Chapter 1 Part 2
by Joseph Ezell
Disclaimer: Please See Part One
hours later, Xena and Gabrielle had just stopped to rest in a rather open spot
in the forest when they spotted some uninvited guests amongst the trees ahead
of them. Xena dismounted off of Argo, handing Eve over to Gabrielle and drawing
Slowly, the men stepped out of the shadowy surroundings of the forest, spreading out as they did so. There were five of them and they were dressed in black leather from head to toe.
Not again, Xena thought. You know, I am really getting sick of this. Just how many times must she be attacked? Can't I just go one day without being attacked?! Is that too much to ask?!
Xena sighed inwardly, preparing herself for the upcoming battle. But as she gazed around at the men and their surroundings she was relieved to see that Darius was nowhere to be found. But he could be hiding somewhere watching every move I make. Just waiting for the opportunity to strike. Xena thought warily. Honestly, even though she didn't want to admit it to herself, if he struck again, she didn't know what she would do. If he were to strike now she knew it would be a disaster as Xena was certain that she couldn't hold off both the men and Darius at the same time.
Stay here, Gabrielle and protect Eve for me. I'll handle them, okay? Xena said, turning to her partner and pitching her voice low so only Gabrielle could hear it.
Xena, what about Darius? What if he comes back? Gabrielle asked, fear clearly evident in her eyes. But as she looked to her friend for answers, Gabrielle saw the same fear in her eyes as well. They were both afraid of another attack by Darius as he had defeated them the last time, regardless of their best efforts. In fact, Gabrielle realized that she had never been more afraid in her whole life as she was now and she knew from traveling with Xena that the Warrior Princess wasn't one to frighten that easily. If Xena was afraid of something then it was a major deal indeed.
Listen, I know it's a bad plan, but it's the only one I've got now, okay? If Darius does show up then I want you to take Eve and make a run for it. I'll stay behind and distract him, giving you the time you need to escape. Okay? Xena said, trying to remain as calm as possible. Gabrielle didn't like it but right now it was the only plan they had so it'd have to do. They were out of options at the moment.
Okay, Xena. We'll play it your way. Gabrielle said, nodding in agreement.
Satisfied with her answer, Xena turned around and walked toward the men, stopping when she was just twenty feet from them.
Xena, Warrior Princess, we've been sent here by Athena with orders to kill your child, Eve. Will you hand over the child? one of the men said.
Xena rolled her eyes inwardly. Just how dumb were these guys? Not a chance, She replied.
Then, prepare to die, the man said, grabbing his sword.
Suddenly, someone cleared his throat. The men spun around and saw a man with a massive build, wearing brown, leather boots, pants, and gauntlets to match as well as a bright, yellow vest, leaning up against a tree. He also had long, brown hair and blue eyes. With a new surge of hope coursing through her body Xena realized who this man was. Hercules, as I live and breath, she thought. He couldn't have come at a better time.
Um, I'm sorry but I couldn't help but overhear you. You weren't planning on trying to hurt my friends over there, were you? Hercules asked, pointing in Xena's and Gabrielle's direction.
The man glanced back at them and then turned his attention back to Hercules.
And what if we were? Who are you to interfere with the affairs of the great goddess Athena? the man asked. Xena rolled her eyes and Hercules cocked an eyebrow, both them surprised at the question. After all, everyone knew Hercules. Well, everyone except this man, Hercules thought.
Oh, me, I'm Hercules, son of Zeus, and the goddess your referring to just happens to be my half sister. So, whether I like it or not I often find myself interfering in the affairs of the gods. It's what I do best. He answered.
Get him! the man shouted.
Now, why'd ya have to go and say a thing like that? He asked, standing up straight and walking toward the leader of the small group. And, before he could even react, Hercules sent an uppercut slamming into his chin, sending him flying high through the air, causing him to land somewhere far past the dense brush.
Two men drew their swords and charged him, a savage war cry erupting from their beings.
And, just as they were about to hit him, he spread out his arms, clotheslining them both. They fell to the ground, groaning heavily.
Time to teach you boys how to fly, Hercules said, grabbing them both by the backs of their clothes and picking them up off the ground. Then, he started spinning, going faster and faster. The two men who were still standing, upon seeing the predicament of their comrades, deciding to make a run for it, turned and ran for the woods. But it was too late as they quickly learned when Hercules released the two men from his strong grasp, one of which went flying into the woods, while the other one smashed into the fleeing group, slamming them to the ground.
Oooh, that must of hurt. Hercules said, wincing at their plight, but amused nonetheless.
Slowly they rose, wobbling on their feet for several seconds before heading back toward Hercules. Some people never learn. He said, wondering why they just didn't run away.
Xena resheathed her sword and joined Hercules. Soon, both of them were surrounded.
Care to dance? she asked him.
I thought you'd never ask. He answered, grabbing her by the arms. And with that he picked her up, twirling her around and around with breathtaking speed, her feet slamming into one man after the other. The men fell to the ground just as Hercules stopped spinning Xena and lowered her to the ground. But, to their surprise and dismay, two of the men rose to their feet, rubbing their jaws.
Geez, are these guys ever going to stay down? Xena asked, turning to face the nearest warrior, her back to Hercules. Hercules did the same so that they now stood back to back.
The warrior in front of Hercules struck first, running forward and throwing a punch at him. The tall demigod ducked, sending a powerful punch rocketing into the man's stomach. The warrior froze, unable to move because of the tremendous pain dealt to him by the force of the punch. Hercules rose, took one look at his opponent, and calmly put his finger on his forehead, pushing him to the ground with ease.
The warrior in front of Xena drew his sword only to have her kick it out of his hands. The warrior charged, screaming savagely. In response to this, Xena jumped into the air, issuing her famous battle cry as she flipped over her opponent, and, kicking him with both feet, sent him crashing to the ground. With catlike grace, the warrior princess landed and turned toward Hercules, smiling broadly. Suddenly she was very glad that he had shown up when he did.
Glad you could join us, she said, meaning every word.
Glad I could help, Hercules said.
Then both warriors clasped arms, shaking promptly, the respect between them clearly evident.
After that they walked over to where Gabrielle was and stopped.
And how's my favorite bard doing? Hercules asked, turning to Gabrielle.
Just fine, thanks, Gabrielle replied with an awe-shucks smile, clasping his arm with her own. Where's Iolaus?
Oh, well, he said he had family to visit in Thrace, some cousin of his, and I didn't want to go along so we agreed to go our separate ways and meet up in Athens in a few days. Hercules answered.
So, what brings you to our neck of the woods? Xena asked.
Well, after Iolaus left I discovered that I didn't have anything to do so I figured that I'd drop by and see what you guys were up to. Hercules replied. Besides, I'd heard rumors that the gods were trying to kill your child.
Xena looked away, choosing to stare at the ground.
Wait, you mean it's true? Hercules asked, concern clearly evident in his voice.
Xena turned her attention back to him. Afraid so, Hercules. Ever sense Zeus died they've been after us day and night.
Her words hit him hard, leaving him at a loss for words. When Zeus had died he had thought that perhaps the god's death would have dissuaded any of the other gods from trying to kill Eve. After all, if Zeus, the most powerful of them, had failed to kill Eve, then what possible chance could they have to kill the child?
And, for the most part he'd been right, or at least he thought he had, considering that not one of the gods had come after him looking to avenge Zeus's death. The only reason he'd figured they hadn't went after him was because they were afraid of him, or at least that was the only one he could come up with that made any sense. After all, he had killed Zeus and if he could do that then perhaps he could kill them too. As a matter of fact, none of the gods had shown up in his life ever sense that fateful day when he had killed his father to save an innocent child as well as his friends from death. He hadn't even seen his half sister Aphrodite, the goddess of love or his half brother Ares, the god of war, both of which had appeared to him in his life more than any other god or goddess even when he didn't want them too.
The death of his father itself had hit him pretty hard, harder than he'd expected in fact. Not to mention the fact that he'd killed his father, which he had wondered about the rightness of for several days afterward and sometimes even now. But, as always, he'd silenced those doubts by telling himself that what he'd done had been the right thing and if he hadn't acted when he had Xena, Gabrielle and Eve would have all ended up dead.
And when he'd heard the stories from passing travelers of Athena attacking Xena's hometown of Amphipolis and holding it under siege, he hadn't bothered to check to see if they were true considering, for the most part, at the time he hadn't felt like doing anything due to his grief over the loss of his father.
Hercules sighed inwardly, giving himself a mental kick in the rear. I knew I should have pursued those rumors. Xena, I'm so sorry. I should have been there for you guys.
Hercules, it's okay. Besides, you needed time to grieve over the loss of your father. Xena said.
Well, that may be. But it was still my responsibility to help you deal with them. I know better than any one what they can do.
Hercules, with all due respect, Gabrielle and I can take care of ourselves. And, besides, if you wanted to help us out when things got tough where were you when we fought against Dahak or were crucified by Romans? Xena asked.
He sighed inwardly once more, suddenly feeling very guilty for thinking the way he had about them. And it was in this moment that he realized that he'd misjudged them. In all that had happened to them, he'd forgotten one thing, Xena and Gabrielle were warriors in their own right. Not to mention all that they'd been through during the course of their adventures together. What did he really expect to do here? Watch over them for the rest of their lives? Xena and Gabrielle were both competent warriors and could defend themselves against any threat just as easily as a man could.
I'm sorry, he said, I guess I've forgotten that you two are warriors. But can I suggest a partnership? Come on, Xena, you wouldn't turn down a friend's help, would you?
It's a deal, Xena said, both warriors shaking on it.
For a few seconds, there was a brief pause. Then Hercules spoke. Who are all these men?
Oh, them. Their men sent by Athena to kill Eve. This is the second group we've met today. Xena said. But I'm afraid they're not the problem.
Then what is the problem? Hercules asked.
Athena's sent an assassin after us with orders to kill Eve. I'm afraid, however, he's more than we can handle. When we faced off last time he managed to defeat both Gabrielle and I and almost killed Eve. In fact, he would have killed her had he not hesitated, which gave me enough time to knock him to the ground so he couldn't harm her. I warned him not to follow us or he'd end up dead by my blade. But I think he's going to come after us anyway and I think he won't stop until he kills Gabrielle and I or we kill him. Either way, he's a cold-blooded killer. Xena answered.
No, Xena, you're wrong. I can't explain it, but when he told you of his orders to kill Eve I saw something resembling sadness and regret in his eyes. I think that, for whatever reason, he doesn't like the idea of killing Eve. Gabrielle replied.
Perhaps he can be reasoned with, convinced that he doesn't need to follow orders since those orders are wrong? Hercules asked.
Perhaps, Xena replied. But one thing remains certain: as long as he continues to work for the gods then he's a threat to us. And, unfortunately, I think we may not be good enough to stop him the next time he tries to kill Eve.
The three of them looked at each other, and it was then that Hercules saw the uncertainty and fear that played across the two women's faces.
You don't know how right you are, said a voice, breaking the silence that had enveloped them. All three of them whirled around toward the source of the unknown speaker.
Before them stood Darius, who had his back to the pile of men Xena and Hercules had defeated earlier. He glanced at the men thoughtfully before turning his attention back toward them all. Well, looks like you two have managed to defeat Athena's men again, Xena. Most impressive, he said, eyeing them with newfound respect.
You could say that. Actually, we're renowned for our ability to survive even the most brutal of opponents. Given that, these men were a delightful distraction compared to some of the enemies we've faced in the past. Xena replied.
Darius cocked an eyebrow, smiling slightly. It was then that he noticed Hercules for the first time.
Who are you? he asked Hercules.
Oh, I'm Hercules- Hercules began only to cut off by Darius.
-son of Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Darius said, finishing his sentence for him. Yes, I've heard of you. Every now and then, I happen to overhear conversations between the gods. Apparently, they talk about you a lot and, from what I've gathered, you're rather popular. Or at least you were, until a while back when they suddenly stopped talking about you.
Well, that's probably because I killed Zeus, who was trying to kill Xena and her child here.
So, the rumors of his death were true after all. Impressive, Darius said, but, I'm afraid it's just not good enough. I'm an assassin for the Olympian order and I've been sent here by Athena with orders to kill Eve. You're a good man, Hercules, but if you get in my way I'll kill you dead. Got it?
That's easier said than done, Hercules replied as Xena drew her sword.
Okay, you know the drill, Xena. Hand over Eve and you and your friends are free to go. Stay here and fight me and you'll end up dead. Which is it going to be? Darius asked, turning his attention back to Xena, his smile fading.
You already know my answer to that, Darius. The only way you'll get Eve is over my dead body. Xena replied, stepping forward.
Very well, if that's your decision, so be it. Darius answered.
Xena, wait, Hercules said, grabbing her softly by the arm, keeping his voice low so only she and Gabrielle could hear it. Let me fight him. That way, if he defeats me you'll have the chance you need to get Eve to safety.
But, Hercules, if you lose, he'll kill you. Xena protested.
Maybe so, but while he'd doing that you guys can make a run for it. Hercules said, his blue eyes pleading with her to say yes.
Several seconds passed by as she thought this over. Finally, she nodded reluctantly, causing him to release her arm. Okay, she said, but you watch yourself. He's good and if you make one mistake he'll kill you for it.
Yes, ma'am. Will do, the tall demigod said, nodding in agreement.
Then, with that said, Hercules turned and walked toward Darius, stopping when he was a few feet from him. Darius drew his sword and stood poised for battle.
Um, you'll have to excuse my manners but I'm afraid I don't have a sword with me. Hercules said with a slight laugh.
Very well, Darius replied, sliding his sword back into its case on his side with a shink. I don't suppose it matters one way or another what I use against you since you'll be dead soon anyway.
With that said, both warriors stood poised to strike, each daring the other to make the first move.
Suddenly, Darius was nearly knocked off of his feet as Hercules sent a punch slamming into his jaw. Darius quickly regained himself and turned to the side, spitting blood on the ground before turning back toward Hercules.
That's some punch you got there, Darius said, rubbing his sore jaw.
Yeah, well, I guess I forgot to tell you that I have the strength of a god. It's one of the perks of being the son of Zeus. Hercules said with a slight shrug.
Darius grimaced, a look of annoyance spilling across his features.
You know, you don't have to do this, Darius. You can quit now and enjoy your life. Hercules said.
Darius laughed, shaking his head. If only that were true, Hercules. But it's not, okay, so can it with the speech! I don't have a choice! I have to kill Eve! I am what I am and I can't escape from it!
Everyone has a choice, Darius, including you!
You don't understand! If I don't kill Eve then they'll kill me! Darius shouted. Besides, Athena's promised me peace in the Elysian Fields if I complete this mission and I have no intention of disappointing her! In fact, you could say that this promise is the one thing that gives me hope.
And what makes you think Athena will keep her word? Hercules asked.
Darius started to answer but hesitated, uncertainty clearly evident in his eyesand just as quickly it was gone, replaced by a cold, guarded stare.
I've served the gods all my life and I've never failed and they know this. Athena wants Eve dead so bad she sent me to kill her 'cause I never fail! In fact, you could say that my curse is that I'm too good. So, after I complete my mission I imagine she'll be overjoyed over Eve's death, considering that child means the death of the gods and the end to their order. So, yeah, I'm sure she'll keep her word.
So you know about the Twilight?
Of course. Look, this is getting old real fast, okay? Now, you got two choices: shut up and let me do my job or shut up and die now. Either way, this conversation's over. Darius said.
Suddenly, Darius lunged forward, sending a barrage of kicks into Hercules's direction.
Caught off guard by the sudden attack, Hercules was sent stumbling back as a few of the kicks found their mark. Then, just as quickly, he caught Darius's foot, lifting him up over his head and through the air before slamming him to the ground with a deafening thud. He reached down to pick Darius up by the back of his vest and toss him only to receive a kick to the head, causing him to stumble backwards. Darius rose to his feet, taking a moment to steady himself, before he charged, unleashing a devastating series of kicks, punches, jabs, and whatever else he could think of at the demigod. Hercules, although knocked back by the sheer force of the blows, managed to hold his own against the relentless attack. And, when Darius least expected it, he sent a few well-placed punches to his stomach, sending him reeling away in pain. Even though Darius tried not to show it, Hercules knew he was in pain.
Darius grimaced, using all of his will power not to scream out in pain at the demigod's blows. Darius knew he had to end this quickly as he was certain that he couldn't stand up much longer against Hercules's attacks.
Gathering all of his strength, Darius unleashed yet another deadly assault of punches, kicks, and whatever else he could think of at his opponent before jumping up into the air and flipping over him. With a thud he landed and, with a spinning kick, he hit Hercules square in the back, sending him stumbling forward. And, wasting no time, he ran forward, stepping in front of him and knocking his legs out from under him with a low kick.
Darius drew his sword. Time for you to die, he said, flashing Hercules an I'm sorry look with his eyes as he prepared to make the stroke which would kill the noble warrior.
Hercules grit his teeth then, letting loose an ear-splitting war cry, and using all of his strength, the mighty demigod sent a surprise uppercut at Darius's way, catching him right under the chin. The force of the blow lifted him clear up off the ground. And, with a deafening thud, Darius hit the ground and didn't move, completely unconscious.
Slowly, Hercules rose painfully to his feet and made his way over to Xena and Gabrielle, who immediately enveloped him in a warm hug, overjoyed that he was alive. Then, after a few moments, they released him.
You did it! Gabrielle exclaimed, relieved that Olympus's deadliest warrior was down for the count.
Yeah, I did, but barely. I think it was only dumb luck that allowed me to beat him. Hercules replied, suddenly feeling very tired.
What about him? Gabrielle asked.
Leave him, taking him prisoner could be more trouble than it's worth as Athena would probably come looking for him. And I'm not about to kill him in cold blood no matter what he's done. Xena said.
Can we go now? Hercules asked, suddenly wanting to leave this place very much as every fiber of his being screamed out in pain.
Sure, Hercules. Let's get out of here, Xena said, giving his shoulder a warm squeeze.
Then, after gathering everything together, they walked off, their arms around each other, as they all three headed toward the forest and away from the unconscious form of Darius.
Several hours later, after a grueling trek through the dense, bug-infested, brush that was the forest, they finally managed to stumble upon a spot where the forest opened up considerably.
Deciding that it was best not to let an opportunity like this go by, Xena halted the group, declaring that they would set up camp here for the night.
Gabrielle sighed with relief at this news, clearly overjoyed that they were finally going to be able to rest after their long trek through the now unbearable forest. Xena dismounted her horse and, while she walked away from them to breast-feed Eve, Gabrielle unloaded the supplies. Figuring that he could at least do something to help them rather than stand around and do nothing, Hercules volunteered to go get firewood. And, after vague replies from both Xena and Gabrielle, he turned, disappearing into the brush.
After she was done feeding Eve and fully dressed again, Xena walked back over to Gabrielle, holding Eve close to her chest.
Gabrielle sat on a log and was presently bent over a pack, digging frantically through it in search of something. Xena sat down next to her, concern spilling out across her face. What are you doing? she asked.
One of my scrolls is in here, Gabrielle replied, everything that's happened to us in the last few days is recorded on it.
Xena was about to say something when Gabrielle interrupted her. Aha, found you, ya little bugger. She said, pulling out a scroll from the pack. I thought I'd write down all that's happened to us today.
You're going to do that now? Xena asked.
Gabrielle, Hercules will probably be back any minute now.
Oh, she replied, realizing what Xena meant by that. They still had to set up camp first. Well, okay, I guess I'll do that later then. Gabrielle said, putting the scroll back into the pack.
A few seconds passed as both warriors sat there, gathering their thoughts. Gabrielle, Xena asked, breaking the silence that had enveloped them both, I need to ask you something?
What is it? Gabrielle asked, turning toward her friend.
Gabrielle, it's about Hercules, Xena replied, a concerned look in her eyes.
Xena turned, sighing loudly and rubbed her tired eyes with her free hand before turning back around. Gabrielle, do you think it's best if I make him leave us? I mean he could get hurt.
Xena, what are you talking about? He may be the only hope we have of surviving against the gods. He is half god after all and I think we have a better chance of protecting Eve than we did before.
Gabrielle, he almost died today trying to protect us. And I have no doubt that he wouldn't give a second thought to sacrificing himself to protect us. I can't allow that to happen, not to someone the world needs more than ever right now. Xena said.
Xena, listen to me, we may not have much of a choice. Darius will come after us again and, I don't know about you, but I'd rather have Hercules there on our side when we met up with him again. The bard pleaded.
Yeah, well, what if Darius kills him? What then? Are you really prepared to bury him? Xena asked, locking gazes with Gabrielle, hoping to drive her point home to the bard.
Xena, I don't believe it's going to come to that. Besides, what if you shove him away only to have Darius kill Eve? Are you prepared for that possibility? Gabrielle asked, driving her point home to Xena in much the same way the warrior princess had just tried to do with her.
Just then, Hercules burst forth from the woods, carrying an armload of firewood. He stopped when he was a few feet from them, letting the wood fall to the ground. So, what'd I miss? he asked, smiling broadly.
Oh, nothing really, Gabrielle lied. Just some girl talk, that's all.
Oh, Hercules replied, as if her answer explained it all.
Well, Xena said, rising to her feet. I'd better go get us some food before it gets too dark to see anything. Gabrielle, can you hold Eve and watch her for me until I get back?
Let me do it. I'd be happy to help out. Hercules said.
You want to hold Eve? Xena asked skeptically, arching an eyebrow.
Sure, I love kids. He replied.
Well, in that case, Xena said, handing Eve over to him. here ya go. Enjoy.
Hey, kiddo. Wanna say 'hi' to your Uncle Hercules? Hercules asked, putting his lips to Eve's cheek and blowing air through them, producing a sound that made Eve laugh with delight. Xena only shook her head, amused by the whole thing. Then she turned, disappearing into the woods.
Cooing at the child and making strange noises, Hercules walked over near Gabrielle and sat down a few feet from her. All the while, Eve giggled joyfully, clearly pleased at the attention she was receiving from the tall demigod, while Gabrielle rolled her eyes, unable to stop a smile from creeping up onto her face at the sight of them together. Why doesn't she do that for me? Gabrielle wondered. Then, she shrugged inwardly, dug into her pack, and retrieved the scroll she'd held earlier. She unrolled it, figuring that she might be able to get some writing done while Xena was out hunting as it could be awhile before she got back.
But she quickly gave up on the task after a few moments as she realized that her attention kept drifting back toward Hercules and Eve. At the present moment, Hercules had stopped cooing and making noises at her and was, instead, thrilling the adorable child with a sweet lullaby. He just looks so adorable with her, she thought, her attention now focused strictly on Hercules, who was now humming softly to Eve, who had begun to drift off to sleep. And, on the trail of that thought: He would have made a good father.
During her travels throughout Greece, both she and Xena had heard a lot of things about the demigod through other people, usually when they were in a tavern or some other establishment for one reason or another. And it usually wasn't very long before they would over hear a conversation involving Hercules. Of course, he wasn't always the topic of every conversation every time, but most of the time he was.
People often talked about the latest adventure he'd been in and other things of that nature. Of course people talked about his past as well. Such as the time his wife and kids were killed by Hera. But Gabrielle didn't know how much stock she held in such talk as some of it was only by the word of mouth and could have been made up. She could only wonder what people said about her and Xena as she'd never really cared to find out.
I think she likes you. Gabrielle said, shaking those thoughts from her head.
Yeah, well, I like her too. She reminds me of my own kids. He answered, not turning his attention from Eve.
What happened to them? she asked.
Hera killed them with a fireball. They were sleeping along with my wife when it happened. I remember it clearly, it's a moment I won't soon forget. I had stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air when it came down and next thing I know the house was engulfed in flames. It all happened so fastthey died before I could save them. He said, turning to her with a sad look in his eyes.
So it was true, she thought, immediately feeling guilty for thinking that thought. Hey, it wasn't your fault. Gabrielle reassured him, placing a warm hand on his shoulder. There was nothing you could have done. I mean how could you have known about it about it anyway?
Oh, I know it wasn't my fault now. But for the longest time afterward I had the hardest time convincing myself of that. He said thoughtfully. That's also why I can't let the gods kill this child. They'll kill her without a second thought, Gabrielle. If they can turn and look the other way while Hera killed mine, then they can very well kill Eve. And I'm willing to bet that they won't lose a seconds sleep over it.
Gabrielle was about to reply, when Xena burst forth from the woods, carrying a small quail in one of her hands.
Well, well, well, how'd ya manage that feat, warrior princess? Hercules asked jokingly.
I have many skills, she answered slyly, tossing the bird on the ground.
Then, with that said, Hercules set to building a fire, while Xena plucked the quail and got it ready for consumption.
After Hercules had succeeded in starting the fire, and the bird had been plucked and laid on a turner, Gabrielle cooked the savory meal, while Xena and Hercules eyed the meat hungrily.
And, just when they thought it'd never get done cooking, miraculously, it did and was quickly devoured by all three of the warriors.
When they had had their fill, Gabrielle and Hercules stretched out lazily, not wanting to move a muscle as they lay there and relaxed their tired bodies, while Xena held Eve in her arms, who had woken up by this time, and once more showered her with gentle affection.
Hercules yawned loudly and then rose to his feet, stretching his tired muscles. Then he turned and walked near the edge of the camp. Xena looked up from Eve and, noticing Hercules's departure, turned to Gabrielle. Gabrielle, could you hold Eve for me? I need to talk to Hercules for a minute.
Sure, Xena, replied the bard as Xena handed Eve over to her. Then the warrior princess rose and walked to where Hercules was.
Hercules, Xena said, causing him to turn around, we need to talk.
What is it, Xena? Hercules asked thoughtfully, concern clearly evident in his voice.
Hercules, I think you should leave.
Xena, what are you talking about? he asked.
She sighed inwardly, gathering her strength for what had to be said.
Hercules, this thing between the gods and me and Gabrielleit's our fight, not yours. I don't want you involved. The warrior princess answered, realizing her tone sounded harsher than she'd wanted it too.
Xena, I've been dealing with the gods my whole life! So, I know better than anyone what they're capable of! Xena, don't push me away from this! 'Cause, whether you permit it or not I'm going to fight them. I won't allow them to take your child away from you like they did mine! Hercules shouted, throwing his arms into the air.
Yeah, well, what are you going to do if you get hurt?! Or better yet, what if you die trying to protect Eve?! What then?! Xena snapped, probing deep into his eyes for an answer.
If I die or get hurt then so be it. It was meant to happen. But whatever happens I'm not going to turn my back and walk away when there's even a remote chance you, Gabrielle, or even Eve could die! Xena, I couldn't live with myself if that happened. Hercules said.
Xena folded her arms across her chest, a look of annoyance spilling across her face as she turned to look away from him. Gods, why does he have to be so stubborn?! She wondered.
Xena, do you think that this is all just going to go away?! I mean, for crying out loud there's an assassin out there right now who's out to kill your child! And I know for a fact that he's not going to stop until he kills your child. Do you really want to face the possibility of losing to him again only to have him kill Eve? Do you?! Hercules asked hotly.
Xena sighed, rubbing her face tiredly. Alright! She said at last throwing her arms up in the air in frustration. You've made your point already! Fine, you can stay. I'm justworried about you, okay?
Several seconds passed as Hercules took this in.
Okay, fair enough. Hercules said, his tone softening. But, um, now that we're on the same side there's something I need to tell you.
What is it? Xena asked.
I've decided to go and pay Athena a little visit. I figure I'll stop by her temple and try and talk to her. Maybe I can talk to her out of all of this nonsense and get her to call off the attack on Eve. Hercules answered.
What makes you think you can change her mind? I mean, I tried to reason with her when she attacked my hometown and it didn't make a dent in her decision to kill Eve. Talking to her was like talking to a stone wall, she just wouldn't listen to me.
Yeah, I know it's probably hopeless but I figure I gotta at least try. After all, I am related to her. Maybe that'll be enough to make her listen to me. And if I can get her to call off the attack then she'll call off Darius. Isn't it worth a try, given that possibility? Hercules said.
Xena sighed. Yeah, I guess it is.
Hercules nodded. I'll try to be back as soon as possible. He said. You be good now, ya hear? He said, enveloping her in a warm hug.
I will, she replied, hugging him back. Then they separated from the embrace and clasped arms, each saying their goodbyes to one another before Hercules turned and disappeared into the forest.
Xena sighed and turned, walking back toward Gabrielle, hoping Hercules would return to them in one piece and that this wasn't the last time she would see him alive again.
As Hercules slowly mounted the steps that led to the set of open double doors, which led inside the temple of Athena, he couldn't help but notice the beauty of the structure. It was composed of something resembling marble but was, instead, the color or limestone. The structure was surrounded by the massive forest and, Hercules even noticed with dull interest that green ivy covered the roof and sides of the temple, seeming to guard the entrance. He shrugged inwardly, unable to hide his admiration for the appearance of the temple and it's surrounding landscape. In short, it was so beautiful that words alone could not hope to describe its beauty.
Hercules sighed and shook these thoughts off before he started forward, walking into the temple itself.
Hercules looked around to find himself in a somewhat vast room that had sandstone walls, a floor, and a ceiling to match. The walls were pretty much bare, except for the occasional religious painting and statue depicting Athena in all her greatness and glory to the masses of mortals. In one painting she was being charitable to the poor, in another she was pardoning sinners of their evil deeds, and still another showed her being generous to her worshippers during a festival, which was being held, in her honor. There were other paintings as well, all of which basically depicted Athena as a loving and very considerate deity, who's concern was always on the well-being of the mortals who worshipped her.
It was all a lie of course and Hercules knew it. At one time in his life when he had been a very young lad he had looked up to the gods, hoping that they could provide him with the answers he so desperately sought. It was only later on in his life that he had to learn the hard way that they didn't know anything and only sought to exploit humanity for their own amusement.
It was also during this time in his life as a young lad that he had begun to search for his father Zeus, whom he had never seen. But, unfortunately, it would be much later in life when he was a grown man before he would finally meet his father. Only by then it would be too late for father and son as Hercules had, by this time, grown to hate his father for his absence during his childhood and for failing to appear to him during his teenage years when he'd so desperately wanted him too.
And, as for the rest of the gods, well, it hadn't been a picnic that was for sure. From the day he was born Hera had tried to kill him because of her jealousy over her husband's affair with another womana mortal woman. This little coupling had produced Hercules who was half god because of it. Because Hera couldn't take her anger out on her husband due to his position as king of the gods, and instead of taking her anger out on the mortal woman he'd had the affair with, she'd chosen to kill Hercules, as Zeus had adored his new blue-eyed baby boy. Of course, Zeus, knowing that their was a chance the other gods might grow jealous of the attention Hercules was receiving, decreed that no god was to kill him directly or they'd suffer his wrath, thus protecting his beloved son. However, regardless of Zeus's good intentions, he had forgotten one thing: they could still kill Hercules, they just couldn't do it outright. Instead, they could use other methods to accomplish the same goal, such as using mortals to do the deed.
On top of Hera's persecution, he'd also faced relentless assaults on his life by his half brother Ares who had elected to kill him simply on the basis of jealousy since he had been his father's favorite son until Hercules was born. After that Zeus had completely ignored him, choosing instead to shower his new son with affection. Thus, that been enough reason for Ares to decide that his new demigod brother couldn't live anymore and therefore must die. And, unfortunately for Hercules, Ares had allies. Some of which included other rogue gods who worked for him such as Strife, Discord, and Demios, just to name a few, all of which desperately sought his favor.
Hercules had even had spats with his other supposed brethren. One of which had involved his half brother Apollo. And, because of it, the two still didn't get along to this very day.
As for the other gods, he either found himself rushing to save a helpless village all because of a blunder one of them had made or having one of them suddenly drop by asking him to do something for them, which he invariably did or was coerced or forced to do.
Hercules sighed inwardly, remembering one instance when Demeter's daughter had been kidnapped by Hades and she'd asked him to help her by going to the Underworld and bringing her daughter back to her. When Hercules had refused, declaring that this was a dispute between two gods, suggesting that she let Zeus handle it and telling her that he didn't want any part of it, she'd made the Earth grow so cold until nothing would grow, forcing him to change his mind on the promise that she would reverse the changes once he did the deed. He'd even helped gods from Artemis to Aphrodite who had offered to reward him handsomely, which he had politely refused.
But as for Athena, well, he'd had a few chance meetings with her in the past. But, other than that, it seemed she had gone out of her way to avoid him, as if she looked down on him or something. Which she probably did. After all, he was half mortal and the gods had given him the impression that they didn't like mortals. And, because of his half mortal nature they had regarded him as somewhat of a black sheep andno matter what he did, it seemed that he would always be that in their eyes.
On the floor, on an alter not far from her throne, were gifts from Athena's followers, which consisted of anything from offerings of food or wine to the finest jewelry the mortal world had to offer, every follower hoping against hope that his or her gift would grant them Athena's favor. Too bad the goddess didn't love them as they loved her because some followers of the gods had been known to give up everything that they owned just for the sole purpose of earning that god's favor. Hercules shook these thoughts away, having to squash the rage that such things inspired in him. It's like they just can't help themselves, he thought bitterly, Not only are they selfish, they also have to manipulate honest, decent people into making them think that they actually care for them. Personally, the whole thing made Hercules's blood boil. In his opinion, if they said they were there to help the mortal race solve its problems, then they should keep their word and do just that. Otherwise, they should just go back to their little mountain and let them be.
Hercules glanced at the back of the room, vaguely noticing the throne on the back wall, but no Athena. Other than himself, there was no one else in the huge room, or at least none that his eyes could see. She was obviously somewhere in the room, because, although he couldn't explain it, somehow, he could sense her presence. Usually, he could see the gods even when no one else could but not always. He didn't know if that was because of his half mortal nature or because the gods had simply found a way to remain invisible to him.
That's just great! He thought. Right now, that's all I need! He started to call out for her, but then decided on a better idea. After the mood he was in, he figured smashing up her temple might not be a bad idea. For one thing, it'd make him feel better and it might even prompt an appearance by Athena, considering the gods were often very touchy about their temples.
He turned and started to head toward two medium-sized statues carved out of white marble.
Unknown to Hercules, however, Athena stood by her throne with her back turned to him as she played with a dagger. Athena looked up, a smile slowly creeping up onto her face.
Hercules, She said, clearly amused that he was here.
The big man stopped in his tracks, whirling around to face her. How long have you been standing there?! He demanded, clearly annoyed at having had to wait so long for her appearance.
Long enough, She replied sweetly. And, suddenly, she spun around, hurtling the dagger at him, a sadistic smile on her face. He caught it inches from his face.
Athena laughed softly, shaking her head. Still as sharp as ever I see, she said, grinning at him like an old friend.
With a look of disgust, Hercules tossed the dagger to the floor.
And what was that for?! Hercules shouted angrily.
What? Can't a girl have fun every now and then? Athena asked, giving him the most innocent look she could manage and pouting her lips as she walked forward and scooped the dagger off of the floor, slipping it inside her boot. Then she walked forward, stopping at her throne and running her hand along its smooth surface.
Cut the crap, Athena! I'm not here to play games! Hercules spat.
Yes, she said, turning toward him, a devious expression forming on her face and a joyful twinkle filling her eyes, you're here because of Xena.
How did you know that? he asked, confusion playing across his face as a cold chill ran down his spine at her words. She knew?! But how? He wondered.
Please, I'm a goddess, Hercules. I have my ways, she answered, being as cryptic with her answer as possible since she knew it would get on his nerves. After all, why shouldn't she be allowed to have some fun with him first?
Hercules frowned, a look of dismay and even a little disgust filling his face. Forget how she knows! He told himself angrily. You don't have time for this! So get to the point already!
I want you to call off the attack on Xena's child. Hercules demanded.
Athena stared at him for a few secondsand then suddenly burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, her gaze ice cold and her laughter harsh.
Call off the attack? she asked incredulously, looking at him as if he'd just said the funniest thing she had ever heard. Who do you think I am? I am a goddess. And because Eve is alive we are doomed to die. I simply can't allow that to happen. Eve must die.
Oh, so that's it, huh? You'd rather kill an innocent child just to save your own worthless skin?
Worthless? I don't think so. You know, regardless of what you may believe, Hercules, I'm not as dumb as you might think and I'm going to do what I have to do to get the job done. Athena replied coldly.
Including sending your best assassin to do the job for you?
So, you've met Darius? Athena asked, a pleased smile slowly claiming her face.
Why are you forcing him to do this?! Hercules demanded. Just what is it about him that makes him so important to you that you can't let him go?!
Darius, is property of the Olympian order. Athena said between clenched teeth. He was given to me by Zeus on the grounds that I train him, the reason being that Zeus had decided that we, as an order, needed an assassin in the mortal world to do our business.
And I must admit, Athena continued, a slight smile claiming her face, that at first I loathed the site of him. After all, why should I be forced to train a lowly mortal? But, in time, I guess you could say that I grew quite fond of him. Then she sat down on her throne, rubbing at the smooth armrests and gazing at them thoughtfully before continuing. As matter of fact, he does whatever I ask of him and hates me all the while for it but never complains in the least little bit. It's really quite amusing if you think about it. Athena said with a slight laugh looking up at Hercules only to notice with dismay that he didn't seem to share her opinion. Some people, Athena thought, sighing inwardly, just don't have a sense of humor I guess.
Why not turn him loose? He's got a right to that much?
Darius lost his rights as a human a long time ago when he joined the Olympian order and became our property. Athena said coldly. Darius exists to serve the order and, more importantly me. He's mine, Hercules, and you'd best not forget that. Go against him and you will die. You cannot defeat him.
News flash, I already did that, Hercules replied, beginning to get annoyed at her for more reason that one.
And that means what exactly? 'Cause, you see, one defeat isn't going to stop Darius. He'll just keep coming until Eve is dead as well as Xena, Gabrielle, and anyone else who tries to protect her. I should know, Hercules, I trained him myself, so he isn't going to back down. You'll have to kill him to make him stopthat isif you can. Athena replied with a slight laugh, amused that he could even remotely think himself to be worthy of defeating her assassin.
Speaking of killing, you know you don't have to do this, Hercules. You could just turn around now, turn your back on Xena and her child, walk out of here and never look back and I wouldn't hold you responsible for killing Zeus. After all, you were only fighting for what you thought was right and I can respect that. Athena said, walking over to Hercules and placing a warm hand on his shoulder. What with you being family and all.
Family?! Hercules asked, pushing her arm almost violently away from him. Since when have I been family?! I mean, nearly all my life some of my supposed family was trying to kill me or make my life miserable in some way or another! And those of you who weren't trying to kill me avoided me like the plague! So, don't you talk to me about family 'cause as far as I'm concerned we never really were!
Really?! Athena asked, her good mood beginning to slip away.
Yes, really! Hercules said sarcastically. Oh, and let's not forget who it was everybody went to when they need help? Oh, gee let me think it was HERCULES! Yeah, well, I'm sick of it and as far as I'm concerned this death warrant you all seem to have all your heads couldn't have happened to a nicer group of people! If death is what if takes to punish the order for its sins against humanity then, so be it.
Humanity is nothing more than sheep and is ours to plunder! As it always has been! And, as far as this death warrant goes, I am NOT about to give up and stand by while some pathetic force called THE LIGHT or the teachings of some idiotic ex-mortal named Eli proceed to destroy our order! We DID NOT struggle like we did only to have what we've gained stripped away from us! Athena shouted hotly, her face solid red, her body literally shaking with rage.
Yeah, well, what gives you the right to exploit humankind?! Hercules spat.
I'm a goddess and that's all the explanation that you need! I can exploit humankind whenever I feel like it! Besides, humanity is like clay and must constantly molded by us or they will whither away and die. Honestly, I don't even know why you even bother with them, considering that they're really just a waste of time. Athena said, trying with all her will power to resist the urge to strangle him with her bare hands. Ooooooooooooh! But he could be stubborn! Just who did he think he was to talk to her this way?! Half god or not, son of Zeus or not, she was a full god and this was her temple! How DARE he disrespect me this way!
I bother with them because they have no one else! And, even though you don't want to admit it, they're more important than you can possibly imagine! 'Cause if they weren't then why does this force called The Light seem to care about them so much?! If mortals are so unimportant as you claim that they are then why would it even bother to go through the trouble of doing anything for them?! Why not just sit back and let the current system, that is the Olympian order, continue to rule?! After all, wouldn't that be the easier thing to do? Hercules asked, trying to drive his point home to her.
Athena only snorted, folding her arms across her chest and looking away in disgust, refusing to even consider his point.
Well, I'll tell you anyway, Athena, it's because this force, this light truly cares about them and, unlike you and your order, knows how important they truly are. Hercules said, probing deep for an answer
After a few seconds he realized that he apparently wasn't going to get an answer to his questions. I guess the gods never really will understand the importance of humanity, he thought, sighing inwardly.
I see now that coming here was a mistake. I thought I might be able to reason with you but I see now that I was wrong. But, mark my words, one day you will regret all of the sins you have committed against humanity. Hercules said. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be on my way. He said, his voice dipping into sarcasm.
Athena did reply, choosing instead to stare at a wall, with her jaw clenched defiantly.
Hercules was almost to the doorway when Athena turned toward him. Hercules, she said, causing him to stop and turn around, as I said before I don't blame you for killing Zeus. But rest assured that if you get in my way, I will kill you.
You know, Zeus said the same thing to me and he didn't follow through with it. But, you know, the thing is, Athena, you're not Zeus and, compared to him, you're nothing more than an insect and I doubt very seriously that you'll be that difficult to defeat. 'Cause ya see, if I can kill the king of the gods, and survive then what possible chance could you hope to have in trying to defeat me when even he couldn't accomplish the same task? I'm warning you, Athena. Stay away from Xena. Or else. Hercules said darkly.
A bold statement, indeed, Hercules. And, truly, I hope you can live up to those words 'cause if you don't Eve, Xena and Gabrielle will be dead before you know it and so will you. And I promise you that I won't lose a moments sleep over it. Athena said coldly.
Hercules clenched his jaw, turned around and headed for the doorway. Trying to reason with Athena had definitely been a big mistake. And, since she had no intentions of stopping her assault on Eve, he realized now, more than ever, how much he needed to get back to them as soon as possible. Then, with that, he walked through the doorway to the outside of the temple, determined to get back to Xena and Gabrielle and protect them and Eve from Athena's attacks no matter what it cost him. And, no matter what it took, he decided right then and there that somehow he was going to put a stop to this whole mess. Or he would die trying.
Hercules had just cleared the doorway when he collided with an approaching figure. Both figures let out a yelp of surprise and quickly separated, backing up a few steps.
Oh, I'm terribly sorry, clumsy me- Hercules began, looking at the figure solemnly.
Yeah, well, maybe you should watch where you're going next time, replied the figure.
It was then that both figures finally caught sight of one another.
Hephaestus? asked Hercules, a look of recognition instantly filling his face.
Hercules? queried the smut-stained god of the forge, all decked out in his workman's clothes, with his mighty ax hanging from a loop of leather on his side. A smile filled his face, his eyes filling with genuine love for his half brother and friend. The two brothers clasped hands, both laughing heartily and seeming overjoyed at seeing the other.
But, what are you doing here? asked Hephaestus.
Oh, Hercules replied, the momentary joy he had been feeling dropping from his face almost immediately at his half brother's question and realizing that he didn't want to tell him why he was here. After all, he and Hephaestus were extremely close. Out of all of his relatives among the gods Hephaestus was the only one who had never looked down on him and had treated him with the utmost respect. How could he tell him that he had been here to dissuade Athena from killing a child that would mean his demise? He looked away from the face of his half brother and friend, averting his eyes to the ground.
Hey, Herc, what's wrong? Are you okay? Hephaestus asked, placing a warm hand on Hercules's shoulder, his expression turning serious and almost tender, clearly showing that he was concerned for the welfare of his half brother.
Hercules sighed, looking back up into his friend's concerned face. Even though he knew he couldn't let Eve die at the hands of his family he didn't know if he could tell Hephaestus that he planned on protecting a child that would ultimately destroy him. And even though he knew protecting Eve was the right thing to do, somehow, a small part of him couldn't help but feeling that he was betraying his friend by doing this. I came her to talk Athena out of killing Eve. Hercules stated bluntly, his voice sounding harsher than he'd meant for it too.
The blacksmith god's body stiffened, his expression turning hard and cold. So, you're still trying to protect that child, are you?
Yes, Hercules answered, suddenly wishing he were anywhere but here and that this conversation wasn't happening.
Hephaestus looked away, his jaw clenched, nodding to himself.
And why are you here, Hephaestus? Hercules asked, a vague suspicion already forming in his mind to answer his question. Somehow, I get the distinct impression that you're not here for a friendly visit to Athena.
I'm here to meet with her, Hercules, because she asked me to come here.
So, you're going to help her kill the child, is that it? Hercules demanded.
Yes, Hephaestus answered, anger creeping into his voice. And I'm not the only one. Several of the other gods are a part of this as well.
So, you're going to kill an innocent child? Is that it?
Innocent?! Hercules, because of that child Zeus is dead, the whole order is falling apart, and we're doomed to die! Hephaestus answered.
No, I'm the reason Zeus is dead! Hercules shouted.
Yeah, and if that child hadn't been born you wouldn't have had to kill him and none of this would be happening right now! Hephaestus shouted, turning away from Hercules.
The two friends looked away, both trying to calm themselves. Then Hercules turned to face Hephaestus only to see that he was still turned away from him.
I don't blame you for killing Zeus, Hercules. Hephaestus said quietly. You were only doing what you thought was right.
Then Hephaestus turned back around, looking at his half mortal brother with a slightly understanding face. Hercules, because of that child, Zeus is dead. I know he was your father but he was mine too. I mean, we may not have had the best relationship together but he was still my dad. So don't you tell me to walk away from this 'cause I'm not about to take this lying down!
But, Hephaestus, I mean, come on, we've known each other for years. Don't do this. Hercules pleaded, trying to keep himself from crying as a torrent of emotions raged inside of him and at any moment he knew he could lose control of them and be overcome.
I'm sorry, Hercules. I've got to do this.
Then you know I'll stand against you. You know I'll stop at nothing to protect Xena's child. Hercules said, his voice stronger this time.
I know, it's what you do. But also understand, Hercules. Friend or no friend, if you get in my way on this I'll kill you. Hephaestus said.
Hercules didn't reply, Hephaestus's words seeming to hurt him more than anything else he'd experienced in his lifetime before then. He and Hephaestus had been friends for years, practically since he'd been a teenager. And just like that, Hercules thought, he's willing to throw it all away just so he can murder an innocent child.
Goodbye, Hercules, Hephaestus called, breaking his thoughts. He looked up only to find that he wasn't there. He whirled around to find the god of the forge standing in the doorway to Athena's temple. For your sake I hope we never meet again. 'Cause if we do, it will be on the battlefield and don't think that I won't hesitate to kill you.
And with that he disappeared into the recesses of the temple leaving Hercules at a loss for words and wondering what the future held. Then the big guy turned, his head held low as he headed for Xena's camp, wondering for the first time if they really had a chance anymore of surviving in this whole ordeal with the gods that had now suddenly turned into a nightmare.
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