The Harrowing Road Unwillingly Traveled (Part 3)
David J. Duncan
July 2002

Chapter 20 [Four days later]

Nick glanced around the campsite for any signs of suspicious activity. Since the group had broken away from the main army, their ride had been unexpectedly quiet. Riding hard and fast, they had made good time, traversing the remainder of the plains. Now, at the base of the mountains, they would be in the Dark Lands with another hour's ride. Fortunately for him, the darkness had blocked out the sunlight for much of this impromptu journey.

"Nicholas?" Eve asked. "Are you all right?"

"Hmm? Oh yes. Just wondering what we're about to face," he commented, taking a draught from his cup of bloodwine.

She nodded, not wanting to admit her own uncertainty as well. Ever since her discussion with Eli, she had tried to rationalize her transformation. How could she be both spiritual and savage at the same time?

His eyes probed her face, discerning her uneasiness. "What is it?"

"Oh, just this new state of things, Nicholas," she revealed. "In the past, I've always been repulsed by wanton violence and hatred. Now, I'm supposed to take that all in with Livia. I don't know how I can do that."

He shook his head. "Who says you have to take in the hate?"

"What?" she inquired in confusion over his meaning.

"I live with the Vampire and I use my powers for good. Eve, I haven't killed a human being for food in over a century. You will need to find ways to channel Livia's anger."

"But you still drink blood," she pointed out.

"I drink cow blood, not human blood. Maybe it's not the best solution, but it keeps me on an even keel for the most part," he responded frankly, holding up his cup for emphasis. "Look at your mother and Dave too."

"What about them?" she wondered, scratching her head as she looked at the sleeping medievalist. "He still goes berserk. And, as for Mother, she had Gabrielle to help her."

"And you have all of us," Nick asserted. "From what I understand, Gabrielle had to practically help her past Ares' influence. Dave, on the other hand, is a work in progress. Just as I have to deal with the Vampire, he has to deal with the Child. Haven't you noticed that it takes longer for Dave to reach the breaking point these days? That's because of the herbs and our help. Every day's going to be a challenge, but we have to be there for each other. Having Natalie, Schanke, and Alyce with me here in Tucson has helped me so much." Rubbing her shoulder, he continued, "I guess what I'm saying is that you aren't alone."

She blushed and smiled, "Thank you, Nicholas. I do appreciate it."

"It's my pleasure," he concluded. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll leave you to your thoughts." With that, he walked off into the darkness.

Glancing up at the sky, she stated, "Thank you, Eli, for giving me such good friends."


Deirdre sat in a meditative pose on the other side of the camp, investigating the mystical vibrations of the area around them. As expected, the Dark Lands' influence blackened the landscape's emanations. Far off in the distance, she could feel the trolls' presence. While they were still a ways off, their presence still made her nervous.

"How will we defeat them?" she protested in a low voice to the air.

"With great faith and determination, Young One," a familiar voice advised.

Looking to her right, she saw Ferali standing next to her. As always, his expression was grim. "Oh! You startled me!"

"I do that," he noted. "You should have more confidence in yourself. We can do this feat."

"If you say so," she sighed. "Aunt Cybelle told me the story of how you and Papa were in the Pit."

For once, a smile crossed his features. "Ah, that was a long time ago, Deirdre. Your father has actually gone into the Pit twice against overwhelming odds and survived."

"But the second time left him scarred," she interjected.

"From what Grimwilkin has told me, his problems started long before he stepped into this land," the gnome disagreed. "With your grandsire, perhaps? The seed was already there, but the wickedness in this place fertilized the parasite's growth. Latch onto your goodness and the inner light you carry in your heart."

"Our light is only a spark against this darkness!" she argued.

"Just like with your nightlight, right?" Dave inquired, sitting down next to them. "Remember when you used to be scared of the dark?"

"Papa," she muttered, her face flushing with embarrassment. "I was little then."

He shrugged. "Just listen to me, okay? I do have a point here."

"Okay," she agreed reluctantly.

"Okay, if you recall, having that little light with you made you feel secure, right?" he continued.

"Right," she concurred. "And?"

"And the light in there will keep you safe against the darkness if you let it in the same fashion," he told her, pointing at her chest. "Fear is a killer."

"Is that how you resisted Alti?" she asked curiously.

"Partially. I also had some help from my Other Half," he remarked. "Don't give in, Sweetie. I'm here. Okay?"

She nodded and embraced him tightly, her eyes watering. No matter that she was a priestess undergoing a big test; she was always his little girl. As such, she felt secure in his arms. "I love you, Papa."

"And I love you too," he told her warmly, kissing the top of her head. "Never forget that or how proud your Mama and I are of you."

"As I am of you both," Ferali declared. "Might I add something to what you said, David?"

"Go ahead," Dave agreed.

"You spoke of our light as a spark against this darkness, Deirdre," he explained. "While a spark might be easily smothered, it can also ignite an inferno in the right conditions. In just the last few minutes, I have seen your "spark" burn brighter. Have hope and we'll persevere."

"Thanks for that," she said gratefully.

Seeing the others approaching them, Dave declared, "Well, since none of us can sleep anyway, we might as well press on. Besides, from here on out, we won't be able to stop for long in any event. Lousain's spies are everywhere."

"Such as his dark birds?" the gnome asked, recalling their last venture.

"Uh huh," the professor continued, packing his gear and checking his arrows. "Not to mention the troll patrols. We'll have to avoid them."

"We should be able to do that if we're careful," Nick assured him. "Speaking of which, I take it that we're pressing on?"

"We should," Ferali replied. "David is right in that the wizard's infernal spies are everywhere."

"Give us about ten minutes," the immortal Crusader requested as he turned to relay the news onto Eve.

"Right," Dave agreed, completing his own packing.


Several hours later, the group had ridden through the pass and entered the Dark Lands. The barren landscape and acrid air repulsed Eve and Deirdre. To Dave and Ferali, their previous experiences in this desolate place had prepared them for this stage. Nick's own background as a knight gave him some measure of protection as well.

"Stay sharp!" Dave reminded the others.

"How much farther to the Pit, Dave?" Nick inquired.

"A day and a half," the professor replied, pointing to the scarlet plume far off in the distance. "It's just on the other side of that volcano. Remember, we need to keep a low profile. We're on Lousain's turf now."

As they all agreed, the group silently pressed on. Their ride took them past several cracks in the ground that spewed clouds of heated ash. In the distance, a constant beating sound almost like war drums could be heard.

"I wonder if this is what Mother felt like in Japan before dealing with Yodoshi's troops," Eve mused nervously, looking about.

"I'm sure," Dave replied. "But knowing Xena, she didn't back down and neither can we." Then, he went silent as well. The fragment in his shoulder throbbed to the same beat as the din, telling him that Lousain was using it to track them. "Damn it!" he realized.

"What is it, David?" Eve asked with concern. "Are you in pain?"

"Nothing I can't stand," he muttered. "No, we need to find a way to block the effects of the fragment for a while. He's using it against us."

"How?" Deirdre wondered.

"It's acting like a homing beacon," Nick realized. "That's why you wanted to keep moving, isn't it?"

"Right," the professor concurred. "But, I can use it against him as well." Focusing, he used his abilities to determine the background "noise". From there, he created a "shield" of sorts to match their surroundings. "There," he told the others. "The problem's solved for the time being. At least, I won't be as evident to him." Seeing the others' confusion, he noted, "I'm blending in with the rest of this garbage around us. He'll really have to concentrate to see us now. Come on, I don't know how long I can keep this up."

"We're with you, Brother," Ferali assured him, reaching up and gripping his friend's hand.

"I know that, but thanks," Dave expressed appreciatively as they quickened their pace. The volcano loomed ever closer and with it, the gaping maw into which they had to go. For now, they had to reach it before the Enemy found them.

Chapter 21

[Dahak's Realm]

Lousain sat nearby the demon lord, concentrating on the progress of their adversaries. He admired their efforts to confound him, but he managed to overcome these obstacles nonetheless.

"So, where are they?" Dahak wondered, eager to crush their foes.

"They have split their forces," the wizard noted. "The smaller advance group has entered my realm. The larger army is still a day's ride behind them. Patience is needed at this point. In fact...." He stopped the report right there as his face went white and then turned a dark shade of red. "NO!"

"You've lost them, haven't you? I figured Dubois and the Messenger would figure out your little trick," his comrade taunted. "We should send the trolls out to find them."

"No," the wizard disagreed. "The trolls are for the main army. I will be waiting with a sizable contingent for them at my main chamber. Why seek them out when they will come to me?"

As much as he didn't like letting his enemies run around unaccounted for, the demon lord had to admit that Lousain had a point. "It's a gamble, but an acceptable one. Very well, Lousain. In the meantime, I will keep watch on the army."

"If you wish," the sorcerer acquiesced. "Don't stir them up too much." With that, he vanished into thin air.

"Oh, no more than needed. No more than needed," Dahak told the air where his ally had been only seconds earlier before preparing for the next stage.


[plains of Joltenheim]

Xena frowned as she scanned the trail left through the billowing grasses ahead of her. By torchlight, it was difficult to track where the others had gone. Fortunately, both she and the Amazons were expert trackers who could follow a trail blindfolded. In addition, both Ares and LaCroix had scouted ahead, letting them know they were indeed on the right track.

"For once, even those two are earning their keep. Will wonders never cease?" she cracked, taking a sip from the water skin she carried on Argo II's saddlebag.

"We're not that far behind Dave," Angie told her as she rode up closer.

"How's the link goin'?" the warrior asked.

"Dave's not responding to me. I hate it when he gets like this!" the doctor fretted.

"He's not giving his position away to Lousain," Xena guessed. "It's nothing against you, Angela, but in opening himself to you, he would also give their position away to the nasties out there."

"Whatever," Angie muttered, knowing she was right, but still concerned. "We'll be inside of that wicked place ourselves in an hour more or less."

"If we don't run into any surprises," Ares told them as he approached. "Knowing Dahak, there will be something between us and that Pit of yours."

"Count on it," the Warrior Princess declared. "Have you seen Lucius lately?"

"He's onto Eve and your vampire buddy's trail like a bloodhound," the war god reported. "In fact, here he comes."

The Elder descended in front of them, nearly spooking the horses. "We're close," he reported.

"Yeah, I had gathered that too," Xena deadpanned with an air of sarcasm and her eyebrow arched noticeably on her face. "For that, we had you go on ahead?"

"Without me, your Amazons would be guessing!" LaCroix hissed. "At least, I can sense where they went. There is nowhere that Nicholas can go where I cannot track him!"

"But you cannot find him within the Dark Lands, can you?" Grimwilkin responded. "No, the stank background to that place will confound even you. We will all discover that shortly as you have already pointed out, Angela."

Looking back, the group saw the army's torches about fifty yards behind them, the beings beneath them awaiting the orders to advance ahead. They also heard a horse coming toward them. Once within torch sight, they recognized the rider as Gabrielle.

"Hey, what's the word?" Xena requested.

"The trail definitely points toward the pass and the Dark Lands," her companion pointed out. "That's what you're finding out too, Lucius?"

"Indeed," LaCroix affirmed, shrugging in Xena's direction. "The sooner we're there, the better."

"Yeah, I'll feel better when...wait!" the warrior started to reply before feeling something threatening around them. Drawing her word, she challenged, "Awright, whatever you are! Come out!"

In their midst, a pyre shot up out of the ground spontaneously, a chuckling noise coming from its center. "Very good, Xena. Your senses are as sharp as ever. What a pity that I will have to exterminate them and you."

"Dahak, what d'ya want?" the warrior interjected impatiently, not in the mood for prattling with the Dark Lord.

"Join me before I have to kill you," the voice within the flame offered.

"What and be slaves?" Ares protested.

"You still belong to me, Traitor. I'll deal with you when the time comes," the voice declared. "Gabrielle, I am running out of patience with you as well."

"Give up on me, Dahak. I'm not going to be at your side. Not now. Not ever," the Amazon queen stated boldly.

"Very well. When you cross into my ally's realm, we will be waiting for you!" the voice promised as the flame burned out.

"Another day, another threat," Xena groused, sheathing her sword.

"This is one you should take seriously, Xena," her soul mate argued.

"Oh, don't worry about that," her counselor replied. "I am. Trust me on that one. C'mon, let's tell Harokin and Beowulf about this development before we press on." With that, the two warrioresses rode back toward the group, leaving Ares and LaCroix to hold the northern boundary of their progress.

Chapter 22

Upon hearing the news from Grimwilkin and the others, Harokin mobilized the combined forces. When he thought enough time had passed, he rode ahead, signaling for the others to follow.

"What were they thinking?" the commander groused to Grimwilkin and Beowulf. "I ought to give them a thrashing when we catch up to them."

"They are under the orders of higher authorities now, Harokin. Don't question the will of the Faerie Empress in these matters," the wizard reminded him. "They are serving their purpose. Do the same." With that, he rode on ahead to be with Xena's group.

"I wish he'd say something without speaking in riddles," the leader sighed.

"He was clear enough in my opinion," the Norse leader told him. "Besides, I'm willing to take Xena and Gabrielle's word on such matters."

"What is it about those two that has you so bewitched?" Harokin pushed.

"I have fought beside them. I owe them my life several times over. Besides, when someone like Xena relinquishes the Rheingold willingly, it says something about her honor. Finally, I have never seen anyone fight like those two against superior odds," the Viking declared. "Trust in them, Harokin. Even though they are women, they are superior to most men on the battlefield."

"Well, you'd best be right about that, Beowulf. On your word, they're leading us into that foul place," Harokin responded tersely.

"I would want nobody else for that job," Beowulf asserted. "No one else."


Just before they reached the border, Grimwilkin reached Xena's side.

"What's goin' on with our Fearless Leader?" she inquired.

"He doubts your ability. Beowulf is trying to convince him otherwise," he noted.

Her right eyebrow arched, a nonchalant smile crossed her face, and she shrugged. "So, he's sexist. And I suppose that I have to prove myself to him? Well, we'll all have a chance to prove ourselves soon enough. I don't have time for this nonsense. What do you think?"

"I have observed you on several occasions. I have no such doubts," Grimwilkin assured her.

"At least, you've got some sense then," Ares interjected. "How do your gods let an idiot like that run things?"

"He may be conservative," the wizard disagreed. "However, Harokin has proved himself in this place before. Give him time."

"That's one thing we don't have right now," Gabrielle pointed out while looking at Ares and LaCroix. "And in this type of a situation, one doesn't kick potential allies out the door no matter who or what they are."

Grimwilkin silently nodded as the group started through the pass, making their way for the dark place beyond.


Several hours later, the last of the allied forces spilled out of the pass and into the Dark Lands. As with the others before them, the warriors were disconcerted by the conditions around them.

"Terrific," Xena supposed. "Kinda reminds me of Tartarus. What do you think, Ares?"

"This is Dahak's kind of pad all right," he agreed.

Beside them, LaCroix tried to feel for Nick's presence. "Blast! I still can't tell where he is in this hellhole! No matter, I will latch onto his vibrations sooner or later. And where he is, I'm sure Livia will be close by."

"Patience, Lucius," Gabrielle advised. "We're all concerned."

"Yeah, Gabrielle, but in his own twisted way, he does care," the Warrior Princess supposed, while glancing around. "This is too easy."

"You suspect a trap?" the queen asked.

"Knowing Dahak, you betcha," her companion responded assertively. "I'm hopin' that Beowulf can keep Laughing Boy back there on his toes."

"Harokin is keeping an eye out, I assure you," Grimwilkin replied.

Sensing that something was amiss, the warrior drew her sword and scanned the area. "Speakin' of which..."

LaCroix dismounted from his steed and vamped out. "Yes, I can feel it too," he agreed. A look back confirmed the thought. "Behind us!"

Turning, they discovered the source of LaCroix's observation. The trolls had engaged the main part of the army.

"Great leader, huh?" Xena complained to Grimwilkin. "Some leader! Let's go! C'mon, Angela! Yah, Argo!" With that, she galloped ahead, leading the others back into the fray.

"Amazons! Attack!" Gabrielle ordered, reinforcing her friend's position. Drawing her sword, she prepared for the worst.

Ahead of the charging Amazons, Xena gripped her chakram and flung it straight into the horde. Making like a pinball, the circular weapon careened, slashed, and bashed through several trolls before returning to her hand.

Executing her battle cry, she pulled up on the rein and executing a double flip, landed in the midst of the melee. "I was wonderin' when you guys were gonna show up!" she exclaimed, slashing into the first troll within reach.

Her group attacked with equal ferocity. Appearing in their midst, Ares began to hack at some creatures while blasting at others. LaCroix stabbed at several and snapped the necks of several others. In addition, Gabrielle and her fellow Amazons carved a swath through the trolls' flank.

On their end, the main army, despite some losses, held its own against the ambush. The Nurrengaardians refused to break ranks. Garth, in particular, carved, slashed, and bashed as he went, wishing he had the others' powers. Karen, recalling what the trolls did to their prisoners, blasted any and all comers.

For every enemy they took down, it seemed two others took their place. For the assembled forces, this had the makings of an impossibly difficult battle....

Chapter 23 [The Pit]

For two days, the advance party had carefully made its way across the desolate landscape. Moving from covered point to covered point whether that was a rock, cave, or a secluded pass among other things, the group avoided open ground and Lousain's patrols whenever possible. Despite the fact that the realm's volcanic eruptions and dark magic prevented the sun from shining, they knew that the denizens of that wicked place could see them very well in the darkness.

Finally, late on the afternoon of the third day in the Dark Lands, they rounded the base of the great volcano and stood near the edge of the Pit. Staring down into the stygian blackness, every member of the party except Ferali picked up on the evil awaiting them down there.

"Finally!" the gnome huffed. "I'm tired of skulking about."

"What do you think, Dave?" Nick inquired. "We might be walking right into a trap."

"No doubt about it," the professor responded matter of factly. "Lousain's going to be down there and so will his goons." At that moment, he felt the dagger shard throbbing. "Yup, he's there all right."

"So what do we do?" Deirdre wondered.

"What did the vision tell you to do?" Eve asked her.

"We...have to go down there," the priestess told them hesitantly. "Papa, I wish we didn't have to."

"So do I, Dee-Dee, but we have a job to do," her father stated. "Let's go. Nick and Ferali can take the rear, Eve and Deirdre will be in the middle, and I'll take the point."

"How do you get to go first?" the gnome pushed good-naturedly.

"I'm just suicidal," Dave replied almost flippantly as he started down the path. "Come on."


For almost an hour, the group descended down a narrow twisting, dimly-lit path almost uninhibited by the guards. One unfortunate patrol of seven trolls discovered the intruders, but quickly fell to Dave's bursts not to mention Ferali's ax and Nick's sword. Other than that, all was quiet through the first twenty levels. At this point, they came out into an antechamber.

"How much farther to the sacrificial chamber?" Eve whispered.

"Not too much farther," Dave told her. "If memory serves, we have two more levels to go."

No sooner had he said that, then Nick indicated, "I'm sensing a large number of trolls coming this way!"

"At last!" the gnome exclaimed, holding his weapon in position.

"Can't I teleport us down there?" Deirdre requested.

"And give them the chance to surround us?" her father replied. "Nice idea, but this isn't the time. How's your other magic?"

"I have a few tricks up my sleeve, Papa," the priestess assured him, forcing a smile onto her face.

"That's my girl," he complemented. "Ready, Eve?"

"Do I have a choice?" she retorted drawing her sword although she still hated the thought of shedding blood, but saw that she had no other option. In the distance, the natives' sounds could be clearly heard.

"Not really," the professor shot back. By now, the trolls' torches were reflecting off of the walls. "Here they come!"

At that moment, 200 defenders stormed into the area, waving their swords and other weapons. One particularly loathsome creature stepped into view from its comrades and taunted, "Well, aren't you all pretty? Going somewhere?"

"To see your deluded leader," Ferali challenged from his position.

"Oh, you can surrender and we'll take ya to him," the troll leader snickered. "He wants to see all of you...alive if possible, but dead if need be. Well?"

Dave winced and bent over in pain. Obviously, Lousain was pushing his buttons to see what it would take to break him. "Get...stuffed..." he growled. Now that they had encountered the Enemy, he let the "camouflage" drop so that he could focus his attention on the threat facing them. Concentrating, he channeled his energies into a single burst whose shockwave pushed the insurgents backward into their comrades. "Get them, gang!" he yelled.

Despite being outnumbered forty to one, the scouting party moved like lightning, carving into the herded trolls like a butcher cleaving fresh spareribs. Ferali's ax whirled here and there, decapitating several monsters per swing. Nick's vampiric strength and his blade made him more than a match for the Enemy. Deirdre's chants blinded several monsters and banished others to somewhere within the Mists. Forgetting her inhibitions, Eve dispatched several more with her sword. Finally, Dave used arrows, sword, whip, and mental bursts to clean up the others.

"Not bad," Nick stated.

"Too easy. You can bet there's more where that group came from. Come on!" Dave urged, almost pulling the group after him.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" Nick pointed out, noting the stress on his face. "The closer we get, the more pain you're going to feel, and the closer you're going to get to releasing the Child."

"I don't have much of a choice," the professor declared, rubbing his shoulder and gritting his teeth. "Come on!"

Seeing that they weren't going to change his mind, the others rushed down the tunnels after him.

As he ran, Nick could once again see his own efforts to hold off the Mamluks at Acre so long ago. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew his friend was right. "We must succeed no matter the cost!"

Fifteen minutes later, they reached the sacrifice chamber. Strangely, the room was deserted just like the rest of the complex. Although they could sense that their enemies were close by, the group couldn't see them.

"Stay sharp!" Ferali directed, holding his ax in preparation for the attack.

Eve glanced about as well. The air suddenly felt ice cold and dank. Drawing her sword, she concurred, "That seems like worthwhile advice."

"Indeed," Lousain agreed as he appeared on the throne in front of them. "Especially coming from a little pest such as him!" Focusing his energies, he fired a burst, smacking Ferali against the far wall. "I suppose you want to play, don't you?"

"We didn't come here to suck up to you, smart ass," Dave spat as his mind slipped further into the darkness. "Bring it on!"

The wizard smiled and snapped his fingers. At that moment, two hundred more trolls spilled out of the tunnel to his right and surrounded the group. "Are you really sure you want to do that? What do you think your chances are against them and me?"

"Better than dealing with your Hell-breath," the professor baited, his eyes locked on the wizard's position. "By the way, how's your buddy, Dahak, doing? How does it feel to be his errand boy? You know he wants to rule by himself, don't you?"

"Don't plunge eternity into darkness," Eve added. "Reconsider your position."

"Nice try," he complemented as he descended from the throne. "Still, if for nothing else, I'll enjoy watching you all die. Even if the majority of my trolls are with Dahak against your main forces, I still have enough here to deal with you!" With that, he fired another blast.

Deirdre willed up a shield, blocking it with great effort.

"Talk is cheap!" the medievalist roared, responding with dual blasts of his own which exploded against the sorcerer's shielding.

"I actually felt that," Lousain admitted, the frustration evident on his face.

"Flank him, but keep your distance!" Dave told the others. Nick and Eve each took a side with Deirdre and him in front.

Lousain laughed. "You must be joking!" Stepping back onto the throne, he ordered to his troops. "Kill them!"

His minions, eager for a fight, charged the group. Although their desire matched their counterparts, their results weren't much better as the companions dealt expediently with them. Troll after troll fell to the ground like so much firewood.

The sorcerer grew concerned over this turning of events. Thinking that four hundred troops would be more than enough to deal with these insolent intruders, he had sent all of the others out into the field. However, he saw these warriors carve the heart out of the elite of his chamber guard. Finally, after an hour, the dust settled to find the companions worse for wear, but still on their feet.

"I see you're serious about this," Lousain presumed. "Well, you can take that quality to your graves!" With that, he fired a blast at the ceiling, caving it in on top of the group. "That takes care of that," he cracked, sitting down and observing the rubble. He hoped that Dahak was doing as well on its end.

Chapter 24 [Outer Border of the Dark Lands]

Even as the Companions were fighting the trolls in the sacrificial chamber, the main army continued to hold its own against the dark forces as well. For hours, the tide of battle had swung to and fro, favoring neither side and taking heavy casualties from both of them. In the second hour of fighting, a lucky troll arrow found Harokin's heart, removing him from the conflict.

At that moment, Beowulf held his sword high, bellowing, "Men! Hearken to me! Hearken to Beowulf! We shall overcome!" Having said that, he charged right into the thick of the Enemy, cleaving the trolls' numbers.

Garth and Karen had spent the majority of battle fighting back to back. For the most part, they had accounted well for themselves, meeting out significant punishment on their adversaries either through his sword or through her bursts. Occasionally, he would use his cloak to conceal himself and kill more foes, but he stayed close to his friend most of the time.

Anger overcame Angie's usual inhibitions about violence as she struck the trolls with mental bursts as well as sword thrusts. She still didn't appreciate being left behind no matter how well Xena and Gabrielle put it. She figured that this trash needed to be disposed of and she was going to do it. The sooner the job was done, the sooner the family could be reunited.

Gabrielle, Varia, and the Amazons waded deeply into the opposition, cutting them down. Although several of the female warriors had died in the effort, they were making progress. For the queen in particular, she was proud of her sisters no matter how this affair played itself out. If they were going to go down, it would be fighting.

Xena rode between the troll platoons on Argo II, dispatching several enemies per chakram toss and disabling others with strategically placed sword thrusts. Despite a lucky swipe from a troll sword across her leg, the Warrior Princess held her own. She was worried about her "roommate" almost as much as about Dave and Eve, but seeing that the oncologist was holding her own, she kept going about her own task.

Likewise, Ares kept a close eye on Xena, concerned as always about her welfare. When this was over, he wanted to try yet again for her affections. No matter how many times she refused him, eventually he would wear down her resolve. Hey, he was a god. He could be patient about such things.

LaCroix, unlike his comrades, fought on foot, taking full advantage of his abilities. Zipping through their ranks like a will-o-the-wisp, the General cleared several trolls in the blink of an eye and continued at that pace.

Grimwilkin and Cybelle held their own with their spells and chants, driving fear into the Enemy.


Several hours later, the trolls, deciding that having lost 75 percent of their forces was enough for now, retreated.

"We've done it!" Beowulf exulted. "They're fleeing!"

Ares shook his head in disagreement. "Nah, that's too easy." Looking about, he sensed a familiar yet unwelcome presence. "Damn it!"

"What?" Varia asked. "What is it?"

In the space between the forces, Dahak appeared, not as a fiery shade, but rather, in its base demonic form. Its fangs could be seen protruding through the smile which was meant to intimidate the army.

Xena, Ares, Beowulf, and Gabrielle glared at the soldiers around them. A retreat had to be

"Fall back!" the Norse commander directed.

"I don't think so," the demon lord declared, blasting the rocky slopes of the pass and causing an avalanche. As a result, the group was sealed into the Dark Lands. "Now, you die!" Training first on the war god, it blasted Ares first, smacking him against the cliffs. In a heartbeat, the demon was on top of him, wrestling for position.

For his part, Ares dueled burst against burst with Dahak, but in the end, the latter was too powerful. After wearing down his victim, the demon delivered one final fiery blast, badly burning and scalding the god.

"So much for the traitor," Dahak sniggered. "Who's next?"

"How about you?" Xena responded bravely, not allowing her fear to show. "Maybe I can't get at Hope, but I still owe ya a few things!"

"I've been waiting a long time for this fight, Xena," the demon agreed. "I'm going to enjoy it. Get ready, Gabrielle, I intend to make you suffer as well."

The Warrior Princess exchanged glances with her soul mate, motioning toward the other empowered members of the party.

Gabrielle sighed. Obviously, they were going to flank him on several fronts. Seeing nods coming from Karen, Cybelle, Grimwilkin, LaCroix, and Angie, she rubbed her friend's shoulder. They had been through so much together. "Let's end this," she stated.

"You know it," Xena agreed. "One way or the other." Drawing her sword, she stepped forward and challenged, "Hey, Dahak, remember what I said to your so-called Deliverer? It's still true!"

The demon roared and threw a blast at her which she easily avoided.

"Was that your best shot? I hope not!" she taunted, trying to hold his attention.

"No, this is!" it replied, willing up a massive amount of energy in its claws, firing it at Xena. Although the main blast missed her, the aftershocks knocked her to the ground, momentarily stunning her. "Now, I finish this!" it crowed, picking her up by the throat. "After I kill you, I'll bury you next to Ares if you'd like."

"Bury...this," she muttered, drawing her dagger and stabbing it into the creature's side.

Dahak retreated in pain. "How?" it demanded. "No mortal should be able to harm me!"

"You know me. I have many skills," the warrior cracked, preparing for her next feint.

Then Gabrielle yelled, "Now!"

The allies, who had waited for their moment, hit the demon lord at once. Although each wasn't powerful enough on his or her own to so much as bother this enemy, together, Cybelle, Karen, Grimwilkin, and Angie knocked it off of its feet.

"Xena, let's do this!" LaCroix urged. Within seconds, he had Dahak pinned against the rocky slope behind them. Despite his enhanced strength, the vampire felt his grip slipping. "Xena, come on!"

"Patience, Lucius!" she hissed, flinging her chakram. The round blade sliced through the creature's neck, spilling its blood in a dark streak.

The demon shrugged off the General. "You'll pay for that, Lucius of Pompeii! I promise you! After I conquer every land, you will suffer along with your ingrate allies. Nicholas is suffering right now and will continue to do so by my hand!"

Although unnerved, the Elder stood and stared at the demon implacably. "If you so much as touch him, Dahak, you'll rue the day!"

"It won't live long enough," Cybelle agreed, joining him. "Get back!" Singing a chant, the priestess enveloped the wounded demon in a whirling display of lights, sounds, and buffeting winds.

"This is pretty, you sow," the demon chortled. "But you're alone now." Then, a blast hit it from behind, knocking it to the ground.

Not wasting an opportunity, Xena raised her sword and slid it right through its cold heart. "Nightie night," she taunted, turning the blade inside of it. "That was for Solen."

"The blast...was...a...goin' away present...from me," Ares said confidently, limping within eyeshot of the dying demon. "Thanks...for screwin' up...a good thing."

As Dahak's struggles grew weaker, Gabrielle stared him in the eye. "You've failed. You couldn't break up my friendship with Xena. You couldn't destroy my spirit. And now, I'm going to save our daughter."

"It...won't work," Dahak protested. "She has too much...of me."

"Hey, when she puts her mind to something, it usually gets done," Xena responded. "And we're gonna help her do it."

"I...I'm not..." it concluded and died.

"Finally!" the warrior sighed and looked at her friends. They had survived this phase of the war. The demon was gone. The trolls had retreated, leaving them to their own devices. After so much pain and sorrow, Dahak was slain and they could go on.

"Now, what about Dave and the others?" Angie demanded. "We have to get to them!"

"Indeed," Cybelle agreed, creating the misty portal. "Gabrielle, can you, Garth, LaCroix, and Beowulf keep an eye on things here? The rest of us have something to do."

"Is it not their trial?" Grimwilkin asked. "We have to let them fight it."

"But we need to be ready to step in if needed," Karen affirmed, jumping into the fog.

The other named group members joined her in the mists.

As Xena and Cybelle were about to leave, LaCroix requested, "Bring Nicholas and Livia back alive."

The two women exchanged looks at one another. Now wasn't the time for wisecracks. "Count on it," they chorused, vanishing and leaving the others on the parched dirt behind them.

Chapter 25 [Sacrificial Chamber, the Pit]

In the midst of the rubble pile, the group struggled to keep the stones off of their heads. Fortunately, between Dave's shielding and Nick's strength, the rubble did little immediate damage. Still, the former felt the strain of the rubble's weight on top of him even as the pain in his shoulder increased with each passing second.

Deirdre used the cover to create an escape hatch, shuttling the others to safety. After getting Eve and Ferali through, she pressed, "Papa, Detective Miles! Come on!"

"Go...on, Nick," Dave urged, the pain clearly evident on his face. "I...Ah'm gonna uncork in a minute an' ya'll shouldn't be here...when...Ah...I do."

The vampire started to debate, but realized what his friend was getting at. "One of these days, you're going to have to let someone else take the lead."

"What? And miss the fun?" the professor responded. "Jus' hang close in the mists. There'll be plenty for everyone."

Nick nodded and leapt into the fog. As soon as the opportunity came, however, he would be back fighting at his friend's side.

Deirdre sealed the portal, leaving her with her father. "I'm here with you, Papa."

"Go on! Git!" he bellowed.

"I can take whatever he can dish out. Now, if you need to change, then change. I'm ready for it, but I'm not leaving," she countered.

"Suit...yerself," he rasped, giving into the pain and allowing the wave of blackness to sweep him away. His left eye glinted and the smile was there, telling of the Child's dominance.

Despite preparing herself for the spectacle, she was still unnerved by the transformation going on in front of her. "Goddess, help him," she whispered fearfully. However, she forced herself to remain firm in her resolve. "Papa?"

"Naw...guess 'gain," his voice growled.

Her eyes widened, but she wouldn't back down. "The Other, right?"

"Yeah. Ya got guts, Squirt," her "uncle" complemented. "Ah like that. Now, ya ready?" Seeing her nod, he continued, "Good, Cuz we got a date with the Big Scuz out there. Ah aim to git even with 'im."

"No time like the present," the young woman quipped, trying to stay calm.

"Git ready!" he instructed, channeling the darkness out of that place into him and letting it empower him. With a single burst, he sent the rubble flying in every direction, freeing them from the pile.

Lousain smiled satisfied on his throne and clapped at the effort. "Well done, Dubois. Well done. I'd ask you where the others are, but I think your brat will tell me what I need to know."

"First of all, Big Brother ain't here," the Child snarled. "An' second, she ain't a brat!"

Deirdre managed to glare at the wizard in front of her. "And I'm not telling you anything!"

"Well...a chip off of the old block," Lousain cracked. "Too bad, she has to die here!" He fired a dark lightning bolt at her.

Creating a shield, she deflected it with great effort. Turning to her father's dark side, she suggested, "Now's a good time."

"Yes, Dear," he snickered, firing a pulse of his own and watching it impact off of the sorcerer's shield. "Time for everythin' includin' Mommy Dearest's washin' pan!" he hissed, sending blasts, pieces of masonry, and shafts flying through the air at his enemy.

While the sorcerer deflected most of the rubble, one shaft found his chest, burying itself deep in his heart.

"Ha! Score!" the Child gloated, raising his hands as if he just hit the winning home run in a baseball game.

Unfortunately, their adversary was less than impressed, pulling the shaft from his chest. The wound healed almost instantaneously. "Not quite," he said disparagingly. "You really shouldn't underestimate me! Dahak has made me immortal!" From his hands, two more blasts struck out. One of them found the Dark One's wound, staggering him.

"Now, you were saying about scoring?" the wizard taunted.

"Ya'll are gonna pay for that," the Child snarled, climbing back to his feet. Concentrating his anger, he returned fire, shoving the wizard into the wall. Using blast after blast, he kept the wizard pinned there. "Stay put!"

As this was going on, Deirdre opened the portal, allowing the other companions to reenter the area. "Go on!" she urged. "He needs help!"

Just at that moment, Lousain burst free from the psychic vice grip and managed a burst of his own.

The Child shrugged it off and retorted in kind.

It was a standoff. For several seconds, the group watched as these events unfolded.

"For Nurrengaard!" Ferali bellowed, raising his ax and charging.

"As if I'd let you do that again!" the wizard laughed, blasting the gnome into unconsciousness.

Moving at top speed, Nick blurred his way around the room, maneuvering himself behind Lousain's defenses. Finally, much as LaCroix had done with Dahak, he pinned Lousain's arms. "Get...him!"

Eve charged the throne area, looking to stop their enemy. Placing her hands on his chest, she chanted, invoking Eli's aid. "In the name of Eli and all the powers of Heaven, I command this evil presence to be cast out!!" From her hands, the familiar energies flowed forth, countering the evil within him.

In pain, the wizard let off a burst, sending her and Nick flying backward.

The former Messenger looked around fearfully. For some reason, she felt as if she were on fire; her head buzzed for some strange reason. Could this be another stage of her transformation? "I can worry about it later," she told herself, standing and assessing the situation.

"Ready to die yet?" the wizard taunted.

"Just try it," she replied coolly. Drawing upon Livia's skills to dodge his energy blasts, she executed a quadruple flip which would have made her mother jealous, landing right beside him.

"You really need to be better than that," he growled, knocking her onto the floor with more ebony energy. "Now, I'll finish you!" Charging forward, he channeled energy into his hands and looked down on her.
At that moment, Eve's mind flashed back....


[Joxer's House, c. 81 AD]

Eve saw herself back in Joxer's old barn as it was burning to the ground and the Greek gods were attacking, trying to kill her. Her mother was trying to defend her, using her newly granted god killing powers to do so. At that point, she saw Hades approaching her, his hands holding a potent energy bolt intending to kill her.

"How'd you think it would end?" the god of the Underworld had asked as he prepared to kill her.

Then, he was engulfed in flames. As he writhed in agony, she saw Xena with a torch in her hand and knew that her mother had killed him in self defense.


"How did you think it would end?" Lousain exulted just as Hades had done, ready to release the fatal blast.

Before he could do so, she stabbed upward instinctually, impaling him through the heart. Unlike Dave's shaft earlier, this wound drew blood. "How?" she wondered, not understanding what was going on.

Lousain stumbled backward, falling onto his throne. He weakly raised his head to glare at her. ""

"Eli's gift," she guessed. "I'm thankful for it right now."

"Y...You haven't seen the last...of me," he whispered, slumping into the chair as death claimed him.

"Man...what a trip," the Child groused, rubbing his head. "Ya'll okay?"

"I'm all right," Nick stated.

"None the worse for wear," Ferali reported, bracing himself on his ax.

"I think I'm fine," Eve concurred nervously, picking herself off of the ground.

"We...did it," Deirdre realized.

"We did indeed," Nick agreed, glancing at Eve and wondering what LaCroix's reaction would be to the changes going on in her.

"Good," the Child concurred, forcing the change back.

In a minute, Dave looked around and found his daughter leaning against the wall, nervously shaking like a leaf. "Are you okay?" he wondered.

"I...I can't believe it. I wish...I wasn't so nervous," the priestess stammered.

"You made it. It's okay," he soothed, hugging her. "I'm so glad you're all right."

"I wish I could've been stronger, Papa," she doubted.

"You stood up to Lousain. That takes strength, Kiddo," he assured her.

"And to your darker side too," she sighed, looking into his eyes. "Papa, how do with him? He's so angry."

"He is that, all right," her father concurred. "He would never hurt you or your sisters."

"I know," she sniffed. "He told me that I had guts and he admired that."

"He does," he agreed. "You did fine, Deirdre. We did it. I'm sure your Aunt will be very proud of you."

"Indeed," Cybelle concurred from the rear of the chamber as she stepped through the mists.

Rushing past her, Angie made her way up to the throne area where her husband and daughter were talking and embraced them. "Thank God you're both all right!" she exclaimed, hugging and kissing them both as the tears fell from her eyes. "Don't you ever leave me behind like that again!"

"I didn't want to," he noted, glancing at Cybelle. "But the Empress wanted it that way. Besides, I'm sure you had your share of excitement too."

"Oh, we did all right," Xena agreed as she hurried to Eve's side. "She helped against Dahak."

"That's...something I don't want to face again in a hurry," she declared fearfully feeling a cold shiver down her spine.

"Well, you shouldn't have to," he stated. Looking at the gnome, he added, "Ferali, you want the honors?"

The little warrior walked over to the wizard's corpse and tried to cut the hand off with the bracelet on it. However, his weapon kept bouncing off of it. "Strange, I cannot do it," he admitted. "Wouldn't his immortal resistance to weapons end with his death?"

"Not necessarily. I guess I should try," Eve suggested, albeit reluctantly as she walked over to his side and drew her sword.

"Are you sure?" Xena insisted.

"Trust her," Dave commented. "She can do it. Put it in the brazier when you're done, Eve. That flame will destroy the bracelet."

With a single stroke, the sword struck off the sorcerer's hand. Picking it up off of the floor, Eve rushed it over to the flame and threw the severed member into it.

"Eve...I...You can kill gods," her mother realized. "When did you...?"

"I just found out myself," she explained. "David tried to kill him with an arrow, but after that failed, I stabbed him."

"Amazing," Xena noted, wondering how this was going to change things between them. Seeing her daughter linger before the throne. "What's wrong, Eve?"

"So much blood. I can't believe I killed so many today," the former Messenger complained. "It's my new role, but it troubles me so! How do you deal with it?" Tears flowed from her eyes.

The warrior embraced her tightly, advising, "It's a day to day struggle. If this is what Eli wants from you, then this is what you must do. Just exercise restraint in all matters, Eve. Gabrielle and I will be there to help you."

"I know," Eve agreed, trying to keep her composure. "It's just going to take some getting used to."

"Well, it's time to be getting out of here," Cybelle stated, opening a portal. "Let's get the horses and get out of here. Deirdre, once everyone's gone, I want to talk to you."

"Okay, Auntie," the younger priestess agreed reluctantly, expecting a lecture.

Everyone else stepped into the mists and the High Priestess sealed them, insuring their privacy.

"What is it? What did I do wrong?" Deirdre worried.

The elder woman smiled warmly. "Nothing, Dear. You did very, very well, and I am so proud of you." Kissing the top of her niece's head, she praised, "The goddess should be pleased. You passed your rite of passage. Congratulations."

"You mean...I?" the exasperated girl wondered.

"You sure did," Cybelle reiterated. "Now, let's go. The others are waiting."

Reopening the mists, the two women walked through and left the carnage far behind. The triumphs were sweet, especially against the overwhelming odds placed in front of them.

Chapter 26 [Former battlefield outside of Nurrengaard]

Without the threat of attack from Lousain, Dahak, or the trolls, Cybelle and Deirdre transported the troops back to the citadel in one step. Francesca was relieved to see that her friends had survived their ordeal for the most part although she shared in her friends' mourning for the fallen Amazons and the city's deceased heroes.

Meroli received the group in the Great Hall with all due honors. The citadel's leader knew immediately that victory was theirs when the skies brightened and the black smudge on the horizon dissipated. While saddened by the death of his ally, Harokin, the Dark Lands would no longer threaten the combined worlds. For that, the heroes were to be congratulated.

But first, there was other business to be performed....Before the New Age could begin, the old one had to be properly closed out. Their allies had to be properly sent to the Other Side. Already, he had the citizens constructed biers for the funeral that evening. He hoped it would be a fitting one.


The sun set brilliantly in the western sky, leaving a multi-colored mosaic for just a moment in its wake. Perhaps, it was a fitting tribute to the fallen that were about to be honored. The affair brought contingents from every affected place. Cybelle and Deirdre represented Althanor. Ferali represented Nurrengaard, but also as Harokin's designated heir, the kingdom as well. Paulus stood at Eve's side, amazed at the changes that had taken place in his friend. LaCroix and Nick stood in for the Community. Xena, Gabrielle, and the surviving Amazons represented their nation. Ares, heavily bandaged, was there on behalf of Olympus. Finally, Dave, Angie and the others stood in for Outer Earth.

"It is a sad time for us all to say goodbye to those friends who fought and died for our freedoms. We shall always remember their sacrifice," Meroli stated. "We have suffered too many losses to the darkness in the three encounters. Hopefully, this will be the last time. I can say to the other kingdoms that have stood with us that we are grateful for the assistance. Your fallen will always be remembered with esteem. I will now turn things over to the next speaker, our good friend, Ferali. Ferali?"

The gnome solemnly took his place on the dais and glanced about at the audience for a minute before starting his piece. "My Friends, I have to admit that I'm not very good with words and would rather let my ax speak for me, however, I wish to say a few things. About my friends who have fallen, as Meroli indicated, you will always be remembered in the Great Halls of my kingdom. To Harokin, I shall miss you. You were my greatest teacher and friend in all things. I hope to bring honor to the throne as your successor. Thank you. May you all be at peace now."

"Queen Gabrielle?" Meroli requested.

The bard nodded and replaced her friend at the dais. "My friends, thank you for allowing me to speak. We have all suffered in the struggle against Dahak and Lousain through a variety of means. I mourn for my fallen sisters. As always, I mourn for the loss of my young friend, Solen, and the lost childhood of my daughter, Hope. I also feel your sorrow, people of Nurrengaard, for your fallen sons, fathers, husbands, and friends. May Eli be with them and with us all in our time of need."

"David?" Meroli asked.

The professor walked painfully up to the platform and embraced his friend who stood there waiting for him. "That was great," he complemented. "Thanks for sharing." Seeing her take her seat next to Xena, he continued, "Friends, thank you for coming to honor our fallen comrades. It seems that we have finally defeated the Enemy. That feat took three battles and several losses not to mention wounds of various types. The loss of our dear allies in particular will be impossible to replace. I have fought beside hundreds of valiant soldiers during our conflict many of who lost their lives to keep us all safe. To my liege lord, Harokin, I speak for both Garth and myself, thank you for helping to inspire us and make us better soldiers.. As we step forward today, may we keep their sacrifices in mind and do honor to their memories. In that way, we can forge a new relationship between our realms that will be positive for all. Can Gabrielle, Xena, Eve, Paulus, Angie, Beowulf, Cybelle, Deirdre, Meroli, and Ferali step forward please?"

The others did so, albeit confusedly.

As she walked up, Xena reminded him, "Umm, there's Nicholas and Lucius to consider."

"Right," he agreed. "Nick, LaCroix, please come forward. You too, Ares."

Nick walked up there briskly, guessing at his friend's intent. LaCroix and Ares took a bit longer, not really caring to associate with the mortals in any way, shape, or form.

When they reached the dais, Dave continued, "These are your new leaders: friends of the fallen and forgers of the New Age. May we do honor to their memory."

Everyone grasped hands and held them high in the air, reinforcing the words in the speech.

Given the charge in his words, there wasn't a dry eye left in the house.

"Now, Meroli, Ferali, Gabrielle, can you do the honors for our friends?" Dave requested.

"Xena, whenever you're ready," Gabrielle stated. Seeing a nod from her friend, she picked up a torch and approached the line of deceased Amazons. "My sisters, I honor you now. May you be at peace."

As the queen lit the biers one by one, Xena sang the Greek funeral melody for their fellow Amazons. The smoke rose from the wrapped bodies as their souls rose with the smoke seeking out the Land of the Dead.

Meroli was next. As Xena continued her doleful tune, he committed his fallen comrades to the fire as well, allowing them to find Paradise. When he reached Harokin, he requested, "Ferali?"

The gnome stood and joined his ally. Taking the torch, he stated, "Farewell, Harokin, may you be at peace." With that, he gave his predecessor over to the flames. "May we never have to go through this again, my friends!" he stated to the crowd, allowing himself to show emotion for one of the few times in his life.

As one, the group hung their heads and offered prayers to their respective deities, seeking comfort and inspiration at that point. At least there was now a vision of hope for the future to make things easier.

Chapter 27


Michael stared grimly into the viewing pool. He had hoped to teach Dave and the others a lesson in humility through this ordeal. However, the desired impression hadn't been made. Indeed, Dave hadn't had to go anywhere near Dahak's realm, thereby avoiding the fate foretold in the prophecy.

"Your grandson is resourceful, Lorenzo," he remarked to the angel standing on his left.

"He is, Michael," Lorenzo replied nervously, not wanting to test the archangel.

"Why are you so upset?" Raphael wondered. "The balance has been restored."

The blond archangel shook his head. "No, it hasn't. After the demon lord perished, several souls escaped Tartarus. Dubois and the others will have to face them at some point." Turning from the pool, he requested, "Lorenzo, Fleur, please go to them."

The two angels bowed and vanished in a beam of light.

"Let's hope that everything will indeed turn out right, Raphael," Michael declared to his fellow archangel. "Let us hope for that."


[Citadel of the Four Winds, Nurrengaard]

Later that night, Cybelle paced about in her quarters. For some reason, she felt as if something was about to happen, but didn't know what it could have been. With the conflict over, what else could there be?

Then, the Faerie Empress appeared in front of her, bearing a container. "Greetings, Cybelle," she said amicably.

"What can I do for you?" the priestess inquired, taking the vessel.

"Make sure that Nicholas drinks the contents of that container. It is his first step back towards mortality," the luminescent woman explained.

"Absolutely," Cybelle agreed. If this stuff would help the Crusader toward humanity and even possibly break his link with LaCroix, she would pour it down his throat if needed.

"Excellent," the other woman concluded. "I am needed on Earth. Thank you, Cybelle, for your continued assistance. May the goddess smile on you." With that, she faded away.

"Now to find Nicholas," the priestess told herself, stepping into a portal and vanishing from view.


Nick stood on the castle walkway looking at the moonlit field far below. The remains of the pyres below still smoldered although the bodies were mostly ash by that point. How many battles had he seen? How many funerals had he attended? Far too many for his taste, he concluded. Even as he considered this situation, his mind flashed back once again....


[Acre, 1291]

Two nights following the fall of the citadel, Nick returned to Acre. All around him lay the ruins of the formerly prosperous city, and with it, the walls had been torn down, buildings demolished, fields salted and plowed under and no trace of anyone either Christian or Muslim around for miles. While he had seen the smoke and flames licking at the sky from his cave retreat, he hadn't believed that the Mamluks had wiped out the city and with it, the Crusader kingdoms. Outremer was now under the sway of Islam.

Then, in the town's former center, he discovered Bernardus lying in the midst of the ruins. "Bernardus!" he exclaimed.

"Nicolas?" the elderly man asked. "Bless you. Before you go, take this...Despite what you are, you must have hope." He held a small bundle out in a shaking extended hand

"What I am?" the knight probed, taking the wrapped package.

"Yes...a creature of the night. A vampire. I have known, but kept it...secret. You...are a God...hasn't," the ecclesiastic concluded to his last breath, expiring at the end.

"Who would have believed it? What do we do now?" he asked himself. Feeling a familiar vibration behind him, he saw LaCroix descend behind him.

"I believe, Nicholas, that we move on. Nothing lasts forever. Consider Rome, the strongest Empire of its time. Eventually it withered away and collapsed. This so-called slave dynasty will rise and fall as well only to be replaced by a stronger power. Even as the Eastern Empire weakens today. It too will fall in its own time," the Elder noted flatly. "As if slaves and plebians could rule effectively in any event."

The younger vampire almost cracked a smile at the other's last bit of cynicism, but he knew better than to risk a thrashing from the former patrician.

"Come along, Nicholas," LaCroix bade, taking off into the night.

Taking one last look around, Nick tried to take in as much as he could of this place. Over the past 80 years, he had fought here off and on, spilling so much blood, and losing much in the process. LaCroix was right. It was indeed time to move on. Without looking back, he followed his master's lead, disappearing into the inky blackness over the Mediterranean.


[Present Day]

"Another new beginning," he mused to himself, holding the piece of Bernardus' relic in his gloved hand. He had carried it in the layers of his armor during the battle perhaps as a sign of good fortune. In any event, he considered it in the moonlight.

"Thank you, my friend, and to God as well," he expressed to the sky.

"Well put," Cybelle complemented as she appeared behind him. "Are you okay?"

"Fine. I was just thinking about things and recalling another battle just like this one. Dave's right. This battle was the end of an Old Age and the beginning of a new one," he explained.

"My brother the philosopher," she cracked, handing him the container. "For you, your nightly nourishment straight from the Faerie Empress herself."

"The Empress? Why would she concern herself with this?" he wondered, considering the container and its contents. It looked and smelled like cow blood, but something was different about it.

"She's not trying to poison you, Nicholas," she insisted. "Go ahead. It's her way of thanking you."

"Very well," he relented, drinking the liquid down. As he finished it, he felt a buzzing in his head and a rush of adrenaline flow through him. "What? What is this?" he asked her.

"To what are you referring?" she inquired.

"There was something else in that blood," he declared suspiciously. "What was it?"

"Perhaps, something to help you," the Empress noted, appearing in their midst. "I have given you a measure of freedom, Nicholas. The feeling you're experiencing now is from your body's aging so to speak. By the end of the evening, you will be superior to Lucius in every way. You may only be 800 years old, but your abilities will be that of a 3000 year old immortal. You are also free of the need to drink blood. You may still do so to mix with other vampires if you wish, but you no longer need to do so in order to survive. Finally, the grip that Lucius has over you is dying. Within a few hours, he will no longer be able to influence you."

"How will this affect my relations with Janette and Alyce?" he wondered.

"Alyce and Janette have imbibed similar aging drinks. The former is the equivalent of 800 years old while the latter has regained her former stature. In addition, while Lucius no longer has a hold over Alyce, you will still be able to influence Janette in a minor way. Such assistance does come with a price, Nicholas," the Empress detailed.

"And that is?" he pushed. "Forgive me, but I need to know."

"Of course," the Empress agreed. "You will become the Elder of the Tucson community. You are aware of the effort which your friend, David Dubois, is about to undertake, are you not?"

"With the new mutants? Yes. What about it?" he asked, looking for more information.

"This idea is a model experiment of cooperation and unity between ordinary mortals, those enhanced mortals, and vampires. Of course, as you have seen, several forces will oppose this venture. You must stand by your friend's side and assist in bringing this vision to reality. Lucius will also work toward it, but in another venue," she continued.

"As if he's just going to up and leave," he scoffed. "Excuse me, but I know him too well for that. He still considers me a child."

"You are no longer that, Nicholas, nor have you been so for a long time," Cybelle disagreed. "Lucius needs to be in Toronto, working with your fellow Elders to deal with those renegade vampires. Another is working with him to see that."

"Another Who?" he pressed.

"Yes, that is all you need to know for now. Thank you once again, Nicholas, for your assistance. Know that this is your first step back towards mortality. You are making a difference," the Empress concluded, fading into the night.

"So, I'm really changed," he declared, still trying to take it all in.

"If she says you are, then you are. Nicholas, you're a good friend to my brother. He trusts you implicitly as do the new mutants. He appreciates your help and so do I. Thank you," she assured him. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to be heading back to Althanor. I'll see you tomorrow night."

With that, she stepped back into the mists and vanished, leaving him to his thoughts.

Chapter 28

Even as Nick drank the blood-elixir, Dave and Angie walked through the gardens far below. Even at night, the blooms still smelled sweet, the moonlight's gentle shading lit their skin, and the leaves' rustling in the wind provided a tranquil setting for them.

"It's so peaceful," she noted happily, leaning her head against his shoulder.

"It's that all right," he agreed, taking a deep breath and looking around. In his mind's eye, he recalled the two other times they strolled through this place. First, they had been so hopeful following the last battle with Lousain. Then, they had taken some of their first steps as a married couple here as well following their ceremony in Faerie Land. Thrice, he had fought for this place. Thrice, he had won by the skin of his teeth. Who knew if the wizard was truly dead? "Given everything's that been going on, the peace and quiet is nice," he declared.

"Magog, demons, and trolls, oh my!" she quipped.

"It was nice to be on the offensive rather than the defensive, wasn't it?" he cracked.

"I'd rather avoid such things and let Xena handle it, thank you very much," she replied frankly. "You, however, tend to rush into these situations. Sometimes, I think you relish them."

"You know I don't," he disagreed. "I'm not going to let one of these jerks take anything from me or anyone I care about. At least, we can finally enjoy some peace."

"I hope you're right, David," his grandfather's voice concurred.

The two companions watched as the angel appeared in front of them. He appeared grim yet his eyes shone with pride.

"What are you referring to, Grandpa?" the professor asked.

"There are bigger things in store for you all. As Nicholas is finding out, you're all part of an experiment in peaceful communal interrelations. Tucson is to be a place where mutants, so-called "normal" people, and vampires can co-exist, tolerate each other, and even learn to accept one another."

"So, where do we figure into this?" she wondered.

"You both are the coordinators of this vision," he related. "When you touched base with Adam and his friends, you established the foundation for this relationship. Soon, David, your vision will start to become reality. Of course, there will be those who will oppose it."

"Causing the obligatory fighting for him, I suppose?" she sighed. "Grandpa Alvaro, why?"

"Anything worthwhile must be defended, Angela," Lorenzo replied. "In this case, from those who you have already faced and a few you haven't seen yet. A great test of faith remains for you both as well. Stay strong and firm."

"And what does Michael think of all this?" Dave inquired.

"I'd rather avoid that question right now," his grandfather replied flatly. "Let it be said that I am very, very proud of you both as well as Cybelle and Deirdre. My love to all of you." With that, he vanished into the night.

"I wonder what he meant by that?" Dave posed.

"I'm sure we'll find out soon enough. For now, let's just enjoy the evening, okay?" she requested.

He smiled warmly as he looked into her eyes and admired how they sparkled in the moonlight. "You betcha," he concurred as he held her tightly against him and kissed her passionately, allowing their feelings to surface freely and without inhibition.


Xena entered the hospice area reluctantly. While she really didn't care to check on Ares, she wanted to make sure he was recovering all right. Dahak had hit him hard during the battle and for a while, they weren't certain if he would pull through. She finally stopped at the fifth bed on the right, looking down upon the resting war god.

"I knew you couldn't stay away," he declared confidently.

"I was bored," she deadpanned, arching her eyebrow and studying his face. Despite his injuries, he was still the same Ares. "Besides, I felt the urge to do another good deed today."

"Oh, is that it?" he probed. "Does Gabrielle know you're here?"

"She does," the warrior replied evenly. "We wanted to make sure you're okay and to thank you for your help."

"Hey, what are friends for, right?" he shrugged, a warm sparkle showing through in his eyes. "Despite what you all think of me, Xena, I do care about what happens to you."

"I'm touched," she told him. "I'm beginning to think that you might actually have some potential after all."

"Hey, ya never know," he cracked. "Seriously, if this new order that your buddy, Dubois, is involved in does come about, I'll have to be a part of it somehow."

"Unless I choose to take you out of it," she warned. "Look, Ares, you work with us, we'll work with you, okay?"

He nodded. The days of his running rampant behind huge armies were long since past thanks to Eli. "Hey, a guy's gotta have someone to hang with, right?"

"Speaking of which, how's Aphrodite? Gabrielle was curious," Xena asked curiously.

"Sis is fine. She's off searching for the perfect powder puff or something like that," he supposed half-seriously. "She was here earlier, ya know. You just missed her."

"Too bad. I really wanted to say hello," Xena concluded. "You get your rest. Thanks again."

"You're welcome and thanks for coming by. I appreciate it," he stated. Seeing the doubt in her eyes, he pressed, "No really. Thank you."

She straightened slightly, not sure how to take that last statement. Was it genuine or not? Only time would tell. "You're welcome. Sleep well." With that, she departed from the area, leaving him to his slumber and deeper musings.


A few hours later, Ferali wandered through the complex, struggling with his robes, and the weight of his new office. Always, he had fought first, rushing headlong into battle without hesitation and leaving the questions for later. As the leader of Harokin's land, he could no longer be so forthright or, as some had labeled him, reckless. He had a responsibility to his people now.

"You won't be so free to fly now, my friend," he said to the ax, considering each nick and scratch along its razor edge. Being a leader meant playing the politician as well as the warrior. The learning process in this regard would be a long one, but he knew that Harokin's advisors were the best. Hearing a noise, he swung about, challenging, "Who's there?"

Dave replied, "Easy, Chief, it's just Angie and me."

She added, "We were out in the garden, reminiscing and relaxing before we return to our lives tomorrow."

Remembering that they had come here after the wedding as well as the second battle with Lousain, Ferali responded, "Good memories, I'm sure."

"The best," she agreed. "How are you holding up?"

"I'm fine, my friends. I am just getting used to being the leader is all," the gnome told them. "I hate politics and all of that nonsense."

"That makes two of you," Angie kidded them both good-naturedly. "Seriously, it's been an adjustment for my hubby here and it will be for you as well."

Her husband simply rolled his eyes and deadpanned, "My wife, the critic."

"Hey, someone's got to keep you in line," she giggled, rubbing his right shoulder.

He grinned, allowing his eyes to sparkle into hers for a moment before returning his gaze to the newly-minted ruler. "You'll do a great job, Pal. Just be patient with yourself and give yourself time to grow into the role. I'm sure you'll do fine. There's nobody with whom I would rather go into battle except possibly for Xena. No offense meant."

"And none taken. I have seen her prowess. She is a fine warrior and friend, as is the queen of the Amazons. Please give them both my best. I will be leaving very early in the morning for my new homeland and will not get a chance to see them ere I do. As for you both, if you ever need a home or assistance, the doors to my citadel will always be open to you," Ferali noted.

"As will ours," Dave invited in return, embracing his friend. "My brother-in-arms, may you live long and rule well."

"And may the new age you spoke of today come to pass, my friend," the gnome returned the complement with one of his own. "You will play an important role in this new order...both of you. Know that the heralds will sing of your deeds against the darkness. You have grown so much since we first met so long ago." Feeling a tear crease his cheek, he sighed, realizing that this was farewell. "Go in peace, my Brother. May you find the inner harmony you seek." With that, he turned and walked back into the keep and out of sight.

"He's some friend," she stated. "We owe him so much."

"We do...that's for sure," Dave concurred, feeling a pang of sadness and regret deep in his gut. "But, we all have our destinies. Let's hope our roads all cross again someday."

"Hear, hear," Angie laughed as they followed their friend's path into the castle towards the rest they so desired.

Chapter 29

On the next evening, the group stood in the main garden of the citadel. Meroli had organized a going away feast in their honor where everyone wined and dined until they were ready to roll away from the affair. The minstrels played their finest songs and the revelers sang and danced until the party ended.

Now, it was time to depart. Before they did so, however, the citadel's administrator stated, "David and Garth, you have served our realms well over the years. May you prosper as a reward for your faithful service over the years." Turning to Xena, Eve, and Gabrielle, he declared, "May you and your Amazon sisters always have good fortune and happiness." To the two vampires, he added, "May you both find good fortune." Finally, to everyone, he stated, "The doors of Nurrengaard will always be open to you. Please feel free to visit if you'd like."

"Indeed," Grimwilkin concurred. "I would add to Cybelle and Deirdre that their realm's help was also deeply appreciated. May your goddess always smile on you."

"Thank you, Grimwilkin," the high priestess accepted. "May your beard never turn too gray."

His wizened face twisted into a smile. "My thanks, Lady. Now, shall we?" Raising his staff high above his head, he teleported them all away, leaving nothing in their wake.



When the flash dimmed, the group found themselves on the west side of the Old Pueblo. The street lights were dim and most folks slept soundly since it was the middle of the night.

"This is where Ferali and I found you. So that I won't be seen, I figure this is the best place to leave you. Everyone, to echo Meroli, you have my thanks as well as those of the Inner Realms. May your dreams always come true. Remember, David, to reach us, just use the crystal," the wizard related. "Please feel free to come for an occasional visit if you'd like."

"We'd like that," Angie accepted.

"Right," Garth and Karen chorused.

"Indeed," Dave agreed, bowing to the wizard. "Thank you for everything, Grimwilkin."

"The same to you. Good luck with your new venture. Much success," the elderly traveler replied before vanishing in a bright flash of light.

Cybelle took a look around before stating, "Well, that's our cue. Deirdre, can you take your parents home? I'll take care of Garth and Karen."

"Take care, Garth," the professor advised his friend, shaking his hand.

"You both do the same," his friend told them. "We'll talk in a few months at our reunion, okay? Say hi to Steve Petersen when you see him."

"We'll do that," Angie declared. "Karen, you take care as well. Kiss the godkids for us."

Stepping into the mists, she called back, "I will!"

A moment later, LaCroix declared, "I too have a long journey of sorts to make. Nicholas, stop by the El Gato Negro tomorrow with Alyce and the Doctor after sunset if you would. Dubois, I'll expect you, Livia, Xena and Gabrielle as well." With that, he flew away into the night.

"What was that all about, I wonder?" Eve queried.

"We have a lot to discuss," Nick surmised. "We've all changed in one way or another. Before we move ahead, we all need to know what to expect."

"Know what to expect from LaCroix?" Dave cracked. "That's a good one."

"Be serious, Dave," the former Crusader directed. "LaCroix's not happy with everything that is going on. However, urgent matters have arisen, demanding his attention, and soon, ours as well. Well, if you'll excuse me, Alyce is awaiting me." With that, he took off into the night, leaving Dave, Angie, Eve, and Deirdre behind.

"Ready, everyone?" the priestess asked, opening the portal. After they stepped through, she closed it behind them, removing all traces of their return.


Natalie rushed out of her car and up the stairs of the warehouse to Nick's apartment. For several days, he had been missing without a trace. Then, out of the blue, he called, requesting her as well as Tracy, Steve, and Schanke over to his place. They had beat her there, leaving her to finish a lab report. When she got to the top of the stairs, the ME saw her friends with Alyce waiting for her in the loft. Nick was standing by the sink with a row of familiar jade bottles.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"Nick says he doesn't need blood anymore," Schanke summarized in disbelief. "Have you ever heard of a vampire not needing blood?"

"I don't believe it either," the curator added, her face scrunched in disbelief. "But with everything that's happened over the past twenty four hours, anything's possible."

Nat's face broke into a smile and she exclaimed, "Nick, are you cured?"

"No, not yet anyway," he disagreed. "But, it's the next best thing. Nat, I don't need the blood anymore! I still have my abilities but without the hunger. Also, I've been aged to 3,000 years."

"And I am now apparently 800 years old," Alyce reported, still trying to take it all in. "Still to be able to take in blood as a casual thing and not as an item of need is nice."

"So, you're not cured, but yet, you no longer need to feed," Natalie repeated the gist. "Remember what happened with that experimental drug back in Toronto, Nick? How do you know this is permanent?"

"Because it is a gift from the Faerie Empress," Cybelle replied with certainty as she appeared from the mists. "Come, Lucius awaits you all at the El Gato Negro."

"LaCroix's waiting for us?" the coroner wondered, a shiver running down her spine as she recalled the night from Azure.

"It's going to be okay, Natalie," Steve reassured her.

"If it's what I think it is, Nat, he won't be hurting anyone," Nick assured her. "Right, Cybelle?"

"Indeed," the High Priestess concurred, motioning for them to enter and sealing herself and them inside once they had done so.


LaCroix sipped moodily from a glass of bloodwine, looking about the bar for answers to his unspoken questions. During the previous evening, a great deal had happened. First, his link to Nick had been severed suddenly. Then, Fleur appeared to him, telling him that the event had indeed happened. She had added that two other things were happening, needing his attention. The Renegades had regrouped in Toronto. Accordingly, he would fly there on the next available flight. Once there, Divia would be waiting for him as a fellow Elder along with the other members of the Council.

"I don't believe that Nicholas is ready to be an Elder," he groused.

"Someone thinks so," Janette disagreed, pouring herself a cup of bloodwine. "He has the respect of the Community, with a few exceptions. Besides with Dubois and Xena behind him, no immortal will cross him. Since I don't want the job personally, and he is my master, I'm supporting him."

"I think so too," Vachon concurred with the the lady of the night.

"Good point," the Roman admitted, albeit reluctantly. "Perhaps, he will finally make me proud. It's time for him to take his place in the Community." Considering the possibilities, he hoped that everything would finally work out the way he had always hoped...the way Destiny dictated. Ironically, Xena, Dubois, and Livia would assist in this process. All he had to do is stop fighting and go along with it. Seeing the aforementioned people enter the club, he greeted, "Please do come in."

"Would you like a drink?" Janette proposed.

"No thanks," Dave declined, taking a seat and watching the General very carefully. For tonight, he had decided to keep the Child under wraps in order to listen to what the Blowhard had to say for himself.

"Remember what Angela and I talked with you about, David," Xena advised.

"I know," he retorted sharply. Seeing the mists forming in the corner, he stated, "Ah great, they're here! Let's get this show on the road, shall we?"

"I concur," Cybelle noted, guiding the others out of the mists. "We're here, Lucius. State your peace."

The former Roman took another deep sip of his drink to deepen the anticipation in the room and to let them all who was truly in control of the situation. "In a minute. Are you sure you won't have some wine, Nicholas? It's truly divine."

"No thanks. Not from you. Not anymore," the former knight disagreed, accepting a glass of straight white wine from Janette.

"Get on with it, Lucius," Xena growled low, tapping her fingers on the table. "We don't have all night."

The Elder frowned. "If you insist," he replied flatly. "Everyone, I have an announcement. I am leaving Tucson effective tomorrow evening. I have business to attend to in Toronto."

"Talk about your urban renewal projects," Dave snickered.

"Do you mind, Dubois?"

The professor glared at the immortal. "Actually, I do, but please, continue. Humor us."

"That is so kind of you," LaCroix stated, the sarcasm dripping from his words. "The Renegades have reorganized in Toronto, and I must meet their threat there. In my absence, Nicholas, you will be the city Elder and head of the Tucson Community. I trust you can hold things together in my absence?"

Looking to Dave, Xena, Tracy, Nat, and Schanke each in turn, Nick declared, "I think I can, LaCroix. Attend to the Renegades. If you need the Community's assistance, you just have to ask for it."

The General smiled warmly. "Thank you, Nicholas, for the gesture. I might have to hold you to it. Believe it or not, I am counting on everyone else to help hold order here as well. I never thought I would ask you, Xena, but..."

The Warrior Princess was about to tell him to get lost, but quick looks from Gabrielle and Eve cut that response short. Instead, she shrugged, locking eyes with him and remarking with an intensity unique to herself, "Since I like peace and quiet, and I want the world to see that Nicholas is a better leader than you are, I'll be here as will we all. Rest assured of that, Lucius. Have fun with Divia. I hear she's chompin' at the bit to see ya." An icy smile spread across her face as she saw him wince at the thought of the teenaged vampiress.

Collecting himself, he managed to respond somewhat cavalierly, "I think I will be able to hold my own this time." Finishing his drink, he concluded, "I bid you all vale. Remember, I'm trusting you all to keep the status quo." With that, he departed from the room, leaving the others to consider the weight of his words.

"Madre de Dios!" Vachon realized after a few minutes. "Miles, you really are in charge."

"He's really gone," Natalie added. "Nick, you're free."

"In one sense, I am," the former Crusader assessed, refilling his glass with more wine. "On the other hand, I have a greater burden than ever, being an Elder and all."

"I am glad to hear you say that, Nicolas," Janette interjected, placing her glass on the counter. "Despite what LaCroix said, the Community still has several problems."

"And we'll help him any way we can," Tracy emphasized.

"You said it," Schanke concurred. "Anythin' for a partner."

"We're here with you all the way," Natalie concurred.

"As are we," Dave chimed in, getting nods from the Amazon trio beside him. "Here's to an ordered community. While we have lots of work to do to get the ball rolling, I think we can work together to make things better."

"You said it," Alyce agreed, clinking her glass against his.

"Eli make it so," Eve wished, joining them along with everyone else in the room. For the first night, the hard work awaited, but things were off to a promising start....


Even as the toast was made, a mysterious rider in black sped down Fourteenth Street, looking around at the surroundings. Eventually, the bike stopped in front of the El Gato Negro, and the rider removed an equally dark helmet, allowing her brunette hair to spill forth. This was a new place for her, but there would be no rest as long as the goons persuing her were on her tail. Although she didn't understand why, the woman felt a tug to the bar. "Strange," she mused, putting her helmet back on. Gunning the throttle, she took off into the night, little suspecting what role she would play in the plans being hatched in that place and vice-versa.

THE END (for now....)

(**Well, another trilogy in the books!! Whew! I hope you enjoyed it! Anyhow, as you can see, there's still more coming in the Dubois Chronicles! Look for "The New Girl in Town" where Nick and company run into the Mystery Biker soon! Please send comments to Thanks for reading and stay tuned!**)

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