The Edge of Nowhere

Part XI

Gabrielle knocked on the door, then waited for a response. When none came, she knocked again, a bit more impatiently. "Iona? Iona, it's me..." Nothing. "I just wanna talk to you..."

Still nothing. Gabrielle released a breath, then pushed open the door, peeking inside. "Iona?" Her eyes slid over the room until she spotted a form hidden under the blankets of the bed. "Hey..." The warrior perched down on the foot end carefully. "Look, I'm sorry to just come barging in on you, but... I think we need to talk...."


"I know you're mad. And... and that's OK, you have a right to be mad, but..." Gabrielle fumbled with the edge of the blanket. "Don't be mad at her. This isn't her fault. And... and I know you know that, somewhere deep down... These are really rough times, you know... For all of us... Her too. She's hurting. I can tell. And I know I'm not supposed to care, but..." She moved a bit closer. "She loves you, so much... And... I know she'd do anything she could to stop you from hurting... She can help you, Iona... But you gotta let her in..." 

There was no response. 

Gabrielle cast a look skyward. "This is stupid.... I'm not going to let you stay down here all by yourself any longer, understood?" She reached out for the girl's shoulder. "You are just so incredibly..." A frown as she touched what she thought to be Iona' shoulder, and found it indented a little too easily. She grabbed a handful of blanket and yanked it off the bed, exposing two strategically placed pillows. Her eyes widened in alarm. "...gone..."


The corridor was dark and damp. Drops of condensation dripped from the ceiling and onto the stone floor, echoing dully. Iona repressed a shiver, biting her lip. She wasn't scared. She was so not scared. She touched her hand to the hilt sticking from her belt, ensuring herself of the dagger's presence. 

She'd picked a different tunnel then the one they'd escaped through of course. There would be far too many guards blocking both the entrance and the exit to the other tunnel, she knew that. She wasn't sure which tunnels Pompey would know about, but Xena had told her once about a few corridors, leading from the Empress's private quarters and she was pretty sure Pompey wouldn't know about those. Xena had told her that if there were ever any troubles she could use those to escape and get as far away from the palace as possible. 

It was ironic really, that she would use the knowledge Xena had provided to do something the Empress didn't want her to do at all... But what Xena wanted didn't matter of course, cause... cause Xena was stupid.

She knew all of this wasn't Xena's fault, not really... But of all the people, Xena had to understand why she had to do this. Iona knew all the stories, about her brother Lyceus. Xena hadn't just told her of course, but she'd picked up bits and pieces now and then and was smart enough to puzzle them together into one big tale. Lyceus had gotten killed and then Xena had gone after the guy who killed him and then after every man who'd fought beside that guy until there was no one left. 

Blue eyes narrowed. She wanted there to be no one left. No one. She wanted them to pay. She wanted to make them pay. 

Why couldn't Xena understand that? Didn't she care? Didn't she care her daddy was... Iona sniffled, hastily rubbing at her eyes and pushing away the tears that were forming there. She could feel all the emotions she'd been repressing drifting in her stomach, poking at her nerves, waiting for a chance to surface. But she wouldn't let them. She wouldn't cry. There was no time for crying. She needed to be hard and ruthless. 

She stopped in front of what appeared to be a dead end, a large wooden square in the wall blocking her passage. She gazed at it for a moment, swallowing heavily. 

Ruthless. She reminded herself then firmly. She was ruthless. 

Iona squared her shoulders, then reached to her right and pulled a switch hidden between two bricks . There was a low rumbling, as wheels turned and weights dropped and raised, then slowly the panel slid sideways. 

A large wooden closet was her exit point, and she crawled through the hole carefully, emerging into Xena's study as quietly as she could. 

The light from the afternoon sun peeked through the large window, scattering its rays into the room. It felt odd, standing here now. In this room, which she'd always loved... just because it was Xena's room... To see the chair she'd climb onto every chance she would get, because it was Xena's chair...

The familiar sights, the smells... If she closed her eyes... If she closed her eyes it was like she could feel her, feel Xena's presence. And the safety that that presence was associated with settled over her like a warm blanket. 

She had to force herself to shrug it off. Because it wasn't safe here, not anymore. This was hostile territory now. And she was here on a mission. And this time there was no Xena to protect her, to catch her if she fell or... 

Iona sucked in a breath, the air rasping lightly against her tight throat. "Xena..." She whispered softly. "I... I'm scared..."

A giggle drifted up behind her. "You should be..."

Iona spun around, her eyes widening in shock as she recognised the voice. 

"Well, hello precious..." Callisto drawled with a smirk. 

Iona blinked back at her, her throat gone dry. 

"I remember you..." The blonde looked at the girl in intrigue. "You were the spunky one, right?" 

Something deep down inside of her suddenly made itself know. Iona could feel it bubbling up, could feel it taking over. The next moment her hand was reaching for the dagger, pulling it from its hiding place, pointing it threateningly at the immortal.

Callisto giggled in delight. "Guess that answers my question..."

"I..." Iona heard herself speak. "I've come for Pompey... I don't care about you."

Callisto smirked. "Phew, mighty relieved now... " She cocked her head then, studying the girl for a moment. "Come to kill him, have you?"

Iona tightened her hold on her dagger. "Yes."

"Good girl," Callisto chortled happily, settling down on the armrest of a nearby chair, her eyes still focused on her companion. "You know, I started killing when I was about your age..."

Iona blinked, the odd situation throwing her completely off balance. "You... you did?"

"Uhuh," Callisto tossed her legs up and let herself slide down into the seat fully. "If you wanna be good at something you gotta start early, dear..." Brown eyes studied her calmly. "By the way, you're holding that thing all wrong... Didn't your precious Xena ever tell you how to hold a weapon?"

"I..." Iona glanced down at her hands insecurely, then glanced back up. "She didn't want to teach me..."

"The mighty Destroyer of Nations afraid of a little competition?" Callisto pushed herself up, rising from her seat gracefully. "Well, if the little Empress won't show you, then auntie Callisto will have to, hmm?"

Iona hastily lifted her dagger up a little higher, holding it in front of her defensively. 

Callisto giggled. "You're cute, you know that?" She stepped closer slowly, until the edge of the dagger was pressing up against her stomach. "If I had any intention of killing you, my dear, I would have done so by now..." 

Iona looked at her, unsure. 

"Fact is, darling," Callisto continued calmly. "That I don't mind you having a go at the Pomster at all..."

Blue eyes blinked at her. "You... You don't?"

"Of course not..." Callisto waved a hand at her negligently. "He was fun to play with for a while, but he's served his purpose now, and he's getting to be a bit of a bore..." Callisto leaned a bit closer, her blond locks tumbling forward and throwing half of her face into shadow. "He wants my army, ya know? Alti promised me the army, but now he's acting all bossy and it annoys me... And I don't like to be annoyed.... So..." Callisto touched a fingertip to the edge of the blade and slowly pushed it aside. "Let me show you what to do..." She lifted a hand and covered Iona's, then moved it upwards a trifle. "One hand here..." She instructed. "And now spread your fingers a little... You wanna have a nice firm grip, you're gonna have to push this little thing through bones and muscle and all that..."

Iona gazed up at Callisto, then down at her hands. "I... I don't know if..."

"Tut tut..." Callisto wagged a finger at her. "Enough with the chit chat... You're here to make a kill, not conversation..."

"But..." Iona took a step backwards, away from the blonde. "I... I don't..."

"Now, none of that," Callisto advanced on her again. "Do I need to remind you what he did? Hmm? How he gutted your daddy?"

Iona swallowed, tears brimming in her eyes now. 

"The look in your daddy's eyes when Pompey pushed that blade into his back? Do I need to remind of that?"

Blue eyes grew perceptibly colder. 

Callisto smirked. "No... I didn't think I had to either..." She closed the distance between them again, pushing a lock of blond hair from Iona's face. 

The door opened suddenly and Pompey walked in, then stopped dead as he spotted the two.

"Well, well..." Callisto straightened, darting him a charming smile. "If it isn't the man who put the P in Pompey."

Pompey frowned, his eyes darting from one blonde to the other. "What is going on here?!"

"Oh, I was just teaching my little one here how to kill you." Callisto patted the girl on the back amicably. "Go on then... Try to stick it in his gut... You get lots of blood that way..."

Iona tightened the hold on the hilt, her knuckles standing out sharply against her skin as she slowly took a step towards him. She called up every image of him, of her father and her eyes narrowed. 

Pompey glanced from her up to Callisto, then back down to the girl, finally settling on the dagger she was holding. "What in Hades' name..." 

With a wild yell Iona lunged forward, pushing her dagger towards the lieutenant.

But before the dagger could touch skin a firm kick sent it flying across the room, embedding itself firmly in the door post. A hand grasped onto her hand and then another wrapped around her neck, lifting her straight off the ground. "What do you think you are doing, you little piece of vermin!" Pompey snarled. 

Iona had to make effort to gasp in a breath. Not just because of the fact that Pompey's grip was cutting off the air to her lungs, but also... 

She would have killed him. If he hadn't stopped her, she would have... Of course, he was already dead, really, and it shouldn't matter, but... Iona gazed down at her hands. She could have killed somebody... And the realisation of that hit her all of a sudden, with a painful intensity. Pompey was saying something, yelling at her, but his words were a blur, and all that got through to her was the look in his eyes, hate filled. 

What had she done? The grip on her throat tightened and she struggled for another breath. What was she going to do now? Her heart rhythm doubled, pumping panic through her body. 

"Hey!" Callisto strode over, narrowing her eyes at the lieutenant. "Don't you be talking to my girl like that..."

"Your..." Pompey's dark eyes looked past Iona at the thin blonde, in utter confusion. "We are on the same team, remember?!" He tossed up a hand, Iona's wrist still held in it. "You are insane!"

"Flattery is going to get you nowhere..." Callisto placed both hands on Iona's waist and lifted her up a bit, out of Pompey's grasp, allowing the girl to breathe again. "Let go of my pet now, Pomster."

"She tried to kill me!" Pompey growled furiously. "And I told you not to call me that!"

"You might have noticed by now Xena seems to have a thing for blondes," Callisto informed him calmly. "She's going to lure Xena this way... And if you hurt one tiny hair on her pretty little head, Alti is going to have your hide..."

Brown eyes narrowed at her, but the lieutenant did ease his grip on the girl, knowing the immortal had a point.

Callisto shot him a charming smile, lifting Iona from his grasp and cradling the girl against her with one arm. " Let's go pay Alti a visit, hmm?" 

Iona struggled wildly, but it was to no avail. A sob raked through her body and she was unable to stop the whirlwind of emotions this time, her last bit of strength failing her in this entire chaos. 

"Now, don't cry..." Callisto cupped her cheek, tracing the skin soothingly with a thumb. "I know Alti's a bit scary, but she's really a nice person underneath, ya know?" She headed out the door, pulling the dagger from the wood as she passed. "You just gotta look past the vicious eyes and the evil glare and the destructive powers and the rotten heart... and you'll see she's just all mush inside..."

Thalia groaned as she became aware of the painful thumping of her head. "Ugh... Good gods..." She lifted a hand reached for her aching head. "I feel like I got..." A pause, as memories resurfaced. "Ah... No wonder..." Carefully she pushed herself up to a sitting position, moaning as the room started spinning around her to make her stay down. "Obnoxious little..." The redhead bit her lip and pulled her feet under her, then pushed herself up. 

And thumped straight back onto her butt as her knees refused to cooperate. "Ouch!"

"Thalia?" The door was pushed open and the redhead looked up to see three Gabrielles swaying in the doorway. Soon enough the three merged into one though and she watched as the single blonde crossed the room and dropped down by her side. "What happened?"

"Freaking kid pushed a door against my head..." Thalia muttered, slightly embarrassed, placing a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and using the warrior's support to get herself to her feet. 

Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her friend's waist to help her stand. "Iona? Iona did this?"

"Brat came walking in here, asked me about the meeting..." Thalia stated as Gabrielle guided her over to the bed and allowed her to sit down "So I told her we made a plan and all that... And I showed her that dagger and then she smacked me in the head..." 

"The dagger..." Gabrielle's eyes widened as she put the pieces together. "Oh gods..." She turned and took a few paces towards the door, then reconsidered and paced back. "When did this happen? How long ago?"

"I uhm... Just.. just after the meeting ended really..." Thalia murmured, not quite understanding the warrior's anxious behaviour.

"Damn it..." Gabrielle cursed, slamming her fist against the bed in frustration. "She's must have reached the palace by now..."

"Palace?" Thalia frowned. "What are you..." A pause as her shaken brain kicked in. "Are you saying the kid went off to the palace by herself?!"

Gabrielle sucked in a breath. "I... I gotta tell..." She pushed herself up and headed for the door. 

"Gab?" Thalia pushed herself up, standing a little shakily. "Hey!"

Gabrielle turned a corner and rushed up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. Another turn and she was standing in the livingroom. 

Xena cut off her conversation with Dorian as the warrior entered, rising to her feet. "So? Did you talk to her?" She asked, her blue eyes searching Gabrielle's anxiously. 

Gabrielle swallowed, suddenly finding it hard to speak. "She... She's gone..." 

"Gone?" Xena frowned, then glanced past her as Thalia stumbled in, sporting a huge bump on her forehead and looking pretty shaky. Her eyes widened, and her gaze darted back to Gabrielle, begging her silently to object to the conclusions she was drawing. The warrior just looked back at her, sadly. "No..." Xena croaked. "No..."

"She knocked out Thalia." Gabrielle confirmed the unspoken thoughts softly. "And the dagger's gone..."

"No..." Xena repeated again, shaking her head incessantly. "No, she can't..." She swallowed, her eyes darting from left to right, in panic. "I... I have to get her back..." She murmured, then she turned and headed towards the kitchen, straight towards the back door. 

"Wait!" Gabrielle ran after her, catching up as Xena entered the kitchen, the door closing behind them with a loud thud. She grabbed onto the Empress's upper arm, pulling her to a stop. "You can't..."

Xena spun around, tugging her arm from the warrior's grasp. "Don't you tell me I can't!" She snapped, her eyes blazing. 

"You can't just waltz out like this!" Gabrielle argued. "You'll just get yourself killed!"

"I don't care!" Xena yelled. "I don't care! She's my..." A breath, as she forced herself to calm herself a bit and lower her voice. "...she's my daughter." She continued in a bare whisper. "I can't lose her too... I... I need her."

"I know," Gabrielle said softly. "But she left several candlemarks ago. She's long reached the palace by now. Or... or maybe she didn't reach the palace at all... Maybe she changed her mind..."

A half snort, half sob from the Empress. "Iona doesn't change her mind..."

Gabrielle released a breath. "True, but... But storming out of here without a plan is not going to help us, or her."

Xena closed her eyes, dropping her head a trifle. 

"We... We can speed things up..." Gabrielle rationalised. "Wait until nightfall, then launch our attack. If we play things right we can get into the palace and find Iona, then barricade ourselves there and wait for the Amazons to arrive and finish things."

The Empress remained silent, keeping her head bent. Gabrielle was just about to ask whether she agreed, when she spotted a single tear, hidden in the shadows of Xena's face, trickle down her cheek. 

She didn't know exactly how she ended up with her arms around the Empress's waist and her head against the woman's shoulder. She was just there, all of a sudden. And as she felt long arms wrap themselves around her shoulders and pressed her even closer, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, something inside of her started to glow. A warmth that started in the pit of her stomach and spread through her delicately. And before she knew it, it had melted away the layers of ice, the barriers that she'd kept up for what felt like ages reduced to puddles in mere moments. 

She realised the weirdness of the moment. Realised that this was stupid, that she shouldn't be doing this. Comforting this woman who'd send her friends to their death. It was so wrong...

She felt Xena exhale through the fabric of the woman's tunic, a long breath warming the side of her face. "Thank you..." the Empress said, in a bare whisper that only just reached her ears. 

Gabrielle closed her eyes. It didn't feel wrong though. It felt... right... More right than things had felt in a long time... 

The warrior let herself dwell in the feeling for another moment, then backed away, creating some space between them once more. "I uhm... I'll tell Dorian to alert the troops. Get things moving..."

"Sure..." Xena said softly, then glanced down. "I uhm... I just... need a minute... You know, scrap myself back together..."

"All right..." The warrior managed a small encouraging smile for her, then turned and headed out the door. 

Dorian immediately jumped to his feet as she exited. "Your friend told me what happened." He said, waving a hand at Thalia, who was sitting in a nearby chair, Fay kneeling by her side, examining the bump on her head with probing fingertips. "Is the Empress all right?"

"She's upset..." Gabrielle said. "But she'll be fine once we get Iona out of there." She raised her voice a little, so Fay and Thalia would hear as well. "We're speeding things up a little. We're striking tonight."

Thalia frowned. "But the Amazons..."

"We can hold our own until they get here..." Gabrielle cut her off, then gentled her voice a little. "She's just a child, Thal. And she's hurting so bad... We can't leave her there..."

Thalia considered this for a moment, then nodded. "She seems like a nice kid..." She rubbed her head. "When she's not beating me up, that is..."

Gabrielle managed a small smile, then turned back to Dorian. "She wants you to alert the troops."

The lieutenant nodded. "I'll go myself." He glanced towards the kitchen. "I'll need her seal though... With all the confusion going on I'll need to prove to the men I'm on the right team..."

"Right," Gabrielle nodded in understanding, turning back towards the kitchen. 

She knocked on the door to give Xena a moment to compose herself, then she pushed the door open. "I'm sorry, but Dorian said he needed..."

She stopped, her eyes darting across the room. The conspicuously empty room. 

"For the love of..." Gabrielle rushed to the back door, yanking it open. Nothing. "Oh, this is just... Ugh!" She closed her eyes for a moment, considering her options, then she spun around ran back into the livingroom. "Dorian! Give me your sword."

The lieutenant looked up with a frown. "My..."

"She's gone," Gabrielle cut him off impatiently. "I have to go after her. Callisto took my weapons. Gimme yours." 

Dorian blinked at her, then hastily started to unclip his weaponry from his armor. 

"Whoa, hang on a moment," Thalia pushed herself to her feet, ignoring her dizziness. "First you convince her she can't go running after the kid and now you go running after her? Gab, that's ridiculous." 

"Maybe I can catch up to her before she reaches the palace." Gabrielle said, taking Dorian's sword. 

"This is too much of a risk," the redhead argued on. 

"Thal, we need her." The warrior stated matter-of-factly. "Without her, this plan we've made is just a waste of parchment." She turned and headed for the door. "I'll be right back."

"No, Gab, wait!" Thalia ran after her, grabbing onto her shoulder. "What about..." She leaned closer, dropping her voice. "What about the vision?"

Gabrielle took a breath. "Nothing's going to happen." She stated, willing her voice to confidence. 

"You don't know that..." Thalia whispered softly. "Gabrielle, please... Please don't go..."

The warrior met her friend's eyes for a long moment, then she reached out and pulled Thalia into a hug. "I have to." She replied softly. "Please understand... It's.... It's my way..."

Thalia pulled back a little, searching her friend's eyes. "Following her into trouble? That's your way?"

A small smile crept onto her face at this, for no particular reason. Then Gabrielle placed a kiss on her friend's forehead before turning and heading out the door. 

Alti slowly rose from her chair, her mouth twisting into a devious smirk. "Well well...If it isn't one of Xena's little brats..."

Callisto tsk-ed, shaking her head. "Now, Alti... I was just done telling the girl how nice you are, and then you go say something like that..." She wagged a finger at the shamaness. "You really have to work on your social skills..."

Alti ignored the blonde, continuing her path towards Iona, who was standing slightly behind Callisto, shivering. She reached out her hand towards the girl's neck. 

But found it grasped and twisted back before she could touch skin. "Nuhuh," Callisto gazed down at her sharply. "No flashbacking my girl..."

Alti raised an eyebrow. "Your girl?"

"Finders, keepers..." Callisto drawled, wrapping an arm around Iona's shoulders amicably. "I always wanted a child, you know?"

Alti pulled her hand free with a growl. "She has information we need..."

"About what? Xena's little hide out?" Callisto rolled her eyes. "We don't have to waste time searching for Xena anymore, dearest... She'll come to us..." 

Alti crossed her arms. "I don't see the point in waiting for her to make her move..." 

Callisto giggled. "There's no point... It's just more fun..."

The shamaness released a tired breath. "Fun... Yippee..." 

A grin. "Glad you're starting to see things my way... Oh..." The blonde pulled something from her belt and negligently tossed it towards Alti. "Nearly forgot... Got you a present..."

Alti hastily jumped aside as the weapon came searing at her. It flew past her and embedded itself in the throne. "What do you think you're...!" She paused as she took a closer look at the dagger. Then she turned and looked at Callisto again. "Is that...?"

"Yup," The blonde smirked. "Like it? 

Alti stepped to the weapon, grabbing onto the hilt and pulling it free from the wood, then holding it up in front of her eyes, watching the bloodied blade in rapt fascination. "Love it..."

A flash of blue lit up the room then. "Give it to me."

Alti chuckled, then turned slowly, twisting the dagger between her hands. "And why would I do that?"

Ares crossed his arms. "Because we had a deal."

Callisto giggled, watching the scene in amusement. "Oh, she gave you her word, did she?"

The King of the Gods growled under his breath, taking a step towards her. "Give it to me or I'll..."

Alti pointed the edge of the dagger towards him and Ares hastily backed up a pace, his eyes flicking down to the bloodied edge. Alti laughed. "You'll what?"

Brown eyes narrowed at her. "You don't wanna make me an enemy..." Ares warned her. 

Alti considered this for a moment. "No... No, I don't..." She let a finger trail over the metal absently. "And I'll give you the dagger... When our business is finished..."

"Our business is finished," the god cut her off. "I said I'd help you get Xena out of the way... I did."

"As long as Xena is alive, she's a threat. I don't like threats..." Alti gazed at him. "Kill her... And I'll give you the dagger..."

Ares considered this for a moment then tossed up a hand negligently. "Fine... I can see how that would benefit me..." He leaned closer, dropping his voice. "But if you betray me... I can guarantee you'll regret it..."

The shamaness just smirked at him, confidently. 

Ares released a breath, then looked up. "So... Tell me... What's with the kid?"

Alti hid the dagger in a fold of her tunic. "She's bait..."

"Shh!" Callisto hastily covered Iona's ears, giving the shamaness a very insulted look. "Don't say stuff like that in front of my girl... You'll hurt her delicate feelings..."

The King of the Gods studied the girl for a long silent moment. "Xena cares about that little thing, does she?"

Alti nodded. "She's her Advisor's first born." She informed the god. "Xena has this thing with kids..."

"Hmm..." Ares muttered. "She coulda fooled me..."

The soldier yawned, pushing open the door to the room on his way. The Empress's training area... He strolled in, followed by two of his comrades, and checked behind the equipment. He'd been up since midnight and sleep was tugging at him. "Nothing here..." he muttered. 

"Surprise, surprise..." A second man drawled, looking in the closet. "All clear here too..."

They headed out of the room and towards the next door. "You shouldn't whine... General Pompey is being cautious, that's just smart..." The third scolded them. "If the Conqueror tries anything..."

The second rolled his eyes. "She's outnumbered big time." He saluted another group of soldiers as they passed. "The Conqueror might have lost her touch lately, but she's not stupid..."

"Callisto caught the Advisor's eldest." The third pointed out, opening the next door and holding it open for his companions. "She's quite fond of that one..." 

He followed them into the Conqueror's bedchamber. The place was a mess, the bed lay turned upside down and all the drawers had been pulled from the closet and tossed across the room. Alti had ordered a thorough search for the hind's blood dagger in this room, which had unfortunately been unsuccessful. The soldier shook his head. "I wish they'd clean this place up a little."

"I totally agree," a dark voice growled behind him. "And I think I'm going to start with a little pest control..."

The next moment he felt two short jabs against his neck. An intense pain shot from his throat up to his head and breathing became very hard suddenly. He fell to his knees. 

Before any of the other two could cry for help Xena came down on the second and snapped his neck with one hand, while she reached the dagger tugged in his belt with the other, snapping it towards the third soldier in a blur of motion. Both men sagged to the ground simultaneously without so much as a death croak to alert any of their colleagues. 

Xena turned, then advanced on the first soldier she'd taking down, who was staring at her with wide bulging eyes. "Where is she!" She hissed at him, as she reached down and grabbed onto his neck, lifting him straight off the ground. "Tell me!"

The soldier gasped in a breath. "D... Don't know..." He managed somehow.

"If you don't tell me you'll die within the next 20 seconds..." Xena warned, her eyes pinning him down savagely. "So talk!"

"Emp..." he croaked. He felt blood seeping from his nose. "C...Callisto h...has her... D...Don't know... where..."

Xena studied him for another moment, then she suddenly picked up a sound coming closer. Footsteps and a voice she recognised. She dropped her burden negligently to the floor and stepped towards the door, pulling it open just a fraction and peeking through. 

"Bet you'd feel best in your own little room, hmm?" She heard Callisto's cheerful voice, moments before the blonde stepped into view. Her hand was folded around a smaller one, tugging another figure along. 

"Iona..." Xena breathed as she spotted the girl. Her hair was dishevelled and her eyes were red and swollen. She'd been crying...

It took all her willpower to not just slam the door open and rush towards her. She wanted too, so badly, but there were far too many soldiers around and she'd never be able to get Iona to an exit before she'd be cornered. So she forced herself to watch as Callisto pushed open the door to what had been Pyrron's quarters and stepped inside, dragging Iona along behind her. 

"Empress..." A gasp sounded from behind her and she looked down at the man she'd just dropped, who looked back up at her pleadingly as he gasped for air.

"Ah, yeah... Forgot about you..." She muttered and kneeled down beside him. She removed the sword from his belt. "You'll be dead in about five seconds or so..." She informed him calmly. "But you just wait on the shores of the Styx for a while, OK? Because I guarantee you..." She looked at him, patting his cheek with her free hand. "Your buddies out there are going to join you sometime real soon..."

She watched the horror drifting up into his grey eyes, watched his body convulse in panic. A last tremor, then he went completely still. Xena gazed down at the silent form for another moment, then she rolled him over and started to undo the straps holding up his armor. 

Gabrielle ducked into the shadows, pressing herself up against the wall of a building. From her hidden spot she watched the ongoings in the street, the people talking, the few soldiers marching by. In the distance she could see the palace, the high walls clearly visible even from this distance. There was no sign of Xena. The Empress had most likely taken some hidden corridor straight into the palace. Gabrielle released a breath. She only knew the entrance to one of those corridors though, and that one was now heavily protected. She'd have to sneak in the old fashioned way... 

But sneaking past the many guards was going to cost her some time... Gabrielle sucked in a breath, then decided the streets around here weren't safe for her to travel on... There were far too many soldiers here... She'd need an alternative route. 

She glanced up, spotting a wooden inn sign dangling just above her. She looked around, then hopped up, reaching out and grabbing onto the sign with both hands. She pushed her lower body up, swinging her legs on top of the wooden beam the sign was dangling from and using her momentum to end up crouching down on the top. 

Another jump and she was on the flat roof of the building. She glanced around, making sure no one had spotted her, then ran over the rooftop into the direction of the palace. At the end of the roof she pulled herself into an easy flip, hopping over onto the next building gracefully. 

She repeated this a few times, until she suddenly spotted a figure standing up ahead on the next roof. It was a muscular man and he just stood there, not moving an inch, simply watching her with his arms crossed. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then crossed the distance between them, jumping onto the roof he was standing on. 

"Well well..." The man studied her as she moved closer. "We finally meet..."

"I'm a little busy right now," Gabrielle stated, ducking past him. "Maybe we can finally meet later."

"Oh, no no... It doesn't work like that..." She heard him say, then there was a flash and he was standing in front of her again. 

Gabrielle hastily slid to a halt. "Gods..."

"Right in one go... I knew you were a smart one..." Her companion chuckled. 

Gabrielle stared at him with wide eyes. "You're... You're Ares..."

"Brilliant..." Ares gave her two thumbs up. "You wanna make this three out of three? Any idea why I'm here?"

"You..." Gabrielle swallowed, trying to calm herself. She'd never met a god before, let alone the king of the gods... She could feel the power oozing off of him... It was intimidating, to say the least... "You want me to tell you where she is..."

"You think I'm here for Xena?" Ares laughed softly. "Sorry, babe, no score..." He took a step closer to her, reaching out and stroking her cheek with the back of his hand. "Why would I be interested in Xena when I can have you, hmm?"

The warrior frowned. "Me? What would you want with me?"

A low chuckle. "Well, let's see...." He circled her slowly letting his hand trail down her shoulder. "How does... ruling an Empire sound?"

Gabrielle turned around, taking a step back, away from him. "What?!"

Ares crossed his arms, looking at her calmly. "You want to kick Alti's butt, don't ya? Well... coincidence... so do I..."

Gabrielle cocked her head at him. "From what I've heard, I'd think you'd be glad, getting rid of the Empress..."

Ares smirked. "Xena and I have always had a... tense relationship... That's true... But I know how Xena works..." He waved a hand at the empty air. "Alti, however, is a reliability... I'm not sure what her plans are... And as for her little blonde sidekick... well... You might have noticed, she is quite insane..." He took a step towards her again. "I like having someone on that throne that I can... co-operate with..." A smirk. "Besides... I believe in natural selection... Survival of the fittest... ..." He let his eyes roam down her body. "And you're looking pretty fit to me..." 

Green eyes studied him for another moment, then Gabrielle took a step towards him, until they were only inches away. "Ares..."

Ares gazed back at her, with a sexy grin. "Yeeessss..."

"I'd love to..." Gabrielle flashed him a smile. "...seriously beat the crap out of you, but unfortunately, I'm a bit busy right now... So I suggest you leave me alone... "

Ares growled deep in his throat as she spun around and continued on her way, flipping to the next roof. He snapped a finger and vanished in a puff of smoke, then reappeared next to her. "If you're thinking of going after Xena..." He said as she ran past him. "I would suggest you reconsider."

Gabrielle ignored him. 

Ares rolled his eyes, then snapped his fingers again. "You see..." He commented as he watched her run by. "There is no way she is getting out of that palace alive..."

Gabrielle slowed down, then turned around, narrowing her eyes at him.

Ares grinned back at her. "I know exactly where she is... I keep a good eye on her, you know? She's special, after all..." He strolled over to the warrior. "But when the guards hear she's there, it won't matter how special she is... Not even Xena can fight off hundreds of soldiers on her own..."

Gabrielle cocked her head at him. "You're going to tell them?"

"I offered her a chance to fight with me again. She turned me down... She's brought this on herself..." He crossed his arms. "However... Since you seem to have an interest in her... Maybe we could... cut a deal?" He smiled at her charmingly. "Your co-operation in exchange for her life? What do you say?"

Gabrielle looked down for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "What can I say?" She murmured, before looking up again, meeting smirking brown eyes at close range. "You've left me little choice..."

Ares chortled in delight. "I knew you'd see things..."

With a harsh crack Gabrielle's fist impacted with the side of his face. Ares staggered back, but before he could defend himself a roundhouse kick aimed at his head sent him crashing to the ground. 

Gabrielle watched him sag onto the ground, unconsciously. She shook her hand, wincing. "Ouch... Note to self... Next time you want to clobber a god, use a weapon..."

The armor jangled lightly as she walked through the corridor. She'd pulled her hair up and hid it under the helmet. She kept her head slightly bent, pretending to read a scroll she'd picked up and throwing her face into shadows. 

Calmly she strode on, towards the door Callisto had passed through. She stopped in front of it, laying her head flat on the wood for a moment. How many times had she stood here? Waiting for Pyrron to open the door, so she could talk to him or just tease him. She took a breath. "I'm sorry, Ronnie..." She whispered softly. "I promise you, they'll pay for this... Starting right now..."

Several soldiers were sitting around the large table in the livingroom, eating and drinking and laughing. They all looked up as she entered. "Hey... You!" The one closest to her got up. "What are you doing in here?"

Xena looked up, meeting his eyes, then produced a toothy smile. "Killing you..."

His eyes widened in shock. "It's..." He sucked in a sharp breath as metal sliced through his stomach, then twisted savagely. "...Xena..." he uttered in his final breath, before he sagged onto the ground. 

"Neat, isn't it? Even traitors die with my name on their lips..." Xena smirked, sending her dagger soaring, embedding itself into the heart of another solder. 

She jumped up, flipping up and landing in the centre of the table. "Teatime's over, boys..." She kicked the toe of her boot against a nearby head, both soldier and chair toppling backwards. Her senses picked up someone coming from behind and she smacked her heel against a metal plate, sending it flying, the sharp edge embedding itself into her attacker's neck. 

More men came racing towards her and she decided she needed some space. She grabbed onto the shoulders of the nearest man, then hopped off the table, jumping over him and landing on the ground behind him, then pulling with all her strength, sending him flying over her head to crash into the large stone pillar in the centre of the room. His back smacked against the stones and there was a loud crack, after which he dropped lifelessly to the ground. Some of the brittle mortar between the stones loosened and a bit of dust drifted down.

Xena chuckled, deep in her throat, letting her battle drive surge up and take control. She reminded herself there was no time for play though. She needed to take these guys out fast. Someone outside was bound to hear the noise. 

In a smooth motion she unsheathed her sword, twisting it around her, once, twice, until her attackers had gotten in her range, then she swung the metal forward, cutting the first man neatly in half. She blocked a strike of the second, then dropped to a knee and swiped a leg at his feet, sending him tumbling to the ground. She jumped up, flipped, then landed neatly on his neck, breaking his vertebrae before he could so much as twitch. 

The next could see the hopelessness of his situation and backed up a pace, but before he could get away Xena reached out and grabbed onto his hand and pulled him closer. "Oh, no, no... You're not going anywhere..." She told him with a smirk, before she started to spin around, still holding onto him, until the circular motion lifted his feet straight off the ground. She turned a few more times, knocking out the last two of her former soldiers, before she let the guy go. The young man flailed his arms about wildly as he soared off, his eyes widening as he saw he was on a direct collision coarse with the large pillar. 

With a loud crack he crashed head first against the stone. The pillar croaked in agony, and more dust drifted down, accompanied by some small chunks of dried mortar.

Xena took a moment to catch her breath, but spun around as she heard clapping from across the room. 

"You are so good..." Callisto said, sounding genuinely impressed. She glanced down to her right. "Don't you think so, sweetie?"

Xena sucked in a breath, her eyes meeting Iona's across the room. The girl was utterly pale and shivering. "Iona..." She breathed, taking a careful step closer. "Are you OK?"

"Of course she's OK..." Callisto wrapped an arm around Iona's shoulders. The girl struggled, but the immortal's grip was too strong. "I take good care of my kid, ya know? Just singing her a lullaby in fact, but then you come along and make all this noise..."

Xena's eyes narrowed. "Let her go."

"Nuhuh..." Callisto crossed her arms. "She's mine... You can't have her..."

Xena tightened her hold on her sword, bringing the bloodied weapon up as she took another pace closer. 

"Oh..." Callisto chortled in delight. "We gonna fight?" She reached behind her, drawing her own sword, before glancing down at Iona. "You stay here, sweetie... This could get ugly... So watch carefully now and learn..." She smirked, then turned her attention to the approaching Xena. "Wanna dance?"

She swung her sword towards the Empress's side, but Xena swiped it away, then sped forward and walked up her opponent's body, kicking her in the head before flipping backwards and landing on her feet.

"Guess you do..." The immortal straightened, chuckling softly, lifting her sword and blocking another strike. "You know, Xena... I've been looking forward to this..."

"Have you now?" Xena muttered, ducking under her opponent's blade and then hopping over a kick. 

"Oh yes..." Callisto giggled, circling her opponent predatorily. "Fighting you in the forest back when was fun, but it was a little too easy... I've been looking forward to taking care of you the old fashioned way... No spiritual powers..." She wiggled the fingers of her free hand at Xena. "Just you and me..."

Xena chuckled. "You couldn't come within an inch of me..."

Callisto giggled. "Wanna bet?" She blocked one of Xena's strikes, then twisted around, slamming her elbow into the other woman's chin. 

Xena staggered back a few paces, touching her free hand to her nose, blood staining her fingertips red. 

"Xena!" Iona anxiously took a pace forward. 

"Stay back!" Two voices ordered her at the mere movement, then the two women refocused their attentions on each other again. 

"Lucky shot..." Xena drawled, then launched her attack again, her sword moving in a flurry of motion. A strike to the left, the right, the left then she pushed her sword forward, straight into Callisto's stomach. 

Callisto stopped, then looked down at the metal sticking through her belly. "Well ouch... That's not nice..."

Xena growled, pulling the sword free again, leaving no mark at all, then turning and aiming a blow for the blonde's neck, finding her path blocked. 

Callisto chuckled, launching into an attack of her own, swinging her sword towards the Empress again and again, slowly pushing Xena back further and further. "You can't keep this up forever, Xena... I can..."

Xena smirked, taking another step back, until she was right up against the stone pillar. "I don't need forever." She stated, ducking under a lunge before hopping up, flipping over Callisto's head, landing and then slamming her elbow harshly against the back of the immortal's head. 

Callisto staggered forward, slamming harshly against the pillar. She grabbed for her head with her free hand. "Now that actually hurt..." She muttered, then frowned as a several small bits of mortar rained down on her head. She glanced up, seeing one of the stones of the pillar had gotten loose on the impact and had moved back, leaving all the blocks on top unbalanced. "Oh oh..." She murmured, just before the block fell away, sending the remaining stones tumbling down on top of her. 

Xena hastily jumped out of the way, avoiding the downpour of stones. She turned then, watching as the rocks tumbled down, her hand still clenched around the hilt of her sword, just in case. Finally the noise stopped and the stone dust dissipated a little to show nothing but a pile of rocks on the spot where Callisto had stood. A deep sigh drifted up from the rubble. "It could just be me," an annoyed voice muttered. "But for some reason I'm having a serious case of dj vu here..."

Xena closed her eyes for a moment, exhaling. Then she turned around, looking down at the girl standing a few feet away. Bright blue eyes gazed up at her, tears brimming in the edges. She swallowed, very aware all of a sudden of the liberal amount of blood covering her and the dust and grime. "Hi..."

Iona took a shaky step forward, then another one, then she just ran, throwing herself at Xena as her tears started flowing freely. Xena hastily dropped her sword and scooped the girl up, wrapping both her arms around her tightly. Iona sobbed helplessly, burying her face in the dark hair, not caring about the blood or the dust or the sweat. "I'm sss...sso sssorry..." She stuttered through her raged breaths. 

"Shhh..." Xena gently stroked the girl's hair, closing her eyes and laying her head against the blond hair. "It's OK now... I'm here..." She rubbed the girl's back soothingly. "I'm here..."

"I was so scared..." Iona mumbled, wrapping her arms around Xena's neck and holding on for dear life. "I'm so... so sorry..."

Xena pulled back a little, meeting the blue eyes at close range. "It's OK..." She assured the girl again, gently touched her cheek. "We're OK..." She stroked a blond lock off the girl's face. "We are OK, right?"

Iona nodded hastily. "All good..." 

Xena managed a half smile, then pulled the small head closer and placed a kiss on Iona's forehead. Iona tightened her hold on Xena's neck, feeling the tension and the fear melt away in the protective embrace. "I love you." She found herself saying, a very uncharacteristical thing for her to say.

"I love you too." Came the even more uncharacteristical reply, and Iona felt the Empress smiling against her cheek. 

Another moment of quiet, then Xena pulled back a little and placed her back on the ground. "We're not out of the woods yet... We're gonna have company soon..." 

Iona swallowed, but she found herself a lot less scared than she had been before. "What do we do?"

Xena listened to the sounds outside the door, the noisy footsteps striding into their direction from all sides. "You know the corridor in my room, right?"

The girl nodded feverishly. 

"OK, when I open this door, I want you to run straight to that corridor and get out of here..." Xena instructed, picking up her sword. "Just keep running, don't look back..."

Iona looked up at the set face. "But... What about you?"

Xena looked down, managing a smile. "I'll just distract them for a bit... Don't you worry, I'll be right behind you..."

Iona gazed up at her doubtfully. "But..." 

Xena lifted a finger at her. "We don't have time for buts. Just do as I say..."

Iona sucked in a breath, then nodded softly. 

Xena smiled, laying a hand on top of the blond locks. "OK... You ready?"

Iona squared her shoulders, then nodded. 

Xena took a breath herself, then yanked open the door, jumping outside and taking out an attacker on her left with an elbow jab, while pushing her sword into the stomach of someone on her right. 

Iona darted out, ducking past Xena and towards the door a few strides away. A gust of wind toyed lightly with her hair as Xena's sword swung just over her head, embedding itself into a guy who'd come straight at her. She ducked past another soldier, Xena's battlecry ringing out just behind her, making her fear dissipate as she kicked out at a soldier which was blocking her patch, hitting some pretty vital parts of his anatomy and making him double over. She placed her hands on his back then pushed off, vaulting right over him and then continuing the last few steps towards the door. 

Another soldier came at her and grabbed onto her shoulder, but the next moment the grip loosened and she felt something roll down her back, while a loud scream shot up right behind her. 

She ignored it, yanking open the door and running inside. She looked behind her then, seeing Xena's form blocking the doorway, fending off the masses of soldiers that were trying to get through. 

She hesitated. 

Xena blocked a parry, then turned her head and looked at her. "Go!" She yelled. 

"I can't..." Iona tried. 

"Go!" Xena insisted again, her eyes meeting the girl's pleadingly for a last moment, before she had to turn back and focus on the fighting. "Now, Iona!

Iona took a breath, then did as she was told, turning and heading for the hidden entrance in the wall. 

Xena twisted her sword, feeling blood vessels pop as she did so, then pulled the weapon back, slamming the hilt into an unprotected head in the process. A firm kick sent another opponent flying back, who took two more with him in his fall. She slashed her sword around her wildly and she felt the blade cut through skin and bones as she elbowed someone coming up from behind her in the neck. 

There was hardly any time to breathe. She didn't know how many there were left, she didn't have time to look up and see. Someone grabbed onto her neck and she ducked, letting the sword that had been swinging towards her head take care of her attacker for her. 

Her senses worked on overtime, seeing flashes of metal and hearing the scuffling of feet and the sound of weapons searing through air. She swept a sword away with her bracer, while blocking a second with her own weapon. A spear only just missed her and she grabbed for it, yanking it from the holders grasp and tossing it into the crowd, gutting three men at once. 

The kept coming and coming at her from all sides. It was like standing in the surf and trying to hold back the waves. 


Xena shook the thought from her head. Not impossible. This was not impossible... 

A spear grazed her side and she hissed in pain. She brought her sword down on the weapon, cutting off the point. Five attackers came at her from the front, all waving their swords, but at the same time she could hear footsteps creeping up from behind. 

Impossible. The thought crossed her mind again, this time more loudly.

A battlecry suddenly pierced the air and a form flipped over the masses and landed behind her, fending off the attack from behind. "Hi." She heard Gabrielle's voice drift over the clatter of weapons, and suddenly...

Suddenly this whole situation seemed a lot more doable...

"Hi." She returned, taking a small step backwards, pressing her back up against the warrior's. "What are you doing here?"

"Saving your butt..." Gabrielle muttered, as she managed to grab an opponent around the neck. "I seem to..." a crack of bones as the woman went limp in her grasp. "...have this tendency..." she pulled the dagger from her belt and flung it at another soldier. " keep doing that." With a growl she tossed the limp body at some onrushers.

"You're suicidal..." Xena muttered, swatting a dagger flying into her direction aside. 

"Look who's talking," Gabrielle retorted, grabbed onto a spear jabbed into her direction, swinging it and its holder to her left, and then to her right, clearing some space. "Iona?" She asked, pushing her sword into a ribcage, then pulling back and elbowing another opponent into unconsciousness. 

"Out." Xena responded, blocking a strike and then disarming her attacker in one easy move. "Switch!"

Gabrielle head butted a last opponent, then hooked her arms around Xena's, kicking out as Xena ducked and pulled her over her back. Her feet touched the ground again and she spun around, slashing out her sword at the surprised soldiers, taking down several in one go. She felt a laugh bubble up, and she let it, echoed by its twin as Xena chuckled deep in her throat, a vibration Gabrielle could feel through the fabric where their backs were touching. 

One by one more bodies fell at their feet. The mass of soldiers around them now appeared to be less dense to Gabrielle's eyes and she could take a moment to glance up. Through the crowds she could see Pompey's furious face as he strode closer, drawing his sword from its sheath. "Pompey's coming..."

Xena ducked under a lunge, then chopped off an arm that got in her way. "Not feeling up to beating up a second unkillable being today..." She breathed, the continuous fighting tiring her out now. "Might be a good time to split."

"Agreed," Gabrielle nodded, grabbing onto two heads and slamming them together. 

The warrior spotted a way through the masses straight towards the nearby door leading back into Pyrron's former quarters. "We can use the balcony... C'mon!" She tugged at the arm behind her, then started off in the direction, ducking past a soldier and slamming aside another, looking up to find her path clear. She sped up, heading straight towards the door. 

Suddenly a flash of blue shot up right in front of her. "You are not going anywhere..." A deep tone growled.

It was too late to slow down. She tried to, but he was too close... She just didn't have time to stop, to bring her sword up in defence... 

She gasped in a breath as sharp metal was pushed through her skin, piercing her stomach. She glanced up in shock, meeting Ares' nearby gaze. She could see him chuckle, could feel it even, but she couldn't hear him clearly as the sounds around her turned blurry and chaotic. 

She stumbled back, feeling the metal slide from her flesh. Her knees gave out on her and she thudded to the ground, gazing up at the ceiling with wide open eyes. White ceiling, her dazed brain informed her. Bright white ceiling... Covered in blood splatters. 

"No!" Xena cried out, running towards the fallen blonde, swiping aside three men that were in her way like they were mere bugs. She fell to her knees beside the warrior, reaching out and touching her cheek. "Gabrielle?" 

Green eyes turned and met hers, dazedly at first, but after a moment realisation seemed to dawn. "Go..." She managed in a weak voice. 

Xena swallowed, shaking her head rapidly. "No." She felt soldiers stepping up to her from all sides, could see the reflection of the flames from the torches shimmering of the blades they were holding, but her mind cast all thoughts of them off as unimportant, focusing completely on the warrior in front of her. "No, I'm not leaving you..." Her eyes shifting down to the large gaping hole in Gabrielle's stomach. "L... Lie still..." She stuttered, as she hastily laid a hand on top, pressing down on the wound in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. 

"How disgustingly moving..." Ares drawled, holding the bloodied blade loosely in his hand. "You have really gone downhill, Xena..."

Xena absently stroked the sweaty hair from Gabrielle's face, ignoring him completely. "You're gonna be OK..." She murmured soothingly. "You're gonna be fine..."

Ares rolled his eyes, then took another step forward, towering over them both, lifting his sword. "I am sorry it has to end this way, Xena... But you've left me no choice..."

But before he could bring his sword down a voice interrupted. "Ares. Don't..."

The god glanced up, seeing the soldiers hastily step aside to allow Alti passage through. "Now what?!" he tossed up his hands. "You wanted them killed, so I'm killing 'm! What is your freakin' problem now?!"

Alti stopped in front of him. "I wanted you to kill them because I never thought we could capture them both alive... But now that we have..." She glanced down at the two women with a victorious smirk. "Now that we have... We can use them to set an example..."

The king of the gods considered this for a moment, then slowly lowered his sword. "Do I get my dagger?"

Alti pulled the weapon in question from beneath her toga, then held it out to the King of the Gods. 

Ares grinned broadly, sheathing his sword with one hand while taking the dagger with the other. He held the dagger in both his hands for a moment, staring at the blade delightedly. Then he glanced up, producing a sexy smile for the shamaness. "It was a pleasure doing business with you... " He drawled, then disappeared in a flash of blue.

Alti watched the empty spot for another moment, then looked back down at the two women at her feet. She laughed softly. "I did warn you, Xena..." 

Blue eyes lifted for a moment, narrowing at her, then Xena refocussed her attention on the warrior again. 

Alti chuckled wickedly, then glanced over her shoulder as Pompey stepped up behind her. "Lock them up... Make sure there's no escaping this time..."

Pompey inclined his head, then motioned several men forward. They grabbed onto Xena's shoulders, tugging the Empress back. Xena struggled, but the hands were too strong and her body was too tired. 

"No use fighting, Xena..." Alti drawled smugly. "Save your strength. You'll need it." The shamaness knelt down at Gabrielle's side then, running a fingertip down the side of the blonde's face. "Prophesies are nasty things... Aren't they, Gabrielle?" 

Green eyes gazed back at her, and though she tried to hide it Alti could clearly detect the hint of fear hidden in the back. The shamaness rose to her feet slowly, laughing as soldiers grabbed onto the warrior's arms and dragged her away. 

The door to Pyrron's quarters opened and Callisto stepped outside, coughing lightly as she dusted herself off. She glanced up, taking in the scene, then scowled. "Great... I missed all the fun again, didn't I?"

It was the isolation cell. A small, dark space, with nothing but a bare stone floor to rest on. Xena winced as she was shoved inside, her knees painfully scraping against the stones. She spun around just in time to see Gabrielle be tossed inside before the door closed, leaving them in complete darkness. 

There was a soft scraping as Gabrielle moved, then moaned in agony. Xena hastily crawled closer, finding her way over, relying on her hearing until her hand touched the warrior's arm. "Gabrielle?" Her fingers trailed up, finding a cheek. It was cold and clammy. "Hey? Talk to me now..."

She could feel the warrior's jaw tense under the skin. "Hurts..." a weak voice managed. 

"I know..." Xena's other hand found the warrior's wound, hastily applying pressure there again, feeling the warm blood seep through her fingers as she did so. "Just... Just hang on, OK?" She took her hand from Gabrielle's cheek, using it to rip at her tunic, tearing off the strip at the bottom of the garment. She folded it, then folded it again, laying it on her knee, and then released her hold on the wound for a moment, to carefully make a tear in Gabrielle's tunic, so she could reach the wound without hurting the warrior too badly. 

It was a huge, gaping wound. Even in the darkness, she could see blood pouring out with each shallow breath. It needed stitching. Xena took the folded fabric and placed it on the wound, placing her hand over it and pressing down. She could hear Gabrielle grit her teeth, trying to muffle another moan. "Easy..." She murmured, taking another strip off her tunic and carefully rolling it around the warrior's stomach, finishing her make-do bandage, tying it of tightly to keep a constant pressure on the wound. "There..." She murmured, folding Gabrielle's blood streaked tunic back over the woman's cold skin. She then removed some bits of the leather armor she was wearing and bundled them all together, gently lifting up Gabrielle's head and offering the bundle as a pillow. "Better?"

Gabrielle swallowed, tasting the saltiness of blood in her mouth. "Won't help..." She got out. 

A touch against her forehead, stroking back some stray hairs. "Don't you talk like that," Xena warned her in a soft growl. "Don't you give up, Gabrielle..." The touch trailed down to her cheek. "Don't you give up..."

Gabrielle closed her eyes. Xena's hands were covered in her blood, and she could feel the warm liquid staining her face as the hesitant fingers trailed down her skin. She didn't care much about that though, since the touch was warm, and gentle... She felt a lump rise in her throat. "I should have told you... Warned you..."

Xena shifted closer. "What are you talking about? Told me about what?"

"Prophecy..." Gabrielle mumbled, forcing herself to open her eyelids again.

"Prophecy?" The Empress was completely lost now. "What prophecy?"

Gabrielle sucked in a ragged breath. "When I... I fought C...Callisto... In the woods..." She mumbled. "Alti showed me... C...Cr..."

"Crucifixion," Xena finished for her, a hint of sadness in her tone. "I know... I saw..."

Gabrielle shook her head softly. "Not... Not the one before... Another..." She turned her head slightly, finding the white of Xena's eyes peering at her through the darkness. "With you..."

Xena's hands went still. "With...?" Her eyes darted away, gazing into the nothing. "But..."

"We're gonna die," Gabrielle whispered, her voice cracking. 

The blue eyes darted back, then Xena's hand moved again, cupping her cheek. "It's not going to happen, hear me? You're going to be fine..."

"No..." Gabrielle gazed up, staring into the blue eyes she could dimly make out. "You can... You can stop the bleeding... But you can't stop destiny..."

The gaze hardened. "You just watch me..."

"I told you to run," Gabrielle went on, feeling a tear sidle down her cheek and mix with the blood staining her face. "You should have run..."

"Stop it," Xena ordered softly. "I'm not gonna run... I'm not gonna leave you..." She reached down with her free hand and took hold of the warrior's hand, gently rubbing her thumb against the cold skin. "We're gonna get through this... I'll find a way..."

The freezing fingers gently folded around her hand. "I'm afraid..." 

"Don't be...You'll be fine..." Xena murmured, lifting the hand and kissing it, then pressing her cheek against the fingers. "We'll be fine..."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth that started at Xena's touch and spread through her like rippling water. Xena's skin was soft. She'd never would have thought that before. But it was.

Everything hurt. Her body, her head, her soul... And she could feel, deep down, that if she let go now... If she would just close her eyes and let go, death would come and take her. And the pain would end. She wanted it to end. 

She shifted her hand a little, folding her fingers around Xena's. Problem was... she couldn't let go... Xena's hold on her tightened just a bit and the Empress shifted closer, softly running her fingers through the short blond hair. Gabrielle felt a tiny smile creep onto her face. She couldn't possibly let go...

"I can't believe you just gave him the dagger." 

Alti laid her arms on the railing of the balcony, gazing ahead of her quietly. Twilight had settled over the city, leaving only the outlines of the houses visible in the dusk. A few bright dots in the distance indicated torches. "I had no use for it..."

"Well, I could have sure thought of something to do with that thing..." Callisto muttered, leaning her back against the wall. 

Alti closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath. The air was tinted with the smell of freshly cut wood. "We couldn't have used that dagger to take down Ares... He's too strong... And it wouldn't have been much longer before he got over his fear and realised that himself... Besides, this way, we turned him into an ally... at least for the time being..."

Callisto grunted something, clearly still not happy with the deal. "I don't like this politically correct stuff..." She pouted. "It's no fun..."

Alti smiled as the dull thud of a nail being driven through wood echoed across the courtyard. "You can have your fun tomorrow..." The shamaness shot a look over her shoulder. "Did you pass on my instructions?"

"Soldier boys are on the street spreading the word as we speak..." Callisto muttered, pushing off the wall and walking over, finding a spot next to Alti. "This little display will draw a healthy crowd, don't worry about that..." The blonde glanced over the railing. "I have to say though, tying them to a cross and then letting them hang for a while... Sounds awfully dull to me... can't we do something more... bloody?"

Alti glanced down as well, watching a soldier drive a second nail into the centre of one wooden cross while a few others fitted two thick beams together to form a second. "Both Xena and Gabrielle were made by the cross... It's only fitting they should be destroyed by it as well..."

Xena slammed her fist against the door. "Hey! Answer me! I know you're out there!"

Her sensitive hearing detected some scuffling outside, but there was no response. "I just need some bandages and some clean water." Still nothing. "Ow come on!" Xena slammed both her fists against the door in frustration. "What are you afraid of?! You bunch of incredible..." 

A choky cough behind her made her forget the soldiers and hastily she dropped back down at Gabrielle's side, holding the warrior still by pressing her shoulders to the stone. "Easy..." She murmured. "Easy now... You don't wanna jar that wound..."

The warrior's coughs settled down a bit. Gabrielle sucked in a pained breath. "Hurts..."

"I know..." Xena whispered back, gently massaging the warrior's shoulders. "Just hang in there..."

She could hear Gabrielle swallow, could feel the shift of muscles in her neck. "kay..." The warrior mumbled, moving a little, her arm pressing up against the Empress's knee. It was clammy and the skin shivered lightly against hers. 

Xena's hands shifted down, rubbing the warrior's upper arms. "Cold?"

She could see the shift of Gabrielle's head as she nodded softly. 

Xena looked hesitant. "I uhm... I can do something about that... But you'll have to promise you won't... hit me or anything... OK?"

A faint smile. "I'll be good."

Fabric rustled softly as Xena shifted, stretching out beside the warrior. Xena seemed to hesitate then, and Gabrielle was just about to comment when arms wrapped around her, one placed over her ribs and one under her neck. 

Even in her exhausted state her defences flared up, wanting to escape from this pinned down position. Xena moved a bit closer still, the warmth of her body folding itself around the warrior's. "Remember..." The Empress's voice burred into her ear from very nearby, sounding just a touch unsure. "You promised..."

Gabrielle released a breath, feeling her instincts back down as her body revelled in the sudden warmth. She fuzzily reminded herself that this ought to feel really, really odd and wrong and... 

"Hmm..." She hummed softly, turning her head, laying her cheek against the skin of Xena's arm. 

A hand trailed up and down her side, warming her skin there as well. "Better?" The Empress asked softly. 

Gabrielle nodded. "Much..."

Fingers gently ran through her hair. "Good..."

They both fell quiet then, not sure what else to say. Gabrielle closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath filled with the smell of dried blood and gore and Xena. Barriers were tumbling down, faster than she could rebuild them... Leaving her open and unprotected against the currents that flowed between them. 

She found herself not caring much. 

She shifted a little, drawn to Xena's body heat, and Xena responded by pulling her just a little closer. The erratic shivering stopped, the cold dissipated. It was nice, not being cold. And being comfortable. And not hurting like Hades. 

This was a good spot. So she stayed put, listening to the soothing sound of the Empress's breathing and the soft, almost inaudible thumping of her heart. 

After a moment, a small grin tugged at her lips. It was so ironic. Ironic that it would be this place of all places. This place she had never imagined she would ever end up in, in the arms of the woman whom she'd abhorred for the last long years of her life. 

It was ironic that this would be the spot where she found her peace. 

The warrior chuckled softly. 

She could feel the muscles in Xena's expressive face contract as the woman frowned. "What's so funny?"

"Life." Gabrielle responded. 

"Life is funny?"


Xena snorted softly. "You have a twisted sense of humour."

The warrior smirked at this. "I guess..."

"What's so funny about life?" Xena inquired after a moment

"Well..." Gabrielle gazed up, at the darkness above her. "I was just thinking... Last time I walked onto the market square to be judged, I looked around and I saw all these faces... Faces I recognised... Friends... And I spoke up and I asked them to speak with me... But they didn't..." She paused for a moment, reflecting. "My friends left me... They left me to die, alone... " She lifted a hand, weak fingers curling themselves around Xena's upper arm. "But you stayed..." A smile. "I think that's pretty funny..." 

Xena smiled wryly at this. 

"Thank you."

Blue eyes widened a trifle. "Sorry?"

"Thank you," Gabrielle repeated softly. "For staying with me." 

Xena closed her eyes for a brief moment. "I think you're forgetting an important detail... I was the one who sent you to your death... I was then and... I am now, in a way..." The Empress glanced down. "You should hate me..."

"I know," Gabrielle said, a soft smile playing on her lips. "But... I don't..."

Blue eyes peeked up at her. "You don't?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "I tried... But... I can't anymore... I can't hate you." Her hand trailed up, finally reaching the Empress's cheek. "I don't hate you."

Xena closed her eyes, swallowing. "You... you have no idea how much that means to me."

Gabrielle gazed through the darkness, only able to dimly make out the contours of the Empress's face. "It feels good... saying it... I feel..." a wondering note entered her voice. "...light..."

A moment, then Gabrielle frowned as a warm drop slid up against the fingers of her hand. Carefully she rubbed her thumb over it, cleaning away the drop of liquid, only to have it replaced by another. "You're crying..." Gabrielle concluded in a whisper.

Xena swallowed, sniffling a bit. "Yeah..."

Gabrielle's fingers stroked her cheek. "Don't cry."

The edges of Xena's mouth twitched into a watery smile. "I want to."

The warrior cocked her head at this a little, then she nodded. "'kay..." She murmured, laying her cheek back down against Xena's arm, her hand finding a comfortable spot folded around Xena's neck, her fingers tangling themselves in the long dark hair. 

Xena pulled her a little closer and she felt lips press against her forehead, before the Empress's cheek pillowed itself on her hair. 

Thalia paced to one end of the room, then spun around and paced to the other. "They should have been back by now," she grumbled, for the sixth time in the last ten minutes. 

It was well past midnight now. Iona had gotten back several candlemarks ago, saying Xena was right behind her. So they'd sat up and waited... and waited, and waited... But neither the Empress nor the warrior showed up.

"I'm sure they're fine..." Fay tried, her eyes following the redhead as she paced back and forth. "Just give them time..."

"I have given them time! I've given them five freakin candlemarks!" Thalia spat out in frustration. "I've had enough of sitting here. I need to do something."

"You need to stop your infernal pacing," Dorian muttered from his spot by the window.

Thalia ignored him. "We could... We could get into the palace..." She waved a hand at a corner. "She knows a way in... Don't ya, kid?"

Blue eyes peeked up through the darkness, from the spot in the shadows where Iona sat huddled against the wall. 

"Leave the girl out of this," Dorian stepped forward, blocking Iona. "The Empress wanted her out of that place. I am not going to stand by and let you drag her back in."

"You have no idea what's at stake here!" Thalia shot back, advancing a pace towards him. "We have to stop this!"

Dorian tossed up his hands. "We don't even know if something happened yet! Stop what?"

"Destiny." Thalia stated, her eyes hardening. "I wasn't there the last time... They kept me from her... I couldn't stop it then, I couldn't... But I can stop it now..." 

Dorian frowned at her. "What in Hades' name are you...?"

A sudden knock at the door made them all jump. There was a moment of hesitation in which they all looked at each other. 

Another knock. "Hey, let me in!"

Fay closed her eyes. "Mentius..." She sighed, stalking over to the door and yanking it over. "What do you want?"

Mentius hastily stepped inside. He was bright red, and his breathing was coming in heavy rasps. "A friend of mine... he picked up this..." He lifted his hand, holding out a bit of parchment. 

Thalia stepped forward and took the note from him, folding it open. Her eyes flicked over the contents, but about half way down she closed her eyelids, sucking in a shuddering breath. "Not again... please, gods, not again..."

Dorian strode over, pulling the note from her limp fingers. "What are you...talking ab..." His voice trailed off as he read the words written in thick black ink himself. His gaze shot up at Thalia again, who now had a hand in front of her mouth and who was clearly repressing the urge to break down. His eyes shifted to Mentius. "You are sure this is for real?"

"Soldiers were passing them around," the young man informed him. "Apparently they want a big crowd at the Agora tomorrow."

"Want a big crowd for what?"

They all turned to look at Iona, who had scrambled to her feet and was watching them anxiously. 

"For what?" Iona repeated again.

Fay cleared her throat. "Nothing... Now, it's late... How about you get some sleep." She reached out, touching the girl's upper arm, intent on guiding her to the stairs. 

Iona twisted away from her. "No. Tell me!" Blue eyes shifted from one person to the next. "Did something happen? Did..." A breath. "Did they get hurt?"

"Nothing's wrong, little one," Dorian reassured her, managing a smile. "Now, come on..." he walked over, grasping her around the waist before she could slip away again, lifting her off her feet. "Time to sleep."

"No!" Iona struggled in his hold. "I want to know what happened! Tell me!" But Dorian was relentless, carrying her away from the living room and down the stairs. 

She opened her eyes, taking in her surroundings. It was a field, seemingly endless. There were brightly coloured flowers all around and the grass reached to her knees, rustling softly as she moved. She was moving, towards an spot a bit further, where several trees threw shadows over the side of a small incline. 

There was someone sitting there already. A woman, dressed in yellow, silk robes. She was leaning back on a single hand, the fingers of the other toying with the stem of a flower. It was a deep purple. 

Gabrielle walked closer, settling down on the grass next to her. The woman looked up, her face creasing into a dazzling smile. She extended the flower towards the warrior. "Smell... I picked this one especially... It reminded me of you..." 

Gabrielle leaned closer, sniffing up the flower's sweet fragrance. "It smells... beautiful."

The woman's smile increased. "No wonder it reminded me of you, then."

Gabrielle smiled back. Then she faced forward again, letting her eyes track over the flowing landscape. "You were waiting?"


Gabrielle glanced down, plucking at a stalk of grass. "I'm sorry it took me so long to find my way here..."

Her companion laughed softly. "Oh, Gabrielle...The road to enlightenment is long and winding, covered with holes and bumps... A speeding horse will only stumble and fall and cripple itself... It's only at an easy pace that the destination is safely reached."

Gabrielle looked up and met the deep brown eyes gazing back at her, searching the depths of them for a long silent moment. "I missed you, teacher."

Lao Ma smiled. "I never left you. You've kept me in here..." she touched the warrior's temple. "...and here..." A touch to her heart. 

"I strayed so far..." Gabrielle mumbled sadly. 

A touch against her cheek made her look up. "People who follow only the directed path learn nothing. Those who stray find knowledge." Lao Ma stroked her cheek. "I have watched you struggle. With pain in my heart. But in the knowledge that you would find your way here in the end. You have... I am proud of you." 

This brought a dazzling smile to the warrior's face. "You are?"

Lao Ma chuckled softly. "Yes." She cocked her head slightly. "You see what I see now. Don't you?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I do."


Both of them looked up as a voice drifted around them, seeming to have come straight from the heavens. "You must go back..." Lao Ma said. 

A breath. "I know."

"Use the gifts I gave you. End this." Lao Ma reached out, cupping her cheek. "Don't be afraid."

"I'm not." Gabrielle said, honestly. She took Lao Ma's hand in hers, squeezing it gently for a moment, then she let go, pushing herself to her feet. "I will see you again soon."

"Soon." Lao Ma agreed, her eyes following the warrior as she walked back down the incline, towards where she'd come from. 

"Gabrielle?" A gentle shake of her shoulder. "Hey?"

Gabrielle blinked open her eyes, staring up fuzzily. She reaching out, touching skin. "Xena?"

Muscles against her touch shifted as Xena's face creased into a soft smile at the mention of her name. "Yeah. I'm here..." Fingers covered her own. "You had me worried there for a moment. You wouldn't wake up..." 

"I had a dream." Gabrielle murmured. "Beautiful dream."

"Sorry I woke you then..." 

Gabrielle shook her head. "'s Okay."

Xena took a breath, seeming to calm herself. "How are you feeling?"

Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "Don't know," she finally said. "Gone sorta numb..."

Xena swallowed. "That's uhm... Don't worry about that..."

"Not worried," the warrior replied calmly. "How long do you think I've got?"

Xena's eyes widened. "Excuse me?"

"How long?" Gabrielle repeated. "Before I die?"

"Stop it." Xena told her firmly. "You are not going to die."

The warrior laughed softly. "There's a hole in my belly, I've lost a lot of blood and there's a cross lying in the Agora with my name on it..."

Xena swallowed, closing her eyes. "Stop it." She whispered, pleadingly. 

Gabrielle stopped, staring up at her for a moment. "It's OK," She murmured. "I'm not afraid anymore."

Blue eyes peeked up at her, meeting her eyes through the darkness. "I am." Xena finally admitted softly.

"Don't be..." Gabrielle let her fingers run over soft skin. "This is just... a new beginning..." A smile. "I think... we could both use one." 

Xena released a breath, leaning her head against Gabrielle's. "You mean... we can start over?"

The warrior nodded. "Clean sheet."

"I'd like that..." A pause, then a tad more hesitant. "You think... you think we could be friends, next time?"

"Sure." Gabrielle smiled. "Just try to not take over the world by brute force... "

Xena chuckled softly. "I'll try... But you gotta promise to not beat me up, OK?"

The warrior grinned. "Deal..." A breath. "Maybe... maybe we could work together..."

"We make a pretty good team," Xena agreed. 

"Yeah..." A smile. "I think we could do a lot of good together... I could be the hero... You could be my sidekick..."

Xena actually laughed at this. "You wish!"

Gabrielle chuckled. "Hey, just cause you're tall and dark-haired and wearing leather and you got a round killing thing doesn't automatically mean you get to be the hero, you know? Short blondes are very underestimated in the warrior bizz."

"Is that so?"

"Uhuh," Gabrielle nodded. "Have you noticed, that in stories, the girl that has to be rescued by the hero is almost always blonde?"

Xena felt a smile tugging at her lips as she patiently listened to the warrior's babbling. "So, you're saying... it's a conspiracy?"

"Exactly," Gabrielle stated, full of conviction. "It's a conspiracy against short blondes..."

"To repress you? Keep you small?" 

"Prec..." Gabrielle stopped, then looked up at the face inches away from hers. "Oh, that's soooo funny..."

Xena smirked, her white teeth standing out against the darkness. 

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, sighing disgustedly. 

Xena chuckled, reaching over and ruffling her hair. Gabrielle couldn't help but smile, laying her head down in defeat. The ruffling slowed and became more of a caress. 

The playful banter, the closeness, the connection she could feel tugging them closer and closer... It reminded her of her dream... The one she'd had before, of Xena and herself... Except for the darkness and the agonising pain in her gut of course... 

"Gabrielle?" A voice trickled into her ear.


"You can be the hero."

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Thanks."

A light shrug. "I'd make a crappy hero anyway..."

A smile tugged at her lips. "I doubt that for some reason..."

"So we're all clear?" Thalia glanced over the assembly of resistance members and soldiers, seated in the living room. Nods were her response. "Good." 

Dorian stepped up next to her. "Get into positions. Signal me when you're ready."

The soldiers got up and saluted him, then headed for the door. 

"Get word out on the street." Thalia spoke up. "I want ever person capable of fighting there."

"This is an all out revolt you're talking about," Mentius stated, pushing himself to his feet. "This is pretty dangerous. A lot of people aren't gonna be too anxious to join... "

Thalia took a step closer to him, her eyes growing very cold. "Well, you tell them... Tell them to think of the worst possible thing Alti could do to them... Then tell them to quadruple that... Cause that's how much pain I'm gonna cause them if they don't show..." She produced a fake smile. "OK?"

Mentius blinked at her. "Uhm... right..." He managed, then hastily backed away, heading for the door. 

Dorian let himself fall into a chair, watching the last people file out the door. "I thought you rebels were so peace loving..."

The redhead shot a look over her shoulder. She released a breath, walking over and sitting down in the chair next to him. "Yeah well... People killing my Gab will shatter my good intentions." 

They sat silently for a moment, then Thalia turned her head, studying the lieutenant for a moment. "So... I guess we're working together huh?"

Dorian looked up at her. "I guess we are..."

They both faced forward again. "Just for the record, I'm not liking this one bit."

The lieutenant smirked. "Me neither."

A nod. "Glad we got that straight."

"Me too." 

More silence. "What about the children?" Dorian asked then, getting back to the business at hand. 

Thalia released a breath. "The little ones are still asleep. And I uhm..." She scratched the back of her neck. "I locked Iona up..."

Dorian winced. 

"I'm not good with kids, so sue me..." The redhead tossed up her hands. "I just don't see any other options right now. She can't come to the marketplace... I think we agree on that?"

Dorian nodded. 

"Fay said she'll stay here. Watch the young ones. If uhm... if things escalate I promised I'd sent someone back... She'll get the kids outta here..."

"Good plan," the lieutenant complimented her. 

"Thank you," Thalia accepted the compliment with a nod. 

A pause. "This has to work."

"It will work." Dorian said firmly.

Thalia sucked in a breath, squaring her shoulder. "It will work..." She repeated softly. "It will work..."

"Sena?" Niobe toddled down the hall, standing up on her tiptoes to open another doorknob. The door opened and she peeked her head inside. "Sena?"

The toddler scowled as there was no response. She'd just woken up and decided lying in bed awake was no fun and that she needed to find her playmate. 

Xena had left yesterday. The lady upstairs had told her that. She was nice. She had cookies. 

"Sena?" Niobe came to the next door, reaching for the door handle again. She pulled it down, but this time the door didn't budge. The toddler scowled, hitting the door with her fist. "Bad!" 

It still wasn't opening though, but she decided that if the door couldn't open than Xena couldn't be inside, making the door completely uninteresting. So she turned and toddled off again. 


Niobe stopped, then turned and went back over to the talking door. "Yes?" She gave the wood a pat. "Be good. Go open."

"Niobe, it's me." The door said. 

Niobe cocked her head. No, not the door. "Jona?"


"Jona!" Niobe chortled in enthusiasm. "Good! Cum!"

"I can't. The door's locked." Iona explained. "Niobe, listen now, OK? Do you see a key?"

Niobe looked around. "No." 

Iona released a breath. "Damn it..." She thought a moment. "Niobe?"


"I need you to get help. But don't ask the people upstairs, OK? Cause they locked me up..."

Niobe scowled at this news. "Bad." 

"Yeah, exactly, they're bad people, OK?"

"kay," Niobe nodded enthusiastically. 

This was fun. It wasn't Xena type fun, but it'd do... She cocked her head for a moment, thinking, then she toddled off, back down the hall. 

"Niobe?" Iona asked, hearing the receding pattering of feet. "Hey, where are you going?" 

There was no response. Iona released a breath, closing her eyes and letting herself sink to the ground, ending up with her back against the door and her knees pulled up. She'd been up all night, trying to look for a way out, prying at the lock, but it was no use. She was horribly stuck, and without the key she couldn't get out. And if she couldn't get out, she couldn't go to the Agora and see what it was that had everybody so worked up. 

A hesitant knock on the door made her jump back to her feet. "Uhm... Iona? That you?" Caspar's voice drifted up from the other side of the door.

Iona groaned, shooting a look skyward. "Great... It's the boy wonder... I'm doomed for sure now..."

"What are you doing in there?"

"Gots locked," Niobe explained before she could. 

"They locked you up?" Caspar asked.

Iona sighed. "Yes."

A wicked chuckle came from the other side. "Excellent!"

Iona leaned her forehead against the door. "Could you save the gloating for later, OK? Something's up..."


"I don't know. This guy came by with a note last night. And everybody freaked and then I asked what it was about and then Dorian picked me up and locked me in here." Iona laid a hand against the door. "Xena..." A breath. "She didn't come back last night.... And neither did Gabrielle... I think they're in trouble..."

Niobe blinked unhappily. "No Sena?"

Caspar frowned. "Trouble?" 

"Yeah..." His sister confirmed. "Look, I need to get the key. Niobe said it wasn't outside."

Caspar glanced around. "No," he confirmed. "Not here..." A pause. "Someone upstairs must have it..."

Iona considered this for a moment. "Maybe... Maybe you can, ya know... sneak up on 'm... 

Her brother rolled his eyes. "Yeah right, like I can take down a grown-up..."

"Push a door into their face..." Iona suggested. "Works like a charm..."

"I think I'll do thinks my way if you don't mind..." Caspar muttered, turning away from the door. "Niobe, you stay here, OK? I'll be right back..."


Xena closed her eyes. 

"It's time..."

The Empress nodded softly. "I know."

"Finally..." Gabrielle murmured. "I was getting tired of waiting..." 

Xena released a breath, listening to the sound of marching that was getting closer and closer. "Gabrielle?"


"Wait for me?" Xena asked softly. "When you get to the Styx... Wait?"

Gabrielle smiled against the shoulder she was resting against. "I'll wait." She reached out, finding Xena's hand meeting her halfway. Their palms pressed together and their fingers intertwined. "I'll wait for you."

The door opened then, bright sunlight suddenly filling the room. Xena blinked a few times, then managed to focus again, gazing down at the woman next to her. Gabrielle was frighteningly pale and her face and hair were covered in dried blood. The Empress smiled, gazing into the nearby green eyes. "I'll see you there then."

She felt the fingers entwined with hers tighten just a bit. 

Then hands roughly pulled her away and she felt Gabrielle's fingers slip from hers, until only their fingers tips touched. Xena struggled as she was pulled back even further, losing even that touch. "Don't you hurt her!" She warned the soldiers that approached the blonde. "If you hurt her I swear I will come back to haunt you..."

A giggle drifted up from the doorway. "Promises, promises," Callisto drawled, stepping into the cell. 

Blue eyes lifted and met hers, then narrowed. 

Callisto chuckled in delight. "Save that look for someone who cares, precious..." She waved a hand at the soldiers. "Take her away."

Callisto's gaze followed the struggling Empress as she was pushed out the door, then turned to the blonde lying at her feet. She shook her head. "Gabby, gabby... This is your big day and you went and got yourself all dirty again..."

Gabrielle managed a weak smile. "I would have cleaned myself up," she mumbled. "But I was too busy not dying..."

Callisto giggled, kneeling down next to the blonde. A soldier stepped up to her, but she shooed him off. "Go play outside for a moment. Gabs and I need to have a chat..."

The soldier blinked. "But..." 

The blonde waved a hand at him impatiently. "Shoo. Now."

The soldier frowned, looking up at his companions, who shrugged and then turned and stepped out of the cell. 

Callisto watched them go, then turned her attention back to the warrior lying beside her. She reached out, rubbing a bit of blood from the woman's cheek. "You know," Callisto started pensively. "You always reminded me of my little sister..."

Gabrielle looked up at her quietly. "Really?"

"Uhuh," the immortal murmured, cleaning away another spot of dried blood. "She looked up to me, ya know?" The brown eyes turned inward. "I said I'd protect her... But... didn't work out..." The gaze shifted and met Gabrielle's. "And then I met you and you looked up to me and I figured... second chance..."

"Didn't work out too well either, huh?"

A giggle. "No... not quite..." Callisto scratched at the blonde's nose. "Doesn't matter... You were too righteous for my liking anyway..." 

Green eyes searched hers for a moment. "I'm sorry... Sorry you got stuck in that pit. I didn't know... I would have come to get you, if I'd known." 

The immortal chuckled. "See, that's what I mean... All this peace and forgiveness..." She spit the words out, as if they left a vile taste in her mouth. "I warned you, didn't I? I told you it'd lead you here..."

"You did..." Gabrielle admitted. "But you know what?" A smile. "Being here... It's not so bad..."

Callisto cocked her head at this. "It isn't?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "It's... peaceful..."

Callisto considered this for a moment, then chuckled. "Well, I'd say I'd give this dying thing a go, but..." she looked down at herself. "No choice of that really, is there?" She smirked, then took Gabrielle's hand, bringing it to her lips and pressing a kiss to the fingers. "It's been fun." She stroked her free hand over the warrior's cheek. "I hope you die quick." Then she stood, turning and walking out of the cell, waving a hand at the soldiers in a silent order to carry Gabrielle away.

"Good morning." 

Fay looked up, then managed a smile for the boy who'd just walked into the kitchen. "Morning. Slept well?"

"Fine, thank you." Caspar returned politely, closing the door behind him. "It's quiet... Where is everyone?"

"Oh, they're just.... busy with... stuff..." Fay replied, trying to sound casual. "Don't worry." She pushed herself to her feet. "I'll make you some breakfast..." She walked to one of the cabinets, pulling it open and taking out a bit of bread. "There's a pitcher of tea on the table. Pour yourself a cup if you want."

Caspar crawled up onto a chair, spotting an empty cup and the pitcher. He pulled the pitcher closer and poured some of the light brow, steaming liquid in the cup. "Would you like some too?"

"Sure," Fay placed two slices of bread and a bit of cheese on a platter and carried it back over to the table. "Here you go."

"Thank you," Caspar shot her a smile, as he finished pouring tea, placing the pitcher back on the table. 

Fay sat down across from him, lifting her cup and gently blowing over the liquid, before taking a sip. "Your little sister still asleep?"

"No." Caspar shook his head. "She woke up before I did."

Fay frowned at him. "Did she now? Where is she then?"

"She's downstairs, talking to my other sister."

Fay's eyes widened a trifle, and she hastily swallowed her second gulp of tea. "Uhm... Really?"

"Yes," Caspar nodded, folded his hands together, looking up at her calmly. "She's locked up, you see? And since there's no one else in the house, I'm guessing you have a key... I was hoping you could give it to me."

Fay leaned back in her chair, watching the boy in intrigue. Then she shook her head, lifting the mug to her lips again. "I'm afraid I can't..."

Caspar nodded. "That's OK. I figured you'd say that," he stated calmly. "I'll just wait till you fall asleep then."

"Till I fall asleep?" Fay frowned at him. "Now why..." A yawn stopped her from speaking. "Why would I...?" 

Her eyelids were growing heavy. She blinked, wondering what was going on. Her hands felt a bit weak, so she placed the cup she was holding back on the table and... 

Her thoughts stopped. Her gaze shot back to the half empty cup of tea, watching the gently rippling liquid. Then her eyes tracked up, meeting Caspar's. 

The boy smiled back at her charmingly. 

Alti leaned back on her chair, quietly taking in her surroundings. It was a nice day, sunny, bright blue skies. The Agora was packed, masses of people crowding in on her left and right. She herself was on a small podium at one end of the square, where several luxurious chairs stood. A wooden frame had been built over the podium, cloth strung over the beams, providing shade. Front row seats to today's spectacle. 

The shamaness chuckled, crossing her legs and sucking in a breath of fresh air. At the other end of the square two crosses were lying, the sun spreading it's light over the wood, casting no shadow at all. 

It was time. She'd sent Callisto for the prisoners a little while ago, but she should have known better than to think the immortal would stick to the time schedule.

A flash lit up the square and her lips quirked into a smirk as gasps and murmurs drifted up from the crowd. She watched as Ares walked up the few steps to the podium. "I was wondering if you were gonna show..."

"Wouldn't want to miss this for the world," Ares drawled, dropping into the seat on her right. "I have a feeling this might just turn out to be my highlight of this millennium." 

"Caspie!" Niobe toddler up to him happily. "Got key?"

"Of course..." Casper responded smugly. 

"You got it?" Iona's voice drifted up from the other side of the door, sounding just a tad surprised. "How did you manage that?"

Caspar chuckled happily as he stuck the key in the door and twisted it. "I..." He pulled the doorknob down, opening the door. "...have many skills..."

Iona rolled her eyes. "Sure..." She slid past him, darting toward the stairs. "Come on, we have to hurry." 

Caspar hastily followed her, Niobe toddling along behind him. "Where are we going?" He asked as he followed her up the stairs. 

"They said something about the Agora... At noon." Iona informed him, running to the front door and yanking it open, storming out... bump into a pare of bare legs. 

"Whoa..." Ephiny staggered back a few paces. "Hey, where are you running off to?"

Iona scrambled back to her feet, hastily continuing on her way. "We have to hurry!" She called back.

The Amazon frowned. "Hurry? Hurry where?" 

She had to jump aside as a young boy sped past her. "The Agora!" He yelled over his shoulder. 

Ephiny blinked after the two. "What in the name of...?"

"Am-zon lady!" A panting Niobe toddled up to her, holding out both her arms. "Up!"

Ephiny obeyed dazedly, picking up the toddler. 

Niobe pointed a finger after her siblings. "Go!" 

The Amazon looked down at the child. "What is going on here?"

"Abby and Sena no cum. Jona say go." Niobe told her impatiently. "Now go!"

Ephiny shot a look over her shoulder, exchanging glances with Solari, who'd just stepped up to her. "Sol, I think you'd better get the others."

"What is taking them so long?!" Thalia hissed under her breath, glancing up anxiously at the roof of a nearby building. They'd sent a group of archers up there, but the leader hadn't affirmed his position yet. 

"Maybe they got delayed..." Dorian muttered, pulling the cloak that was covering his armor around himself a bit tighter. "There's a lot of guards patrolling."

"Can we start without them?" 

Dorian shook his head. "We're outnumbered as it is... If we loose that advantage too, this is just plain suicide." 

Thalia sucked in a breath. "I don't care." 

"I don't either." Dorian retorted. "But this is not just about us. We can't sacrifice all these people..."

"I can't let her die! I can't..."

The muttering of the crowd suddenly died away. Thalia looked up, peering through the masses, at the doors that opened. A moment, then she sucked in a shaky breath as she got her first glimpse of Gabrielle. "Oh gods..." She breathed. "She's dead... She's already dead..."

Dorian stretched, peering over several heads. He spotted the Empress, walking with her head held high, surrounded by a dozen soldiers. Behind her two others dragged along Gabrielle's limp body. The head lifted though, calm green eyes surveying the crowd, showing him the warrior wasn't dead... yet... "No, she's not..." He muttered, squaring his shoulders. "But we'll need to act fast." He started to turn. "I'll go up to the roof myself and..."

A sword unsheathed behind him and Dorian's eyes widened as he felt the sharp edge of a sword press up against his throat. 

"You are not going anywhere." Brutus smirked victoriously. "Pompey the Magnus will be very happy to see you."

Cloudless skies. Gabrielle gazed up quietly as wood pressed up against her shoulders, her arms, her legs. The bright sun was beaming down over her, spreading warmth thought her cold body. It was nice. 

She listened to the footsteps scuffling around her, to the sound of ropes sliding over wood, the feel of those same ropes passing over the skin at her wrists, her ankles. 

The sound of a hammer being passed from hand to hand. 

Gabrielle took a breath, then she glanced sideways, to meet the blue eyes that were gazing back at her. 

She smiled. Xena smiled back. 

She could feel the point of a nail press against her palm. She faced forward again, gazing up at the blue sky. Trying not to look at the hammer as it was being lifted up. As it was forced back down. 

In the dense silence, the thud of the hammer impacting with the nail echoed through the Agora, followed by a pained scream.

To be Continued (and really concluded) in part XII

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