the Magnador.

“I don’t know,” Xena said.

She didn’t get a chance to say anything else because Daemonicus created the most horrific screaming sound she had ever heard. All the faces of his victims were moving, both on the walls and on the ceiling. As they continued to scream, an almost-blinding white light appeared behind Xena and Gabrielle. They both turned to look, and higher up behind Joxer, Ephiny, Amarice, and Cyrene, stood Eli. Xena couldn’t believe it when he began to chant the words Gabrielle had said earlier.

“And so it shall come to pass, the Messenger will bring about the Twilight of the Gods, and at its completion, love will be our guiding light. And so it shall come to pass…”

Eve, seemingly in some sort of trance, began to chant over Eli’s words. “In the name of Eli and all the powers of heaven, I command this evil presence to be cast out! In the name of Eli and all the powers of heaven, I command…”

Aphrodite turned to give her back to Eve who was suddenly compelled to run the Magnador through Aphrodite’s body until the light burst from her stomach. Aphrodite threw her head back as her arms fell to her sides and the light engulfed her entire being.

Xena and Gabrielle began to sweat as the light coming from their hands grew in strength, almost burning their skin as it transferred its power to Eve.

Over at the mouth of the tunnel, Gena saw the first of the soldiers running toward her, and she braced herself for battle. She began swiping the katana left and right. She figured if she just repeated the motion with every bit of power she had left in her, that she could slice them open as they emerged in twos. There wasn’t any room in the tunnel for more than two abreast, so she knew she had to stand her ground and not let them enter the cavern or she would be doomed. The black slime sprayed across her as the first soldiers began to collapse, which would soon create a new problem. The bodies lay at her feet, merging into one another as they disintegrated, but as the pile grew higher, she realized it may not be a problem after all. The soldiers now had a smaller area to climb through, giving her the advantage. But two minutes later, she was beginning to tire. There were just so many of them, and she worried that she could not maintain her one-hundred percent kill score for much longer.

Meanwhile, behind her, the light had grown to its full power, so much so that Xena and Gabrielle had to narrow their eyes just to see anything. Eli wasn’t visible to the naked eye anymore, and the light that was surrounding Aphrodite shot out of her stomach like a lightning bolt heading directly for Daemonicus.

Daemonicus’s arm and leg appendages were projecting out of him as if they were trying to escape, not only from his hideous clutches but from the light as well. He tried to move, but in his incomplete form he was stuck to the ground where the flames climbed higher as his anger rose. The screaming got louder, but the light was just bouncing off him until Gabrielle realized they had an opportunity…the opportunity.

“Xena! Your chakram!” she shouted, using her free hand to lift her own weapon. “We need to throw them together.”

By the time she had said it, Xena was already poised to throw on Gabrielle’s command, and when she shouted “Now!” Xena used all her might to fire the chakram at Daemonicus.

Gabrielle’s throw caused the replica chakram to ricochet off a bulbous vein in the wall to the right and fly across to Daemonicus, just as Xena’s yin-yang chakram did the exact opposite, coming at him from the other side. They both whipped past one another at full velocity making two gaping wounds in Daemonicus’s torso.

When the weapon landed back in Gabrielle’s hand, she looked at Xena and said, “Again! His head!”

Xena threw in-sync with her once more, and this time they all but decapitated him. His neck – back and front – was opened up by the blades, leaving too many entry wounds for him to heal from. The light from Aphrodite poured into him, and the cavern began to shake all around them. At the exact moment the cavern had started shaking, Eve vibrated into two beings, and Xena and Gabrielle watched in amazement as Callisto seemed to appear, sharing the space with Eve’s body and shrouding her in the light. With the power of them all magnifying the love, Daemonicus began to melt.

The screams were chilling, the smell was appalling, and the sight was one neither Gabrielle nor Xena ever wanted to see again. Adult’s and children’s faces were stretching out of the cavern’s walls like they were dying all over again. The veins covering the walls began to burst and deposit their tar-like contents all over the floor until the warriors were standing in large puddles of it, and Daemonicus made the sounds of a demon and beast combined as he lost his form and was consumed by the light.

The soldiers began to die right in front of Gena’s eyes, and she lowered the katana since her work seemed to be done. As she backed away, the pile of bodies and slime spread out at her feet, and she wiped her face to clear it of that same slime before she turned to check on her friends.

As the cavern continued to shake violently, the ceiling crumbled, eventually making a deep and penetrating hole that led to the outside world. A bright beam of sunlight entered and shone directly onto Aphrodite as she continued to trap the Magnador within her.

Eve seemed to snap out of her trance, but she didn’t dare move her hand until she realized that she was only holding the hilt of the Magnador. The glass vessel had now disappeared.

With Eli and the other apparitions still glowing with love, Aphrodite opened her eyes to find that she was alive. There was no hole in her body where the Magnador had been, and she turned to see Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve all staring at her.

The tremors throughout the cavern ceased, and the glow from the ghosts faded until they were at normal levels again. Xena and Gabrielle could now remove their hands from Eve’s shoulders, and they quickly grabbed their daughter and Aphrodite in a hug. When Gena approached, they gathered her into the circle too.

“I’m…I’m alive,” Aphrodite said in a muffled, shaky voice.

When Xena released everyone, they remained in a small circle amid the filthy carnage. “You are.”

Aphrodite rubbed her hand over her own arm then wiggled her body a little. “I’m mortal.”

Xena smiled at her slight look of alarm. “I’m afraid so, but you’re here, Aphrodite. We didn’t want to lose you.”

The ex-goddess looked up at her. “I know. I’m glad to be here.”

“And we are glad too, Aphrodite,” Eli said, making them all turn around to face their guardian angels. “You have succeeded like I knew you would, Gabrielle,” he added as he lowered his ghostly form to the ground.

“Eli,” Gabrielle gasped as tears sprung to her eyes.

“And Xena,” he said, smiling warmly at her. “You have returned. There is much you have learned, and I hope you know now that Gabrielle was right to let me die.”

Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder and said, “Gabrielle was always right. I finally understand that.”

Joxer came forward to stand in front of Gabrielle. “I knew you could do it, Gabby. Even after everything you’ve been through and with everything you carry in your heart, you are still full of love. I miss you.”

“I miss you too, Joxer. I miss all of you,” she said, looking around at them. “We couldn’t have done this without you.”

Eli nodded. “We couldn’t have done it at all if every person in this cave wasn’t here. It was meant to be this way.”

Joxer moved over to Xena. “I miss you too, Xena.”

“Believe it or not, Joxer…same here,” she replied with a playful grin.

“Well, I’ll always be right here,” Joxer said as he poked at her heart.

Xena gave him her watch-out glare when he repeatedly touched her breast, but he just chuckled.

“I can poke you if I want to. Ya can’t kill me now,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Eli just shook his head in a tolerant sort of way. “And now we must go…”

“Mom,” Xena said as she reached out to Cyrene.

“I must go too, Xena. Just know I’ll always be with you. I love you girls so much.”

“We love you too.” Xena almost choked on her words as she tried to hold back her cries. She was overwhelmed with emotion, and she didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Gabrielle must have sensed it because she slipped her arm around Xena’s waist just as the ghosts faded into nothing. The looks of love on Ephiny and Amarice’s faces brought tears to Gabrielle’s eyes too.

“They’re gone,” Gena whispered.

Gabrielle nodded and patted her on the shoulder. “You did good, Gena.”

“I feel like I hardly did anything.”

“You’re wrong. We couldn’t have performed that…whatever it was…if all of those soldiers had come in here. You did a lot.”

“It was my pleasure,” the young warrior replied with a smile. “My duty.”

Eve lifted her hand that still held onto the hilt of the Magnador. “So this thing was magical?”

“It appears that way,” Xena said, removing one of the bands from Eve’s arm and studying it. “A gift from Eli…”

“We should keep these as souvenirs then.”

“Good idea.” Xena sighed and spun on her heels to look around the cavern. It seemed lighter now that there was a hole in the ceiling and Daemonicus’s slime was evaporating, but they still had to find a way out. “Do you think we could get out through that tunnel, Gena?”

“Yes. The soldiers have, uh, melted. And I have to assume the angels wouldn’t have left us if there were more traps.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. “Hmm. If the soldiers came in that way, I think we’ll be safe enough.”

Xena crinkled her nose. “Even so, I’ll go first, and we’ll all keep our eyes open.”

With the entire group in agreement – and Aphrodite still prodding at her mortal body – they headed through the tunnel to hopefully begin their journey home to Amphipolis.

***

The sun was indeed shining bright as it sunk down toward the horizon for another night. They had completed their mission in plenty of time, but Gabrielle wouldn’t fully relax until day ten was over and she could still hold Xena in her arms the next morning. She would not simply take it for granted that Xena was all right now that Daemonicus was defeated. She would never trust Ares that much.

As they walked away from Mount Olympus, Gena was deep in thought. “So we’ve defeated the evil and there are no gods left. What do we do now?”

“Whatever we want, I suppose,” Xena said as she stopped to scratch her horse’s nose affectionately. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be more evil in the future. Just like Dahak and Alti and Indrajid, and many others before him, Daemonicus won’t be the last. Evil will just come around again in a different form. And there will still be ambrosia somewhere, and someone who wants to seek it out and abuse the power it holds, so there will no doubt be new gods, new battles to be fought, and new people to be helped in the future.”

“And I’ll be there to do it,” Gena said with a nod. “I think after we go home for a while, I’ll travel…see if I can be a warrior for the greater good, just like you both were. If I’m really lucky, I’ll find a strong companion to keep me grounded, keep me focused, just like you did for Xena, Gabrielle.”

Xena’s lip trembled as she felt that pesky emotion filling her heart again. “There’s no one like Gabrielle, but maybe…maybe you’ll find someone who fits you just as perfectly as she fits me.”

Gabrielle turned slowly to look at her, but when Xena didn’t make eye contact, she knew it was taking all of her strength just to keep from crying in front of her protégé.

“I hope I do.” Gena said as she began to walk ahead.

Aphrodite pursed her lips and creased her mortal forehead. “So what do I do now?”

“You live your life, Dite,” Gabrielle said kindly. “I bet there’s so much good you could do on Earth. Why don’t you come back to Amphipolis and take some time to figure out what you want?”

“I guess I could…”

Eve had heard the conversation. “You can stay with us,” she suggested. “There’s always your old room. It’s yours for as long as you need it.”

“There ya go,” Xena said. “Take some time out. Relax and settle into your new existence.”

“I’ll try.”

“Hey,” Gena suddenly looked puzzled. “Won’t we all go a little crazy now…I mean, what will people believe in now that there are no gods?”

“Perhaps Eli’s teachings can help lead the way,” Eve suggested.

“Perhaps,” Gabrielle agreed. “Or perhaps we can all start to believe in ourselves…and each other,” she added while looking at Xena.

“I like that idea,” Xena said, her eyes captured by Gabrielle’s. “We could believe in the power of love too.”

Gabrielle nodded. “The power of love.” She paused for a moment and broke her contact with Xena. “Hey, guys. Would you mind if Xena and I took a different route back to Amphipolis? I think we need some time.”

“Not at all,” Eve said, with Gena and Aphrodite nodding along beside her. “Take all the time you need. We’ll see you at home.”

Xena approached her daughter. “I love you, Evie.”

“Aww, you haven’t called me that before.”

“Actually, I have. You were just too young to remember,” Xena said quietly. “Be careful on your journey back. Take care of Aphrodite. I think she’s a little fragile right now.”

“I still have the power to hear, you know, Xena,” Aphrodite said with a pout. “But yes, I do feel a little strange.”

“That’ll pass,” Gabrielle piped in. “We’ll see you guys later.” She gave each of them a hug and waited until Xena had done the same.

As the three women waved, Xena and Gabrielle set off with their horse toward a worn track that ran back toward the winding road to Amphipolis.

“If we walk a few hours that way, we should find somewhere to settle before it gets dark,” Xena suggested.

“Sounds good…and we can take our time, right?”

“Yes. You know what I want most right now?”

Gabrielle knew it would be something basic. “A nice clean river to wash the slime off?”

Xena gawked at her. “Yes! Let’s find one and camp right next to it for the night. I think I’ll steep until I go wrinkly.”

“I think I’ll join you.”

Xena smiled as Gabrielle picked up the pace a little. It seemed they couldn’t wash Daemonicus off their bodies soon enough.

***

By nightfall, they hadn’t found their river, but they were warmed up next to a roaring campfire together. Xena had been so relieved when Gabrielle stretched out beside her on the furs. The stars were out tonight, making the air crisp with a frost that would blanket the recovering ground by tomorrow morning. Gabrielle wasn’t worried about that. She knew she wouldn’t sleep much anyway, and so would be able to stoke the fire to keep the cold at bay.

“Dinar for your thoughts?” Xena said, breaking the silence.

Gabrielle inhaled deeply and snuggled down into her coat. “I’m just thinking about everything that happened in that cave. It was so unreal. The power of love is truly amazing.”

“It sure is,” Xena responded in a whisper.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah. Just happy to be here with you.”

“Me too.”

For a short while, there was only the crackling of the fire until Xena voiced her thoughts aloud.

“I wonder what will actually happen now that the gods are gone. And what happened to Celesta?”

Gabrielle had somehow been given that information. “I’ve come to understand that Celesta entombed herself.”

“How do you know that?” Xena asked as she turned on her side so that she could watch Gabrielle as she spoke.

“Eli. I heard him in my head. He told me she did it after Apollo was killed. She feared that Daemonicus would get her next and put out her flame. She didn’t want the world to suffer without the release of death, so she entombed herself with her candle. Nobody knows where…”

“Wow. I bet Eli does.”

Gabrielle gave a tiny nod. “Well, I’m glad he’s keeping that to himself. At least death will always be a part of life. That’s the way it’s meant to be.”

Xena could hear the anxiety lingering under her words. “Are you still worried, Gabrielle?”

“About what?”

“About death still being a part of life? Do you think I’m going to leave you again?”

Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly as if to stop her tears. “I won’t stop worrying until your ten days are over, Xena. I can’t help it.”

“Is that why you suggested taking our own route back to Amphipolis?” Xena asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. I don’t expect you to understand-”

“But I do understand,” Xena interrupted. “I do, Gabrielle. I don’t know how to explain to you that I feel different, but I know that I will do whatever I can to lessen your fear. We can stay here for the whole two days if you want.”

Now Gabrielle turned on her side to face Xena. “No. We’ll keep moving toward home, but I can’t let you out of my sight.”

“I told you, that’s fine with me.”

Gabrielle could see those blue eyes struggling to stay open. “Get some sleep now, Xena. We can tend to our injuries in the morning.”

Xena slid her hand up to link her arm with Gabrielle’s. “Don’t let go.”

“I won’t,” Gabrielle responded with a loving smile. “Rest.”

Once Xena had closed her eyes, Gabrielle remained awake, watching her and thinking about what tomorrow might bring. She wondered if this could really be how their lives would continue. She desperately wanted to let go of her anguish now, and it seemed she was almost there. She needed to know that Xena was back for good. Then, and only then, could she truly live.

***

At some point during the night, Gabrielle had succumbed to her exhaustion, but when a bird squawked high up in the trees above, she jerked awake to find Xena looking right back at her.

“Good morning.”

Gabrielle blinked a few times to soften the grittiness of sleep. “Morning.”

“That bird woke you, didn’t it? If I had my chakram at the ready, I would’ve got him for breakfast.”

“That’s OK. I’m not that hungry,” Gabrielle said, rising up to lean on her elbow. “You know, we haven’t heard birds in…in ages.”

“They probably all flew off to distant lands when Daemonicus came to be,” Xena said as she got up to relieve herself. “I’ll, uh, be right behind this bush.”

Gabrielle almost laughed at the funny look on her face. “That’s fine. I don’t need to have you in my sight while you pee, Xena.”

“Well, thank the gods…I mean, thank you, for that.”

“Me?”

“There are no gods, so yeah, I’ll thank you instead.”

“OK,” Gabrielle quipped as she scanned the area for berries. “Not much here in the way of breakfast. We should go find a river, and you can fish for a bit.”

“Sounds…normal,” Xena answered with a smile. “I’ll cook you up something great. I bet you’ll get an appetite then.”

Gabrielle was stuck on the word ‘normal.’ This did feel almost normal, and she was overwhelmed with gratitude just to have this moment with Xena. But then she remembered that day ten was not over yet, and her face darkened again. Xena saw it. She could see that Gabrielle was too freaked out to truly feel her happiness.

Tomorrow couldn’t pass quickly enough for Xena. Then Gabrielle would know the truth.

***

The sun had melted all the frost by the time they had found water. The discovery of a lake had Xena practically salivating at the thought of being clean. They had loosely tethered their horse again, and were now getting ready to bathe. Xena had already stripped off by the time Gabrielle had removed her boots.

“I can’t wait to get rid of the stink,” Xena said, making Gabrielle look up from her task.

With her mouth hanging open, Gabrielle’s answer stuck in her throat. “I…you…look amazing. I mean, I didn’t expect…I mean…you have injuries, but you…”

“There’s a sentence in there somewhere,” Xena said as she lowered herself under the freezing water. She sucked in a sharp breath through her teeth. “Wow, it’s cold. Quick wash for me.”

When Gabrielle continued to stare at her face, Xena grinned. “You’ve seen me naked a million times before, Gabrielle. Snap out of it.”

“B-but it’s different now.”

“It’s only different if we make it different. I’m the same person. I promise.” Xena scrubbed her body as quickly as possible with a rag. “You got any soap?”

Gabrielle finally got up and whipped her clothes off. “No. Just water will have to do this time.” She didn’t fail to notice Xena’s eyes following her every move as she entered the lake. “Quit staring.”

“No way. You stared at me.” Xena watched as Gabrielle fought to hide her smile. She knew she would see the full version of that smile very soon. “Well, I’m now an icicle, so I’ll see ya back at the fire.”

“I’ll b-b-be r-r-right there,” Gabrielle replied through chattering teeth. When she got back to the fire, Xena had it stoked to a roaring blaze and was standing holding Gabrielle’s garments up to dry them. “You washed my clothes?”

“Yeah. Here…” Xena was already wrapped in one of their furs, so she threw the other one over to Gabrielle who enveloped her cold body inside it.

“Thanks.” Gabrielle sat there and shook for a short while, and once her teeth had stopped clattering together, she looked up at her beautiful partner. “Sorry about the way I reacted to your nakedness. I don’t know what I was expecting. I know you’re the same person, Xena. It just seems so different to me. It’s like we have to start all over again.”

Xena laid the clothing out next to the fire and came to sit beside her. “We just have to remember what we had in the past. We know each other too well to start all over again. Want me to tell you some stories to jog your memory?”

“My memory is fine, but maybe later with the stories,” Gabrielle said as she gazed at the flames. “I keep wondering why our journey has taken this turn.”

“It’s been a difficult journey up until now. Maybe it will be easier from here on, and we can become something new, something happier.”

“But maybe the journey isn’t about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t who we are, so we can be who we were meant to be in the first place.”

“Like…the people we were meant to be before all the violence changed our lives?”

“Yes. Or even before that too. We should just stop doing what we think we’re supposed to do, and actually do what we feel like doing. I think we’ve paid our dues, Xena. We should be able to live for us now.”

Xena was stunned into silence since she had been thinking the same thing for days now. She stared stupidly at Gabrielle.

“Xena? You OK?” Gabrielle asked as she reached up to feel Xena’s forehead.

“Would…would you believe it if I said that I had been thinking that exact same thing recently, but I thought it was too selfish of me to want something just for us?”

Gabrielle sighed. “Yes, I would believe you. And I think it’s time for us to be a little selfish. I told you that. We’ve sacrificed enough for the greater good. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“I agree, and I promise that after tomorrow night, we’re going to start living that life…if you’ll have me.”

Gabrielle just grinned at her. “After tomorrow night, well, maybe I’ll get some real sleep.”

“You will. I’m not going anywhere.”

“We’ll see.”

Gabrielle stared back into the flames, and Xena did the same, knowing that it didn’t matter what she said because Gabrielle would have to see it for herself.

***

The next day passed pleasantly enough. Gabrielle was on edge for most of it, but Xena was doing her best to make her laugh, or at least feel like she wanted to laugh. They traveled a little farther and found a great spot to set up camp again, but by the time darkness fell Gabrielle was very quiet and very serious. Xena knew she was afraid, so she pulled their bedrolls even closer together. She wanted to hold Gabrielle tonight, no matter what.

An hour later, when Gabrielle seemed reluctant to lie down, Xena stood up and walked around the fire to take her by the hand. “Come on. We can lie and talk for a while.”

“I’m scared,” Gabrielle whispered once they were on the furs.

“I know. I wish I could take those fears away, Gabrielle. I know you’re not going to believe me, but things are going to be all right.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

Xena pulled her gently into her arms and smiled to herself when Gabrielle moved closer to hold onto her. “I do know that for sure. I know everything.”

“Hah,” Gabrielle took the bait. “You do not know everything.”

Xena, glad that she had managed to lighten the mood for a moment, went with it. “I totally do.”

“You don’t know everything, Xena.”

“Of course I do.”

Gabrielle racked her brains to think of a time when Xena had been wrong. “Ah. OK. You said you always knew the way of the warrior was not for me.”

“When did I say that?”

“When we were in India,” Gabrielle said triumphantly.

“Nothin’ wrong with your memory, huh?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I’ll give ya that one. What else ya got?”

“Um…” Gabrielle pulled at her lip for a moment. This was serious. She had to prove her point. When she thought of something, she pushed her face closer to Xena until her head was under her chin. “You once told me that people in our line of work never get to be old and gray.”

Xena gently slapped the back of Gabrielle’s shoulder. “We’re not there yet, but I’d be happy to be wrong in that one. I want to be old and gray with you.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Gabrielle said around a yawn that she just couldn’t stop.

“Try to get some sleep, Gabrielle. It’ll be morning soon enough.”

“I’m not going to sleep, Xena. Not letting you out of my sight, remember?”

“I remember,” Xena said softly, but she knew Gabrielle’s exhaustion would take over. She was right.

Chapter 7

The feeling of utter panic from Gabrielle’s nightmare bled into her waking state, and when she opened her eyes to find Xena gone, her heart seemed to stop in her chest. She launched herself to her feet and was about to scream out at the top of her lungs when Eli suddenly appeared before her.

Gabrielle was beyond upset. “No. Please tell me you didn’t take her. Please!”

“Calm down, Gabrielle,” Eli said, his face full of compassion and love. “She’s just over there answering the call of nature. I’ve come to tell you that it’s over. You can release your nightmares and stop feeling the pain of not knowing. Xena is staying with you. I hate to see you agonize over this, so this is my gift to you. You have my promise, she is not leaving. She is alive.”

Gabrielle broke down in tears. “Do you really promise?”

“It is the truth. I give my love to you both. Be happy, Gabrielle. Goodbye, my friend.”

“Goodbye, Eli. We love you.”

“I know,” Eli said as he vanished in a hazy cloud.

Gabrielle sniffed hard, but she couldn’t stop crying now that his words were sinking in. When Xena returned a moment later, she found her on her knees.

“Gabrielle. What happened?”

“Oh, Xena!” Gabrielle jumped up and grabbed hold of her as tightly as she could. “You’re really here.”

Xena pushed her back a little to look at her face. “I told you I would be. I didn’t expect you to be awake so early. You were completely exhausted. I was desperate to pee, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten up. I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize anymore. Everything is OK now.”

“It is?”

“Yes. Eli told me so. You really are here to stay,” Gabrielle said as she rubbed the tears off her eyes and nose. “Gods, I must look a mess.”

“You’ve never looked more beautiful.” Xena got a response that was more than she could have hoped for: the biggest smile Gabrielle had allowed herself in years. “And now you are even more beautiful,” she added while brushing Gabrielle’s bangs out of her eyes.

Gabrielle stared at her for long moments. She finally had a sense of certainty about their future. “We can go home now, right?”

“We can do anything you want. I’m here to cater to your every need,” Xena said before she kissed her on the forehead.

“No. You’re here so that we can take care of one another. That’s how it has to be from now on. No more running off alone. No more hiding things from each other. No more-”

“I get the picture, Gabrielle.”

“No, you don’t. I’m talking about both of us, Xena. We’ve both made mistakes in the past. We need to learn from them.”

“I think we have. I had ten years to think of nothing but my mistakes. I won’t make them again. I love you, and I’m staying right here.”

Gabrielle hadn’t said those three little words to Xena in so long that she almost stumbled over them. “I…I love you too.”

“That’s all I need to know. Now we can go home.”

Gabrielle just nodded, her mind still processing the fact that it was all turning out the way she had always wanted. Once she had hugged Xena again for good measure, they began to walk hand-in-hand along the road, leading their horse toward Amphipolis.

***

Two blissful days later, Xena and Gabrielle were approaching the beginning of the Amazon forest. Just like the last time they had passed by here, something was moving swiftly among the trees. Xena narrowed her eyes to watch. She knew Gabrielle had seen it too because she had her chakram in her hand, just in case.

“Amazons,” Gabrielle said as she popped her chakram back on its hook.

“Yeah, but why aren’t they coming to see us?” Xena said as she scrunched her face. “It looks like they’re running away…toward Amphipolis.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “I hope everything was OK after we left.”

“I think its fine. I just heard them laughing. I have a feeling we’re going to be welcomed back in fine style.”

“A party?” Gabrielle posed with a huge smile on her face.

“Something like that,” Xena grumbled. “I hate surprises.”

“Aww, come on, Xena. I’m sure you could survive it this one time.”

Xena pretended to growl a little, and she held the grumpy expression quite well until Gabrielle jumped in front of her, stopping her in her tracks.

Gabrielle rose up on her tiptoes and kissed Xena on the chin. “You might enjoy it?”

Xena remained strong and narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle. She wasn’t fooling anyone, though.

“Just for me?” Gabrielle said, fluttering her eyelashes and smiling sweetly.

Xena wanted to continue her act just to see Gabrielle being so playful. It was a huge difference to when they had first been reunited. Xena wanted it to last forever, but when Gabrielle started making funny faces and wiggling her eyebrows, she caved. “Anything for you.”

“Yes!” Gabrielle punched her fist in the air before she pulled Xena into a walk again. “If we galloped the rest of the way, we could beat them back to Amphipolis…but I’d rather make them wait. I’m enjoying this walk with you.”

“Not as much as I’m enjoying it,” Xena said casually.

“So competitive.”

Xena grinned and let Gabrielle swing their joined hands as they strolled along the road. “A quick stop for lunch soon?”

“Yeah. Then we can be home for dinner.”

“Getting your appetite back then?”

“Perhaps. I think it was more a complete lack of interest before, rather than a lost appetite.”

Xena felt a pang of pain in her chest. “I’m sorry for-”

“Nope,” Gabrielle interrupted. “No more apologizing for the past, Xena. We are looking to the future, a future where we’ll laugh, cry, eat, sleep, breathe, and build a home together. Deal?”

Xena couldn’t argue with any of that. She didn’t want to, either. “Deal.”

***

As they neared the edge of town, they heard the low, rumbling drumbeat of an Amazon celebration. Since dusk was fast approaching, the lights could be seen in the distance, glowing from the windows of the houses and from the torches lining the streets. A chorus of laughter was occasionally heard when the crowd’s excitement escalated.

Since their first sighting of the Amazons in the forest, Xena and Gabrielle had spotted three more teams of spies along their path home. It seemed their arrival would be well announced.

Xena didn’t care that a surprise party was potentially on the cards. All she cared about was that the people were happy, that they seemed to have survived the soldiers who had been heading for the town, and that Amphipolis was thriving in the aftermath of Daemonicus. She hoped the rest of their homeland was celebrating too, and cleaning up the mess left by the fallen soldiers of darkness.

When Xena turned to look at Gabrielle, she saw that she had a contented smile on her face. There was nothing else Xena needed in this new life she had been given. If Gabrielle was happy, she would be too.

“You ready for this?” Gabrielle asked, oblivious to Xena’s musings.

“Definitely. Let’s act all surprised, though. I wouldn’t want to disappoint them.”

“Aww, look at you getting into the party spirit,” Gabrielle teased.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

They found some stables in the first street, and when they went inside to relieve their tired horse, the blacksmith’s assistant welcomed them.

“Hi. I’m Phalmus. Welcome to…” His face suddenly went pale. “Oh…you’re Gabrielle! Oh, welcome, welcome. And you?! You’re Xena!”

“Uh, yes,” Xena said, extending her hand.

Phalmus shook it nervously. “Please, let me deal with your horse. You should go and replenish yourselves after such an arduous journey.”

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and looked at Xena. “I guess we should?”

“Uh-huh. Thanks, Phalmus.”

“Anytime, anytime,” he replied, bowing repeatedly until they left.

“That was weird,” Xena said as they headed for Eve’s house.

“Not really, Xena. We just saved the world…well, Greece, at least. Not sure how much farther Daemonicus had reached, but here, the people will be very grateful. Stories travel fast, you know.”

“Oh, I know.”

The drumming was much louder as they turned the last corner, and the sight that greeted them was one full of color and warmth. The Amazon dancers continued to move to the beat, but they were watching Xena and Gabrielle as they walked into the crowd. People all around them welcomed them home, and thanked them for bringing about a new era – an era without the Greek gods, and without the blight of Daemonicus. Both warriors simply nodded since everything was quite overwhelming, but as they entered the town square, Gabrielle stopped walking when she saw the large statue. She had found Xena under that statue in the storm that night, but she hadn’t been able to see who the statue was honoring.

“It’s Eli,” she said with wonder. “It was all Eli.”

Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder. “I think we could take a guess at who Ares made his deal with then.”

“You think he went to Eli?” Gabrielle asked loudly since the noise level was rising as the excited chatter increased.

“I’d say he realized Eli’s power and knew that he was the way of love. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Gabrielle looked back up at the statue. “I suppose it does.”

“Xena! Gabrielle!”

It was Autolycus, but he wasn’t twirling on his moustache or trying to look suave like the old days. He ran his hand nervously through his graying hair and marched toward them before grabbing both of them in a huge bear hug. Both Xena and Gabrielle hugged him in return, and he didn’t let go until Xena began to squirm.

“It’s amazing. It’s just amazing,” he said, looking them up and down. “I guess you two are truly indestructible.”

Xena gave him a half-smile. “We do make quite a team.”

“It’s good to see you, Autolycus,” Gabrielle added. “We have time to catch up now. Did everything go all right here after we left?”

Autolycus signaled for them to follow him to a quieter spot. “We got everyone out of Amphipolis, yeah, but we knew the elite guard was on its way to find Aphrodite, so we set a false trail.”

“Who’s we?” Xena asked.

“Me, and a few other guys…and my wife.”

Gabrielle’s eyes popped open wide. “The King of Thieves settled down?”

“Aw, quit that, will ya? I’m an old man now. And yes, I’ve settled down. Right here, actually.”

“Did everyone come back to Amphipolis?” Xena was amazed that they were all in her home town.

“Not everyone,” Autolycus said, giving Gabrielle a wink. “But you’re both here now. Anyway, we set the false trail using Kara…that’s my wife…as a stand-in for Aphrodite. We knew the soldiers were coming on foot, so we took a few horses and put ourselves right under their noses. I shouted, “Oh, no! We need to get Aphrodite out of here,” and they fell for it. Stupid bags of slime. I don’t know how in Tartartus they managed to kill gods.”

“The elite guard killed the last of the gods?” Xena still couldn’t figure out how Daemonicus could do all this.

“Yeah. Once Aphrodite had killed her brother, his sword and the Hindsblood dagger were lost on Olympus. The elite guard soldiers somehow got possession of both, and they killed the few gods that were left…after Daemonicus had weakened them by eating their followers, of course.”

“Of course,” Gabrielle said as if it was plainly obvious.

“Anyway, that’s why they were after the Goddess of Love. She was the last one.” Autolycus looked seriously at them both. “To be honest, I think your mission to protect Aphrodite was even more important than your mission to kill Daemonicus.”

“You’re probably right, Autolycus,” Xena replied. “Aphrodite was a vital part of our mission, and if it was Eli’s mission all along then everything about it was love.”

“And who is more love than the Goddess of Love herself?”

“Exactly,” Gabrielle said with a nod. “And speaking of…where is she?”

“Ah. She’s at the old inn with Eve, Gena, and my lovely Kara. They’re making a feast…uh, the surprise feast. Oops. Anyway, it’s strange to see Aphrodite all mortal and everything, but she seems to be adjusting OK.”

As they headed toward Eve’s house, Xena watched her old friend as he told them about how things had changed after they both left ten years ago. She was heartened to see that Gabrielle could both listen to, and speak about, the bad times back then without as much pain in her eyes now. Xena knew that it would lessen more over time. She vowed to herself that they would talk it all through: all the mistakes, all the anguish, all the difficult decisions, and she wanted to hear about everything that Gabrielle had done over the past decade. She knew the stories would fill her life for the next few years, and she looked forward to it immensely.

“Xena? What do you think?”

“Uh, sorry. I was thinking about something else.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Oh well, I’ll just have to do it all by myself.”

Damn, Xena thought. What did I miss? She lowered her eyebrows and searched in Gabrielle’s eyes. “Tell me…”

Gabrielle started to laugh, and once Xena got over the emotion of seeing that, she put her hands on her hips.

“Come on, Gabrielle.”

“I was teasing. We were just talking about Amphipolis, but I saw you phasing out and thought…” She gave a shrug and walked in the door behind Autolycus.

Xena followed, shaking her head and rolling her eyes.

***

In the great room, a long table was set with decorations running along the center, and candles all around the room lighting up every corner. A tree had been placed near the fireplace, and it looked like the children of Amphipolis had made decorative baubles to hang on it.

A tall brunette came out of the kitchen, her hands filled with a platter of food, piled high. It was Kara, and Autolycus took great pleasure in introducing her to his two warrior friends. Warm greetings were exchanged with Eve, Aphrodite, and Gena, and just as they were about to sit down to dinner, the door opened and in walked Queen Varia…on her own, with no entourage.

“Hey. Did I miss anything?” she asked, smiling at Xena and Gabrielle before she gave them a genuine hug.

“Not much,” Eve said sarcastically. “Here. Saved you a seat.”

Xena and Gabrielle watched as Varia moved around the large table and deposited her cloak and weapons on a chair against the wall, but they downright gawked when she hugged Eve and gave her a peck on the cheek. Was it just a peck on the cheek? Xena watched closer as the two exchanged a few words in a whisper while gazing into one another’s eyes. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

“So, uh, Varia. You went from trying to kill my daughter to…?”

The way she had said it made everyone laugh. She was glad it was taken that way, but she also really wanted to know what was going on.

Varia answered honestly. “Loving her? Yes, Xena. People change. I know you did.” She watched Xena’s expression darken. “Please don’t challenge me to any sort of dual right now. I’ve had a long week.”

Now Xena laughed a full belly-laugh like never before. “I…I don’t want to fight you, Varia. I just don’t believe it. Gabrielle, do you believe it?”

“Sure. Us warrior types can be quite charming once you get to know us,” Gabrielle said as she served herself some potatoes.

“It won’t be a problem, will it, Mother?” Eve asked a little more seriously.

“Never. I’m so glad you’re happy, Eve.”

Varia seemed to flop back into her seat. “Phew. Now, can we eat this delicious meal before it cools?”

Xena glanced out the side of her eye at Gabrielle. “I think we should eat this delicious meal before Gabrielle finishes it.” She got a nudge in the ribs for that, but it only made her snort out a laugh.

“Ale, Mother?” Eve asked, holding out a large tankard.

“Now you’re talking.”

Everyone began serving up the various types of food, passing the plates around the table until they were all ready to start eating and catch up with Gabrielle. The chatter was intermittent and in a moment of silence, Aphrodite’s gentle voice broke the quiet.

“Thank you.”

“Aphrodite…?” Xena said with her eyebrow curled in the usual fashion.

“I said, thank you. I’m not sure if I told you that I appreciate everything you did. I mean, I’m still here.”

“You’re welcome. And I told you, we didn’t want to live without you.”

“Even if I’m mortal?”

“Even if you’re mortal,” Xena and Gabrielle said in unison.

Aphrodite gave a small nod of gratitude, and after an unseen wave of love swarmed around the room, she asked for the platter of ham and proceeded to serve herself two slices.

It ended up being an evening filled with interesting talk, good food, and even better company, and afterwards they all wandered outside to finish off the crisp and chilly night with the Amazon party-goers before Xena and Gabrielle retired to their room, sleepy and contented.

“I wish I hadn’t eaten so much,” Gabrielle mumbled into the colorful blanket that covered the bed. “I’m not used to it yet.”

Xena lay down on her side next to her and pulled her body close, placing her hand on Gabrielle’s softly rounded belly. “Feels fine to me.”

Gabrielle could barely open her eyes. She felt so full, so sleepy, and more at peace than she had done in years. “You’d better hope I don’t continue this way. You’ll have a chubby Gabrielle on your hands.”

“Wouldn’t bother me one bit…”

“Well it would bother me, so you’d better keep me on a sparring schedule for the rest of our lives.”

Xena chuckled. “I can do that, but right now I’m going to grab those two shifts that Eve left for us. Then we can get some serious shuteye.”

“As long as you’re holding me, Xena…”

“All night long, Gabrielle.”

***

The next four days were spent reconnecting with their family and friends, sharing tales with the Amazons who came into town frequently, and relaxing in long baths and warm beds. Xena and Gabrielle had decided to live somewhere near Amphipolis, and after Gabrielle got over the shock of Xena wanting to truly settle down, she started planning what animals they might have, and what they would do in their new home.

On the fifth day after their return, Xena and Gabrielle did something they never thought they would do. It was early morning, and since the sun was shining on this fine winter’s day, they decided on a fishing trip. It turned into a day of hunting, fishing, and relaxing by the lake with Eve, Varia, Gena, Autolycus, and Kara. Xena usually preferred it to be just her and Gabrielle, but this trip turned out to be a lot of fun. She realized these people were now her extended family, and she found that she was just fine with that, although it did remind her of the family she had lost. She wondered where Toris had ended up. Maybe they would find him one day. At least she could always visit the graves of her younger brother and her mother, and that same night, she and Gabrielle went to the shrine where Cyrene and Lyceus were buried.

“We have a lot to thank her for,” Gabrielle said quietly as they stood over the two tombs.

Xena nodded as she touched the cold stone. “She was a part of it too. So much love…”

Gabrielle took hold of her hand. “We did it, Xena. We saved them all. Who knows how far Daemonicus’s reach would have been. And I know that the dead can hear our thoughts…so your mom knows how much we love her and Lyceus. She has known all along.”

Xena brought their hands up to kiss Gabrielle’s knuckles. “Bye, Mom. We’ll be around. Bye, Lyceus.” She turned to hug Gabrielle before they left. “We should move on soon…find somewhere to call our own.”

“You’re really into this settling down thing?” Gabrielle wanted to check.

“Yes. I think it’s time.”

“Hmm. I agree.”

***

The next day, they had packed up their few belongings and were ready to leave when Eve came to the door of their room.

Once she had knocked and heard a shout from the other side, she opened the door and peeked her head in. “Hi. Could you come downstairs for a minute? There’s someone out front to see you.”

“Who is it?” Xena asked.

Eve pretty much dropped her face into her hands. “Can you just come downstairs without asking questions?” she said, flicking her head to the side like a maniac.

“I think what your daughter is trying to tell you is that she has something for us outside, Xena.”

“Ah. Of course that’s what she meant. Why don’t ya just say that then?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Sorry, Eve. She’s not real good with surprises.”

At the front door of the house, Eve shuffled to the side to let Xena and Gabrielle see Gena who was holding onto the reins of two horses. One of those horses looked very familiar.

“Argo,” Xena whispered, almost to herself.

“Mother, Gabrielle, I’d like to re-introduce you to Argo the second,” Eve said as she splayed her hand out toward the beasts. “And introduce you for the first time to Kael. The people of Amphipolis wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done.”

Xena stepped forward to take Argo’s reins. “Wow. She looks great.”

Gena looked proudly on. “She’s getting older, but she’s in fine shape, and anyway, you guys said at dinner the other night that you won’t be charging into battle anymore if you can help it, so she’ll do just fine for you.”

“Ya got that right,” Xena said as she watched Gabrielle take hold of Kael.

“She’s so beautiful, Eve.” Gabrielle patted the shiny, black mare on the nose. Kael decided this would be a good opportunity to nibble on her new owner’s coat.

“She’s a really nice girl, kind but courageous.”

“She fits Gabrielle perfectly then,” Xena said.

After she gave Xena a shy look, Gabrielle turned back to her horse. “They’re really ours?”

“I told you,” Gena said. “Xena is a legend in these parts, and you made the legend, Gabrielle. The people here just want to repay you, and now that you’re back, they have that chance.”

“Please thank them all for us.”

“We will,” Eve said. “Gena and I will get your things. I know you want to get moving.”

“I’m heading out too, Eve. It’s time for me to start my journey.”

“I know, Gena. I’ll miss having you around here, but I understand. Believe me.”

When Gena went indoors to gather her own belongings, Eve smiled at Xena and Gabrielle before she followed.

Before long, the goodbyes were said. It wasn’t too difficult for Eve to see her parents go. She knew they would be closeby and would send word to her as soon as they had found somewhere to live. She did shed a few tears as Gena walked away with them. The young warrior had been a huge part of her life for years now, and it would be a lot quieter around the old inn without her there. Eve knew she would always have company, though. Varia was with her when her queenly duties allowed, and there was a constant stream of people who needed her advice, counselling, or spiritual guidance. Her life was full in so many ways.

As was Xena’s. She was beginning to relax now that the trauma of her reincarnation and their mission to kill Daemonicus were over. But the greatest relief was to see Gabrielle happily talking to Gena as they started down the road. They weren’t sure exactly where they were going, but Xena had a potential location in mind, if it was still the same – she had to do the strangest calculation in her head, including the time she and Gabrielle were entombed in ice – about forty years later.

When they eventually came to a fork in the road, it was time for Gena to set off on her own. All three women were strangely somber.

“I guess it’s time,” Gena said as she tightened up the belly strap on her horse’s saddle.

“It is. Are you sure you want to do this?” Xena asked.

“I’m sure, Xena. Like you said, there will always be another evil to overcome, another warlord to be dealt with, or another innocent who will need the help of a traveling warrior. And you two have served your time. It’s my turn now.”

“Will you send word of your travels back to us?” Gabrielle said as she hugged her.

“Yes.”

“And remember all the advice Eve gave you, and all the stories you’ve read about Xena. There are always lessons to be learned.”

“I know your scrolls by heart, Gabrielle. Now go find a home, both of you.” Gena shook Xena’s hand. “It was an honor to meet you, Xena.”

Xena pursed her lips before she said, “And it was my honor to meet you too, Xena…and I think you’ve earned the title Warrior Princess now. So, go…spread the word of Daemonicus’s demise and do good wherever you can.”

“I will.”

“And take care of yourself, Xena,” Gabrielle added.

“Hey, you said my name without gagging.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Maybe that’s because I have my own Xena back.”

“That’s right, and she’s stuck with me now,” Xena said with a wink.

Young Xena’s face twitched in some strange ways before she nodded once and gave her heroes a salute. She turned and walked away feeling like she was leaving two of her best friends behind. She glanced back at them and shouted, “I’ll come home soon to visit.”

“Looking forward to it already,” Xena shouted back. “Home,” she echoed quietly to Gabrielle. “Let’s head home, Gabrielle.”

“Lead the way.”

“There’s this old shack I used to know, not too far from here. I would go there to rest sometimes when I was wounded in battle. Of course, that was a very long time ago. It might not be there anymore, but I liked where it was. There were hills on three sides, and the only easy way in was from the front. You could see anyone coming at you. A good place to-”

“Feel safe,” Gabrielle finished for her.

Xena nodded. “It would be a good place for us.”

“Take me there, then,” Gabrielle said as she grazed her hand against Xena’s cheek. “It sounds like somewhere to start anew.”

“I’m just so grateful you want to do this.”

When a single tear rolled down Xena’s face, Gabrielle moved her thumb across to catch it. “It’s all I ever wanted, Xena.”

After Xena nodded and sniffed loudly, they mounted their horses and trotted off to the east.

As they rode under the afternoon sun, Gabrielle began to wonder what it would be like to have a quiet life. “Don’t you think you’ll be bored with no battles to be fought, no travels to keep you occupied, and nothing to beat up on a daily basis?” she asked with a hint of a smile.

Xena guffawed. “Gabrielle, bear in mind that you’re almost ten years younger than me-”

“Ah-ah. Actually, with you in limbo for the same amount of time, we’re technically the same age now.”

“Oh, uh, that’s too complicated. Anyway, I think the question is do you want to settle down with an old, ex-warrior who only just learned the most important lesson in life?”

Gabrielle moved Kael in front of Argo, effectively stopping their progress. “Well, that depends on the lesson she learned.”

“The lesson is,” Xena said as she shifted Argo closer to Gabrielle. “That you are my life, and that I love you more than anything in this entire universe. All I ask for is your forgiveness, your love, and your truth.”

Gabrielle leaned into her and kissed her on the lips for the first time in eons. “You have my forgiveness, Xena. I told you that. And my truth is that I’ll be happy ‘til we’re old and gray as long as I’m with you. I never stopped loving you. Never.”

“I’ve missed that.”

“What?” Gabrielle said as they continued along the path.

“Your touch, your kiss,” Xena replied while trying to quell the desire she had not felt in so long. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“Xena?” When Xena turned to her, Gabrielle smiled. “I’ve missed it too. We’re almost home.”

Xena sensed the full meaning of Gabrielle’s words immediately. “I know. It’s not too far now.”

They rode for a little over an hour, and when they rounded the side of one of the hills Xena had mentioned, Gabrielle saw the shack in all its ruggedness. The windows were completely shot, the roof was caving in, and the front porch looked like it was sinking on one side.

“Well, at least it’s still standing,” she said with a snort.

“What do you think, Gabrielle? Can we make this work?”

“It’s a fixer-upper, for sure,” Gabrielle replied as she leaned down on Kael’s mane to stretch out her stiff back muscles. “But I bet we could make it into a wonderful home.”

“With you beside me, it’ll be home.”

“What if I was in front of you?”

Xena turned to see a spark of the old Gabrielle mischief in those bright, green eyes. She was speechless for a moment, the sheer beauty of Gabrielle’s heart penetrating to her very soul, and her captivating eyes showing all the forgiveness and love she had spoken of before. It was more than Xena had ever hoped for.

“Or maybe behind you?” Gabrielle added to recapture Xena’s attention.

Xena jumped down from Argo and reached out for Gabrielle to dismount too. When she collected her one and only love into her arms, she answered. “You can be anywhere you want as long as you’re here. You are the light in my life, Gabrielle. You always have been. When the time comes, many, many years from now, I want us to pass into the next life peacefully. You know I’ll find you there, and we’ll be together again…for eternity.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said softly. “Then let’s fix this place up and live out the rest of this life in peace, and in love.”

“Sounds perfect.” Xena turned to look around them, but she never let go of Gabrielle. The closeness was just too wonderful to give up. “You know, that breeze is strangely warm. I felt it on the way here, like it was the world breathing past my skin and telling me that this was the way it should always have been. I never knew peace in my heart until now. I just wish it hadn’t taken so much agony to get here. It’s like I’ve been reborn to realize that you are the only reason for me to live.”

Gabrielle was now the one to have a tear in her eye. “Like I said before, we really have come full circle. You truly sound like a bard. That was beautiful, and you should be at peace, Xena. I think it’s about time.” She let her fingers play with the metal on Xena’s breastplate. “When did you first realize you were in love with me?”

Xena frowned at the unexpected question. “I think it was the day you married Perdicus. Why?”

“Wow. That was a long time ago.”

“No kidding.”

“Why didn’t you say anything back then?” Gabrielle asked while still sliding her fingertip around the curving armor of the breastplate.

“You know why. I didn’t think I deserved you, and I didn’t think you really knew what you wanted.”

“I was pretty naïve, wasn’t I? I knew from the first day I saw you that I had to be with you, but I had no idea why. I was confused about who I was. I just knew I didn’t fit in back in Poteidea.”

“Well, you certainly figured things out eventually.”

Gabrielle grinned and looked up into Xena’s eyes. “Remember our first time?”

“I’ll never forget it, or any of the other times either. Every moment with you is etched into my mind forever. The memories are all I had for a long time.”

Gabrielle buried her face into Xena’s chest for a second. “I know,” she mumbled as she lifted her head. “We can make some wonderful new memories here.”

Xena leaned in to kiss Gabrielle, to show her through that simple touch how much she meant to her. Their tongues engaged in a slow dance, their lips felt the unspoken passion, and their hearts thundered like a thousand stampeding centaur hooves in their chests. And as they parted, Gabrielle licked her lips before smiling the widest smile Xena had seen since those early days of their friendship. Her Gabrielle was coming back to her, and Xena knew it was only a matter of time now. They just needed to recuperate, to live a normal life for a while, and to do that together.

“Let’s start making those new memories, huh?” Xena suggested as her heart slowed to a normal beat.

“Definitely,” Gabrielle agreed. “I think we should sleep on our furs under the stars tonight, right here in our front yard. Well, maybe not sleep.”

Xena felt a slightly feral smile gracing her lips before she could stop it. “For old times’ sake?”

“Uh-huh. And for new times’ sake,” Gabrielle said as she took Xena’s hand. “I love you. I’m in love with you, and I want to make love with you for the rest of our days.”

Xena felt her pulse quicken again. She wondered briefly if she would actually survive life with this beautiful woman. “You are my life, Gabrielle.” When she received that familiar and irresistible smile from Gabrielle, she simply had to grin herself.

They were home. It had taken decades to get here, but they were here together, finally.

Epilogue

Two months later, Gabrielle sat on the porch step outside their rustic cabin home. She watched as Xena chopped some wood using an old ax they had found nearby. Her thoughts drifted to far off places, reminiscing about her travels and processing her new life here. Tears welled from her eyes without warning, and Xena noticed them in seconds because she had been glancing over at Gabrielle between swings.

“Hey. You OK?”

Gabrielle inhaled suddenly as she broke out of her daydream, but she didn’t say anything which prompted Xena to approach and crouch down in front of her.

“What were you thinking about that made you cry?”

Once Gabrielle had touched her own face to check if she was indeed crying, she smiled and reached out to hold onto Xena’s hands. “I was remembering my journey home. I was remembering how only months ago, I was ready to leave this world behind and come find you somehow. When I was traveling I saw so much killing, so much destruction, and so many people hating one another all because they didn’t believe the same thing, or because they were greedy and wanted what others had. I was part of that killing for a while, but I tried to do it to help those who were having trouble defending themselves, or those who were fighting for freedom and love.”

“That’s what we do, Gabrielle.”

“I know, but I changed so much. The kill became too satisfying…and I’ve killed many. But one day, I had this dark grin on my face as I pushed a wounded soldier to the ground. I was on top of him, driving my sword into his chest, and when he took his last breath I felt I had accomplished something. I was so wrong. That battle was truly awful. That moment was the moment I decided I had no more to give. I came home to die. I think you know that.”

Xena nodded. “Just like I did the day I met you.”

“It’s that full circle thing again, because what stopped me from killing myself was the thought that you were here somewhere. I had to find you.” Gabrielle repeatedly rubbed her thumbs over Xena’s knuckles as she continued. “On the ship that brought me here, I stood there knowing in my heart that I would never be happy again. I had tried…for years I tried, but I knew then that my life should be over. Of course, once again I was wrong. So I was crying just now because I can’t believe I’m sitting here so peacefully watching you chop wood for our fire tonight. I’m crying because I’m the happiest I have ever been.”

Xena didn’t mind the tears that trickled down her own cheeks because they were tears of complete joy. “You deserve to be happy, Gabrielle-”

We deserve to be happy, Xena. You always leave you out of it.”

“Well, if you had let me finish,” Xena said with a cheeky grin. “I would have told you that I deserve to be happy with you.”

Gabrielle just stuck out her tongue which made Xena shrug and do the same before she stood up and wandered off into the cabin.

“Where are you going?” Gabrielle asked, pouting as she watched her walk away.

“I have a little surprise for you.”

When Xena disappeared inside, Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knees while she waited not-so-patiently for her surprise.

“Oh, Gabri-elle!”

“I do believe that means I can run in there now.” Gabrielle shot off the porch step and into their cozy living room where Xena stood leaning on a staff.

“I made this for you since we missed the solstice…many solstices actually,” Xena said as she tapped her fingernail on the staff.

“Ooh! It’s so beautiful!” Gabrielle took hold of the staff in one hand, with the other one busy grabbing Xena around the waist. “Thank you, Xena. I love it. The detail is incredible!” She examined the stunning band of intricate carvings around the middle that included the letters X and G entwined throughout the tribal design. “You did this yourself?”

“I have many skills,” Xena responded with a grin.

“Hah! I know you do.”

“Argo wanted to help, so the hair on the hand grip is from her tail.”

“Aww.” Gabrielle quietened for a moment. “With everything we’ve been through recently, I haven’t gotten you anything yet…but I will.”

“No need. You gave me the best gift in the whole world.”

“I did?”

“Yes. I have you.”

Gabrielle pretty much swooned. “I love you, Xena.”

“I love you too, Gabrielle. So much.”

A kiss sealed the declaration before a rustling noise outside caught their attention. With her new staff in one hand and Xena in the other, Gabrielle shuffled onto the porch to investigate. “Oh, a deer,” she whispered.

“Want me to kill it for dinner?” Xena whispered back.

“Nah. I’m not in the mood for venison.”

Xena pulled Gabrielle closer for a hug. “Vegetable stew, it is.”

“Yeah. It was really tasty that last time you made it.” Gabrielle smacked her lips together. “So good.”

“Good for the deer. Want me to go kill a rabbit for tomorrow?”

“Maybe. I’m sensing itchy feet…”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. I’ve got wood to chop.”

Gabrielle laughed and leaned her staff on the post nearby before she moved to place her hands on Xena’s upper chest. “I think we should go on a trip soon. I’d like to go to Athens, just to see how it has changed.”

“Really?” Xena asked excitedly.

“Yes, really. Xena, we can still travel whenever we want. We can still help people if we need to. Just…let’s not go looking for trouble, OK?

“Absolutely.”

“And I’ll enjoy the journey because we have a nice home to come back to when we get tired. We’re no spring chickens, you know?”

Xena licked her lips. “Ooh, chicken.” When Gabrielle’s forehead bumped against her collarbone repeatedly, she rolled her eyes. “What? I’m just hungry.”

“I’m pretty sure I can think of something to satisfy your appetite…without making vegetable stew.”

With a curl of her dark eyebrow, Xena marched directly through the front door. “That’s right. You have many skills too.”

.

The End.

Story ©2016 StageFreak Productions.

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10 comments

  1. Fantastic! I will never look at black tar-like substances without a little trepidation. What a great way to bring love back to the center of Xena & Gabrielle’s story, where it belongs. Thank you for sharing this with the Xenaverse.


    • Thanks, Jay. I’m happy you liked it 😉


  2. Loved this story, knew it was going to be a great story so have been reading it slowly since you uploaded it. Well worth it 🙂

    Sue


    • Thank you, Sue! 🙂


  3. Love this story! Is this a new page design or is my computer doing something on its own? 😀 Either way, I like it!


    • Hi, Jay…love that you love it 😉 I have given the AM website a new look to make it easier to read from…I kinda like it too 🙂


  4. I love the story so much .it seems even rob tapert did a brutal ending of xena in season 6 ..your story uplifted my spirit and felt happy that x and g finally have each other for good.a heart warming story.thanks foe sharing..i love all your stories wendy arthur.


    • Hey Rowena, thank you! Believe it or not, I actually love Full Circle too 😉 I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that it gave you a little closure after that ‘brutal ending’ you spoke of. 🙂


  5. Finally! I hate that it took me so long to get to this story but damn Wendy, you did it again. I loved it. Fitting happily ever after for our heroes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Love,
    Susan


    • Thank you for feeding-back again, Susan. You’re a star! I’m happy you enjoyed it 🙂



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