Path of Thorns


The gates opened before her as Xena rode into the square for the second time this day. She pulled Argo to a halt, then slid off the mare’s back, then reached up for Gabrielle. A young girl came running up, taking Argo’s reigns. The mare neighed, unhappy at letting her rider go. Xena freed a hand and patted her neck. “It’s okay.” She managed a small smile for the girl, who then proceeded to lead Argo back towards the stables.

The doors to the palace swung open and she entered, still carrying Gabrielle. The blonde had been silent the entire ride back, just hanging on to her.

As she entered the hallway Benitor came running up. He noticed Gabrielle and his expression turned to worry. “Empress! Are you all right?”
“No,” Xena informed him bluntly. She stopped and hesitated a moment, glancing towards the guest quarters where Gabrielle’s room was. Then she turned her back to it, heading in the direction of her own room. “Go and get some of Gabrielle’s clothes and bring them to my old room, next to my study,” she instructed the servant, who hastily ran along behind her. “And…” A breath. “Find Iona for me.”
“Yes, Empress,” Benitor inclined his head, darting another look at Gabrielle before running off hastily.

Xena kicked open the door to her old room with her foot, carrying Gabrielle inside and closing the door behind her again. She crossed over to the bed, kneeling down and gently placing the warrior on the soft surface. “There you go,” she managed a smile for the blonde, gently stroking her cheek, before moving over and starting to untie the laces on her boots. “Let’s get these off, huh?” She realized she was babbling, but she didn’t care, pulling Gabrielle’s boots off and placing them beside the bed. “There. That’s more comfortable.” She gently rubbed one of the warrior’s feet, then looked up again at Gabrielle. The woman was looking away, blindly staring up at the ceiling. The shards of her tunic were barely tied together and Xena rose up, intent on getting her something else to wear.

A hand grabbed onto her arm then and she looked back, to find green eyes staring at her in panic. “Easy,” she hastily knelt back down again. “I’m just getting you a shirt or something. It’s okay.”

A moment, then Gabrielle nodded softly. Xena hesitated a moment, then got up, walking towards her dresser and pulling one of her own shirts off a hanger. Gabrielle had tossed the remains of her tunic aside and she quickly slid into Xena’s shirt, hugging the soft fabric to her.

Xena tentatively reached out for her, touching Gabrielle’s face. Hooded green eyes looked at her for a long silent moment, then she dropped her head. She sniffled as a tear sidled down her cheek.

Xena acted on instinct, moving closer and gathering Gabrielle up in her arms. The Empress just hung onto her as a helpless sob raked through the other woman’s body. “Hey, it’s gonna be okay.” She gently stroked the blonde hair. “I promise.”

A knock sounded at the door.

Gabrielle sniffled, trying to calm her shaking hands. “I… I don’t want Iona to see me like this.” She mumbled, anxiously eyeing the door over Xena’s shoulder.
“Okay,” Xena gently cupped her face, managing a watery smile. “I understand. Don’t worry.” She turned to the door, shouting out a ‘one moment’ before turning her attention back to Gabrielle. “How… How bout I get a bath ready, hmm? You’ll feel better once you’ve cleaned up a little. And I’ll go talk to Iona for just a moment. And I’ll be right back. Okay?”

A moment of hesitation, then Gabrielle nodded. “Good.” Xena leaned closer, pressing a kiss to her forehead. Then she quickly rose to her feet, moving over to the bathroom and pulling the cork from the tap, letting steaming water flow into the tub.

She then headed for the door, darting a last look at Gabrielle before stepping outside.

Iona spun around as she heard the door opened. Xena closed it behind her, then turned back to her daughter. “Hey,” she mumbled.
“Hi,’ Iona said softly.

They stayed like this for a moment, then Iona gave up, closing the distance between them and wrapping her arms tightly around her mother. Xena lifted her off the ground, holding onto her tightly. “Are you okay?”
Iona nodded. “I’m fine.” She leaned back a little, looking up at her mother. “Benitor said there was something going on with Gabrielle.”
Xena released a breath, gently stroking her daughter’s hair. It was almost therapeutic. “She went after the bad guys and she got hurt. But… She’ll be okay.” Xena nodded a little, more to herself then to Iona. “She’ll be okay.”
“I missed you, mom.”

Xena managed a smile at this. “I missed you too.” She pressed a kiss to the girl’s head.
“There’s…” Iona drew in a breath. “A lot happened while you were gone. A lot I need to tell you about.”
“There’s a lot I need to tell you too,” Xena responded, kneeling down and placing the girl back on the ground. “But…” She darted a look back to the room “I need to stay with Gabrielle now, okay?”
Iona bit her lip, but then nodded. “Okay.”
“Who’s looking after you?”
“Some soldiers,” Iona said. “And Egyptian guards. And spies. And Ephiny and Solari.”
Her mother couldn’t repress a chuckle at this. “So you’re well taken care off, huh?”
Another nod. “Gabrielle made sure of that.”

“Yeah. She would.” Xena released a breath. “This…” She motioned her head towards the door. “This might take a while. If it gets a little late…”
“Wake me up,” the girl instantly responded.
“Okay.” Xena laid a hand on her head. “I’ll see you tonight then.”

The room was quiet as she walked back in. Gabrielle was no longer on the bed and the door to the bathroom was open.

Xena kicked her boots off, flexing her feet as they were freed from their leathery prison. Then she moved forward, entering the bathroom.

Gabrielle was seated in the tub, only her head visible over the edge, her back towards Xena. She’d picked up a sponge and was rubbing it over her arm.

Xena smiled a little, moving closer. “Hi, just…” She stopped talking then as she saw the sponge was tainted a deep red. Gabrielle’s arm was bleeding, but the warrior just kept scrubbing at it relentlessly. “Hey! Hey!” She hastily moved closer, grabbing onto the woman’s hand and pulling it away. “What are you doing?”
“Let go!” Gabrielle struggled, trying to free her hand. “It’s… It’s not clean.”

“Whoa, hey,” Xena managed to keep a hold on Gabrielle’s hand, wrapping her other arm around the warrior’s shoulders in an attempt to calm her. “You need to cut that out. You’re hurting yourself.” She pried the sponge from Gabrielle’s fingers, quickly disposing of it. “How about I do that, hmm?” She reached for a clean sponge, dipping it into the water and then rubbing it over the bar of soap lying on the edge of the tub. She then reached forward, carefully dabbing it at the warrior’s forehead. “How’s that?”
Gabrielle looked at her a moment, then turned a little and rested her head on her shoulder, her wet hair soaking the fabric there.
Xena continued her cleaning, gently rubbing the sponge over the woman’s shoulder. There was a small cut there and Xena tried not to get soap in it. “Tell me if it hurts, okay?”

“It hurts.”
The Empress instantly stopped what she was doing. “I’m sorry, I…”
“No, no,” Gabrielle hastily corrected herself, lifting her head and looking at her. “Not you.” She reached out, her wet fingertips tracing Xena’s cheekbone. “Never you.”

Unsure what to say, Xena pulled her head a little closer, kissing the top of it. Gabrielle turned around further, burying her face in Xena’s neck.

The Empress gently stroked her hair, twirling a lock between her thumb and forefinger. Gabrielle was clinging onto her, insecure. It was very unlike the strong, confident woman she knew. She was at an utter loss, with no idea what to do.

“You smell of horse,” Gabrielle mumbled, almost inaudibly.
Xena managed a wry grin at this. “Yeah. It’s that sexy smell of horse mixed with sweat. I’m thinking of bottling it.” She felt Gabrielle’s lips smile against her skin. “You uhm… You mind if I get in there with you? No use in me trying to clean you up while I’m covered in dirt myself, right?”
There was a moment of hesitation, then Gabrielle let her go, allowing her to stand. “Right,” she said softly, resting her cheek on the edge of the tub.

Xena took a step back, then with knowing fingers untagged the clasps of her armor, placing it on a nearby chair. She pulled her gauntlets from her arms, the motion causing a multitude of grains of sand to skitter onto the tiled floor.

Gabrielle watched silently as Xena continued to undress, stripping out of her leathers. She could now see a clear line on her skin. Below it fairly clean skin, where the leather had been. And above it dark, dirt-stained skin. She had a small cut in her side, which was dirty and clearly not looked after properly. And there were fresh cuts running across the length of her upper arm. Nail marks that Khrafstar had made.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, swallowing down the nausea she felt. She didn’t look up until the surface rippled as Xena slid into the water. The Empress winced a little as the warm liquid stung her wounds. She quickly put that aside though, dunking her head under water, clearing most of the sand away. When she resurfaced she looked up at Gabrielle. The warrior blankly stared at her fingers as she absently moved them over the water’s surface.

Xena hesitated a moment, then moved forward a little, reaching out and touching Gabrielle’s arm. The one she had been cleaning before and was now bleeding. She felt the woman flinch as she touched her. “Lemme take a look at that arm, huh? Before you bleed all over this nice tub.” She darted Gabrielle a small smile, then reached for the sponge again. She dipped it in the warm water and then softly ran it over Gabrielle’s upper arm, clearing away the blood.

Below it was no battle wound, but merely a bad bruise, which was by now turning a nasty shade of purple. She skin covering it was an angry red and covered in small wounds, but this seemed entirely due to Gabrielle’s own feverous cleaning. Xena could now see the skin on her neck was also a bright red. There were bruises too, a few on her side and she could see a spot darkening on her chest bone.

Xena hesitated a few times, then finally spoke up. “Gabrielle?”
“Yeah?” The response was barely audible.
“Did…” Her voice was hoarse and she had to clear it to make herself audible again. “I saw Khrafstar… leaning over you. Did he…” She swallowed. “Did he touch you?”
A moment of silence, then a nod. Gabrielle was looking away from her.
Xena drew in a shaky breath. “Did he…?” The words got stuck in her throat and even though she tried she found she couldn’t say it out loud. “Did he…?”
“He tried,” Gabrielle said, her voice unsteady. “He tried, but…” She turned her head, looking up. “Then you came.”

Xena’s eyes held hers for a long silent moment, then the Empress closed her eyes and exhaled in utter relief.

“I was too weak.”
The blue eyes shot open again, looking at her in confusion. “What?”
“I didn’t even fight him,” Gabrielle mumbled, staring at the edge of the tub. “I tried but… I didn’t have the strength to.” She turned her head, green eyes looking sadly at the Empress. “I’m supposed to be so strong. I can fight, I have these powers that Lao Ma taught me… But I didn’t do a thing. I just let him…” She sniffled, quickly looking away again. “You must be so disappointed in me.”

A moment, then a hand touched her chin, firmly but gently turning her face. “Now you listen to me,” Xena said, trying very hard to make her voice sound firm. “You are not weak.”
“You are not weak,” Xena cut her off before she could object. “And you could never disappoint me.” She let her fingers gently trace the blonde’s cheek. “Dahak… he… he does things, to your mind. To your heart.”
“He tried to make mine dark,” Gabrielle mumbled. “He wanted me to be his… vessel. He raised me up, I was in the flames. And he… he reached through my skin and…” Gabrielle swallowed. “It hurt so bad. It was like he grabbed onto my heart and squeezed and… And then he threw me away and I couldn’t see. Everything was black. And then Khrafstar….”
“Shhh,” Xena moved closer, gently touching her face.
“He killed Callisto,” Watery green eyes looked up at her, helplessly. “She tried protecting me. And he killed her. Because of me.”
“No, no,” Xena shook her head a little. “Because of me. He went for you, because of me.”
Gabrielle sniffled, wrapping her arms around herself. “I feel dirty. And… And worthless.”

Xena looked down at the bent head, unsure of what to say. Words seemed unsuitable. So she decided to forget about words, and simply leaned closer, her lips finding Gabrielle’s.

For a moment, there was no response. But just as Xena was about to pull away a hand slid up her side and the blonde responded, kissing her back. Tentatively at first, but then more passionately as the second hand wrapped itself in her hair.

It wasn’t long before she could feel Gabrielle’s breathing becoming labored and with some difficulty she pulled back a little. She rested her forehead against the blonde’s and felt Gabrielle wrap her arms more tightly around her. “So…” She murmured. “Still feel worthless?”
Gabrielle’s body shook a little as she laughed. Xena felt a kiss being pressed against her cheek. “No.”
“Good,” She leaned back, looking into nearby green eyes. “Wanna get out of here? I think I’m pruning.”

Gabrielle nodded, then squealed in shock as she was suddenly lifted from the water by a pair of strong arms. “Xena! Put me down!”
“Gladly,” the Empress smiled as she stepped out of the tub, then neatly placed the blonde back on her feet. “There you go.” She reached for a large towel, snuggly wrapping it around the other woman and starting to towel her dry.

Gabrielle thought about protesting, but then she just gave in, allowing Xena to continue to fuss over her. She felt like she was in this nice pleasant haze and the world outside was suddenly irrelevant. She decided to not fight it and just enjoy it as long as it would last.

Xena had found a towel of her own and now reached for her hand, tugging her along back into the bedroom. Gabrielle seated herself on the edge of the bed, while Xena retrieved two more of her shirts, one for Gabrielle and another for herself.

Xena held the garment out for her and Gabrielle merely had to lift her hands up, to allow the other woman to slide it over her head. The Empress then turned and opened the door to her study, walking inside. She returned moments later with a cup and a jar of water in one hand, and a wooden case in the other.

“Here.” She settled down at Gabrielle’s side, then handed her the cup, pouring some water into it. She then placed the box on her lap and opened it. It revealed some bandages, a selection of herbs and a small mortar with grinding stone. “I’m going to give you something to make the pain go away. It’ll make you sleepy.” She selected some herbs and ground them together. “I’ll bandage you up before you go to sleep.” She glanced up, darting Gabrielle a smile. “You’ll be all patched up by tomorrow morning.”
Gabrielle reached out, gently tracing a cut on the Empress’s arm. “What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“No chance of that,” Gabrielle murmured.
“You first,” Xena said, reaching for Gabrielle’s cup and throwing in the herbs, then adding some more water. “Drink that.”

Gabrielle did as told, wincing at the vile taste. Meanwhile, Xena had picked up another herb mixture. This one was an ointment, and she carefully started spreading it on the bruises on the blonde’s body. After finishing with this she wrapped a bandage around the woman’s upper arm, to stop the bleeding there.

Gabrielle watched her quietly, repressing a yawn as the medicine kicked in. Xena finished her work, putting the kit on the floor beside the bed. “You uhm…” She tucked a stray lock back behind an ear. “You want me to take you to your own room?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Rather stay here.” She reached out, folding her fingers around Xena’s. She then rolled over a little, clearing space for Xena to lie down beside her.

The Empress hesitated a moment, knowing there was still so much she had to do. But the green eyes looked at her pleadingly and she gave in, getting under the covers. Gabrielle skidded closer again, laying her head on the woman’s shoulder and wrapping an arm around her waist. Xena smiled. It felt nice. She reached out a hand and squeezed out the flame of a nearby candle between her thumb and forefinger.

The room was now suddenly clouded in darkness. Gabrielle instantly moved a little closer. She could hear her release a shaky breath. The Empress wrapped her arm more securely around her, in a reassuring gesture.

They stayed like this, silently. Xena listened to the blonde’s breathing, waiting for it to settle and for her to go to sleep. But Gabrielle seemed to stay awake, in spite of the medicine.

The Empress hesitated for a moment. Then she started to sing, in a soft but clear voice.

Gabrielle shifted, looking up in surprise at the beautiful sound. It wasn’t a song she’d ever heard before. It wasn’t even in a language she’d ever heard before. But it sounded wonderful and she closed her eyes, letting the sounds fill her.

The song soon ended and silence settled over the room again. It was broken moments later by Gabrielle’s sleepy whisper. “You can sing.”
Xena tried to suppress a grin. “Everybody can sing, Gabrielle.”
“Yes. But not pretty and on key like you.” The warrior moved a little closer, her fingers tracing down the other woman’s side absently. “The song was nice too.”
“It’s Gaelic,” Xena murmured. “I learned it a long, long time ago. Didn’t even know what it meant then.”
“But you do now?”
“Hmm.” A faint nod. “It tells of some points to recognize when you sail towards the island Eire. It’s like a map put into song.”
Gabrielle chuckled weakly. “That’s very romantic, Xena.”
The Empress smiled. “For sailors there, it’s way to guide them home.”

For a moment, there was just silence, then Gabrielle whispered softly through the darkness. “I really missed you.”
Xena rested her head against the blond hair, closing her eyes. “I really missed you too. I…” She swallowed. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back faster.”
“You got back right on time,” Gabrielle mumbled, closing her eyes and exhaling. “Sing that song for me again?”

Xena did as requested and her low voice filled the room again. It didn’t take long before Gabrielle fell asleep.

Khrafstar gasped as his back hit the ground, the motion jarring his body painfully. He clasped at his chest with bloodied hands.

A motion beside him diverted his attention as flames crawled over the dry leaves that had fallen to the ground. The flames moved up his body and circled the chakram. Then they moved the weapon upward, slowly pulling it from his body.

Moments later the weapon clattered to the ground, spinning a few times before falling flat on its side. Slightly dazed, Khrafstar crawled back to his feet. He looked down at his chest, to see the wound there had healed. What remained as a large scar where the chakram had been. He also saw that his body has transformed again into its human form. He looked at the flames, then hastily fell to his feet. “My Lord. You honor me with your…”

The flames roared loudly, stopping him from saying anything more. Khrafstar bent his head in clear disgrace. “I know I have failed you, Great One. I am not worthy.”

The flames whispered to him. Dahak’s voice was still strong, but weaker than it had been. “But, my Lord, there must be time to find another. I realize there is no more time to find a mother for your child, for it to be born and nurtured. But surely a true warrior can be found in time? If the march on Athens is delayed…”

Another roar and Khrafstar quickly bowed his head again. “Forgive me, My Lord. Naturally your fight with The Conqueror has priority.”

Another instruction from the flames and then Khrafstar rose to his feet and turned. From his place, standing on a hilltop, he overlooked a valley, filled with the lights of thousands of campfires. Below him he could hear the sound of horses snorting, of weapons of war being moved, of soldiers yelling. Through the shadows, he could see thousands of soldiers performing their drills simultaneously, the glimmers of fire reflecting off steel. He grinned, viciously. “Yes. With an army as this, The Conqueror does not stand a chance.” He squared his shoulders. “Xena will not rejoice in winning this battle. For she already knows she has lost the war.”

Xena woke up at the sound of the door being pushed open. Quickly she pushed herself up a fraction, blocking Gabrielle’s body from whomever it was who had entered the room.

A figure stood in the doorway, outlined by the light in the hallway. It took Xena a moment to adjust to the light, but then she recognized the woman. She stared at her a moment, then turned back to Gabrielle, who has also woken and was trying to get up. “Shh,” she gently pushed the other woman back down. “It’s your Amazon friend. I’ll go talk to her.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then relaxed back into the pillows. Xena smiled, slipping out of bed and then turning, to pull the sheets back up over Gabrielle’s body. “I won’t go far.”
The blonde wordlessly clasped onto her hand and pressed a kiss to her fingers, then turned onto her side and closed her eyes.

Ephiny watched the Empress fuss over Gabrielle another moment, then she turned and strode towards her. With a simple motion of her hand she instructed they should talk in the hallway.

It was weird, Ephiny thought, as she instantly obeyed without as much as a second thought. Weird how this woman here, dressed in nothing more than a linen shirt, could still command such power. Exude so strong an aura.

Ephiny turned as she entered the hallway, to see the Conqueror closing the door to their room behind her. “What happened?” Ephiny asked before she could so much as turn around. “Is she hurt?”
Xena released a breath. “Physically… Just bumps and bruises, but it’s not so bad. Mentally…” She swallowed, shaking her head a little. “I don’t know.”
“Mentally?” Ephiny looked at her in concern. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Xena ruffled a hand through her dark hair. “It means….”

The Empress looked up to see Benitor rushing closer, bowing politely as he stopped before her. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry to disturb, Empress, but the Egyptian Regent ordered to be notified when you woke.” A grimace. “She gets very… unhappy when she is not obeyed. But if you do not want her to be informed….”
Xena released a breath. “No, she should know. I need to talk with her too.” She glanced at Ephiny, then turned back to Benitor. “Ask Cleo to come to my study. Get Gabrielle’s sister too.” A thought. “Is anyone from the council present?”
“No, Empress. But the lady Thalia is expected back any moment.”
“Good. Have someone waiting at the door to send her over when she gets here then.” Xena told him. “You can join us on behalf of the staff.” She managed a smile for him. “You guys have as much a right to know about what’s going on as all these ladies do.”
“Thank you, Empress,” Benitor bowed again, then turned and headed back towards the hallway.

Xena walked to her study and opened the door, stepping back and allowing Ephiny to step inside before her.
Ephiny did so, looking around at the spacious but sparsely-decorated study somewhat awkwardly.

Xena circled her desk and sat down, opening a drawer and pulling a sheet of parchment out. She laid it on the desk surface. She picked up her quill, dipped it in ink, then started scribbling. “I’ll tell you about all that’s happened when the others get here,” she commented as she wrote. “I hate repeating myself.”
“Right,” Ephiny murmured, quietly circling the room. There were several maps pinned to the wall. One of the world, and around it several others, showing parts of Xena’s empire in more detail. She stopped at the map of Greece, studying it. Finally she spotted a small forested area of the Peloponnese, which Xena had marked with a large A. Stationed around it were 3 cohorts.

The Empress glanced up at her, then turned back to her writing. “How are things going in Amazon Land?”
Ephiny stared at the map another moment, then turned around, leaning her back against the wall. “Better, now that we’re not being hunted down and have to hide.”
Xena managed a wry smile, not looking up from her work. “Forget I asked,” She muttered, lifting up the page and blowing it dry, before picking up the next one.

“Why do you have three cohorts stationed near our territory?”
The Empress released a breath, then turned, facing the Amazon Queen. “Don’t flatter yourself. One is a cohort stationed in an encampment south of Corinth. The other is one stationed north of Argos. One cohort is assigned to Amazon territory.” She crossed her arms, leaning back. “I protect my borders. I didn’t get to rule the known world 'cause I was careless.”
Ephiny studied her, her dark eyes hooded. “Those cohorts have been stationed there the entire time?”

Ephiny turned back to the map, studying the dots and lines again. “That’s over 1200 men.”
“Math whizzes, you Amazons are,” Xena muttered, turning back to her own work.
“You could have just waltzed in there, burned the whole forest down.” Ephiny murmured. “No need to capture me and lock me up. Manipulate. Play games.”
“There was uproar in Rome. I couldn’t spare the men then. Capturing you was easy and quick. Amazons have a rigid hierarchy and are extremely loyal. I knew I could count on that.” Xena murmured, almost absently. “And afterwards…” A shrug. “Frankly, your people didn’t pose enough of a challenge for me to bother to burn the whole forest down. Would have been a waste. I’m an environmentalist, you know?”

“World would have been a lot nicer if you’d have been a humanist.”
Xena chuckled. “No, it wouldn’t have been. Cause if I’d been a humanist, I’d have never conquered it. It would be the same, fractured mess it was before I conquered the whole lot.”
Ephiny turned, staring at her for a moment. Then she shook her head a little. “Don’t you regret anything? Anything you did?”
Xena paused in her writing again, then turned her head. “I don’t always like the outcome of what I do. But I stand by my decisions. Even the bad ones.” She turned back to her paper and continued writing.

The Amazon stared at her for another moment, and was about to comment again, when a knock sounded on the door, which was pushed open the next moment. Cleopatra stepped inside, her pristine white dress gently ruffling.

The Egyptian’s dark eyes flicked over to Ephiny for a moment, then dismissed her as irrelevant and focused back on Xena. Xena looked up, her gaze meeting the regent’s. Apparently her look was enough for Cleopatra, since the Egyptian walked over to a chair across from her and sat down with a sigh. “It is not good news, then?”
Xena managed a wry smile. “Afraid not.”
“I have noticed you hardly ever bring me good news these days, Xena.”
The Empress chuckled faintly. “Sorry.”
“No matter,” Cleopatra waved a hand at her. “I enjoy a challenge. It has been a while since I played a game of strategy as this one. It provides interesting opportunities.” She leaned back in her seat, delicately folding her hands together. “I am wondering what I will wish for, in return for pulling my soldiers out of Southern Persia.”
A dark eyebrow raised and Xena studied her a few moments, in surprise. Then she started laughing. “Ah, Cleo.” She shook her head a little, clearly amused. “Sometimes I forget you’re more than just a nice looking piece of fluff.” A smirk. “No insult intended.”
“None taken,” the regent replied with a smile.
“Soooo,” Xena drawled. “You marched into Persia behind my back huh?”
“I did.”
“Good job,” Xena complimented her. “Was planning on asking you to do that, but as usual you read my mind.”

Another knock on the door and Benitor stepped inside, followed by Lila, who glanced around nervously. “Have a seat,” Xena motioned towards two unoccupied chairs. “Thalia’s not here yet?”
“Afraid not, Empress,” Benitor said.
“You lot will have to do then,” Xena leaned her elbows on her desk, folding her hands. “There’s a lot to tell. Let’s start with Gabrielle.”

Toris stopped in front of the palace doors, looking up at the building rising high above him. “Wow,” he couldn’t keep from uttering. “That’s a way up from a little room in an inn in Amfipolis…”
Thalia adjusted the cloak he was wearing to obscure his face. “Come on.” She grabbed onto his arm and pulled him forward, knocking on the palace doors.

Light came shining from the many candles in the hallway as the doors were pushed open. Thalia stepped inside, the sound of her sandals on the marble echoing across the large space. The soldiers gave her a nod in recognition as she walked in. Then they frowned as a second figure stepped in after her. One lifted a hand to halt him. “I’m sorry sir, we can’t let you enter.”
“He’s with me,” Thalia told them.
“I’m afraid we still can’t let him in, ma’am,” the guard told her, somewhat apologetically. “The Empress gave us direct orders.”
“The Empress?” Toris asked, suspiciously. “I thought she was out.”
“She came back a few candlemarks ago.”

Toris glanced from one to the other, then spun around and started marching out again.
Thalia hastily ran after him. “Toris, no! Wait!”

The first guard darted a look at the second, then they both hastily rushed forward, grabbing onto the young man and pulling him back. He struggled, but they both grabbed onto an arm and held him down. One of the guards pulled the hood away from his face. He then glanced up at his fellow soldier. “It is the Empress’s brother.”

“Wait!” Thalia ran closer, pulling at one of the soldier’s arms. “Let him go!”

Another group of soldiers came running closer, two of which grabbed onto Thalia and pulled her away.
“Let him go!” the redhead repeated. “He has information for the Empress! It’s important!”
An older soldier stepped closer, taking in the scene for a moment. “Take them both down to the cells.”
“You have to be kidding!” Thalia struggled heavily. “I’m a member of the council!”
“Yes, and I am a part of her majesty’s defense,” the soldier cut her off. “Under the circumstances, I cannot take any risks.” He darted a look at the soldiers. “Take them away.”

Thalia slammed her hands against the bars in frustration. “Damn it!”
Toris had receded to the back of his own jail cell and was sitting on a small wooden bench, half hidden in the shadows.

“Come on!” Thalia raised her voice at the closed door, where she knew the guards were. “Let me out of here!” She tossed up a hand in frustration when there was, again, no response. “I can’t believe this.” She plumped down in a corner, resting her back against the wall. “How long is she gonna let us sit here?”
“Forever,” Toris muttered, drearily. “Or at least for the rest of my life… Which most likely won’t be all that long…”
Hazel eyes studied him. “Cut it out. When we explain what’s going on…”
Toris snorted. He looked up, his blue eyes the only thing visible from the shadows he was hiding in. “You seem to think she can be reasoned with.”
“Well… I…” Thalia blinked, considering. “I’m not a fan or anything. But when you tell her why you’re here….”
Toris huffed out a breath, looking away. “Don’t let her fool you into thinking she’s a human being.”

A faint chuckle drifted up from the shadows, and Toris quickly rose to his feet. Xena emerged from the shadows, almost soundlessly. There was a smile on her face, but it was hardly a pleasant one. She stopped in front of his cell, studying him for a moment. Toris straightened his shoulders, but it was clear he was far from confident. “Well… Brother…” Xena spoke the word with some disgust. “I have to admit you look good. Behind bars that is. It suits you, somehow.” She turned around, to Thalia who had fallen silent. “Ah, and Thalia.” She grinned. “Just like old times, isn’t it?” She waved a hand at the cell complex. “You know, if you were homesick, you could have just asked to be locked up. No need to drag my brother into it.”
Thalia regained her composure, crossing her arms. “Shut up.”

Xena smirked at her. Then she pulled a key out of a pocket and unlocked Thalia’s cell, letting her out. “Come with me.” She turned and started walking back out of the cell complex.
“You can’t let him stay here!”
“Sure I can,” Xena commented, not stopping.
Thalia turned to Toris. “Tell her.”
Toris turned away, avoiding her gaze.
“Come on!” Thalia leaned closer. “Tell her!” Toris still refused to meet her gaze, so Thalia gave up on him and turned back to Xena. “They have Greek Fire.”

Xena slowed, then halted. A moment, then she turned around, frowning. “What?”
“Toris heard a trader boasting about making a killing in Persia. He sold them Greek Fire.”
The Empress strode back over, brushing Thalia aside and stopping again in front of her brother’s cell. “Is this true?”
Hooded blue eyes looked up at her.
“Is it true?!” Xena repeated again, in a growl.
“Yes,” Toris grumbled back.

Xena stared at him another moment, then she spun around again and strode outside. “Thalia. Come with me. Now.”
“No!” Thalia wrapped a hand around a bar of Toris’ cell. “Not without Toris.”
Xena darted a look over her shoulder, glancing from her brother to the redhead. She darted a look upwards in frustration, then focused all her attention on Thalia. She managed to soften her voice somewhat. “Something happened to Gabrielle. She needs you.”

Thalia’s eyes widened in shock. She glanced at Toris, then back over at Xena who had turned around again and was continuing her way out of the prison. A moment of hesitation, then she quickly ran after her, leaving Toris alone in his cell.

Ephiny looked up as footsteps came down the hallway. She and Solari had taken up position next to the door leading to Gabrielle’s room. The footsteps turned out to belong to Thalia and the Empress. Thalia’s paces were rushed and the redhead reached the door before Xena did. Ephiny didn’t try to stop her as she reached for the doorknob. But Xena did. The Empress grabbed onto Thalia’s shoulder to stop her. Thalia angrily brushed the hand away, staring at Xena with narrowed eyes.
“She’s probably sleeping,” Xena said, seemingly unintimidated by the vicious stare. “Considering what she’s been through, I think she deserves the rest.”
“Oh, shut it,” Thalia hissed at her. “What she’s been through, she had to go through because of you! You’re the reason he’s after her!”
Blue eyes looked at her calmly, emotionlessly. “Yes. I know that.”
The redhead stared at her another moment, then huffed out a breath and turned away from the Empress, pushing open the door and stepping inside.

Xena watched the closed door a moment, then looked up at Ephiny. The Amazon Queen bestowed her with a similar, judging look. The corner of her mouth edged up a little in a sarcastic smirk. “So… I’m back to being the cause of all things bad in the world.” A shrug. “Fine. I was getting tired of being nice anyway.”

With that she turned and headed for the door to Pyrron’s old quarters, just across the room.

Thalia’s footsteps were almost soundless on the rug covering the room Gabrielle was sleeping in. Thalia was pretty sure they normally wouldn’t be soundless enough for Gabrielle not to hear her though. The blonde didn’t stir however and her breathing was deep. Which either meant Gabrielle was so tired she hadn’t heard her. Or that she had heard her, but was pretending she hadn’t. Thalia wasn’t sure which option was worse.

The redhead carefully settled down on a chair beside the bed, studying her friend from a small distance. In the dim light shining in through the window she could make out a cut and some bruising on her face and upper arm.

For a few moments Thalia just sat there. Then Gabrielle stirred, carefully turning over onto her other side, facing her. The eyelids blinked open, revealing hooded green eyes.

Thalia remembered the look. She remembered it from those few moments she’d seen Gabrielle after they had rescued her from the cross. Those few moments they’d had before they had sent Gabrielle abroad. It was a mixture of hurt, fear and uncertainty.

Thalia stood up from the chair and moved closer, settling on the bedside. She reached down, taking Gabrielle’s hand between her own and chaffing the cold fingers. After a moment the fingers moved, entwining with her own.

Iona looked up as the door to her room opened and Xena appeared in the door opening. Iona quickly sat up in her bed, watching as her mother closed the door behind her and walked closer, settling down on the side of the bed.

Xena’s posture was strong and confident, but Iona could see past this, of course. She was tired. “Is Gabrielle okay?”
Her mother managed a smile for her. “Okay enough.”

Silence fell and lasted for several moments, since they were both unwilling to start the talk. Finally Iona drew in a breath. “Is there an army?”
Xena glanced at her, then nodded her head.
“I thought as much,” the girl said softly. “If there hadn’t been, they wouldn’t be so worried.”
A dark eyebrow rose a fraction. “They?”

Iona squared her shoulders a fraction, drawing in a breath. “Some… Gods… visited, while you were gone.” Blue eyes peeked up at her, guiltily. “Before you left, even.”

Xena turned fully to her daughter now, alarmed. “They visited you?”
“Yes,” Iona admitted honestly. “It was mostly one.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed. “Athena.” She repeated, her voice dropping an octave in an angry bur. She then turned back to her daughter. “Tell me everything.”

Iona drew in a breath, then did as she was told. She told Xena about Athena helping her with her powers. How the goddess had taken her to a place far away, an island. About the well that had spoken to her. About her finding out Megan was actually Athena in disguise and about how she had taken Gabrielle away and how they had fought.

During the story Xena had gotten up and had started pacing the room.
“She hasn’t contacted me since then,” Iona concluded softly. “Gabrielle says I shouldn’t trust her. That she wants things, information and stuff, and she used me to get it.”
“Gabrielle is right,” Xena murmured. “As always.”
“I’m sorry if I told her anything I shouldn’t have,” Iona said. “I’m sorry that I talked to her at all. I haven’t used my powers since the party. I don’t want to anymore.” A pause, in which Xena didn’t respond, but remained facing away from her. “Are you mad?”

A moment, then her mother turned around and those intense blue eyes focused on her and looked through her, as they’d always been able to. “I’m not mad,” Xena said, quietly. “I’m disappointed.”
Iona swallowed, uncomfortable. “That’s worse.”
Xena managed a faint smile. “Yeah,” she agreed. “That’s worse.” She walked closer again, settling down beside Iona. “Have I ever asked you to do something, without having a good reason to?”
“Then why didn’t you listen? Why didn’t you listen when I told you to stay away from them?”
The girl shrugged a little, nervously winding her fingers together. “I don’t know. I… I guess I just wanted to know… Where I come from. Who I am.”
“You are my daughter.”
“But that’s not all I am,” Iona bit her lip as she saw Xena wince at the words. “I’m part him too. That doesn’t mean I need to like him or anything, but… I wanted to know who he was and what he did… So I’d know who I am, and why I do certain things.”

Xena looked at her for a moment. “You should have asked me. Talked to me about this.”
Iona looked up at her sadly. “I tried.”

Silence lasted several moments. Xena stared down at her folded hands, resting in her lap. Iona sat beside her quietly. Finally Xena spoke up. “Do you remember which Island Athena took you to? The one with the speaking well?”
Iona thought back a moment, then nodded. “She called it the Isle of Shadow.”
Xena’s head instantly turned to her. “The Isle of Shadow?” She repeated. “Are you sure?”
Iona nodded, positively. “There was a woman there that was in charge of the place. A goddess. Her name was Scatach.”
Xena’s eyes darted about restlessly. “Segais.”
Blue eyes looked down at her again. “Never mind.” She managed a faint smile. “What did the well say? Exactly?”
“It said… It said it knew who I was. That I was light and darkness. That I was the one. And that He would come for me. And that, one way or the other, I would lose.” Xena faced away from her, and Iona looked up, somewhat worried. “Athena said I shouldn’t worry. That it was nothing. That it was a joke.”
“She’s probably right. Prophecies generally come from Oracles, not wells.” Xena turned back to her and smiled reassuringly. “But it never hurts to be careful, right?”
Iona bit her lip. “Right.”

Xena rose to her feet. “There’s some stuff I need to take care of now. You get some rest.”
Iona fumbled with the blankets uncomfortably. “Okay.”
The Empress hesitated a moment, then knelt down beside her, grabbing onto the edges of the blanket and tucking it around her daughter. “Stop worrying.” She instructed her. “I’ll fix everything.”
The girl smiled, a real smile this time. “I know. You always do.”
“Right,” Xena murmured, before pressing a kiss to her daughter’s forehead. “I always do.”

Soldiers dived out of the way as Xena stormed through the hallway. The Empress paced down into the hall and out of the door into the garden. She distanced herself from the palace and from any listening guards, not stopping until she reached a small clearing, hidden from view by the trees surrounding it.

“Athena!” She yelled the name at the top of her lunges. She spun around, surveying the entire clearing. “Get down here! Now!!”

A moment passed, then there was a bright flash and Athena appeared before her. The goddess faced her, calmly. “Hello, Xena. It’s been a long time.”
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now?” Xena snapped at her, her eyes blazing.
Athena calmly folded her hands together. “I don’t need to. You’re smart. You know. You know you’d be playing into his hands. If you didn’t, you’d have a bloodied dagger at my throat by now.”

“You touched my kid,” Xena growled at her.
“She followed me willingly.”
“You tricked her!”
Athena chuckled softly. “I just gave her what she wanted. Knowledge. Understanding. Things you apparently could not give her. I’d hardly call that trickery.”
“You took her to the Well of Segais,” Xena retorted, starting to circle the goddess predatorily. “Tell me how that’s not trickery.”
The goddess smiled. “Well, you have me there.” She didn’t bother to keep Xena in her sight, apparently not worried in the slightest. “I admit I had some ulterior motives doing that. And as it turns out, with just cause.”

Xena stopped in front of the Goddess, her eyes drilling into the grey ones. “You know what it means? The Prophesy?”
Athena studied her a moment, apparently considering whether or not to share her knowledge with Xena. “Some of it is obvious. ‘He will come.’ He is obviously Dahak. Recent events leave no doubt about that. And considering your history with Dahak and the fact that she is your daughter, that he would come for her is not unlikely.”
Xena drew in a breath, somewhat shakily, but said nothing.
“‘You are the one’… That had me puzzled.” Athena folded her hands behind her back, and started to stroll across the clearing. “Because it implies that the reason he is coming for her, has little to do with you. And much with Iona’s own destiny. Her own power. Which made no sense to me, since she is only a girl. A demi-god. It wouldn’t seem she would be interesting to him of her own accord. Unless…”
“Unless what?”

Athena turned, facing Xena again, a twinkle in her eyes. “You know about Gods, Xena. You know the rules. The transferring of power. Through blood. Through murder.” She pointed a finger in the direction of the palace. “Your daughter is a half god. She has a little bit of divinity, through her blood. But she was born from you. From a mortal. So it’s only a fraction of divinity. Of course, she is a child of the former King of the Gods, so it might be a somewhat larger fraction than for any other demi god, but still… It should not be much.” Athena took a step closer, lowering her voice conspiritually. “Your daughter is more powerful than any demi god should be. I think you know this.”
Xena stared at her, not saying a word.
“I believe she is tapping into a power that is not hers. A power that was given to her by her father. But not through blood.”

The Empress stared at her a moment, then she laughed. “You know, for a Goddess of Wisdom… You really are quite stupid.”
A blond eyebrow rose. “Is that so?”
“You think Ares transferred his power into my daughter?” Xena tossed up a hand. “Why would he? What, he wanted to give her something to remember him by? A keepsake? Belayed alimony?” A snort. “Please.”
“I don’t like to delve into my brother’s brain.” Athena commented calmly. “It’s a scary place. And admittedly, it would be a stupid move. If it had been me, I’d have transferred my powers into a pebble. An ant. A straw of grass. That would be the logical thing to do. But my brother wasn’t a man of logic. He was a man of vengeance. And in that light, giving his power to your daughter, does not seem so unlikely.”

Xena shook her head. “You’re wrong.” She told Athena, then turned away from her and started back towards the palace. “Try looking somewhere else. And leave my kid alone. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

A flash and Athena appeared before her again, blocking her path. The grey eyes had darkened a fraction now. The calm, careless attitude seemed to be fading. “Believe what you want to, Xena. But I will believe what I believe. And I believe Iona holds a power that belongs to my family.”
Xena’s stare became icy cold. “Are you threatening my daughter?” She growled.
“I am telling you the facts,” Athena retorted. “There are two ways of returning the power Ares had to my family. One is killing her. There is not a God on Olympus that wouldn’t try to gain that power for his or herself, if they knew where it was hidden.”
“Except you, of course,” Xena drawled, clearly not believing a word.
“I’ve spent time with Iona. She is a good child. I like her.” Athena dropped her voice to barely more than a whisper. “But I will kill her. To save my family.” She straightened. “However, I would prefer the second option.”

She reached for a small pouch dangling at her side and pulled something out. She held it up for Xena to see.
Xena stared at the red piece of divine food on the flat of her hand. Then she looked back up at Athena. “You want to make my kid a God?”
“If Iona is fully divine, she will be able to tap into the power she has. She can only reach bits and pieces now. I can help her. Teach her how to use that power.”
Xena looked at her another moment in disbelief, then snorted. “Forget it!” She said, turning and pacing away from the goddess.

“The Greek pantheon, restored to its former glory, is as powerful as Dahak.” Athena called after her. “You are no match for him, Xena. We are people of war, you and I. He is as powerful as he was before and he outnumbers you. You are going to lose.”

Xena’s steps faltered. Then she slowed to a halt. Athena moved closer. “You don’t like us. I can hardly blame you for that, considering your history. But it is time to leave the past behind now. Our forces combined can defeat him. But only if we regain Ares’ power.” The goddess circled around Xena and came to stand before her again. “I understand you want to protect your daughter. Any mother would. But you are not just a mother. You are a leader. A leader of an Empire. An Empire that will suffer, if it falls into Dahak’s grasp. Think of the greater good, Xena.” She reached for Xena’s hand, laying the ambrosia in her palm. “Think of the greater good and you will see there are no options. There is just one course of action. And it’s not a bad one.”

A flash and Athena disappeared. Xena stared blankly at the empty space before her for a while, then she cast her eyes down and pensively looked at the piece of ambrosia, lying in her hand.

It was the smallest of sounds, but it woke Iona up nevertheless. The girl rubbed her eyes. “Mom?” She peered into the darkness, seeing a shadow in the corner of the room. “Mom, is that you?”

“Yes, it is, deary,” a voice rose from the darkness, but Iona’s eyes widened as she recognized it as a man’s voice. A slim form moved from the shadows and into the moonlight to reveal a young man with pale white skin and dressed in dark leather. The moonlight reflected off a dagger he held in his hand. “Come to sing you a lullaby.” He giggled insanely. “Nighty night.”

Iona scrambled up against the wall in an attempt to keep some distance between her and her attacker. He just continued his giggling and moved closer, raising the dagger over his head.

But before he could strike, a cloud suddenly fell over him. He coughed, waving his arm at the swirls of pink that had enveloped him, trying to clear his vision. He yelped out in pain then as something impacted painfully with his chest. “Hey!” Another pang, in his stomach this time. “Ouch! Stop that!”
“Gladly,” a voice growled into his ear, then a fist slammed up against his cheek, knocking him backwards.

The cloud of pink dissipated and Iona now found Cupid standing between her and her assailant. “Cupid!”
The young god cast a look over his feathered shoulder, winked at her, then faced forward again and advanced on his opponent.

The next moment Aphrodite dropped to a knee beside her. “You okay, honey?” The goddess patted her cheek.

Cupid grabbed onto the young god’s collar and flung him up against the wall harshly. “Leave, Strife,” he growled, before hitting him again. “While you still can.”
Strife chuckled wickedly. “Oh, aren’t we acting all big and macho.” He stumbled back a few paces, to create some distance between him and Cupid. “One tiny mistake in your plan, Lover boy? In this wonderful loveless world… You ain’t all that powerful.” He managed to duck under Cupid’s next punch, then performed a round house kick, hitting Cupid in the stomach and sending the deity stumbling back.

Iona glanced a fearful look towards the fight. “What’s going on?”
“Not sure, not interested in sticking around to find out,” Aphrodite told her, pulling the covers off her. “Let’s skedaddle. Fast.”

“Oh no you don’t!” Strife managed to duck under one of Cupid’s punches and sent a gust of wind flying towards Aphrodite. It hit the goddess and threw her across the room. “I got here first. She’s mine!”
Cupid swung his fist towards Strife again, but the god caught the fist in his hand. “I’ll cut you a deal,” he hissed at Cupid. “You back down, and I’ll let you be my lackey, when I’m king.”
Cupid didn’t dignify his offer with a response, simply lunging out for him again. He managed to get in two good hits, but then Strife refound his balance and hit him squarely in the chest, followed by a jab to his side. As the winged good tried to recover, Strife moved in again, delivering a vicious kick that sent Cupid tumbling up against a large wooden dresser. The piece of furniture tumbled down on top of him, pinning him down. Cupid tried to move, but the fight with Strife had tired him.

Strife giggled, turning back to Iona. “Now,” he drawled. “Where were we?”

With a quick move he brought the knife down. But before it could hit Iona, it hit something solid. Strife frowned, then tried again. Tiny pink sparks drifted up around the knife as it impacted again with some unseen force, hovering slightly above Iona.

Strife growled, then turned his attention to Aphrodite. The goddess sat with her back leaning against the wall. Her hands were extended out before her, towards Iona, and she had a look of intense concentration on her face. “Back off!” he snapped, then lifted his free hand above his head. A green orb appeared and the next moment he flung it towards Aphrodite.

Aphrodite watched the green orb soar closer, then glanced back over at Iona. With a sigh she closed her eyes and braced herself, focusing all her attention on keeping the shield she’d extended over Iona in tact.

The orb hit her and she barely suppressed a whimper as it stung her painfully. Iona watched as the shield covering her faded for a mere moment, but was then restored.

Meanwhile Strife had created another green orb. “No!” Iona called out angrily. Without thinking she focused all her power on the green orb, wishing for it to fly in the opposite direction. As she did this a strong force seemed to push away from her. Away from her and up against the shield from the inside. It bounced off it, right back up against Iona. The force pushed her back, making her slam into the wall behind her.
Iona, honey,” Aphrodite managed through gritted teeth. “You’re not helping!”

Strife giggled, then lunged the second orb at Aphrodite. A third. A fourth. Aphrodite screamed as green threads of electricity seemed to cling to her skin. Cupid struggled, trying with all his strength to remove himself from his trapped position.

“How many more of these can Miss Pink here take?” Strife drawled as he bounced the green orb on his fingers. “One more? Two more? Let’s find out.” The orb flew towards Aphrodite and the goddess bit her lip, preparing herself for the pain.

But it never came as the orb was swatted away moments before it could hit her. The metal of a sword glimmered bleakly in the florescent green light.

Strife squealed as his own creation came flying back at him and he only managed to duck just in time. The orb crashed into the wall behind him. Strife rose back to his feet and looked up to meet cold blue eyes staring him down. “Yikes.” He managed to gulp, before Xena slammed the hilt of her sword up against his forehead.

Aphrodite dropped her hands, leaning back against the wall and closing her eyes in exhaustion.

“You’re holding a dagger and standing next to my daughter,” Xena growled, as she forced Strife back up against the wall. “This is not looking good for you, Strife.” The god gasped as a dagger was pressed up against his throat. “Don’t try to leave. I’ll gut you before you can.”
“Why would I leave?” Strife shot her a toothy smile. “This is such a lovely party we’re having. Though I told mom I’d be home by twelve, so…”
“Who knows?”
“Knows what?” Strife enquired innocently, then gulped as a hand grasped tightly onto his neck. “No one! No one! Athena zapped off to Eire, I thought that was weird. I followed, I overheard her talking. But I didn’t tell anyone!”
“He wouldn’t,” Aphrodite said, from her place leaning against the wall. “He’s weak. If he told anyone, they would have taken it. He wanted the power for himself.”
Xena glanced at Aphrodite, then focused her attention on Strife. “Okay.” She said, loosening her hold on Strife a little.

The god breathed a sigh in relief, lifting a hand to rub his sore throat.
“Say hi to Ares for me.”
“Hi to Ares?” Strife frowned, looking up. “But you killed A…”

His eyes widened in shock as the hind’s blood dagger embedded itself into his stomach. He gurgled something, then slid onto the ground and remained still.

A moment, then the earth shook. Xena heard a faint whooshing and looked up as Cupid staggered back, grabbing onto his chest as if something had hit him. The spot behind his chest shimmered with a silver light for a moment. Xena looked behind her to see the same thing happening to Aphrodite.

And to Iona.

Xena balanced a mug of warm milk on her upraised knee. She was seated on the couch, with Iona lying beside her, the girl’s head pillowed on her other leg. Absently she ran her fingers through the dark hair.

Across from her sat Aphrodite and Cupid. Aphrodite with her hands somewhat awkwardly folded around her own mug. Cupid looked into his cup somewhat hesitantly. “Weird,” he mumbled, swirling his cup around. “It’s liquid. And white.” He glanced up at his mother. “White things shouldn’t be liquid. There’s something wrong with that.” He tentatively took a sip. “Hmm... Not bad though...” He looked up at Xena and Iona. “What is it?”
“Milk, of course,” Iona mumbled, somewhat sleepily. “You never had any milk?”
“Milk?” Cupid looked at her in outrage. “This is milk?”
Iona nodded.
“Grody!” Cupid winced, in a clear mimic of his mother. “That’s disgusting. No wonder I thought there was something wrong with this.”

Iona giggled at his exaggerated behavior. It was making her forget a little about everything that had happened. “What’s wrong with milk?”
“Have you ever considered how it gets to be white?” Cupid started. “There’s tiny white particles floating around in there...”

Aphrodite darted a look at her son, then on their way back to her mug, her eyes were caught by blue ones staring back at her. The Goddess bit her lip, then with a small nod rose to her feet.

Xena carefully stood as well, placing a pillow under Iona’s head. “Be right back,” she whispered to her daughter, who gave her a small smile in acknowledgement, before focusing back on Cupid.

Xena found Aphrodite on the balcony, staring out over the city. A small breeze was blowing back her golden hair. The Empress walked up next to her, laying her elbows on the railing and looking out over the city.

They were both quiet for a little while. Then Xena spoke up. “How long have you known?”
Aphrodite managed a small smile. “Since the moment I saw her.”

Aphrodite turned around, leaning her back against the railing and glancing back inside, to see Iona lying there listenening, her arm wrapped around her pillow. “You could always tell when there was a god around.” She glanced up at Xena. “One of those freaky skills of yours.” She folded her fingers together, absently. “Could you tell if it was Ares, specifically?”
Xena considered this a moment, trying to remember. “His... presence was always more restless, or something....Angrier. It just felt different.”
“I spent a lot of time with Ares. He kept me close, locked in the halls of war. Cause I was around him so much, I got to recognize his... presence, as you called it.” Aphrodite followed Iona as she sat up, wrapping her arms around her pillow and leaning her chin on top. “When I saw her. And she went and threw Gabrielle across the room.... I felt him.”

Xena swallowed, her mind restlessly running over this change of events. “Who did you tell?”
“No one.”
Blue eyes turned to her and a dark eyebrow rose.
“Honest!” Aphrodite waved a finger at her. “I don’t just blab every interesting bit across Mount O, you know? Not even Cupie knows. I woudda told him, but I was afraid someone would hear.” She paused a moment, then drew in a heavy breath. “Won’t be long before there’ll be others.”
Xena swallowed, staring ahead of herself blindly. “I know.”

Aphrodite bit her lip, then glanced up at the Empress. “Are you going to kill me now? Like Strife?”
Blue eyes glanced down at her, cautiously. But after a moment, Xena shook her head a little. “No. No, I’m not.”
“Why not?”
A dark eyebrow rose at her.
“Not that I’m not psyched about it,” Aphrodite hastily amended. “But… Last time I saw you, you pressed a hind's blood dagger at my throat, so…”
The Empress managed a faint smile. “No more daggers. Promise.”
“Wicked,” the goddess muttered, then pushed herself away from the railing, intent on walking back into the living room.

Aphrodite stopped and turned back, cocking her head in question.
“You protected my daughter,” Xena said simply. “Thank you.”

That brought a full smile to the Goddess’ lips. “No sweat. She’s a cool kid.”
Xena absently nodded, her eyes glancing over Aphrodite’s shoulder, to watch Iona.
“Are you going to tell her?”
Blue eyes focused back on the Goddess. Xena considered the question a moment, then drew in a breath. “Not tonight.” She murmured, her tired mind unable to think beyond the next candlemarks. “Not tonight.”

Her bare feet felt cold on the marble tiles. Gabrielle squared her shoulders, wincing as her muscles ached. Walking was painful, but bearable.

She’d slept several more candlemarks, before daylight had woken her up. Thalia hadn’t left and had dozed a little, with her back leaning against the wall and one hand folded around Gabrielle’s. When Gabrielle had woken up she’d found her friend asleep like that and had decided to let her rest a moment longer, while she went in search of Xena.

After a short talk with a worried Ephiny, who’d stood guard at her door the entire night, Gabrielle had continued on to the Empress’ apartment. Xena hadn’t returned like she said she would. Which was weird, since the Empress rarely said something and then neglected to do it.

Gabrielle carefully pushed open the door and crept inside. It was still early and, judging by the silence, no one appeared to be up yet.

The blonde walked into the living room. Dark eyes glanced up at her as she did. Gabrielle was surprised to find Aphrodite sitting on the couch, darting her a smile. A scan of the room showed her Cupid, who was standing on the balcony. She didn’t see Xena.

Aphrodite cleared her throat, then motioned her head towards the door to Iona’s room. Gabrielle managed a smile for her, then continued on towards Iona’s bedroom, carefully pushing open the door.

Xena, who was sitting on a chair at Iona’s bedside, instantly looked up as she entered. Gabrielle paused a moment. Xena’s eyes were restless, tired and bloodshot. The Empress looked exhausted.

Gabrielle softly closed the door behind her, then walked over to the other woman, crouching down in front of her so they were just about eye to eye. “Hi,” she murmured softly, leaning a hand on the Empress’s thigh, her thumb absently stroking the skin there.
“You shouldn’t be up,” Xena whispered, her voice husky. “Go back to bed.”
“Needed to stretch out a little,” Gabrielle responded absently, her eyes searching the hooded blue ones. “What happened?” She then asked, it being obvious to her something had. “Is Iona okay?””
Xena managed a wry smile. “Yes. It’s…It’s a long story.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then refrained from asking any more questions. For the moment. In stead she reached out, her fingers gently trailing Xena’s cheek. “Did you sleep at all?”
A shake of the dark head.
“You need to sleep, Xena.”
Xena managed a small smile. “Maybe later.”

Green eyes studied her a moment, longer, then Gabrielle carefully leaned closer, placing a kiss on her lips. Xena closed her eyes, welcoming the warm, comforting feeling. She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s waist, gently pulling her closer, until the blonde was nestled on her lap.

Gabrielle rested her head on Xena shoulder, her fingers absently running through the hairs at the base of The Empress’ neck. The motion was soothing and Xena had to repress a yawn. She laid her head against the blonde’s. Her eyelids slid shut, then she quickly blinked them open. But slowly she felt them slide closed again. Maybe… Xena yawned again, calmed by the rhythmic motion of Gabrielle’s fingers stroking her skin. Maybe she could just close them for a little while. Not sleep, but… just rest her eyes a little. Just for a moment…

Khrafstar lifted his hand, halting the soldier’s speech. He bent his head again, murmuring a few last words to the fire rising up before him. When he finished, he calmly rose to his feet and turned, facing the soldier.
“Your general begs an audience with you, sir,” the soldier hastily said. “There is news of the enemy’s activities.”
“Good,” Khrafstar said calmly, then in a swift motion pulled a dagger from beneath his cloak and lodged it in the soldier’s chest. The young man gasped, staring at him with wide eyes. “Never disturb me during prayer.” The priest commented almost casually, continuing out of the tent as the soldier sagged to his knees.

Xena rubbed at her eyes as she leaned back in her chair. “You shouldn’t have let me do that.”
Gabrielle smiled, from her spot lying on the nearby sofa. “You were tired.”
“There’s so little time,” Xena murmured. “I don’t want to waste any of it on sleep.”
“You know it doesn’t work like that, right?”

Xena managed a smile for her. “I know.” She studied the woman lying on the sofa another moment longer. “How are you feeling?”
Gabrielle considered this question seriously for a moment, then darted a look upwards, lifting a hand and letting it drop again. “I…” She swallowed. “There’s so many emotions I’m feeling right now, I think… I think they’re sorta repressing each other and I’m just left feeling…. Numb.”
Xena pressed her lips together in an unhappy grimace.
“I kept waking up last night. Seeing his face. Feeling him,” Gabrielle continued softly. “He scares me. I’m not used to being scared anymore.”

Xena looked at her another moment, then pulled open her drawer, pulling out a few bags of herbs. She mixed some in her glass of water, then walked over to Gabrielle’s side, holding the mixture out for her. “Here.”
“What’s this?”
“Something to take the pain away a little,” Xena said, pushing a lock of blond hair out of her face. “The physical one, anyway.”
Gabrielle managed a wry grin, taking the glass from her and drinking the mixture. She leaned her head against the armrest of the sofa, staring up at the ceiling, allowing the nausea that the vile mixture caused to pass. “Ugh.”
“I know it tastes bad,” The Empress murmured, her fingers absently tangling in the blond hair. “But it’s worth it. Just wait.”

The warrior nodded a little, closing her eyes. Then she managed a faint grin, turning her head to look at the exhausted Xena. “So… You ready to go save the world?”
Xena chuckled softly, leaning closer and pressing a kiss against her forehead. She paused, then moved closer, kissing the warrior’s lips.
“Hmm,” Gabrielle hummed softly, between kisses. “I think this works much better than medicine.” She inhaled sharply as teeth gently nibbled at her neck. “And it doesn’t make me nauseous.”
“I should hope not,” The Empress mumbled, pressing another kiss to her lips, before leaning her forehead against the blonde’s. “Gabrielle?”
“He’s not coming near you again,” she swore softly. “I promise.”
The warrior smiled. “I know. You’ll protect me.”

Xena smiled back, then sobered a little as she looked into the green eyes. “I’m gonna do a few things you’re not going to like.” She murmured softly. “I just want you to know that… Know that from here on I’ll do things because I have to. Not because I want to.”
Gabrielle covered Xena’s hand with her own. “I know it looks bad...”
“It is bad,” the Empress corrected her. “There’s tens of thousands of soldiers waiting in the north. I can’t possibly gather that many soldiers at Thermopylae before he reaches it. And Dahak…” She shook her head a little. “He is as powerful as he was before. But now… there is no one around who’s powerful enough to entrap him.”
“Yes, there is,” Gabrielle said, trailing a finger down her cheek. “There’s you.”
Xena cast her eyes down, snorting softly.
“You beat him before,” Gabrielle continued. “Everybody told me so. Cleopatra. Athena. Aphrodite.”
“I didn’t beat him.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Cleopatra told me, you climbed up some mountain in Persia. There was a battle, and…”
“I didn’t beat him,” Xena repeated, looking up.

Gabrielle looked at her, confused.
Xena drew in a breath, then started. “Ares tricked me into fighting Dahak. I had no idea who he was. I mean, I knew he was a god and powerful, but… By this time, I’d conquered everything but Persia. I was…. so sure of myself.” A faint smile. “Ares said he would be there, for the fight. But of course the weasel never showed up. Dahak did though.”

Clouds rolled in above her. Deep, pitch black clouds. Xena glanced up as a bright flash lit up the plateau around her. There was nothing around her. There was only a deep crevice to her right, in the depth of which flowed a cold, icy river.

“We need to toss him in there,” Ares had said. “It will weaken him long enough for us to lock him in.”

We. Us. Xena snorted angrily. That plan had changed apparently.

Thunder rumbled loudly and the ground under her feet shook a little. A tingling started in her gut, and Xena looked up, her eyes alertly scanning the area. Then, right in front of her, a flame shot up right from the earth. It swirled, then solidified into a human shape. A female shape. Quite an attractive one at that, Xena noted. The woman had thick, dark hair and wore fine, black silk.

Xena lifted her chin a little, calmly eying her opponent. “So… You’re him?”
The woman smiled sweetly. “Do I look like a him?”
“You look like you just materialized out of a flame.”
The woman chuckled softly. “Touché.” She moved closer, her bare feet soundless on the rocks. “I have been watching you, Xena.” She said as she circled the Conqueror. “I have been, for a while now. I’m quite a fan. What you did in Chin.” She hummed in clear delight, then leaned closer, whispering in Xena’s ear. “Beautiful.”

Xena closed her eyes and swallowed. Being this close, it was like warmth filled her. It was a little like Ares could make her feel. That wonderful mixture of rage and desire. Only this, now… It was ten times as strong.

A hand slipped around her waist and her skin burned under it. “You are wasted on him,” the nearby voice burred coaxingly. “Why do you do his bidding? Why do you come here, to fight me, on his behalf?”
“I’m not here on his behalf.” Xena managed to say, her voice slightly husky. “I’m here on mine. I want Persia.”

“I’ll give it to you.”
Xena frowned, turning around a little. “What?”
“I’ll give it to you,” the woman repeated simply. “Leave him. Join me. And you will rule Persia.”
“What’s the catch?”
The woman smiled charmingly. “You want to conquer the world. So do I.” She pointed a delicate finger skyward. “The one on higher plains. I have conquered all I could in Persia. Of all the deities here, only I remain. I wish to leave this land. Move onto others. Like you can.” The woman folded her hands behind her back and moved a few paces away from Xena. “I can leave the borders of my lands, but… Not too long. And when I do it drains me.” She turned around, facing Xena again. “I need a vessel. Someone to enter.” She shot the Conqueror a sultry smile.
Xena feigned indignation. “I should have known you were only interested in my body.”
A giggle. “No. Not yours. I need someone who is pure. Untainted. An innocent. You are corrupted.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“That woman you met in Chin,” the woman continued pensively. “She would be a perfect host. If I could make the power she had mine…”

Xena’s eyes darkened. “I am not giving you Lao Ma.”
Her opponent looked at her in surprise. “You care for her? I thought you cared for no one.”
“I don’t,” Xena confirmed, trying to look self assured under the scrutinous gaze.
“She betrayed you, did she not?” The woman sauntered closer again, her eyes holding Xena’s. “You wished to help her and she turned you down. Do you remember?”

A hand reached out, the fingers flames now which pierced her skin. Xena gasped in a breath as a wave of visions suddenly surged over her. Lao Ma, laughing at her. The laugh started sweet and pleasant, but lowered and became taunting, vicious. Lao Ma turning her down. Their fight.

A rage surged though her, stronger than she had ever felt before. A vision of Lao Ma again and the hatred intensified.

She hated Lao Ma. She hated her.

She saw the fight with Lao Ma flash in front of her eyes again. But this time with a different outcome. With a vicious twist she snapped the woman’s neck.

Xena somehow managed to push herself back and Dahak’s touch left her. She was breathing heavily and her eyes were wide. She looked at the Persian deity, whose brown eyes had turned to a flaming orange. “Stay away from me!” She warned, unsheathing her sword and pointing the tip forward.

“Hmm,” the woman cocked her head a little. “Not the response I was hoping for.”

Xena swallowed, then drew in a raged breath. She felt completely off balance. The rage Dahak had brought out in her was unparalleled. The sight of her hands wrapping around Lao Ma’s neck kept flashing in front of her eyes and she shook her head, trying to rid herself of the image.

This god was not like Ares. Dahak had an intensity and brought out an anger so great, it scared even her.

Dahak would not be content with being her ally. He would be her master.

Xena squared her shoulders, trying to regain her composure. “Thanks for the offer, but… I think I’d rather take Persia on my own.” A smirk. “I don’t need you.”

The fiery eyes darkened, then Dahak lunged for her. The female shape changed into that of a black panther, and his claws dug into her skin.

The fight was brutal and Xena was soon out of breath. Dahak kept shift shaping, changing from animal into man, attacking her with bare hands and weapons. Xena managed to get past his defenses a few times, but when her sword found skin, the skin just parted and all her weapon touched were flames.

Dahak’s hand grazed her skin and she could feel him in her brain, probing for something. She pushed him away, but soon enough he managed to get close again. This time he found what he was looking for and laughed as he dragged the images from her mind.

A small boy, standing in the middle of a village, looking around fearfully. The village was being attacked. A centaur ran up to him and picked him up. But the next moment an arrow pierced the creature’s throat and he released his hold on the child. Draco walked up to the boy, grinning, a dagger firmly grasped in his hand.

“Solon!” Xena called out in horror, before Dahak released his grip on her and she fell helplessly to the ground.

Dahak looked down on her. He had changed back into the shape he had taken when they had met and was now again the woman with fiery orange eyes. “Pathetic,” the woman spit at her as Xena instinctively crawled backwards in an attempt to get away.

The rage, the pain… All the emotions were so strong, the images so vivid. Even now that Dahak’s hold on her was released, the fear still clung to her heart. The emotions were so powerful they were obstructing her vision. All she could see were shadows.

“You are the best the mortal world can offer?” Dahak laughed, then kicked out, catching Xena in the stomach. “You are not worthy of my attention.”

Xena managed to crawl back to her feet, stumbling backwards in an attempt to get away from Dahak. Behind her, she could hear the faint gurgling of the river.

“Know this,” Dahak’s voice burred angrily. “When I have finished with you, I will go down into the valley and I will obliterate your army. All the men and women that followed you so loyally, they will die. And I will go the border with Greece and I will line it with their heads, placed on stakes. In honor of you. Of what you could have been, had you joined me.”

Xena barely heard the words, the fear in her so complete now it consumed her. Her mind was racing. She was unable to think straight. The river was behind her. Dahak was before her. There was no way out. She would fail. Everyone would die. Like Solon had died. Because of her. Because of her.

Dahak’s gaze narrowed at her. “Let me put you out of your misery,” he growled, then lunged for her again, transforming into a lion, his claws extended towards her.

Xena heard him roar and scrambled back in absolute panic. Her foot slipped over the ground and her heel hit a rock. She fell backwards, the rocky ground scratching open her back.

She heard a cry. Another moment, then the shadows in front of her eyes faded and she could see again. She looked up at the sky. The dark clouds dissipated. Above her was only bright blue. She quickly got back to her feet and looked around.

Dahak was gone.

“I didn’t beat him,” Xena said. Her blue eyes were sad, apologetic. “I tripped.”
Gabrielle blinked at her in disbelief. “You tripped?”
“I tripped,” Xena repeated again, managing a short, sarcastic laugh. “Everybody out there…. The army. The Greek pantheon. They all believe I can take Dahak out. Because I did before. Only I didn’t.” She rose to her feet, walking over to the window and staring out over the palace gardens. “I didn’t defeat him then. And I can’t now.”

Gabrielle stared at her a moment, in shock. Then she recovered and got to her feet, walking up behind Xena. She wrapped her arms around the Empress’s waist, leaning her cheek against the woman’s shoulder blade. “You can. We can. Together. Right?”

Xena stared out blankly thinking back about her fight with Dahak. Thinking back about how she’d found Gabrielle in the forest, petrified. She closed her eyes and swallowed. She covered Gabrielle’s hands with her own, lifting one and pressing a kiss to the back of it. “Right,” she mumbled, absently. “Together.”

To be continued

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