The Harrowing Road Unwillingly Traveled (Part 2)
David J. Duncan
July 2002

Chapter 11

[El Gato Negro, Tucson]

LaCroix entered the bar and moved smoothly through the gathered throng on the floor. During his radio show, Janette had paged him with some situation. As he had told her and his children not to do so unless it was a matter of life and death, he wanted to know what was so dire.

Sitting at the bar, he watched Janette approach. "Janette, what is it?"

"There was a nasty bit of business on the west side tonight," she informed him in a low voice.

"Really?" he asked incredulously. Granted, he had felt some vibrations from Nick, but... "I did hear something over the police band about monsters and such rubbish."

"Nicolas saw them," she stated frankly.

"Really?" he chuckled. "It must be all of that swill he's been taking. He's getting lightheaded." Feeling a familiar vibration in back of him, he swiveled around on his stool to see his "son" descending the stairs. "Nicholas!" he chuckled. "Back from your hunt. I trust it was fruitful?"

"More than I would like," the detective replied curtly, sipping from the cow's blood placed in front of him.

"Yes..." the Roman supposed. "Janette said something about seeing monsters and some such nonsense."

"I did more than see them," Nick countered albeit reluctantly. "I killed about twenty of them."

That statement straightened LaCroix's back, raising his eyebrow with interest. "Really? Well done then, Nicholas. Well done. I trust that you aren't feeling too guilty about it?"

"You know I hate killing," the other sighed.

"Ah, yes. It's a pity really, Nicholas. You should get over it one of these centuries," the General chided, taking another sip from his glass.

"Actually, you may get a chance to do some of it yourself," Nick stated. "Dave has a proposition for you."

Those words nearly made him choke on his drink. "Dubois has a proposition for me? This ought to be interesting. Where is the mortal so I can laugh in his face before I tear him limb from limb?"

Nick motioned to the top of the stairs where Dave stood along with Xena, Gabrielle, and Livia.

"Well, sister comes for a visit at last," the General cracked, taking another glass. Cutting quickly through the crowd, he approached the group. "Livia, it's delightful to see you again, my dear."

"Lucius," she replied flatly, a frown across her face. "We need to talk. Isn't that right, Mother?"

"Oh goodie," Xena blurted out flippantly, rolling her eyes. "Let's get this over with, shall we?"

"Now whatever could you want from me?" the DJ asked. "Nothing is free after all."

"How about the defense of your Community, Loudmouth?" Dave hissed darkly.

"What?" LaCroix pushed. Turning to Nick, he pressed, "Another of your imagined attacks, I suppose?"

Leaning against the wall, Livia gritted her teeth at her stepbrother's cockiness. "He's as infuriating as ever," she told herself.

"Yeah?" Xena growled, grasping a dagger in her hand and holding it in front of the Elder's face. "How about you imagine this?"

"As irritating as you are, LaCroix," Dave gibed, placing a hand between the warrior and the Elder, "You needed some help to get me to my current point. Trust me, I've been through the Pit...twice and survived. After that, nothing scares me." Leaning across the table, he locked eyes with the vampire. "An' I mean NOTHING!" Calming himself, he continued, "Look, as much as it turns my stomach to do so, we need generals. Despite your less than stellar methods, you were one of the greatest generals in Imperial history."

"We need you as a leader, Lucius," Xena continued reluctantly.

"Fight fire with fire," Gabrielle chimed in sarcastically.

LaCroix considered their request carefully. True, he had his life back here. However, he didn't like the fact that a major threat to his community had occurred while he was unaware of its approach. Such a matter needed to be resolved in quick order. "Will you be fighting, Nicholas? And you, Livia?"

"Is there a choice?" the Brabantine asked, tiring quickly of the riddles.

"I'll be there," his sister agreed.

"Very well then," the Elder concurred. "Janette will watch things here. I trust you have set up other safeguards, Dubois?"

"You know me," the professor chuckled. "Always prepared. Yes, there is backup ready."

"Good. I must say that I do admire your efficiency," the General complemented in spite of himself. "Where is this war to take place?"

"In the realms of myth and legend," Dave baited. "Someplace guaranteed to make even you cringe."

"Nothing could do that," he countered, shooting the other a glare.

"Except maybe my chakram," Xena added knowingly, a cold smile spreading across her features.

"Don't worry, Dubois. I'll hold up my end. When do we leave?"

"In about two hours," Dave shot back, standing. "See you at the fountain on campus." With that, the mortals left the premises.

After seeing them depart, LaCroix turned to the younger immortal and asked, "What have you gotten us into this time, I wonder?"

"It's a war, LaCroix...just the way you've always liked it," Nick mentioned almost flippantly, returning to the bar to partake of another cow-wine before they had to go.


Two hours later, Dave inspected his gear carefully in his office. A quick stop at the apartment had allowed him to refit his quiver. His bottle of St. John's Wart sat in his belt pouch. Beyond that, there was little else to be done. Taking another look around at his books and stuff, he locked the door, not knowing if he would return. He descended the stone stairs to find his friends standing in the midst of the charred grass. Angie and Francesca stood quietly off to the side. "No doubt, they were sharing thoughts with Xena and Gabrielle," he thought.

Cybelle approached him. "I've brought some other allies." Motioning over her shoulder, she pointed out Garth Singleton and Karen Montoya.

"Thanks, Sis," he expressed.

"Not a problem," she told him. "I'll see you in the Citadel later. Grimwilkin will get you all there. Take care. Things are deteriorating fast."

He shrugged. When hadn't things been collapsing all around him? "Right. Well, see ya."

Opening the mists, she smiled whimsically before vanishing from view.

Turning, the professor went to greet the two newcomers. "Garth! Karen! Good to see you. What's going on?"

"You tell us, Chief," Garth said wryly. "Judging from the burn marks around us, I'd say you had quite the party here."

"Remember, Dave," Karen sighed. "We do need a school to come back to for reunions."

"Everyone's a critic," Dave replied. "Seriously though, its good to see you both."

"When Grimwilkin says that Harokin needs our help, Dave, I'm going to come running," the lanky man indicated.

"And I still owe him for the two rescues," the nurse concurred. "Maybe now I can help defend a bit."

Dave grinned warmly and embraced his two oldest friends. This adventure was going to be Hell, but having them there helped him to keep a sense of optimism. "Well, we'll be leaving soon. Is everyone here?"

"Just about," Angie advised, walking over and giving him a hug. "We're waiting on Nick and LaCroix."

At that moment, Steve's car pulled up beside the group. From it, the agent, Natalie, Alyce, Schanke, and Nick climbed out. The latter was dressed in chain mail under a plain white surcoat. A sword clanked against his side.

"Nice mail, Nick," Dave admired. "From the Crusades?"

"It is," the Brabantine concurred. "It's been a while since I've worn it though."

"And everything's on straight," Alyce chuckled, trying to mask her uncertainty with humor.

"Everything seems in order," Livia assured him after a quick visual inspection.

"Thanks," Nick expressed.

The conqueror smiled and walked off to consider her strategies.

"I think I liked the old Eve better," Natalie remarked, watching the Roman stalk off.

"She's not Eve," Angie pointed out. "Think of Livia as her form of the Child."

The coroner winced. That wasn't exactly a comforting thought. "Anyhow, I...I need to get back to the Precinct."

Nick approached her and asked, "Nat?"

"Nick?" she replied, turning to face her friend. Despite her blossoming relationship with Steve, she still had feelings for the detective. "You look the part. Ever the crusading knight, huh?"

"One might say that," he nodded, a smile coming to his face.

"Well, you take care of yourself and the others, okay?" she requested, embracing him tightly. Tears welled in her eyes.

"I'll be back," he promised. "As will we all."

"Always optimistic, aren't you?" Livia wondered.

"You might try it, Livia. Faith helps in a fight."

The warrioress drew her sword. "This, Nicholas, is what gets you through a fight...not some silly notion of faith."

"You might ask your other half about that," the detective debated.

"You're starting to sound like one of those Eli-lovers," Livia retorted. "No wonder Lucius feels the way he does about you."

"He is a challenge, my dear Sister," LaCroix agreed, descending to the ground. For his part, the Elder had donned his old Roman military attire and weaponry. "But he does have potential."

"Not your type of potential," Dave disagreed, glaring daggers at him.

"I'm here at your request, Dubois," the General hissed. "Don't insult me!"

"Who's insulting you?" he inquired, shrugging. "I was stating a simple fact." The professor approached LaCroix and stared him in the eye. "Besides, this is all about duty and responsibility, LaCroix. Being a leader doesn't just mean you get to enjoy the benefits and play the role whenever it's convenient. You have to look after those under your stewardship...and their best interests. I shouldn't have had to request your assistance. If you were doing your damn job, you would have been fighting with us earlier tonight." With that, Dave stalked off.

For a long minute, LaCroix stared across the way at the brash mortal, thinking of things to do to him. Finally, he let the matter drop.

Garth approached his friend asking, "So, that's LaCroix?"

"Yup," the medievalist replied curtly. "The same."

The other man took a deep breath, recalling the prophecies uttered by the Faerie Empress on their last adventure. "And what about that Dijon creep. When do you face him?"

"Past tense, Garth."

"And what happened?" the classmate asked.

Karen interjected, "They fought and Dave finally pinned him to the ground before letting the sun finish the job."

"Oh," Garth responded, failing to find the words. He remembered everyone's concern on the last trip to Nurrengaard. If it were possible, he considered that his friend might actually be worse now...a walking time bomb.

"Cheer up," Karen pointed out. "He isn't that bad--at least not all of the time."

"But he does have his bad moments, right?" Garth asked.

Ferali muttered, "You should've been with us the last time in the Pit."

"Now, Ferali," she lectured. "Remember, he had his job to do as well."

"I know," the gnome replied and walked off shaking his head.

Above the clatter, Grimwilkin cleared his throat and stated, "It's time! If we are ready?"

Everyone gathered around him. Once this had been done, the wizard raised his hands, teleporting them away from the scene.

In their wake, Natalie, Schanke, Steve, and Alyce were left wondering if they would return. Somehow they got the feeling that even if everything turned out all right, things would never be the same again.

Chapter 12 [Citadel of the Four Winds, Nurrengaard]

High above the walled city, Meroli stood on the terrace overhang of the citadel, surveying the battle scene just beyond the walls. A scan of the battlements told him the obvious. The large troll army had advanced on the city, surrounding it on all sides, and choking off all support for the outside. Fortunately, he had thought ahead and brought the supplies inside the walls upon the scouts' warning thereby insuring that there was a week's supply of rations left.

"How does it look?" Harokin asked with concern.

"The trolls are bringing something big," the area leader noted, pointing to the large object coming into view over the horizon. "It looks like Grimcrusher. If they're bringing it up at night, that damned wizard must be desperate."

The military leader from the lands beyond nodded nervously in spite of himself. Grimcrusher had bashed in more than its share of walls and portals in its long career. Now, he wondered how long they could hold the walls against the threat. "I'll have them reinforce the gate. Where is Grimwilkin? I thought he'd be back by now!"

"Patience!" Meroli advised. "He and Ferali will return soon enough. Meantime, keep your hopes up, my friend. Our outer world allies will remember their duty."

"I know," the other man agreed. "We could use their help is all." With that, he marched off to be with his troops.


Outside the gates, Melitor glanced about at his troll army. Everyone was in place and now that the Master's ultimate weapon was in position, it was time. "Move in!"

With that, the operators released the device's safety, allowing the huge battering ram to begin beating on the gate.


Just out of sight of the army, the reinforcements materialized. As with their last trip, the journey had only taken a few seconds.

"Where are we?" Nick wondered.

"Outside of Nurrengaard," Grimwilkin informed him. Glancing about at the scorched and trampled landscape, he continued, "Normally, this field is lush and green. I think you can gather the reason why." Pointing ahead to the host in front of them, he directed, "There, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the enemy."

Xena analyzed the situation. "They look like the Horde," she remarked, drawing her sword.

"They're just as numerous," Gabrielle concurred, readying her staff.

"And just as nasty," Dave noted, wrapping a cloth around a shaft tip, and lighting it. Stringing the bow, he lit the end and fired it into the air.

In the distance, the twin tapers on the keep were lit in response.

"They know we're here," Garth surmised.

"Before we go into battle, Mr. Singleton, you might be needing this," the wizard stated, holding up the cloak of invisibility.

"Thanks," Garth expressed, putting the cloak on.

"Karen, stay back until we give the go ahead," Dave directed, reloading his bow. In spite of his efforts to keep control, the sight of Lousain's trolls was eating at him, causing the Child to spasm. "Ready?"

"This is suicide," LaCroix pointed out truculently.

"Aren't you the pessimist?" Xena groused with a slight air of sarcasm. "It's not like we have a choice!"

"What's the matter, Lucius?" Livia baited. "Have you lost your nerve? I recall you being all too eager to charge the barbarians on several occasions even in the face of overwhelming odds."

LaCroix glared at his sister. "I have done nothing of the kind!"

"Remember, General, not everything is measured in terms of numbers," Grimwilkin reminded him. Seeing the trolls starting to stir, he added, "They heard you. Now, we have little choice."

Dave allowed himself a grim smile. For all of this infernal pain coursing through him right now, he was going to pay the scum in front of him back in kind. Picking out an explosive-tipped projectile, he asked, "Now?"

The wizard shot a spark from his finger, lighting up the weapon. "Indeed, David."

"As you wish," the professor quipped, firing straight ahead into the horde. The arrow exploded, setting some twenty of the closely packed soldiers on fire.

The demons ran screaming, looking for anything to cool them off. However, as they ran by their comrades, the flammable chemical set them aflame as well, sending them scurrying and burning as well.

Looking about, the creatures in that part of the formation spied them. "Intruders!"

"Damn!" Dave hissed "And I was having such fun too!" Shooting a shaft from the bow, he buried it deep into the herald's chest. "Loudmouth!" he baited, charging forward.

"Why is he always like this?" Garth groused.

"Because it's the way it has to be!" Ferali exclaimed, waving his axe about.

"I guess," Garth concurred, allowing himself to vanish from view. "See you on the other side."

"Count on it!" the gnome replied, charging forth. Within seconds, he had begun to mow down trolls like so much wheat.

About fifty feet away, Dave continued to hack his way through the troops. After exhausting most of his shafts on the enemy around him, he combined sword thrusts and energy blasts to take down the trolls surrounding his position. "This is the way I remembered it!" he exclaimed, frying another adversary in his path.

Xena and Gabrielle fought back to back, carving a path through their enemies as well. The Warrior Princess flung her chakram repeatedly, taking out multiple trolls with each toss and slashing still more with her sword. The bard queen knocked and stabbed at the enemy with her javelin.

Livia slashed at her own adversaries, watching their blackish blood soil the battlements after each stroke. Recalling the past glories she had achieved for Rome, she had plenty of motivation to advance deeper into the enemy's flank.

Nick popped in and out, turning the trolls this way and that. Dropping from behind in the darkness, he would stab deeply with his blade before going onto the next victim. However, with each kill, his heart grew a little heavier. While the Vampire savored this activity, he detested it. He knew that it was necessary to defend his home. He just hated having to resort to it.

About 45 minutes into this melee, he heard LaCroix brag, "Ah! This makes me feel alive!"

"It would," Nick groused, thrusting his sword into another troll.

"Come...come, Nicholas," the Elder continued. "This is what we are made for! To hunt! To kill! Enjoy the aroma of the carnage about you!"

"You're sick, LaCroix," the younger vampire stated emphatically, decapitating another enemy.

The Roman sighed. While he wanted to continue this debate in order to show the boy just how hypocritical he was being, the pace of the battle wouldn't allow it. "Keep going, Nicholas. We'll talk later." With that, he vanished from view.

Nick shook his head and went back to the task at hand.


About 15 minutes earlier, Dave had made a dent in the trolls' position, carving out a beachhead for himself with arrow, sword, and energy burst. Despite these efforts, however, he felt as if he were fighting uphill with his feet mired in mud. Off in the distance, he heard the echoing impacts of Grimcrusher's hammer against the city's gates and knew it was only a matter of time.

"I can take 2000 of these SOBs and it won't make a bit of difference if they breach the defenses," he told himself, taking down another foe.

"Maybe we can stop them," Cybelle's voice advised from the mists forming to his right. "Come on!"

Instinctively, he leapt through the portal. Within it, he asked, "So what did you have in mind?"

"We need to take out the battering ram, right? How about a lift?" she offered.

"You're on," he concurred, prepping his last explosive shaft. From the pitch he could see on its wooden joints, a well-placed shot would ignite that thing.

The priestess nodded grimly and opened another entryway. Through it, the battering ram loomed large.

"Thanks, Sis," he expressed, lighting his weapon before making his shot.

The projectile found its mark, burying itself deep in the tarred seam holding the axis onto the rest of the device. When it exploded, the machine crashed to the ground. Although badly damaged, the hammer kept doing its work.

"Sonnuva..." he snarled. "Die, will you?" Firing two pulses, he finished the job, reducing the weapon to a pile of kindling. "Finally!" Turning to his sister, he stated, "Go tell Harokin and Meroli we could use some help out here. Thanks again."

"My pleasure," she replied. "Go, and try not to get your fool head sliced off in the meantime, okay?"

He nodded and jumped out of the mists as she closed the door behind him.

Meantime, the surrounding trolls weren't too happy at these developments. Seeing Dave appear suddenly from nowhere, sword drawn and with a look crossed somewhere between anger and glee, they howled and charged him.

He shook his head and went to work, parrying every stroke and managing to stab a few enemies. Finally, realizing that this was getting tedious, he began blasting away with energy pulses, allowing their connection with Lousain to fuel the Child's wrath and therefore his own strength.


Across the field, Loritor saw the ram's destruction with concern. What would his master do to him because of this failure? Should he risk a retreat or stay and allow his troops to be cut to ribbons?

Upon hearing the Horn of Nurrengaard and knowing that reinforcements would soon be coming out of the beleaguered city to face them, the troll leader made his decision. Looking to the sky, he called, "Master!"

For a minute, the sky turned pitch black with purple blotches along the underside of some clouds. Red lightning impacted with the Earth. At that point, the invading army vanished. Lousain had pulled his army back to the Dark Lands away from the scene of their latest failure.


"What the?" Nick wondered, looking about for the recently departed enemy.

"It seems that they have vanished. Curious," LaCroix noted, glancing about the landscape and at the rapidly clearing sky.

"They do that a lot," Garth commented, reappearing from thin air.

"The Enemy has withdrawn his forces for now," Grimwilkin added.

Harokin rode up to the group. "It is good to see you, my friends. Come, Meroli awaits us inside of the city walls." With that, he turned and led his troops back toward the citadel.

At that moment, Cybelle reentered the scene, urging, "You heard the man. Let's go."

Everyone quickly entered the portal. Once they had done so, the fog burned off, leaving no trace of the combatants on the battlefield for anyone to find.

Chapter 13


Standing on a cloud far over the battle scene, Michael and Raphael observed all of the proceedings. While they were glad that Dave and the others had overcome the odds put in front of them thus far, they knew that the worse was yet to come.

"They are stronger than I would have imagined," the blond archangel assessed.

"That they are," his associate agreed. "Can we not help them, Michael?"

"No," the other disagreed grimly, a touch of stubborn pride creeping through his demeanor. "This is their war. I warned Dubois when he defied me. Now, let them all suffer the consequences."

Raphael shook his head in wonder. While Michael was usually righteous in his attitude, pride and even vindictiveness weren't in his nature. Now, he understood Lorenzo's view of Michael's plan and why the relatively new angel had stayed away from them.

"Is something bothering you?" Michael wondered. "Surely, you're not feeling pity for them?"

"They fight bravely and for the Greater Good. What does it matter how they do it as long as they stay within the Lord's covenant?"

Michael's face flushed scarlet with anger. "Because...there is a set way to these things! I will not be defied by a mortal!" Seeing the other's continued disagreement, he decided to change the subject. "If you would summon our next ally, I would appreciate it."

"Right," he agreed and went off to do just that. About fifteen minutes later, he returned accompanying a slender feminine angel with long flowing hair. "Here she is."

"Michael, you wanted to see me?" she wondered.

"Yes, I did. Fleur, you are Nicolas' brother, are you not?"

"I am," she replied courteously. "He is in grave danger. I have felt it."

"And you may go to him, my Dear," Michael assured her. "And if you would, please stop by and see the one they call LaCroix as well."

She flashed a radiant smile. Although she had passed on 750 years earlier, the angel still loved the General. "I will," she promised. "May I go with your leave?"

"You may," Michael concurred.

In a flash of light, she disappeared, leaving the two archangels to observe what would happen next.


[Amazon Camp]

Eve sat on the grass in quiet contemplation. For the past two hours, she had put herself in a meditative trance to mitigate her concern for her mother and Gabrielle. Unfortunately, it wasn't working. All around, her sister Amazons limped about their duties reinforcing shelters and keeping watch for further trouble. The others still lay back in Althanor recovering from the wounds sustained in Velasca's attack. Furthermore, she felt vibrations within her if Livia were trying to tell her soething.

"Eli, help us," she requested. "Please send me a sign."

As if on cue, Nai-Jin came running up the path toward her. "Princess! There's been a sign!"

"A sign?" the regent asked with concern not knowing if it was good or bad news. "Take a minute to catch your breath and then, I'll hear what you have to say."

The mystic nodded silently as she leaned against a nearby tree as her pulse rate relaxed and her breathing became regular. "Thank you. Princess, there's been a battle."

"Already?" Eve inquired, although she had gathered as much from Livia's message. "Mother and the Queen have only left a few hours ago!"

"It was over before they arrived," Nai-Jin reported. "Despite that, they somehow fought there and were here at the same time. You were there...but it wasn't you. Rather, it was the Other."

The former Messenger nodded silently. While the mystic didn't understand, she did. Obviously, Angie and Francesca had used their shared link, allowing the warriors to participate in the fighting. The last part confirmed the reason for her headache. Livia had fought at their side. "Any news?"

"Our side has won the initial battles, Milady," Nai-Jin stated. "The threat to the fortified city and the Realm within the Mists has been averted at least for now."

"That's good news indeed," Eve agreed. Knowing her mother, Xena would try to take the battle to the Enemy. "I hope you're careful, Mother," she thought to herself.

"That's the thing with battles, Eve. One never knows what's going to happen next," a familiar voice grimly informed her.

Standing, she saw Ares approaching them. "What do you want?" she inquired icily.

The ebon-haired god frowned. "What is it with all of you? All I want to do is help," he exclaimed in exasperation.

"There is the small matter of your track record," the regent informed him. Looking at Nai-Jin, she advised, "Thank you for your counsel, Nai-Jin. Can you let me know if there's anything else that you see?"

"I shall, Princess," the mystic concluded, departing from the scene.

"That's some oracle you have there, Eve. I thought Elisians didn't trust them," Ares baited.

She folded her arms across her chest and noted, "Nai-Jin's abilities have saved the Amazons in the past. Queen Gabrielle trusts her...and as her regent at least for now...I'm willing to go along with that. I trust that you're not behind the attacks, were you?"

"No. As much as I wish I could take credit for those skirmishes, I can't. Thank Dahak and his wizard buddy for busting in on your day. The fighting was great! I gotta tell you. Your buddy, Dubois, is getting stronger. By the way, who are the new friends dressed in the leather with the weird powers? They were kicking ass too," he explained, throwing animated punches at the air between them.

Eve nodded, guessing that he was referring to Mutant X. "They're friends," she informed him. "Allies in the war against bigotry and hatred."

"Whatever," he replied, already tired of Eve's peaceful demeanor. "I'm on my way to the Inner Realms. Your buddies are gonna need my help."

"Stay away from them, Ares!" Eve protested, glaring at him harshly.

"Like you're going to stop me?" he asked sarcastically. "Yeah right." With that, he vanished from sight.

For a long while after that, Eve walked about the camp, feeling as if things were about to go from bad to worse.


[Dahak's realm]

Sitting on his throne, the demon lord brooded over the failure of his ally's armies before the gates of Nurrengaard. If only they had stepped up the attack sooner, they would now have the city and the key to Althanor and the Amazon lands beyond. Worse still, the demon patrols had found no trace of Divia or Hope. Somehow, the damned priestess, Cybelle, had hidden them well from him.

To his right, Lousain shook his head in consternation. "What is it about those interlopers?? Why do we continue to frustrate me? WHY??"

"Because you continue to fight them on their terms, my friend," Dahak noted. "Make them fight on our terms."

"The next battle will take place in the Dark Lands. That much I can promise you," the wizard vowed. "I shall prepare further for our advances." With that, he vanished from view.

The demon scanned the area around him with concern. The final battle had to be a good one. And he was determined that it would be.

Chapter 14 [Grand Hall, Citadel of the Four Winds, Nurrengaard]

For an hour after his guests' arrival, Meroli ordered silence throughout the citadel. While he didn't want important matters discussed outside of the Grand Hall, his allies needed some measure of peace and quiet to collect their thoughts following the fighting outside. His only request was that they meet with him in short order.

Finally, the delegates entered the area and sat at the table. Familiar to him were Grimwilkin, Harokin and the Lord of the Plateau, Eadmer and his queen, Elsin. At the far end of the fine oak table, Dave awaited the beginning of deliberations. On his right sat Ferali as well as the two vampires. On the professor's left, the two warrioresses and Gabrielle, surveyed the room. Next to them sat the two priestesses of Althanor garbed in their long green robes. Truly, this was a unilateral gathering in opposition to the Enemy.

"I am glad you are all here to stand with us today," the Citadel's lord started. "On behalf of my troops and the people of Nurrengaard, I thank you all for coming to discuss our problem."

"And what exactly is this....problem?" LaCroix asked incredulously. "There was one army. We disposed of it."

"Trust me, LaCroix, there is a bigger issue here," Nick interjected.

"That, Nicholas, is an understatement," Xena declared. "You all know of Lousain, the wizard. Gabrielle and I have faced his ally, Dahak, the demon lord."

"We have heard of Dahak here in whispers and rumors, Xena," Grimwilkin replied. "There are legends of a half-human, half-demon child as well."

"That is my daughter, Hope," Gabrielle admitted, suddenly feeling crestfallen.

Harokin shot the leader a sudden look. "This woman has consorted with darkness and she's sitting here? I say she should be removed!" He stood up to challenge her.

"Why you..." Xena hissed, standing up and drawing her sword.

"Xena...Milord, stop this," Dave interjected.

"Not until he takes back what he implied," the warrioress stated firmly.

"Why should I?" the other man challenged. "David, stay out of this."

"I cannot," Dave disagreed. "Milord, she was attacked and violated. Hope was born two days later. Since that happened, she has fought with Xena against the dark lord. I'll attest to her character if you wish. Please don't ask me to break my troth to you through an attack on these ladies."

"You would do that?" Garth wondered.

"I owe Xena a great deal as well, Garth," the professor continued. Seeing a smile from the ex-Roman general, he inquired, "Yes?"

"As if you would know anything about honor," LaCroix taunted.

"A Roman speaking of honor?" Xena chuckled. "Yeah right."

Tiring of this stream of insults, Meroli slammed his fist on the table, affirming, "Peace! As the lord of this citadel, I won't have us tearing each other to shreds. Listen to David, everyone!"

"I concur," the wizard added. "We have a powerful enough enemy to face without internal conflict."

Meroli nodded in appreciation of his ally's support. "Since you have faced Dahak before, what do you both think, Xena and Gabrielle?"

"He's sly and sneaky," the Warrior Princess began. "He's also very powerful."

"The longer it takes us to agree, the more his power grows," the Amazon queen concurred.

"And with the aid of Lousain's trolls, he will be nearly invincible," Cybelle added.

Dave trembled noticeably, feeling the effect of the darkness surging within him. "We need to take him out ASAP."

The reaction wasn't lost on his cohorts around the table. With only two or three exceptions, they knew of the blade fragment in his shoulder.

"How bad is it?" the High Priestess wondered.

"It's burning," he responded tersely, grabbing at the shoulder.

Removing some herbs from her pouch, the priestess treated the injury. "That should take care of it," she noted.

"Thanks," he expressed. Turning back to the discussion at hand, he asked, "Well?"

"After coming up with a good plan, I agree," Xena added.

"I'm with Xena," Gabrielle chimed in. "As are the Amazons."

"As is Althanor," Cybelle stated supportively.

"What do you think, Eadmer?" Meroli wondered.

The monarch eyed the others carefully. While he knew that Dave liked a good fight, he also knew that his friend was a careful planner in these matters. Looking at his queen and receiving a nod from her, he continued, "We agree with Xena as well."

"Well, Harokin, it seems we have our consensus," the citadel's leader declared.

"So it would seem," Harokin agreed, albeit reluctantly. After the last two expeditions into the Dark Lands, he had no wish for a third one.

"We move out at sunrise tomorrow," Meroli noted. Glancing at the two vampires, he told them. "Do not fear, my friends. Accommodations will be made for your...needs as well."

"Thank you," Nick said appreciatively.

"You have my thanks as well," LaCroix added.

The leader rose from his chair and told them, "This meeting is adjourned. Now, please feel free to get some rest. Food will be delivered to your rooms in an hour. Thank you, my friends, for your assistance." With that, he left the room followed by the rest of the group.

Chapter 15

Nick walked up the stone stairs to his quarters following the meeting. Despite the length of it, the group had managed to come up with some sort of consensus. Moving out quickly against the enemy would certainly be better than to sit around and wait for another surge from the troll forces. Not like the last time....


[Acre, 1291]

Nick glanced about frantically at the chaos ensuing around him. The Mamluks had pressed against the walls for the last two days and nights. Their catapults battered the Christian defenses even as the besieged struggled to repair and shore up their ramparts. Only an hour before, he had spoken with the citadel's commander, Henri de Bremont, before the latter rushed toward the walls.

Then, he heard a loud explosion and a crash coming from the western wall. It seemed his worst fear was coming true. The Saracens had breached the walls, and even now, were spilling into Acre. Despite the knights' best efforts at hand to hand combat, the Crusaders lost increasing amounts of ground and manpower to the irresistible tide sweeping through the breach. Some soldiers, seeing that the cause was lost, had already slipped away.

"NO!" he protested to the sky, thinking of all he had sacrificed in the Crusades. After losing Gwenyth in Wales, he had suffered through the killing on the battlefield, the torture and imprisonment in the Saracen prison, the debt of his ransom to his family, and finally, the loss of his humanity. Despite the power which the last misfortune had granted him, he still ached from all he had lost.

In frustration, Nick flew at the invaders, looking to wreck havoc. Slashing with his sword and snapping necks, he tried to hold back the inevitable. For hours, he tore a swath through the Mamluks' lines, taking more than his pound of flesh in retribution. However, it was in vain, for about three hours into his maniacal spree, he noticed the sky turning pale to the east.

The sun was rising.

Nick assessed all of his options. If he stayed, he might do more damage, but he would certainly incinerate in the daylight. If he left, he might have another opportunity to fight this foe. There was no choice. Tearing down a section of housing adjacent to him, he created a pile of debris which covered his escape. Quicker than the eye could follow, he streaked away, leaving the scene behind.


[Modern Day]

The former Crusader scratched his head as he resumed his progress. At the top of the stairs, he opened the door to his room and walked inside absently. On the table next to the straw filled mattress, he found a pitcher half-filled with cow's blood and a small cup. "Everyone else gets the meat, I'll take this," he mused, pouring a cup and guzzling down the draught. Setting the cup down, he eased out of his armor and placed his sword beside the suit. "That's better."

"I should say it would be, Nicholas," LaCroix's voice replied casually from the hallway. Easing the door open, the Elder allowed himself an entryway into the room. He too had a cup in his hand although, judging from the look on the latter's face, he was less than pleased with the fare. "I can't see why you would drink this swill."

"Certainly Meroli won't kill any of his servants or townspeople just to suit us, LaCroix," Nick said, tired of his former master's constant griping about the hospitality of others. "It won't kill you."

"Ah yes. I can certainly see that you are so very much alive...and living in the past," the Roman countered. "Yes, Nicholas, I have felt your dismay over the events on the battlefield as well as your wish to reenact the Crusades so that this time, you will have the success you sought before." Seeing the other's dismay, he chuckled. "You are so predictable. When will you learn that such things aren't important to us? To our kind? Out on the battlefield, I saw you sweeping across the scene like a primordial force, taking out those who would resist us. Even in your restrained state, it was glorious!"

"It made me sick. The killing never stops," the younger vampire countered.

"Of course not! It's not supposed to! Why do you think that we do what we do? We are killers, Nicholas! The sooner you understand that, the better you'll be!" LaCroix smashed the clay mug to the floor. "We are not bound by their rules! You are not one of them! Wake up to what you are!"

"Maybe I'm not one of them...yet, but I'm not like you either," Nick disagreed. "Hopefully one day, I will find my way out of this limbo into which you've placed me."

"I...have placed you there?" LaCroix inquired in disbelief. Now the younger's fractured reasoning was reaching an all time level of ludicrousness. "No, Nicholas, you've placed yourself there. Quit blaming others for what you are. The sooner you realize that there is no going back, the better off you'll be."

"No, Lucien, you are wrong," a voice countered from the corner.

Turning, the two immortals saw a bright light appearing in the corner. From it, a slender young woman garbed in white stepped into the room.

"Fleur?" the two chorused together once they had regained their composure.

"Oui," she replied, a smile on her face. "I have returned to see you both before you rush out onto the battlefield." Stepping forward, her hand brushed her brother's cheek. Seeing his eyes water bloody tears, she told him, "Your faith will be rewarded, Nicolas. One day, it will happen."

"Nonsense," LaCroix spat, torn between the challenge of her words and the feelings of love he felt.

"Your doubt tears at you, Lucien," the angel pointed out, kissing him on the cheek. "While my brother has learned much from you in terms of strength, you need to learn compassion from him as well." Stepping back from them, she continued, "I will be watching over both always." With that, she disappeared from the setting as abruptly as she appeared.

For a moment, the two vampires exchanged looks, verifying that they had seen the angel.

After that, LaCroix left the room quickly, leaving Nick to his own devices once again.


For the next two hours, the Elder stood on the walkway between the stone towers overlooking the battlements. As with Nicholas, he too had fought in large scale campaigns both as a mortal and immortal...alone and with his sister at his side. What would she say to this emotional conflict brewing inside of him? Bad enough that his son's putrid weakness was evident, but now, the appearance of his love threatened everything as well.

Finally, a voice interrupted his reverie. "Dinar for your thoughts, Lucius?"

Looking up, he saw Livia approaching him, the focus on the upcoming battle already clearly evident in her eyes. He had to admit that the sight of her confident demeanor gladdened him. At least, she wasn't about to let her weak messianic side overwhelm her. "Nicholas could learn from you, Livia."

She snorted derisively. "I don't understand why you put up with him. Just kill him and be done with it."

"It's not that easy!" her brother ranted angrily, allowing his eyes to change color.

"Nothing with you ever is," she noted. "Lucius, as much as you tear at Nicholas for his weakness, you too are weak as well."

"I AM NOT WEAK!" he bellowed.

She rolled her eyes at him. Sometimes, he could be an imperial pain in the ass. "Right. Look, Lucius, I know you. You may not care about a great many things, but when you do, you protect them savagely. I remember your plans and stratagems. Then, there is the matter of Divia. Finally, there are Nicholas and whatever that thing was in your room tonight." Seeing his surprise, she stated, "You shouldn't leave the door open so that anyone can eavesdrop. We can't afford distractions on the battlefield. Do you want to talk about it or not?"

"Not yet," LaCroix declined. "But ago gratias tibi nonetheless."

She nodded silently. As much as he infuriated her, Lucius was still her stepbrother. She hated to see him torn like this. "I hope you can resolve these things. Remember, if you need to talk, I'm here," she told him before leaving him to his own devices.


Meantime, Dave and Angie strolled through the moonlit gardens in an effort to work off their own nervous energy before the quest began in earnest. All around them, the flower blooms filled the air with pleasant yet pungent scents and the foliage spread its best out before them even in the taper light.

"Remember the last time we were here?" he asked her.

"I do," she replied warmly. "It was right after our wedding reception. We thought we had beaten back all of these demons, monsters, and boogey men, remember?"

"There's always a challenge, Princess. That's what makes life interesting," he advised, kissing her cheek. "It's just like dealing with the Child. Everyday, we're understanding each other a bit more."

"Well, that's an improvement, I guess," she supposed. "I really do admire that about you, Dave."


"Oh, your ability to never say die," she explained. "Here we are on the verge of rushing out into the darkness beyond, and you just keeping trudging ahead."

"I suppose," he responded. Glancing about them, he continued, "Life's a struggle, Angie. We either keep going or we just wither away. We need to defend what's ours. Just like in Istanbul, right?"

"Right," she concurred, managing a slight grin for his sake.

"Now, that's what I want to see," he told her. "We get through this and we can resume our lives. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to founding that academic community of tolerance. Let's look forward to that, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed, kissing him passionately in the midst of the flowers and trees.


Up in their quarters, Xena and Gabrielle lay on their beds, staring at the ceiling. Each was still a bit disturbed over the near scene in the meeting hall. While he was certainly a great leader, Harokin needed to learn a bit about prejudging people. Just as the Amazons had learned in the recent situation with Velasca, these warriors would need all of the help they could get.

The Warrior Princess also worried about Angie. Despite the separation that occurred when they shared the same space at the same point in time, their mental link continued. Through it, Angie's doubts burdened her consciousness. "Why can't she see that she's quite the fighter too?" she groused to herself.

"I assume you're talking about Angela?" her soul mate wondered.

"Yeah," Xena revealed. "She and David are talking right now. I just wish that Angela could realize how strong she really is."

"She's finding herself, Xena," Gabrielle commented. "Just as we did...and as David's doing right now. Give her time. She'll find her way."

"I know, Gabrielle," the counselor agreed. "But thanks for telling me."

"My pleasure," the queen declared.

Then, they both felt something not quite right around them.

"Ares!" Xena challenged. "Show yourself!"

In a flash, the war god appeared in front of them.

"Nice view," he baited.

"Enjoy the blankets...and whatever's goin' on in that twisted mind of yours 'cause that's all you're gonna get," Xena advised, getting up and showing that she was indeed in her leather halter. "Now, why are ya here?"

"I'm goin' with ya tomorrow," he told them.

"Yeah right," Gabrielle doubted. "Why would you care?"

He scowled at them. Why did they always have to be so difficult? "Believe it or not, I do care about what happens out there. As I said before, I want Dahak put back in his hole. That's it."

The two Amazons chuckled at him not believing the words for a minute.

"Look, I know you've been bothering David and Angela for the last couple of weeks, Ares. You wanna find out what my link is to them, right? Eve and Angela told me. Take a piece of advice...leave them out of this! Besides, he has enough issues right now with Lousain and the Pit," Xena continued, getting more and more terse with each second.

"Yeah, I can take a hint," he told them. "I'll see ya both in the Dark Lands. Meanwhile, there's someone who will be joining ya tomorrow." With that, he vanished into thin air.

"What do you suppose he meant by that?" Gabrielle asked.

"Who knows?" Xena sighed. "Anyhow, get some sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a long day as it is."

As the taper burned out, the Amazon queen stared at the ceiling and worried in the darkness about the things to come.

Chapter 16

A few hours later, Dave arose from his bed, nervous about the events to come. Despite the fact that he had been down this road before, he knew that Lousain had something different up his sleeve.

"That is one creep I'm not in a hurry to meet again," he told himself while making his way toward the stables. There, he found his favorite steed, Streaker. The stallion stood tall and proud with jet black hair and a long mane. "Hey, Boy, it's me. How have you been?"

The horse whinnied and stomped its right front hoof. While he did indeed recognize Dave, he was sore at having been left behind.

"Yeah, well...I couldn't take you with me the last time," the professor informed his friend while checking the feed and water troughs. "Maybe this time."

At the last words, the horse's ears perked.

"We'll see what Meroli says," Dave promised.

"That's a tall order, my friend," Grimwilkin pointed out from the corner. Dave saw him sitting on a stool and smoking his pipe. "The lord of the citadel will not part easily with this horse. Still, you have served him for three campaigns. We shall have to see."

"That's a pretty neat trick, Grimwilkin," the medievalist told him grimly.

"What is? Oh, you mean the cloaking number? It is a lot more difficult to do with you than most, I assure you, David," the wizard commented. "Your powers are developing. I would commend you on your growing control over the darkness within you as well. You almost detected me upon entering here."

"I've had help," the visitor revealed curtly, brushing Streaker's coat and mane.

"Yes, you have," Grimwilkin agreed. "But you have also overcome much on your own. Remember the prophecy?"

"Which one? The first? Dijon was staked, Grimwilkin. LaCroix is upstairs right now. His presence is driving me to distraction!" Dave ranted, throwing his hands in the air. "I don't suppose there's a cure for my condition, is there?"

"Again, who knows? The Other has developed so much within you. Just as with your friend, Nicholas, so must you have faith as well."

"Thanks," Dave expressed in a friendly tone. Then, he reached out with his senses and detected other presences in the area. "Garth? Karen? Come out."

His longtime friend and companion stepped forward followed by the nurse. "Whew!" he exclaimed, scratching his head. "You creep me out when you do that!"

"Do what? You mean knowing that you're there?" Dave wondered, continuing to tend to his mount. Suddenly, a piece of wood lifted off of the ground. "Or perhaps, this?" Then, he made himself levitate off of the ground. "It's just my abilities developing is all."

"Man, that is just too weird," Garth complained, not sure what to make of it. "Karen, did you know?"

She nodded. "I found out during our last trip here. He's not the only one." Focusing, she raised a stone jug in the air before setting it back down. "I have some of those abilities as well, although they aren't as focused as Dave's." Looking at her ex-boyfriend, she said, "The flying thing is new, however."

"Technically, I'm levitating," the professor corrected her. "Still, maybe one day, I'll be able to fly."

Seeing the light appearing in the eastern sky, he changed the subject. "We need to be getting ready to leave. More than likely, Harokin will be ready within the hour." Putting the brush in his pack, the professor shut the door on his mount's stall. "Be back soon," he promised. Hearing the horse's whinney, he turned and departed followed by the others soon thereafter.


Angie paced about the battlements on the wall. In her mind, she had felt Xena telling her to meet her here, but was she overreacting to all of this stuff? After all, she wanted to play her role as well.

"I don't want to be a burden," she sighed, feeling depressed.

"And why would you say that?" Xena's voice asked from behind her.

Turning, the oncologist saw her friend walk up to her. "Good morning, Xena. I was just getting some air and waiting for you. What's up?"

"I was going to ask you the same question, Angela," the warrior told her. "I've been feeling a great deal of doubt coming from you lately. You're not getting too concerned about fighting are you?"

"Well, I do admit that I let you handle a lot of it back on Earth," Angie admitted sheepishly.

Xena eyebrow arched in amusement. While she knew that the doctor hadn't quite mastered her abilities, she had indeed made progress since their first meeting. "We all get better, Angela. Just keep practicing and have faith in yourself. Everyone else does. Hey, you helped hold the Amazons together during that latest crisis, remember?"

"I just wish that I could do more," Angie commented dejectedly.

"Angela," Xena started earnestly. "We all have our roles to play. You are a wonderful healer and that is where your abilities lie. Good doctors are paramount on a battlefield. Besides, you still have those psychic abilities, right?" Seeing the other nod, she continued, "Good. Trust me, you'll get your chance."

"Xena! Angela!" Gabrielle called, running toward them. "Come quickly!"

"Gabrielle, what is it?" the warrior wondered.

"Remember when Ares told us about the visitor? He's waiting downstairs in our room and you'll never believe it!" the Amazon queen told her friend. "Come on, let's go!" With that, she rushed back through the door.

For their parts, Xena and Angie followed as quickly as they could. Minutes later, they reached the doorway to the room.

"Better let me go first," Xena advised, drawing her sword. "But be ready."

A spot between Angie's eyes glowed and she nodded.

Opening the door, the warrior rushed into the area, prepared for the worst. Once inside, she stopped short, a smile spreading across her face. "Beowulf!" she exclaimed and hugged her old companion.

The well-built brown haired Norseman smiled warmly at her too. As always, he was clad in mail with an iron helmet and a fur cape. A determined look blazed in his eyes. "Good to see you as well, Xena."

Looking in back of her, she told Angie, "It's okay! He's a friend!"

"Okay," Angie agreed, entering the area cautiously. "Who's this?"

"Angela, this is Beowulf. Beowulf, this is our friend, Angela Dubois. She and her husband will be fighting with us," Gabrielle introduced.

"It's a pleasure. Any friend of Xena and Gabrielle is a friend of mine as well," he replied pleasantly, adding a bow at the end.

"Likewise," the oncologist returned the greeting. "Xena, is this the same Beowulf as the man who fought with you against Grendel?"

"She knows about that?" the Norse leader inquired confusedly.

"She knows a lot about us, Beowulf," Xena noted. "Yes, Angela, he is the same man."

"My husband will want to meet you too," Angie added.

"The man of the mighty rages," Beowulf noted. "Yes, I have been told of him by Harokin downstairs. If that's true, then we'll have to watch him."

"Harokin doesn't trust many things," Xena groused, looking at Gabrielle. "I won't have him throwing our allies away because of his own petty fear. Now, come. We ride soon."

Gathering up the equipment, the four companions carried it down the stairs, heading for their place within the company. It would be a long trip, but with companions such as these, the journey would be a fruitful one.


An hour and a half later, the group stood before the gates. Over the last hour, Cybelle, Genaria, and Deirdre had been transporting Amazons to the site so that they could fight beside their queen. With Ares' help, Beowulf headed his own contingent of Viking warriors. Dave and Angie rode up on Streaker. Behind them, Xena rode up on Argo II who Beowulf had brought with him. Beside her on their mounts were Gabrielle, Beowulf, Livia, and Grimwilkin. Karen and Garth followed them on their own horses. Finally, in the first two supply wagons, Nick and LaCroix had their own respective shelters. Truly, this was a formidable army with which to face the darkness.

Harokin galloped a quick circle around these forces, inspecting their numbers. After the last two battles, he knew better than to underestimate matters. Apparently satisfied with the situation, he assumed his place at the front of the line. Raising his sword, he ordered, "Open the gates!"

The castellans obeyed his wish. As they did so, the outside world loomed before them. While the sky before them remained clear, sunny, and bright, the dark cloud hung over the horizon reminding them of the impending danger before them.

"Forward!" he ordered.

At his command, the company forged ahead. Their columns formed a neat line stretching back for nearly a half-mile. After 45 minutes, the last wagon bearing LaCroix had departed, allowing the guards to secure the gates again. To the people of Nurrengaard, this was the last gasp...if this didn't work, nothing would.

As the troop left, the Faerie Empress observed them from the keep. "Go in safety and with my blessing, Friends. May we all find what we are looking for," she wished before disappearing back into the mists from which she had come....

Chapter 17 [Two Weeks Later]

The company continued their march through the devastated countryside, observing where the trolls had laid waste to homes, crops, and livestock. Truly, this was scorched earth policy at its worst.

Seeing this destruction goaded the armies onward and, with the help of the priestesses not to mention very short rest breaks, they made exceptional time. On the fourth day, they had crossed between the Twin Peaks and pressed onward for the Floundering Flood. Two days and a hundred miles later, they had forded that point and started into the Great Forest.

For both Garth and Dave, the sights recalled the earlier journeys. Twice before, they had come this way and fought for Nurrengaard. Twice before, they had won. Both knew that the trolls could be anywhere, but for some reason, Lousain was keeping his forces back. Still, they kept careful watch.

Likewise, Xena, Gabrielle, and Livia maintained constant vigilance as well. For these three, the threat of attack was very real. Every bush...every tree could conceal a troll or a demon just as easily as their Earth counterparts had provided cover for Horde or Germanic warriors.

Finally, at the edge of the plains of Joltenheim, Harokin ordered them to stop. "It is almost dusk, and we need to rest."

Cybelle rode up to his flank, saying, "We can make a single transport from here to the Dark Lands whenever you think it would be prudent."

"Tomorrow. We await the coming of Eadmer and Elsin with their forces. When we are together, then we can make the final trek."

The head priestess nodded in agreement before riding off to advise her sisters of this decision. A night of rest wouldn't hurt, but it did give their enemies an opportunity to strike.


[The Pit, Dark Lands]

For the length of the company's trip, Lousain had observed them through his watch crystal and awaited his opportunity. On several occasions, he had been tempted to send his forces against the army and disperse them, but his own sense of the situation, not to mention Dahak's scheming kept him from doing so.

Flexing the regrown hand again, the wizard bided his time. When his adversaries had crossed into his domain, then he would strike....


[plains of Joltenheim]

After night fell across the land, Nick emerged from his spot and surveyed the landscape. The endless blowing grasses in front of him brought the wheat fields of Europe and the American Midwest to mind. Somewhere, miles ahead of them or maybe even a few hundred yards, lay the Enemy stronghold. "It's nice to see that crusading hasn't changed."

"Nothing changes that much, Nicholas," Xena advised walking up behind him. "How has the ride been?"

"Peaceful for the most part. I must admit that I've been using the opportunity to think on things," the former Crusader described. "Yet there is a sense of tension in the air. We're getting close."

"Yes," the warrior agreed. "Come, Gabrielle, Beowulf, and I would like it if you would share our fire for a while."

"Thank you," he accepted gratefully and followed her to the campsite. There, the Amazon queen and the Viking lord sat waiting for their friends.

Beowulf glanced up from his cooking to ask, "Are you Nicholas? I'm Beowulf. Xena and Gabrielle have told me an awful lot about you."

"I'm sure. And you are the warrior of legend who killed Grendel. It's an honor to meet you," Nick greeted in return, clasping hands with his fellow warrior.

"Actually, the legends are wrong..." the Norseman admitted, motioning toward Xena. "It was Grendel's son...and Xena finished him off, not me."

"Still, you are a great warrior, Beowulf," Gabrielle pointed out.

The Viking's heart skipped a beat upon hearing those words. Despite the fact that they could never be together, he longed for her. "Thank you."

"We wouldn't have survived the quest without ya," Xena added frankly from the other side of the fire.

"Do you mind if I...uh...have a drink?" Nick inquired, holding up the small container he had brought over with him.

"You would have wine here?" the Norseman asked incredulously. "You need your senses."

"No, it's food anyhow," Nick explained, allowing his eyes to change. "I'm a vampire."

"Go ahead, Nicholas, and save the displays for Lucius," Xena advised. Turning to the other male warrior, she continued, "He drinks blood, but not human least not anymore."

"You are a vampire and yet they tell me you were on a religious quest. How is that possible?" Beowulf wondered.

Nick gulped down the contents of the container before answering. "Even though I've changed, my outlook hasn't. I still want to help people no matter what. I also have faith despite my condition."

"In other words, Nicholas, you are a hypocrite," LaCroix's voice cracked from the darkness.

"Who?" Beowulf challenged, standing and drawing his sword. "Who's there? Come out or I'll run you through!"

"Oh really?" the Elder chuckled, stepping into the light. "I would like to see you try."

"LaCroix, stop it," Nick requested.

Ignoring the younger vampire, he continued, "Go ahead. Try..."

"Stuff it, Lucius!" Xena commanded, her sword pressed up against his throat before he could react. "Just tempt me to do it. We don't need you that badly."

"And what would Livia say, hmmm?" LaCroix supposed. "Really, Xena, you won't kill me."

"As if that would stop me," the Warrior Princess replied. "Get real. I will kill you one day. Get lost."

"I like where I am very much," the Roman baited, testing the others' tempers.

Shaking their heads, they decided to continue on with the conversation at hand. "So, when do you feel that the attack will come?"

"I'm betting on once we cross into the Dark Lands," Gabrielle guessed.

"Actually, as with Dubois, we must all be vigilant," LaCroix interjected. "An attack could come at any time."

Xena nodded. "As much as I hate to admit it, he's right. We do need to be careful. On that note, Harokin told me today that we'd best enjoy the fires now. Once we get into Lousain's turf, we won't have them anymore."

"Right," the Amazon queen agreed, standing up. "I'm going to visit with Varia and the other Amazons. I'll be back in a bit."

Beowulf watched her depart before asking Xena, "She's actually an Amazon?"

"She's their queen," the warrior informed him. "It's only been about a year since she officially assumed the position, however." Hearing a snort from LaCroix, she hissed, "You've got a problem with that?"

"The Amazons were dying in my time, Xena. What makes you think your little friend can keep them going?" the Elder wondered, allowing an element of incredulousness to seep into his voice.

"Oh, Gabrielle's really good at getting the best outta people. She has a sense of the Amazon traditions. Finally, she knows about the tricks from Roman dogs such as yourself," the warrior replied nonchalantly, the barb sticking clearly at the end of her retort.

The General frowned at the insult. Seeing that he wasn't going to get the upper hand there, he stalked off.

"What's with him?" Beowulf asked confusedly.

"Oh, there are a lot of things he doesn't like," Nick responded. "One thing is to lose a debate-- especially to Xena."

"He needs to understand that there are a lot of mortals and immortals who have done just that. Tell him to get in line," the Norse warrior advised.

Nick just shook his head and finished the last few drops of his cow blood before sitting quiet and listening to the others talk for the rest of the evening.


Dave sat at a fire about fifty yards away from the ancient warriors. As with the others, he was still concerned about their entrance into the Dark Lands on the next day.

"Hey," Angie greeted, sitting down next to him.

"Hey yourself," he retorted pleasantly, hugging her shoulders. "Too bad we don't have any marshmallows or s'mores, huh?"

She sighed heavily. "We're about to face Lord knows what in there and you want marshmallows?"

He shrugged. "Why not? We're as prepared as we can be. Besides, I need to keep a positive frame of mind. It makes things easier."

"How's the shoulder?" she inquired.

"Oh, burning like Hell," he revealed. "The closer we get, the more it flares up, and the more the Child acts up."

"That's all we need," she worried.

"Um, in this case, I don't think we need to worry. He wants to flatten the Enemy just as badly as we do. Trust me, when the time comes, he'll play his part," he declared.

"If you say so," she replied, hoping that he was right. Just then, she saw Garth and Karen walking together toward them. "Hey, guys. Come on over!"

"Thanks," Garth noted. "We were just trying to get things straight."

"Such as what's going to happen when we cross the line," Karen added.

"Garth, you know the answer to that one as well as I do," the professor told him. "We'll get about ten miles over the line before Lousain drops the welcoming committee on us. We just need to be ready for it."

"And we will be," Ferali replied from the darkness. Stepping forward, the gnome requested, "Might I join you as well?"

"Of course," the professor agreed. "Take a seat." After his brother-in-arms had done so, Dave continued, "So, what do you think?"

"I agree with you of course," the gnome told him, biting into a jerky-like strip. "Sooner or later, there will be a battle. The question is where it will occur."

"Wherever it is, we'll fight it. No ifs, ands, or buts about it," Garth cut in, starting to run the stone across his sword blade.

The others sat silently around the fire. Each of them wondered about what would happen next and what their role would be in the events to come.


LaCroix alighted in the darkness quite a distance away from the others. How could they not value his experience on these things? True, they had faced the trolls and he hadn't, but still, he had experience with these situations.

"I suppose it's because of Xena's hatred and blindness," he maintained.

"Or perhaps it's you who are blind, Lucien," Fleur informed him, appearing in front of him. Her long hair blew in the breeze and her face, although somewhat stern, was still radiant. "Right now, they need everyone to act as one unit including you. Don't insult Nicolas' intelligence or his conscience. My brother is having a hard enough time with this expedition."

"As I am at seeing you," he retorted.

She stepped back, a tear creasing her cheek. "Why, Lucien? I don't mean to hurt you. I'm here because I love you and my brother. Can't you see that?"

"You awaken strange feelings inside of me, Fleur. Feelings that I thought were long dead," he explained. "I feel so confused around lost."

"The warmth you're feeling is love," she countered. "Don't fight it. Even within a vampire, the heart should be warm." Walking over to him, she put her arms around him and kissed him on the mouth.

For his part, he felt an initial burning and then, the warmth flaring up within him.

When the embrace was over, she backed away and told him as she vanished, "When this adventure is over, you will have a choice to make as well. Be ready...ready...ready..."

Just as if he had drunk a vial of holy water, the General reeled on his feet for several minutes as his system regained its equilibrium. His throat felt parched and burned. His stomach felt queasy. However, he felt...dare he think it...giddy? "Nonsense," he spat, forcing the feeling down. "I am LaCroix, a vampire Elder. I don't have time for such games."

Yet, despite his own admonitions, he knew that he couldn't deny the change which had happened. Somehow, Fleur, despite everything, was trying to force her way back into his life. Should he allow her to do so? "What would Nicholas do in response?" he questioned aloud. Too many unknowns...and not enough time to deal with them before the events of the next day. Feeling the need for contemplation, he returned to the wagon for the rest of the night and the coming day.

Chapter 18

Eventually the fires around the camp went out and except for the guards, all went to sleep. Only the rustling of the reeds in the wind penetrated the night's quiet. The moon's light shone down on the group, keeping guard over them as well. However, other things were going on as well....


Dave tossed and turned on his blanket. Within his head, sounds and lights kept disturbing him. Voices echoed across the kaleidoscope, biding him to awaken.

Suddenly, his eyes snapped open. All around him, the mists obscurred the landscape, making it seem as if he were above the clouds. "Cybelle?" he called out.

"She isn't here, David," a familiar voice told him. "Do you remember what I taught you?"

"Mrs. Samuelsohn? Is that you?" he wondered.

"If you wish to know, open the mists and step through," the voice stated.

Concentrating, he focused, recalling the lessons he had received from his mentor's wife so long ago. Raising his hands, he felt a large energy surge flow from him and into the fog in front of him, opening a pathway. Stepping through the clearing, he found himself once again in the lush eden with birds singing and the sweet smells of the flowers about him. "This is the Empress's realm."

"Indeed it is," the guide agreed, approaching him. "It's been so long." The woman was in her mid-forties with long brunette hair, the green garb, and face markings of Althanor. "And please call me Pauline, David. Tony would want that."

"How is he?" the professor asked.

"He's in the place you like to call Heaven," the Empress noted, appearing from thin air. "Thank you for coming."

"What can I do for you both before the battle?" he requested.

"You can prepare yourself to fight on another front," the Empress instructed. "The trolls are too strong for a direct assault. Therefore, we must fight on several fronts at once. While the others fight above, you must take the struggle below."

"Into the Pit," he realized. "You know that I can't do this on my own."

"You won't be alone. Others of the company will be with you. Three companions in particular," Pauline replied. "Deirdre, Ferali, Nicholas, and Eve will be with you."

"Just as in Deirdre's vision," he surmised. "Right? But what can Eve do? She won't fight with a sword. She's not allowed by Eli's teachings. Besides, Livia is the dominant one at the moment."

"That is being attended to even as we speak," the Empress told him. "Now, David, I have one other favor to ask, let the Other out. I would speak with him."

Although he didn't understand the request, he forced the change to occur, switching personalities with the Child.

"Ya wanna talk?" he snickered.

"Yes, I did," the regal faerie stated. "I wanted to ask for your help as well. David is going to have to release you at some point. Can I trust you not to fall for Lousain's tricks?"

"Ah won't!" he snarled. "Ya don't trust me either!"

The Empress and Pauline exchanged glances before the higher ranking one continued, "Not whole heartedly, I have to admit especially with that piece of dark metal in your shoulder. It's going to hurt...a lot. Lousain's going to make you both suffer. I'm asking you to work with David. We're counting on you both. Can you do it?"

"Ya really mean it? Ya're really relyin' on me?" the Child asked in disbelief.

"Yes," Pauline agreed. "We are."

For the first time, the Dark One managed a smile albeit a brief one across his face. "Awright. Ya got it!" he agreed.

"Splendid. Now, let David out. I need to talk with him as well. And thank you once again for your cooperation," the Empress concluded.

He shrugged and triggered the change once again.

Dave stared at them. "Excuse my impertence, but time grows short. What preparations must I make?"

"Grimwilkin, Cybelle, and Deirdre will have everything you need. Good luck. Go with my blessing," the Empress added, disappearing.

Then, the mists covered the way back up again. As she disappeared from his sight, he could see Pauline blow him a warm kiss for luck. After which, he felt himself transported back to camp once again.

Looking up, he saw Grimwilkin, the priestesses, Livia, and Ferali standing there.

"Ah, David. You're awake. Good," the wizard declared. "We have much to discuss and time grows short."


About half an hour earlier, Livia sat on her bedroll, glancing up at the stars and musing over things. She loved battle and all of its glory. However, she had to admit that the company on this particular campaign was less than thrilling to say the least. While she admired the tactical abilities of her mother and stepbrother, their respective outlooks could be difficult to deal with to say the least. The matter of light and darkness also made her head hurt.

"This mission is rapidly turning into a goodie-goodie Eli fest," she groused. "Nobody is purely good or purely evil." Metaphysics often gave her a headache. She preferred reasoning by the point of her sword.

"Life is rarely that simple, Livia," a voice stated from the sky.

"Who in Tartarus?" she wondered, drawing her blade. "Show yourself!"

"I am all around you," the voice continued. "I am the Light and the Way. Open your heart...I require both you and Eve to work as one."

"And if I refuse?" she protested angrily.

"Then, I will make you do it. So be it," the voice continued.

At that point, an intense light shot down from the sky, enveloping the Roman conqueror. Within it, she felt herself changing-and retreating. "No! I won't let her have control! I won't!"

"You have no choice."

"ARRRGGGHHH!" she screamed in pain before dropping to the ground.

A moment later, all grew dark again. Eve stirred and looked about at the landscape. She was back, but something was different. Looking at herself, she noticed that she was wearing armor similar to Livia's, yet it was snow white with a surcoat of the same color. A sword hung over her left hip. "What is this?"

The light and voice coalesced into the familiar figure of Eli. "It is your new condition, Daughter. You are no longer Livia...yet you will never be the Messenger again. Given Paulus' success in that role, I have a new assignment for you."

"And that is?" she asked.

"To take more of a direct roll in the events around you. Soon, the bigger picture will become clear. For now, I need you to accompany David and the others into the Pit. He will need your help down there," the figure pointed out. "Time is of the essence, Eve. Good luck. Go in peace. Remember, the Way to peace sometimes involves a struggle. Use compassion and restraint in all matters. You are the best of both selves and, as my follower, I will always be there for you." With that, the figure faded, leaving her alone with her doubts.

Since she had regained her sense of self, she had eschewed the sword except in the most extreme of circumstances. Now, she was being asked to fight. Perhaps, Livia was comfortable with that, but she wasn't. "You'd best get used to it," she told herself nervously. "Remember, there are different ways to keep the peace. Mother does it with a sword and now, so will I."

At that moment, she heard Grimwilkin ask, "Livia?"

"No, I'm Eve. I was Livia, however," the newly recast warrior told him, stepping into the campfire light.

The wizard took a deep breath in wonder. He was still adjusting to Dave's dual personality and how to anticipate their reactions to what lay ahead. This situation offered a whole new element to consider. "So you are the Messenger once again?"

"I am Eve, but not the Messenger nor am I Livia. Eli has taken those roles from me. I am a religion professor, preserver of the Old Ways, and Amazon heiress. As such, I must accompany David and the others into the Pit. I have assisted him before and would do so again," she detailed.

"And will Livia cooperate?" he posed.

"She has been removed from the picture. I am the best of both selves you might say," she continued. "Please, Grimwilkin. I know that David trusts you. I would ask you to do the same."

"In that case, come with me," he bade and made his way through the darkness to Dave's side. Already there were Ferali, Cybelle, and Deirdre.

Looking down at the medievalist, he could see that he was entranced. "The Empress is still speaking with him," he told the others.

"And I trust he'll know what to do?" Cybelle asked.

"Yes," he replied firmly. "Already, she and Pauline have advised him on such matters. Now, he is on his way back." Seeing Dave's eyes open, he declared, ""Ah, David. You're awake. Good. We have much to discuss and time grows short."

"Such as?" the professor inquired drowsily, sitting up on his blanket. Glancing at the place next to him, he could see that Angie was still fast asleep. "This involves her too, right?"

"No, David. She needs to remain here," the wizard told him.

Deirdre winced, anticipating her mother's reaction at being left behind while she and her father were heading into trouble.

"The Empress had decided, Deirdre," Cybelle answered her doubts. "As your vision has correctly shown you, you are to go with your father down to Lousain's realm. Accompanying you will be Eve and Ferali." Looking at the gnome, she continued, "I am trusting them with you, Master Gnome."

The pint-sized warrior shook his head angrily. "I know what we're up against, Priestess. Remember who accompanied David down into that infernal place the last time! As if I would leave him..."

"Hey, keep it down will ya?" Dave advised, pointing to his sleeping wife. "She needs her rest."

"Do not worry about her. I have placed a sleeping spell on her. She will not awake before daylight. Come then," Grimwilkin directed. "You must leave before dawn." Looking into the darkness, he called, "Nicholas, step forward."

"Nick, come on," the professor reinforced.

The former Crusader stepped into the light. "I heard you all talking. Sorry, I take it you all are leaving on some quest?"

"Lousain's realm or bust," the professor quipped. "Hop aboard now because this is the only bus there."

"Will you accompany them, Nicholas?" Cybelle requested.

"Something tells me that I should," Nick agreed. "That is if you think it's appropriate for me to go in there with them."

"It is," Eve noted.

"Right," Dave concurred, getting up and gathering his things. For good measure, he leaned down and kissed Angie's forehead. "Whatever happens, Princess, remember I love you," he whispered not knowing if this was indeed the last farewell.

The group walked back over to the wizard's fire on the far side of the camp. There, they talked strategies for almost an hour.

Finally, Grimwilkin stood up and stated, "Nicholas, I have something for you." Reaching into his belt pouch, he produced a sprinkle of powder that he flung onto the vampire. "That will protect you from the sunlight as you all ride for the Dark Lands."

"Ride?" Deirdre wondered. "Why can't I just teleport us in there?"

"Because your magic will serve as a beacon to Lousain and his armies. You will know when to use your abilities, Deirdre. Just be prudent when doing so," Cybelle mentioned.

From the darkness, their mounts whinnied, eager for the race toward the goal. Having received their instructions, the group started to climb up into their saddles.

At that point, a familiar voice inquired, "A party and I wasn't invited?" From the darkness, Xena stepped into view with a grim look painted on her face.

Eve and Dave looked at each other. Granted, they weren't sneaking off since they were following a request from higher authorities. However, the warrior's expression made them feel sheepish just the same.

"Sorry, Xena. The Faerie Empress has a job for us to do," the professor informed her.

"Is that so?" Xena probed, her eyebrow arched. "And what does Angela think of this?"

"She doesn't know," Cybelle replied.

"Her husband and daughter are about to go into the heart of Tartarus itself and she doesn't know?" the Warrior Princess exclaimed irately. "She deserves to know something about this!"

"She'll try to stop me," he argued.

"Damn right, she will. I disagree as well. Certainly, there is another way. There's gotta be another way."

"No, there isn't, Mother," Eve told her patiently.

Xena looked at her daughter in shock. At first appearance, she thought it was Livia. However, somehow, Eve stood in front of her, clad in white armor. "Eve? What happened?"

"Eli spoke to me," the princess declared.

"You sure it wasn't Dahak or Lucifer or one of Lousain's tricks?" her mother countered.

"The Empress told me it would happen," Dave argued. "Look, I don't like leaving Angie behind. You know that, but the armies will need her medical knowledge and healing abilities on the main front. It's going to get nasty really quickly down there."

"So, why don't you go, Cybelle, and leave Deirdre here with her mother?" Xena challenged.

"It is the Empress' will that Deirdre undergo her rite of passage in this fashion," the head priestess retorted tersely. "Do you think I enjoy sending my brother, your daughter, the Amazon heiress, and my own heiress into that mess? Do you? Of course I don't! However, there is no other way! Whatever the Empress wills must be done. It is their destiny to face the darkness. Not even you, Xena, can stand in the way of that!"

Grimwilkin added, "You would have been asked as well, but we need you here. Gabrielle and Angela will need you."

"We need them too! The six of them against who knows what? This is suicide!" Xena protested. "At least, let us call the council together."

"There is no time," Eve disagreed, walking over to her parent. "Mother, remember when I left the village that time to be on my own? This is yet another one of those times. Please respect my wishes."

Xena felt her eyes tear up. Bad enough that Lucius was such a bad influence on her, but now, she was changing and ready to charge headlong into trouble. But, as she had proven time and time again, the former Messenger was indeed her own woman. As such, she didn't need protecting, but it was so hard to let go. "Okay," she relented. "But be careful."

"I will, Mother," Eve concluded, embracing her mother desperately. For three minutes, they stood there not wanting to let go. Then, finally, Eve pushed herself away and got up on her horse.

"As for you," the warrior insisted to Dave, a disapproving look in her eye. "What do I say to Angela?"

"Don't look at me like that, Xena," he snarled. "I don't like this either, but duty's duty. As for Angie, she's with me in my heart. She knows that. It'll kill me to be so far apart from her, but who else knows the Pit?"

"And what about Dahak's demons or Lousain's magic? What if you lose control? What then?" she debated.

He sighed, "Look, Xena, we're up against a huge army once we get into the Dark Lands. Lousain can recharge them at will. We need to take him out of the picture. If we don't, our collective goose is cooked anyway. Have faith, okay?" His eyes watered. "Tell Angie I love her." He embraced his friend tightly.

For a minute, she was back in Japan talking to Gabrielle before the battle with Yodoshi's troops. Despite her soul mate's request, she pressed ahead with her task and nearly killed herself in the process. She eliminated Yodoshi, but only with her friends' help did she come back. "I...understand, David. Just come back in one piece okay?"

"Count on it," he assured her, glancing into her eyes and managing a confidant smile. Turning, he climbed up on Streaker's back and gave Xena one last smile. Everything would have to work out one way or the other. Looking around at the others, he gave a brief nod and took off toward the horizon.

Following closely behind, Eve, Nick, Ferali, and Deirdre rode in the same direction.

For a long time, Xena looked at the horizon, marveling at the group's determination. "Eli, protect them," she requested earnestly. Then, after a glance at Cybelle and Grimwilkin, she stalked back off into the darkness leaving the others alone with their thoughts.

Chapter 19

Gabrielle stirred on her blanket. "Mmmm...Xena?" she mumbled drowsily. Receiving no answer, she forced herself to sit up and look around. In the flickering torchlight, she could see her companion's rumpled blanket. "What's going on?" she wondered, looking around.

"It's okay, Gabrielle," the warrior assured her while approaching the spot.

Seeing the disgruntled look on her face, the Amazon queen disagreed, "You don't seem okay. What is it?"

"Oh, everything," Xena told her, sitting down on her blanket. "Everything's changed and now, David, Eve, and several others have taken off to deal with Lousain on their own."

"What?" the Bard asked, jumping to her feet. "Xena, how could you let them leave like that? It's suicide!"

"I know," the warrior agreed, shrugging. "But apparently, they're operating under higher orders from the Faerie Empress and Eli. Eve and Livia have merged into this new warrior figure as well. All I know is that there's gonna be Tartarus to pay when Lucius, Harokin, and Angela find out."

"At least Nick's here to calm him down," Gabrielle supposed. Seeing her friend shake her head, she asked, "He went too? Of course he would! He wouldn't let David go off on his own nor would he let Eve go either. We should tell Grimwilkin about this."

"He's behind it too," Xena snarled. "Well, we have to wait a few more hours before...." Looking about anxiously, she challenged, "Ares! Come out cuz I can feel my skin crawlin'!"

A snort came from the darkness. "You all seemed as though you needed a hand." The war god stepped into the torchlight.

"We've got enough to worry about without babysitting you too," Xena groused, swiping her sword across a sharpening stone.

"Dubois has got stones to ride off like that. Imagine what the Little Woman's gonna say?" he baited.

"She's going to be ticked off," Gabrielle replied tersely.

"I'm worried about Lucius," Xena advised the others. "He's gonna go ballistic when he finds Eve and Nicholas gone."

"Oh, now you're worried about him?" Ares inquired somewhat tauntingly.

The two soul mates sent him a collective dirty look.

"No, I can still kick his ass anytime I want. I just don't wanna deal with his pouting over the situation is all," Xena noted. "So, why are ya really here?"

"As I said, I wanna help," he said earnestly.

"You really want to help?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. "How about leaving right now?"

At that moment, her counselor held her hand up and disagreed, "No, Gabrielle. If he wants to help, fine. We need all of the help we can get." Turning back to the war god, she pointed her sword at him and stated, "I will be watching, Ares. Don't screw up."

"I won't," he promised, gritting his teeth at the memory of what Dahak did to him before. "I want him gone as badly as you do."

"Yeah, I'll bet," the Amazon queen snickered knowingly. "Just remember what I said, Ares. Hands off of my daughter."

He started to fire back a retort when a voice called, "Where are they?"

"Whoops! I think the General just found out," he declared, belaboring the obvious.

"Hey, Lucius! People are tryin' to sleep. Why don't ya come over here?" Xena responded moodily out into the darkness.

LaCroix approached testily. Obviously, something was on his mind. "Do you know where Nicholas and Livia are? I can't feel them anywhere! If you're behind this...."

Xena chuckled. "Even if I were responsible for their disappearance, Lucius, there ain't a whole lot ya can do anyway." Watching him carefully, she now pointed her weapon in the General's direction. "I'm already pissed off enough as it is about this whole mess. Don't press your luck."

"So! You do know! Where are they? I demand to know!" the Elder pushed.

"I told ya I don't know," Xena hissed, now fingering her chakram. "Back off!"

"I will find out," LaCroix vowed adamantly. Looking at Ares, he continued, "What do you want?"

"To help out because your so-called son went off with Dubois and the others," the god declared. "By the way, Chief, ain't the sun going to be comin' up soon?"

Seeing the pink coloring in the eastern sky, he groused, "This isn't finished!" With that, he flew off in search of cover against the encroaching daylight.

"He's right, Xena. As much as I hate to say it, he's right," the Bard-Queen admitted.

"I know, Gabrielle. I know," the warrior concurred reluctantly, staring at the north in the direction where the others had ridden off toward the Dark Lands beyond.


Several hours later, Harokin and Eadmer convened the military council in the former's tent. In addition to the leaders of the larger squads within the army, Grimwilkin, Cybelle, and Varia sat at the main table representing their peoples.

The high leader stared at Garth and Karen, "Is this everyone? Where are David and the others?"

"That's a very good question," the vassal replied staring at his friend. "Anything, Karen?"

"No, he's nowhere near the camp and neither are the others. They're gone. Xena, Gabrielle, Beowulf and Angie are scouting around the camp just in case," she noted.

As if on cue, the aforementioned quartet entered the tent looking worn and frustrated. Angie, in particular, was nervous and more than a little perturbed that she was here instead of with her husband and daughter.

"Any sign of them, Beowulf?" Harokin wondered.

"None, Harokin," the Norse warrior reported. "We found their trail however. It was already several hours old."

"Considering they rode off in the middle of the night, that's not a surprise," Xena added wryly.

"What do you mean?" Eadmer insisted. "David wouldn't desert us. He's loyal to Harokin."

"Unless, of course, the wizard has used his dark magic to influence our wayward knight and the others. I always feared as much," Harokin speculated.

This time, Xena stomped forward, a ferocious look on her face, and her eyes burning into his own. "Look. I know ya don't think David can control that thing inside of him, but he's made real progress since we've known him. He hates Lousain and would rather die than join him. Watch yourself. Others could lead this army, ya know."

"Such as you? The myths are simply myths! No woman could lead an army," the commander protested. Upon hearing sarcastic laughter from the back of the room, he turned to see Ares suddenly standing there with a look of grim amusement and disbelief on his face. "And who are you?"

"The name's Ares and I'm the Greek god of war," Ares retorted. "As for Xena, she's not just any woman. She has led conquering armies from Britannia to Japan and conquered many lands before she became soft..." He allowed a pause for a disapproving look at Gabrielle before continuing, "Isn't that right, Beowulf?"

"Indeed, her wrath has extended to the gates of Valhalla itself," Beowulf concurred. "She should be accorded respect, Harokin, and so should her friends. Don't challenge her, my friend."

"Unless you wanna end up dead," Ares interjected.

"That's enough!" Angie interrupted. "Begging your pardon, everyone, but I will not have people insulting my husband, daughter, nor our friends without proof! Xena, you know something. Share it with us please."

The Warrior Princess sighed deeply, "They rode off in the middle of the night for the Dark Lands. As for why, you'll need to ask Grimwilkin and Cybelle."

"Grimwilkin?" Eadmer posed. "Can you tell us?"

The elderly man nodded. "David was instructed to do so by the Faerie Empress. Ferali and Nicholas accompanied him."

"The Faerie Empress also laid this task to Deirdre," Cybelle added.

"Eve apparently had a chat with Eli," Xena declared.

"Eve?" Eadmer inquired.

"She means Livia," Ares told him, an element of impatience in his voice. "Unfortunately, this is the second time that he's screwed her up." A glance back at the warrioresses revealed his scorn for Eli. "Now, she's the goodie-goodie again."

"Oh, she's not exactly that, Ares," Xena disagreed, a frown across her face. "Still, Harokin, what are we gonna do about this? Are we gonna sit here like sitting ducks or are we advancing?"

"I say we advance," Eadmer concurred.

"We shall go too," Gabrielle added.

"The priestesses will support you as well," the High Priestess told them.

Garth urged, "Harokin, we should go with them, Milord."

"As long as we advance cautiously," Beowulf spoke up. The dark haze will be on top of us soon. If we ride now, we can be there sooner."

"If we stay here, Dahak will wipe us all out," Ares pointed out, albeit reluctantly. "If we move and fight, we can marshal our efforts and deal with him and the wizard can organize themselves."

The leader thought on these words for several minutes as he paced about the tent. Peering out onto the plains, he saw the darkness advancing from the wicked place. There was no choice.

"Everyone prepare! We move out in three hours! Let's go!" Harokin finally commanded.

The group departed for their respective places within the army.


Outside, Angie stared up at the gathering gloom on the horizon. "Dave, what were you thinking? Why don't you trust me?"

"He didn't have a choice, Angela," Xena told her, walking up behind her. "Apparently, Grimwilkin thought that you were needed here more for your healing abilities. Trust me, when we get in there, we will need good healers. You're the best."

"Thanks for trying to make me feel better, Xena," the oncologist expressed. "I just wish that I could stand by his side in this mess. I want to safeguard my daughter as well."

"And you don't think that I wouldn't want to be with Eve right now? That's just part of being a good mother, Angela. Everything's going to work out. Meantime, we can wait together, okay? And you can fight alongside Gabrielle and me anytime," the warrior continued, adding a smile at the end for emphasis. "You're very good at this too, Angela. Give yourself some credit. You can't lie to me, right?"

Angie shrugged. Xena had a point. "Okay," she admitted. "Let's go and thanks."

"My pleasure," her friend concurred, hugging her "roommate's" shoulders as they walked toward the waiting Amazons and their horses. They had a long ride ahead, but with companions and hope, the miles seemed shorter, or so they hoped.

to be continued

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