Climax: Rematch with Ares
by David J Duncan


Disclaimers:  Originally Written November 1999; Second rewrite May 2001

Note 1: Nick, Nat, LaCroix, Vachon, Alyssa von Strasbourg,  Schanke, Joe Reese, and Tracy are from "Forever Knight" and are owned by Sony Tristar. Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Ares, Alti, Hope, Solen, the Bacchae, Perdicas, and Callisto are from "Xena Warrior Princess" which is under StudiosUSA and were created by Rob Talpert and John Schulian. The other characters are mine. They are fictious and any references to a living person is purely coincidental.

Note 2: For the Xena fans out there, this story's prologue and interlude take place between "Adventures in the Sin Trade" and "Family Affair" (Episodes 4.1-4.3). For my purposes, Callisto does not die at the end of "Sacrifice II".

Comments are appreciated!  Please send them to dante0220@yahoo.com


Prologue (Ancient Greece)

"Gabrielle!"

In the central chamber of Ares' temple, Xena stared down the shaft into the fiery glow. Just minutes before, her best friend, Gabrielle, and their enemy, Hope, had fallen down into the lava below. The Warrior Princess's heart was in her throat. How could this happen? Didn't the two companions always walk away after the battle was over? A tear drizzled down her cheek.

"You have to be strong. You know that life isn't fair," she steeled herself and stood up.  "Gabrielle would want you to go on." She walked out of the chamber towards Argo, her white steed, and rode off to wherever the road would take them.

Moments later, a flash of light illuminated the chamber and a tall, muscular figure with jet-black hair and a leather suit to match entered the scene. Ares, the Greek god of war, surveyed his damaged throne area. True, he had let Dahak, the Evil One, and Hope commandeer his temple. However, as he reminded himself, that was out of necessity.... One always needed to survive and his alliance with those two entities were purely that...necessity. Now, as Xena had disposed of  them, he could set his next plan into action.

"Time to get the followers to work on my temple," he decided and teleported off to find a surviving priest to help him.

**************************************************

Two weeks later, his mortal followers had completely repaired the temple and cleansed the throne room of Dahak's redecorating efforts. Ares brooded on his granite throne. He wanted revenge....against Xena....against his half-brother Hercules and everyone else who opposed him.

"Damn them!" he fumed.

"Now Ares...," a female voice soothed. The speaker, Discord, stepped into the light. This woman was dressed in black with hair and makeup to match. "They did beat you fair and square."

"Discord, I know that!" he muttered low.

"Just like the last time. Remember that?" she continued. She loved to egg Ares on.

"Yes, I know," he seethed. Recently, the two had sent their followers through time to retrieve a Britannic necklace, and a priestess named Cybelle Rogers. His strike force brought the commodities to him. However, Xena had struck an alliance with powerful mortals from that time. These people ventured back in time, and assisted in thwarting Ares' grand plan not to mention taking the Rogers woman back with them.

"The mortal male sure did have a temper...," she teased. "Even half-dead, he still stood up to you."

He hated to admit it, but she was right. Oh, if he could have tapped that mortal's darkness....the results would have been awesome to behold. Just the fireworks from his battle with Cybelle was something else. Then again, what's-his-name would have proven too difficult to handle in any event.....

"I will have my revenge for their interference in my plans!" he affirmed and submarined a fireball which scored a nearby pillar.

"You could go there with the Chronos stone," she suggested.

"I wouldn't be at full power. Still, as the god of war, I should be powerful enough to beat anyone.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to recruit a few allies...But who?" he surmised. Then, one possibility crept into his mind. "Gods, not her..."

Discord sensed his thoughts. "C'mon, Ares, you know that Callisto's perfect for the job," she insisted.

"The thought of working with that woman makes me sick!", he bellowed. Then, after a contemplative moment. Ares broke out laughing. "It's brilliant! And with Caesar's troops, we will be invincible!" he concluded.

"There's another enemy of Xena's worth considering as well," Discord pointed out.

Ares pondered the thought. Yes. He had heard about a powerful shamaness from the Steppe.  Somehow, she tapped a man's thoughts and fears....and used them against him. In addition, she had masterminded the murder of an Amazon tribe. Obviously, she was not someone to be taken lightly. And if Cybelle were to appear, this woman would balance the sides. "Yes, I agree....Go fetch Callisto," he directed.

She sighed angrily at her companion's order, "Be back."

Ares watched her vanish. After a momentary hesitation, he followed suit.

**********************************************************

Xena shuddered with relief. She had just survived a confrontation with her greatest enemy, Alti the Shamaness. In spite of the physical and spiritual pounding that she had taken, it was the Warrior Princess who stood on the ground and her adversary who swung on a tree bough impaled through her chest. Only with the inspiration from Gabrielle's spirit did she triumph over her adversary. Through this aid, Xena had realized that her best friend was indeed still alive.

"Potadeia!" she exclaimed. "She would have gone home!" With that thought, she leapt onto Argo's back and prompted her horse on a rapid gallop towards the southeast.

As the hoofbeats faded away in the distance, Ares stepped into view. From his hidden vantage point, he had observed the battle in the treetops.

"Nice fight. Too bad...," he admired and waved his hands purposefully.

Alti's corpse shook briefly and slid off of the tree bough. With Ares' magic, she floated to the ground.

"Now, let's finish the job," he smiled and fired an energy bolt at Alti's body.

The corpse shuddered. Her fists clenched. Her eyes snapped open and she staggered to her feet. Looking at her healer, she scratched her headdress puzzledly. "Who are you?"

Ares straightened himself. "I am Ares, god of war," he explained. "I need help against a common nuisance." He examined the woman in front of him. She stood about 6 feet tall with intense dark eyes. Animal hides covered her head and body, except for her face and hands. Atop her head, a set of deer's antlers signified her standing as a shamaness.

Alti nodded. "Xena. Are you planning to go after her?"

"Not directly," he shook his head. "We will go after her friends."

"Friends?" she hissed. "You mean the blonde? I owe her."

"No...not yet. There are others. But where Xena goes, Gabrielle follows," he explained.

An dark smile crossed her face. "Xena and I will meet again...," she vowed prophetically.

Ares admired this woman's presence. Discord had done well to suggest Alti's assistance in this endeavor. Very well indeed.

"Come with me, then. We go to make our preparations," he elaborated and teleported them both away.

***************************************************

While Ares revived Alti, Discord had retrieved the other participants in their strike force. For one thing, an elite Roman squadron stood outside of Ares' temple. Their commander waited impatiently for his ally's return. Julius Caesar was not a man who liked to be kept waiting...for man nor god. "When is Ares returning?" he ranted.

"Chill, Caesar!" Discord advised.

In the other corner, a lanky blond dressed in revealing leather armor shook her head with disgust at her would-be compatriot. While most people would not dare to do so, there was more to Callisto then the average person would think. On the one hand, her fierce anger and hatred for Xena had forged her into a formidable killing machine. And that was before she ate the ambrosia that had made her into a god. She had no patience for this man...and was fighting the urge to teach him some manners. "Oh be quiet!" she lashed out. "He'll be here soon!"

"I hope so!" he hrumphed.

"The little man needs to realize how insignificant he really is," Callisto told herself.

Just then, a flash of light brightened the chamber. When it had faded, Ares and Alti stood with the others.

"Good!" Ares approved. "You're all here. Before we get started, this is Alti, our ally against Xena."

The members of the gathering acknowledged her briefly, albeit warily. The war god settled on his throne. "Now listen up," he bade his cohorts. "Here's the plan." For 20 minutes, he outlined his ideas to the group. At the end, he looked around. Caesar, of course, wasn't happy because he had to follow with the others. On the other hand, Alti discovered that she would fit in well with this "Cadre of Vengeance" even if it meant sharing in Xena's defeat with the others. "In this case," she decided. "The end justifies the means."

"Are we ready then?" Ares inquired eagerly. "If so, let's head outside."

The others followed him out of the temple and down the granite stairs so that they faced the Roman troops.

"Let's go!" he urged and held a glowing emerald stone above his head. "To the future!"

In an lime-green flash, the entire group disappeared. Trouble was definitely headed in someone's direction.....
 
 
 
 

Chapter 1 (Back in the modern period....)

The trip to South Carolina had been very helpful. As David and Angela Dubois prepared to board American Airlines Flight 5872, they looked back over the past week. Given what had happened to them in recent months, Dave and Angie had decided to visit their friends, Karen and Matthew Montoya. While there, the four friends had worked on their psychic abilities as well as other exercises for the mind and body.

However, Dave's anger had continued to fester just beneath the surface. He did not know what to do. At least their friends thought that he had made progress.

Now, Karen stood back in the waiting area, observing her old friends. "Remember to think positive thoughts," she advised.

"We will," they chorused.

"Dave, I know that you are trying very hard. But, there's still that other side of you that I'm worried about. Please try to come back soon. There is much work for you both to do. Please give my best to Cybelle and Francesca when you talk to them," Karen directed.

Angie took a quick look back at the Montoyas and reminisced over the previous two decades.  For years, Karen and Dave had been friends and more. However, they broke up. Ironically enough, she met and married Angie's former love, Matt Montoya. Then, six years before, they had set up a blind date for Angie up in Connecticut with Dave. However, the final irony came when Dave, Angie, and Karen all learned that they had extraordinary psychic abilities. The shared experiences and abilities had served to bring the friends together even more.

"Speaking of Cybelle, she sends her best as well," Dave replied pleasantly.

"Thank you!" Karen accepted.

From within the waiting area, Matt's voice interrupted this interchange. "Hey, Honey, let's go!  Your sister's going to have dinner waiting for us!"

"You've been paged," Angie joked.

"Better get in there before Matt goes with his stomach...," Dave chimed in humorously.  "Besides, he's got the meter running, and I don't think that you can afford the tab...."

Karen grinned. It did her heart good to hear Dave joke like that. She was concerned about the peaking darkness within her friend. So much potential...yet so much trouble as well. Hopefully, they could work through these things. "See you soon," she told them, and walked back toward her family.

The plane took took off like a shot and disappeared into the night sky. After getting their daughters, Karen, Lauren, and Deirdre, settled into their seats, Dave plopped himself next to his wife.

"That's something isn't it?" Angie surmised. "What a week! But, I do feel better."

Dave agreed, "I feel as though I have a better handle on my feelings. Not totally. But at least, I'm making progress...."

She rubbed his arm consolingly. "Look, Dave", she advised. "Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your self-control. Remember what Karen just told us. Take one day at a time. OK?"

He nodded. She could always cut to the chase with him, but she did so in the most appropriate fashion-with love and support. That kind of constructive criticism had been rare commodities for Dave. Rare indeed.

"Come on....The twins and Deirdre are already asleep in their seats. We should get some rest as well, seeing as we have to be at work early tomorrow," she reminded him.

He groaned pleasantly, "Back to life....Back to reality."

*****************************************************

A week later, Dave stared out his office window in the University Library. It was a typical December day for Tucson: sunny, mild and not a cloud in the sky. As was the case for that time of the year, the sun sank in the western sky at about 5PM. Just as he was about to leave, another message flashed across his computer screen from his dean, Caitlin Sommers, concerning the Libraries' Annual Report.

"Let's see....The message isn't starred, so it can wait until tomorrow. No instructional sessions until next week....collection development is all caught up until after the new year, and the web pages are all working. Anything else?" he wondered.

As if on cue, the phone made its presence felt.

"Figures," he muttered and answered it, "Good afternoon, University Library, David speaking..."

"Well, hi there!" Angie cheered. "Guess who?"

"Sorry, I don't take sales calls here, Miss," he chuckled teasingly. "State your business. How bad is your boss going to keep you after tonight..?"

"Only until 9PM. Then, I will come right home," she promised. "The girls are all set.  Francesca's got them."

"Sounds good," he agreed. "Then I guess that I could go see Nick. Does he have the night off?"

"According to Natalie, he does. And since the two of us are tied up here with our oh-so charming patient here....you might as well go hang out with him," she explained. "Is that okay with you?"

"Sure. I'll see you later. Say hi to Natalie. Okay? Take care. Love you," he closed and hung up.  "Okay it's 5:30. Definitely time for me to make tracks," he thought. He locked his office door and walked out of the library towards the parking garage on Cherry Avenue. Five minutes later, Dave was heading towards Nick's downtown loft apartment.

*******************************************

"Love you too," Angie beamed and hung up as well. She meandered over to the coffee pot across the room. It had been an exceedingly long day but she did not mind. Dr. Fishburne, the hospital administrator, had received a request from the Tucson Police Department for assistance in identifying a rare cancer within a victim's corpse. The fact that TPD's newest ME, Dr. Natalie LeBeau, had made this request only increased Angie's enthusiasm for the case. Unfortunately, as Angie was discovering, her stamina was not what it had been in medical school.....

"How are you holding up?" Natalie asked.

"Oh, okay. Only another two hours," Angie assured her. "I hope it's okay if Dave goes over to the loft and spends time with Nick."

Natalie shook her head. "Normally, I would say `no'. Nick usually likes his privacy. However, I don't think that he will mind a visit from Dave tonight."

"I figure that Dave needs help with his inner darkness. Besides, Nick is a super friend," Angie sighed and sipped her coffee. "Mmm...French Vanilla...."

"Working with you definitely has its benefits," Natalie laughed good-naturedly. "Try getting this stuff at the morgue." She rubbed Angie's shoulder. "The company's great too."

"Thanks," Angie smiled and flushed.

Natalie coughed and looked around to make sure that they were alone. "Angie, can I ask you a personal question?" she inquired.

"Sure," Angie shrugged. "What is it?"

"Natalie took a nervous breath and then, looked her colleague in the eye. "How's your relationship..." She leaned closer and whispered, "with You-Know-Who?"

"Me and Who?" Angie jumped skittishly.

"You and Xena. Nick confided in me," she whispered.

"He didn't!" Angie complained disapprovingly. "I'll bet he told his partner too!"

Natalie put her hands on her hips and gave Angie a stern look. "Now wait a minute! He could have...but he didn't. Listen to me, Angie....Nick went out on a really thin limb for you two up in Toronto by keeping Reese and Tracy in the dark as he did. But, he appreciated how you kept his secret. So, other than me, he won't say another word about it, and my lips are sealed too," Natalie lectured.

Angie gulped guiltily. "I'm sorry....I should trust you and Nick, but..."

"...But, it's a big secret. That's okay," Natalie reassured her.

"Actually, Xena's a big help. She's letting me adjust at my own pace, and her experiences are helping Dave as well," Angie explained.

"Sounds great," Natalie nodded. "Well, I said before, your secret is safe."

"Thanks. I..," Angie cheered. Then, through her psychic abilities, she felt Nick's partner, Tracy Brown, approaching them. "Tracy's coming."

"That's a pretty neat trick. I'll have to ask Nick to teach me that one," Natalie laughed although she could sense Nick's presence for some reason if he was nearby. A side effect of their misadventure during the last night in Toronto perhaps? She shook herself back awake.

At that point, Tracy stuck her head through the door into the room. "Hi, guys," she greeted.

"Howdy," Natalie replied pleasantly.

"Hi," Angie smiled.

"Sorry to barge in but I'm going on my dinner break. Chinese takeout. Anyone want some?" Tracy inquired curiously.

"That's okay. We needed a break," Angie advised and stretched her arms towards the ceiling.  "Goodness me! I guess that the all-nighters don't work anymore like they did in Med School."

Natalie chuckled, "Ah yes....That would be your body telling you that you aren't as young as you used to be. Angie, you're what? 35?"

"Yes," Angie admitted. "Dave would probably quote the opening lines from Dante at this point. `Midway through my allotted three score years and ten...'."

"Geez....he sounds like Nick," Tracy cracked. "So, where is your worse half anyway?"

"Your partner's loft," Angie shrugged.

"Wow! I thought that Nick liked his privacy," Tracy surmised. "I'm glad that he has a male friend to talk to....No offense meant, Nat...."

"None taken," Natalie absolved. "He hasn't had anyone like that since Don Schanke died....."

Tracy smiled. "He's a character....Don and Nick sure seemed like good friends."

Nat gave her friend a perplexed glance. "Wait a minute...You weren't here yet when Schanke was Nick's partner, so how?"

"I met him on the `Other Side' so to speak," Tracy explained.

"The Near Death experience," Natalie surmised. "So, you and Nick ran into Schanke."

"And a woman in white....One of Nick's past loves, I guess," Tracy added.

"Woman in white?" Natalie inquired. She remembered Nick mentioning that he had encountered a woman in white while at Kessel House during the previous year. They had all seen ghosts. Nick's apparition was Alyssa von Strassbourg, his deceased wife. Apparently, she was still protecting him.....

Then Tracy thought of something. "Hey...instead of bringing the food back, let's eat there," she suggested.

Nat agreed, "It has been a long day. Why don't we take a break and work a bit later?"

"Well okay," Angie nodded as she grabbed her coat and headed for the door.
 
 
 
 

Chapter 2

Nick reclined on his antique Victorian sofa, and sipped a goblet of cow blood. His new life as "Nicholas Miles" was going well. Everyone at the precinct was nice to deal with including Captain Ramirez. Having Nat and Tracy here with him certainly made him feel more comfortable. Best of all, no LaCroix. He was still far away...not exactly in Toronto but not in Arizona either.

The door buzzer startled him back to reality. Rising slowly from the couch, he crossed the room and pressed the intercom's red button. "Yes?" he asked.

"Nick, it's David Dubois. May I come up?" Dave requested.

"Certainly. Take the elevator up. See you in a minute," he accepted and pressed the blue button.

"Thanks," Dave smiled and stepped onto the elevator. The ancient appliance creaked to the top ever-so-slowly. Finally, the door opened and he stepped into the loft. Amazingly enough, it looked just like Nick's former domicile in Toronto.

"I trust that you like it?" Nick supposed.

"Sure do," Dave complemented. "It has a striking resemblance to your former place."

"That was the idea," Nick informed him and noticed the white paper sack. "I see that you brought your dinner with you."

"Chicken Caesar Pita from Wendy's," Dave chuckled.

"Your usual," Nick observed while returning to the couch. "Take a seat. How is everything going?"

"Thank you," Dave accepted and sunk into the nearby Ottoman. "I'm okay, but there is the usual issue."

"Your inner darkness," Nick guessed.

Dave nodded. "Last weekend, I had a talk with some old friends. They are very concerned. I thought you might have some advice on how you deal with yours," he sighed.

Nick scratched his head thoughtfully. "Well, it isn't easy...But just as you did at the Raven, every challenge needs to be faced as it comes up. As far as I'm concerned, you have been doing great," he accessed positively.

"Have you had any serious setbacks?" Dave pushed farther.

"Yes. Nat would be able to tell you more," Nick admitted. "But again, each challenge as it comes."

"Well, enough about me," Dave grinned. "How's everything in your world?"

"The job's fine....It's great having Nat and Tracy around. Life is pretty much back to normal," he surmised.

"It must be great not having to do the `You take the front routine' with Tracy anymore," Dave indicated.

Nick smiled. Yes, Tracy's understanding of his true nature did have its benefits. "It does make things easier," he agreed.

"What about LaCroix?" Dave probed still farther.

"He's not here....," Nick explained. "I sense that he has moved on from Toronto. He's still far away."

"Will he come here?" Dave wondered.

"Who knows?" Nick shook his head. "Still, I don't know if Tucson is big enough for both Xena and LaCroix. Not to mention you and him as well."

"Especially after our last dance in Toronto," Dave quipped with a shudder. He remembered how being in the elder vampire's presence had pushed him to the edge. Only through using all of his mental willpower did he teeter on the edge without falling into the abyss....

"Yes," Nick agreed and turned towards the big stuffed envelope resting on the end table. "By the way, I read your paper."

Dave tensed, "And...?"

Nick picked up the envelope and felt its weight. After a moment of consideration, he handed it to his friend. "It was very interesting to say the least," he commented, rose from his chair and walked across the room. As he moved, his face glazed over with the flashback look.

"Hey, Nick?" Dave tapped his shoulder.

"Huh? Oh right," he remembered. "Interesting piece. Reading it took me back to Cairo and Mansura."

Once again, Dave was amazed at his new friend. As a student of the medieval world since childhood, he was fascinated with the people that Nick had known and his experiences in that society. He made up his mind that he would write Nick's biography one day. Of course, that account would only include his mortal life. No need to get the Enforcers ticked off. "So you actually met her?" he prodded.

"Shajarat al-Durr? Oh yes....during the negotiations for King Louis' release. She was quite the woman. You want to hear what happened?" Nick smiled enticingly.

"What do you think? Of course!", Dave laughed incredulously.

"You were amazingly accurate in your biographical sketch," Nick noted. Then, he started to tell his friend about the story.....

************************************ [Cairo 1250]

It was February 1250. Nicholas de Brabant wandered the streets of Cairo waiting for the banquet at the sultan's palace. The French king, Louis IX, had been captured three months before by the Mamluks at Mansura, and all efforts to ransom him, thus far had proven futile. Now, the queen had asked Nick as a trusted crusader, to secure her husband's release. A meeting had been arranged between him and the dowager sultana.

Finally, at the appointed hour, he walked to the palace. At the gate, a giant mountain of a man approached him.

"State your name and business, Sahidi," the guard demanded emotionlessly.

"I'm Nicholas de Brabant, a crusader, here to speak to the sultana about my king's release," Nick stated.

"Ah yes," the other agreed. "She is expecting you. I am Mahmud, the leader of the Bahri Mamluks." He snapped his fingers and six other Circassian troops appeared. "Your escort."

Nick smiled and bowed. "Thank you," he accepted.

The other nodded his head and returned to his post.

Nick, accompanied by his escort, wound his way through the labyrinthian passages within the palace to the harem. They stopped before a great stone door watched over by two more hulking men with fearsome scimitars.

"Prepare yourself, Christian," the leader of his escort advised Nick. "You are about to be admitted to the presence of our deliverer. A miraculous woman indeed like no other....Shajarat al-Durr." The doors swung open and Nick entered the chamber. There, reclining on a throne of obsidian, was a woman of radiant beauty. Circassian like her guards but lacking their height, nevertheless her presence was unmistakably powerful. Her gaze could pierce to the very heart of a man's soul. She wore a beautiful strand of pearls, no veil, and her hair streamed down her back with more pearls catching the light's sparkle.

"Greetings, Sir Nicholas," she acknowledged.

"My Lady," he bowed before her.

Shajara smiled favorably and motioned for him to rise. "My thanks for your coming and accepting your queen's invitation to negotiate in her behalf. My late husband, the Sultan, always spoke well of you." She hesitated and held her hand to the pillows just to the right of her throne.  "Please sit."

"Thank you," he accepted and, after waiting for her to settle on the throne once again, sank into the satin's softness. "My condolences about your husband. He was a great warrior."

"Thank you," she replied. "Unfortunately, Allah has chosen to recall as-Saliah to His bosom.  Your king chose to shatter the peace of this land. Praise Allah that my husband's generals were up to the task of defeating his forces."

Nick cleared his throat and posed his next question. "Is the King well?" he inquired. "My apologies, but my Queen instructed me to ask.

Shajara laughed, a sound like the wind chimes from the countryside, "Does she think that we are barbarians? Of course, he is being treated well!"

"Again, my apologies, Sultana," he apologized.

"That is not necessary, Sir Nicholas. You are only following your queen's instructions. As for the terms of his release, tell her to pay us one million of your francs. Secondly, all of our lands must be returned to us which his army took along the Nile. Finally, he and his people must leave Egypt forever. If he agrees, then he will go free. When will your queen arrive?" she dictated the price of peace to her friend.

"On the morrow," he informed her.

Shajara smiled again. "You have done well, Sir Nicholas. As such, and as the friend of my late husband, you are exempted from the ban as long as you keep peaceful motives in your heart. The Umm-Khalil has spoken!"

Nick rose from his seat and bowed once again. "Then, my thanks as well," he acknowledged and left the room and palace...

***************************************

Dave sat transfixed by the tale. When Nick had reached the end, he asked, "Did you ever see her again?"

Nick nodded, "I made it into the room just after the second sultan's death and just prior to her capture in 1257." He walked across the room towards an antique wooden cabinet. After pulling on a pair of white gloves, he opened the doors and removed two objects which he brought to Dave in a hurried fashion. "I thought that you would like to look at these heirlooms."

"What are these?" Dave asked curiously.

"Souvenirs from the medieval past," Nick explained and unwrapped the items. One was an aged book with a mahogany cover, an Arabic inscription and finely gilt trim. The cover edges, chipped by time's passage, bore the burden of heavy use. The other bundle contained an old wooden cross comprised of two crudely-cut pieces of wood bound together with a slowly unraveling strand of twine.

As Dave held these artifacts, he felt an electric charge jolt his system as if pieces of his soul were being restored to him after a long absence. "I feel as if I should know these people," he assumed.

"You do...sort of. The book was Shajara's Qur' an and the cross belonged to  Jeanne d'Arc.  I thought that you would like to see these items for yourself," Nick agreed.

"Indeed," Dave noted excitedly. He carefully studied the artifacts and their vibrations.  Slowly, his vision blurred and a link formed. Visions flashed across his mind's eye. Images of a deadly fall...the dread of the final impact against the stones rushing up from below....The feeling of flames scorching his flesh and smoke choking his lungs. Then, a great blackness enveloped his consciousness and another picture dominated his vision. In it, Dave saw Roman centurions surrounding the library. He and Nick were facing an unknown opponent of awesome power. He felt the dominance of the Child and knew that it was in control once again at that point. Their adversary hit them with some energy followed by pain...horrible excruciating agony....

Nick shook him out of it. "Dave? Dave? Are you all right?"

The other nodded hesitantly. "Yes...I just had a vision," he shuddered.

"Of us? Is it accurate?" Nick pursued.

Dave shrugged painfully, "I can't tell, but let's just say I have a bad feeling."

Nick nodded in agreement. Somehow, he too shared his friend's discomfort. "Meantime, you have that talk coming up at the library in two days. Right?"

"That's right," Dave yawned and looked at the clock. "10:15. Well I guess I had better be heading home before Angie sends the dogs after me. Thanks for sharing these items with me. It means a lot."

"Are you sure that you're okay to drive? I can bring you," Nick offered.

"That's okay," Dave advised. "I'm fine. Thanks." He walked towards the elevator and opened the door. "By the way, if you want to stop by the library for the talks, consider yourself, Natalie, and Tracy invited."

"I might do that," he smiled. "Now go on before your wife comes looking for you."

Dave waved and closed the elevator door. Once downstairs, he headed for the car.

Nick watched his friend's headlights fade into the distance. Once alone, he wondered what Dave's vision would mean to them. Something was going to happen at the library...and during that session. He made up his mind to talk to Ramirez about it at the first opportunity.

"Meantime, I need to check in at the lab," he ascertained. Opening the window, he sensed that nobody was watching him. Then, he took off for the Precinct.
 
 
 
 

Chapter 3

Natalie and Angie pushed onward through their evening workload. Tracy's dinner had been great, but they knew that it had gone on far too long.

Angie looked at the clock. "10:25! Oh gosh!" she realized. "I didn't know that it was so late!"

"Dave and Nick are probably having a great time I wouldn't worry," Natalie assured her.

Angie dialed her home number on the cell phone. "I had better check in," she told her associate. Four rings and the message machine later, she hung up. "He's not home. I wonder where he is."

"He's on his way," Nick advised from the doorway. "He just left my place."

"How did tonight go?" Natalie inquired.

"All right. We talked for about three hours. I filled him in on some details and showed him some artifacts...," Nick started.

Natalie watched his brow furrow. "But...?" she probed.

"But....he had a vision. Dave said that something was going to happen at the library. But, he didn't know what," he continued.

Angie sighed, "Usually when Dave gets bad feelings, they're on target, but having visions.... I don't know about that. These abilities are still a new experience for both of us."

"Did he give you any details?" Natalie interjected.

"Yes, the library was surrounded by Roman troops of some sort. Also, some woman was attacking him and me. Other than that, it was cloudy...."

Angie considered this premonition for a minute. Then, she put her index finger in the air. "Um, Nick, did he drink anything?"

"No," he shook his head.

"Why?" Natalie asked.

"I was wondering.... He's been hyped up lately with that panel at the library. I wonder though...you said Romans?" Angie pressed her point.

"That's right," Nick nodded.

"I hope that I'm wrong....I wonder if any of Xena's foes are behind this dream. If so, that would present problems for us. Big problems," Angie concluded.

"As I told Dave, we'll have to be vigilant," Nick advised.

"You got that right," Angie concurred and looked again at the clock. Now it was 10:45.

"Go on, Angie. I'll finish," Natalie assured her.

"Are you sure?" Angie inquired uncertainly.

"I'll be fine. You need to check in. I'll see you tomorrow. Take care," Natalie told her.

"Okay," Angie agreed. "If you say so." She grabbed her coat. "See you both later." She left the room and headed for her Nissan Sentra.

Natalie turned to Nick. "What exactly happened to trigger this episode?" she pushed.

He shrugged. "I really don't know. I let him handle the cross and the Qur 'an. I did expect a reaction from him, but not like that."

"Like what?" Natalie quizzed.

"He had a link to Jeanne d'Arc and Shajarat al-Durr by handling their personal items. It was almost as if he had previously established a connection to them," he postulated.

"Do you think that those items amplified his powers somehow?" Natalie proposed.

He nodded. "It's a definite possibility," he agreed.

"If something happens at the library, what are we going to do about it?" she inquired.

"Ramirez won't have any extra men to spare. But maybe, he might beef up patrols," he stated. "Tracy and I will do extra patrols ourselves when possible too."

"Let's hope that it comes to nothing," Natalie hoped.

He commented, "It will all work out. Now, I'll let you finish up. See you tomorrow."  Having said that, he left the room.

Natalie walked back to her desk and sat down. She took a sip of cold coffee and reclined back in her chair. "Nick, I hope you're right," she worried. Despite his reassurances, she had a bad feeling about Dave's premonition. Something was going to happen....Something big.

Chapter 4

The wind howled across western Massachusetts two nights later. The icy needles bit into all travelers, forcing them back into their homes. On this particular evening, Cybelle Rogers and her husband, Mike, entertained her father, Stuart Dubois. Although they had tried everything to cheer her father up, the latter still brooded in the corner.

"C'mon, Dad," she requested. "Show some holiday spirit."

"I can't," he sighed. His life had recently taken a major turn for the worse. His engineering firm was on the verge of financial collapse. His creditors were pushing him hard. Worse still, he had not seen his son, David, in three year, nor had he ever met his three granddaughters. He cursed the pigheadness of his son and daughter-in-law.

"Stuart," Mike reminded him. "This is supposed to be a happy visit."

"I can't believe that he's being so stubborn! All he has to do is apologize!" Dubois maintained.

Cybelle shook her head. "Funny, he says the same thing about you," she informed him.

Dubois turned away from them and stared out the window at the light snow falling from the sky.
 
 

*********************************

After taking a few weeks to heal his wounds and settle accounts, LaCroix had packed his possessions and moved on. A van would take his belongings from the Raven in a few days.  However, he wanted to scout around a bit. As with the elder Dubois, he brooded over his son, Nicholas, and desired the latter's companionship. Unfortunately, children could be so stubborn at times....

On this night, LaCroix flew over the Connecticut River Valley, heading southward.  Suddenly, he detected a faint vibration. It was oddly familiar.

"Strange," he pondered. "Most decidedly peculiar." He followed the psychic trail through the city of Amherst, discerning that its source was a little brown house on the town's eastern edge. He alighted on the snowy sheen covering the ground. "The witch here?" he asked himself. The trail led here after all....A sudden burst of anger shot through him. "I will be revenged on her. But, others are there. This is not the time," he decided and walked up to the door. He rapped sharply three times.

Mike rose from his chair and answered it. Upon seeing LaCroix, he turned to his wife, "Hey, Hon, do you know this guy?"

Cybelle felt the vampire's presence and dropped the coffee beans which she was grinding on the counter. "Darn it! I have been too preoccupied! How could I have let LaCroix get so close?" she chided herself.

"Cybelle, do you know him?" Mike repeated his question.

"It's okay, Mike," she advised. "Have our guest come to the back room, so that I can take his coat."

He nodded and started to point the way.

"I can find it. Thank you," LaCroix indicated. Having said that, he walked down the hallway purposefully toward the spare bedroom where Cybelle awaited him. "Is this where I am supposed to say 'Good Evening'?" he inquired half-seriously.

"Usually it is. But, what brings you here?" she replied matter-of-factly.

"You actually. We have a score to settle," he hissed.

She smiled wickedly. "Remember what I did to you in Toronto? That happened on your turf. You're in my domain now. Imagine the surprises that I cook up in here," she threatened. A flick of her wrist brought a little bag into her hand. "Got it?"

LaCroix saw her point. "For tonight. You know where Nicholas is," he supposed.

"I might. But even if I did...I wouldn't tell you," she shrugged. "Keep your distance from him." Her eyes stared right through him. "And as long as you conduct yourself with decorum, nothing will happen."

LaCroix stifled his instinctive drive to tear her throat out. Cybelle had bested him rather easily in Nick's former loft. He had no wish to repeat the experience.

"Now then," she continued. "Will you take some wine?"

"White, if you would," he accepted.

"As it happens, we have some on hand. Please take a seat in the living room, and I'll bring it to you," she advised him.

He followed her instructions, albeit very grudgingly. After settling on the living room couch, he observed his surroundings with great care.

Mike walked over to his new guest. "I'm Mike Rogers. And you are...?" he introduced himself and offered his right hand.

"Lucien LaCroix," LaCroix replied pleasantly and shook his host's hand. "Your wife and I met recently.

"Yes, at UMass. Remember, Mike. Dave gave a talk there," Cybelle added half-truthfully.

"That is correct," LaCroix confirmed. "It is a fascinating topic."

Dubois snickered rudely in the corner.

LaCroix turned quickly toward him, but placed a quick hold on his temper. No, there would be plenty of time to deal with this insolent mortal later.

"I suppose that he made her up," Dubois baited.

LaCroix considered this man and his attitude....It did seem familiar. "Oh, I assure you that she was quite real. My son studies her artifacts as well," he replied dryly while sipping his wine.

"As if she had any real power....," the other seethed.

Those words made LaCroix realize why this man's manner was familiar. Ignoring the last taunt, he cut straight to the chase. "I have seen anger like yours, in your son. You instilled it in him," he observed.

"You mean attitude," Dubois spat.

LaCroix snickered incredulously as he drained his glass, "You know so little about him."

"And I suppose that you do?" the other challenged.

LaCroix glanced at Cybelle expectantly, before continuing, "We met last month. The boy does have a vicious temper to say the least. He is torn between guilt and rage."

"He owes me respect," the other ranted.

LaCroix sighed. Looking at Dubois was like staring into a distorted mirror. How many times had he felt this way about Nick? His mind flashed back to the conversation with Janette after Nick's departure from Paris during the 1920s. He had used the same words and tone at that point as the man in front of him employed now. Despite his personal feelings on the matter, however, time...and Nick, had taught him that the times had indeed changed. "No, my dear man...Respect has to be earned....as much as it galls me to admit it. One cannot expect such things...from our children." Despite the resolve in his voice, his speech caused his stomach to churn.

"Ungrateful," the other stewed.

"Yes," LaCroix agreed. "They are ungrateful, aren't they?" He stared at Cybelle once again and then, continued. "Just remember, our best intentions are not always received as such....Despite our wishes to the contrary."

Dubois stared at the other man. He had heard enough of this lecture. Still this man, LaCroix, had given him some excellent food for thought. He got up from his chair, said his good nights, and departed for his home.

LaCroix had much to consider as well. He stared out of the window into the heavy snowfall. He felt a dread. Something was about to happen....something disastrous for them all.
 
 
 
 

Chapter 5

The morning before the conversation in the Rogers' household dawned brightly in Tucson. In the Dubois household, however, all was not well.

Dave rose first from his troubled slumber. Since his vision at Nick's loft two days earlier, he had experienced unusual premonitions....Someone or something was coming....and it would happen at the library. He climbed into his navy blue sweats and went out for his early morning jog.  Usually, this activity helped calm his nerves but on this day, no such luck. He ran down a mental list of work assignments. No, everything was either done or going on schedule. Could it be tonight's panel? Francesca was especially anxious about her paper. As the history liaison, he wanted this session to go well but since all of the arrangements were complete, tonight would come at its own pace.

"C'mon, Dave. Lighten up," he told himself and started another two mile lap.

*****************************************

Angie awoke grumpily. "Umm...Dave?" she whispered and groped around the bed. "He must be out jogging again," she realized. She rose slowly from the bed, felt her way into the terrycloth robe, and meandered to the other bedroom. Once, she had ascertained that the kids were still sleeping soundly, she went to the kitchen.

"I guess that I should get the coffee," she yawned. "Let's see, I think that I'll let him have his Mocha Java this morning. That should help him feel better."

"I doubt it," Xena's voice advised.

Angie jumped, "Goodness me! Oh, Xena! Good morning! I wasn't..."

Xena's eyebrow arched, and a sly smile spread across her face. "...expecting anyone? You really should maintain your guard at all times."

"Sorry, but I have been dealing with these premonitions that Dave and I have been having lately," Angie explained.

"Listen to your feelings, Angela," Xena instructed. "They are trying to tell you something."

Angie nodded as she started the coffee maker. "You know....we were watching your ...well, that show that...," she hedged.

"Yes, I know," her spectral friend grinned. "It's not very accurate...but your question...."

"The shamaness...Alti," Angie worried. "I felt your anger. And, call it coincidence, but...that particular episode came on at random this week. Both Dave and I felt a link between our feelings and her..."

Xena stared at the ceiling. It had been a long time since her battles with the powerful woman from the Steppe. Indeed, these struggles often hung in the balance whether they took place on the physical or spiritual planes. "The account was only half right. But, the legends are true...She promised me power. Dark power," she explained.

"The Destroyer of Nations?" Angie wondered.

"Right. Well, after I turned against her, Alti cursed my son..," Xena continued. A tear fell from her right eye. "Gabrielle and I faced her on several other occasions."

"Such as in India and the Steppe?" Angie supposed.

"Yes. In those cases, the events happened pretty close to the way that you saw them portrayed," Xena reported with great emotion.

"Does she do everything that we saw?" Angie queried nervously.

"Yes....use one's fears and previous memories against him or her," Xena affirmed. Then a concern flashed through the Warrior Princess's mind. "Angela, if Alti does appear, I want you to keep David as far from her as possible."

Angie's eyes widened at the possibilities of such an encounter. "Oh my! She would trigger his fears....make him angry and trigger his 'Child'."

"Exactly my point. If she appears, let me handle it," Xena instructed.

"Don't worry. You can have her," Angie told her ruefully.

"Thanks..," Xena smiled knowingly as she faded from view. "I know what you mean...Just watch yourself and advise David to do the same."

Angie stared at the spot where her friend had vanished for about ten minutes, and wondered what they were getting themselves into now.
Chapter 6

Nick parked the Caddy by the precinct building. It was the night of the session at the library, and he felt the sense of dread as well. Maybe David Dubois' melancholy was affecting him somewhat. On the other hand, checking out all of the angles couldn't hurt either. He entered the building and knocked on Captain Ramirez's door.

"Come in, Nick," Ramirez invited. "What's on your mind?"

Nick entered the office, closing the door behind him. "I was wondering if you have considered my request from last night?"

Ramirez shot him a serious look and held up the yellow "Request for Further Investigation" form. "Si. I have it right here. Sergeant Novak was going to return this to you tonight. I had to turn it down. I mean...c'mon...trouble at the library?"

"I go with my instincts, Captain," Nick stated. "Word is out on the street about a potential situation...."

The other man threw his hands up in frustration. "Then, get me taped conversations! Transcripts of interviews! Any kind of hard evidence! Detective, I shouldn't have to tell you this, given your years on the Force, but without hard evidence, I can do nada. Comprende?"

Nick nodded dejectedly, "Sure. Thanks for considering it."

"Hey, for you, no hay una problema. Usually, you give me a better paper trail than this one. Get me something with some substance behind it, and I'll see what I can do," Ramirez assured him.

The detective rose from his chair. "Thanks again, Captain."

"Sorry about the report, Nick. However, if it makes you feel any better, I have authorized you and Detective Brown to make periodic checks of the library, if you get my drift," his superior relented.

"I do indeed," Nick smiled. "Thanks." He walked out of the office, heading for the staircase.
 
 

******************************************

Tracy paced around the length of the examination room. She knew that something was bothering Nick. But, of course, he was keeping it to himself. This tendency bugged her to no end.

Natalie looked up from the latest customer on her examination table. "Hey, Trace....Nick said that he would be here soon," she tried to explain.

"I know. Sorry, it's just that...I feel like he's still keeping things from me. In spite of the promise and all. I mean first the silence and then, the request to Ramirez last night. Damn it! He's my partner," Tracy complained.

Natalie smiled and pulled off her surgical gloves. "I know. But Nick is trying to live up to his part of the bargain. He has a hard time trusting people. Besides, you haven't always been the most sharing type either."

"He is sharing more information with me. I'll grant you that," Tracy admitted. "But lately, he has retreated into that private mode of his. Has he told you anything?"

The ME gave her friend a comical look. "Hey, you're the detective...."

Tracy glared at her. "I will find out," she ascertained. "It's times like this one that I miss Vachon."

Natalie sighed and slumped her shoulders. Tracy did have a right to know something. At least, Angie Dubois wasn't in the room. How would Nick tell his partner about the shared premonitions without revealing precious secrets in the process?

A knock came from the door. Natalie sensed that Nick was standing there. At least, the ball was out of her court.

"Hi, Nat...Tracy. What's going on with the case?" he asked.

"Everything's going okay with this one," Natalie informed him and rolled her eyes in Tracy's direction while mouthing "tell her" to him.

He looked at Tracy who was standing in the corner of the room with her arms folded across her chest, her mouth set in a firm line, and her eyes staring right through him.

"What's going on?" his partner demanded.

"With what?" he hedged.

Tracy snickered incredulously at his denial, "I know the privacy routine. Shall I close the door?"

Nick exchanged looks with Natalie and decided to give in. He knew that Tracy would hound him until he spilled the secret anyway. It would be best to tell her in private. "Okay, close the door."

Tracy shut them in the room and snapped the locks shut. She was trying to keep the satisfied "gotcha" smile off of her face. Still, the canary feathers sprouted from her mouth. "So, what's going on? I hear that the Captain's got us keeping detail tonight."

He cleared his throat. "The last few nights, I have been thinking about a set of premonitions. Do you know David Dubois?"

She nodded, "Angie's husband? We have met, but what does he have to do with this?"

"He had the premonitions about this situation," he explained.

Tracy chuckled, " So, based on that bunk, you asked Ramirez for more men? C'mon, Nick."

"He's serious," Natalie disagreed with her.

Tracy had to sit down. This conversation was getting positively ludicrous. "You make it sound like he's a telepath or something. Sorry Nick, but normal people don't have those kind of experiences. Next, you'll tell me that Angie's also Xena," she scoffed.

The coroner had to turn away before her facial expression betrayed the secret.

Nick counted to five and then, continued, "Yes, he has those abilities."

"You're serious?" she pushed.

"I saw him use them," he confirmed. "Once, he pulled a book from me while he was across the room. Then, he stood up to a vampire in the Raven."

Tracy scratched her head. So, there was something more to that episode at the Raven than the official report stated....At some point, she would have to pry those details from him as well.  However, she reminded herself to fight one battle at a time. "And you kept this from Reese?  You took quite a chance. Did you know, Natalie?"

Natalie nodded, "We both did. But, the trouble for the Dubois family would have been more than it was worth."

"I suppose," Tracy agreed, albeit reluctantly. "So, what kind of trouble is this going to be?"

"David wasn't very clear. But, he did see a confrontation coming our way, and I want to be close by if and when it happens," he stated.

"And I'll be at the UMC with Angie," Natalie explained as she covered the victim, and placed it back in cold storage. "Besides, it pays to be too careful, rather than ignoring warnings of any kind."

"I suppose," Tracy shrugged and put her coat on. She hoped that Nick would fill her in on more details as they rode in the Caddy. With all of the loops between Speedway, Stone, Wilmot, and Broadway, there would be plenty of time for discussion. However, she also sensed that the answers would not be readily forthcoming, and with that, the net of dread had encompassed her as well.
 
 

Chapter 7

Dave's work day dragged by inexorably. Granted, he achieved quite a bit with his projects, but as the clock inched closer to the presentation, his personal stress level rose another notch.

Finally, about 5 PM, a knock sounded at the door. "Yes?" he answered.

"Dave, it's Winnie," Winnie Henderson, the new Reference librarian, indicated.

"Come on in," he bade.

She entered carefully. Winnie was an extremely shy individual. On her job interview, she almost turned people off, because of her short answers and evasiveness. However, once the staff worked with her on a daily basis, both sides adjusted to each other. "Th...Thank you," she accepted and entered his office.

"Please feel free to sit down," he invited.

She declined, "Thanks...but I just wanted to let you know that Mike's putting the cameras in place even as we speak. And...there's someone to see you too."

"Thank you for showing my visitor here," Dave smiled cheerfully. "Sure that you won't stay?"

"I can't...Sorry...My kids are waiting for me," Winnie excused herself. "Thanks though...I'll be here for your session. My husband's got baby sitting detail tonight."

"I'll hold a seat for you," he chuckled. "See you there."

She waved and exited quickly...almost skittishly...from the room. Dave sighed and shook his head. At least, she was making some progress. Then, he remembered his other visitor. "And who's  our next lucky contestant?" he slurred humorously.

"You know that it's not wise to sass a government agent. I just might have to haul your sorry butt in for questioning," Steve Petersen's voice quipped.

"Yeah right," Dave laughed. "Come in, 'Super Agent Steve'."

"As you wish," Steve agreed and strolled into the room. Steve still had the same thin build and jet-black hair that Dave remembered from their halycon days at the University of Virginia. As always, his dark suit and white shirt were neatly pressed. His shoes reflected the dying sunlight without revealing a blemish.

Dave, of course, could not resist teasing his friend, "Still trying out for Sci Fi?"

"You wish," Steve chuckled as he eased himself into the visitor's chair. "It would fit though.  Life around you is always slightly weird."

Dave shrugged, "I hate being bored. What can I say?"

"You can say that again," Steve cracked.

Dave reclined back in his chair. Steve's humor was just what he needed at that moment.... "So, what brings you to my neighborhood?" he queried.

"Hey...do I need a reason to drop in on my college buddy and his wife? Seriously, I wanted to see you strut your academic stuff," he explained.

"I hate to disappoint you, but Maria Cantaro and Francesca are the speakers tonight. I'm just the opening act," Dave informed him.

Steve snickered sarcastically and checked around them to make sure that they were alone. "I have never seen you stage a dull event yet. Not in college and not as a professional.  Remember, your co-workers don't know you the way that I do," he replied.

"It's going to be a normal academic evening!" Dave protested.

"The sun hasn't completely set," Steve retorted half-seriously. "Where you are, trouble usually follows."

The last jibe set Dave's dread and fear in motion once again. He sighed...realized it...and tried to recover his composure, but it was already too late.

Steve scrutinized his friend, "What's really up?"

"Nothing," Dave fibbed.

"Yeah right," Steve doubted. "Look, Dubie, we've been friends for 15 years. When you furrow your brow like that, that means we're up Shit Creek and the canoe's just sprung a leak. Are you and Angie okay?"

Dave knew that he could not conceal the truth from his friend. "We're fine," he nodded nervously. "Close the door will ya?"

That request grabbed Steve's undivided attention. He jumped out of his chair, scanned the area once again, and secured the door. Then, he wheeled back around, "Okay, Chief, spill it...."

"I had a vision recently," Dave admitted.

Steve looked at his friend incredulously. "What? When?" he spurted out.

"Shh...Not so loud!" Dave hissed.

The FBI agent held his hands up apologetically. "Sorry, Dave. Not all of my friends have superhuman powers. So when...?" he explained.

"Two days ago. Something bad is going to happen here tonight. No joke," Dave reported.

Steve shook his head in disbelief, "I think that this weird stuff is finally getting to you."

Dave stood up and glowered at his friend, "Damn it! I know what I saw!"

Steve shuddered. The last thing that they needed was for Dave to have another of his episodes right now.... He had to get his friend calmed down...and do it pretty quickly.  "Okay, okay...I believe you. So, what did you see?" he inquired.

"Roman troops and a weird hazy figure followed by lots of pain," Dave related the account.

"I think that you're over-worked and stressed out. The only Romans here are going to be examples in Dr. Cantaro's paper," Steve doubted.

"I hope that you're right," Dave sighed and looked at his watch. "It's 5:40. Shall we?"

"Sure," Steve agreed and, after Dave locked the office door, they walked towards the elevator and the conference area below.

Chapter 8

About half an hour later, the session was underway. However, while academic learning was going on inside of the library, trouble brewed on the U of A mall area. For in a fiery flash, Ares' group entered the twentieth century.

"This must be the place," the war god assumed.

"But, where are Xena's allies?" Caesar demanded impatiently.

Alti smiled ferally. While she did not know who their targets were, she could feel their power. "There are two of them. One to the west. Another in that structure over there," she indicated while pointing one hand in each direction.

Callisto volunteered, "I'll take the western one!"

"And I have the nearby one," the shamaness pointed out.

Ares was alarmed by this split in his group. This was not a part of the plan. "Don't get cocky! Remember, they are not to be trifled with....and I want them!" he reminded them adamantly.

Callisto shrugged. She wasn't going to let Ares spoil her fun. "Gotta go...Be back in a few," she informed him and disappeared in a fiery burst.

"Do you want me to follow her?" Discord asked him.

He replied, "Right. Just make sure that nothing unexpected happens."

She nodded and disappeared from view.

Ares turned to face the rest of his group. "Now, we attack the stone structure there. Caesar, have your men surround it," he ordered

The Roman leader turned to his legion, "Men, surround the building!"

The troops marched in unison to achieve their leader's wishes.

***************************************************

Meanwhile, the paper sessions were going extremely well. The audience, a wide variety of international academics and local aficionados, enjoyed themselves. In the question session, Maria took three responses and Francesca had two.

Suddenly, Dave felt a darkness. He focused his attention towards it. It was definitely there...that ruled out a vampire, or a machine. It was a living being...and it reeked of evil. Worse still, it was heading right for them.

He heard a whisper behind him, "Psst, Mr. D..." Dave turned to see Brigid Shannon crouched behind the podium. She had snuck into the room so as not to alarm anyone. "We've got trouble outside!"

He considered her words. Brigid was an extremely polite student who would never stage any kind of stunt. If she was doing this, there had to be a damn good reason for it.

Steve, to his credit, realized that something was amiss. From his place by the rear door, he motioned to his friend that he would check it out. Dave agreed silently and allowed his friend to take his surveillance post.

The FBI agent moved cat-like through the dark hallway adjoining the seminar room.  Locating an open office, he slipped in and locked the door behind him. Peeking through the window, he saw the forming Roman siege.

"What the Hell?" he muttered anxiously. Then, he remembered the premonition. "Damn it, Dave! You just did it again!" He checked his weapon stores. He had only brought a dozen rounds. Things were definitely heading south. He had to hand it to Dave. When his canoe sprang a leak, it was the size of a torpedo hole.

*******************************************

Dr. Cantaro was in the midst of her answer pertaining to Caesar's troop movements. The questioner, an elderly Frenchman, thanked her for the explanation.

Then, a pompous voice shot out from the back of the room, "Wait, how would you know about my tactics?"

Dave observed the challenger as he strode purposefully towards the front of the room. He wore Roman military armor, a red cape, and a short sword. His hair was cropped in a severe military style, and he had a pompous air about him.

The speaker accessed the man in front of her, "Nice costume. The reenactments are going on outside."

Dave's senses were saying something different. This man's aura was not from Tucson...or from the twentieth century for that matter. No actor could emanate that presence...or such pompousness. Somehow, it was Julius Caesar.

"Maria, get back," Dave advised his panelist.

She retreated to the back of the stage with Francesca.

Dave, however, approached the Imperial interloper. "Salve, Caesar," he baited. "Remember me?"

The emperor's eyes narrowed. He remembered that the man in front of him had been one of Xena's allies in Britannia.  "You!" he snarled and drew his short sword.

Dave focused with his abilities so as to feel Caesar's movements. "C'mon, instincts!" he urged his abilities. Looking back at the stage, he realized that his satchel-- with his bullwhip in it--was too far away to grab.

Caesar swung his weapon and missed.

"Strike one," Dave teased and inched his way backward.

Caesar repeated his tactic....with the same result.

"Strike two," the librarian deadpanned and, with a quick backward leap, reached the podium....and his weapon. In a flash, the whip was in his right hand.

The Imperial leader charged the stage with the ferocity of a wounded animal. Timing this blind thrust, Dave marshaled his abilities, propelling himself over his advancing adversary.

Caesar only saw the women. Where did Dubois go? "Show yourself, Coward!" he challenged.

Then, he heard a sound like a throat being cleared, followed by his sword being ripped out of his hand. He turned to see his opponent fling the blade out of reach with his bullwhip.

"I'm not going anywhere...and neither are you," Dave stated and, moving with the speed of a cobra, delivered two haymakers to Caesar's chin. The emperor teetered on his feet and dropped to the ground unconscious. "Lights out, Asshole," he snarled at his senseless adversary.

"Uh, Dave? If he's the problem, then who is the woman at the back of the room?"  Francesca fretted.

He looked towards where her shaking right hand pointed. There, by the back door, stood the dark entity which he had sensed earlier. Steve was right. When he found trouble...he didn't fool around.
 
 
 
 

Chapter 9

Nick drove the Caddy along the assigned circuit quickly, yet carefully. It had been a quiet night....no calls, and no homicides in the University precinct. It seemed like the calm before the storm.

"It sure is nice isn't it, Nick?" Tracy asked.

"Huh? What is?" he replied with a confused look on his face.

"Look around you. We haven't had a call yet. It's a beautiful night, and we get to drive around in it," she explained.

Nick shook his head. "I don't like it," he told her.

She glared at him. Sometimes Nick could be so frustrating to work with...."Okay, okay, I'll bite. What's wrong?" she gave in.

"Call it intuition....Something's going to happen," he maintained.

"Look, Nick, we just drove through the U of A and right by the library! And what did we see?" she queried.

"Nothing," he admitted while turning the car onto Stone Avenue and into southbound traffic.

"That's right. Nothing," she vented. "For once, your instincts are off."

"The night's still young," he debated.

"Can't your vampire senses be wrong for once? Your kind doesn't know everything," she prodded.

He shot her a venomous glance and, for a split second, his eyes held a subtle shade of gold.  "That statement from the detective who used to go to a vampire as her chief snitch!" he pointed out after regaining his composure.

She put her hands up in a submissive gesture. "Okay, Nick, you win. I still don't believe in the psychic stuff. That's only a legend...," she half-compromised.

He shook his head in frustration. She could be so difficult to deal with! Still, that grudging compromise was the best that he was going to get...at this point. "C'mon, let's check on the eastern sector before we circle back," he indicated and took a left turn onto Broadway Boulevard, heading east.

************************************************

Ares observed the panic inside of the library with great satisfaction. How the mortals did panic when a superior being showed up! A momentary urge possessed him. Perhaps, he might want to have his shot at Dubois. "Nah...Let Alti have her entertainment," he reminded himself. After the impalement, she had needed to blow off steam. Besides, he had a front row seat for the festivities....and, knowing both Alti and Dubois, it would be a heavyweight bout. Willing up a cloud cushion, the war god reclined and got set to enjoy the upcoming mayhem.

****************************************

The audience in the conference room stood on the brink of total panic. One antagonist lay unconscious, or worse on the floor by the podium. The mysterious woman by the door with the intense coal-black eyes and demonic smile encouraged their unease.

On the right side of the room, Caitlin scratched her chin anxiously. Dave had taken Caesar out of the picture...but he had done so far too easily. She knew that he had trained with the bullwhip, but the leap over his opponent....it was not humanly possible! Just what was going on up there? And what would this other terrorist say...or worse, do to egg him on?  She shuddered at the thought. Dave was showing remarkable self-control, but sooner, or later, the lid would break under this strain, and that infamous temper would erupt.... Normally the take-charge type, she decided to let the younger librarian handle the situation.....

For his part, Dave focused on nothing, except the woman in front of him. She towered over him by a good half-foot and held his glaze with her intense stare. Her stringy brown hair stuck out wisp-like from beneath her antlered headdress. Her tunic of animal-hides told him what she represented. From the waves of dark energy emanating from her aura, it could be only one person.

"You have to be Alti," he stated.

The shamaness cackled with delight. "So, Xena told you about me, did she?" she savored.

Dave smiled fearlessly. Fear was this harpy's greatest weapon, and he knew it. "Yes...she told me about you...about your powers...and that psychic stench," he insulted.

Then, he turned to the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stay calm! !"

Of course, the request, however pretty, was like spitting into the wind.

Alti smiled coldly at him. "I don't care about these sheep. Only you!" She pointed towards him.

"Then, let them go!" Dave demanded.

She shrugged, "As long as the lambs on the platform stay with you, that's fine."

Dave motioned with his eyes towards Caitlin. He didn't need her watching what would be the next act of this drama.

His boss agreed and helped to evacuate the room. On her way out, Caitlin shot Alti an angry glare.

Alti smiled at this insolence. It seemed that somebody actually had some backbone after all.  "Go on, before I change my mind. I'll try not to make him scream too loudly," she baited.

Dave shook his head at her adamantly. "Go and lock the door behind you," he mouthed.

Caitlin sighed and secured the heavy oak doors. She hoped that Dave wasn't committing suicide. She admired his bravery, but he was still a valued staff member. She sprinted over to the Circulation Desk and grabbed the phone.

Winnie watched her boss ruefully. "The police? What can they do against her?"

Caitlin looked at the door. "I don't know what's worse...that crazy woman, or David enraged. If he's got any surprises left, I hope that he uses them fast...before he loses control" she supposed nervously.

******************************************************

As Francesca and Maria hid behind the podium, Alti and Dave watched each other's every move. Like a couple of gunfighters, they circled each other cautiously.

Finally, Dave broke the stalemate. "Look, if it's a showdown that you want, Tombstone's just down the road a piece," he joked in a tone more secure than he felt at the moment.

Alti failed to grasp his jibe. "You have something that I want," she cut to the chase.

He scratched his head, "What do I have...?" Then, it hit him, "You actually want this darkness? Man, Xena was right. You are crazy!"

His statement impressed her. "Very good. Just give it to me, and I'll kill you quickly," she offered.

"Oh, that's cute," he snickered with increasing bravado. "I suppose that's in response for Caesar's beating? I thought that a woman like you could pick better dance partners."

She rolled her eyes, "He's the hired help. No, you're the appetizer. Xena's the main course."  She let out a deep breath. "You know, I have been looking forward to this....since Ares told me about you. Now die!" She stared at him intensely.

Through his psychic abilities, he saw Alti's mental energy coming towards him, but before he could act, it enveloped him. Reaching into his mind, it pulled out the worst nightmares.  Within an instant, he was on fire. Despite only being a mental image, the flames still burnt his clothes and skin. He writhed on the floor trying to put them out.

"How about this?" she chuckled malevolently and triggered another image.

Dave looked around. Somehow, he was back in his father's house. Once again, he was eleven years old and, according to form, his father, Stuart, charged at him in yet another drunken fit.

"You'll do as I tell you, Boy!" the elder man snarled. Before Dave could act, his father had snatched him off his feet and threw him towards the wall....

Dave snapped out of the vision in mid-flight, but, as in his memory, he hit the wall by the podium with a sickening thud. He staggered to his feet. By now, his vision was blurring and the darkness within him was clamoring to be released. But, he would not give in. Not against her. "Not bad...Witch," he snarled.

Alti grinned, "Impressive...But, try this."

This time, he managed to erect a weak energy shield. But, he still felt a pounding in his forehead. His old head wound had reopened, and the blood spilled down his face.

He staggered behind the podium and fell next to the ladies.

"Dave...You're bleeding!" Francesca observed in a panic.

"R-Right," he muttered and shook fearfully. How could he take on both Alti and the darkness? As bad as he felt right now, he had a feeling that he was about to find out.....
 

Chapter 10

Angie's day went by quickly as well. Although not the heaviest patient load, the cases kept her running from room to room, patient to patient. The charts seemed to flow together after awhile.

At 4 PM, Belinda McDermott, her chief intern, tapped her on the shoulder, "Excuse me, Dr. Dubois. I wanted to let you know that Dr. LeBeau's going to be here shortly. Can I take over now?"

Angie ran her hand through her hair in a daze and checked her watch. "Wow! I can't believe it!" She let a smile spread across her face. "I should have about 15 minutes to play Mommy before Natalie gets here."

"See you later," Belinda called to her as she headed for the elevator.

Angie waved to her friend as the elevator doors closed. Five minutes later, she walked into the daycare area. There, Deirdre, her youngest daughter, snoozed blissfully.

"Good. She'll sleep soundly for awhile yet," she told herself.

Dolores, the attendant, walked over, "Your little angel's been sleeping for most of the afternoon. You and David really do wonders by seeing her at lunchtime."

"It works both ways," Angie chuckled, watching her daughter's movements and breathing.

Dolores stared up at the clock, "Don't worry about a thing, Dr. Dubois. We'll keep a sharp eye on her for you."

"Thanks. I appreciate it," Angie informed her gratefully.

"Hey, that's what we're here for," her friend shrugged and let her eyes sparkle. She wouldn't let anything happen...come Hell, or high water.

"If it's okay, I have to meet Dr. LeBeau upstairs. I'll be back about 9 PM, if that's all right," Angie explained.

"We'll leave the light on for you," Dolores teased warmly.

Angie smiled at her friend's use of the old motel jingle and waved as she headed for the stairs. Taking two steps at a time, she made it to the third floor in two minutes. A right turn later, she entered the lab where Natalie waited for her.

"Hi, Angie. Ready to dig in?" Natalie greeted warmly.

"I sure am!" Angie agreed enthusiastically, while slipping into her scrubs.

"Any word from the library?" Natalie asked anxiously.

Angie leaned against the room's medical cabinet. Despite everything else, that thought had occupied her thoughts all day. But still, no news was good news.... "No, I haven't heard, or felt anything yet," she reported. "Believe me, I'll know."

"I suppose," Natalie laughed nervously. "That psychic stuff?"

"Something like that," Angie concurred as she joined the concerned ME at the examination table. "I'm thinking that it's more like the calm before the storm..."

Famous last words....For, at that moment, Natalie's response was cut short by the fire alarm and a brief flicker in the incandescent lights. "Now what?" she wondered aloud.

"If it's a fire, I have to get to the nursery," Angie ascertained and started for the door. Then, she felt something. Almost like...yes...a familiar psychic scream. She could not believe it.  "Callisto here?" she dreaded.

"Who?" Natalie queried.

"One of Xena's enemies," Angie explained.

"So, what do we do?" Natalie shook her head in disbelief.

"If it's who I think it is, we can't hide," Angie told her pointedly. "Now, cover your eyes." When the coroner had done so, Angie turned herself into Xena.

"Wow!" Natalie exclaimed in awe. She figured that there was a connection between them, but this....geez...

Xena shook her back to reality, "Natalie, I need you to reach Nicholas. Can you do that?"

Her friend nodded, "I'll call him."

"Good. David will need his help. Meantime, I need to deal with a problem upstairs," the Warrior Princess explained as she bolted through the door and up the stairs.

"Good luck, Xena," Natalie sighed and dialed a number on her phone.

****************************************

Twenty minutes later, Xena had canvassed three floors and had found nothing. It was quiet...too quiet. "Where are you?" she wondered. Then, around a corner, she heard the mumbling of several people sitting close together. Unmistakably rising above them, there was a commandeering tone that she recognized instinctively. A glance around the corner confirmed this observation. Callisto had taken the entire staff as her hostages.

"Which one of you knows Xena? I'm losing patience!" she demanded angrily.

"I told you before. No one here knows this Xena person," Dr. Fishburne stated haggardly.

She grabbed his tie and pulled him towards him. "Listen, you Worm. I know that somebody here does and, well, if I have to go through each of you to get to her...well, that's how it goes," she dictated before slamming him to the floor. Then, a saccharin smile formed on her face.

"Now what?" Lori Applegate wondered aloud.

The warrior-turned-goddess quieted her with a swipe of her hand. "Shut up!" she barked. Then, the smile returned, "We have a guest. Come out, come out, wherever you are...,"  she sang.

Behind the corner, Xena clenched her teeth in frustration. "Callisto's going to sense me soon enough. Time to announce myself," she decided while gripping her chakram. A flick of the wrist sent the weapon flying directly for the menacing blonde. True to form, the weapon found its mark, careening off of the back of Callisto's head.

"What? Who would...?" the blonde berserker fumed, spinning towards the direction of the impact.

Strolling into view, Xena raised her hand, arresting her signature weapon's flight, and returning it to her belt in one motion. The other hand already had her sword ready for a fight. "Wouldn't you like to know?" she baited.

Callisto smiled contentedly, "Well, well, my old friend made it to the party after all." She drew her sword as well, much to the discomfort of the huddled people around her. It appeared that she would get that confrontation after all.
 

Chapter 11

Tracy sunk low into the Caddy's passenger seat. Nick's circling the U of A like a hungry vulture waiting for a sick animal to die was getting old. There were better things to do with one's evening....like checking parking meters, walking a beat, or, dare she think it?...working with the corporate crimes division back in Toronto. No, she decided, that would be worse, but not by much.

"That's it," she told him.

"What?" Nick asked.

"Look, Nick, I really appreciate the dedication, but we've been at this all night. Nothing's going to happen," she informed him.

"Something's going to happen. I can feel it," he insisted.

"You've been saying that...!" she exclaimed with an exasperated tone. She would have kept going, except that his cell phone rang.

"That might be nothing," he verbally jabbed while answering it.

She shot him a dirty look, but crossed her arms and looked away, fuming silently.

"Miles," Nick spoke into the phone.

"Nick, it's Nat. Dave's prediction is coming true! Get over here!" Natalie reported nervously.

"Nat...where's Angie? Is she with you?"

"She's off investigating, if you get my drift," she filled him in cryptically.

Nick did a quick scan between the lines. Angie had changed into Xena and was looking for trouble. If Natalie was panicking like this, the situation must be really bad.... "I wonder where Dave is?" he asked aloud.

As if on cue, the CB static interrupted his reverie, "81 Kilo, 81 Kilo, please respond..."

Tracy answered it, "Brown, here. Go ahead, Dispatch."

"Detective Brown, there is a major crisis at the university library. You and your partner are to proceed there immediately."

Tracy was about to answer when Nick motioned for the mike. "Dispatch, this is Detective Miles. We have a situation at the UMC, and we need uniforms there as well" he directed.

The dispatcher muttered in disbelief, "What is this? Sci-fi terrorist night at the U of A?"

"You would be surprised," Nick answered flippantly to himself.

"Those cars will be there as soon as possible," the dispatcher informed him.

"Roger that. We are in route to the library. Miles out," Nick concluded and signed off.

Tracy leaned forward enthusiastically, "All right! Finally!" Then, she noticed Nick getting out of the car. "Hey, Nick...what are you doing? We should be speeding towards the university for that big event of yours," she commented.

"I want you to take the Caddy there. Keys are still in the ignition," he instructed.

"What?...And what are you...? Oh no! You're not going to fly off and leave me bringing up the rear again!" she insisted.

Nick counted mentally to five...in English, Spanish, German, and French. Then, he put on his best smile and stared his partner in the eye. It was times like this one that her resistance to hypnosis was a major pain. "I need to get to the library quickly. In this traffic, we're looking at a 20 minute drive from here. Dave probably doesn't have that long," he continued patiently.

"But, you promised! Damn it, Nick! We're partners!" she protested to no avail.

He repeated calmly, "Just get there ASAP." He looked around to make sure that nobody else was watching. Then, with a quick glance towards the night sky, he took off for his destination.

She slid over to the driver's side and started the ignition. "Get there ASAP," she parroted his words in disgust. "Schanke, you sure knew what you were talking about, didn't you?" With that thought, she pulled away from the curb, made a right turn onto Speedway and, with the siren blaring away on the dashboard, sped towards the brewing crisis.

*****************************************

Meanwhile, Xena and her opponent continued to circle each other.

"Fancy meeting you here," Callisto smiled menacingly.

"What do you want with these people?" Xena demanded.

"With them, nothing. I was looking for a friend of yours," Callisto shrugged, "Imagine my surprise to find you here."

"I'm sure," Xena frowned. "How did you get here?"

"Oh, I neglected to mention my playmates, didn't I?" her adversary cracked in mock-dismay, "By the way, I met an old friend of yours recently. She is something else."

That remark got Xena's attention. "Who?" she puzzled.

"Really, Dear," Callisto chuckled coyly, and summoned up a fiery viewer portal. In its center, Alti could be seen moving in on Dave. "And, I introduce you to all my friends."

Xena shook her head fearfully. Despite the warning and the premonition, Angela could not do anything. Now, her worst fears were about to be realized. If Alti tapped too deeply into his fear, she would trigger Dave's darkness. As she knew, they could wreck unprecedented damage on that building. She needed to dispose of Callisto quickly, if that was possible.

The Blonde Berserker savored her opponent's discomfort over this sight. "If you're considering what I think you are, remember, you have to get through me first," she told the Warrior Princess.

"So be it!" Xena affirmed as she swung her sword.

Callisto parried her thrust and allowed a satisfied smile to cross her face. The deadly dance of steel was on again...if she could delay Xena long enough, Ares' purpose would be fulfilled.
 
 

Chapter 12

Back in the library, Caitlin stared at the secured double oak doors. She realized that Dave had advised her to leave him to face that weird woman alone. But, when she heard his screams, she began to rethink her decision.

"What do we do now?" Winnie asked nervously.

"Can't we get these people outside? Why are they still here?" Caitlin replied authoritatively.

One of the audience members, a female undergraduate student, raised her hand and stepped forward. "Pardon me, Dr. Sommers....Have you looked outside? We're surrounded!"

"What?" Caitlin wondered aloud and stuck her head through the double glass entry doors. Sure enough, a wall of men dressed as Roman centurions had surrounded the building.

It was a siege. Worse still, they were all stuck between that wall of soldiers outside and whoever, or whatever Dave was fighting on the other side of that door.... Fortunately, only the librarians and support staff were left there in the foyer. They had managed to get everyone else to cover in the back. Then, she had a very nasty feeling. She realized that somebody was about to get seriously hurt.

*********************************************

Alti walked towards the front of the session area with a heavy handed purpose. She would rouse her opponent out of hiding by some means. "Come out!" she challenged. "Come out, or I'll start on the sheep!"

Behind the podium, Maria and Francesca shook fearfully. Between this woman's taunts, and Dave's wounds, there seemed to be no hope.....

For his part, he spasmed fretfully and ground his teeth. The ladies also heard him muttering "no!" in between what seemed like frequent growling.

Francesca realized what was going on inside of his head. It wasn't the wounds. Rather, she remembered a story which her parents had heard from her Aunt Beatrice. The account had told about the violent nature of the Dubois family. Worse still, the tale had described how Dave had proven the worst of those cases, due to his father's abusive treatment. It was no longer a question of 'if'...their attacker had shoved him well over that line 20 minutes prior to that point. Rather, it was now a question of 'when'.

"Dave, we have got to get you to a hospital," she tried to tell him.

For the first time in a while, he raised his head and stared at the others, "No...time." Then, in a vision, he saw Xena's fight with Callisto over at the UMC. "What...was going on?" he wondered.

"What?" Maria wondered in stark confusion.

He set his jaw firmly. "Ares," he snarled low. "This is his....handiwork...."

Maria glanced at him with concern. Dave was hurt very seriously...and now, he was hallucinating. "Ares?" she queried.

He just shuddered wordlessly.

Alti grew impatient with this standoff. She wanted that darkness, and she wanted it now! "Perhaps a little more pain will speed up your response," she goaded and concentrated again.

Dave winced again in agony as pain shot through both knees and his left hip. "Arrrgh!" he screamed.

"So, are you coming out? Or, do I start on somebody else?" she hinted wickedly.

He gritted his teeth and started to rise. "Keep your buckskin on, Bitch!"

Francesca grabbed his arm, "You can't be serious!" Then, she saw his eyes. The story was true. "Mama Mia! Your eyes!" she exclaimed.

Dave exhaled short breaths. What little remained of his self-control slid away and his other personality seized control.

"You screwed up!" he spat at Alti. A malevolent grin dominated his facial features. A slight chuckle could be heard coming from the corner of his mouth.

Alti admired his bravado....suicidal, perhaps...but, admirable. Too bad, it would be his death warrant. "And how would that be?"

"Because I can still do this!" he informed her. Reaching back within himself, he channeled his power until it reached a crescendo of monstrous proportions. "Now, it's my turn," he snickered and released a powerful  burst.

Alti failed to dodge this blast, the impact of which, knocked her backward. The collision broke the doors' locks. She, on the other hand, stood in a daze, and reassessed her opponent. Yes, he had a wonderful darkness about him. Other than Xena herself, his darkness proved the most powerful that she had ever seen. His power would be a welcome addition to her own...if she could stay alive long enough to get it.

"Ready to give up yet? I sure as Hell hope not!" he taunted and fired another mental energy bolt.  Once again, the impact smacked into the shamaness. In spite of her efforts to brace herself, the explosion threw her backwards, through the unlocked doors, and out into the library foyer.

Alti regained her footing through great effort. No man did that to her. She glanced around to see the others trapped by Caesar's troops. She identified Caitlin and snarled, "When I finish with him, you're next!"

"Hey, Hag, ain't you forgetting something?" Dave bellowed from just inside of the room. "Come and take your damn medicine."

For her part, Alti stood her ground. "You'll pay....," she hissed and fired another mental burst.

However, Dave appeared in the doorway and took the full impact without flinching. His only reaction was the ever-widening leer on his face and an intense stare. "No, it's all on your tab," he laughed wickedly and sent another pulse into his enemy. She skidded into the shadows.

Everyone stared at him fearfully. To deal with the witch was bad enough...but to have to face him like this? Without any vestige of control?

With a few notable exceptions, he had managed this side of his personality for the previous 15 years. Now, the Child was on the rampage, and, as far as he was concerned, Alti was grass, and he was the lawn mower. Before he did so, however, Dave turned to the crowd. "What? Get out of my way!" he snarled at them. Then, he kept going.

Caitlin could not believe it. Usually, he was so quiet and polite...... But, what else could happen? "I have to stop him before he murders that woman," she decided and moved to intercept him.

Fortunately for her sake, Nick chose that moment to burst onto the scene. "David! Stop!" he ordered. His vampire senses disagreed with what his eyes told them. Then, it came to him. The Other was in control. "Stop!" the vampire detective repeated.

Possessed by an intense fury, his friend paid no heed to the directive.

Nick shook his head desperately at Caitlin. This was the fury that he had sensed within Dave at the Raven six months before. Now, he understood why Xena kept him away from LaCroix.  Only he had the strength to deal with this crisis before Dave really did something foolish. He sprinted after the raving man and caught him from behind.

"Dave, listen!" he urged.

"Nick, leggo," Dave resisted and, amazingly enough, shook Nick off of him.

Within half a heartbeat, Nick seized his arm again with his full strength, and wheeled the enraged man around. "I'm hoping that this part of his personality can be hypnotized," he stated and ordered to his friend, "You will calm down now....You will let David reassert control, now."

The hypnosis had an immediate effect. Dave grabbed his head. "Miles! Stop it!" he cursed.

Thus encouraged, Nick pushed further with the hypnosis, "No, you've done your work. Now, go!"

Dave howled. Tears streamed down his face and he dropped to his knees.

For a long minute, it was silent. Then, Dave rubbed his head and staggered to his feet. "What?  What's going on?" he whispered. "What am I doing out here?"

Nick let a smile mask his concern. Dave was back in control.

Just then, Caitlin screamed, "David, behind you!"

But, before he could react, Alti grabbed him from behind. "I want that power!" she hissed and pulled what seemed to be a black energy sphere from his back.

"Now, for unfinished business," she mentioned.

"I don't think so," Nick cut in as he stepped between his friend and the shamaness. "I'm taking you in!"

Alti winced, "Another one? Please!" With the stolen energies, she threw both men back into the session area.

"Both of you are going to die," she promised darkly and walked slowly to the doorway. This time, she hurled bolt after bolt of pure mental agony at them without mercy. Their screams echoed off of the library's interior for all to hear.
 
 

Chapter 13

Nick's and Dave's respective screams did not go unnoticed. On the contrary, the rippling effect reverberated across great distances.

In Tucson, Lori Applegate tried to calm the Dubois girls, but their wails only grew louder, and she became increasingly frustrated.

**********************************************

Meanwhile, back in Amherst, Cybelle was preparing tea for her husband. LaCroix had continued to muse over something since Dubois' departure.

Mike enjoyed a sitcom on the TV. With Mr. Doom-and-Gloom hanging out in the corner, he needed a few laughs. Unfortunately, a special report broke in.

"Darn it!" he exclaimed. "Now what?"

"What's wrong, Mike?" Cybelle inquired from the kitchen.

LaCroix managed a smile from his sardonic mood, "It seems that your husband is irritated that his...entertainment has been interrupted..."

"Yeah, well...I'm sure that your hobbies must be exciting," Mike shot back.

"They are indeed," the vampire replied, letting a bit of his irritation seep into his words.

The priestess shook her head at her husband, "Mike, please don't talk to him like that."

He shrugged, and decided to ask his guest a question, "So, what are your hobbies, Mr. LaCroix?"

"I enjoy fine culture," his guest responded nonchalantly with an arched brow. "I love the hunt most of all."

"Really?" Mike leaned forward with interest. "I love to shoot deer and bear. What is your favorite game?" he asked.

LaCroix was sorely tempted to tell this mortal the truth. It would ruin his wife's little secret, and he did know how hard such things were to keep. But, here in her house, discretion was the better part of valor. "I'm impartial to any predator," he finally commented. Then, he shifted his attention to the television set. Could it be? He recognized the uniforms, but a Roman legion in the twentieth century? Impossible.

Cybelle cleared her throat, "Mr. LaCroix, you would be an expert in Classical military affairs. What do you think?"

Her guest studied the image. "They are indeed Roman military, and judging from the uniforms, and weapons, they are from the time of Julius Caesar....," he began.

Cybelle rocked on her feet. "Oh my!" she exclaimed and quickly sat down.

Her husband sprang to her side, "What is it?"

She rubbed her temple, "Dave's lost his temper again. I feel his anger. In fact,...no! He's lost control all together!"

LaCroix considered her revelation with great care. In the Raven, he had faced her brother at close range. At that point, he, as did Nicholas and Janette, sensed the dual nature of his personality. Something within that library had caused Dubois to finally lose control.

Mike, for his part, was always amazed by the link between his wife and brother-in-law. If something happened to one, the other knew immediately. As a result, he knew that the news report had greater consequence than the newscasters were saying.

Then, the wind rose to almost gale strength. For a moment, the burst buffeted the house and then, faded into nothingness.

"Oh...kay," Mike stammered.

LaCroix looked around anxiously. He felt a tiny pinprick between his eyes and then, a psychic force reverberated across his consciousness. He winced painfully, "Nicholas!"

Cybelle also felt agony. "I...I can't feel him," she wailed. "Nick was with him! LaCroix, can you feel him?"

"He is in pain," LaCroix ascertained and managed to climb to his feet. "We must go to him."

Mike intercepted the vampire guest. "My wife isn't going anywhere right now," he pointed out.

LaCroix had reached his limit. He let a greenish glint shine in his eyes and lifted his host from the floor as if he was a rag doll. "Understand this. Nothing will keep me from him!  Your wife and I have business in Arizona. Do you understand?" he informed.

She braced herself against the kitchen wall and commanded, "LaCroix, enough!"

He dropped Mike onto the couch and rubbed his head, "We must go immediately."

The phone rang. "Now who?" she wondered. "Hello, this isn't a really good time...."

"Tell me about it," Karen Montoya agreed pained. "Did you just feel something?"

"Like a psychic scream? It just hit me like a freight train going at full throttle," Cybelle described.

"Right," Karen concurred. "So, are we going, or what?"

Cybelle bit her lip nervously. This was no time for secrets now. "Listen, there is going to be a fog column appearing near you. See it?"

Twenty seconds later, her friend noted, "It's here! I'll see you in a sec!" Karen hung up the phone, and stared into the portal. "Dave, I know that you would do likewise for me...," she surmised and jumped into the vapors. A moment later, she stood in the Rogers' living room.

"Karen Montoya?" Mike wondered. "But how?" He looked at his wife. "You? But..."

Cybelle calmed her husband, "We do need to talk, and we will...after this crisis is over." She removed two cloaks from the closet, and turned to Karen and LaCroix, "Are we ready?"

Karen eyed her immortal traveling companion anxiously, accepted a cloak from Cybelle, and nodded.

LaCroix gave her a brief movement of his head as well.

The priestess cloaked herself as well. Then, she summoned another cloud column. Karen and LaCroix jumped through and, after a parting glance to her husband, Cybelle followed suit.

Mike sat back down in his chair, and watched the drama unfold on television knowing that his wife and her friends were about to cast themselves into that very inferno....
 

Chapter 14

Back at the UMC, Xena and Callisto continued to match sword thrusts with increasing ferocity.

"So, this is where you've been keeping yourself," Callisto supposed.

"Among other places," Xena deadpanned. Then, she winced, "David, no...."

Callisto chuckled. Ares was right. She did have friends in this era. Well, too bad for them.  "Aw, poor Dear, did Alti just waste your friend? Too bad!" she crowed.

Xena shook her head and set her mouth in a firm line, "No, too bad for you!" She swung her sword wildly. Just as her opponent jumped out of the way, the Thracian warrior lowered her shoulder, and rammed the immortal through the window.

Xena turned to the staff. "Get out everyone! Sorry about the window!" she apologized.  She crouched and sprung after her enemy. A triple backflip later, she landed on a grassy patch, and looked around quickly. "Where is she?" she growled.

"Oh, Xennnaa," Callisto's voice taunted from thin air. "I'm going to help Alti."

"The library!" Xena realized and rushed across the lot. "What I wouldn't give to have Argo right now," she muttered wistfully eyeing Speedway with bumper-to-bumper traffic. "Oh well, here goes!" She increased her pace  every few feet. Just before she hit the street, she vaulted high in the air, covering the distance between all four lanes, and thirty feet of the adjacent parking lot. A three block sprint later, she spied her quarry over by the Student Health Center. "Callisto!" she challenged, drawing her sword.

Callisto grinned gleefully, and turned to face the Warrior Princess, "Why, Xena, you are certainly as fast as ever....But not fast enough!" With a wicked scream, she swung her blade, only missing by a hair.

Xena stared over the top of the underground Integrated Learning Center at the siege. "Roman soldiers surrounding the building? Of course, Caesar and Ares!" she realized.

"Pay attention!" Callisto hollered with an annoyed tone.

Xena barely managed to evade that thrust, however, she had to defeat her enemy. She locked swords with her immortal adversary, trying to find that chink in her armor....

*************************************************
Meantime, a wispy haze wafted in the bike path near the battle. Slowly, the bank solidified, and out of it charged LaCroix, Karen, and Cybelle.

"What now?" Karen asked. Then, she saw the warrior women dueling nearby. "Can you two take the library?"

"Certainly, but why...?" Cybelle started to ask, but the battle silenced any doubts. "Go!" she urged.

Karen nodded, "Good luck, you two." She turned and ran to help her friend.

"You heard her," Cybelle stated to LaCroix.

"I'll meet you there," he told her and took off for the besieged building.

Cybelle shook her head. This was to be her biggest test yet. However, with her big brother hurt in there, or worse...she had no hesitation. After finding a few surprises for the Romans, the young priestess sprinted towards her destination.

Meanwhile the Roman leader, a veteran named Marcus Galarius, recognized her as she approached his legion's position.  "Caesar and Ares will reward us if we can bring the traitoress to them."  He turned and ordered her to surrender.

She spurned him, "You must be kidding!  Get out of my way!"

Galarius fumed at her insolence.  "It's your funeral! Men, charge!" he yelled.  As one mass, the legion swarmed at her.

She shook her head angrily. "I really don't have time for this!" She sang a chant and the breeze intensified into a howling gale.  This force scattered her attackers like so many pins in a bowling alley.

"Now, stay down!" she growled and resumed her pace.

*************************************************

Karen stopped her sprint about 30 feet from the battle and focused on her abilities. "Here goes," she gulped nervously, and loosed a blast at Callisto's back. To her credit, the burst staggered the Blonde Berserker, allowing Xena a momentary respite.

"Arrgh!" Callisto screamed half-crazed. "Who would dare?"

Xena allowed herself a big smile. "Look's like the reinforcements have just arrived!" she told her adversary.

The other warrior, however, paid her no mind for the moment. She was focused on the woman behind her. "You are going to die for that...slowly and painfully," she threatened.

This threat unnerved Karen, yet for both Angie and Xena, she forced herself to stand there. "In your dreams, Lady!" she contradicted and pummeled Callisto with successive energy blasts of increasing magnitude. Callisto flew backward, crashing into the side of the Health Center. She was stunned, but already, she was starting to recover. And unfortunately, Karen had exhausted her reserves on those bursts. "Xena!" she called desperately.

The Warrior Princess flung her chakram purposefully. It caromed off of the weakened brick overhang over Callisto, burying her in the rubble.

"Thanks," Karen released a relieved breath. "I was about spent."

"You're welcome. Thanks for the assist," Xena replied graciously. "Now, for the Romans!"

Karen stared at the human line in front of them. "How are we going to get through that?" she gasped.

Xena arched her eyebrow and shrugged, "We carve our way through. Follow me."

For their part, the centurions were still recovering from Cybelle's attack.  Galarius had assigned a young subordinate to watch for trouble while he tended to the others.

Suddenly, the former tapped his shoulder. "Uh, Sir?  I think that you should look at this," he gulped.

"This had better be good!" Galarius seethed and turned to see the oncoming Warrior Princess.  Given the condition of his men, retreat would have been a far better option, however, due to his orders, he commanded the remaining 25 men in his group to attack.

Xena grinned wickedly and leapt right into their midst.  A kick here, a chakram toss there, and a few punches later, the remainder of the Romans were decimated.  "Hrumph!  Well, they don't train 'em like they used to!" she baited before resuming her pace.  Karen followed close behind her.

Chapter 15

Alti towered over the bodies of the two men in front of her. The vampire, well, he had possibilities. But, Dubois was the one that she wanted....or rather, what remained of his abilities.  "Now! I'll have it," she savored.

"Can't you pick on somebody who can fight back?" a feminine voice challenged.

Alti turned to see Cybelle standing in front of her. The priestess' eyes glowed with a faint yellow tint. "You must be Cybelle," the shamaness realized.

"Indeed," Cybelle affirmed. "Now, back away from them!"

Alti snickered maniacally, "It's going to take more than words, Young One." She focused anew, and sent a mental wave at her opponent.

However, the priestess brushed it aside with ease. "Not bad. Now it's my turn." She reached for the sky, and sang a Celtic chant. From beneath the desert floor, a water geyser erupted between the combatants. A pointed finger guided the spout to flow at a right angle, hitting Alti with its full force, and knocking her to the floor.

"Impressive," the shamaness observed as she managed to rise to her feet. She braced herself anew for another attack.
 

**************************************

Caesar had regained consciousness during Alti's fight with Nick and Dave. As a result of  Cybelle's attack, the two victims were left untended. From his experience with the Bacchae, the imperial leader knew about Nick's true nature. Accordingly, he found a broken leg from an oak chair, and moved in.

******************************************

Meantime, Nick had also awakened. He sat up, and shook Dave. "Wake up," he pleaded, but his friend failed to respond. "What is it going to take to revive you?"

"Don't worry, Creature!" Caesar laughed. "You will be with him soon enough" He thrust the make-shift spear at the vampire detective who rolled away. But, in his weakened state, Nick could not make it too far. He tried to get up, but staggered, and fell flat onto the floor.

Caesar stood over him, "Now, you die!" He thrust the stake towards Nick's exposed chest....

However, the weapon's parabola was violently derailed by an iron grip around the ancient attacker's wrist. "I think not," an icy voice told him. "Nicholas is my creation! You will not harm him!"

The emperor was stunned. What manner of creature was this? "What?" It was a man, or appeared to be one at least. Tall and slender with an apparent Roman bearing, his new opponent forced him to his knees.

"LaCroix...How?" Nick asked weakly.

"Ah, Nicholas," LaCroix smiled paternally. "Have I not always said that I will find you no matter where you are?"

He glared at the man whose wrist he was crushing like a grape, "I am a vampire, but you might call me, Lucius."

"You...you...seem...Arrgh...Roman. But that's impossible," Caesar protested.

The elder vampire chuckled sadistically, "That is because I was Roman. Yes, and here I have the mighty Julius Caesar." He shook his head disappointedly. "I thought that you would be more of a challenge. Oh well, I must feed, and you are convenient," he sighed, and exposed his victim's neck. "Vale, Caesarius Magnissimus et potentissimus," he saluted half-ironically.

"So, you survived Vesuvius," Ares surmised from behind him. "Impressive."

LaCroix glared at his former deity with contempt, "No thanks to you. My daughter saved me." He let his fangs descend, "See my true nature. This is what I am now. Consider yourself fortunate that I am beyond...such matters."

Ares pointed an accusing finger at him, "I would have protected you if you had asked for it! Turncoat!"

The vampire laughed incredulously, "I had just conquered a large region of Gaul and Germania in your name, and you needed me to ask for that?" A sarcastic smirk appeared on his face. "What kind of god...lets his devoted followers be destroyed? You left me, my family, and my home at Vesuvius's mercy....Oh, that's right, I apologize...Vulcan's wraith. Pompeii was wiped out, covered in a mountain of molten ash and acrid smoke."

"I gave you everything!" Ares snarled indignantly.

"I suppose...You did give me immortality. Granted, Divia brought me across, however....I do have you to thank for this...don't I, Ares? Now, watch your creation at work!" LaCroix stated ironically, and bent over to feed from Caesar.

Ares smoldered with rage, "Nobody talks to me like that!" He submarined a fire ball which separated LaCroix from his intended meal. "I'm the god of war! Nobody talks like that to me!"

LaCroix struggled back to his feet, and faced Ares. "You would save that braggart...but not me. I cleaned up his mess! I succeeded where he had failed! And yet, you would save him. If he is the kind that you protect, then you're not worth worshiping," he judged. "By your inaction, you allowed me to become a vampire, and therefore, exempted me from your bullying of the mortal world."

Ares' eyes burned with a bright blue fire. "Arrgh!" he bellowed and hit the apostate vampire yet again. This time, LaCroix went down and stayed on the ground.

"Now, let's see how immortal you really are," the war god growled, and summoned up an ultimate fire ball. Before he could throw it, however, he felt something hit him from behind. He turned to see Xena grasping her chakram above her head.

"You too?" he sighed disconcertedly. "I don't have time for this!" Then, he sent another bolt towards his old enemy.

For her part, Xena executed a back flip, evading the blast. "You missed," she baited. "You and I have business to settle."

Ares shook his head angrily. This trip was turning out to be a royal pain in the ass. Worse still, he had underestimated how much he depended upon his followers' worship for his power. A quick glance of the battle told him that his cadre was outnumbered. Sure, victory was still possible, but it would be more aggravation then it was worth. A strategic retreat was in order.  "Alti!" he bellowed. "Let's go!" He picked up Caesar's wounded form, and carried it with him.  Over his shoulder, he added to his ally, "Now!"

The shamaness, despite struggling against Cybelle, still thought that victory was possible. Still, she saw the logic in his move, and a surprise burst stunned her opponent. Racing back to the library foyer, she saw Francesca trying to flee. A smile crossed her features.

Francesca tried to get away. "No!" she protested as her attacker grabbed her wrist.

"You're my insurance," Alti smiled wickedly. "Let's go!" She dragged her captive towards Ares' meeting place.

Across the street, Ares met up with Discord. "So, what did you do?" he inquired.

She smirked proudly, "I...uh...dug Callisto out of the rubble, and...." She pulled Natalie into view. "found us a friend of Xena's as insurance."

Callisto winced in irritation. Being grateful to Ares' little harlot was a fate worse than death.  "Yeah, yeah...Thanks a lot," she dismissed the favor.

He sighed. This dissension among the group was bad, and a hostage would only slow them down. When he saw Alti dragging another woman into view, he bellowed, "What are you doing?"

Alti stared intensely at him, "Insurance. Now, are we leaving, or not?"

Just then, the group saw Xena sprinting towards them. "Not so fast, Ares!" she challenged.

"Another time, Xena," he stated menacingly, teleporting his group, not to mention the hostages, and Caesar's remaining troops, away from the scene.

"No! Damn it!" she screamed in frustration. Then, she surveyed the area. The library foyer was badly damaged. Two people had been kidnapped. Finally, Dave and Nick were unconscious an injured. Somebody would have to account for this mess...
 
 
 

Chapter 16

Tracy pulled a sharp right turn from Cherry Ave onto Third St. and slammed on the brakes. She got out of the Caddy, and looked around in disbelief. Large areas of grass had been scorched on the mall area. The Student Health Center's facade had collapsed onto the pavement in front of her. And one could only imagine what the inside of the library looked like.....At least the building was intact.

"What the...?" she wondered aloud. "But, given everything else that's going on, should I be surprised? Nick, what have you gotten yourself into?"

She had a feeling that her partner was in trouble...big trouble. Running at full speed, she traversed the remaining distance between her and the library. Once through the foyer, a quick look around told the whole story. The doors to the session area had been blown open. A patch of scorched tile marked an area in the center of the floor. The staff, for their part, were dazed and confused.

In the midst of the damage, she saw a thin man in a black suit and a woman with short brown hair leaning over what seemed to be Nick and another man.

"What the....?" she puzzled, and walked over. "Excuse me, Tracy Brown, TPD. If you don't mind me asking, what the heck is going on here?" she identified herself, and flashed her badge.

The man produced his own ID. "Steven Petersen, FBI. What would you like to know?"

"What happened? The outside...It looks like a battle zone," she supposed.

"That's classified information," he informed Tracy.

"Look, Agent Petersen," Tracy demanded furiously. "See the man with the blonde hair on the floor? He's my partner, and what involves him, involves me....Got it?"

The FBI agent sighed, "I'm sorry, but..."

The other woman interrupted him. "My apologies, Agent Petersen. That's okay. Detective, I'm Caitlin Sommers, the library dean. About your partner, my apologies....We're still sorting out the details. However, he stopped things from getting worse."

"Worse?..." Tracy queried. "It looks like there was a war in here. My partner and I received a request for assistance from Dispatch, and the Pima County ME, Dr. Natalie LeBeau. She reported a crisis at the UMC. Dispatch said there was another one here. Accordingly, we split up."

"And, I take it that you went to the UMC?" Steve assumed.

Tracy shot him an impatient look. "Now, he wants to jump in, how touching...," she grumbled to herself, but for everyone's sake, decided to play ball with this guy. "Yes, I did. Everyone's shaken up, but okay. However, Dr. LeBeau has disappeared, and with my partner out of commission, this is really going to give my captain a conniption," she explained.

Steve shook his head in belief, "Not to mention my boss back in San Francisco. Wow. When Dave gets in trouble, he sure gets in deep. I should have listened to him when he told me about his bad feelings about tonight..."

That remark got Caitlin's attention, "What? David knew that something was going to happen?"

He winced, "Not exactly. He was really unclear about it. But, when he senses something like that, I usually take heed. This time, however, I figured that he was just too stressed...."

Tracy nodded, "Nick had a similar feeling, and they did talk two nights ago. By the way, where is David?"

Steve pointed dejectedly to the three victims. "He's lying there beside your partner."

"So, who did this?" Tracy asked again.

"If we were in the comics," he stated, "I would say a group of super villains. But, as far as I can tell, we really had a long dead Roman emperor, a shamaness, Ares, the Greek god of war, and a Roman legion here. I personally saw the first two on the list."

"At the hospital, witnesses saw a blonde warrior woman fighting another person named Xena. Plus, Natalie was last seen with a dark-haired hussy in leather with a black skirt," Tracy collaborated.

Caitlin rolled her eyes dejectedly. The Regents were really going to love this mess. Oh, heads were definitely going to roll over this scenario. Still, she needed to keep Dave's talents a secret within the library. "David did keep the situation under control. But, that shamaness took Dr. Alvaro as well."

Just then, she noticed another leather clad woman running into the area. "Hey, wait! Stop!"

Tracy turned towards the door. Sure enough, it was the Xena woman from the Toronto bank.  But, how could she go after her without blowing her cover?

Steve, on the other hand, knew that Xena needed to get Dave and the others out of there. While he had concerns over her previous escapade in Toronto, only she and her friends could help. Sooner or later, the rest of Tucson's Finest were going to show up, and prove troublesome for them all. But, how would they get everyone out of there?

***********************************************

Xena looked around anxiously. One second, Ares was standing on the grass with his company, and then, she heard a familiar sound: sirens. Her eyes widened anxiously, "That noise means that the authorities are coming!" She ran back towards the library. A few people were still milled around, but they were not her primary concern. Rather, she focused on the three men lying in front of her.

The blond woman started to run over towards her, "Stop! Tucson Police! I want to talk to you!"

Xena arched her eyebrow sarcastically. "Maybe some other time," she declined, hefting Dave on her left shoulder.

She saw Steve Petersen move to cut off the police officer. "Detective Brown, don't! She's got to get Nick out of here!"

The female detective looked at him, and then, at the woman warrior. "I don't like it, but you're right. Just get him to safety," she acquiesced.

Xena smiled and nodded. Slumping over, she took Nick onto her right shoulder.

The police lights were now in view. Another moment, and they would be surrounded. More importantly, the injured needed to get immediate medical attention away from prying eyes.

Fortunately, a cloud column appeared beside them. From its depths, Cybelle stuck her head out towards them. "Let's go!" she urged.

The priestess did not have to tell her three companions twice. Within an instant, they dove through the portal. When they stepped out of it, they were back in the Dubois' eastside apartment. Placing the three injured parties onto the apartment's beds, they observed their unmoving friends.

"This will do for now. But, the police will be here sooner or later. I'll go back to my house and prepare things," Cybelle informed her friends and disappeared into another smoke column.

*****************************

Back at the library, Steve looked at Tracy. "Thanks," he told her.

She shook her head, "Don't thank me yet. We still have to deal with Ramirez, not to mention your boss as well."

He grumbled knowingly. The bureaucrats would be Hell to deal with. At least, they would take it together. "Come on, let's get this over with..." he sighed as they walked towards Ramirez's car.
 
 

Chapter 17

Tracy and Steve decided to head back to the precinct. Once there, Tracy guided him over to her desk, and invited him to sit down.

"Is it really okay? To sit in your partner's seat?" he doubted.

"Sure, you bailed him out of further trouble, and you're about to take some heat on his behalf.  Trust me, take the seat," she advised him. "Cup of coffee?"

"Thanks, I think that I might need it later," he dreaded the inevitable.

She leaned back in her chair which creaked in protest. "Hey, it happens. We all mess up," she shrugged. "I don't understand what happened back there, but I hope that you did the right thing by letting them take Nick like that."

Steve looked around to make sure that nobody was close enough to listen. "It was the only option for somebody like him, if you get my drift," he explained. "There would have been far too many questions."

"There still will be," she noted. "Take a look at who's coming towards us."

The agent glanced in the direction where she was pointing, and spotted Ramirez, and Captain Ben Rojas of the Arizona State Police bearing down on them. "Damn!" he muttered low.

"Any last requests?" Tracy baited.

Steve shot her an impatient glare. Now was not the time for this B.S. on both levels.....

Ramirez had reached the desk. Needless to say, he was not happy, "My office, ahora!" he ordered, and stormed towards that area with his companion following closely behind.

Steve stood up, and sighed, "I guess that's our cue."

"Are you really going to refuse?" she replied half-seriously.

"No, I'm afraid that's not an option," he conceded. "Let's get this over with."

They walked over to Ramirez's door, and knocked loudly.

"Si? Detective Brown, if that's you....Come in, and bring your friend with you," he directed angrily.

Tracy squeezed her eyes shut....Oh man, Petersen was right. This was going to be something else. But, it was too late to back out now.

"C'mon," Steve reassured her. He turned the doorknob, and they walked in. He shut the door behind them.

Ramirez and Rojas stared at them intensely. "Sienta se," the Captain indicated, and motioned towards the two chairs.

"First question", Rojas started towards Steve. "Who are you, Sir?"

Steve steeled himself, and flashed his badge, "Agent Steven Petersen, FBI. I know who you are, Captain Rojas."

Rojas smiled, like a shark moving in on dinner, "Good, then you know that I don't like my turf stepped on."

Steve shrugged, "I came here to see my friend, David Dubois, not to step in on your jurisdiction.  But, given how you let those criminals get away....." A smile formed ever so slowly on his face.

Tracy glanced at him nervously. Obviously, Petersen had a plan, but she hoped that he would be careful in applying it.

"No thanks to either of you," Ramirez pointed out. "I could call your superiors in San Francisco and have your badge pulled."

"Remember, Agent Petersen, this is our pond," Rojas added menacingly.

"While you're reminding me of your turf wars, Gentlemen, I might remind you that once they disappeared within that smoke, they might be anywhere by now, probably putting them well out of your jurisdiction. In fact, if you must know, I was trying to communicate with those people.  Detective Brown was helping me until your arrival spooked them."

"It's still a jurisdiction issue," Rojas stubbornly maintained.

"And since they are out of your jurisdiction, that removes you from the situation. Doesn't it, Captain Rojas? Steve smiled sarcastically. "And yes, while we are talking about making phone calls, Captain Ramirez, I would like to make one to my superiors, and file a complaint against you for harassment."

"You're full of it," Rojas chuckled.

"Try me," Steve affirmed. "Your approach ruined everything. Given the fact that the people who were the aggressors had already departed, we could have learned a lot from the remaining folks."

"Well," Ramirez backed off. "Dr. Sommers' account collaborates your story. What do you think, Detective Brown?"

She looked at Steve cautiously, and hoped that she could match his explanation, "It basically went the way that Agent Petersen stated, Captain. By the time I got there, everything was pretty quiet. I think that we can work together, however."

The captain scratched his chin. If Petersen did play his hand, he would have every right to claim Federal jurisdiction which, if his bosses wished, would push both TPD and the State Police out of the equation. On the other hand, if he agreed to work with them, it would be beneficial for everyone. "What do you think, Agent Petersen? Can we work together?"

He agreed, "I don't see why not, Captain. Let's see how it goes." Rising from his chair, the agent shook hands with Captain Ramirez.

"Bueno!" Ramirez cheered.

Rojas, on the other hand, was not as convinced. But, he had no choice, if he wanted to be included in the mix. "Okay," he muttered, and shook Steve's hand, albeit unwillingly.

"Sorry, Captain, but can we get back to work on this case?" Tracy jumped in.

"Absolutely," Ramirez allowed. "Go to it, and bring me some results!"

They nodded, walked out of the office, and headed for the parking lot where the rented gray Pontiac Voyager awaited them.

"Thanks," Tracy confessed, "To tell you the truth, I thought that you were going to get shot down in there. But, when you pulled that ace out of your deck..."

He smiled at her, "You're welcome. Actually, your captain seems like a nice guy, but Ben Rojas can be a real pain, if you know what I mean."

"I can see why you would say that," she concurred with his assessment. "Now, let's find somewhere private to compare notes, and start our investigation."

"Sounds good to me," he stated. They got into the vehicle, and drove away into the Sonoran night.
 
 

Chapter 18

While the FBI, the Arizona State Police and Tucson's Finest argued over jurisdiction back in Arizona, Cybelle had prepped her house and brought the party there.

"We should be safe here," she concluded.

"What about them?" Karen asked, staring at Xena in the next room. "Can we help our friends and stay hidden?"

"I know. I'm concerned about them too," the priestess agreed and moved to comfort her friend.

************************************************

Meanwhile, Xena stood by Dave's bed. Cybelle had coated his body with a mixture of healing herbs, in order to help his wounds. His mental health, however, remained a mystery.

"Why wouldn't you listen to me?" she moaned sadly. The battlefield had claimed so many friends over the years. Now, she sat by the bed of another soul hanging in the balance.  "Angela," she lectured, "I told you not to let him face Alti alone!"

"Neither of them had much choice apparently," Nick coughed.

"How are you doing?" she inquired.

"I'll live," he supposed. "LaCroix will survive, as well....He took a direct hit from Ares. I...saw it happen before I blacked out. Anything new?"

She shook her head, "No, and the signs aren't good either. I have seen Alti do this before. When she steals a person's essence, she shatters the victim's mind. He's a vegetable."

"We cannot be sure of that yet," Cybelle advised. "Thank you for watching over him."

Xena nodded, "You're welcome, Cybelle."

"Has there been any change?" she inquired

"No, at least no visible changes," Nick reported.

Xena sighed deeply and explained. "Now, Angela needs to be here. Cover your eyes, and stand back." She sheathed her sword and concentrated.

Within seconds, Angie stood in her place. "Goodness....That should get easier over time, but it doesn't," Angie sighed dazedly. Then, she saw her husband's body on the bed. "Why wasn't I there?" she wailed.

"You didn't know....," Nick started.

"But, Xena told me!" she sniffled miserably. "I should have realized what was going on."

"It will be all right," Cybelle assured her.

She managed a brief smile. "Th...Thanks. When you say it, I believe it."

"We will do everything that we can for him," her sister-in-law confirmed. Just then, she noticed something. A small psychic glimmer. It came from Dave. "Did you...?" she asked Angie.

She concentrated, and smiled when she felt it too. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "I did feel it!"

"Somehow, he's still alive in there. We need Karen for a rather risky procedure, but frankly, it's our only shot," Cybelle told her.

*****************************************************

Twenty minutes later, Angie and Karen had joined Cybelle there, awaiting her instructions. For her part, the priestess meditated in private, marshaling her energies for the ritual. To bring somebody back from Death's door was a feat not lightly undertaken, or to be attempted alone.  That was the reason why she needed at least two others with her in this undertaking. When she felt sufficiently cleansed, Cybelle walked back into the chamber to address her friends and students.

"Form a circle around him," she directed.

Karen and Angie joined hands with her.

At that point, he spoke again, "Concentrate, let the psychic energies of the Earth and your minds flow through you, and into our friend."

The participants focused, and gave themselves to Eternity. They felt the Earth's movements below. A comet streaked by the ship. Time seemed to stand still. The collective charge in the room grew stronger and stronger until it reached peak intensity. At this point, Cybelle channeled the energy through herself, and into Dave.

"Now what?" Karen asked breathlessly.

"Now, we wait," Cybelle commented. "Wait, and hope."

********************************************

Somewhere in the inky blackness between worlds, a spark stood out against the ebony backdrop.  Slowly, the energy coalesced into a form, Dave's form.

"I'm...I'm back," he realized. To confirm this point, he stretched his arms, flexed his fingers, and moved his head. "Well, everything seems to work." Then, a thought occurred to him, "I have to get back to my body. I have to help everyone."

For what seemed like hours, he followed his senses. Finally, he reached the cusp, an energy pool which allowed a glimpse into the mortal world. He saw everyone grouped around his body, and performing some strange ritual. When he saw that Cybelle presided over the event, he knew that it would be all right. He felt a tug. Yes! His family and friends were not giving up on him! On the contrary, they refused to let him go. He dove through the portal, and the pull grew stronger.  His body sped towards him, and in the blink of an eye, body and soul were joined once again.

*****************************************

"Wait!" Cybelle commanded. "Something just happened."

Dave blinked his eyes rapidly and winced, "Hey, somebody turn down the lights."

Angie giggled with relief, "Thank goodness. That's Dave all right."

His sister smirked, "He always liked to oversleep. Some things just don't change, I guess."

Karen teased, "So, I hear."

"Oh, very funny," Dave growled good-naturedly. He rubbed his head. "Does anyone have a Motrin? My head feels like it's about to explode," he requested.

"Here's you go, Big Guy," Angie stated while handing him two orange and white pills. "Good to see you up and around. Other than the head, how are you doing?"

"Woozy," Dave sighed wearily. "I also feel like something's missing."

"You don't have your psychic abilities," Nick told him. "That shamaness stole them."

Dave performed a mental assessment of himself, and discovered the horrifying truth. "No, not all of them. She has the Dark Side...and the Child," he reported.

Cybelle stared at Angie in shock.

"If she can tap his darkness with her abilities, nobody will be able to stop her. As it is, Xena's going to have difficulty dealing with the situation," Angie related.

"She's not going to be alone in this matter," Karen advised. "Can you tell her that."

Angie closed her eyes, and smiled, "She knows that. But, the more help, the better."

Cybelle stared at her sister-in-law. Where were they going to get more help against Alti, and the others? Then, she noticed that her necklace, or rather, the emerald crystal in its center, started glowing. "Yes," she agreed. "If you will excuse me, I will bring help. Angie, can you do me a favor?"

"Sure," Angie agreed.

"When I give the word, change into Xena," Cybelle instructed. "Now, if you all will excuse me..." She walked to the guest room, and, after settling into a comfortable position, put herself into a trance. Help against this threat would have to come from special people. Very special people indeed and she knew just who to get for the job...

Interlude (Ancient Greece)

It had been awfully quiet in the land. Too quiet for Xena's liking. Ever since Hope's death in Potadeia, she and Gabrielle had traveled along the roadways with not so much as a peep of trouble. Ares wouldn't have let them go unmolested, at least not this long....

Gabrielle noted her friend's wariness. "C'mon, Xena," she urged. "I know you like an occasional fight, but hey, let's enjoy the moment. It's so peaceful."

"Right," Xena mumbled to herself. "Like the calm before a storm." She hadn't told Gabrielle about her dreams. Thanks to her link with Angie, she knew what was really going on.

The Potadeian bard shook her head consciously. Something was up, and Xena knew about it.  "Okay, you've got that grim expression, with the far-gone look in the eyes. What's wrong?"

The Warrior Princess sighed bemusedly. Gabrielle really knew her too well. Oh well, no sense in trying to hide it. "You know how I haven't been sleeping lately?" she queried.

"Uh huh," her companion agreed. That was an understatement, given how Xena had tossed and turned on the ground all night. "Go on..."

"Well, Ares has been up to something," she continued.

"But, it's been so quiet here....Wait a minute! Is this one of those insights from Angela?" Gabrielle realized.

Xena nodded, "Exactly. And she is going to need our help."

"So, how are we supposed to get there? Unless you have a spare Chronos stone, we're out of luck," the Bard inquired.

"No, but somebody else can help us," the warrior indicated, and pointed to their right. "What do you see there?"

Her friend stared in that direction, and saw a thick cloud of mist. "Funny, that wasn't there a minute ago," she stated confusedly.

"That's because it wasn't there a minute ago," a familiar voice boomed from the smoke.

Gabrielle knew the speaker's identity almost instantly. "Cybelle?" she guessed.

The priestess's voice drifted from the fog bank. "Yes, Gabrielle, it's me. Don't worry, I'm still my own person. But, we do need help from both of you against Ares, Callisto, and Alti," she explained.

"Alti? Xena, you said that she was dead," Gabrielle expressed her disbelief.

"Yes, she was," Xena informed her. "Unless...Ares revived her. And at least, we know where Callisto went as well. Gabrielle, you need to go with her. I'll be there shortly." She had deliberately neglected to tell her friend about the exact nature of the bond between Angie and herself. When she had it figured out, then she would tell Gabrielle. For now, her companion would just have to think otherwise....

"Okay," Gabrielle agreed. "Let's go."

"Just step through the fog, Gabrielle," Cybelle's voice guided. "I'll be waiting on the other side."

The blonde poetess took one last look at her warrior companion. Then, after picking up her fighting staff, she charged into the cloud bank, and vanished from view.

Xena watched as the fog dissipated. "Take care, Gabrielle. Watch out for David, and Angela, but watch out for yourself as well."
 
 
 
 

Chapter 19 (Modern Day)

The Gila National Forest of western New Mexico was normally a pristine wilderness. In this national preserve, a person could hike for miles, and not see another living soul. Consequently, the animals went about their daily affairs with little interruption. Imagine their surprise when the group of villains, and their two hostages appeared in their midst.

"Ah, I think that this would be a nice place for a mountain retreat," Ares savored, and raised his hands. A blinding flash went off in front of the group, and when the dust had settled, a temple, not unlike his structure in Greece, rose from the grassy terrain.

"Not bad," Callisto had to admit.

"Thank you," he smiled. "Now, let's get our guests inside. Shall we?"

*****************************************

Natalie and Francesca regained consciousness two hours later. They found themselves lying on a thick bearskin rug. A quick look around the room revealed that they had not been dreaming.  For, in front of them, Ares reclined on a marble throne and his allies stood at varying locations.

"Where are we?" Natalie asked.

"My temple," the war god stated. "Discord, show our guests to their chamber."

His companion rolled her eyes. She hated to be ordered about by him, but it paid to listen. "Yes, come along now," she told the two victims.

"Do...Do, we have to?" Francesca hesitated nervously.

"It doesn't look like we have much of a choice," Natalie explained. "We had best do as they tell us...for now, at least."

"Smart girl," Discord smiled approvingly at her and led them out of the room.

Callisto waited for the door to close, and then, turned on her allies. "This is really stupid!" she hissed.

"What?" Caesar winced painfully.

"Those hostages are going to be a hassle for us," she stated adamantly.

"They are insurance," Alti disagreed. "Unfortunately, I did not finish off our friend. He will be back."

"You took his power supposedly," Callisto accused. "What do you have to be afraid of?"

The shamaness grinned wickedly at her immortal companion, and allowed her eyes to glow ruby red. "Afraid?" she snickered. "Not likely. No, my Dear, those women are bait. I am the flame, and he is the moth."

Ares coughed indignantly. Obviously, she was planning something completely on her own and that was unacceptable. "And why are you staging this event without our input?"

Alti shrugged, "To take revenge on Xena, of course, and everyone else who has stood in my way.  And yes, Xena will come along with the priestess. I have foreseen it."

Ares considered this situation carefully. Alti had grown far too powerful for his liking.  Accordingly, he would watch her carefully. However, at the moment, he had guests to look in on. "I'll be back," he advised and disappeared in a flash.

***********************************************

Natalie looked around the chamber. The walls were of thick gray stone. Three tiny windows, slits really, allowed some light into the room. A bare oak table with two roughly hewn benches stood in the middle of the room. A small bed reclined against each wall. A stone bench with a hole in its middle sat in the far corner.

"It could be worse," she concluded.

Francesca shivered, "How? It's so cold, and dark..."

Natalie rubbed her companion's shoulders. "It's going to be okay. It's relatively clean at least."

"Indeed it is," Ares agreed and walked out of the shadows. "I'm not such a bad host."

"This setup wouldn't exactly earn you a four star rating, or whatever tavern owners get in ancient Greece," Natalie debated. "Besides, I don't recall having an opportunity to decline your 'invitation'."

He grinned at these words. This mortal might be annoying, but she did have spunk. "True, but I don't neglect my guests either. Behold!" he replied and sidearmed fireballs against the beds, table, and floor. When the smoke had cleared, a thick Persian rug sat on the floor. Tapestries hung on the walls. The table sagged under the weight of fruit, bread, and meat. The bedding had become softer. A final fireball lit the fireplace.

"Thank you," Francesca nervously accepted.

Natalie remained noncommittal. "It's fancy alright, but it's still a cage."

"Call it what you like," he cautioned. "But, if you try to escape, I'll take it all away. Stay here, and keep out of trouble. If you do that, then I will take care of you. Understand?"

They both nodded.

"Good. I like understandings," he smiled grimly and teleported away.

Natalie stalked about the room after the war god had departed. She didn't care what Ares had said. No matter how opulent, a cage was still a cage.

"Natalie, I know that you probably don't care to hear this, but let's keep calm, and he won't hurt us. Not like Dave and that police detective," Francesca advised.

"Police detective?" Natalie worried. "Oh, Nick!" She sat down on her bed and worried about his safety for quite a while.

Chapter 20

Gabrielle felt strange as she waded through the mists. Just as with the voyage to Althanor, she sensed herself moving through time and space. However, she could see no sign of this transition.

"I wish that I knew how she does this," she wondered aloud, just as she reached the edge of the field. She saw a light, and dove towards it. Sure enough, she was back on solid ground, "By the gods, where on Earth am I?"

"You're in my home, Gabrielle," Cybelle's voice explained from the depths of the dissipating cloud bank.

"Which is where?" the Bard demanded anxiously.

By this time, the mist had thinned out enough so that the British priestess could be seen.  "Actually, you're across the ocean from the lands that you know," she detailed. "When in Britannia, did you ever look across the ocean and wonder what was on the other side?"

"Yes, I....," Gabrielle replied hesitantly. Then, she realized, "You mean that we're there!"

"Calm down," Cybelle advised, ringing a small hand bell. "We have business to discuss."

A moment later, Xena walked anxiously into the room. "Gabrielle, good to see that you made it," she greeted.

Gabrielle looked back towards where she had stepped into this place, then to her friend, and finally, back to the first spot again. There was no smoke, so her friend couldn't have come that way...

Xena and Cybelle looked at each other. Finally, the former stepped over to her best friend. "I took a more direct route," she rationalized her arrival.

"Right," her companion hedged. Xena had been so mysterious lately. Best to go along with her for now, and hope that the answers would be forthcoming at some point.

************************************

Meanwhile, in the main part of the house, the rest of the group watched Dave sit up, and stagger to the floor.

"Hey, not so fast there, Champ," Mike recommended.

The librarian managed a shaky smile and laughed. "I thought that I was going...to get a break with my wife being out of the loop for a while," he teased.

"Not a chance," Karen disagreed. "You take it easy. And that's an order, Buster."

Dave chuckled good-naturedly. How many guys had their ex-girlfriends lecturing them about their health anyway? Fortunately, they had been such good friends...more like brother and sister actually. In addition, as Angie's matron of honor, she wouldn't let anything happen to her best friend's husband. Either way, she had a rationale for keeping a close eye on him during her absence. "Yes'm"

"It's great to see you up and around," Nick smiled at him.

"It's great to be around," Dave agreed. "By the way, do we have any other casualties?"

"Just LaCroix," Karen stated apprehensively.

Dave stiffened. "How did he find us?"

"Cybelle transported him along with the two of us," she explained.

"And, as it turned out, you needed my help," the elder vampire coughed as he made his way into the room. "Yes, I have survived Ares' attack."

"Unfortunately for the rest of us," Xena growled.

Gabrielle stared at him. "Lucius, here?" she queried.

"Yeah, it's him," the Warrior Princess explained while drawing her sword. "Don't ask right now.  It's a really long story."

"Really now, Xena," LaCroix smirked sarcastically. "While I realize that we have a score to settle..."

Her right eyebrow arched, and her mouth set in a firm line was back on her face, "You better believe it, Bastard."

"However," her long-time enemy continued, "As much as it turns my stomach to say so, we need to work together. I owe the war god for Pompeii...for Vesuvius."

The Warrior Princess shrugged, "Consider it payback for what you did to the Gauls, Lucius."

He tensed and allowed his fangs to descend. "I will repay you for the defeat at Corinth and for that remark," he told her.

Xena stood ready, sword in one hand, chakram in the other, and a sinister smile daring the vampire to charge her.

Gabrielle jumped in between them. "Settle down, both of you! We need to work together! As much as I loathe the idea, you know that I'm right."

The two adversaries looked at each other for a long minute before deciding on a temporary truce.

"Okay, so now what?" Gabrielle inquired. "Can somebody bring me up to date?"

"Take a seat," Dave suggested. "It's a rather long story." For the next hour, he and the others, recounted the events which had led them to their current location.

"Wow," the Bard winced. "So, I take it that we find them? But how do we do that?"

"Through Dave's abilities," Cybelle interjected.

"Or its usage," Dave added, a smirk forming across his face.

Mike stared at his brother-in-law, "Uh, Dave, Cybelle told me that you were out of it...."

"But," Nick supposed. "If Alti stole some of Dave's abilities, then he will be able to track their use. Correct?"

"Absolutely," Dave agreed. "The darkness is still a part of me, even if we are separated for the time being. Well, no time like the present." He stood up, and hurried off to the next room accompanied by Cybelle. Seeing that their friend was okay, the others went back to their meditation, or planning for the battle to come.

Nick paced about the area after the others had left. He wondered about what Dave must be feeling without his personal darkness. Could he ever duplicate his friend's condition within himself? After centuries of trials and failures, he could only hope to do so.

"Rubbish. Pure rubbish," LaCroix baited from behind him.

"You don't know that this condition would not work in me as well?" the former protégé protested.

"It won't work in you, because it won't last with Dubois," the elder vampire doubted. "Didn't you hear what your insolent mortal friend said? The darkness is still a part of him, even if the Witch separated it from him."

"But, suppose that we can destroy the darkness when we defeat the group," the younger vampire supposed.

LaCroix snickered incredulously. Again, his child was hell bent on finding his magical elixir for mortality. Such a waste of his time. "No, we won't. When we face them again, Dubois will reclaim his demon. Ironic, is it not? That same putrid responsibility and conscience which drives you to seek a cure, will cause him to forsake his so-called bliss."

"I don't believe that," Nick denied.

"And even if you do, I will be there to insure that you don't get it. I like you just the way you are," his former master pointed out. "And now, that I know where you are..." A slight snicker escaped his lips.

Nick's stomach wrenched at the thought of LaCroix's presence in Tucson. Somehow, he managed to steel himself. "You think that you are going to be allowed to do this?" he posed.

The other speaker shook his head, "Nobody 'allows' me to do anything, especially when it comes to you. Yes, Xena's appearance does pose problems, but I will avenge myself on her. Besides her victory over me, her influence in your affairs needs to be...eliminated."

"I doubt that you can do that," Nick stated.

"Where there's a will, there's a way, Nicholas. Think on that issue, will you? Now, this conversation is growing...most tedious. If you will excuse me?" LaCroix finished his argument, and departed from the other's company.

For hours, Nick sat in the darkness, and wondered if LaCroix was right. Was his search a futile one? No, he decided, there had to be a cure. Somehow, there had to be a way to split himself off from the vampire, and kill it forever.

Perhaps seeking respite from this bleak chain of thought, his mind drifted to Natalie. According to his companions, she and Francesca Alvaro had been kidnapped after the battle. He hoped that she was all right. She had to be safe...he could not face the other alternative, life without her, at least not yet. A smile crossed his face. Yes, they would get her back, and together, they would build a life in the desert together which one day might include a cure for his condition....
 

Chapter 21

Oblivious to the conversation in the next room, Dave sat in a deep trance. Too much had happened lately. With his darkness gone at least temporarily, he wanted to seize the opportunity. "Feel your mind's energy flow through you. Stay calm," he told himself. His concentration picked up on all the life around  him. He felt his friends' presence around him, and expanding his focus, he sensed the life energies of the Earth. For about two hours, he sifted through the various vibrations. There was so much evil in the world, and it masked the pocket of darkness in question.

"Okay," he muttered disconcertedly. "Focus on yourself. Look for a dark reflection of yourself."

Another scan brought a few more minutes of frustration. Then, he found it! They needed to get the others together immediately.

*********************************************

Nick still sat in the dark with only his depression to keep him company. His mood, although very positive only an hour before, had spiraled steadily downward. Leave it to LaCroix to ruin any kind of hopeful inclinations on his part.

"Nicholas?" Cybelle's voice floated through the darkness. "I can sense you here."

He frowned. It was true, misery did breed company. But, given her advanced senses, there was no point in hiding. "Yes, I'm here," he admitted.

"I saw LaCroix leave here," she indicated. "What's really bothering you?"

"Oh, I was thinking about Dave, and how he must be relieved not to have his darkness," he elaborated. "It must be a wonderful feeling."

She bit her lip tensely, "I wouldn't say that. If anything, he's a bundle of nerves."

"Why would you think that? He doesn't seem to show it," he disagreed.

"Oh, call it experience...being his little sister, and all that good stuff," she informed him. "He's petrified that Alti's going to use that darkness in a really terrible way."

Nick pondered this thought for a moment. What would such destructive force be like in an uncontrolled form? He remembered when Marian Ravenwood tried to help him by taking on the vampire. The evil had overwhelmed her capabilities, and she ended up committing several murders before she died. Alti, on the other hand, was very different. That woman definitely knew her art, and comprehended the nature of darkness. In hands such as hers, Dave's dark side would be a very dangerous force. Given that eventuality, he understood the priestess's meaning.

"You see? I have experienced his anger. Trust me, you don't want to be in its path," she warned.

"LaCroix mentioned that Dave will take it back into himself. Due to responsibility," Nick continued his train of reasoning.

"That's a first. LaCroix and I actually agree on something," she cracked. "Seriously though, he will need to reabsorb it, so as to keep it under control. Hopefully, he can work something out."

"I hope so too," he sighed despondently. "For his sake."

Cybelle sensed that something else was eating at Nick. "Okay, you're too down in the dumps.  As much as my big brother's on your mind, I know that you have other issues too," she probed.

"Well, now that you mention it. There are two things," he admitted.

"Natalie?" she guessed. "You're worried about her, right?"

"Indeed," he stated. "I'm wondering if she and Francesca are all right. I know that I shouldn't make too much of it, but...."

The priestess giggled, "...but, you love her. Hey, that's what love is all about. I worry about my husband too. At least he knows about my double life now. But, we do worry about each other.  I'm sure that if Natalie learned from Francesca about the attack on the library, and what happened to you, she's petrified that you're toast. I don't know if those feelings are the usual modus operandi for vampires, but for us mortal types, they are a part of everyday life."

"That kind of touches on the second thing," he alluded.

She smiled, "It was something that LaCroix said, wasn't it?"

"Yes," he confessed. "He said that he would never let me find a cure."

"So? What else is new?" Cybelle supposed. "Please continue."

"And he said that he was going to follow us down to Tucson and deal with Xena. I know that's a lot of talk, but if he does that, it's still going to make my life a living hell," he continued.

She grinned wickedly, "And you want to know what I think?"

"I would like that," he followed.

"Well, I would dare him to try," she baited.

"You're not serious!" he protested.

"Oh, I'm deadly serious," she assured him. "He really thinks that he can take on both Xena and Dave?" She laughed deeply. "Even if the creep gets rid of Xena, which I highly doubt, he'll have to face Dave. And if you thought that he was bad in the library, just imagine what he would be like then." She shuddered at the thought. "If he hurts Xena, Angie gets nailed too, and to mess with you on top of it... Oh wow, talk about Nightmare Incarnate!"

"You sound like a fortune teller," he half-doubted.

"Again, I know my brother. Another thing, LaCroix would also have to deal with me," she stated intensely with a heavy emphasis on the end of her statement. "Angie's like my blood sister, and I won't go so easy on the old bloodsucker if he decides to mess with my kin." Her eyes shone with a ruby-red glint. "That's if he survives the Dark Child. In any event, there's nowhere that he will be able to hide. I can't kill the jerk, but I'll make him wish that he stayed away!" she added with a deep growl.

Her tone left no mistake about it. Nick knew that he would be able to pursue his cure in Tucson. For his part, he desperately hoped that she was right.

"Think on those words, Nick. Really," she continued. "If you need to talk, Dave, Angie, Karen, and I are all here for you."

"Thanks. You don't know how much I appreciate that," he expressed.

"That's what friends are for," she concluded. "Hey, why don't you go join the others, instead of playing Lone Hermit here in the dark? I'll be there soon."

After she left, Nick decided to take her advice. He slowly rose to his feet, walked out of the room, and went to join his friends.
 

Chapter 22

Nick looked around the table at his cohorts. They all waited for Dave to disclose their enemies' location.

Finally, he marched into the room, and silently joined his peers.

"So?" Nick demanded. "Where are they?"

"Patience, Nicholas," LaCroix admonished, despite his own gnawing need to deal with the issue at hand.

Dave shook his head in disbelief at the elder vampire. But, best to let it go...at least for the present. "We're heading for New Mexico. The scumbags were right under our noses all along," he reported. He handed his sister a map with a circled area on it. "Here's where they're hiding, more or less. However, I figure that we will want to materialize a little ways away from them."

"Right," Cybelle agreed, and took the slip.

"So, where does that leave the rest of us?" Karen asked apprehensively.

"We go in," Dave replied grimly. "Exact details to be determined."

"Hopefully, we'll have something more concrete when we're back on the ground," Xena indicated.

"Right, let's see how the situation shapes up when we hit the ground," Dave added. "Meantime, can I make a call?"

"Certainly. Why?" Cybelle asked.

"I want to bring in two more allies." Dave told her. "Everyone, get ready. It won't be long now."

*************************************************** Six hours later, Steve and Tracy stood by the rental car anxious for something to happen. After what seemed like an eternity to them, they finally heard from Dave. Although they didn't quite understand his rationale, the two law enforcement officials drove three hours into the desert, crossed the border into New Mexico, and reached the isolated town of Silver City. There, on the northern edge of town, the forest rose from the desert floor.

"I wonder why he wants us to meet him here?" she wondered.

"I don't know," he shrugged. "But, knowing Dave, he has a definite reason."

"Whatever that is," she doubted, looking around at their surroundings with a sarcastic eye.

He chuckled, "And they're really going to pop up in downtown Albuquerque with everyone looking for them? Yeah right. Besides, those creeps are lurking somewhere in the woods back there."

She shook her head. She knew that Nick could do strange things. But find the bad guys where the conventional methods had failed? This she had to see for herself.

Steve looked around at his surroundings. It was the right time, but still no sign of their friends. "Okay," she assumed. "How do we find them?"

"You don't have to," Cybelle advised from nowhere.

Tracy nearly jumped out of her skin. "What? Who said that?"

"See the fogbank?" her associate indicated.

The detective noticed the wispy gray formation to their left. Somehow, the woman in green stepped from the mists. "And you're Cybelle?" she asked in a tone laced with uncertainty.

"That's right. Come on," the priestess urged. "Time's not on our side."

The FBI agent disappeared into the cloudy portal.

"You're next," Cybelle informed Tracy. "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe."

The skeptic stared at the mists carefully. Then, she decided to follow Steve. Closing her eyes, Tracy charged through the portal.

Cybelle smiled whimsically, and proceeded through her doorway as well.

***************************

The clearing was illuminated by the orange flickering light of the campfire.

Gabrielle peeked around at her surroundings. While Xena had hinted that this time would be different than their own, she felt right at home here. She also dreaded meeting Alti, although she would never admit it to her companions. Xena had told her a great deal about the battle amidst the treetops. Although she didn't hear all the details, certain things were mysteriously coming to her...about Alti, Ares, Xena, and even herself. Hopefully, the opportunity to discover more about this situation would present itself.

Xena had been sharpening her sword off to the side of the clearing when she noticed her best friend's pacing movements. "The memories are starting to come to her," she accessed. Right after the initial battle with Ares, the Warrior Princess had experienced an "updating" of memories herself, and knew just how disorienting that process could prove for anyone. Placing her weapon back in its hilt, she strolled over to Gabrielle.

"Are you okay?" Xena inquired.

"Huh? Oh, I'm fine," Gabrielle advised half-truthfully. "Just admiring the scenery."

"Are you sure?" the warrior pushed further.

"Sure. I'll let you know if I have any questions," the bard reassured.

"Okay, just let me know if you need anything," Xena told her, and walked back towards the camp. She spied Dave sitting close to the fire and roasting a marshmallow on the end of a skinny branch. "It must be great being innocent and all," she mused and stalked off in search of Nick and LaCroix.

***************************************

On the clearing's edge, Nick observed his friend's peaceful venture. How he wished that he could embrace it as well. "That peace, after so many years of fighting his inner demon, must be wonderful for him," he presumed.

"Like a child, perhaps?" LaCroix snickered mockingly from behind him.

Nick sighed dejectedly. Why did LaCroix always have to intrude in moments such as these?

"One should always be open to suggestions, Nicholas," the former master suggested.

"With you, suggestions often turn to doctrine," the younger vampire informed him.

"Experience is the best teacher after all," LaCroix explained patiently to his companion. "It is charming, however, to hear you talk about bliss here in what might be called the 'Forest Primeval'. Poor Nicholas, searching for his lost love and yes, I know about you and the Doctor, his lost peace, and even, his own lost peace of mind. "

"Which you are disrupting," Xena's voice chided from the surrounding darkness.

"You are most annoying. I am addressing my child. Does that not merit some privacy?" LaCroix hissed vehemently.

"You mean harassing your victim, Lucius," she corrected him with an air of sarcasm and drew her sword, the glint of which could be seen against the enshrouding darkness. "Don't test me, not on this one."

"You will not interfere," he threatened.

She laughed incredulously while stepping into the dim light of the campfire, "And, what would you do if I did? Gabrielle knows all about you, and if you tried anything..." A smile formed on her face. "...let's just say that it would be the last thing that you do."

He cursed silently to himself. Then, he glared at her, "There will be another time." He flew away from them.

"Just keep your distance, Lucius," she directed at his back. Then, she turned to Nick. "How are you doing?"

"Fine," Nick stated, although he didn't feel that way.

"I'm glad that I happened along when I did," she told him. "I figured that you were off meditating, and I could almost feel Lucius approaching you."

"How?" he queried.

"Experience," she shrugged. "Remember, Lucius isn't the only one that has it around here. He doesn't give up easily."

"I know," he sighed. "After 800 years, I know."

Xena rubbed his shoulder, "Don't worry, we will get Natalie and Francesca back."

"What if LaCroix does something to her first?" Nick worried.

She smiled, "He thinks that he will. Thinking, planning, and doing are..." She flung her chakram into the night. It caromed off of two trees before returning to her hand. "...two different things. Relax, Nicholas. Everything will work out."

"Thank you, Xena," he acknowledged her kindness gratefully.

"You're welcome," she reciprocated with a caring smile. "By the way, you're stronger than you know. Standing up to him like that.... Take pride, Nicholas in who you are. The vampire may keep you alive, but your purity is what defines you. Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to join our friends over by the fire."

He grinned affably, "That's sounds like the best idea that anyone's had all day. If you don't mind, I think that I'll join you."

"I don't mind one bit. C'mon," she urged pleasantly.

The two friends walked together towards the warmth of the fire and their companions.

Chapter 23

Francesca stared through the slit in the cell's far stone wall. Plenty of forest waited beyond the walls, but how could they get there? And she wondered, was it even worth trying, given the capabilities of their captors?

"Looking outside again?" Natalie asked from her bed.

She nodded wistfully, "Yes. I wish that I was back home, but since Dave's gone, and who knows what has happened to Angie...?"

Natalie got up, and walked over to her friend's position. "Look, Kiddo, I wouldn't give up on them yet. Nick has proven pretty resilient in the past, and your cousin seems to be a lot like him.  As for Angie, looks are deceiving," she indicated.

"But, Dave's eyes....Mama Mia, Natalie! You should have seen his eyes! Oh, he was so angry as if possessed by a demon...," she exclaimed frantically.

"You aren't far off in that regard," her companion noted mentally.

"And then, that Witch stole his life energy!" she continued vehemently.

"Uh, Francesca, you might not want to call her that," Natalie advised nervously, staring towards the cell door.

"Indeed," Alti snickered from the hallway. "Don't worry, we haven't forgotten about you two."  Her eyes glowed a bright ruby red. "Have you forgotten about that family temper? It is quite intense, trust me."

Francesca marshaled her courage. "Thief!" she spat. "If he were still alive!"

"I wouldn't underestimate them!" Nat added.

The shamaness waved the challenges away. "Yes, yes. We are quite ready for your friends. Be assured of that," she taunted. She turned, and walked away from the imprisoned women. Fun was fun, but there were bigger matters to attend to....

*****************************************

From his newly-created throne, Ares watched Alti carefully. He scowled at her effort to torture the hostages.

"I thought that I made it clear! They are not to be touched!" he bellowed.

"Oh, Ares," Callisto stated. "Let her have her fun."

"You too? I am not asking. I am telling," he pointed out.

She chuckled, "And you really think that you're in charge here? Really, Ares. Remember, you are not the only god here."

"And what would you do about it?" Alti challenged as she entered the area.

"Careful, Dearie. While I approve of your methods, remember, you aren't a god," Callisto reminded her comrade.

"So? I'm not your underling, either," the shamaness retorted angrily, and her eyes shone with an even brighter red hue.

Ares shook his head at Callisto. With Caesar's injuries, and his army decimated for the most part, they needed to stay together...at least for the time being.

"Save your energy," he advised his allies. "Xena and the others will be here soon. But, Alti, this isn't finished!" He shot her a furious glare before teleporting from the room and leaving the others to their thoughts.
 
 
 

Chapter 24

Dave took another bite of browned marshmallow from the end of his stick. He felt so light without his inner darkness. Since he would have to take it back sooner or later, these few days should have served as a break for him. Instead, he dreaded what Alti would do with that anger.  He affirmed that he would succeed in this quest...or die in the attempt.

"Penny for your thoughts," Xena cut in on his meditation.

"I was just thinking about our upcoming fight with Ares," he revealed. "And my need to take back the darkness from Alti."

"Yes," she agreed. "I can see why you are so preoccupied. It is a tall order, but we'll succeed."

"Thanks, Xena," he nodded grimly. "I know that I should be enjoying my 'freedom', so to speak, but...."

She rubbed his shoulder. "But nothing. You are having a natural reaction. She has your darkness, and you feel responsible for it."

"Any blood shed is on my hands," he stated. "I let her take it."

"You didn't let her take it. She stole it from you," she argued. "Still, Alti won't act before she faces us again.. Trust me."

"I hope not," he worried. "By the way, how's Angie holding up?"

"She's fine, concerned about you, but otherwise, she's holding up well," the Warrior Princess explained.

"And Gabrielle?" he probed.

"Oh, she's adjusting to being here. She won't admit it, but the rush of memories is disorienting to her," she informed him.

"It must be nice having her around again," he guessed. "Angie and I try to be the best friends that we can be for you, but let's face it, she's your closest friend."

Xena smiled warmly, "Having Gabrielle here is great, but you and Angela are wonderfully supportive. She and Gabrielle have a lot in common."

"Thanks for saying that. It means a lot, especially right now," he blushed.

"That's okay. Remember, we're all here for each other. Now, I'm going to check on Gabrielle.  I'll leave you alone to your thoughts," she concluded, and walked off into the darkness.

He looked over towards where she had vanished into the darkness. At least, her sense of people was still as sharp as ever. And her words had helped him out immensely. Now, his thoughts turned to coming up with a plan, and as he watched the fire's flickering light, a method started to form in his mind.

Dave started to consider his possibilities. Certainly, they needed to accomplish several goals simultaneously: free Natalie and Francesca, regain his darkness, and defeat the bad guys...easier said than done.

"Hey, Dave. Are you okay?" Karen queried as she sat down next to him.

"Depends on what you referring to," he shrugged. "On the one hand, I feel better than I have in a long time. But, as I just told Xena, I feel the burden of any blood spilt by Alti while she has it."

She rubbed his shoulder sympathetically. "I heard the end of your conversation with her. It's not your fault. Alti stole it from you," she indicated.

"Isn't it?" he questioned. "Just like always...even when I don't have it anymore, my anger still gets in the way."

His longtime friend sighed deeply. As much as she hated to admit it, he had a point. During their relationship, his moods had proven uncontrollable. She had attempted to help him, and except in a few cases, had succeeded in this endeavor. But, the anger wasn't his fault. How could she tell him that the abuse begot the beast? Despite her feelings for her husband, a part of her still cared for the man beside her. At that moment, she swore a silent oath to help him bring the beast back under control.

"Ironic, isn't it? The darkness is free," he declared. "Looks like we're having this conversation again. Talk about deja vu."

Karen seethed with indignation. She would not let him give up like this, just as he had on their relationship. "So, that's it? You're giving up? I can't believe this!" she lectured.

"No, I'm not conceding anything. I'm tired of this struggle is all. You above all should know how long that I have fought the Child," he retorted. "I would almost have to split myself to...fight him." His right eyebrow raised, and a smile formed on his face.

"What? What is it?" she probed.

"I think that I just got an idea," he informed her. "Can you tell Cybelle that I'll need to work out the details tonight, but first thing tomorrow, I will need to talk to them."

"Right," she agreed. "And when do you plan to enlighten the rest of us, O Wise One?"

"As soon as the details are all worked out," he assured her.

"Well, I'll leave you to work out the details. Talk to you in the morning," she indicated, and started to walk away.

"Karen?" he called to her.

"Yes?" she acknowledged.

"Thanks for the pep talk," he said.

"My pleasure. Good night," she assured him, and flashed a warm smile his way.

"My friends, what would I do without them?" he wondered as he turned back towards his thoughts and plans.
 
 

 

Chapter 25

Cybelle stirred from an uneasy sleep, and stretched her arms skyward. She sensed that Dave wanted to see her as soon as possible. Perhaps, he had a plan? One could only wonder.

Karen rushed over, "Cybelle, Dave needs to talk to you. Apparently, he has a plan formulated, but wants to discuss details with you and me."

"Okay, I'll meet you there," he accepted.

Karen nodded and hustled back to where the campfire had been the night before.

"Okay, Bro. Let's see what you've come up with," the priestess surmised and walked over to join her friends.

***************************************

A few minutes later, Dave forced himself awake and rummaged through his knapsack.  After a minute of poking around, he found the small white emergency pouch that he kept there, and opened it to reveal a prepared coffee filter with the grounds already set inside of it. He set up the old coffee pot, poured the water into it, and set it on its supports over the fire.

It had been a long night of meditation. So many details had to be brought together, and there was so little time to do it. Besides, he thought that he had detected the presence of one of their enemies in the vicinity. No matter, the confrontation would not be long in coming at this point. The smell of cherry vanilla lofted through the air, tingling his senses, and stirring him to full awareness. Hopefully, the others would not object to his plan overly much. Fighting a multi-pronged attack would take some coordination, especially given the intricate planning involved.

"David?" Cybelle's voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Hmm? Oh, good morning, Sis. I was just having some coffee. Would you like some?" Dave invited.

"You bet," Cybelle accepted.

"Me too," Karen yawned. "I have to hand it to you, Dave. Your taste in coffee hasn't suffered any."

Their friend chuckled contentedly and poured out three cups of the Cherry-Vanilla concoction.

"Yum, thanks," Karen smiled. "Now, where has your somber thinking arrived at?"

"Well, I was thinking of a three-pronged attack. Our forces would split the villains up into three groups," Dave offered.

"And the fourth wave?" Cybelle inquired.

"That's my part. After we separate Alti from my darkness, I am going to need to confront it.  That needs to be done on the spirit plane. Trust me, it will be a heckuva fight, but I can do it," Dave affirmed.

Cybelle stared at her older brother. "You're nuts! Do you know the risk involved?"

"It's the only way," Dave pointed out. "Would you rather that entity run around unchecked?"

Karen stared at Dave with concern. "Are you sure about this? What will Angie say?" she asked pointedly.

"She would be just as ticked off as I am," Cybelle stewed.

"And what does your lore tell you, Sis? You know about astral projection, don't you?" Dave questioned.

"Of course!" the priestess snapped. "But, you could be lost forever if something goes wrong."

"And I could be torn apart if Alti decides to come after me as well. Kind of a Catch-22, wouldn't you say? Now, can I ask you for help to insure that the process is conducted smoothly?" he indicated.

"If that is your wish," she relented. "I don't know what I'll tell Mom if this doesn't work...."

"That's not your problem," he argued.

"Right. It's Angie's concern. Dave, just think about it," she urged.

Karen studied her friend carefully. His brow and facial expression were both firm. She knew through long experience that those features meant that he was stuck fast to his chain of thought and that nothing would dissuade him from that course. "I think that he has already," she noted.

"Well, I need to work out a few more details. Let's get everyone sans Nick and LaCroix back here in an hour. Meanwhile, everyone think of which groupings that you want to end up in," Dave indicated.

The ladies departed, leaving Dave to work out the remainder of his plan.

*********************************

Inside of Ares' makeshift temple, the Cadre was getting restless. It had been three long days since the initial attack. They knew that the heroes were in the woods.

Ares had considered searching for his enemies, but realized that the others wouldn't stand for him doing so. He knew that he couldn't trust them, or even turn his back on them for an instant.

"The sun is bright," Alti cackled from behind him.

He spun to face the shamaness, "Yes, Alti. What do you need?"

She shrugged, "Besides some action? Oh, nothing much. I could find them for you."

"And give away our position? I think not!" he protested angrily.

"My presence does that quite nicely," she commented. "I told you, as long as I have Dubois' darkness, he will be drawn to me. Trust me, they know our location. Besides, Xena can sense you and Callisto as well. They will find us."

Ares had to admit that she had a point. "Very well. We should prepare for battle. Go now, rest, meditate, or do whatever you have to before the fight. I will let you know when it is time."

She nodded and exited the main hall. The war god sat back on his throne, mulling over battle plans.
Chapter 26

Back out in the clearing, everyone congregated around the campfire. Dave had apparently finalized all of the details concerning the attack on Ares' temple.

"Okay, everyone. As I explained to some of you this morning, we are going to split our forces four ways," he started, and drew a square in the dirt representing the targeted building. "One force will attack from the West, and one will hit from the East. Once our friends are distracted, a small sortie will break Natalie and Francesca out of jail."

"So, who's in which groups?" Steve asked.

"Okay, for leaders--Xena, Cybelle, and Gabrielle, I would like you to each lead a group," he indicated.

"Sounds good," Xena agreed.

"Since I can't talk you out of it, I accept," the priestess concurred.

"And, why aren't you leading a group?" Gabrielle pondered.

Xena contemplated her friend's actions. "David, you aren't going to take Alti alone," she stated.

"No, just my darkness. Once Group One splits my darkness off from our nasty friend there, I will reclaim it," he explained.

"If you think that's best," the Thracian warrior shrugged. "I think that Angela might disagree with you, however."

Cybelle jumped in, "It's the only way. Yes, it's dangerous. But, unfortunately, both sides need to meet on the spirit plane to reunite as one."

At the mention of the spirit plane, Tracy's mind flashed back to the Marion Ravenwood case. Nick had been on the spirit walk according to the Ravenwood's associate. As with many of Nick's affairs, that one remained a mystery to her.

"Well then," Xena indicated. "If it's okay with Cybelle, I'll take Nick with me."

"Karen's with me," Cybelle announced.

"That leaves me with Lucius," Gabrielle shivered.

"If it makes you feel better," Tracy offered. "I'll go with you and LaCroix. Granted, he's scary, but we can reassure each other."

"That would be great. Thanks," the Bard accepted.

"Okay, then we are all set," Dave indicated. "Steve, let's stay here and wait for the right moment." He noticed that the sun had set in the western sky, and the forest grew darker by the second. "Time to wake our friends."

"Leave that to me," Xena smiled sweetly, and pulled back the cover. "Okay, it's sunset.  Lucius, time to start earning your keep," she baited.

LaCroix snarled malevolently, but given the fact that both Cybelle and Xena were there together, he restrained himself. "Don't push me, Xena," he warned.

The female warrior grinned incredulously, "Right. We made teams. Nicholas, you're with me. Lucius, you're with Nicholas's partner and Gabrielle."

Nick nodded, "Sounds good. And Dave?"

"Yes. What about our deficient friend?" La Croix taunted.

"Half of him is worth twenty of you," Cybelle accessed. "Leave him alone!"

The elder vampire did not like being addressed in this insulting manner. There would be another opportunity to deal with this insolence. However, the attack was coming, and he would revenge himself on Ares at some point.
 

Chapter 27

Ares sensed the group's presence as they headed across the forest towards the temple. "They are coming!" he smiled and turned to Discord, "Get ready!"

"I love a fight," she savored.

"Yes, I know," he agreed. Then, he saw Callisto and Alti enter the chamber.

"We have visitors," Callisto grinned wickedly.

"And Dubois will be whole again, in death," Alti bragged ominously.

The war god stared at her frigidly. Then, he waved his hands. "Follow me," he directed, and vanished followed by Discord.

Callisto turned to her ally. "Our turn," she suggested and teleported both herself and her ally away."

************************************

The plan was going well. The groups had split up, and advanced on the enemy from their respective directions. Meantime, Dave and Steve sat back in the clearing awaiting the next stage of the attack.

****************************************

From the West, Xena hacked her way efficiently through the brush. She had to hand it to Ares.  He sure knew how to pick his hiding places. Fortunately for her group, they were close to the target.

"I'm going on ahead," she told Nick.

As soon as she had vanished into the flora, Nick's senses went crazy. "What the?" he tensed in surprise for a split second. Then, she felt something direly wrong.

Suddenly, Xena flew backward through the brush. Somehow, she managed to flip herself in midair, push off of the tree, and land on her feet.

From the brush, the heroes were confronted by their attackers.

"We don't like trespassers," Callisto hissed low.

************************************

Cybelle's group moved from the opposite direction. As with their comrades, they made rapid progress through the brush.

Just before they hit the temple grounds, the priestess looked around, sensing that something was not right.

"I think we have company, Cybelle," Karen advised.

"Indeed you do," Ares indicated as he cleared the remaining vegetation between them.  "Welcome to my temple. Now, you can either surrender, or die."

Cybelle glanced about. Karen and Discord were already locked in battle behind them.

The former disagreed, "I don't think so. Get out of my way, Ares," she commanded and singing a chant, sent a windy gale in his direction .

Ares waved his hand, dispersing her efforts. "I'm disappointed, Cybelle. When I boosted your powers, I expected more from you. Too bad," he brooded, and willing up a fire ball. "Now, die!"  He submarined the projectile at her.

The priestess dodged the blast easily.

Ares created another fire bolt, and hurled it at his would-be tool.

In response, Cybelle concentrated, forging an angular shield out of mental energy which reflected the energy right back at Ares. The impact knocked the war god out for quite a while. "Okay, let's see what I can do for Karen," she decided.

************************************************

"Give it up, Sister," Discord advised Karen and fired energy pulses at her opponent.

"Never!" Karen challenged, deflecting the charges and returning fire.

For what seemed like hours, the two women bombarded each other with energy blasts. Although both adversaries were just about spent, neither one would back down.

"I owe it to my friend to help him!" Karen affirmed.

"Ugh! That is so sickeningly sweet!" Discord grimaced.

Despite her bravado, Karen felt weary. She needed to end this standoff quickly. "Well, we can keep this up all day, or I can try something else," Karen realized and focused on the gnarled oak to Discord's left. A particularly thick and heavy bough started to swing in the breeze.

"C'mon, don't go to sleep on me!" Discord upbraided her, firing another bolt.

Karen ducked, but somehow, kept her concentration on the branch. Finally, after a minute of psychic stress, the bough quivered, broke off from the tree, and fell on Discord's head with a resounding thud. "Now, let's finish this!" she asserted and, after putting everything that she had into one last energy blast, pummeling her opponent who fell to the ground.

"I...I did it," she gasped.

"Yes, well done," Cybelle assured her.

She turned to see the priestess standing behind her. "Where's Ares?" she worried.

"He's sleeping off one of his blasts," her friend informed her.

"Well, all's well that ends well," she chuckled. "Let's see if Xena and Nick need any assistance."  Willing up a cloud column, they vanished anew.

************************************

Xena glared at the two antagonists. "What are you going to do about our being here?" she asked grimly while drawing her sword.

Callisto grinned in anticipation of the inevitable fight. "Oh, Xena, you're so predictable. Why don't you just...die!" She hurled three fire blasts.

Her ancient adversary executed a triple flip which would have made an Olympian green with envy, and dodged the projectiles effortlessly. "You'll have to do better than that, Callisto!" she challenged.

Oh, I will....Believe me, I will," the warrior-goddess cackled.

****************************************

Meanwhile, Alti faced Nick.

"I have waited for you," the shamaness informed him coldly.

Nick tensed, and grabbed his head. "Arrgh!" Suddenly, he saw fearsome nightmares from times long ago. He struggled to contain these flashbacks, but it would take a while to do so.

"Now to finish you!" she gloated.

"Not yet you won't!" a familiar voice declared.

The shamaness felt a chill behind her. She turned to see two of the vampire's allies enter through the mists.

Cybelle turned to Karen. "Go, help Xena! I've got her!" she directed.

Her friend nodded, "Sure, I'll be right back!" With that, Karen took off for the other battle.

The priestess pointed at her opponent. "We have unfinished business, Alti!" she challenged.

"We do, indeed," Alti agreed, and circled the priestess.

Just as with Karen's struggle against Discord, Cybelle sensed that this fight would take far too long. "Time to finish this!" she asserted, and chanted an ancient spell. Vines sprung suddenly from the ground, entangling the shamaness, and dragging her to the earth.

However, her opponent's eyes flashed a fierce crimson glow. With a burst of ebon energy, she freed herself, and regained her footing. "Surprise," Alti cackled. "Now, where were we?"

At that moment, Nick forced the last of his nightmares into submission. Seeing that they might be at the crossroads, he flew at her from behind, and held the shamaness fast in a tight bear hug.  "Now, Cybelle!"

"Here goes!" she agreed, and produced a vial of yellow liquid from her sleeve. She shoved the container into Alti's mouth, forcing the contents down her throat. "Down with your medicine!" she commanded.

"No!" the beleaguered enemy choked and shook violently.

"Nicholas, release her and back away!" Cybelle commanded.

As Nick did so, Alti's shaking grew more intense. Around her, an inky blackness developed which coalesced into a seven foot giant with ruby-red eyes.

"It is done," Cybelle stated, and started to concentrate. "Dave, it's your turn!"

******************************************

Surprisingly, Gabrielle's group encountered little resistance as they made their way up the South side of the edifice. After dispensing with the last half-dozen of Caesar's legionaries,  LaCroix, Gabrielle, and Tracy crept into the complex.

"Wow, what a place," Tracy appreciated.

"Yes, I'm sure," the vampire advised. "Come now. We do not have much time."

"I remember something that Xena said about these complexes. Ares had a special place for guests somewhere on the upper floors," Gabrielle indicated.

"Her description is accurate," LaCroix mentioned.

"So, I would assume that you know where it would be? I mean if Vachon could...," Tracy started.

LaCroix wheeled on his heel to face her, "Do what? How much do you know?" he insisted.

Gabrielle raised her staff, and stepped in between them. "I don't know what this is about, Lucius, nor do I care," she explained.

Her immortal companion watched her with interest. Could it be that he had misjudged this woman? Such fire...no wonder Xena favored her. Still, he had to maintain appearances at least.  "Nor should you," he pointed out. "This is between Ms. Vetter and myself."

"I've faced Bacchae and other vampires. I know how to fight you, but now is not the time," the Bard indicated.

"Another time," LaCroix echoed, knowing that she was a woman of her w+ !!EQ@>IۄV!P)|@P}x="Arial">, an island of QUALITY amidst the vast, shark-infested ocean of misleading adult sites.

Our goal is to review and categorize all sites with FREE XXX content to help you easily pinpoint exactlym off of the stones, "Because light and dark matter little to beings such as myself. Now, if you would please proceed...," he indicated.

Following LaCroix's directions, the group stumbled onto the second flight of stairs and, after climbing them, stood on the third floor. Thirty minutes, and a walk down the twisting corridor, later, the two women found their guide standing in front of a thick oak door. "It is this door," he specified. "Now, stand back."
 
 

***************************************

Natalie slept uneasily. "What if Francesca's right?" she worried. "What if Nick is dead? What will I do?" An overwhelming sense of dread filed her at that point. Then, almost like an arctic blast, she felt a familiar presence. "LaCroix," she realized. "But how?"

The prison door splintered into the room with a loud crash. Then, voices could be heard from outside.

"What? What is going on?" Francesca gasped in Italian.

"Good evening, Doctor," LaCroix greeted.

Francesca trembled, and managed to ask in English, "What? What is going on?"

Natalie did not answer, because she was occupied with watching LaCroix. Why was he here at that point? Would he try to finish her off?

The vampire snickered, "Really, Doctor. I'm here to help you escape. We will have our discussion later."

Just then, Tracy burst into the room, squeezed past LaCroix, and embraced the relieved Natalie.  "You're okay!" she estimated.

"Well, yeah. Good to see you too," Natalie agreed.

"Well then, let's get out of here before Ares realizes what we are doing," Gabrielle suggested.  "Can you two walk?"

"Yes we can," Francesca replied.

"This way, then!" Tracy urged while grabbing a torch, and starting down the long corridor towards freedom in the dark woods below.
 

(Additional Note: The Dante quote is from The Divine Comedy, Translated by Charles Singleton (Purgatorio, Canto 27, l. 25-32))
 
 

Chapter 28

Dave paced anxiously around the camp. Normally, he took on any struggle for his peers.  However, he was kept under guard. Granted, he didn't feel like a criminal, but the helplessness was almost as bad.

"It's going to be okay, Dave," Steve assured him.

"I know, but I wish that something would happen," Dave moped.

The FBI agent examined his friend's face. Even without the Child, his longtime classmate still seemed stressed. Maybe, with his darkness so close, he was reassuming some of the other persona. If so, the struggle between light and dark would come sooner than anyone had wanted.

The young librarian sat down on his sleeping bag. He felt the battle happening off in the distance. "They're duking it out pretty intensely." Then, he stiffened, "It's time!"

"Time for what?" Steve demanded.

"Watch my body. I'll be right back," Dave instructed him. He concentrated, and slowly felt himself rising into the air. Looking down, he saw Steve leaning over him. "I don't know if I'll ever get used to this," he groused.

Once he had left the ground, he rose to a point where he could observe the situation. "Now, where...?" he puzzled, before feeling a strong pull. He followed the attraction to the clearing.  There, he witnessed the struggle happening beneath him, and the malevolent entity directly in front of him.

Instead of attacking, the black creature studied his counterpart across time and space. It radiated waves of anger and hatred across the space towards the other, and bellowed, "I must be free!"

Dave shook his head purposefully, "Sorry, no can do." He moved in for a direct attack.

The two combatants engaged headlong, sending waves of oppositely polarized energy into one another. Then, after a quick exchange of punches, they hurled away from each other.

"Wow!" Dave thought while rubbing his jaw. "That hurts."

"Feels kinda bad, don't it?" It continued. "Now, you know."

"Know what?" Dave challenged.

"Know pain!" It roared.

Dave bowed his head defensively, and shuddered. Suddenly, just as during his previous encounter with Alti, the nightmares cascaded across his consciousness. In the blink of an eye, he saw his mother berating him, his father's physical and emotional abusive behavior towards him, his professors' wrongful belittlement of his work in graduate school.

He rocked on his feet momentarily before straightening himself. "Look, yes...that's true, but...," he started.

"But what?" the dark creature spat venomously. "Those things happened! You wanna kill me!"

Dave tried to reason with the child in front of him, "Okay. I'm not trying to kill you. We need each other."

It repeated itself, "You wanna kill me."

"No, only your anger," Dave insisted. "We are two sides of the same coin. We need each other."

"I only know anger!" the Dark Child protested. "What else...?"

"My inner child," he replied.

The Child tensed, "Alti showed me that I don't need you an' your stinkin' control!"

"She was using you!" Dave tried to explain.

"Liar!" It spat vehemently, and a tantrum was not far behind that statement. "You used me!  Everyone used me!" The Child hurled an ebony mental bolt.

Dave just managed to raise an energy shield in the nick of time. "Stop it!" he directed.

"Why?" the other growled. "Why should I?"

"Because, I want you to be a part of me, and I want to be a part of you," Dave patiently explained to his antagonist. "Always." He held out his right hand.

For a long minute, the Child considered this offering. "Well...you promise?"

"Yes, I do promise," Dave affirmed.

"You won't back out on me?" It questioned, not wanting to trust the other figure.

"I repeat, I do promise," Dave reaffirmed.

For another minute, the Child stared across the abyss. It shook with indecision...a lifetime of pain and anger. How could one leave that all behind? And yet, here was somebody to protect It in exchange for keeping calm, well most of the time anyway? Even to the Child's mind, there were no other options.

"Okay," It finally agreed, and clasped the outstretched hand. The shared energy created a coronal discharge fusing the two sides back together.

"Thank you," Dave mentioned appreciatively.

"Just remember your promise!" It directed from inside of his head.

"Always!" he confirmed reassuringly. He moved away from the battle scene, heading toward the ship. Once there, he quickly merged back with his body.

His resulting spasms made Steve jump. "Dave, that had better be you!"

"Settle down, Petersen. It's me," Dave assured him. "Now, let's move it."

"And, where are you going?" his friend asked as the librarian started toward the trees.

"To join in the festivities. I have a few scores to settle," Dave explained over his shoulder, and then took off. "C'mon, let's move!"

Steve nodded, "Now, you're talking!" He rushed to catch up to Dave as the latter hurried down the forest trail toward the skirmishes.
 
 

Chapter 29

Xena leaned heavily on her sword hilt. While the other groups accomplished their tasks, she had to take on Callisto single-handedly. Just as with the battle at the U of A, the blonde berserker had fought her hard. However, once again, Xena had used her chakram to trigger an avalanche, and bury her opponent.

"I have to help the others," she told herself and noticed the rocks starting to quiver. "That isn't going to hold her for long." Then, she froze and surveyed her surroundings. Her left brow arched, and a satisfied smile spread across her face. "Come out, Karen," she advised.

Karen stepped into view. "How did you know?" she wondered.

"Trade secret," the warrior grinned.

Karen rubbed her friend's shoulder. "I would have helped, you know," she stated.

"I know that," Xena assured her. "Now, let's face Alti and finish this!"

The young woman followed the Warrior Princess's rapid pace towards the battle ahead of them.
 
 

***************************************

Across the battlefield, Alti glowered indignantly at her opponents. Somehow, they had managed to take back her newly-acquired darkness! She was still the most powerful shamaness of the Steppe, and, as such, more than a match for her enemies.

"You will pay for that!" she challenged the others and attempted another mental attack.

Cybelle stepped forward with determination. "Not likely," she doubted while deflecting the threat away from her allies and herself.

The shamaness advanced on the priestess. "I'll kill you, Little Girl," she scowled.

"I don't think so," her opponent surmised.

"Smug witch," Alti laughed. Then, she lurched forward as something hit her from behind.  Turning around, she saw her attacker.

Dave stood behind her with a satisfied grin on his face.

"We have unfinished business," he asserted, giving his opponent a savage glare. Cybelle glanced at him, and smiled. "You need any help, Bro?" she asking, although already knowing the answer.

"Thanks, Sis. However, this is between the Mind-Witch, and myself," he replied firmly.

Cybelle shrugged, "Suit yourself. You know where we are if you need us." She walked back over to Nick and Steve.

"We should help him," Nick pointed out.

"He told us to stay out of it," the priestess smiled. "Besides, we can jump in, if needed."

"If you say so," he sighed.

Cybelle looked at him reassuringly. "Don't worry. I know my brother, and, given the mood that he's probably in right now, it's Alti that needs the assistance. Trust me," she advised.

"I'll second that motion," Steve agreed, rubbing Nick's shoulder.

The vampire detective stared out onto the scene, hoping that he wasn't about to lose his friend for a second time in a week.
 
 

****************************************

"Ready for another defeat? Can you face your fears any better this time?" Alti challenged.

Dave smiled confidently, "I have faced my fears and doubts. Do your worst."

"As you wish," she accepted, and attacked his psyche yet again. Once again, the fire surrounded him. As this happened, he remembered Virgil's advice to Dante from the Purgatorio:

"Credi per certo che se dentro a l'alvo di questa fiamma stessi ben mille anni, non ti potrebbe far d'un capel calvo.... Pon giu omai, pon giu ogne temenza; volgiti in qua e vieni: entra sicuro!"

"The fire cannot hurt me if I accept its purification even if I were to stay within it for a thousand years," he affirmed. Miraculously, the flames were now a source of strength instead of a scourge. He smiled securely at his opponent, "My turn." He pummeled her with a series of energy blasts which knocked her backwards.

"Not...bad," she admitted begrudgingly. She staggered and tried to generate another attack.  However, the effort overtaxed her capabilities and knocked her unconscious.

For a long minute, he stood transfixed. He had done it. Somehow, he, or rather, both sides of his personality, had defeated her. A wave of satisfaction washed over him as he made his way over to his allies.

Cybelle embraced him tightly. "It's good to see you whole again," she asserted tearfully.

"That goes for all of us," Nick added, clapping Dave on the shoulder.

Dave surveyed the area and saw most of his friends congregated around him. "Now, if the others were successful, we might just get out of this situation all right."

Xena walked over and gave him a brief squeeze. "That's for both Angie and me. Good to have you back in one piece," she explained.

"Good to be back," he chuckled.

At that moment, he saw Gabrielle's group approaching them.

"Dave! You're alive!" Francesca exclaimed and, despite her weariness from their escape, ran towards him.

Then, a loud crash grabbed their attention. In a burst of flame, Callisto appeared in their midst.

"Oh, isn't that sweet!" she baited and fired an energy bolt at the Italian literature professor.

Overcome with the sight of her cousin, Francesca paid no attention to the incoming threat.

"Get down!" Xena screamed.

"What?" Francesca puzzled hesitantly, and, at that moment, the fire ball found its mark.

"No!" Dave bellowed in disbelief and ran towards his stricken relative.

The others were stunned momentarily by this sudden turn of events.

However, Xena drew her sword. "Callisto!" she challenged angrily.

The warrior-goddess smiled sweetly, "Really, Xena. A girl's gotta have her fun somehow."  Then, she turned to Gabrielle and laughed mockingly, "I'm two for two with you, Sweets.  Funny, she fell like Perdicas. You do remember, don't you?"

The Warrior-Bard shook her head. "One day, Callisto. One day...," she started, but couldn't allow  herself to finish, lest her blood-lust consume her. "You will pay."

Callisto laughed and collected Alti. "In your dreams. Well, it's been fun. Gotta go."

"Not yet," Xena asserted menacingly and leapt at her adversary.

The murderer giggled incredulously and, with a wave of her hand, teleported herself and the shamaness from the scene.

"Not again," Gabrielle spat angrily and turned to her closest friend. "Xena...."

The Warrior Princess knew how her friend felt. She burned with a thirst for vengeance. Then, she felt Angie's pain inside of herself. Failing to find the right words, they embraced each other.

The villains had all escaped, leaving the group to collect the broken pieces around them.
 
 

Chapter 30

Natalie could not believe it. After all that they had been through, to lose Francesca like that.  "No!" she denied and sprinted to her friend's side. She bent over her companion and conducted a rapid field examination.

Nick joined her quickly. He was going to take no chances on losing her as well. "Well, Nat?" he probed.

She looked at him resignedly, "I can't help her, Nick. She's dying."

Xena looked at Cybelle anxiously.

The priestess shook her head, "I know what you thinking, Xena. Sorry, you have already shared your life energies with Angie. Believe me, I wish that I could use you as a donor again."

Gabrielle studied the scene in front of her. She had lost her husband to Callisto. She couldn't, no, she wouldn't let another person die the same way. She stepped forward. "Cybelle, I want to help her."

Xena grasped her friend's shoulder. "It's not easy living in another time and in another person's body," she pointed out.

"But, you'll be there, right?" Gabrielle asked.

"I will be close by," the Warrior Princess affirmed.

"That's what I need to know," the Warrior-Bard affirmed.

Natalie cleared her throat and interjected, "Uh, ladies, if you're going to help her, then you better get over here, and do it."

Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I'll be looking for you," she promised.

"I'll be waiting," the Warrior Princess affirmed. "Now, Francesca needs you."

The Potadeian minstrel clutched Francesca's rapidly cooling hand. "I'm ready," she told Cybelle.

"Very well," the British priestess assented. She focused on the Earth, feeling its motions, and drawing upon its energies. "Great Mother, aid me," she prayed silently. When this charge had reached its crescendo, she grasped each woman's hand. "Brace yourselves!" she advised.

The energy flowed through Gabrielle, stinging her like a thousand angry bees. Then, she felt a tiny piece of herself being taken from her, and placed into her friend.

Francesca spasmed violently. She opened her eyes widely and inhaled deeply.

Cybelle asked her cousin anxiously, "How are you?"

"I'm fine...now," Francesca replied, albeit a bit woozily.

"Gabrielle?" Cybelle asked.

"I'm fine as well," the Bard agreed.

"Thank the gods," Xena cheered relieved for both Angie and herself. Then, she felt a familiar presence. "Ares."

He appeared out of thin air. "Yes, it's me," he replied.

"You could have healed her," she accused.

The war god smiled, "Yes, but let's say that....you should be glad that I didn't..." He stole a glance at Gabrielle. "Believe me."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Nick protested.

"You'll see," Ares stated mysteriously. He turned to LaCroix. "I can cure you, if you'll lead my armies again," he offered.

The elder vampire pondered the irony of the situation, especially as the offer was made in the presence of Nick and Natalie. "I want nothing from you. Unlike some immortals, I am happy with what I am!" he refused.

"Suit yourself. I know that you won't believe me, but I'm glad that she's okay. As for you, Lucius, remember, I'm still a god," Ares stated firmly.

"You are not my god. There are no true gods," LaCroix scoffed.

Ares was tempted to incinerate LaCroix. However, he would allow Xena to have the privilege of teaching his former general some manners. "Another time, Lucius. Out of respect for your service, I will let you live for now. Cross me again, however, and I will fry you from the inside out." With a wave of his hand, both he and the unconscious Discord vanished.
Chapter 31

For the remainder of the evening, the group prepared to go their separate ways. Xena, Gabrielle, Nick, and LaCroix scouted the area only to find that their opponents had indeed vanished into thin air.

Cybelle stayed behind to tend to Francesca. The priestess hoped that her cousin's recovery would proceed without a hitch. When the ritual had been performed on Xena and Angie, the rehabilitation seemed almost instantaneous. However, only time would tell how Francesca would deal with similar conditions.

Meanwhile, Karen worked with Dave on the other side of the clearing. The two friends meditated together, and ran through some simple exercises to increase the latter's mental strength.

"What are you feeling?" she inquired.

"I am feeling the vibrations of the forest...the trees...and the animals. There's no tension at all," her friend indicated.

Karen smiled at this response. She had worried that after the rejoining of the two personalities that Dave might be more influenced by his internal darkness. While he still had a ways to go in this balancing act between light and darkness, they were going to be all right at least for the present.
 
 

********************************************

Two hours before sunrise, everything had been accomplished in the Gila. Accordingly, it was time for the group to go their separate ways.

Cybelle spoke up. "Since dawn is not far off, we should be getting back." She turned to Gabrielle. "You're first since you have the longest trip. Let me know when you're ready."

The Bard nodded, and went to each person individually. She wished Nick, Nat, Steve, and Tracy well in their affairs. Then, she thanked LaCroix for his assistance. A warm embrace was reserved for Karen and Dave.

Finally, she turned to Francesca. There was an uncertainty between them as the two women embraced tightly. Yet, they both knew that these events had happened for the best.

"Thank you for your gift, Gabrielle. I really appreciate it. Hopefully, with the second chance that you have granted me, I can do bigger and better things," the Italian literature professor expressed.

Her friend reassured her, "I know that you will continue to be a good person. That's what counts.  Take care."

The two companions embraced for one final time. Then, the Potadeian adventuress turned back to Cybelle, and let her know that she was ready.

"Very well," the priestess agreed, and summoned her cloud column. "Thank you once again for your assistance."

Gabrielle stole another glance at Francesca. "My pleasure," she confirmed. As she passed through the portal, she shot back over your shoulder, "See you on the other side, Xena!"

"Now, for the rest of us," Cybelle urged, looking towards the eastern sky.

Xena hesitated, and looked at LaCroix. "Cybelle, give us a moment. Lucius, we need to talk."

"Why now? I'm certain that we'll have ample opportunities to do so in the near future," the vampire responded.

The warrior drew her sword, and held it in front of her. "Not if you know what's good for you," she growled. "I'll make this short and sweet: stay away from Nicholas and Natalie! You have done enough, especially to him!"

LaCroix hissed indignantly, "That is not for you to say. Not even you can keep me from my son."

"You mean 'victim'," his longtime adversary corrected him once again. "And besides, if and when we meet again, I won't be alone."

"You can't stop me from relocating there," LaCroix challenged.

Xena arched her brow, and smiled wryly, "No, I can't. But, I'll know where you are at all times.  Just stay on your side of town, Lucius." Her mouth settled into a firm line. "I mean it."

LaCroix stiffened. This irritating woman would prove a problem for him and his situation with Nick. But, the British witch was right in the fact that time was running short. Turning away from his opponent, the vampire faced Cybelle. "I'm ready," he stated primly.

"Suit yourself," she shrugged, and pointed towards the cloudbank. "See you later. Much, much, much later."

He shook his head disdainfully at these insolent mortals. How he would enjoy paying them back for these abuses! For now, he hurried into the fog. Over his shoulder, he issued a reminder, "Someday, Xena. Someday, I will be avenged."

Xena watched as the cloud vanished in his wake. She knew that LaCroix would make good on his threat at some point. If he did indeed relocate to Tucson, she would have to be vigilant. She looked towards Nick and Natalie on the other side of the clearing and decided that helping them would make it all worth it.
 
 

******************************************
 
 

Across the clearing, Nick had observed the argument between Xena and LaCroix. The thought made him shudder once again.

"Hey, Nick. Are you okay?" Natalie probed caringly.

"It's LaCroix. After everything that we've done to conceal ourselves from him, he's found us again. He plans to relocate to Tucson," he explained moodily.

She rubbed his shoulder reassuringly, "Well, if he does so, he'll find Xena there. Besides, we have dealt with him before."

Nick's face brightened considerably. "That's true," he admitted and gave his friend a tight hug.  "I'm glad that you're safe."

"As am I that you're here unharmed as well," she laughed. "Now, let's join the others before sunrise, shall we?"
 
 

************************************************
 
 

Once everyone had congregated back around Cybelle. She created a final portal. Steve and Tracy had decided to drive back to the Old Pueblo since they were still responsible for the rental car.

"As you wish," Cybelle assented, and with a wave of her hand, guided the remainder of their party through the cottony transport. "If you have any difficulty, let us know," she urged Steve and Tracy.

"Well do," Tracy agreed. "Now, go on. I don't want my partner to be scorched."

Cybelle smiled at her friend's concern for Nick. "Don't worry about that. Take care, both of you," she assured them before stepping into the portal herself.

The two law enforcement officials watched the fog dissipate on the icy morning breeze. Then, they walked the half mile out of the woods, and found the car right where they had left it.

As they climbed in, Tracy looked at her companion. "So, what now?" she asked.

"I was thinking that it's about 5:30. I saw a place in town that opens for breakfast right about now. Want to try it?" he suggested.

"Sounds great," she smiled. "I'm famished."

He nodded and drove them back in to Silver City. After a huge breakfast, the two law enforcers drove back towards Tucson, and their long-deserved rest.
 
 

Chapter 32

The fog surrounding the group dissipated very suddenly, and the group found themselves back on the U of A mall area in almost the exact same spot where they had left it.

Dave surveyed the remaining members of the party. Everyone who chose to return to Tucson in the group stood there. "As much fun as this has been, I'm glad to be home," he concluded.

"I should hope that you would be," Cybelle cracked. "You've had enough excitement for one day."

"Oh, that's just par for the course with him," Karen teased. "Seriously though, we do need to be heading back. "

The priestess sighed. In all of the excitement, she had not thought of an explanation for Mike. "Oh well, it'll have to be over breakfast. Karen, why don't you come with me?"

"Thanks. Well, everyone, it's been interesting as usual," Karen smiled. "Dave, please stay of trouble, okay?"

"I'll try," he smirked. "Thank you both for your help."

"Hey, no problem. I owe you a couple, remember? Take care." Karen grinned.

"I'll double that. Well, Mom's probably worrying herself to death, so I'd better go, and clean up the mess. See ya. I'll have the girls back sometime today. Do take care," Cybelle chuckled mischievously and created another portal.

Karen waved once again, and leapt into the fog. Cybelle nodded to her brother and other friends one last time before following her "passenger". Once again, the mists dissipated, leaving not a wisp in their wake.

Natalie shook her head. "I don't know if I will ever get used to that," she stated in disbelief.  "At least they will be home quickly."

Nick looked anxiously at the eastern sky, and saw the first traces of pink. "Speaking of getting home....Would you like a lift to the loft? You can spend the day if you would like," he offered to Natalie.

"Sounds great. Xena, thanks again. Dave and Francesca, I'm glad to see you safe again," she accepted.

Nick smiled, "See you folks soon. Thank you for your help."

"And, thank you," Francesca, Xena, and Dave chorused as Nick picked Natalie up in his arms, and took off towards his downtown loft.

Dave shook his head. "And she says that Cybelle's methods are strange...," he laughed.

"I suppose," she concluded, and put her sword away. "Well, I'll see you later as well.

"Thank you once again, Xena," he expressed.

"My pleasure," she smiled.

"By the way, have you figured out what you're going to say to Gabrielle yet?" he inquired.

"About the ritual? I'll wait 'til she asks. That way, I might have another five minutes to think about it. Well, I'll see you both soon," she shrugged and sprinted up Cherry Avenue.

Dave turned towards his cousin who had silently watched all of the unusual departures.  "Well, I suppose that I can give you a ride home?" he offered.

The question jerked her out of a daze. "Huh? What did you say?"

"Earth to Francesca. Do you want a ride home?" he cracked.

"Unless, you're planning to leave me here alone. Angie must be worried sick about us being gone for the better part of a week like this! And, with the girls gone for the week!" she exclaimed.

"Yeah, well, I'll talk to her when I get home," he explained cryptically. Since she did not know about Angie and Xena, he was not at liberty to reveal anything. "Now, about that ride?"

"Sure," she accepted with a great yawn. "I'm exhausted!"

With that comment, the cousins walked towards the parking garage and, after getting into the Subaru, headed east into the rising sun, toward their apartments.
 
 

Chapter 33

Francesca stirred from her slumber at about 1 PM. After putting on her slippers and turquoise robe, she padded over to the mirror.

"Wow!" she thought to herself in Italian. "What a dream!" Then, she noticed a scar on her left hand which she had not seen before. "Where did that come from?"

"I think that you know," a voice informed her from behind.

The sudden voice made her jump. She turned nervously. There, behind her, stood Gabrielle surrounded by a teal glow. "Gabrielle!" she exclaimed, now shifting to English. "But how? If you're here, then that would mean..."

"That it was real? Yes, I'm afraid that everything did happen. And because of the ritual, you and I are now joined," Gabrielle explained.

Francesca took a step back from her friend's glowing image. While she was grateful for the assistance, no one had said anything about a permanent roommate. "What about my life?" she demanded.

The Bard raised her hands reassuringly. "Calm down. You are in complete control. If you want to release me at any point, then I'm here," she continued. "From what Xena told me, David and Angela will know more about this process. I must admit that I'm just as mystified as you are.  Why don't you just ask them?"

"Oh...Okay," Francesca nervously agreed.

Her new "roommate" nodded appreciatively and vanished.

Francesca stood transfixed for a few minutes, staring at the spot where Gabrielle had stood before her. When she regained her composure, she threw her sweats on and sprinted to her cousins' apartment in search of answers.

*******************************

Dave was just toweling off after his shower when a premonition hit him. Something strange was about to happen. "What now?" he wondered. "Well, whatever it is, it'll wait until after breakfast, or my coffee, at the very least." As if on cue, the pleasant aroma of Cherry Vanilla wafted into the room from the kitchen. He took a deep whiff and smiled contentedly. "Ahhh yes....Thanks, Princess!" he thought, while putting on his robe, and walking into the living room.

Angie turned as he entered. "I knew that the coffee would get you out here!" she teased. Brunch was already on the table in the form of Belgian waffles, fruit, and juice. Deirdre's formula was warming on the stove.

"Looks great! I hope that you don't mind if I get the dishes, seeing how you made such a masterpiece!" he beamed and walked toward the coffee maker. However, before he indulged himself in caffeinated nirvana, he kissed her on the cheek.

"If you would like," she agreed pleasantly. Just keep an eye on everything, would you? I'm going to take a quick shower."

He nodded, "You got it. By the way, how are Karen and Lauren doing?"

"They're still sleeping," she stated over her shoulder. "Cybelle just brought them back.  Apparently, your mother had fun with them."

"We owe her and Lori a couple of dinners apiece for the spur-of-the-moment babysitting detail," Dave commented.

"You'll get no argument from me on that note," she concurred from the bathroom.

Suddenly, a sharp rapping came from the door.

"I've got it!" he announced and started across the room. As he approached, he inquired loudly, "Who is it?"

"Dave, it's Francesca. I need to talk to you and Angie," she replied anxiously.

"Of course. Just a sec," he agreed and opened the door. He observed her nervous expression and the way that she trembled in the doorway. Something had unnerved her. Could this be what his premonition was about? Whatever it was, she needed to come in. "You know that you're always welcome. Now, what's up?"

Angie came back into the living room in her terrycloth robe. "Good afternoon, Francesca! We weren't expecting you until later, but would you like to join us for brunch?"

She looked at the table. The food did look tempting, but she didn't want to impose. "That's okay. But, I couldn't....," she declined.

"Francesca," Dave shook his head firmly. "Something's up. Look, Steve Petersen's just waking up in the guestroom. What's one more at the table? Besides, you're family. End of discussion."

"That goes for me too," Angie confirmed her husband's declaration.

"Well, if you insist. Thanks, guys," Francesca give in and picked Deirdre up.

"So, what happened?" Angie insisted. "Have you received any visitors since we got back?"

"How would you know?" Francesca asked hesitantly.

"You seem nervous and a bit skittish. Who came to see you?" Dave repeated the question.

Francesca shook her head in wonder and then, decided to come out with it. "It was Gabrielle.  She said that we were joined, or something. Also, she suggested that you two might know about it. How?" she admitted.

Angie took a deep breath and answered the waffle iron's bell. Then, she poured another batch and started the timer again. "Are you certain that it was Gabrielle?"

"Yes, just as clearly as you're standing there," Francesca affirmed. Then, she noticed Angie's foot. "Angie, what's that glowing on your foot"

Angie stared at her right foot and found a chakram design with a cross under it. "What the?" she puzzled.

"The Mehndi," Xena's voice suggested from inside of her head. "Angela, Francesca's telling the truth. You can tell her about us."

"Okay, if you say so," Angie nodded and looked back at the others.

"If who says so? Angie, what's going on? Please tell me! You're scaring me!" Francesca begged.

"What does she think?" Dave asked his wife.

"She told me to do it," Angie replied.

He nodded and turned to Francesca, "Brace yourself and cover your eyes."

Even if she didn't understand his reasoning, she did so.

Angie sighed, "Here goes...." She gripped the sword and changed into Xena.

"Okay, you can look now," Xena directed.

Francesca followed these directions as well. When she saw who stood in front of her, she could not believe it. "Xena! But how? Does that mean that you and Angie?" she stammered.

Just then, Steve came out of the back bedroom in his sweats. "Morning, guys! Breakfast smells great!" he announced.

"Umm, Steve. I really don't think that you should be out here," Dave told him.

Then, the FBI agent smelled trouble. Grabbing his gun from the holster, he entered the room ready for trouble...and came face-to-face with Xena. "What the? Xena! But, where's Angie?" he demanded.

"Simmer down," Dave advised.

Steve was having no part of it. "This is the woman who ripped apart a Toronto bank and a nightclub. I know that she helped you, but...," he asserted.

"She saved a bank full of customers," Dave protested.

Francesca gulped nervously. They couldn't let Steve arrest Xena. But, what could they do?  Then, she remembered the earlier conversation back in her apartment. "Okay, if you're really here, then let's see what you can do," she urged and concentrated. Slowly, a staff materialized in her hands, and after a brief teal glow, Gabrielle had taken her place.

Xena, struggling to keep a straight face, stared at the floor.

"Umm, Steve. Why don't you put the gun away before somebody gets hurt?" Dave advised as he watched Gabrielle advance on his friend from behind.

Xena smiled confidently, "Look behind you."

Steve laughed, "That's the oldest trick in the book."

Dave sighed and shook his head, "Okay, we tried to warn you."

"Warn me about what?" he puzzled just as the Warrior-Bard brought her staff down on his hand, knocking the gun away from him. A lightning-fast judo flip later, he was on his back with Gabrielle's staff pointed at his throat.

"Enough!" Dave snarled and stepped in between Steve and the warriors. "Now, unless you want to upset the girls, I advise that we enjoy breakfast. Steve, if you want the whole story, I'd advise you to join us."

For the next hour, Xena and Dave filled Steve in on what had happened in Toronto except for Nick and Natalie's roles.

"Geez," he started. "That's unbelievable."

"Remember, this has to remain a secret," Dave instructed him.

"But, do you know how many warrants are out on her? I know that she's helped us twice in the past, but I have to do my job," he argued.

"I did nothing wrong," Xena disagreed. "If you're referring to the bank guard, he was already dead before I came onto the scene."

"The thieves' testimony will support that statement," Dave jumped in.

"And the Raven?" Steve prodded.

"An invitation from an old friend," she shrugged.

"Now, you can go along with the situation....," Dave surmised.

"Or, you'll pull some mind trick," he guessed. "Are you sure that they're okay?"

"They aren't going on any rampages, trust me," Dave reassured him.

Steve bit his lip. Xena had helped him in the past and saved his friend's life. If Dave was backing her, maybe she deserved a chance. "Okay, I won't mention that I saw you. But, I will be watching," he relented and put the gun away in his holster.

Xena shrugged, "Fine. Meantime...." She turned to Gabrielle and flashed a brilliant smile. "I told you that I would be nearby. It's good to see you!"

"Same here!" Gabrielle exclaimed joyfully as the two friends embraced tightly. "I thought that I was going to be all alone in this strange era."

"Never," Xena assured her. "We have many friends here, and they are glad to have you with them."

The Bard winced, "Is Joxer here?"

"No, not yet," Xena laughed.

"Thank the gods," Gabrielle exhaled with relief.

"Now, come," the Warrior Princess directed. "There are three more faces for you to see."

Gabrielle looked into the room at the two sleeping twins. "Oh, they are precious!"

"Yes, they are," her friend agreed. "They are Karen and Lauren. The baby in the other room is Deirdre."

"Wow," her companion admired as they walked back toward the table.

Dave smiled as the two warriors approached him. "That's great. Now, this pot of coffee is getting old, so let's drink up," he urged.

"Xena, I was wondering. Is this how you knew what Ares was going to do before Cybelle appeared? And also, how you were on the spaceship before me?" Gabrielle inquired.

"That's right, Gabrielle," the Warrior Princess explained. "Angela and I share a bond."

"From the ritual?" the other guessed.

"That's right. Basically, we share the same body in this time period. My guess is that you and Francesca have a similar link. What she knows, you know as well, and vice-versa," Xena continued.

"This is going to take some getting used to...for both of us," her friend shook her head in confusion.

"It takes time," Xena assured her. "But, at least, I'm here to help you as David and Angela helped me."

"It is our pleasure," Dave agreed.

The Warrior Princess smiled at him warmly as the two warriors sat down. Gabrielle, for her part, shared the sentiment. While it was true that it would be an adjustment for both her and Francesca, her friends stood ready and willing to assist in the process, and to accept her into their community. That would make everything so much easier. She gave her best friend another hug before starting on the drink in front of her. She remembered that Dave had this liquid back at the camp. Now, after raising the cup and enjoying the aroma for a minute, she started into her coffee and her new life in the twentieth century.
 
 
 
 

Conclusion

After Steve left for San Francisco later that afternoon, Dave, Angie, and Francesca sat in the living room discussing the previous week's events. Then, the phone rang.

"Hello?" Angie answered.

"Hi, Angie. It's Nat. How's everyone there?" Natalie inquired.

"Hi, Nat. We're fine here. Everyone took the day off to catch our breath," Angie informed her.

"We're doing the same thing here. Speaking of which, Nick wants you all to come over for dinner at the loft. His treat," Natalie replied.

"Sounds great. After sunset?" Angie accepted.

"Whenever you want to come over," Natalie chuckled. "Nick's up now."

"Thanks. We'll be over in a bit," Angie concluded and hung up.

"Was that Natalie?" Francesca asked. "How is she?"

"She's fine. In fact, we have a dinner invitation at the Miles manor, if that's okay with everyone," she informed her cohorts.

"Sounds like fun," Dave agreed.

"Dinner with them would be wonderful. I'll meet you two back here in an hour. Then, we can go over together. Chow!" Francesca added happily and walked out to head back to her apartment.

******************************

Natalie hung the phone contentedly. She was glad that Nick offered to share dinner with their friends especially after their recent adventure. Since they had moved to Tucson, he had opened up quite a bit. She attributed this event to the Duboises, and in particular, to David. Their conversations had helped Nick to realize that he was a good friend, and the support went both ways. A glance to the far corner revealed the surprise which Nick had prepared for his friend.  Although, it was hidden under wrapping paper, she guessed that it had something to do with their friend's recent achievement.

Now, she swiveled on the bar stool to face the main part of the room. At the grand piano, Nick played a selection from Beethoven's seventh symphony with amazing fluidity. He seemed so surreal, calm, and at peace. A tear of joy dripped down her right cheek. She hoped that LaCroix would take Xena seriously and just stay out of their lives. If for nothing else, so that they could continue to experience this ecstasy.

As he finished the composition, Nick turned towards her, and took a sip of Merlot from the goblet at his side. "Penny for your thoughts," he offered.

She walked over to him and rubbed his shoulder. "After everything that we've been though, it's nice to see you like this," she mused.

"It's nice to be like this," he agreed. "By the way, I hope that you don't mind sharing dinner."

"No, of course not. Why would I?" she smiled.

"No particular reason that I could think of at the moment," she shrugged.

"And Tracy's picking up the food?" he inquired.

"She sure is. Vincent's appreciates the business, trust me," she laughed.

"Wonderful," he smiled. Then, his face took on a detached look.

"Nick, what's up?" she worried.

He jerked himself back to reality. "Oh nothing. I was just wondering if Dave came to a resolution," he concluded.

Nat sighed, "Maybe. I think that he's on the road back. You will get there as well."

"I know. But, how could he refuse it...right in front of us?" he questioned dejectedly.

Nat shook her head. "Nick, he was trying to get to you. If he doesn't want the cure, then that's his business." She hugged him tightly. "Meanwhile, I'm going to do everything possible to insure that you become human again."

"Thanks, Nat," he grinned.

"And, don't forget it, Buster," she urged as the bell rang. "Ah, I do believe that is the door."

He strolled over to answer it. "Yes?" he asked.

"Hi, Nick. It's David Dubois & Company. Can we come up?" Dave inquired.

"Sure, he assented. "See you in a minute."

The old lift creaked its way to the second floor. Once there, its doors eased open and the visitors entered the room.

"Hi, everyone. Please put your things on the chair," Nick greeted.

"How's everything going?" Angie asked.

"We're okay. As for the disappearing act, I'm sure that we'll all find out tomorrow," Nick replied pleasantly.

"Francesca, are you okay?" Natalie asked.

"I'm fine, thanks," she nodded and turned to face her host. "Um, Nick. When we were at the library. I could have sworn that I saw your eyes go yellow. I, uh....saw you fly. I know that it sounds crazy, but...."

Natalie shot Nick a nervous glance. If she had seen him, who else had as well?

Nick cursed himself under his breath. He had been so driven to intervene that all caution had been pushed aside.

"Don't worry, Nick. You're my friend and I won't tell a soul," she assured him. "But, what are you?"

He looked at Dave, and the latter nodded, "Go ahead. You can trust her."

Natalie tipped her glass at him. "Why not? If she can keep it secret, then fine," she supposed.

Nick stared at Francesca intently, and explained, "I am an 800 year old former crusader from Brabant among other things. My real name is Nicholas de Brabant, and I am a vampire. This is what I am." He looked at the floor momentarily, and when he looked at her again, his eyes glinted yellow, and his fangs were descended.

Francesca was tempted to recoil, but she stood her ground for reasons that she didn't quite understand. "Now, I know why Dave is so fascinated with you," she assumed. "But, I take it that you are trying to regain your mortality, right?"

Natalie smiled, "And we are making progress in that regard."

The Florentine professor looked at her cousin, and then, back to her host. "Well, Dave and I talked earlier. Since you've shared your secret with me, I have one for you," she informed him.  She concentrated and transformed into Gabrielle.

Natalie looked at Angie. "Did you know about this?" she gasped.

"We found out this morning ourselves," Angie shrugged. "Steve tried to arrest Xena..."

"And got his posterior handed to him by our fearsome warrior-bard here," Dave chuckled.  "Some FBI agent."

Nick had to smile at the mental image of how the events must have taken place. "It must have been something to see."

"I guess that it was, Nicholas," Gabrielle assumed. "But, I won't let anyone get the drop on my best friend, even if being here is a little disorienting at first."

"Call me Nick, please," he advised her. "And we can help each other if you would like. I guess that Xena's happy to have her partner back, isn't she?"

Angie beamed, "That she is. That she is."

"Well, I had best change back before your partner returns, Nicholas...I mean Nick," Gabrielle told him, and with a brief bit of concentration, Francesca stood in her place.

"Wow!" she sighed breathlessly. "How do you do it, Angie?"

"With practice and still more practice," she informed her cousin.

Then, the buzzer went off again.

"Yes? Tracy?" Nick inquired.

"Yeah. It's me, Detective Caterer with the haul from Vincent's. It's chow time!" Tracy gibed.

"Great! See you in a minute!" he agreed as the elevator hummed to life.

A minute later, Tracy stumbled in with the Italian feast. Nick and Dave helped her with the packages. Everyone helped set the table while the lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo, and Greek Salad was laid out in a smorgasbord on the counter.

Then, Tracy smiled as she placed a special plate in front of her partner. "For you."

"What?" he wondered as he opened the top. Under the cover, a plate of ravioli steamed in what seemed to be a wine-glaze, however the dish gave off a familiar odor. He looked up at her.  "How did you? Where did you get this?"

Tracy gave him a smug smile. "Vachon had to eat at my place once...with my parents. So, I learned how to cook vampire-style. The ravioli is rare and bloody on the inside, yet cooked on the outside. The glaze is wine mixed with cow-blood. You like Merlot, right?"

"It's my favorite. This must have taken you all day to make," he accepted the dish in wonder.

"Just about. But then, since this is a celebration feast, why should you have to sit and watch us?  Dig in!" she told him.

"Before we do, I have a presentation to make," Nick informed his guests. He walked over to the corner where the large gift-wrapped package leaned against the wall. "Dave, you made a big step during this past week. You had to reclaim your darkness. I don't know if I could have faced those odds. You came back from near-death, reclaiming, rebuilding, and finally, reforging yourself."

"I'm sure that you've done the same, Nick," he chuckled embarrassedly.

"Not against the odds that you have faced. In honor of that achievement, and as a reminder of the need for balance, I give you this token," Nick continued.

Dave shuffled over to the enormous present nervously. "What the?" he wondered. Slowly, he undid the paper, discovering a painting underneath. It was a complex interchange of ebony and ivory with the philosopher's circle in the center, half-black and half-white: the symbol of balanced order. "I...I...Wow," he stammered for a moment. "This is awesome. Ago gratias tibi, amicus meus."

Nick smiled at his friend's gratitude. "You're very welcome," he assured his friend.

"Well, they say that a man is valued by his friends. And without all of you, not to mention the rest of our band of adventurers, I wouldn't be here right now. I treasure all of you," he toasted with his own wine glass. Then, he looked at his wife. "You especially." He embraced her tightly.

"I know that, Dummy," she teased, as the tears drenched down her cheeks. "Now, c'mon, let's eat!" But, before she let go, she kissed him passionately. Nobody missed the meaning behind that show of emotion.

Nick shrugged and, with a wave of his hand, urged his guests to partake of the feast in front of them. With that, the group settled down to a great meal with wonderful food, companionship, and great conversation. After the harrowing adventure that they had been through, it made them realize that friendship is truly the most binding force on earth, not to mention, it makes life more enjoyable as well.
 

THE END

(**I hope that you enjoyed this tale! To everyone on the list, thanks again for all of your support! Look for the stories to be posted on my site at http://Dante_6.tripod.com/stories/dubois.html or http://dante6.fanspace.com/dubois/dubois.html. )


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