by Cher

"Gabbyyyyyyyyyyy!!!! I've been looking all over.." (Crash, bang) Gabrielle looked up from her news parchment as Joxer literally fell into the room. "....Tartarus for you guys."

"Well you found us or at least me." Gabrielle said as she helped brush the debris off Joxer, though it was hard to tell where the debris ended and his clothing began. "Is it necessary for you to spill into every room you enter? The fine patrons of this establishment weren't looking for a floor show this early in the morning". Finished with Joxer, Gabrielle sat back down on the bench and picked up the parchment she was reading before Joxer interupted her. "I would appreciate a little quiet while I read over the local news stories".

Joxer glanced at the parchment Gabrielle was holding and read the back page. "Wow!! Classifieds!. I luuuv to read the Personal ads" he said as he snatched the parchment from Gabrielle's hands, pitching her forward. "Hey! Joxer, I was reading that!". Joxer started reading aloud.. "Ready to Horse Around? Strong Handsome Centaur (with noble bloodlines) searching for filly to call his own... Rats, Not my type, hmmmm" Gabrielle made a lunge for the paper but Joxer somehow managed to dodge away from her.

"Joxer r r r" she said through gritted teeth. Joxer scanned the page again.. "Here's one that sounds perfect.."Lost Soulmate, Short Blonde seeks tall brunette. l Blue eyes preferred. Sexy look a plus." Joxer looks at Gabrielle then back at the parchment, then turns back to Gabrielle. "Hmmmm, Gabby, Are my eyes blue? because the sexy part is all me"

Gabrielle saw her opportunity. "I don't know", she said sweetly. "Come here so I can check your eyes." Completely oblivious, he fell right into her trap. "Okay" he said with a grin as he leaned in towards Gabrielle. She cupped the back of his head gently, pulling him in slowly closer then when he came into range, quickly punched him in the eye with her fist "Owww, what'd you do that for?" he said as he held a hand to his eye and plunked himself down onto the bench they had so recently vacated.

Just then all eyes turned as another "tall brunette" entered the inn. This one did have blue eyes and those same eyes skimmed over the crowd dismissively until they locked unerringly onto Gabrielle. A low murmur of "Xena"was repeated throughout the room as the wWarrior Princess passed the various tables to reach the pair on the bench. She just caught the end of Joxer's running complaint. "Just how am I suppose to shoot my cross-bow now? Gabrielle was shaking her head, "Joxer, you don't need both eyes to fire your bow."

"Better stick with your little fighting stick Gabby, everybody knows you have to close one eye to get a bead on your target. How am I suppose to close my eye now? I won't be able to see my target!" Gabrielle was frozen with a stunned look on her face, debating whether to clue Joxer in some more when she spotted Xena approaching.

"Hey Joxer..." Xena said offhandedly. She looked at Gabrielle and smiled, nodding towards Joxer who was still rubbing his left eye. "You hit him again?" Gabrielle laughed with a shrug, "He makes it too easy not to." Getting serious, Gabrielle looks into Xena's eyes. I thought I wouldn't see you until tomorrow? Has the plan been changed?"

"No, just a slight alteration. I'll tell you about it on the way" Gabrielle nodded and gathered up her pack and staff. . "Here Joxer, you can have the parchment now, that is if you can read it with one eye" she grinned as she passed him the classified news.

"Hey! You're leaving without me and my trusty.." (crash, bang) ."..sword?" Joxer said as he tripped over his own pack while attempting to draw his sword and keep a hand pressed to his eye. He landed in a heap at Xena's feet. Xena looked at Gabrielle who shrugged indulgently. "Of course not Joxer but who will will get to guard the town once we leave?" Xena said. "If the plan fails and they get through us, there will be no one here to mount a defence?" Gabrielle played along by saying dramatically, "If only we could find a hero to protect these poor unfortunate peasants?" They both looked at Joxer who wasn't picking up on the verbal clues as quickly as they thought he would and stood frowning off into the distance apparently thinking. Xena added, "Someone brave and good with a sword?" but he still wasn't getting it so she said with more emphasis, "Someone ,,,Mighty?" That did it! Joxer smiled, "How about me? I'm sorry but as much you need me Xena, I think the town needs a hero more to protect these poor innocent citizens." he said puffing out his chest and attempting a swagger. Gabrielle looked at Joxer sadly,"Are you sure Joxer? Ooof!", Xena nudged her in the shoulder. "Don't try to talk him out of it Gabrielle, it's obvious that his mind is made up! Well we gotta go, take care of the town, see you soon!" With that Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the elbow and tugged her out the door. Once they were outside, they stopped only long enough to pack the few things they needed and then, mounting Argo, headed off to meet up with some Amazons they would be working with.

This was one of Gabrielle's favourite moments, riding behind Xena, holding her loosely around the waist. There weren't a lot of opportunities to be close to her Warrior so she savored every chance like this that came her way. They rode in companionable silence for awhile then Xena said, over her shoulder. "I missed you.." Gabrielle wasn't sure she had heard right? "What? You missed me? Really?" "Xena pursed her lips slightly, "You're surprised I missed you? Hey if I didn't want you around I would have left you defending that village back there with the idiot they were only missing before he arrived." Gabrielle grinned, "I know that, it's just nice to hear, that's all. I missed you too". She gave Xena a squeeze. Xena smiled to herself and then got down to business. "We are meeting with some members of Ephiny's old tribe and they are bringing a Centaur that has information on Velasca. From the information I've gathered, it looks like she is the souce of the problem they are having. Gabrielle shuddered, remembering her last run in with Velasca, "Did she free herself from the lava?" Xena shook her head, "I don't think so but all roads seem to lead to her right now. Hopefully my plan will bring things to light". Gabrielle pointed slightly to her right. "I see the Amazon representitives ahead." Xena spurred Argo to a faster gait to meet up with them.

After introductions were made everyone made themselves comfortable around an afternoon cooking fire. Gabrielle was munching happily on a piece of rabbit someone had been kind enough to prepare and catching up on tribal news while the Centaur Romin spoke with Xena. "I don't know how she can be doing it but we are convinced Velasca is behind the disappearances." One of the younger Amazons, Cyrad, joined in the discussion, "All of the chosen victims were present the day you trapped Velasca in the lava, I wasn't old enough to experience my rite of passage yet but I remember the elders and they are all being systematically removed." "It can't be a coincidence," Romin added. "Xena agreed, "No, 13 and all of them were with us that day" Cyrad shook her head, "14, we lost Sasha 2 days ago."

Xena grimaced, "We will find out who or what is responsible I promise you. Thank you for meeting us here." Gabrielle looked around as the party broke up and people gathered their belongings to head back to their tribes. "Don't worry, Xena will find a way!" she called after the departing friends. Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and said, "We, will find a way!"

Later that evening, Xena sat sharpening her sword deep in thought. Gabrielle sat back on her bedroll watching her sure movements and recognized Xena's need for quiet as she processed the new information she had received that afternoon. When Xena finally put her sword aside, Gabrielle said, "What if you used me as bait again? If it is Velasca, she might jump at the chance to attack me, giving you the opportunity you need to trap her again." Xena was shaking her head no, even before Gabrielle finished. "It won't work this time, it isn't Velasca. It is someone that knows Velasca or knows of her. They also know everything that happened that day and the Amazons that helped us. That requires a lot of power to see into the past like that. I've been trying to figure out which Olympian could be responsible but I realize now that this is the work of the underworld. Gabrielle thought for a moment, then smiled triumphantly, "Pyro!" Xena nodded, "That would be my guess as well, and his little band of followers, Sulpheric and Acidic". They probably have access to Velasca's memories as she drifts trapped forever in the lava and have decided to avenge her." Gabrielle added, "For their own twisted reasons. The stories told of their exploits all center around their complete lack of purpose. Even the Olympians don't have any need of them and over time they have been relegated further and further into the center of the earth. They must have been truly excited to have Velasca show up, even as a prisoner. To suddenly have something new to talk about must have really shook them up. So now we know who so..." "How do we stop them." Xena finished for her.

At that same moment far beneath the earth's surface the subject of Xena and Gabrielle's musings was pacing in front of his two sidekicks. "I thought she would be here by now, "Pyro complained. Acidic looked up from the dirt pile he was sitting on, "If she is as ruthless as Velasca described in her memories she wouldn't come here anyway. Why would she care about a bunch of Amazons?" Sulpheric slapped him across the head, "She cared about them the first time when she helped the Amazons trap poor Velasca in the molten river. Pyro thinks she will come and help them again." Sulpheric looked up at Pyro and batted her eyelashes at him. "Pyro is so smart, he knows everything". Pyro stopped his pacing and glared at Sulpheric. "I don't know everything but I know when an injustice has been done and I think that Velasca, although new to her short lived godhood would have befriended us ... eventually. So we owe her our loyalty and we should avenge her by slaying the one responsible...Xena!. Because..,,because...., well because I'm bored and this is the first thing we have done in aeons." Acidic was still sitting on the dirt pile trailing his fingers in the earth, feeling its coolness despite the warnth emanating from the earth's core. "Why don't we go up land and get her?" Sulpheric laughed softly, "We can't just go up there and get her. Can we Pyro?" He stopped for a moment clearly astonished and looked at Acidic. "Ahhh, Of course we can. I was just, just ..." "Trying something else first?" finished Acidic with a grin. "Yeah, I was just, oh be quiet, both of you. Lets go get her. I'm starting to tire of this game anyway."

Xena and Gabrielle were still sleeping when the three appeared before them. They awoke with a start and reached for their weapons but the three powerful Deities easily disarmed them. Xena attempted to reason with Pyro but with a wave of his hand he rendered her unconscious and she collapsed to the ground. Gabrielle immediately jumped and covered Xena with her own body in an attempt to protect her but a quick flick of a finger by Sulpheric hurled Gabrielle across the camp. She easily rolled to her feet and desperately charged the three again and again only to be hurled across the camp time and time again until she just couldn't rise up. Tears stemming from futility and frustration coursed down her cheeks. Pyro, Sulpheric and Acidic were conversing amongst themselves. "Why does she protect her so?" Sulpheric was asking. "She can't hope to win against us." said Acidic" Pyro was looking at Gabrielle clearly perplexed? "Girl, what do you hope to achieve besides immediate death by your actions? We are curious." Gabrielle was panting and again rising to her feet as the three looked on. "As long as there is breath left in my body, I will fight for my friend's life." She managed to stand upright, then stumbled as she moved towards Xena and once again fell to her knees. She crawled the rest of the way to Xena and brushed the hair from her face tenderly.

Pyro laid his hand on Sulpheric's arm when she moved her hand to hurl Gabrielle away yet again. He shook his head. Watching while Gabrielle gently tried to revive the Warrior, he asked "Why would you protect one so vile? Do you know what she did to poor Velasca?" She looked up confused, "Poor Velasca? POOR VELASCA? Gabrielle shouted. "Xena is a hero and you don't deserve to stand on the same patch of soil that she does."she said as she wiped away a smudge of dirt on Xena's cheek. With his arm in the air, pointing up to the sky, Pyro proclaimed, "She must be punished! Xena's soul is now entombed witiin her own body. She is unable to move and yet conscious of everything around her until her body finally fails and dies. This is her sentence!" Chest heaving, Pyro looked down at Gabrielle who hadn't moved a hair away from Xena, despite the fact that three Gods loomed over her. She glared at them all fiercely.

Acidic was once again sitting on a pile of dirt and running his hands through it lovingly. "Clearly we have a difference of opinion here." Pyro looked at him and nodded, "Agreed, what do you propose?" Sulpheric jumped in, "A test! Yes a test to see if Xena is worthy." Gabrielle was listening attentively to the Gods and couldn't help asking, "Worthy of what? She has already proved her worthiness to the world with the heroic deeds she has accomplished and the countless lives she has saved." Sulpheric did not seem to know how to respond, apparently the idea of a test was to her liking but the details were beyond her. Too much thinking involved so she turned to Acidic who was ready with an answer."Why worthy of love, what else? Love is the one thing that drives humans above all else. If it can be shown that Xena is truly loved, then we will reconsider her punishment, what say you Sulpheric?" She clapped her hands together, "Wonderful, Of Course love!, wonderful, wonderful. Don't you think so Pyro?" Pyro was nodding his agreement, "Yes that could work, but I have conditions." Everyone turned to him, waiting for him to continue. He opened his mouth to say something then seemed to catch himself and smiled instead, "And, those particular conditions will only be revealed AFTER the test is concluded!" He said triumphantly. He was very pleased with himself but even Acidic and Sulpheric looked confused. Gabrielle stood shakily, "What conditions are on the test? I'll do whatever you want, just tell me what to do?" Acidic questioned, "She has to prove that love exists for the Warrior and if that can be done, without the Warrior's help, the test will be passed?" Pyro was nodding, "Yes, I think this test will be an impossible challenge, but because this little thing has dared to defy us I am impressed enough with her courage that I am willing to be lenient if my conditions are met", he said with a regal air. Then he grinned at Sulpheric who was dancing up and down on her toes, "This could be fun to watch." Gabrielle clenched her fists at her sides, "How much time do I have? Pyro turned to Sulpheric who beamed, "Why until Xena's body gives out? Then the game, oops! I mean test, will be truly over", she said excitedly. "We will keep Xena's body in the Dooman Cave until she withers away. That is where the test will be held. You can try and try to pass the test, proving love exists for Xena until her last breath expires," Sulpheric finished dramatically. "And Velasca will be avenged", finished Acidic. Pyro and Sulperic turned to look at him clearly having forgotten all about Velasca. "Velasca? Of course, poor Velasca", said Pyro.

Gabrielle knew she had no other choice, this was at least a chance to save Xena." I accept the challenge and look forward to proving Xena's ..."she didn't get to finish her sentence because the Gods were already gone and had taken Xena with them. Gabrielle didn't want to waste any time checking to see if they were indeed in the Cave, she knew she had a lot to do and time was a major factor. She whistled for Argo and gathered her things, noting that all of Xena's body armor was gone as well but they had left all of her weapons. "Well at least they bothered to dress her" she exclaimed. Argo approached Gabrielle looking around for Xena. "She's not here", Gabrielle muttered, "Okay girl, listen. Xena is in trouble so we are going to have to work together to save her, Argo nuzzled Gabrielle's shoulder in understanding, "Okay I'll take that as agreement, I'm going to need all the help I can get so it really helps to have you on my side." Argo snorted and reared her head, "Less enthusiasm would be nice, I think I may have some broken ribs here and I still have to figure out how I am going to saddle you, let alone get up on your back" Argo trotted over to a nearby boulder and whinnied loudly, "Smart, very smart" Gabrielle said as she slowly hefted the saddle in place and secured the girth. She tied her belongings to the back of the saddle and then attempted to climb up onto the boulder so she could mount.. Argo gave her butt a nudge with her nose to boost her up. "Thanks girl" she said as she gingerly climbed onto the saddle. "Now find Hercules! Look, I don't know if you even know what I'm saying..." With a start Argo took off at a canter North. "Easy, easy, okay, so maybe you do understand. That's it, find Hercules", she said as she gritted her teeth together against the jarring pain the ride was causing her. "I would also appreciate if you could move as smoothly as possible" Argo snorted, "Okay forget that part, just get us there as fast as you can girl.

Argo ran most of the day only stopping once for a drink and a quick bite at a stream. Gabrielle never dismounted, she simply drank and ate from the supplies she had stored in her pack. Early evening was approaching when they finally reached a small village and Argo snorted as if to say"We're here!" "Are you sure girl? This doesn't look like much.?" Gabrielle was having trouble staying upright as they slowly walked through the small village. It seemed deserted. Suddenly she could hear some music in the distance and muted voices, Argo had also heard the noise and quickened her pace. They approached a large inn at the far end of town where it seemed the whole village had gathered. People were cheering, laughing and singing at the same time. Gabrielle could see a short blonde man with his arms around two young beautiful village girls and he was whispering into their ears while the girls giggled. "Iolus?" Gabrille said weakly. Iolus turned towards the soft voice and immediately took in the situation at a glance. Something was very wrong. He lunged forward and caught Gabrielle before she fell off Argo who was doing her best to keep her rider from falling by shifting her weight from hoof to hoof. "Gabrielle! Easy there. I've got you, I've got you". He turned to the girls that were clearly confused by the chain of events. "Go get Hercules, quickly!" He turned back to Gabrielle, "Let's get you down from there, you're white as a ghost. Where'e Xena?" Slowly Gabrielle swung her leg over Argo's neck. "Xena's in trouble and I need your help, where's Hercules?" "Here, I'm here Gabrielle what's happened?" The tall handsome half-god reached up and gently lowered Gabrielle to the ground, "You're hurt! Iolus call for a healer." Gabrielle was shaking her head, "No time... we have to move now, Xena...Xena needs us. I just need to rest for a minute"." Don't argue with me, you can explain what is going on while a healer checks you out, besides Argo looks exhausted." He called to a village blacksmith, "Can you look after her horse for her? She need a good rub down and food and water. The man said he would see to it personally and Hercules carried Gabrielle to the healer's hut.

Gabrielle filled both Hercules and Iolus in while the healer wrapped her ribs. "Well you've managed to crack at least three ribs but none of them are broken apart. Just keep them tightly wrapped for a few weeks and they should heal nicely", the healer said as he finished up and left. Iolus had brought in some delicious stew for Gabrielle who was eating it slowly. "And you have no idea what Pyro means by 'Prove she is worthy of love'?" Iolus asked. He turned to Hercules, "What do you know of these three? Are we in for a fight?" Hercules had been quietly absorbing the information Gabrielle had provided, "I don't think so. They are three harmless and mostly forgotten Gods that keep to themselves below the underworld. This is strange behaviour for them" Gabrielle watched while the mighty hero went over the details. It reminded her of another hero, Xena and she grimaced. "We need to move now!" Hercules shook his head, "We need a plan first, there is no sense in running in there without knowing what we are up against. I've never met Pyro and his friends but from what I remember hearing about them, they are not usually trouble makers. You said Sulperic used the word game and that is probably all this is to them. Somthing to relieve their bordom." Gabrielle was nodding, "That was my impression but I was busy being batted around so my instincts may have been off." Iolus said abruptly, "I think we have three days." He looked up at Gabrielle's angry face and put out his hand to stop her from responding., "Hey, we need a time frame to work within and I think Xena can go without food and water for at least 5 days before her body starts to shut down. It was a days ride here, a days ride back and three days to pass the test." Hercules nodded his agreement. "He's right, we have to think ahead. If we need more help we have to allot time to get them to Dooman cave." Gabrielle was shaking her head, "Believe me, I thought of all that on the way here. There just isn't enough time, I know it is at least a three day ride to the nearest Amazon tribe and what can they do against three Gods? Besides, the key to this is love and Hercules, you are the only one within reach, that has been ... close to Xena, " she said as she blushed uncomfortably. Hercules too, looked away as she spoke, running his hand through his long brown hair. Iolus grinned, "Well if love is what the lady needs, love is what Herc is good at? This is going to be easy!" Hercules looked at Gabrielle embarrassedly, "Let's just get some sleep and head out at first light. I'll make arrangements for provisions, just try to relax, she needs you strong Gabrielle. Sleep while you can." he said as he patted Gabrielle's hand and left. "She'll be all right Gabby", Iolus said. "Hercules has a soft spot for her, he won't let them hurt her." Gabrielle nodded, "I know he will try his best. You're a good friend Iolus. Thanks" "You don't have to thank me, you would do the same for either one of us. Now get some sleep. I'm going to sleep on the next cot after I help Herc with the supplies and check in on Argo." He wasn't sure if she heard him because she had already drifted off, knowing that her friends would carry the burden of worry until morning. Sleep really was the best medicine if she wanted to help save Xena.

Xena wasn't sleeping however, she was cursing the three Deities in various languages as she lay prone on a cold granite alter. When they had first appeared unexpectantly in camp that morning, she hadn't been overly worried, used as she was to dealing with the Olympian Gods but when her attempts to reason with Pyro had fallen on deaf ears, she knew they were in trouble. Her immediate concern had been for Gabrielle as always but her frustration had quickly climbed to new heights when she had been immobilized so easily by the trio. She had lain helplessly, willing Gabrielle to stop when her friend tried time after time to free her. She flinched inwardly remembering the bone jarring thuds Gabrielle's body made when Sulpheric hurled her across the camp, then let loose a few more explexatives that would have made Gabrielle's hair curl. She was proud of her friends display of loyalty and courage but she feared for her life if she tried to use force against these three. Xena was a woman of action, so this inability to move was indeed one of the best forms of punishment she had ever endured. But endure she would! She knew that Gabrielle would be out there trying to get some help, the closest being in the form of Hercules, if she could find him. He was probably her best hope of dealing with these Gods in the present situation but she didn't want to leave any stone unturned so she set her mind to the "Test" the trio had mentioned and considered different approaches to the problem. Love? What did love have to do with this? She knew with her dark past, proving she was worthy of love would be an impossible task and she also knew that Pyro set the test up expecting Gabrielle to fail. She knew it had been at least a day since she had any water and time was not on her side. The shadows on the ceiling of the cave, indicated that night was approaching and she didn't expect to see Gabrielle for at least another day so she had better get some sleep...

"Dooman Cave is just over the rise" Iolus said as Gabrielle and Argo reined in beside him. "Come Argo, let's get Xena, Hyahh!!" She said as she encouraged Argo into a gallop. "Wait Gabrielle, Hercules said to wait for him before entering the cave"Iolus shouted. He knew his mount didn't have a chance of keeping pace with Argo but he hoped that Gabrielle wouldn't try anything until they were all ready. As he rounded the rise, he spotted Hercules waiting outside the cave, holding back Gabrielle. "Hang on, hang on, wait for Iolus" he said as he held her back, careful not to jar her ribs. "Let me go Hercules, I have to check to make sure she is in there and that her body wasn't distubed by vandals or animals/ I don't know how well protected she is and I need her to know that I'm here, we're here and everything is going to be alright." Gabrielle said with tears in her eyes. Iolus reached them at this point and swung down off his mount. The moment Hercules released his hold on Gabrielle she moved to the cave entrance, "Come on, this way!" she said as she stepped into the cave mouth. "Gabrielle, hold up!" Hercules said as he stepped towards the cave entrance, only to run smack into some kind of invisible wall that would not allow him to enter. He felt along the barrier trying to find a way in. "Gabrielle stop!" Iolus reached him and he too searched for some way in. "Gabby!" Gabrielle came back to the entrance and said"What are you waiting for !" She stepped back outside. Suddenly Hercules hands could feel that the barrier was gone. "There was some kind of barrier here preventing us from entering. He stepped into the entrance and this time Iolus and Gabrielle were stuck outside. They both ran their hands over the surface searching for some key to the appearance and reappearance of the invisible wall. Hercules stepped back outside and the wall was again removed. "Obviously only one of us is allowed in at a time" Hercules motioned Iolus forward. "You try!" but the same thing happened. "Gabrielle, I'm going in first." Hercules raised his hands when he saw she was going to argue. "Let's not waste any more time by arguing. I'll check around and make sure Xena is safe and be back as soon as I can." Iolus patted Gabrielle on the shoulder, "Herc is the best equipped to handle any obstacles in there. Lets get the food and water ready and you can take it in when Herc gets back" he said to distract her while Hercules slipped inside.

Hercules crept along searching for any hidden traps but didn't find anything out of the ordinary. The cave wasn't very big but it had high ceilings and the alter set at the back was easily visible as well as the Warrior that lay prone on the surface, unmoving. "Xena!" he said as he moved to her side quickly. He checked to see if she had been disturbed in any way, "What a mess we have here, my friend." he murmured as he ran his hands lightly over Xena's body, searching for any apparent injuries. Satisfied that she was fine or at least outwardly fine, he looked at her face. "You just look like you are sleeping peacefully but I am sure that you are cursing a mean streak right about now. Try not to worry. We are all working on getting you free from here. Only one of us can enter at a time so I'm going back out and I'll send Gabrielle in after me so she can see you are still breathing. She has been a real Hydra to deal with since this happened. You'd be very proud of the way she is handling things." Hercules stepped quickly to the cave entrance and as soon as he passed outside, Gabrielle ran in with her pack. "Xena!" and burst into tears as she hurled herself across the room and onto her friend. She cupped Xena's face between her palms and looked for any sign of awaremness. "I'm here, I'm here now. Don't worry, Hercules and Iolus will help me find a way out of this mess. She too ran her hands over Xena, looking for any indication that her body had been disturbed but her armor was intact. She tried to speak as lightly as she could, "This reminds me of that time when you were..." she didn't finish her sentence. "Well you know what I mean and we got out of that one alright. I'm just looking to be sure you didn't pick up any unwanted little friends while you've been waiting here for us. She gripped Xena's hand and drew it to her face. "You're so cold, why didn't they cover you?" she said pulling a blanket from her pack. "Nice going!" She threw over her shoulder to the three gods she knew must be listening. "The least you could have done was provide a blanket or a fire to keep the cave somewhat warm" Sulperic looked over at Pyro" She knows we're here?""Pyro shrugged and snapped his fingers so a ball of fire appeared near Gabrielle. "Thank you" she said. Acidic chuckled, "This may grow more interesting then I thought it would." Gabrielle was trying to pour a tiny amount of water into Xena's mouth and then massage it down her throat so she wouldn't choke but it was slow going. "I'll make some broth later and see if I can get a teaspoon or so into you if we don't free you soon." She rolled Xena over and tucked another blanket under her, then rolled her back, as a barrier to the cold granite. "There! That at least warms you up a bit. I can't stay long because I promised Hercules I would switch with Iolus but I'll be back soon. He must have mentioned that only one of us can enter at a time? We are going to save you, count on me, Xena." with those parting words, Gabrielle turned to leave but stopped suddenly. She looked around the cave towards the area where she assumed the Gods were watching and then back over to Xena. "Did you call me Xena?" She questioned as she leaned over her friend.

Xena was estactic "YES!" she screamed silently. "Don't endanger yourself more, please hear me Gabrielle!"Xena felt so powerless. Gabrielle's hands had been trembling with worry when she covered her with the blankets. Xena knew her friend was putting up a brave front for her benefit, despite her fears. "Please protect yourself. Stay far away from here. I can face anything if I know you are safe" Xena begged.

Acidic was amused" So she cares more about her friend then she does about saving herself. Doesn't sound like a killer to me?" Pyro glared at him, "She's trying to confuse us, she knows we can hear her thoughts." Sulpheric did not look convinced, "I don't know? She sounds sincere and how did her friend hear her? She didn't make a sound?" Acidic replied, "She didn't hear it.. she felt it. These two are connected, maybe right down to their very souls."he finished. Pyro was not convinced, "Bah! It was a lucky guess, that's all, ruthless killers can not experience love, they're just trying to figure out how to pass the test." Sulpheric was starring at the two as Gabrielle smoothed back Xena's hair with her hand, "Maybe or maybe we were wrong? She has powerful friends, Hercules is not someone we want mad at us." Pyro dismissed her comment with a wave of his hand, "He is only half a God, he can't harm us. If he wants Xena to pass the test, he'll have to do it our way. I'm going outside to see what they are planning", he said as Gabrielle once again headed back to the cave entrance. She called back over her shoulder, "I know you were probably warning me away but I'm not leaving you, I'll be back soon." and she exited the cave so Iolus could go in for a while.

Hercules and Gabrielle sat huddled together tossing around ideas.."I think they want us to prove she is worthy of our love" Hercules said as he pushed a stick into the small fire he had going. Gabrielle was shaking her head, "It can't be that easy, if it was I could just recite the adventures I have chronicled in my scrolls. Besides, Xena's exploits are pretty well known throughout this entire region. Pyro could check any Inn in Greece and the patrons would all be familiar with Xena's most recent heroic deeds. They're almost as well known as yours." Hercules dipped his head forward nodding sheepishly, "It is hard to keep a low profile. So proof of her deeds is readily available. What else?" Gabrielle stood up pacing for a moment or two. "What if they want to know if someone "worthy", could love Xena?" Sulpheric nudged Acidic. "They are going to figure it out. How did you know?" Acidic smiled, "Pyro underestimates the intelligence of these people. They have progressed quite admirably in the last aeon or so. They really are quite amusing and a few of them, like these two, outsmart the gods on a daily basis. They may not have the special abilities we do but they make up for it with a sharp wit and mind. At least some of them." Pyro was nodding, "It seems you are right, but the test isn't over yet!"

Hercules was looking at Gabrielle with one eyebrow raised. "Worthy of loving her?" "Gabrielle was pacing faster and talking non-stop, Yes, yes that must be it. Worthy of loving Xena, like a hero is worthy. You and Iolus are heroes and both of you have a romantic history with Xena so maybe if one of you..."She stopped and looked at Hercules. "That's it! You have to kiss her!" "What!" Hercules sputtered.

Acidic was high fiving Sulpheric. "She got it she got it!" Pyro muttered , "Calm down, I admit they are close to the truth but they could still get it wrong!" Hercules sat back down on the log he was using as a bench by the fire. "Kiss her? How does that make me worthy? I know we had a brief relationship but that was over a long time ago" "No, no, kissing her does not make you worthy, being a hero makes you worthy and if as a hero you love Xena then she is worthy of love." Gabrielle was trying hard to get her idea across. I think this is a test to show that Xena is capable of experiencing love from worthy sources and if she has people that love and respect her she can't possibly be as ruthless as Velasca led them to believe." "But that is so simple" Hercules said. "Xena taught me that sometimes it is the simplest plans that work the best" Come on let's go tell Iolus.

After filling him in on the plan Gabrielle had worked out they decided that Iolus should be the one to kiss her first. "If I can't get a rise out of Xena with these expert lips, I'll hunt, clean and cook dinner for a week!"Iolus said with confident grin. Gabrielle grabbed Iolus by the ear, "Just go in there, take your time and kiss her with all of the love you feel for her" she said as she shoved him towards the entranceway. Iolus rubbed his ear and nodded before ducking back into the cave. It seemed like a very long time before he reappeared shaking his head. "Sorry guys, I tried everything but no response. Remind me to keep clear of her when she does get up because I took a few liberties that are going to earn me a swift punch in the face" Gabrielle was practically seething, "I'm sure you tried your best!" she said through clenched teeth. Hercules was watching Gabrielle's reaction, "I'm sure he didn't do anything disrespectful. right Iolus?" but Iolus just shrugged. Gabrielle was shaking her head, "It doesn't matter now, please Hercules! Go in there and bring her out, this has gone on long enough" Hercules reached down and pulled some wild flowers from a small nearby thicket and carried them with him into the cave, "They can't hurt!" he said as he stepped inside. He slowly approached Xena, placing the flowers across her breast plate of armor. Softly he whispered, "Xena, you know how I love and respect you. You've done so much for the world, helping to right wrongs and fight the good fight. We need you back. I need you back. Please wake up and come putside with me, Gabrielle and Iolus are waiting." With that Hercules leaned forward and gently kissed Xena's lips, then he kissed her brow and nuzzled her cheek. "Come on Xena, you can do it!" but there was no response. He tried different approaches with the same effect. He turned to the Gods he knew would be huddled together watching from somewhere in the room. "Show yourselves!", he demanded.

"He can't hurt us can he Pyro?" Sulpheric asked nervously stepping behind him. "No he is just angry because we have beaten him. He can't release her any more than his friend can. They just aren't worthy enough. I told you they couldn't do it." he said to Acidic."I wouldn't be so sure. They still have time. Xena still lives and she is growing increasingly angry. She was not at all thrilled with the attempts made by Hercules and his friend to romance her awake." Acidic turned to Sulperic and continued, "We had better hope that they continue to fail because she has a will of iron and I for one think this could really backfire on us. I admit this was amusing to watch as we carried out the sentence you proclaimed in Velasca's name but my respect for these people has grown and I too think we were a little quick to invoke our sense of justice without knowing all the circumstances surrounding her inprisonment in the lava pit."

"We really only heard one side of the matter" said Supleric to Pyro. "Hmmm" said Pyro. "I'm not convinced yet, let's see if she can pass the test." Sulpheric frowned, "But it's over. her friends all tried and failed." Acidic was shaking his head as he dropped back down into a corner of the cave to run the earth through his fingers again and watch, "Not all of them tried.."

Hercules stumbled out of the cave and rammed his fist into a nearby tree, sending it crashing to the ground. "Arghhh!" Gabrielle ran up to him, "What is it, where is she? What happened?" "I failed Gabrielle, I couldn't do it and I couldn't provoke the Gods to appear either.." Iolus grabbed the canteen and poured some of the cool water over Hercule's damaged fist. "I guess that tree never saw that coming eh?", he said with a smirk. Both Gabrielle and Hercules looked at him with disbelief, he knew when to quit. "Okay, seriously what's plan B?" Gabrielle eas covering her eyes with her hand and rubbing her temples. She shook her head despondently as she responded, "There is no plan B, I thought for sure this would work. She had very strong feelings for Hercules at one time and I thought that would be enough to convince Pyro and pass this, this test. I can't believe I've failed her now when she needs me the most."

"You haven't failed her and we are sticking with the original plan", Hercules said as he flexed his injured hand. "Do you want me to try again?", said Iolus "Maybe there is an approach I didn't try"Hercules patted his shoulder "No, I think we tried everything we could my friend but it is going to taker a stronger love then the two of us can provide, right Gabrielle?" Gabrielle looked at Hercules and realized he knew her secret. The secret that she carried with her everyday. She turned back to look at the cave entrance and sighed heavily, "But I'm nobody. You two are the heroes, what could be more worthy than that? Besides, she doesn't know how I feel about her. How did you know?" she asked curiously as she turned to Hercules. "Was it that obvious?" Hercules was shaking his head, "No little one, it wasn't obvious but sometimes I would catch you in a lingering look when Xena wasn't watching or see the concern you had for her in battle and I suspected that your feelings were stronger than friendship."

"Do you think she knows?" Gabrielle asked with tears streaming freely down her face. Iolus had discretly backed away to give them some privacy. Hercules wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs as he cupped her face, "No I don't think so, but she needs to know now. It's the only way. Go tell her how you feel, because even if it doesn't work, she needs to know how much you love her while there is still time." He turnd her back and gave her a little shove towards the entrance, "Go! she needs you!" Gabrielle took a deep breath and entered the cave.

The three gods, came to attention when Gabrielle entered. "This should be interesting", muttered Pyro. He watched as she approached Xena. "Xena, it's me again, I thought for sure that Hercules or Iolus would pass this test and free you by now but I was wrong so Hercules thought that maybe I should try. Crazy huh? Me, the sidekick and best friend to the Warrior Princess. What influence could I possibly have? Well, for your sake I'm going to try, so here goes!

I sing a tale of a young peasant girl living... no, existing, in a small rural village, until one day a beautiful Warrior appeared and saved her. The end?.... No." Gabrielle grasped Xena's hand and squeezed it, " No it wasn't the end, it was only the beginning of the story because the Warrior allowed the girl to travel with her and share her adventures. The girl quickly learned what it truly means to live and she learned how precious every moment can be that we are alive in this world. The girl's life is tightly interwoven with the Warrior's and she wouldn't change a thing about their lives together so far. In fact, the girl can't imagine what her life would have been like without the influence of the Warrior Princess." Gabrielle raised Xena's hand to her lips and kissed her knuckles softly. "and she never wants to find out, because she needs her. Yes the world needs Xena because she is a hero and we need heroes to help mankind survive, in this world controlled by fickle Gods", she threw over her shoulder before continuing. "and that is the greater good here, I know. But I'm selfish and I want you back because... simply because I love you. I have always loved you Xena. I always will. I didn't recognize the feeling right away as love because I was caught up in the whole hero worship thing but after you allowed me to see the real Xena both good and bad, I knew! I can't explain it any better. I just knew that I was meant to love you forever and I want you to know that I understand you don't feel the same way but I need you to know how I feel. I didn't tell you before because I was afraid it would change things between us and I couldn't risk losing your friendship. I hope you will forgive me for remaining silent, for once." She chuckled softly before continuing. "I would do anything to save you Xena, anything"

 The small fireball floating nearby suddenly flared and Pyro appeared with his friends. "Would you die for her?" he asked sinply. Gabrielle didn't even hesitate, "In a heartbeat!" Sulperic was looking at Xena, "You have upset your friend considerably!" Xena had listened to Gabrielle's confession and was now trying to stop her, because she could see where this was all leading. Pyro was not going to be happy unless he had a death to avenge Velasca's name. "No" she screamed silently, "Please Gabrielle, please stop get out of here now!" but Gabrielle was focussed on Pyro. "I wanted her to know how much I love her and if there is anything I can do to free her, I will do it!" Acidic was watching her curiously, "Then take this dagger and drive it into your heart and we will free your friend," he said as he passed her a lethal looking blade. There were a number of jewels lining the hilt and some unusal etchings Gabrielle noticed as she accepted the sharp kinfe from him. If I kill myself will you release my friend and forever leave her alone? She will be free from your influence and the business with Velasca will be over? My life for Xena's and Velasca will be avenged? How do I know you will even keep your word?" Pyro was nodding, "I will accept a trade of your life for hers and agree to your terms. You have no way of knowing if I will keep my word but what other options do you have?" Sulpheric stepped forward, "Know this too, your friend is not at all happy about this trade. I have never seen such fury in a being. I think you underestimate the influence you have over the Warrior." Gabrielle looked back at Xena, "All I know, is that without her I will be dead inside and be right back where I started, just existing. After a taste of living, I want it all or nothing. I accept your terms Pyro, can I say good bye?" she asked to the three watching who all nodded. Gabrielle approached Xena, sensing the turmoil going on inside the warrior's mind. "Xena, I remember the greater good and this is good for the people, they need you. Please don't be angry with me, I know you would have done the same thing if the situation was reversed, my love. Please honor my memory and live to fight the good fight. I know we will meet again some day, some where. Know that I'll be waiting." She leaned over the warrior princess and kissed her gently on the lips, then dragged her lips down to Xena's cheek. Her fingers brushed a tear that trickled down from one of Xena's eyes, " I love you Xena." with that said, she grasped the hilt of the dagger and centered the point directly over her heart. With one last look at her Warrior Princess she ran towards the far wall, using the force of her momentum to drive the knife deep into her chest.

All three gods dropped as the Warrior Princess screamed, "NOOOO!!!" just as Gabrielle headed towards the wall. The force of the Warrior's anguish had brought them all to their knees as Gabrielle hit the wall with a thud. Gabrielle looked down and saw that the knife was buried to the hilt in her chest and thought that it seemed odd that she really didn't feel that much pain, just a dull ache in her cracked ribs. Maybe dying wasn't so bad after all? But she was going to miss her Warrior Princess and that hurt was deeper than any dagger could penetrate. She turned back towards Xena who was sitting up, throwing the blankets aside and springing from the alter trying to reach her. Gabrielle smiled as she slowly dropped to the floor, it worked! She had done it! Her love was free. Xena caught her and cushioned her head as her eyes overflowed with tears. " Oh Gabrielle, I'm not worth it. You are the true hero. You were brave enough to tell me how you feel, something I was never able to do. I love you too." Acidic put his hand on Xena's shoulder. "Gabrielle is one of a kind I think". Xena turned on him with a snarl, "Don't even speak her name!" Sulpheric spoke next, "This has gone on long enough, she has passed the test! There is no need to torture her more." Xena, looked up at her through her tears, "I don't care abouit passing a test, I just want my friend back. She was everything to me, she was my home." "It wasn't your test, it was hers, " Pyro said. "We were testing to see if she could prove that love can conquer all if you are worthy enough. She was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save you. That is a pretty powerful force." "That means nothing to me if I have to live without her, don't you see, she was my source of strength. She said she needed me but I needed her more and you forced her to take her own life" Xena said bitterly. Acidic chuckled, "No we didn't!" Xena shouted at him,"She felt she had no other choice, you led her to this decision.". "You misunderstand, I mean yes we forced her to make the decision but we didn't take her life. Check the dagger" Xena reached down and gently pried Gabriells's hands from the hilt of the knife and immediately saw that the blade was gone. There wasn't a scratch on Gabrielle. She had been so overcome with grief she had failed to notice the lack of blood on her friend and the steady pulse rate. "Alive? She's alive! but how?" Xena asked as she checked her over for injuries. Pyro spoke up grinning, "Well it didn't seem right to have her pass the test and prove you were worthy of her love just to kill her. We're not animals you know? She passed fair and square so our business here is through. A warrior worthy of a love like this must have had a good reason to entrap Velasca in the river of lava. I'll go release the Amazons we were holding and consider the matter concluded." Sulperic asked tentively, "Is there anything I can get you to make you more comfortable? Stupid question roght, I know. Here!" She snapped her fingers and their belongs appeared, as well as a some well stocked supplies. "Acidic is explained things to Hercules, from a distance you understand and they said they would meet up with you in a few days. We thought you two might have a few things to talk over and want a little privacy." Xena swallowed her anger and thanked her though clenched teeth. Sulpheric appreciated the effort it took and smiled. "Don't think too harshly of us Xena, I wish you both good fortune" and vanished.

Xena had long ago given up on ever understanding the Gods and dismissed them quickly from her mind. She had more important things to worry about. She looked down at Gabrielle as she held her cradled in her arms, to see her wide awake? "Are we dead?" Xena laughed and cried at the same time, "No, we are very much alive my love." "Gabrielle looked confused, "but I should be dead?" Xena smiled, "Does this feel like your dead?" She slowly leaned down and kissed her. She nibbled at Gabrielles lips, hearing her soft sigh of pleasure. Gabrielle chuckled, "Well if I am dead, I should have killed myself sooner!"and she reached up to pull the Warrior down for another earth shattering kiss. Xena smiled, "No more talk about being dead, I want to show you how good it feels to be alive. I love you Gabrielle" she said seriously, " and I'm going to spend the rest of my days showing you just how much. Your education on this particular subject has been sorely lacking." "They say I'm a quick learner" Gabrielle grinned as Xena strecthed out beside her. "Well this is going to be a long lesson and I don't care how many times I have to repeat it until I am completely satisfied and you know everything I know" "Then by all means let the lessons begin!", Gabrielle said as Xena kissed her and true to her word they spent a great many days and nights, exploring new facets of their relationship which turned into a lifetime of learning, laughter and love, always love...

Back at the Inn, Joxer is enjoying the latest parchment edition of the Classifieds when he comes across a Personal entry...SOULMATE FOUND! Short blonde finds tall brunette with blue eyes, sexy look IS a definite plus!

The End