The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. Ares and Aphrodite are mythological characters and therefore don't really belong to anyone. All other characters are created by myself, and belong to me.
This story depicts several scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. Caution - this story is more violent than a typical episode on the show.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If that kind of story scares you, click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
An element of this story was inspired by Brigid Doyle's superb fanfic Strength Of Vision.
Written: November 2010.
Korkyra and FionaRae - Thanks for giving me a hand :)
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Reflection is the third and final story in my Post-FIN series and you'll find a few references to the earlier stories scattered here and there, so if you haven't read Reunion and Revenge yet, you might find yourself scratching your head once or twice. Reflection works fine as a stand-alone story, but I suggest you read the other ones as well to get the big picture of this Post-FIN tale :)
Description: Wanting to conduct the ultimate test of Xena's and Gabrielle's abilities in the art of war and survival, Ares puts them through four harrowing trials. In order to make it through unscathed, the two warriors will have to dig very deep and tap into their many skills - will the unique bond that exists between Xena and Gabrielle be strong enough to overcome the God of War's plans?
The mid-day September sun was beating down mercilessly on the vast, recently harvested fields lining a dusty dirt road. In the shade created by a row of large trees acting as a border between two fields, two horses were leisurely chewing on the sparse grass.
Now and then, they raised their heads to cast a glance at their owners who were engaged in a furious sparring match, but mostly they just ignored them.
Again and again, the two warriors charged at each other, always managing to get away from the other by applying their defensive skills. When it was their turn to strike, they twirled their weapons impressively and used them in ways the creators could only have dreamt of, making the familiar sounds of metal striking metal echo between the trees.
The shorter of the two warriors wore a red velvet top and skirt and she fought with two small, pointy weapons. Her blonde hair was short and shaggy and she had a large blue-and-green dragon tattoo on her back.
The taller warrior had long, raven black hair and she wore a battledress made of brown leather with a bronze breastplate on top of it. On her hip, she carried a circular weapon, but she fought with a sword.
"Time," Xena said, taking a step back from the sparring match.
"Phew, it's hot today," Gabrielle said and wiped the sweat off her brow.
"Yeah. The sun is brutal now."
"No kidding. I'm looking forward to spending the night in a village. Too many bugs around... yuck."
"Gabrielle, before we move on, I think you should try the two new moves again," Xena said and sheathed her sword.
"Which one first?"
"OK," Gabrielle said and suddenly charged at Xena. Diving down, she went into a handstand and kicked backwards with her legs high above her - unfortunately, she was moving too fast, so she toppled over and landed flat on her back with a bone-rattling bump.
"Ouch!" Gabrielle said, rubbing her sore muscles.
"Practice makes perfect. It's a good move once you learn it."
"What was it called again?"
"I like the other one better, the Cobra," Gabrielle said and raised herself up on her elbow. In one, fluid motion, she raised her legs off the ground, pulled them back and then thrust them forward in a two-legged kick, designed to hit the opponent in the gut or the crotch.
"That's a good one, too," Xena said, narrowly evading being double-kicked in the gut.
"Yeah. Uggh, no more right now. It's too hot," Gabrielle said after she had dropped down to the ground again.
"Let's rest. No matter how hard we ride, we won't reach the village until nightfall, and in this heat, it would be all too easy to over-stress the horses or ourselves."
"You're right. Good idea. Wake me up when it's five degrees cooler," Gabrielle said and snuggled down into the warm grass.
Xena and Gabrielle arrived at the outskirts of Palchos just as the sun went below the horizon in the west. The village was a beehive of activity with a swarm of people everywhere the two warriors looked.
The dusty main street was packed with horses and people, all going in the same direction - towards the centre of the village.
"Whoa... whoa!" Xena said, trying to control her skittish horse. The mare danced about, seemingly startled by the many people around her, but Xena eventually managed to get her to calm down.
"Oh... I think know what's going on here, Xena," Gabrielle said, smirking. She rubbed her forehead and pulled her Amazon horse towards the side of the street so they wouldn't be in the way of the people coming up behind them.
"The annual lemming migration?" Xena said surly, following Gabrielle over to the side.
"No. The annual harvest festival."
"Oh. Well, that would explain the drunken louts."
Xena looked around, studying the mass of people. Most of them were young men; farmers out to celebrate the successful harvest - and most of them were already drunk off their feet. Here and there, a few women tried to push their way through the crowd and they had to put up with all sorts of cheering and loud whistling.
"Do you want to go back out to the small forest we just came through?" Xena asked, still holding the reins for her horse.
"Well, it's tempting... but we've got no provisions and very little water."
"Wait here, Xena. I'll go find us an inn. I don't think the farmers are here to spend the night, so it should be possible to get a room," Gabrielle said and put a hand on Xena's arm. She looked around and then stood up on tip-toes to place a small kiss on Xena's lips.
"Good luck. If you're not back in a candlemark, I'm gonna turn the village upside down looking for you," Xena said. The noise level was already getting to her, so she tried to cover her sensitive ears with her free hand.
As Gabrielle walked away from Xena and the two horses, Xena cast a wistful glance at her partner's strong back and began to ponder the many changes she had seen in Gabrielle. The young girl she had met in that clearing outside of Potaideia had definitely turned into an impressive woman.
Now muscular and brawny, Gabrielle had evolved into a no-nonsense fighting machine that was as capable of killing opponents as Xena had ever been - but yet, her feminine softness remained when they were alone and intimate.
Xena's lips creased into a smile when she remembered the many positive things she and Gabrielle had shared since her return from the Jappa Underworld. In particular, she remembered an afternoon in a meadow not far from a waterfall where they had made love with an intensity that rivalled even the fiercest thunderstorm.
Xena chuckled quietly and allowed herself to relax just a tiny bit.
Gabrielle continued to push her way through the drunken horde, trying to reach the Cockerel Inn. On her way there, she had been groped twice - and had twice broken the fingers doing the groping.
When she finally reached the swing doors, a large brute of a man came out of the pub and blocked her path. He was a good ten inches taller than her and probably outweighed her by a factor of three to one. His head appeared to be placed directly on top of his shoulders, and his long, unkempt beard had several days' worth of food and beer in it.
He stared down Gabrielle's cleavage with red, drunken eyes, and he looked like he was about to drool.
"Hey, what a pretty little thing you are. You wanna have some fun?" he said in a rumbling voice.
"Step aside," Gabrielle said in a deceptively calm voice.
"Or I'll make you."
"Take your best shot, girl," the man said and puffed out his chest.
Moving so fast that her arms were merely a blur, Gabrielle reached down and drew her sais. She twirled them once and then struck out at the man, aiming for his eyes. At the last moment, she twirled the sais again so she was using the blunt ends instead of the spears.
The hard impact made the brute howl and take a staggering step backwards. Clutching his eyes, he tripped over something and fell down with a bump. Almost at once, he moaned pitifully and started rocking back and forth. Gabrielle bared her teeth in a sneer and twirled the sais again in case anyone was moving against her.
She looked intently at all the farm hands that were close to her, but everyone there just looked away and went about their business. With a grunt, Gabrielle opened the door and entered the Cockerel Inn.
Xena's finely honed senses suddenly picked up a Godly presence. Her skin started to crawl, telling her that the God of War was close. She looked around for the source but she couldn't see the familiar figure anywhere.
"I'm on to you, Ares. You might as well show yourself," Xena said out loud, but nothing happened. After a few seconds, the presence vanished, leaving the Warrior Princess in a surly mood.
A few minutes later, Gabrielle came back to Xena, wearing an unreadable expression on her face.
"We've got a room. It's not big, but it was cheap," Gabrielle said and took her horse's reins.
"Good. Wait... what's wrong?" Xena said, putting a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder to stop the blonde woman from turning away.
"I had to fight someone to get to the pub."
"I'll tell you later. Come on. We better get back there quickly before the innkeeper gives the room to someone else," Gabrielle said without looking at Xena. In a fluid motion, Gabrielle climbed up on the horse and moved out into the traffic.
'That explains why Ares was here... the bastard just loves to watch us fight,' Xena thought and furrowed her brow. With a deep sigh, she followed her partner down the busy street.
When Xena and Gabrielle entered the livery stables a few houses down from the inn, the young man working there looked eagerly at the two women - until he noticed their many weapons.
While Gabrielle made sure the horses were safe in two adjacent boxes, Xena went over to the young man to negotiate a fair prize for keeping the horses.
"It'll cost us four dinars for the night, but I think that's a fair price. We better take the saddles and all our gear. I don't trust him at all," Xena said quietly once she returned to Gabrielle.
The blonde woman nodded silently and began to take off the two saddles, looking so grim that Xena started to get worried.
When Xena and Gabrielle entered the Cockerel Inn, the room fell quiet. A few of the less brave men got up and quickly left the establishment, fearing they might get caught up in a fight.
A bald man in his late forties was standing behind a counter, polishing a glass. He looked with barely hidden disgust at the two women and then spat in a spittoon just to make a point.
"You still have that room?" Gabrielle asked, putting her saddle down on the floor.
Gabrielle took her money pouch and found the coins. She counted them and put the ten dinars on the counter.
"Price has gone up," the bartender said and put the first glass down. He picked up a new one and started polishing it.
"To twenty dinars."
"For one night in a room the size of a closet?" Gabrielle said, her voice suddenly gaining a steely edge.
"Twenty dinars or forget it."
Gabrielle slowly reached down for her sais, but Xena stepped ahead of her partner and put another ten dinars on the counter.
"We're not here to make trouble. Here's twenty dinars," she said, hoping that the bartender would accept it.
After eyeing the coins for a few moments, the bald man scooped them up and put them into a small wooden box. He nodded and turned around to get a key.
He threw the key to Xena and then pointed at Gabrielle with a knobbly index finger.
"She's already made trouble. Gustavius is a good friend of mine. He may have been drunk, but she had no right to hurt him like that. The healer took him away. Said that Gustavius might lose the sight in his right eye. Around here, we don't particularly like people who do that sorta thing," he said, looking directly at Gabrielle.
A short while later, Gabrielle and Xena walked up the stairs to the second floor. Once at the landing, they went down a hallway and soon found the room they had rented.
As Xena worked the rusty lock, Gabrielle leaned against the wall on the other side of the hallway. The bartender's words had hit her hard and she felt like getting up and leaving the noisy village and everything in it behind.
She looked up and locked eyes with Xena when she realised that she'd been spoken to.
"Gabrielle... you need to tell me what happened down there. This is not like you. There's something wrong," Xena said and put her hand on Gabrielle's cheek.
Gabrielle sighed and leaned into Xena's warm, comforting touch. Xena's strong fingers chased away some of her numbness, but a strange, dark sensation had taken residence in her heart, and she knew it would be a while until it faded away.
"All right. Let's get inside first," Gabrielle said quietly.
Once they had stored their meagre belongings in the corner of the small room, Gabrielle reached down and pulled out her sais from the sheaths on her bootlegs. She twirled them a few times and then put them back, almost like she was revisiting the situation in front of the Inn.
Xena took off her shoulderpads and her breastplate and sat down on the bed's lumpy, but clean, mattress. She patted the space next to her and then held out her hand.
With a tired smile, Gabrielle took Xena's hand and sat down. After a few moments, she sighed and leaned her head against Xena's strong shoulder.
"I've become what we've fought so hard against all these years, Xena. I'm no better than a common thug."
"He... he just... he was just trying to be funny. He asked if I wanted to have some fun. He was drunk."
"That's all, Xena. I hit him with my sais. You know the rest."
"Did he have a weapon?"
"Xena, I'm afraid," Gabrielle said quietly. The unexpected words sent a cold shiver down Xena's spine and she turned her head to look at Gabrielle's profile.
"Of the darkness inside me. Of my anger. I can't control it any more. Once, I would've rolled my eyes at that man. Now, I reach for my sais. I could've killed him."
"At first, I was going to. I wanted to use the sharp ends."
"But I turned them around at the last moment."
"Gabrielle, please, listen to me," Xena said and got off the bed. She kneeled down and put her hands on Gabrielle's thighs.
"I know exactly what you're going through. I felt the same all those years ago after I'd left Amphipolis. But I'll be there for you. I'll support you. I didn't come back just to lose you. Not now, not ever. I'll make sure you..."
"Xena, it's no use... I've succumbed to Ares. Like you did back then," Gabrielle said, interrupting Xena's words.
"Well... maybe you have, but I'm proof that it's possible to get back. You were there for me. Now I'll be here for you," Xena said and put her hand on Gabrielle's cheek.
"Thank you. I'm going to need your support. It's not like I can stop fighting again. That cost us so much the last time," Gabrielle said and thought of the time after she had met Eli where she was devoted to the Way of Love - the Way that got both of them crucified by the Romans near Mount Amaro.
"Yeah. But you did look good in yellow. Mmmm?"
The corners of Gabrielle's mouth twitched into something resembling a smile and she shrugged to show that she mostly agreed with Xena's statement.
"I just need to find the balance between good and... well, evil," Gabrielle said quietly.
"Speaking of which, he was here. Tonight."
"Yes. He didn't show himself, but I sensed him."
"When I fought the man?"
"He came to watch, the bastard."
"That's what I said," Xena said and reached up to muss Gabrielle's hair.
Gabrielle chuckled and took Xena's hand in her own. She brought it up to her lips and placed a tender kiss on each of the long digits.
"Come on, let's try to get some sleep while the place is relatively quiet. I have a feeling the party outside is only going to get louder," Xena said.
Slightly more than two candlemarks later, Xena was shook awake rather unceremoniously by loud voices from the hallway. A woman was in the middle of some sort of giggle fit and a man was teasing her - or possibly trying to tickle her to death, Xena couldn't really tell which. The door to the room next to the one Xena and Gabrielle were in was unlocked and the two loud people entered it.
Over the course of the next few minutes, it became very apparent what the two people were doing and Xena rubbed her face and stuck her fingers in her ears to escape the unwanted entertainment. When the couple next door got increasingly noisy, she rolled her eyes and looked down at Gabrielle.
The blonde woman was sleeping soundly. Her mouth was slightly agape and her breath was deep and even. All in all, she was completely oblivious to the sounds coming from the next room.
Xena chuckled, rolled over onto her stomach and buried her head under the crude, but effective, pillow.
Moments before she fell asleep, her skin began to crawl like it had done down on the main street. She tried to ignore it, but the feeling grew stronger and she finally gave up and turned around to scan the room.
A few seconds later, a pink flash heralded Aphrodite's arrival. The Goddess was dressed in her usual pink negligee and she was wearing a garland of daisies in her hair.
The Goddess' eyes grew wide open when she realised what the sounds coming from next door actually were - her mouth formed a perfect 'O' and she put her fingers on her cheeks and performed a suggestive little shimmy.
"Hey, babes. Boy, am I glad to find you," Aphrodite said and snapped her fingers. She conjured up a chair and sat down on it, crossing her legs so she could wag one of her fluffy, pink slippers.
"Hello, Aphrodite. Hang on, I need to wake up Gabrielle."
"Kiss her awake, hot stuff," the Goddess said and winked at Xena.
Xena settled for whispering in Gabrielle's ear, and soon, the blonde woman sat up in bed. Her face cracked wide open in a yawn and she rubbed her bleary eyes.
"Hi, Dite," Gabrielle said and yawned again.
"What's up, Aphrodite?" Xena said.
"Something uncool, I'm afraid. Something majorly uncool," the Goddess said, leaning forward on the chair.
"Something to do with Ares?"
Xena swung her legs over the side of the bed. She reached down for her breastplate and began to get dressed.
"Unfortunately yes. How'dya know?"
"I sensed him earlier."
"Too weird, Warrior Babe. I don't understand how it's possible for a, you know, mortal like you to, you know, sense a God. Just don't get it," the Goddess said and shook her head, making her curls fly left and right.
"I don't know how it's possible, I just can. What's it about, Aphrodite?"
"Well... it's like this. Have any of you ever heard of the Stone of Hyperion?"
"I've heard some stories. It existed in the time of the Titans, didn't it?" Gabrielle said, holding the blanket up to her chest.
"It exists right now, sweet pea. And you can drop the blanket. There's nothing there I haven't seen a million times before," Aphrodite said saucily.
Gabrielle grinned but kept the blanket wrapped around her. Xena picked up the red velvet top and handed it to Gabrielle.
"Thanks," Gabrielle said and began to put it on behind the blanket.
"Back to the real issue. I'm guessing Ares wants the Stone of Hyperion?" Xena said and clicked the shoulderpads in place.
"That's right. I can't always read his twisted, demented, evil mind, but it's got something to do with the fact that the stone can, like, channel our powers. Make them more focused and more, uh..."
"In his case, yes. Of course, if it was to be used on my powers, a love revolution would, like, spread out allll across the known world. Wouldn't that be tu-bu-lar? Lurrrve for the win," Aphrodite said with a wide grin.
As if on cue, the couple next door finished their activity and silence mercifully spread out in the rooms.
"Where's the stone now?" Gabrielle said, thankful for the respite.
"That's just it, honey bee. It's encased in a grody, scary place called the Temple of Fire. Believe it or not, that's actually one of Heffy's last remaining temples."
Xena briefly looked at Aphrodite, but then went back to tying her bootlaces.
"Don't think about it, Leather Babe. I know it was necessary. I just wish you hadn't done it... but I do know it was necessary. Never mind that now. Ares has ordered a local warlord, a hairy, ugly, stinky fella by the way, to search for the stone at this very moment. According to the legend, the Stone of Hyperion is hidden somewhere close to the core of the volcano at Tallavius."
"Hidden inside a volcano...?" Gabrielle said with an audible groan.
"An active volcano?"
A sudden sound by the door made Xena and Gabrielle draw their weapons. A small scroll was pushed under the door, and once it was in, they heard soft footsteps walking away.
Xena got up and picked up the small scroll. It was almost entirely covered in writing so she had to flip it over to finish reading the message. It was written in an unsteady hand, but the meaning was clear.
"It's from the bartender. He's warning us that friends of the man you injured are on their way to the village to settle the score."
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped and she shook her head slowly.
"Damn. We can't fight them. They're only farmers," Gabrielle said and got up from the bed. She began to pace back and forth in the small room, observed closely by a fascinated Aphrodite.
"I agree," Xena said.
"I can't blame them for standing up for their friend. We've done it many times. Xena, I should go to the healer and apologise to the man. Gustavius, was it?"
"It's too dangerous right now, Gabrielle. It'll only create a bigger mess than the one we're already in. A village full of drunken men is a recipe for disaster," Xena said and put her sword in the scabbard.
"Yeah. You're right. I'll have to come back once we've found the stone. Aphrodite, can you take us down to our horses?"
"I can take you down to the livery stable, but you'll have to deal with those stinky animals yourselves. Horses are... uggh... grody creatures."
"Whatever. We're ready," Xena said and picked up her saddle.
Gabrielle walked over to pick up her own saddle and then looked around the room.
"I can't believe we paid twenty dinars for two candlemarks in this dump... our last twenty dinars," Gabrielle said and rolled her eyes.
"A-la-bingo," the Goddess said and snapped her fingers - a heavy money pouch appeared in her hand. She bounced it up and down, making the coins inside jingle and jangle.
"Happy Birthday, Gabster."
"How much is in it?"
"How much do you want?"
"I just want our twenty dinars back," Gabrielle said and took the pouch.
When Gabrielle poured out the contents of the pouch into her hand, twenty dinars rolled out.
"Anytime, sugar. Now can we go?"
"Lead on, Goddess," Xena said with a grin.
While Xena and Gabrielle tightened the belly-straps holding the saddles in place, Aphrodite kept to the far side of the stable, demonstratively pinching her nose.
"I don't know why Zeus bothered with these stinking animals," she mumbled under her breath.
"Well, if he hadn't, we'd have to walk everywhere," Xena said and climbed up on her Amazon horse. As usual, the mare started dancing around until she calmed it down by whispering into its ear.
"We're ready, Aphrodite," Gabrielle said from atop her own horse.
The Goddess snapped her fingers and appeared right behind Gabrielle. With a contented sigh, she snuggled down and wrapped her arms around the blonde warrior's waist.
"Are you sure you're comfortable back there, Aphrodite?" Gabrielle said with a chuckle.
"Oh yeah," the Goddess replied and caressed Gabrielle's abs with the palm of her hand so she could feel the muscles retract. Before Gabrielle had time to object, Aphrodite snapped her fingers and the livery stable disappeared in a colourful flash.
They emerged in a small clearing at the foot of a mountain. Fifty yards or so from where they had landed, a camp had been set up. Three medium-sized tents were placed in a semi-circle around a campfire, and beyond that, four horses were tied to a petrified tree. The camp seemed to be deserted.
"Where are we?" Gabrielle whispered, removing Aphrodite's hands from her waist so she could move quickly in case trouble broke out.
"That big thing over there is the volcano at Tallavius. The village itself is a few miles down the road."
"Who are these guys?"
"Dunno. Probably belong to the warlord searching for the Stone of Hyperion."
Xena jumped off her horse and drew her sword. She moved silently over to stand next to Gabrielle, continually scanning the area as she did so.
"I'll go check it out. Keep Aphrodite here. If there's any trouble..." Xena said and put a warm hand on the bard's thigh.
"... I'll be there," Gabrielle said, putting her own hand on top of Xena's.
"Awwww!" Aphrodite said, but was soon hushed by both Xena and Gabrielle.
Xena ran to the edge of the camp and peeked around the corner of the first tent. She could clearly hear the familiar sounds of snoring and she surmised that two men were occupying the tent.
Suddenly, movement from the other side of the campfire caught her attention and she crouched down to present as small a target as possible.
A soldier wearing an unfamiliar uniform walked into the camp, still buttoning his pants. After sitting down on a log next to the fire, he took off his helmet and scratched his head.
'Three tents, two men each... but only four horses. Two men must be out on patrol,' she thought and began to form a battle plan.
After getting what she came for, she silently moved away from the tents and then ran back to the others.
"One man is awake and two, probably three are sleeping. Won't be a problem for us," Xena said quietly.
"You wanna take them?" Gabrielle said and drew her sais.
"Not yet. They haven't actually done anything wrong, you know."
"I know. Then what?"
"We sneak past them. Aphrodite, how many men does the warlord have searching for that stone?"
"How should I know? More than one, less than a thousand," the Goddess said and shrugged.
"That's a great help, thanks," Gabrielle said surly.
"Anytime, sweet cheeks."
"Where's the entrance to the temple and how far is it?" Xena said.
"Oh, it's not far. Back when Heffy still had worshippers, they used some of the natural crevices to dig a tunnel into the base of the volcano. It's two hundred paces that-a way," Aphrodite said, pointing at the side of the mountain.
"What do you want us to do with the stone once we find it?" Gabrielle said.
"Ooooh, you've really grown sure of yourself! Comes with all the muscles, I guess, buff babe," Aphrodite said, wrinkling her nose and giggling.
"What, that was a compliment!"
"Oh, yeah. I want you to destroy it. Crush it, apply some Chakram to it, or, like, whatever. It can't fall into the wrong hands."
"Throw it into the lava?" Xena said.
"Hey, that could work! Good thinking."
"Well, I'll leave that one to you. I'm not getting anywhere near a lava stream," Gabrielle said and got up. She looked around, thinking that she had heard something...
Suddenly, three soldiers came running at full speed towards Xena, Gabrielle and Aphrodite.
"RAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!" they all shouted, holding their swords high in the air.
"Finally," Gabrielle said, drew her sais and jumped forward to join the fray. Aphrodite shrieked and snapped her fingers in an instant, leaving the two warriors to fight for themselves.
In the split second it took for the Goddess to leave, Xena felt her skin crawl stronger than it had for a long while, and she looked around, trying to spot Ares. When she couldn't find the God of War anywhere, she settled for getting up and firing off her Chakram at the approaching soldiers.
It struck a glancing blow off the helmet of the first soldier. The impact sent him flying, but he was still alive. As he fell down, Xena thought she heard someone laughing.
A few yards away from Xena, Gabrielle bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, wearing down both remaining opponents at once by weaving and bobbing out of their reach. It was no struggle for her to evade their clumsy swings, and she hit out at them at irregular intervals.
Tiring of the lopsided fight, Gabrielle ended the altercation by whacking the second soldier across the throat with the blunt end of a sais and then kicking the last one in the face. Both of them went down hard and Gabrielle felt a pang of disappointment from the fact that none of them had put up much of a fight.
"They're done, Gabrielle. They'll be out of it long enough for us to get to the entrance," Xena said and put a calming hand on Gabrielle's taut shoulder. The blonde warrior remained on high alert for a few moments but then relaxed.
"Yeah. If this is all the warlord has to offer, we won't have any trouble getting that stone," Gabrielle said and took a deep breath. As she slowly let it out, she bent down to put the sais back into their sheaths.
"Aphrodite!" Xena said, putting her hands on her hips.
"Here, oh you gorgeously bronzed one," the Goddess said and reappeared right between Xena and Gabrielle. She looked at the bodies of the three men and quickly covered her eyes with her hand.
"They're still alive, but we better move quickly before someone notices they're missing. Let's leave the horses here."
A few minutes later, all three women were standing in front of the entrance to the temple. It was old and decrepit and appeared not to have been used in decades. Xena furrowed her brow and felt something nagging at the back of her mind. She studied Aphrodite closely, but couldn't sense anything out of the ordinary from the airhead Goddess.
"Are you going to join us in the search?" Xena said, pulling her sword out of its scabbard so she could check the blade.
"Oh, no. I've just had my nails done," Aphrodite said and showed Xena a perfect set of pink fingernails.
"Charming. Look, Aphrodite, there's something I don't understand. Why would Ares, or yourself for that matter, need the help of mortals to reclaim the stone? Why can't you just pop in there and get it?"
"Well, like I told you, the stone focuses our energy. Back in the good old days, Zeus created an invisible forcefield around the stone. As soon as a Godly being comes close to it, it'll, uh, suck out all our energy. Not even Hera could get close to it."
"In that case, what is Ares hoping to accomplish?" Gabrielle said.
"The legend has it that once the stone is free of the forcefield-thingy, it'll add power to the one carrying it instead of, uh, sucking it out."
"Won't the forcefield just follow the stone? Why should it remain in the volcano once the stone is gone?" Xena said.
Aphrodite's jaw fell down slightly and she blinked several times, wearing a comical expression on her face.
"You're asking me?" she said, her voice climbing in pitch along the way.
"There's another reason I can't go with you... uh, I'd be unable to control my... uh, urges. Kinda don't want that, huh?"
"I'm sorry?" Gabrielle said.
"Not exactly, no."
"Hell-lo dudettes, do I need to spell it out for you? If I went with you, I'd be... I'd get so... I'd become..."
Aphrodite paused and looked left and right. When she was sure no one was there to hear her, she leaned forward and whispered a few words into Gabrielle's ear.
"Oh... I see," Gabrielle said, blushing.
"Good. I hope you understand."
"Yeah. That could get kinda messy. Not to mention embarrassing... afterwards."
Xena looked from Gabrielle to Aphrodite and then back again. She chuckled and shook her head.
"I'd love to hear all about that once we're done here, but right now, it's time to make a move. Let's go. Aphrodite, we're going to need some torches."
"Sure thing, bronzed babe. Here ya go," the Goddess said and conjured up two lit torches. She gave one to Gabrielle and the other to Xena.
"They'll never, ever, ever go out. Complements of dear old Dite. Oh, you're too kind," Aphrodite said before Gabrielle had even had time to open her mouth.
"Actually, I was going to ask you if you'd be staying here while we go on this search and destroy mission?"
"Stay here? Nope. I've invited a few dozen of my closest friends over to my little love shack on Mount Olympus and we're gonna have a little wine, a little cheese and a little free love between friends... you know, an O.R.G.Y."
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide and she turned her head to look at Xena. When she saw that the dark warrior's expression matched her own, her eyebrows gradually crept up her forehead.
"Right. Well, have fun," Gabrielle said, looking back at the Goddess.
"Thanks. I will," Aphrodite said and winked. She snapped her fingers and disappeared in her customary flash of little, pink hearts.
Once the Goddess was gone, Gabrielle chuckled and rubbed her brow with her free hand.
"You learn something new every day around here," she said to herself. Turning around, she began to walk towards the entrance to the temple, holding the torch ahead of her. When she realised that Xena hadn't joined her, she looked over her shoulder.
"Are you coming?"
"Is something wrong?"
"I can't put my finger on what it is... but yes," Xena said, standing with her hands on her hips.
"In what way?"
"I'm not sure."
"Can you still sense Ares?"
"Yes. But not all the time. He's here somewhere... waiting."
"Waiting for us to find the stone. Once we have, he's going to try to prevent us from destroying it, you know."
"We've fought him before."
"Yeah. And we'll fight him again. It's strange, though. I can't pick him up at all," Gabrielle said and took the torch in her other hand.
"There's more here than meets the eye. Well, never mind. Let's go," Xena said and walked over to where Gabrielle was standing.
The moment they stepped through the entrance, they could hear voices in the far distance. From the sound of it, it was a group of men talking loudly amongst themselves. Now and then, the talking was interrupted by metallic sounds, reminiscent of a pickaxe hitting rock.
Gabrielle looked at Xena who nodded in return. They quietly drew their weapons and waited for the inevitable fight. Moving silently, they began to advance towards their targets.
The tunnel leading away from the entrance was a long mine shaft carved directly into the base of the volcano. Torches had been put up on the walls every sixty feet or so, but only a few of them were lit. Those that were, were burning with a silent, orange flame.
Initially, the tunnel had seemed to stretch out indefinitely, but as Xena and Gabrielle moved along, they could see that it was a lot shorter than expected. Slightly more than one hundred yards from the entrance, the end of the tunnel came into view, opening up into a large cave.
Xena and Gabrielle ran up to stand on either side of the mouth of the tunnel. They scanned the interior of the cave and quickly established that they had found Hephaestus' temple - and also that it was empty.
The sounds of the men talking could still be heard, but they were more distant now, and Xena began to realise that something was well and truly wrong.
Gabrielle sniffed the air a few times and then scrunched up her face.
"Lava," she whispered and pointed at the far side of the cave where a strong, pulsating orange light lit up the entire back wall. A short flight of stairs led up from the floor of the cave to an altar, suspended precariously over a chasm of unknown depth.
"The Temple of Fire," Xena whispered.
Everything was draped in cobwebs and covered in thick layers of dust. Four tall candelabra were placed at the four corners of the altar, but they were all old and rusty and the candles were long gone.
Gabrielle sighed deeply and continued to scan the far side of the cave. Directly opposite from where they were standing, four smaller tunnels disappeared into the volcano, one near the altar, two in the centre, and one off on its own, near the right side of the cave. The sounds they had heard earlier now seemed to come from the smaller tunnels.
Xena put her sword in its scabbard and walked out to stand in the middle of the temple. She looked around, trying to make sense of it all.
"There's nothing here," she said, waving at Gabrielle to tell her that it was safe to come out.
"Xena, I'll check out the four tunnels. Those sounds we heard have to come from somewhere. Would you mind checking the altar? I don't... well, I don't want to get anywhere near it," Gabrielle said and put a hand on Xena's elbow.
"I understand. Of course I don't mind. Meet you back here," Xena said with a smile.
Gabrielle ventured into the first of the four small tunnels but quickly discovered that it was so pitch black that not even the torch Aphrodite had given her could penetrate the darkness.
Unable to see the ground she was walking on, she didn't dare move more than a few paces into the mouth of the tunnel. After the briefest of checks, she turned around and walked back towards the light.
She moved on to the two tunnels in the centre of the cave, but the results were similar. In the second of the two tunnels, she thought the easily recognisable sounds of men working became clearer, but it only lasted for a brief period - then everything became quiet again.
Xena crossed the floor and walked up the short flight of stairs to the altar. Once there, she put her hands on the stone structure and leaned forward. Far below the altar, a foul smelling river of lava was flowing past, almost obscured by a shimmer of heat.
The massive amounts of dust and cobwebs made it painfully obvious that the temple hadn't been used in ages - probably not since Xena herself had killed Hephaestus in the titanic fight on the beach.
Xena rubbed her chin and scrunched up her face. Slowly turning around, she walked back down the stairs to wait for Gabrielle.
"We've been had," Gabrielle said as she came up to stand next to the warrior.
"Looks like it. But why...?"
"Maybe to get us away from that village?"
"It's possible, but I doubt it."
"Yeah, you're probably right. There wasn't anything of value there. I just can't believe Aphrodite would trick us like this!" Gabrielle said and threw her arms in the air.
"Either she was tricked herself, or..." Xena said, biting her bottom lip as she was analysing the situation.
"Or it wasn't Aphrodite at all."
"Ares... Show yourself, you creep!" Gabrielle shouted, clenching her fists hard.
Outside the Temple of Fire, Aphrodite reappeared next to the entrance in a flash of pink. She stretched out her arms and closed the mouth of the tunnel by moving her hands slowly downwards. Once the entrance was firmly sealed, she nodded and grinned in a surprisingly deep voice. Snapping her fingers, she disappeared again.
Inside the main tunnel, Xena and Gabrielle heard the rocks moving and they sprinted through the tunnel to try to get out while they still could - but came to a screeching halt when they realised the tunnel was already blocked.
"Damn! Damn, damn, damn!" Gabrielle roared, pounding her fists on the inside wall of the blocked tunnel.
"It's no use, Gabrielle."
"Maybe we can loosen some of the rocks," Gabrielle said and started banging on the rockface with the butt of the torch.
"No. It's solid."
"Let me guess. This was no regular rockslide?"
"Serves us right for trusting a God. Hades, for even listening to one of those... those..." Gabrielle said and gave the wall one last thump.
"Calm down, Gabrielle," Xena said and put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"I'm perfectly calm!"
"Anger won't get us out of here."
"I know. But I'm calm. Look how calm I am," Gabrielle said and showed Xena a steady hand.
"Good. Let's go back to the main cave. Maybe we can find a way out through one of the smaller tunnels...?"
"I doubt it. When I went in there, the smaller tunnels were so dark the torch couldn't punch through it."
"Well, let's see if we can do anything about that," Xena said, putting both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and turning the shorter woman around.
"Hmmm!" Xena said loudly once they had returned to the main cave. Gabrielle angrily ran a hand through her short hair and crouched down. She put down the torch and buried her face in her hands, trying to prevent her fiery temper from breaking out.
The far side of the cave was now solid rock. All four tunnels had vanished like they hadn't been there at all. Xena shook her head and moved over to inspect the rockface. She poked and prodded everywhere, but couldn't find any evidence of the tunnels.
"Ares, you have us like a couple of rats in a trap. Why continue this charade?" Xena said and put her hands on her hips.
When no answer was forthcoming, Gabrielle kicked angrily at a pebble, making it skip wildly across the floor and fall off the edge and into the lava stream.
Xena followed the small stone's progress with her eyes, and when it went over the edge, she cocked her head and furrowed her brow. She started looking around for some rope, but quickly came to the conclusion that there wasn't anything they could use. Instead, she jogged up to the edge of the floor and got down on her knees.
"Wh... what are you doing?" Gabrielle said puzzled.
"I'm just checking to see if we can get out this way," Xena said and got down on her stomach. She used her arms to move herself ahead, and within moments, she was balancing precariously on the edge of the floor, just barely hanging on to the stone and using her strong legs as leverage.
"Oh, sweet mother of Zeus!" Gabrielle said and ran after Xena. She quickly got down behind Xena and held on to the warrior's long legs.
"You don't have to do that, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice sounding curiously muffled from the fact that she was talking while her head was upside down.
"Don't tell me that. If you fall, so do I. That's how it's supposed to be, Xena."
"All right. You can pull me back now," Xena said and waved her hand.
Gabrielle pulled hard, and soon, the Warrior Princess sat up and dusted off her hands.
"We can't get out that way, either. There's no ledge, no nothing. It's a five hundred foot drop... at least."
"Great. All we can do is to wait for Ares to make a move," Gabrielle said and pulled Xena upright.
"Thanks. Well, I have a feeling we won't have to wait much longer," Xena said and began to walk slowly back to the mouth of the large tunnel.
Xena had barely uttered the words when the light level in the cave faded to almost nothing. The two torches spluttered and then went out, leaving everything in semi-darkness. Soon, the lava stream was the only light source, bathing the altar in a strong, creepy orange.
"He's coming... that cocky, self-righteous son of a Bacchae," she said, shaking her head.
'Anger. Hatred. War. Death. Those are just some of my favourite things,' Ares said before he had made himself visible; his disembodied voice echoing back and forth in the large cave.
On the wall opposite the altar, a large section of the rockface flickered several times and then began to act as a portal, showing images from the past, the present and the future.
'I feed off the hatred and the bloodlust. Some say that without me, the world would be a better place, but I say... without me, the world as we know it wouldn't exist at all. Behold the glorious future of the realm known as Earth.
Xena and Gabrielle, don't tell me your warrior blood doesn't get heated from watching these images,' Ares said.
Horrible, gruesome scenes of death and destruction rolled across the rockface - men, women and children hanging on crosses, a village being overrun and sacked, soldiers trampled by war-horses, monks cut down by swords and axes, warships sinking, cities reduced to rubble, piles of dead bodies, a mushroom cloud, a jungle on fire and finally burning oil wells.
Overwhelmed, Gabrielle turned away from the gruesome images and covered her eyes with her hands. Xena quickly pulled her close, giving her a heartfelt hug.
'I've had a vision. A vision of the two of you fighting for me. It was a marvellous, glorious thing and I'd do anything to make it come true. Don't look away, Gabrielle... the best is yet to come.'
The images flickering on the rockface faded to black, leaving the cave in near darkness. Gabrielle wiped her eyes and turned back around, almost afraid of what she'd see on the wall. A few moments later, a series of moving images appeared - of Xena and Gabrielle clearly working for and with Ares.
'Inspirational, isn't it? As you can see, my young apprentice, I'll even let you keep your special relationship with Xena. After all, how could I deny you the very thing I've been pining for all these years?'
The new images faded like the others, again leaving the cave in darkness.
'And I've had another vision. A vision of the two of you fighting together long before you received these bodies... and you'll still fight together long after you've left them behind. I've encountered your souls again and again on my travels through time. Fascinating.'
Suddenly the familiar crackle of ozone was heard from the far end of the cave, and the God of War made his entrance standing near the top of the altar. Wearing his customary black leather pants and silver-laced vest, he had his legs slightly apart and his bulging arms folded over his chest.
"'Cocky, self-righteous son of a Bacchae'...? Ow! That really hurt, Gabrielle," Ares mocked, moving his hands to the spot where his heart would have been had he had one.
"Anyway, how did you like my light show? Impressive, wasn't it? Oh, the world has such a bright future."
"You're sick, Ares... sick," Gabrielle mumbled and wiped her eyes again.
"Mmmm, I can see that my young apprentice is eager to get on with the program. I can't blame you, Gabrielle. I have some exciting things in store for you. Both of you," Ares said and pointed at Xena.
"We won't play along, Ares. Release us," Xena said.
"Ah, that would be a... Let me see, how can I put it...? A 'no', Xena."
As Ares began to walk down the short flight of stairs, his swagger was even more pronounced than usual, and the look on his face suggested that he was enjoying the situation quite a lot.
"Welcome to the Temple of Fire. Welcome to your final exams," he said in a strong voice, grinning broadly. When he reached Xena and Gabrielle, he stretched out his arms like he was going to embrace the two women, but they both took a step back.
"Our final exams? Ares, if you think that we'll..." Gabrielle said, but she was cut off by Ares'
"Bah, I do not only think, I *know*. I know that you'll be put to the test, emotionally and physically. You'll experience things that are literally out of this world. Both of you."
"But why, dammit?!" Gabrielle said and clenched her fists again.
"Mmmmm, you get me all a-buzzing when you act like that," Ares said with a wink. Gabrielle closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose so she wouldn't say something she'd regret.
"I'm sure this is quite a kick for you, but I think it's only fair that you tell us what you have planned, Ares," Xena said.
"Oh, but I will. I'm going to put you through four challenges so I can observe how far my young apprentice has come. The first..."
"Stop calling me that," Gabrielle growled.
"But you are. Anyway, the first challenge will be a monumental struggle against... well, let's just say that it'll be against a worthy opponent. It'll be tough, but it shouldn't be too hard for the likes of you."
"And what happens if we're not interested in playing your games?" Xena said, cocking her head.
"Not interested? How can you not be interested? The challenges are going to be so much fun," Ares said, pretending to be shocked.
"Well, if you're not interested, I could just leave you here. I guess you'd last three or four days without water. Unless you took the easy way out before that," Ares said and pointed his thumb at the chasm below the altar.
"When have we ever taken the easy way out?" Gabrielle said quietly.
"Exactly," Ares said. A dark smile spread out over his features and he nodded to himself.
"Were you disguising yourself as Aphrodite?" Xena said, folding her arms over her chest.
"Yes. Quite a good disguise if I do say so myself. Pink is not my colour, though," Ares said with a grin.
Gabrielle's lips parted in a disgusted sneer and she started wiping off her stomach where Aphrodite had tickled her on their way to the volcano.
"I still sensed you," Xena said.
"I know. But I reckoned that was a minor annoyance."
"So all that talk about the Stone of Hyperion was just a load of nonsense you cooked up to get us here?"
"Yes. I made it all up. I knew you wouldn't say no to sweet ol' Dite. My airhead sister is partying hard on Mount Olympus right now. She's completely clueless to the whole deal. As usual."
"I can't believe you'd stoop so low, Ares," Gabrielle said, shaking her head.
"Actually, my young apprentice, it was you who planted the idea in my head. Remember back to when you were doing your patented goody-two-shoes act and rescuing Princess Penthea? You asked me why I didn't just create a world where you could fight Cat LePeyn like I'd done with Mavican, the, uh, over-inflated wannabe."
"When will I learn to keep my mouth shut..."
"And here we are," Ares said and stretched out his arms. He spun around in a circle like he was some kind of circus artist.
Gabrielle shook her head again and looked down. Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and gave her a little squeeze.
"Don't feel bad about it. Ares can pervert even the purest thought," Xena said.
"Ow! Hey, can you fault the God of War for wanting to gawk at two of the most formidable fighters he has ever seen? Move over Achilles, move over Perseus, move over my dear, half-wit half-brother Hercules... here come the Power Girls. When you let rip, nothing, and I do mean nothing, can stop you."
"I think he's lost it," Gabrielle mumbled.
"The action, the thrills, the fighting... all those things are literally in your blood. You know, I'll bet that in two thousand years, people will still be telling stories about the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard," Ares said, walking around Xena and Gabrielle.
"Now I know he's lost it!"
"Beauty and attitude. Strength and stealth. Brains and muscles... plenty of muscles. What's not to love?" Ares said and gripped the edges of his vest, wearing a wide grin.
"We're flattered. Really. But now we'd like to go home, Ares."
"Oh, you will, my young apprentice. But not quite yet. Let's get on with the show."
Ares took a sudden step back and snapped his fingers.
In an instant, the dark cave was transformed into a sandy, white beach that appeared to be part of an island in the middle of a vast ocean. Not far from where they had emerged, large, foam-topped waves crashed onto the shore, creating a thunderous roar.
Further inland, rows of tall palm trees formed the edge of a dense jungle that seemed to stretch out for miles, and in the distance, they could see a small mountain with a jagged ridge, its peak hidden behind a cluster of white clouds.
"What the..." Xena said, looking around.
Acting purely on instinct, Gabrielle reached down and drew her sais. Twirling them several times in her hands, she assumed a fighting stance, prepared for anything. When she saw the dark grin on Ares' face, she realised that she had confirmed the God's words from before and her shoulders slumped.
"Where are we, Ares?" Xena said.
"Well, Xena, we're on an island in a sea called the Atlantic Ocean. I'm sure you've heard of it. Britannia to the North, Africa to the South. Nothing at all to the West."
"I've heard of it," Xena said surly.
"Excellent. Gabrielle, you're the storyteller. What do you know about the Chralla sea serpent?"
"The Chralla sea serpent...? It's a mythical creature. But it's all nonsense. Tall tales created by fishermen to explain why they didn't have more fish when they returned from the sea. It supposedly protects the lost continent of Atlantis," Gabrielle said and put away the sais.
"That's right. And not supposedly... it did protect Atlantis. Alas, that Kingdom is no more. Except for a brief moment in time when I need to get a point across. It's obviously been a while since you've spoken to Hercules."
"We haven't seen him in decades," Xena said.
"Good for you. He's insufferable, anyway," Ares said with a grin.
Xena's sharp senses picked up a threat watching them from the first row of palm trees, and she slowly drew her sword to be ready in case they were attacked.
"Somebody's up there, watching us," she said, twirling her sword.
"Yes. And soon, they'll be down here fighting you," Ares said and looked at the palm trees. Within moments, a small group of strangely dressed men came running out of the trees and down onto the beach, carrying short swords and daggers.
"Ares, you evil piece of...!" Gabrielle roared and drew her sais.
Once they reached the sand, the group of men fanned out, revealing that there were six of them. The man leading the group raised his arm high in the air and threw an axe-like weapon at Xena and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle evaded it easily and set off running towards their attackers. Roaring, she stabbed the leader in the gut using both her sais. When he crumpled to the ground, she picked up his short sword and began to carve her way through the others. The second man was soon sliced open from his collarbone to his crotch and he went down screaming.
Xena caught up with her partner and flipped high in the air. Landing on top of two of the attackers, she kicked them on the back of their heads, sending them flying.
The remaining two men didn't look like they wanted to fight, but a small nod from Ares settled the deal. One of the two men threw a dagger at Xena that nicked her on her right upper arm - but before he'd even had a chance to reach for the second dagger he was carrying, Xena had sent the Chakram flying. It cleanly and efficiently slashed the attacker's throat before returning to Xena's grip.
The last man suddenly lunged at Gabrielle, grabbing hold of her and pushing her roughly to the ground. He tried to straddle her so he could get his hands around her neck, but her strong legs were soon pressed against the man's body, and she flipped him off of her. She got up in an instant and picked up the short sword she had dropped when the attacker had pushed her.
With a roar, she fell down on one knee, burying the short sword hilt-deep into the man's chest.
"Mmmm... marvellous. Just marvellous. Is it hot out here, or is it just me?" Ares said, pretending to fan himself.
Xena walked over to Gabrielle and helped her up. She wrapped her strong arms around her partner and gave her a reassuring hug.
"You're hurt," Gabrielle said as she noticed the blood on Xena's arm.
"Nah. Just a scratch. Are you all right?"
"They never got close enough to do any damage," Gabrielle said and sighed. She leaned in towards Xena and rested her head on the warrior's chest.
"I'd say this was a pretty good warm-up. Wouldn't you?" Ares said and waved his fingers, making the six dead and injured men vanish into thin air. After the bodies were gone, the beach was as peaceful as it had been before the fight.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head.
"Ares, you sick bastard..." she said hoarsely.
"We're not the sick ones, Gabrielle. We're the healthy ones. You, Xena, me... we're the only ones who understand what life is all about. And don't tell me you didn't enjoy that little altercation, 'cos I felt the anger and excitement *rush* through you," Ares said, clenching his fists and lowering his voice when he spoke the last words.
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but realised at once that her words wouldn't get through to Ares when he was in such a mood. She grunted and gave Gabrielle another squeeze instead.
"I can see that you need a bit more persuasion. Well, allow me," Ares said and waved his hand. In an instant, they returned to the cave. The rockface began to flicker again, and soon, a new series of moving images appeared.
The first image was of the sandy beach they had just left behind - a large, hideous blue-green creature was shown swimming around in a narrow lagoon.
"That's the sea serpent he was talking about," Gabrielle whispered.
"Oh, terrific. Where's Hercules and Iolaus when we finally have some use for them?" Xena said, rolling her eyes. When Ares just grinned, she grumbled a few choice words, prompting Gabrielle to put a calming hand on the warrior's elbow.
The images changed, showing a peaceful village. It appeared to be a summer morning, and people were going about their business and generally looking happy. Led by a young woman, a group of children were walking hand in hand over to a school.
"What do you have in store for these people, Ares? An earthquake? A hurricane?" Xena said.
"Oh, that's good, Xena. You're an observant pupil. Well, I guess you do have... hmmm, how should I put it... extensive experience with this sort of thing. Earth, wind... fire," Ares said, pointing at the flickering image where a wisp of smoke had become visible.
Xena stiffened. A cold shiver ran down her back when she realised that Ares was talking about Cirra and Higuchi. In her mind's eye, she saw buildings burning and she could hear people screaming.
"This trial is yours and yours alone, Xena. Let's see if you've learned anything from your past mistakes," Ares said and waved his hand again.
The images changed to a dark scene, showing a desolate farmhouse somewhere in the countryside. Gabrielle instantly recognised it as being the farm she had grown up in, and she gasped and moved her hand up to cover her mouth.
Suddenly, Lila came into the picture, walking briskly across the courtyard and into the farmhouse. A few moments later, Seraphin, the young fanatic Gabrielle had known as a child, followed Lila into the house.
"Gabrielle, this one's for you. I hope you'll enjoy it," Ares said and crossed his arms over his chest.
"What about the final trial, Ares?" Xena said.
"The nature of the final one is a secret for now. Or rather, I'm holding it back until I've seen that you can beat the other trials. Well, of course you can. You wouldn't be here if I didn't think you could," Ares said and snapped his fingers, making the flickering images disappear.
"Ares, you've wasted your time. We refuse to participate in these... these perverted games," Gabrielle said vehemently.
"All right. There's the exit," Ares said coldly, pointing at the chasm below the altar.
"What will happen when we've completed the four trials?" Xena said.
"Then I'll let you go... in the hope that you've learned that your gift for fighting is an important one for the world and the human race. Or maybe I just wanted to see you kick ass and take names."
Gabrielle sighed deeply and looked towards the chasm. Dejected, she began to shuffle towards the side of the cave.
"Tell you what, I'm a reasonable God. I'll give you a few minutes to discuss among yourselves what you want to do. OK?"
"All right. But no tricks, Ares," Xena said sternly.
"No tricks. Of course, if turning crispy doesn't sound appealing to you, you could also use the other exit," Ares said and waved his hand. On the opposite wall of the cave, a set of steps carved into the rockface became visible. The steps went steeply upwards until they disappeared through a tiny hole in the roof of the cave.
Xena's eyes shot fire and she spun around to face Ares with a murderous expression on her face.
"If you lied to us about that, you probably lied to us about the rest as well!" she hissed.
"Xena, Xena, Xena, I just want to see you fight. You can take the long road home for all I care. And believe me, that really is the long road," Ares said and walked over to stand next to Xena.
"That path leads almost straight up. You'll end up inside the crater... and then you have to find your way out of it and down the side of the volcano. Faced with that, I'd rather stay here and fight if I were you. Think about it." With a final nod, he disappeared in his customary pale blue energy cloud.
Xena threw her hands in the air and growled loudly.
"I knew I shoulda killed 'im when I had the chance," she said out loud. Putting her hands on her hips, she shuffled over to where Gabrielle was sitting. Once she got there, she slid down the coarse wall and sat down on the cold stone floor.
"Gabrielle?" she said and put her arm around her partner's shoulder.
"We're in trouble this time."
"Much as I hate to do his bidding, I don't think we have a choice," Gabrielle said and leaned against Xena's shoulder.
Xena reached up and mussed Gabrielle's hair, hoping to see a smile on the bard's sad, despondent face - it worked, if only briefly.
"Look at it this way... yes, we'll be fighting for the God of War, but we'll only be fighting illusions. These aren't real people, Gabrielle. They're just two-dimensional images conjured up by him."
"That's true, but the anger inside me will still be the same. I felt it back on that beach. I enjoyed that fight, Xena. I... I enjoyed killing that last attacker."
The grim reality of those words flooded over Gabrielle like a tidal wave and she rubbed her face and took several deep breaths to regain her composure.
"I have become one of his, haven't I? Like you did back then, after Cortese raided Amphipolis?" Gabrielle whispered in a strained voice.
A thousand thoughts and possible answers flashed through Xena's mind, but in the end, only a single word remained.
After a long pause, Gabrielle sighed and started to get up, not taking her eyes off the altar and the chasm beneath it.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but there's only one thing left for me to do."
Shocked, Xena jumped up and grabbed hold of Gabrielle's arms.
"No! Gabrielle, please listen... this doesn't matter at all! I love you... and none of it makes me love you any less. I know you won't believe me, but inside, you're still the same, beautiful soul I met all those years ago."
"Oh, Xena, that's..."
"Y-you're just caught in the same cycle of violence that trapped me. But love helped me break that cycle, Gabrielle. Your love. Please allow me to help you now... by loving you."
"Shhh, no more words. And definitely no suicide leaps. We can beat him, Gabrielle. All right, it demands that we play his game, but we can *beat* him. I just know it."
"I'm not sure we can."
"I am. Come on," Xena said and leaned down. Moments later, their lips met in a tender, loving kiss.
After separating, Gabrielle closed her eyes and rested her head on Xena's chest.
"It's going to get rough. He likes to torment us," she whispered.
"Yes. It's going to get very rough."
In a blue flash, Ares materialised right next to Xena and Gabrielle.
"Enough of this mushy stuff. I want a straight answer," he said and crossed his arms over his chest.
"The answer is yes, Ares," Gabrielle said.
"Good. I hope you're ready, because..." - He snapped his fingers - "... here we go."
The dark cave was transformed into the sandy beach they had visited earlier. At once, Xena and Gabrielle could hear the sea serpent roaring in the far distance.
"Ohhhh yeah!" Ares said and took a deep sniff of the salty, ocean air. "The stage is all yours, ladies," he continued and disappeared.
Right on cue, the sea serpent roared again. Xena looked at Gabrielle and shrugged. Gabrielle replied with a similar shrug, and then they set off towards the source of the roars.
After walking along the beach for a little while, they rounded a bend and found themselves at the edge of a narrow lagoon. On the far side, the beach had eroded so much that the first row of palm trees was almost in the water, but the side they were on had a wide, sandy shore. In the centre of the lagoon, the sky blue water was led into a low cave.
"The lair of the beast," Gabrielle said.
Both sides of the entrance to the cave had been cleared by human hand, but Xena couldn't see any other signs of life - there wasn't any smell of smoke in the air or any footprints in the sand.
"Do you really think this is Atlantis?"
"Hard to say, Gabrielle. I guess it could be," Xena said as they continued to walk on the sandy beach.
A sudden, loud splash in the water behind them made them stop and turn around. A ripple in the water showed where the splash had come from, but the lagoon was empty.
"I think I'm getting a headache," Gabrielle grumbled under her breath.
When they were still more than two hundred yards away from the entrance to the cave, a tall, athletic, dark-skinned woman came out of it. She was wearing dark brown pants and a matching jacket, and she was carrying a heavy-looking backpack in her arms.
She immediately turned to her right and walked towards the edge of the jungle. Once she reached it, she squatted and put the backpack down on the sand.
Xena and Gabrielle stopped dead in their tracks, not sure whether to greet the woman or to stay away.
"She looks like an Amazon. I wonder if we're supposed to help her. Or perhaps to stop her from doing something...?" Gabrielle wondered out loud.
"Hmmm..." Xena said, rubbing her chin. She started looking around for clues, but couldn't really find anything useful.
After wiping some sweat off her brow, the woman flipped the backpack over and emptied the contents onto the sand, revealing it to be rocks of all shapes and sizes. Once the backpack was empty, she got up and returned to the cave.
"She looks friendly. I think we should..." Gabrielle started to say, but she was interrupted when an ear-splitting roar filled the air. Xena and Gabrielle jumped a foot in the air and spun around to stare out over the ocean.
Not far into the lagoon, the giant Chralla sea serpent had reared its ugly head and was staring straight at them.
"Oh, Sweet Aphrodite, this day is going from bad to worse!" Gabrielle yelled angrily and threw her hands in the air. She reached down to grab her sais, but thought better of it and grabbed Xena's arm instead.
"Now's a good time to go and meet that woman, Xena. Or else we're gonna end up as toothpicks for that thing!"
The other woman had also heard the beast's roar and she came running out of the cave, holding a shiny broadsword in her hand.
Out in the lagoon, the beast roared again but then ducked back down under the surface. Turning sharply around, it set out to sea.
The woman looked at it and shook her head. A split second later, she registered that two people were running towards her and she raised her sword again.
"Halt! Who the blazes are you?" she said, assuming a fighting stance. Her voice was surprisingly rich for a woman of her build and she spoke in a lyrical accent.
"Easy, easy. We're friendly. I'm Xena, this is my partner Gabrielle," Xena said, stopping right in front of the tip of the other woman's sword.
Up close, they could see that the tall woman was in her early thirties and that she had many healed scars on her hands and lower arms. Her eyes were almond brown and her hair was short and slightly curly, and her general demeanour hinted at a long career behind the sword.
"I'm Ailanna Bortaq. Where did you come from?"
"Oh... well, that's a long story. A very long story," Gabrielle said, huffing and puffing from the run on the sand.
"Must be. With your fair skin, you're definitely not from around here," Ailanna said.
"No. Let's leave it at that," Xena said and put out her arm.
After eyeing it suspiciously for a few seconds, Ailanna shrugged and clasped arms with the warrior.
"How did you get here? Did your boat run aground or did you come flying?" Ailanna said with a grin.
"That's also a long story, I'm afraid. But we're..." Gabrielle said, looking at Xena. Deciding to take a leap of faith, she cleared her throat and continued: "... we're here to help."
"Well... thanks. Judging by your weapons, I guess you know how to fight. All right. I could use some help. As you can see, I've got plenty of work on my hands with that damn thing out there," Ailanna said and nodded towards the lagoon.
"Do you have a plan yet?" Xena said.
"I'm in the middle of clearing out the cave so I can set a trap for it. But that's about it for now. I only got here yesterday."
As an unwanted reminder of the trial, the sea serpent clapped its tail down on the water, creating another loud splash. It briefly looked at the three women and then disappeared into the blue waves.
A candlemark and a half later, Xena, Gabrielle and Ailanna had cleared out the cave. Once they had started working, they had discovered that it wasn't really a cave, but rather an inlet with a large, threatening overhang - and most importantly, the final stretch of the inlet was quite narrow, only twelve foot across.
The waves slapping at the rocks at the back wall of the cavern had carved a narrow ledge into them, and even though it was badly eroded, it was the only way to get from one side to the other.
After they had finished hauling the rocks away, Xena crossed over to the other side of the inlet. Walking back along the edge of the water, she was thinking hard about their possibilities - unfortunately, she was discarding one idea after the other.
When Gabrielle noticed the dark look on Xena's face, she threw down the last rocks and went across the ledge to stand next to the warrior.
"What's on your mind?" Gabrielle asked, putting her hand on the small of Xena's back.
"If we set up a rockslide here, there's a pretty good chance we can trap the beast. Possibly even crush it," Xena said and moved her arm in a sweeping motion to show what she meant.
"If that's to work, we need some bait."
"Yes. Halfway across the ledge, there's a natural staircase that leads into the water. If we place the bait there, the serpent is going to come for it for sure."
"If we were back home, we could've used a deer or some sheep."
"But we don't have a deer."
"Xena, you're not going down there. I won't allow it," Gabrielle said vehemently, poking the warrior in the side with her index finger.
"No. And that's final, Xena. This may be one of Ares' grotesque horror shows, but that beast is real and I *cannot* watch you die again," Gabrielle said and grabbed hold of Xena's arm.
"I understand, but..."
"I've done that too often already," Gabrielle said quietly, looking away to hide the tears that had suddenly appeared on her cheeks.
"I'll do it," Ailanna said.
Xena looked up and saw Ailanna standing on the opposite bank of the inlet. Her face was passive, but her eyes told another story.
As a reply, Xena nodded at the dark-skinned warrior and then pulled Gabrielle into an embrace.
Another candlemark's worth of hard work later, Xena and Gabrielle had moved what seemed to be a ton of rock into position and arranged it so a simple manoeuvre could tip it into the narrow inlet.
Gabrielle was sweating like a pig and every single muscle in her arms and back ached, but she refused to give herself a break when so much was at stake.
"All right, Gabrielle, that should do it. When we get the beast in there, all we need to do is to pull this log to make the whole damn pile crash into the water," Xena said and wiped her sweaty face.
Ailanna came over to the two hard-working warriors. She studied the pile of rocks and whistled appreciatively.
"Looks good. Yesterday evening, the beast didn't come back until dusk, so I think it would be a good idea for you to catch a nap now. We need to be fresh when it returns."
"Good idea, Ailanna," Gabrielle said and used a large leaf to wipe the sweat off her neck.
By the time Xena and Gabrielle woke up from the nap, dusk was approaching fast. The serpent had already made itself heard several times - once, it had even entered the narrow section of the stream, but changed its mind at the last moment and had returned to the lagoon.
"Are you ready?" Gabrielle whispered, reaching up to caress Xena's cheek. Ailanna had lent them a blanket to sleep on and they had been resting in their favourite position - Xena flat on her back and Gabrielle on her left side with her arm placed just below Xena's breasts.
"No. But that won't cut it."
"Let's get to work," Gabrielle said and kissed Xena's cheek.
At the same time, Ailanna sighed and took off her jacket. Inspired by Xena, she tied a piece of string to the scabbard and put it on her back. She got up and walked around the narrow pathway to the stone staircase that led into the water.
She descended one, two, and then three steps. By the third step, the water had already reached her stomach. She nodded to herself when she realised that it would work just fine. She drew her sword and made a few practice swings to check if she had room enough to use it.
"All we need now is a sixty foot sea serpent and we're all set," Xena said, standing on the bank a few feet above the dark-skinned warrior.
"It'll come," Ailanna said sombrely.
The sun was beginning to set behind the mountain and the sea gradually turned black. Xena and Gabrielle moved out to the pile of rocks they had prepared earlier and settled down so they were ready when the action started.
A series of splashes marked the arrival of the sea serpent - soon, it entered the narrow section of the inlet, no doubt looking forward to chomping on some fresh meat. It lingered at the far end of the inlet for a few moments, almost like it was trying to work out if it was a trap. With a sudden, violent motion, it lunged for the inlet.
As it raced past the trap, Xena yanked hard on the log she had set up to control the rockslide. Scores of large and small rocks tumbled over the side and into the water, effectively blocking the inlet behind the sea serpent.
A few scattered rocks didn't fall off the edge, and Gabrielle picked them up and began to throw them into the water, shouting an impressive array of obscene language at the creature.
When the passage was thoroughly blocked, Xena drew her sword and raced towards the end of the inlet to help Ailanna. With a satisfied smirk on her face, Gabrielle dusted off her hands, drew her sais and followed Xena.
The beast continued at unabated speed and slammed headfirst into the rockface right next to where Ailanna was standing, sending a huge cascade over her and almost drowning her in the process.
Just as she drew her sword and used it against the serpent for the first time, Xena and Gabrielle came sprinting into the cave and joined the fight.
Working together, the three warriors were able to do severe damage to the sea serpent, and its skin was soon riddled with holes and oozing purple blood - unfortunately, this only seemed to make it even more aggressive.
It started jerking its large head back and forth, coming perilously close to Ailanna and Gabrielle. Inevitably, both women were struck. Losing their footing, they found themselves thrown into the dark waters.
"Gabri-*elllle*!" Xena cried out when Gabrielle fell into the water. She got down on her knees at once and tried to search for Gabrielle, but she was unable to locate her in the frothy water.
Spluttering, the blonde warrior resurfaced and spat out a mouthful of water. As she frantically fought to evade the large creature, she wiped her wet hair out of her face and looked up, searching for Xena.
"Xena! Get me outta here!" she yelled, stretching out her arm. Xena deftly caught it and pulled Gabrielle up - a split second later, the beast slammed into the rockface exactly where Gabrielle had been.
As soon as she was back on the shore, Gabrielle fell down onto her knees and coughed up some more seawater. Cursing loudly, she turned around to resume the fight.
When the beast rebounded, Ailanna found herself caught between its head and the rockface, snapping her legs like twigs. Screaming, she fell back down into the water, unable to keep herself erect. Within moments, the sea serpent locked its jaws around her body and bit it in half, abruptly ending the dark-skinned warrior's screams.
The gruesome sight made even the battle-hardened Xena queasy and she had to look away.
"Oh, Gods...!" Gabrielle said when she saw the event unfold. Feeling sick to her stomach, she staggered over to the wall of the cavern to throw up.
"This ends now!" Xena roared and pulled her Chakram. She sent the weapon flying directly into the creature's eyes, blinding it on the spot. It started thrashing about wildly, but soon, it seemed to lose the will to fight and its movements began to slow considerably.
When it was calm enough, Xena drew her sword and jumped down onto the beast. Twirling the sword several times, she stabbed the sea serpent in the neck, ramming the steel down as far as it would go. Immediately, the beast went into a violent seizure, thrashing about ceaselessly.
When the ride became too wild, Xena flipped off the creature and landed back on the shore.
Moments later, the serpent rolled over onto its side, dead. Its purple blood oozed out into the water and mixed with Ailanna's red blood, creating a surreal, grotesque effect.
With a crackling sound of ozone, Ares materialised on the shore, crossing his arms over his chest as he observed the remains of the serpent and the warrior.
"Interesting," he said after a few moments, stroking his goatee.
Gabrielle walked on unsteady legs over to Xena. She wrapped her arm around her partner's waist and leaned against her shoulder.
Xena's eyes blazed as she stared at Ares. When the God noticed, he shrugged nonchalantly.
"Who was that woman, Ares?" Gabrielle said, giving Xena a squeeze.
"She was... a friend. Someone I knew a long time ago. In a way, she was your spiritual ancestor," the God said, not bothering to look at Xena and Gabrielle.
"Yes she was. Are you jealous?" Ares said, grinning.
"She didn't have anything to do with the Chralla sea serpent, but I thought it would be interesting to see how she'd work with you. In reality, she died on a battlefield in her homeland in North Africa."
"If she was your lover, why didn't you try to heal her?"
Ares turned to look at Gabrielle - for once, his demeanour and the look in his eyes seemed sincere.
"It was several thousand years ago, not long after the Fall of the Titans. I was too young to heal her. My skills weren't yet fully developed."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"Ah, it's been so long. Enough talking. Time for your evaluation," Ares said and waved his hand. Around them, everything dissolved and they were soon back in the Temple of Fire.
"So, let's see what happened. The rockslide was a good idea, but it wouldn't have been enough by itself. You lost your aide... not so good. The sea serpent was killed... excellent. All in all, this was a good result. Congratulations," Ares said, giving Xena and Gabrielle a mock bow.
Gabrielle answered the mock bow by grimacing at the God. Xena settled for shaking her head.
"Onto the next one. Let's see what's behind the second door," Ares said and waved his hands.
At once, the cave vanished and was replaced by a dusty street in a medium-sized village. The moment she noticed she was alone, Xena put her hands on her hips and bared her teeth in a sneer.
"Ares! Where's Gabrielle?"
'She stays right where she is. Like I said before, this one is yours alone, Xena. Oh, but don't worry. I'll keep her entertained while you're busy,' Ares said without making himself visible.
The God's cockiness made Xena growl, but she knew it would be a waste of breath to bargain with him, so she didn't. Instead, she started to look closely at the spot where she had landed.
The village was made up of fifteen houses, most of them proper wooden structures, but several were simple clay huts with thatched roofs. The village was cut in half by an unusually wide street with a lot of deep ruts.
Xena turned around slowly so she could take in all the sights. All the buildings on one side of the street were relatively small clay huts surrounded by fences, suggesting that this was a village that often held large groups of livestock.
'A cattle town. That would explain the ruts,' Xena thought as she turned around.
The other side of the street was occupied by a long line of regular houses: a grocery store, a carpenter, a blacksmith, an inn and several homes - and in the middle of it all, a low hut that Xena guessed was the school she had seen in the flickering images back in the cave.
The only sign of life was a wisp of smoke that drifted across the street from a small forge in the blacksmith's shop.
"What am I supposed to do here, Ares?" Xena said out loud.
'Oh, ye of so little patience. I just wanted to give you a head start. Well, if you feel like being challenged, then... it's all yours,' Ares said from somewhere out of sight.
A split second later, the empty street was filled with people going through their regular morning routines. Two men on horses were guiding a large group of cows into one of the pens, creating a small traffic jam behind them. An important looking man was sitting on a one-horse carriage, holding a whip and waiting impatiently for the street to be cleared.
On the sidewalk, in front of the houses, a young schoolmarm, wearing a simple white dress indicative of a member of the Hestian order, led a group of children towards the low clay hut.
The blacksmith was busy working on something; the rhythmic sound of his hammer hitting the anvil rang out between the houses. Now and then, he placed the item he'd been working on into a barrel of water, sending out a cloud of steam.
More cattle came up behind her, so Xena hurriedly stepped aside and went over to stand on the sidewalk in front of the inn. She furrowed her brow, not sure what to concentrate on or even look out for. She knew that Ares would never make it easy for her, so she started walking towards the clay hut that served as a school.
Back in the cave, Gabrielle and Ares stood side by side, watching the events unfold.
"What do you expect from Xena in this trial, Ares?" Gabrielle said, nervously chewing on her fingernails.
"I expect her to look out for herself."
"Wh... what's that supposed to mean?"
"You'll see in a little while. Did Xena ever tell you about the little incident at Cirra?"
"Yes, she did. Many, many years ago."
"That was some fire. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. It spread so quickly, jumping from house to house. No one was able to escape. They all perished. Men, women... children."
"Ares, spare me the details. Please," Gabrielle said and put a hand on her stomach that still hadn't calmed after the harrowing experience on the island.
By the time Xena got to the clay hut, the schoolmarm had already let the children inside, and when Xena looked through a window, she could see that they were sitting in perfect rows on low benches.
Feeling a hard knot forming in her stomach, Xena stepped back so she could get the big picture. The school had been placed between the blacksmith and the inn - fire on one side, barrels of alcohol on the other.
Growing up in her mother's inn, Xena had seen many times how strongly alcohol would burn if it was fed directly into a fire, and she suddenly understood just how sadistic this trial would be.
She rushed forward and tore open the door to the school, causing the schoolmarm to jump a foot in the air and the children to shriek.
"You must leave quickly! There's going to be a ..."
"FIRE! FIRE!" somebody shouted from the street. Xena spun around, baring her teeth when she saw the wall of fire where she had been standing only seconds ago.
"Ares, you dirty rat!" she shouted, clenching her fists.
"No, no, no!" Gabrielle said, giving Ares an almighty whack on his shoulder with her fist.
"Oh, this is gonna be so good. This is when Xena is at her best. Caught in an impossible situation. What will she do? Can she escape? Or will she try to save the others first?" Ares said, focusing on the flickering images on the wall of the cave.
"You're... you're sick!" Gabrielle yelled and thumped him again.
"Stop doing that, you're going to sprain your hand. You'll need it in your own trial. Oooh, I need a snack. Want some peanuts?" Ares said, conjuring up a small bag of peanuts and presenting it to Gabrielle.
"No, I don't!"
"Suit yourself," the God said and stuffed a handful of nuts in his mouth.
The schoolmarm fainted on the spot and the children all started screaming and running frantically about in the classroom.
"Don't panic!" Xena shouted, but the children were so hysterical that only a few of them stopped to listen to her.
Cursing loudly, Xena started pushing some of the children back from the door so she could look outside - the wall of fire stung her eyes, but she managed to see that the blacksmith's forge had tipped over into a large hay bale. The hay had caught fire at once and had ignited the roof of the blacksmith's shop.
Through the heat haze, Xena could see that several men had formed a fire line and were busy throwing buckets and pans filled with water onto the blacksmith's shop.
She shook her head angrily, finding it impossible to think straight in the ever-increasing din of the screaming children and the raging fire. She spun around and started looking for another way out.
The clay hut had two windows on either side, but while the children could use them, they were too small for her or the fainted teacher. There was no backdoor and no cellar.
From past experience, Xena knew that the clay walls would be able to withstand a large fire, but the thatched roof wouldn't. She looked up and saw to her great horror that it had already begun to smoulder. Making a quick decision, she drew her Chakram and ran to the centre of the classroom.
"Stand back!" she roared - for once, the children listened. When they were all behind her, she let the circular weapon fly, breaking the first of the narrow windows.
"Jump out of the window! Come on! One at a time!" she shouted, pushing the hysterical children over to the far wall. After a brief period of confusion, two of the boys took the initiative and started helping their classmates out of the broken window.
Xena ran up to the head of the classroom and examined the unconscious teacher. She put two fingers on the side of the woman's neck, finding the pulse strong.
A crackling sound made Xena look up at the roof - the thatch had begun to glow in places, and Xena knew it wouldn't be long before it caught fire. With a sigh, she reached in under the teacher and picked her up.
Mere yards before Xena and the teacher reached the door, the roof started caving in with a creaking, groaning sound. The unexpected movement made the fire flare up, and within seconds, the entire roof was completely enveloped in flames.
Moments later, a large section of the roof finally gave up, collapsing into the classroom and burying Xena and the teacher under a heavy pile of burning thatch.
"Noooo! Let me go to her, Ares! Please!" Gabrielle said.
"She needs to do it herself, my young apprentice," Ares said and popped another handful of peanuts in his mouth.
"No, you don't understand... I can feel she's in trouble. Please let me go to her," Gabrielle said, clutching her suddenly aching heart.
"Stop worrying. She'll be fine. She and you have been in much worse situations and you've always come out on top."
Gabrielle clenched her fists and closed her eyes, trying desperately to prevent her anger from breaking out. Her heart was mercilessly pumping the heated blood through her veins and she knew that she would not be able to stop if she allowed it to take control.
Ares clearly felt the anger coursing through Gabrielle, and his ruggedly handsome face turned into a dark mask of pleasure.
'Soon, Gabrielle. Soon you'll be able to exploit your rage to the fullest. Soon, my young apprentice,' he thought and let out a long, slow sigh.
Xena groaned and got up on her elbows. She shook her head to try to get rid of some of the red, blurry spots in her vision, but she soon realised that they were glowing embers floating around in the air inside the hut.
She knew she had to move fast so she tried to push herself off the floor, but found that she couldn't get up.
Something heavy was pressing down on her lower back and she craned her neck to see what it was - it turned out to be one of the beams supporting the roof. The thatch was burning merrily on either side of her, but the beam itself was still not on fire.
She started looking around for the teacher, but could only spot a blackened piece of cloth, buried under a burning section of thatch.
At that exact moment, another section of the roof caved in, sending a cascade of fire into the classroom and showering Xena in burning embers. She desperately covered her face, but one ember landed on her arm, instantly scorching her, and several others fell down in her hair.
She hurriedly brushed them away, but not fast enough to stop her hands from being scorched.
"That does it!" she growled and began to twist her body to get out from underneath the beam. After turning around so she was on her back, she was able to crawl away from the beam towards the door, keeping low so she wouldn't inhale too much of the smoke.
Just as Xena reached the threshold, she thought she heard a pained cry from somewhere behind her. She turned her head to look back at the pile of burning thatch where she had seen the blackened cloth, but she couldn't see any signs of life.
She had almost given up when she heard a very clear cough, followed by a series of sobs. Groaning, she spun around and went back to get the teacher.
"She hasn't learned a thing," Ares said sharply as he and Gabrielle watched the flickering images.
"Of course she'll save that woman, Ares. Haven't *you* learned anything?"
"Gabrielle, I set up this trial to teach Xena that she couldn't save everyone and that she shouldn't even bother to try. What's the point? They'll just die some other time."
"Excuse me, you've been here for how long? You still don't know anything about us mortals," Gabrielle said vehemently.
"Perhaps not, but I do know a great deal about looking out for number one. Watch and learn, my young apprentice," Ares said and snapped his fingers.
Xena hadn't crawled more than a few feet when the next support beam fell down on the exact spot where the teacher was trapped. Only a few seconds later, the remainder of the roof collapsed, sending a devastating firestorm through the classroom.
Xena held her breath and protected her head with her arms. As soon as the fireball had blown past her, she jumped up and headed for the door, getting scorched by the burning thatch as she moved through it. Once she reached the door, she did a double salto and blasted through the wall of fire on the outside of the door.
Landing in an unruly heap in the middle of the street, Xena breathed hard, patting herself down to extinguish the last embers before they could do any damage.
She rolled over onto her back and stretched her arms out on either side of her. She suddenly noticed that the world had gone very quiet, and as she raised her head to see what was going on, she was transported back to the Temple of Fire.
At once, Gabrielle ran over to Xena. Falling down on her knees, she scooped up her partner and gave her a very big hug.
"Gods, are you all right?" Gabrielle said, brushing a smouldering ember out of Xena's hair.
"I feel like a smoked salmon," Xena said and coughed several times.
Gabrielle turned to look at Ares, but the God just shrugged.
"That could've killed her, Ares! Wouldn't that have put a crimp in your plans?"
"Nah. She was always going to be all right. Everything is on time and on target. Speaking of which... I hope you're ready for your own trial, Gabrielle. That's coming up next," the God said and disappeared.
Xena coughed again and sat up. She brushed off her arms, looking at the scorch marks with annoyance etched on her face.
Out of nowhere, a full waterskin fell out of the sky and Gabrielle only just caught it inches before it would have splattered all over the ground.
'Oh, here's some water. Don't say I'm not a considerate God of War,' Ares' disembodied voice said.
"I was really worried about you," Gabrielle said quietly, pressing herself even closer to Xena.
"It got a little hairy there, I'll admit. I almost had her."
"Ares wanted you to save yourself instead of thinking of the teacher."
"I guessed as much. Seems like something he'd want," Xena said in a voice tinged with bitterness.
"It's something I want because it's the best way of going about your life. No, actually, it's the only way," Ares said, materialising right next to Xena and Gabrielle. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at them smugly.
"Well, I made it out of there and the teacher didn't, so I guess I won that trial after all, Ares?" Xena said defiantly.
"It wasn't a clear victory. Let's call it a muddled draw. Anyway, Gabrielle, your trial is coming up. Are you ready?"
"Not really. What do you want me to do?"
"You're a smart girl, you'll figure it out once you get there. A word of advice... leave your sais here. You won't be needing them."
"So I don't have to fight?"
"Mmmm. Oh, remember back to when you were visiting the Amazon tribe led by that buff Queen?"
"No, the other buff Amazon. Vivella, that's right. You know, the one who later fought the warlord I had sent after them?"
"Remember what I told you when you had just killed the wild boar?"
Gabrielle furrowed her brow. The boar hunt had taken place only days after she had left the boat that brought her back from Egypt. When she had visited the Amazon lands, she had expected to find Varia's tribe but found Queen Vivella's tribe instead.
She had been invited to go on a boar hunt with Vivella's best hunters, but had found herself all alone when the boar attacked. She had fought it with a ferocity that had surprised even herself - eventually killing it with only a hunting dagger.
'This has everything to do with who you are, Gabrielle. When that beast attacked you, you didn't go all 'boo-hoo-hoo save me', no... you fought it with all your might. You killed it. And that's who you are,' Ares had said to her.
"I remember," Gabrielle said quietly.
"Those words are as valid today as they were back then, my young apprentice."
"Stop cal..." Gabrielle started to say, but her voice soon trailed off. In her heart, she knew that the statement had become true.
"Don't listen to him. You know how he likes to play games," Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear.
"I know, but..."
"Gabrielle, if you want to give Xena a goodbye smooch, now's the time," Ares said and disappeared.
Not wanting to waste a second of their time together, Gabrielle immediately framed Xena's face and pulled her close. After the briefest of pauses, they kissed each other senseless, almost like they were afraid that it might be their last.
When they separated, Gabrielle leaned her forehead against Xena's and took a deep breath.
"Xena... I'm scared. This one is going to be bad, I can feel it in my heart."
"Just think of the things you've learned over the years, Gabrielle. Be yourself and you'll be fine," Xena whispered.
Gabrielle nodded and then got up. She cleared her throat to make known to Ares that she was ready.
A few moments later, Gabrielle found herself standing in the courtyard of the farm where she grew up. As she slowly turned around, she realised that everything still looked much the same - the barn with the squeaking windmill, the house and the small pen where the chickens were kept were all still there.
The tone of light indicated that it was late in the day, and when she looked up at the sky to read the sun or the moon, she could see heavy rain clouds moving in fast.
When she saw that there was light coming from the farm house, Gabrielle felt her legs move towards it on their own accord. As she crossed the courtyard, a chilly mist surrounded her, making her shiver from the unexpected cold.
After knocking on the front door, Gabrielle took a few steps back to make sure that whomever was inside wouldn't feel threatened by her presence. Moments later, Lila opened the door, wearing the same confused look Gabrielle remembered so well from days gone by. When Lila saw who it was, the look of confusion changed into one of frustration.
"Gabby! Where have you been? We're almost running late. The girls will be here in half a candlemark... at the most!" Lila said in an accusing tone. She snorted and then walked away from the door, leaving Gabrielle alone.
Gabrielle furrowed her brow when she realised that Lila was still young. In fact, she still looked like she had been back when the terrible mess with Hope and the Destroyer had occurred. Goosebumps spread out over Gabrielle's arms, and she spun around to look at the barn.
"Are you coming or what?" Lila suddenly said, startling Gabrielle.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming," Gabrielle said and went inside, closing the front door behind her.
"I can't believe you're late for this. Did you forget how important it is to us? Sheesh, you and all your wild ideas, Gabby. Your mind is never on where you are or what you're doing. It's always the future, the future. Ugh!" Lila said, flailing her arms in the air to show her displeasure.
Gabrielle tried hard to figure out what it was Lila was talking about, but she soon came to the conclusion that sometimes, feigning ignorance worked best.
"Lila, it's... uh, my time of the month and I think I'm running a slight fever. You know I always become forgetful when that happens. What is it exactly we're doing now?" Gabrielle said and put a hand on her forehead to get the point across.
"Gabrielle, I swear... one of these days, you're going to forget your head somewhere."
"Humour me," Gabrielle said. The corner of her mouth twitched when Lila's words caused a flashback to the horrible events in Jappa. She shook her head, trying to force the negative thoughts out of her mind.
"We're having the girls over for supper. In the barn. You're telling stories. Remember now?" Lila said in a monotone. She put her hands on her hips and gave her big sister a pointed look.
"Ohhh... of course. How could I forget! I'm going to be telling stories. Right. I'd better prepare some, then."
"You mean you haven't already?!"
"Oh, well, uh... of course I have, ha ha," Gabrielle said, scratching her cheek. She still didn't know what was going on and she had a very bad feeling that Lila hadn't told her everything yet.
"Girls over for supper? What girls?" Xena said, standing next to Ares. They were both watching Gabrielle's trial on the flickering images - Ares had already conjured up a new bag of peanuts.
"You'll see. Just wait a little bit. It'll all get sorted out in the end. Peanut?"
"I'll tell you one thing, though. If Gabrielle wins this trial, she's no longer merely an apprentice. She'll be a full-fledged warrior," Ares said, giving Xena a dark look.
"What is it you want her to do, Ares?"
Ares didn't answer. He just turned his head back to the flickering images, leaving Xena with a sense of impending doom.
A candlemark later, seventeen teenage girls wearing identical white tunics were seated on rows of makeshift benches in the barn. In front of the benches, a couple of wooden crates had been put together to form a dais.
Lila and another girl Gabrielle didn't know were sitting on the boxes, chatting amongst themselves, and the other girls were doing much the same down on the benches.
Gabrielle was standing behind the dais, leaning against the wall of the barn, wondering just what was going on. She looked closely at the young girls - they were all clearly teenagers but that was the only common feature. They had different hair and eye colour, different features and different ethnicities.
Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest and began to chew on a fingernail. She couldn't work out what they were all doing here, and when she had asked one of them, the young girl had ignored her.
Suddenly, the barn door opened and another young woman stepped inside, hidden under a cloak. Gabrielle's breath hitched when the young woman took off the garment - it was Seraphin.
She was wearing the same type of tunic all the other girls wore, but she had a look of barely hidden excitement on her face that sent a cold shiver down Gabrielle's spine.
"He's almost here!" Seraphin said, getting completely drowned out by the loud cheer that went up from the young girls.
"Who's almost here?" Gabrielle asked Lila.
"No, I don't. Lila, what's going on here?"
"Sheesh, Gabrielle. You're so clueless sometimes, you know that?" Lila said and leaned forward again.
Seraphin put the cloak on a vacant seat on the first bench and stepped up on the wooden crates.
"It won't be long now! He's coming!" she chanted, earning herself another cheer from the crowd.
Gabrielle's skin began to crawl as a horrifying suspicion entered her mind.
"But first, let's welcome Lila's sister, Gabrielle. She's here to tell us the fascinating story of our first meeting with our Divine Father. Come on, Gabrielle!" Seraphin said and waved Gabrielle over to her.
Reluctantly, Gabrielle went over to stand next to the white-haired fanatic. The dragon tattoo on her back itched, a sure-fire sign that trouble was coming.
"So, Gabrielle. Tell your Sisters about your encounter with our Divine Father, the almighty Dahak," Seraphin said, wearing a broad smile.
"Dahak! Is that what Gabrielle's trial is about?" Xena shouted and grabbed hold of Ares' vest.
"Mmmm, could be, yes."
"Ares, I swear, if your harm even one hair on Gabrielle's head, I'll find the rib of Kronos and kill you stone dead!"
"Oh, relax, will you. No harm will come to her. Hey, let go, it's tailor-made," Ares said and yanked his vest out of Xena's grip.
"Dahak?! Is he's the one who's coming?" Gabrielle said. Her heart started hammering away in her chest and she clenched her fists in shock.
"Well, of course he is. That's why we've gathered these virgins from all the provinces.... from Epirus, from Western and Central Macedonia and from Thrace. Tonight, our Divine Father Dahak will visit us with all his might. His flame shall rise and bless us all," Seraphin said.
"Bless you?! He's coming to rape you!" Gabrielle shouted and angrily pushed Lila and Seraphin aside. She stepped up onto the wooden crates and stretched out her arms.
"Please listen to me! Dahak will not bring you peace or salvation; he'll bring you death! I've been there... I've been raped by Dahak's flame. He violated me against my will and there was nothing I could do to stop him. The same thing will happen to you!"
'Stop it? We welcome it!' someone in the crowd said.
"You're all insane! I don't know what lies Seraphin has told you, but when Dahak comes, there'll be nothing left! Nothing!" Gabrielle said and made a sweeping gesture with her hand.
'Get her down from there!' someone said.
"Gabrielle, what's with you tonight? Why so much hatred against our Divine Father?" Lila said and put a calming hand on Gabrielle's elbow.
"Oh, not you too... Dahak raped me, Lila! Don't you understand that?" Gabrielle said after she had stepped off the crate.
"I'm sure he wouldn't. Seraphin has told me so much about our Divine Father. I can't wait to experience him. To feel his touch on my skin," Lila said dreamily.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but she couldn't get a single word across her lips. Behind her, the din of the crowd grew in intensity. Everybody was talking at once, creating a wall of noise.
Some of the young girls got up from their seats and began to heckle Gabrielle. She suddenly found herself in the centre of a circle of girls, all jeering her or tugging at her arms.
Through it all, someone began to speak directly to Gabrielle. She spun around, trying to figure out who it was, but she couldn't - not until Seraphin walked up right next to her and whispered in her ear.
'... if you're lucky...'
'... Dahak will grant you another blessing.'
When the scattered words reached Gabrielle's brain, she felt a surge of panic flood over her. The girls continued with their jeering and the panic soon turned into rage.
She clenched her fists and closed her eyes to control the tide of anger that rushed through her system.
"Enough... Enough!" she said out loud, but it wasn't enough to stop the girls.
"ENOUGH!" Gabrielle roared and performed a flip that got her free of the girls. She landed on top of the wooden crates, as taut as a bowstring. She looked down on the twenty young women and bared her teeth in an angry sneer.
"You pathetic fools... you really think Dahak cares about you? You're just sheep. Sheep to be slaughtered," Gabrielle hissed.
"Ares, stop this at once!" Xena said.
"No. It's just getting started. Behold, Xena. Behold Gabrielle completing her journey. She's about to become a true warrior," Ares said and waved his hand.
"Once he's raped you and you've given birth to his demon spawn, do you think he'll spare you? He won't! He'll throw you away and then move on to your sisters and your mothers until he has violated us all!" Gabrielle continued.
"Gabrielle, you simply don't understand. We welcome it," Seraphin said.
"Then you deserve to die," Gabrielle said hoarsely.
'Gabrielle. Focus on your anger, not these sheep. They're worthless. Who's going to miss them? Here, put out your hand,' Ares said inside Gabrielle's mind.
She did as she was told. Moments later, the razor-sharp sacred Katana appeared in her hand. Some of the young girls gasped, but others didn't care.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and put both hands on the Katana's grip. She tried to calm down, but the heated blood in her veins drowned out everything else.
'I hope you and your precious Xena will be the first to face the wrath of our Divine Father Dahak!' someone shouted.
Gabrielle's eyes flew open and she looked around to see who had said those horrible words. When she realised that it had been her own sister, her rage snapped into white-hot, blind hatred.
Without hesitating for even a second, she jumped off the crate and began to carve her way through the virgins like a blonde Banshee.
"Oh, Gods, no... no, no, no, Gabrielle..." Xena said, clutching her head.
Ares closed his eyes and allowed Gabrielle's anger and hatred to flow over him. With eyes almost black from the joy he was getting from the massacre, he turned to look at Xena with a dark, nasty smile on his lips.
"Xena... I hope that last kiss you shared was nice. Gabrielle is no longer yours. She's mine," he said and disappeared.
Breathing hard, Gabrielle lowered the Katana. Fresh, bright red blood dripped off the razor-sharp blade, staining the floor. At her feet lay twenty young virgins - all dead. All killed by her in the most gruesome ways imaginable.
Lila had been the first to die. She was lying where she had fallen: on her right side, staring at a pool of her own blood with unseeing eyes.
A crackling sound of ozone signalled Ares' arrival, and as soon as he was fully materialised, he went over to stand behind Gabrielle and put his hands on her shoulders.
"Excellent work, Gabrielle. This concludes your training. You're no longer an apprentice... now, you're a warrior. A true warrior, fighting for me," he whispered into her ear.
"Did I win or lose this trial?" Gabrielle said hoarsely, her voice breaking up several times as she spoke the words.
"Oh, you definitely won. I couldn't have done it better myself."
"Then why do I feel so empty?"
"That's not unusual, Gabrielle. You feel that way because you're fresh out of sheep to kill," Ares said and gave Gabrielle a pat on the back. He waved his hands, transforming the barn into the Temple of Fire.
Gabrielle looked up and locked eyes with Xena. The Warrior Princess could barely hold back the tears, and her sad, horrified face made Gabrielle shiver.
The two women walked slowly towards each other. The guilt was beginning to burn in Gabrielle's heart and she couldn't hold Xena's look.
"I saw what happened," Xena whispered once they were a few feet apart. To her great horror, Gabrielle stopped just out of reach.
Xena stretched out her arms, hoping to pull Gabrielle into a hug, but the blonde warrior just shook her head and took a further step back.
"Swoosh, swoosh, chop, chop... magnificent technique, my dear," Ares said as he came up to stand right behind Gabrielle, once again putting his hands on her shoulders. Raising an eyebrow, he shot Xena a look of supreme arrogance.
"She'll never be yours, Ares. She can't be. Her heart is too pure," Xena hissed.
"Oh, yes, her pure heart. Well... I think we've just established that her heart isn't particularly pure. I guess you did rub off on her," Ares said with a nasty chuckle.
"You forced her into that situation!"
"But she decided for herself what to do once she was in it. I merely provided the tools. If she wanted to, she could've spared those fanatics. Right, Gabrielle?" Ares said and rubbed his hands up and down on Gabrielle's upper arms.
"Anyway... I'll give you a few hours of rest before I'll call you up for the final trial. After the superbly entertaining events in the barn, I'm in a good mood so I'll even organise a nice place for you. Does a meadow not far from a crystal clear lake sound OK to you?"
"I don't care where you send us, Ares... as long as it's far away from you."
"Oh... Ow!" Ares said and waved his hands. In an instant, the cave dissolved and was transformed into a meadow at dusk. When Xena looked around, she recognised it as being the same place she and Gabrielle had spent a delightful afternoon in only a few weeks earlier.
Set among rolling hills, the meadow was green with patches of wild cornflowers. A crescent-shaped cluster of light green birch trees created a natural shelter and a narrow stream gurgled its way through the scenery not far from where Xena and Gabrielle were standing.
"Ares! Do you want us to sleep on the ground?" Xena said loudly. A few seconds later, a fully set camp appeared under the trees - a lit firepit with a quail on a stick roasting over the flames, two logs to sit on and one fur bedroll.
"Hmmm!" Xena grumbled. When she was sure Ares wasn't watching, she turned to Gabrielle to help her over to the campsite. The moment she saw Gabrielle's tormented face, a rock hard knot of despair formed in her gut.
Normally so vibrant, Gabrielle's face was now pale and drawn, and her green eyes were just staring away at nothing. On occasion, her lips moved silently, almost like she was repeatedly reliving the situation in the barn.
Making a quick decision, Xena stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. After scooping her up like she weighed nothing at all, Xena held her tight and began to walk across the meadow, heading for the camp.
"I know what happened. I still love you," Xena whispered.
"No... I d... don't deserve your love. I don..."
"Shhh. I'll always love you."
Upon reaching the camp, Xena gently placed Gabrielle down on the bedroll.
"Come on. Take off your boots. I'll tuck you in," Xena said quietly, running her fingers across Gabrielle's forehead.
Gabrielle sighed deeply and began to unlace her boots. When her fingers touched the cold steel of her sais, she froze. Understanding her partner's hesitation, Xena removed the two weapons and threw them to the side.
When Gabrielle didn't attempt to take off her boots, Xena reached down and pulled them off for her, using the opportunity to caress Gabrielle's muscular calves.
"Please don't shut me out. I'll be here for you. Always," Xena said and moved up to give Gabrielle a gentle kiss on the lips.
Looking so sad and lost that Xena's heart almost broke in two, Gabrielle sighed again and crawled into the bedroll. She rested her head on the built-in pillow and closed her eyes.
"Try to get some sleep. I'll be right here by your side," Xena said, leaning down to place a loving kiss on Gabrielle's forehead.
Two candlemarks later, a terrible nightmare disturbed Gabrielle so much that she bolted upright in the bedroll, brutally torn from her sleep.
"Zzzzz... wha'?!" Xena said, reaching for her sword. She immediately understood what was wrong, but she quickly scanned their campsite anyway just to be on the safe side. When she had established that they weren't under attack, she put the sword back in its scabbard and wrapped her long arms around her partner.
Gabrielle was trembling from the after-effects of the nightmare, but Xena's warm touch made her relax. She closed her eyes again and leaned her head against Xena's strong chest.
"Nightmare?" Xena asked - Gabrielle replied with a faint nod.
"I've had a few of those. And you've always helped me get over them by holding me tight when I needed it," Xena said and began rocking the two of them gently back and forth.
"Gods, Xena... I... I killed them all."
"I know. Ares made me watch."
"At first I didn't want to, but... but they kept pushing me. Even Lila. She s-said..."
"It doesn't matter now."
"It was Dahak. They were waiting for Dahak. I just c-couldn't go through all that again..."
"Gabrielle, please listen to me. It doesn't matter now. It was just one of Ares' perverted trials."
"I kn-know, but I just acted on instinct. I let all my inhibitions go. I let my humanity go," Gabrielle said and wiped away the tears that had found their way onto her cheeks.
Gabrielle shook her head slowly as she composed her thoughts.
"When I w... was murdering those girls, I allowed my rage to consume me completely. Gods, Xena... I'm an evil person."
"No! No, you're not, Gabrielle. Your reaction now proves that you're a good person. Do you think an evil person would care in the slightest about who she had killed? Or how many?" Xena said, grabbing Gabrielle by the shoulders, looking her straight into the eyes.
"How many evil people have we met over the years? Dozens? Hundreds? The thing they've all had in common is that none of them have ever had any regrets... or even a guilty conscience. You do, Gabrielle, and that proves that you're still good."
"Ares told me that I was now working for him."
"He's bending the truth. As usual."
"Is he? I'm not so sure, Xena," Gabrielle said and pulled away slightly.
"When has he ever been straight with us? Huh?"
"You see? Come on. Let's have a talk over by the fire," Xena said and put out her hand.
After a brief hesitation, Gabrielle took it and allowed herself to be hoisted up from the fur bedroll.
"Do we have anything to eat?" Gabrielle said, her empty stomach suddenly making its presence felt.
"Er, no. Only a very, very, well done quail," Xena said and looked at the charred carcass still suspended over the fire.
"Oh. Ugh. Well, that was Ares' anyway. I wouldn't touch anything he's given me with a ten foot pole."
A few minutes later, they were sitting by the fire, quietly looking at the flickering flames and just finding comfort in each other's presence. Gabrielle was sitting between Xena's legs with her back resting against the warrior's front, and Xena's hands were busy drawing little doodles on Gabrielle's abs.
"Did you ever imagine that it would come to this? That I, the naïve little bard would ever grow up to be a mass murderer?"
"It may have been inevitable... travelling with me," Xena said quietly, burying her face in Gabrielle's hair.
"This wasn't your doing, Xena. I killed those girls, not you."
"They were illusions, Gabrielle. Just illusions."
"But my emotions were very real. I felt nothing apart from blind hatred. I wanted to... I wanted to make them suffer," Gabrielle said and sighed deeply.
"It was because of Dahak. Would you have done it otherwise?"
"Of course not. Well... I hope I wouldn't."
"Well, there's your answer. These girls may have appeared to be innocent and pure, but in reality, they were anything but."
"Still. The people we've fought have always been soldiers, marauders or common thugs and if we've killed them, it's nearly always been in self-defence. But lately, I've found myself relishing the fight," Gabrielle said. As she spoke the last words, her voice trailed off into a whisper.
"'...Driving a knife through butter.' Do you remember who said that, Xena? 'Slitting a young girl's throat is like driving a knife through butter.' Gods, that's exactly how it felt. There was nothing to it. It was like the Katana was an extension of me. I was in complete control. The blade followed my every command, slicing through their flesh... their hearts... ending their lives."
"Gabrielle, fighting is one of the basic instincts. Once you've gone down that path, once you've experienced the rush of a good kill, it's a Herculean task to return to normal. Even the bravest need help to get back. Please, let me be your help," Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear.
Gabrielle answered by nodding, so choked up that she was unable to produce a single sound.
"Good. Let me tell you a story from days gone by. Many, many years ago, a young redhead, an idealistic little slip of a girl, was doing her damnedest to defend a battle-weary warrior from an angry mob who claimed that the warrior had killed several people from their village."
"That has a familiar ring to it," Gabrielle whispered.
"Mmmm. Now, the young, idealistic redhead didn't know that she was up against Ares, the God of War. Had she known, would she have done anything differently? Hard to say. Fact is that she tried with all her skills to save the battle-weary warrior, even when the warrior struck her down in a fit of blind rage."
"How could I leave you, Xena? You were my best friend... Hades, you were my only friend," Gabrielle said, allowing herself a faint chuckle.
"Well, I'm glad you did. In the end, the warrior was saved from the scaffold by the young redhead's efforts."
"Ares had a finger in that game as I recall."
"When hasn't he?"
"True. Remember how upset he was the first time we kissed? He was so furious he could hardly even speak," Gabrielle said, remembering the incredible string of events that had eventually become one of her favourite scrolls - The Quest.
"Yeah," Xena said and went back to playing with Gabrielle's abs.
"We've seen a lot in our travels together. A lot of good things; not just bad stuff. I wonder what some of our old friends are doing now?"
"Well, we know that Autolycus married a rich, elderly widow down south somewhere. Of course, that was a while ago, now."
"He always was an opportunist. But he was all right," Gabrielle said and took Xena's hand in her own to stop the warrior's long digits from tickling her.
"Yeah. Which reminds me... after this mess is over, do you want to travel back to visit Queen Vivella's tribe?"
"Sure... if you don't mind?"
"Of course not. Queen Vivella and her partner Sareena were all right."
"They treated me well when I was there. I'd like to go back. They held the greatest Amazon parties."
"Agreed," Xena said, fondly remembering their wedding ceremony.
"I liked them a lot better than I ever did Varia," Gabrielle said under her breath.
"Agreed!" Xena said with a throaty chuckle.
Gabrielle stood up and dusted off the back of her skirt. Putting out her hand, she helped Xena up from the ground and then wrapped an arm around the warrior's leather-clad waist.
After briefly glancing with morbid curiosity at the quail's charred carcass, they began to walk slowly away from the camp. Gabrielle let her fingers run down Xena's arm, and soon, the two fearsome warriors were walking hand in hand across the meadow.
"Xena... considering the things we've been put through so far, what do you think Ares has planned for us in the last trial?"
"I don't know. Whatever it is, I have a feeling it's going to be nasty."
"Before the nightmare woke me up, I had another horrible dream..."
"Of you and me fighting each other. To the death."
"Do you think Ares planted that thought in my head?" Gabrielle said and stopped. She put her hand on Xena's side, hoping for an answer that would quell the nervousness brewing inside her.
"Gabrielle, I honestly don't know. I wouldn't put it past him. In your dream... who won?"
"It was a draw. We killed each other."
After a few moments, they found each other's hands again and resumed their stroll across the meadow.
As expected, the meadow soon dissolved, but instead of returning to the Temple of Fire, Xena and Gabrielle found themselves transported to a great hall.
The floor and the ceiling in the rectangular hall were made of shiny black obsidian and the walls were covered with very large draperies, all held in black, red and silver colours. Four candelabra were placed in each corner, bathing the room in an orange light from the many candles.
At the far end of the hall, a hideous throne resided. It was large and ungainly, and it was made to resemble a collection of skulls and bones.
"This isn't the Temple of Fire," Gabrielle said, looking at the draperies. They were all decorated with various icons of death - swords, axes, hunting daggers, bows, a Chakram and even a pair of sais.
When Gabrielle realised that the pattern on the drapery with the sais was identical to the one on her outfit, her eyes grew wide. She walked over to it to give it a closer look, but before she had time to touch it, Ares appeared, sitting in the hideous throne.
"That's right, Gabrielle. It's the Halls of War. Welcome home," he said and saluted the two warriors.
"These draperies all represent my finest warriors. You'll find many illustrious names there. One of them being Gabrielle of Potaideia," he continued.
"I don't want that honour," Gabrielle said, her face turning into a mask of disgust.
"Too late, as you can see. Oh, you don't have to be jealous, Xena. I have a drapery for you, too."
"Mmmm!" Xena said, putting her hands on her hips.
Ares got up from his throne and sauntered towards the two women. Wearing a mischievous grin that Xena knew would spell trouble, the God spun around in a circle just before he got to them.
"What do you think of the new Halls? I had to have them redecorated after the mess you made back when you slaughtered my family. Did you see the mosaic floor? Fetching, isn't it?"
Xena and Gabrielle looked down and noticed the mosaic patterns on the floor. Dozens of events featuring Ares' warriors had been immortalised there - a scene from Gabrielle's trial in the barn among them. When Gabrielle saw her own likeness wielding the Katana in one hand and the severed head of a virgin in the other, she gasped loudly.
Turning to look at Ares, Gabrielle's eyes shot fire and she couldn't stop the anger from building inside her.
"How dare you?" she said in a strained voice.
"But it's a shrine for you! This way, your accomplishments will be preserved for all eternity. Gabrielle, the trusty sidekick... the bard... the slayer of virgins. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"
"You sick, twisted, evil basta..."
"Oh, enough with the compliments already. Let's move on. The best trial is coming up. Aren't you excited?" Ares said, stroking his goatee.
"No, we're not!" Xena said vehemently, fighting an urge to wipe the smirk off his face.
"Ares, we won't fight each other! So just forget it!" Gabrielle blurted out, clenching her fists.
"Fight each other? Have you been sampling the henbane again? I don't want you to fight each other. Why would I want to do that?" Ares said, genuinely surprised for once.
"Ah, I've watched you spar dozens of times. You know exactly how to respond to every move the other one makes. That wouldn't be a proper fight," Ares said and waved his hand dismissively.
"What's the last trial, Ares?" Xena said.
"Patience. It'll soon be revealed. I can promise you that it'll be a whole lot of fun, though. But first, I have a little something I want you to see," Ares said and waved his hands again, dimming the lights.
"Oh, no, not that flickering nonsense again!" Gabrielle growled.
A large section of the wall turned into a portal, showing pictures of a vast army lining up in perfect attack formations.
Behind the army, two fierce-looking warriors were standing at a table, studying something that could only be battle plans. One of them was a tall brunette and the other a shorter blonde. They were both wearing heavy armour that covered up their bodies, but it was easy to tell that they were both beefy and brawny.
"Is that supposed to be us, Ares?" Xena said, cocking her head.
"It is indeed. You're working for me as my two Conquerors. You're actually planning the final battle in the invasion of Rome. It'll be a grand success, by the way."
"Why do you talk about it like it's real? That's just an illusion, like everything else we've done here," Gabrielle said.
"To a certain extent, yes. But on the other hand, my dear, have you considered that perhaps..." - Ares pointed at the screen - "... *that* is the reality and the rest is all fantasy?"
"I think you've lost your marbles, Ares," Xena said.
"Nope. You've seen so much. Would alternative realities really be that big an ask?"
"How about you just told us about the last trial so we can get it over with?"
"Patience, patience, patience. I'm not done," Ares said and waved his hand, making the image disappear.
Another image soon replaced it, showing one of Ares' temples. A broad-shouldered man entered the temple. Moments later, the same man exited it carrying an axe. He briefly looked around and then stomped off screen.
"But... isn't that...?" Gabrielle said, furrowing her brow.
"That's exactly who it is, my dear. This event was an important turning point in young Xena's life. To make up for the fact that you couldn't be there, I'm reprising it for your benefit. And what a juicy reprise it is."
"Have you forgotten that we've already dealt with this, Ares? Twice?" Xena said.
"Ah, but there's a twist to this one," Ares said with a wink.
The scene changed into showing an interior shot of an empty Inn. Off-screen, someone started bellowing, and then a woman came running down a set of stairs to see what was going on.
"Mother..." Xena whispered and furrowed her brow.
Cyrene opened the door and looked out. In the middle of the street, her husband Atrius was standing with his legs slightly apart, swinging a mean-looking battle axe.
"GET HER OUT HERE! GET THE LITTLE BRAT OUT HERE!" Atrius roared.
Inside the Inn, a very young Xena came running down the stairs. She looked frightened and hid behind a post, only peeking out now and then. Every time her father roared out in the street, little Xena twitched.
In the mean time, a crowd had gathered around Atrius. Gossiping loudly like the villagers they were, the crowd couldn't wait to see blood being shed.
Cyrene stepped out onto the street and went straight over to her husband.
"Have you gone insane, Atrius? Put down that axe!"
"I'll put it down once I've used it to separate that little brat's head from her shoulders."
"Maybe I am. But even if I were stone sober, I'd still be doing this. GET HER OUT HERE!"
Little Xena opened the door and ran out into the street where she hid behind her mother's skirt.
"What's wrong with Daddy, Mommy?"
"He's gone insane," Cyrene said, but she was interrupted by a manic laugh from Atrius.
"I went to Ares' temple today to pay my tributes to the God of War. And what do I find? A high priest, whispering in my ear that I should ask my wife who the father of her child is!"
A gasp rippled through the crowd and Cyrene blushed furiously.
"So who is it, Cyrene? Who did you whore around with?"
"Of course she's yours. Put down the axe before you hurt yourself!"
"I'm asking you for the last time. Whose is she?" Atrius said and raised the axe high in the air. When he didn't get an answer, he roared again and jumped forward. Cyrene tried to grab the axe, but she wasn't strong enough to stop the experienced soldier and Atrius just brushed her off.
When Atrius swung the heavy battle axe directly at Xena, some among the crowd fainted while others started cheering in anticipation.
Inches before it would've hit the child, Cyrene intercepted Atrius' arm and forced it back. She pulled the axe from his grip and pushed him backwards.
Undaunted, he charged her to get the battle axe back, but she calmly swung it at him, driving it deeply into his rib cage. He slumped to his knees and then toppled over, dead.
At once, Cyrene let go of the axe and took a staggering step backward. She clutched her head, almost like she couldn't understand what had just happened.
Ares waved his hand, making the flickering images disappear. He grinned broadly and stroked his goatee.
Xena furrowed her brow again. She only remembered bits and pieces from the tragic event, but looking at it now brought new memories back to her.
"Ares... did you assume control over my mother? Who actually killed my father?" she said quietly. At once, Gabrielle went over to wrap her arms around her partner.
"You disguised yourself as the high priest, didn't you? First you told my father about me and then you killed him?" Xena continued, her voice growing more heated by the second.
"So many questions, so little time. Let's just say that I had to protect my investment," Ares said, still grinning.
"You're not my father. We've already been through this!" Xena hissed.
"I never said I was. Remember what I told you about meeting your souls time and time again? Well, you were in limbo and I just gave you a push in the right direction. You wound up as Cyrene's and Atrius' child, but that was a complete coincidence."
"I don't believe a word of what you're saying," Xena said and pulled Gabrielle even closer.
"That's your choice. I have no reason to lie to you."
"What about me, Ares? Did you have a hand in my birth, too?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes, but not personally. I persuaded one of my sisters to give you a helping hand. You always were a scrawny little kid, you know?"
Gabrielle looked down, remembering the stories her mother had told her of her premature birth, and how it had been considered a miracle that she had even lived through her first night on Earth.
"Anyway, the time has finally come. Are you ready for the last trial?" Ares said.
"We're ready," Gabrielle said, wearing a grim expression.
"I like your spunk! Now, the last trial did cause me some headaches. Should I pit you against Caesar or Callisto... or even that crazy witch Alti? But then I thought, 'Nah, been there, done that.' "
"Get to the point, Ares."
"Oh, don't worry, I will. I thought, 'Hey, why not send my two best mortal fighters up against the best of the best? Why not create the ultimate fight... and have them fight myself, the God of War'," Ares said and slowly took off his vest.
Xena's eyes narrowed down into blue slits. She bared her teeth and made a hissing sound.
"All of this nonsense just so you can humiliate us? A God fighting two mortals?"
"Mmmm? Oh, I think you'll do just fine. C'mon. Don't be party poopers."
Ares rolled his shoulders and conjured up a long, nasty looking sword. He twirled it several times and started a fast sword drill.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. After locking eyes with Xena, she shrugged and went into her regular warmup routine.
"How do you want to do this? Both at once, or one at a..." Ares said, but his sentence was cut short when Gabrielle charged at him.
Rushing forward, she twirled her sais and tried to get a deep hit in. Ares was quick to evade her attempt, side-stepping it easily. He swung at her with the sword, but she had already ducked and moved back out of harm's way.
"One at a time. Excellent!" Ares said and prepared to strike back.
Gabrielle tried again. She came in on Ares' left but changed sides at the last moment, managing to get a hit in on his stomach with the butt of one of her sais. On her way back, she did a roundhouse kick aimed at his head, but missed by a foot.
Xena saw her opportunity and went in just as Gabrielle was pulling back. Twirling her sword as a feint, she flipped above and over Ares' head, kicking out at him as she flew past him.
Ares ducked out of the way avoiding getting hit by Xena's boots, but that left him open to Gabrielle's scissor headlock. Jumping up, she wrapped her legs around his neck and used her weight as a leverage to take him down. As soon as she hit the ground, she rolled over, preparing to kick out at Ares' face, but he had already jumped up and proceeded to block the kick with one of his own.
Xena tried to sweep Ares' legs out from under him, but he was too fast, so she only caught his left leg. Changing plans in an instant, Xena jumped up and kicked the sword out of his hand and then delivered a spinning roundhouse kick to his face.
This was the first time Ares was actually hit and he took a few staggering steps backward. Gabrielle soon took opportunity of the weakness in Ares' defence, grabbed his arm and flipped him over her hip. Landing with a thud, Ares shook his head and laughed out loud.
Xena and Gabrielle both backed off to allow him to get on his feet, and he quickly answered the call by jumping up and going into a crouching position. He looked from Xena to Gabrielle and back again, and then decided to try his luck with Xena.
He rushed her, wrapped both hands around her waist and tackled her onto the ground. When Xena landed, she pulled up her legs and put them against Ares' body. With an almighty effort, she pushed him off of her and sent him flying.
After flipping in mid-air and landing on his legs, Ares held up an index finger and called a time out.
"Ah! Gabrielle, I believe you used to be pretty good with one of these," he said and snapped his fingers.
An Amazon staff appeared in Gabrielle's hands and she twirled it several times.
"Oh yeah!" Ares said and motioned to resume the fight.
Gabrielle didn't waste any time but rushed at him at once. She went into a series of high-skill moves, moving so quickly that the staff was only a blurry line in the air. She hit out at Ares all over his body but he was able to deflect most of them with his gauntlets.
She finished off by thrusting the staff into the ground and using it as a pole. Jumping up, she intended to give Ares a dropkick to the chest, but he moved aside at the last moment and gave her a shoulder-block. As a result, Gabrielle flew off-course and hit the hard floor with a crunching bump.
"Ouch...!" Gabrielle growled, rubbing her sore behind.
Xena took a few steps back to give Gabrielle time to get on her feet, but she soon resumed her attack, moving her sword in front of her in a lazy figure of eight.
Ares reached for his own sword that he had dropped earlier and then engaged the Warrior Princess. Within moments, their swords clanged together repeatedly; the metallic sounds echoing loudly through the Halls of War.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle was bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet, waiting impatiently to get back into the fight. Her opportunity came when Ares kicked Xena in the gut, sending her flying. At once, Gabrielle jumped in and began to pummel Ares with the staff. Like before, he was able to deflect most of the blows, but one of them was a clear hit right to his head.
He roared and flipped over the top of Gabrielle - grabbing her from behind, he forced the staff out of her hands and wrapped a bulging arm around her neck, applying an effective chokehold.
"Get out of this one if you can," he hissed in her ear. He tightened his hold, leaning forward to get Gabrielle off-balance.
"Ares! Let her go!" Xena said, holding the sword at his neck.
"Come on, we're just playing. Aren't we, Gabrielle?" Ares said, jerking Gabrielle's head backward.
"I can handle it!" Gabrielle said through clenched teeth. She turned her eyes to look at Xena, pleading with her not to interfere.
Reaching behind her, Gabrielle tried to find a weakness in Ares' hold, but she couldn't find any. When she realised that Ares was practically on top of her instead of behind her, a plan formed in her mind.
Feigning a move, she tried to use her legs to push against his weight, but it only made him tighten the grip - and that was just the opening Gabrielle needed. She quickly raised her legs off the ground and relaxed her muscles, making herself dead weight.
The unexpected shift in the weight caused Ares to lose his balance and he toppled over and landed shoulder-first on the hard floor, cursing loudly.
At once, Xena was at her partner's side, pulling her out from underneath the God.
"Two can play that game, Ares," Gabrielle growled, nursing her neck where the God's strong arm had been only moments before.
"Impressive. I'll give you that," Ares said, still lying on the floor. With a roar, he jumped up and executed a mid-air salto, landing directly in front of Xena - unfortunately, she was ready for him, flipping him easily over her hip.
Before Ares had even landed, Xena flipped over backwards and came down on top of him, straddling his gut. Putting her hands on his arms, she pinned him down and bared her teeth in a sneer.
"Oh, hell-lo, Xena. I thought you weren't interes... OOOF!" Ares said, suddenly finding himself on the receiving end of a headbutt.
"Are we done yet? It seems to me we've got the upper hand. Actually, we're kicking your behind all over the Halls of War!" Xena hissed.
"We're not done yet. Not even close!" Ares said and waved his hand. Without warning, Xena flew through the air and smashed hard against the nearest wall. Letting out a pained moan, she slid down the wall and landed in an unruly heap on the floor.
"Xena!" Gabrielle said and quickly ran over to her partner. She dropped down onto her knees and carefully lifted Xena's head.
A trickle of blood ran from one side of the warrior's mouth, and even though she appeared to be unconscious, she was wearing a pained expression on her face. Xena coughed slightly, leading to more blood seeping out of her mouth.
"Gabrielle... doesn't this make your blood boil? I've hurt Xena, the one person who's important to you. Your lover. Are you going to let me get away with that unpunished?" Ares said coldly.
"Shut up, Ares! I know what you want from me. But you won't get it!"
"No!" Gabrielle shouted, holding Xena's head.
"That's too bad. I guess this Xena doesn't mean as much to you as the original did. It really was awful that the original Xena decided that some worthless sheep she had only just met was worth more to her than her soulmate."
"Gabrielle, you stand to gain so much if you join me. I'll complete your training. I'll show you how to live the good life. With me, you can have all the fame and fortune you want, all the women you want... or men if you wish. Whatever tickles your little ding-a-ling, you'll get it."
"The good life? You don't know me at all, Ares."
"I know you well enough to know what you're feeling right now. You're almost there, but you're still holding back. Hoping that I'll back off; worried that I won't. Worried that I'll say something that'll unleash your true self. That broad has been holding you back for a long, long time. You should've dumped her ages ago. Hey, do you think she was still alive when she was decapitated?"
Gabrielle twitched and clenched her fists. She closed her eyes and tried to beat down the unstoppable wave of anger inside her, but she knew at once that she was fighting a losing game. Instinctively, she reached for Xena's Chakram.
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP, YOU EVIL BASTARD!" she roared. In one, fluid motion, she aimed at Ares and sent the Chakram flying, jumped up and raced towards the God of War.
The blonde fury came to a stop in front of the God, so full of anger and hatred that she was about to burst at the seams.
Ares easily evaded the Chakram, stopping it with a snap of his fingers. As he felt the incredible anger emanating from Gabrielle, he leaned his head back and laughed out loud in a dark, menacing fashion. Deciding to make the long-awaited fight even more interesting, he threw away the sword he had been using and conjured up his own Sword of War.
With a flick of the wrist, he sent the sacred Katana hurtling towards Gabrielle, but she deftly caught it out of mid-air. She twirled it a few times and assumed an aggressive stance.
"Ohhh... this is going to be one for the ages," Ares whispered in a voice thick with glee.
The two warriors circled each other a few times, but then they both lunged at the same time. Their blades were soon reduced to silvery blurs, clashing repeatedly and sending showers of sparks all over the floor of the Halls of War.
The battle raged back and forth but neither of the two fighters had the upper hand for long - tiring of the incessant onslaught, Gabrielle flipped away from Ares to try a new approach.
When she realised that he had followed her, she jumped up, flipped over him and then went into a split. Before the God had time to turn around, she had rammed her fist into his groin.
Ares laughed again and spun around to resume the fight. Gabrielle was still on the ground, but she rolled over, raised herself up on her elbow and performed the two-legged Cobra kick straight into his gut.
"Oh, that's a good one. Haven't seen that before," Ares said and swung the Sword of War at her. He missed on both the first and the second swing, but on the third attempt, he struck her right shoulder with the flat of the blade, numbing it completely.
Gabrielle let out a pained hiss and rolled away from the God. Getting down on her knees, she started massaging her numb muscles to get the circulation going.
"Aw, did I hurt you?"
"I'm fine," Gabrielle said and switched the Katana from her right to her left hand. Getting up from the floor, she jumped forward and executed a roundhouse kick to Ares' face that only missed by an inch. She spun around like lightning and performed a leg sweep that very nearly caught the God unprepared.
Standing up straight, she blocked three successive thrusts from the Sword of War and then did a reverse roundhouse kick that made firm contact with Ares' chin.
On the rebound, she nearly caught him with a swing of the Katana, but he blocked it with his gauntlet and delivered a hard punch to her face instead. Her head whipped around and she fell down on her knees, dazed.
After getting her bearings, she rolled over and tried the Cobra kick again, but this time Ares was ready and he was able to block it. Grunting, she pulled back to think of a new strategy.
"Your initial anger has receded and now it's all about survival. Like I said before, I know you better than you think. You've given me all you've got and still it wasn't enough. You need to surprise me, but how...? Speaking of 'how', how's your arm?"
"None of your concern."
"Your well-being is my concern, my dear. Now, where were we?" Ares said and suddenly lunged at Gabrielle.
"You were losing!" Gabrielle yelled and rolled away from his swing. In an instant, she got up and ran towards the God. At the last moment, she dove down and went up on a handstand to use the Scorpio.
Taken thoroughly by surprise, Ares was kicked hard in the face and he dropped his sword and took a few staggering steps backwards. When he tripped over his own feet, he fell down, ending up on his butt on the slippery obsidian floor.
Gabrielle was quick to pick up the Sword of War and she moved in to hold that and the Katana in an X across Ares' throat.
"Yield or die!" she roared, panting heavily.
"I yield. Bravo, my dear. The gig is yours... Gabrielle, the GODDESS OF WAR!"
Shocked, Gabrielle looked at the heavy, hideous sword in her hand. Suddenly feeling very tired, she shook her head and dropped both swords into Ares' lap.
"You can keep it. I'm sick of all this fighting," she said and wiped the sweat off her brow with a trembling hand.
"Sick of the fighting? Ha! What a joke. Gabrielle, the Goddess Of War sick of the fighting!?" Ares said, still sitting on the ground. He waved his hand, making both swords disappear.
"I'm tired of your game, Ares. I don't want to play it any more."
"And you expect me to just accept you walking away? After all I've done for you? Think again, blondie."
"Do whatever you will, Ares. I'm done," Gabrielle said and turned away from the God. She went over to where the Chakram had landed and clipped it onto the little loop on her belt.
With an insulted harrumph, Ares disappeared in his customary blue cloud.
Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle walked over to check up on Xena. When she got there, she could see that the warrior had regained consciousness and was rubbing her side where she had hit the wall.
"Hey," Xena said, managing a faint smile.
"Hey. Are you all right?" Gabrielle said, kneeling next to her partner.
"Yeah. I got a little banged up there for a moment, but I'm all right."
"But the blood...?"
Xena chuckled and pulled Gabrielle closer to her so she could whisper in her ear.
"I bit my cheek," the Warrior Princess said quietly, winking.
"Oh, and there I was, getting all worried about you... sheesh," Gabrielle said and wiped some more sweat off her brow. Tired, she slid down next to Xena and wrapped her arm around the warrior's waist.
"I saw your fight. You're definitely no longer a sidekick, love. You just defeated the God of War."
"And then I walked away," Gabrielle said and leaned her head against Xena's shoulder.
"I don't think he took it too well."
"Ah, he'll come around. You know him."
Gabrielle turned her head to look at Xena's profile. A few seconds later, Xena turned to look into Gabrielle's eyes. Smiling, they leaned in towards each other so they could give their partner a thorough, loving kiss.
"I only lost my temper once in that fight. When he said some bad things about you," Gabrielle whispered.
"Do I want to know what it was about?"
"No," Gabrielle said and got the shivers.
"There must be an exit somewhere around here. Let's find it and go home," Xena said and started to get up from the cold, hard obsidian floor.
"Best idea I've heard all week."
"Not so fast," Ares said, materialising right in front of Xena and Gabrielle.
"We've been through your four trials, Ares. And you got your butt kicked. I'd say we're done here," Xena said.
"Oh, we're not done. Not by a long shot. How many times do I have to tell you? By entering this fight, the three of us have been united into one being. One glorious, hard-core, unstoppable, buttkickin' fighting machine. There is no force on Gaia's green Earth that can stop us once we get going!"
"Ares... you've lost it completely," Gabrielle said.
" Au contraire , my dear, I'm at the peak of my powers... thanks to you."
"We want no part of it," Xena said and took Gabrielle by the shoulders. Together, they turned away from the God and began to walk towards the other end of the Halls, searching for the exit.
Ares' face turned darker and darker and the veins on his arms and neck began to swell.
"If you walk away from me now, you'll regret it! I'll come down on you with everything I got!"
"So what else is new?" Gabrielle mumbled.
"You ungrateful little kittens! Have I not shown you the Elysian Fields on Earth these last few hours? How can you walk away from that?"
"You've shown us Tartarus, you demented sack of goat poo!" Gabrielle said, clenching her fists.
"I created you! Don't you understand that I could kill you by a wave of my hand? I could make your hearts stop by snapping my fingers. If you walk away now, you might force me into doing just that."
Xena and Gabrielle stopped and turned to face the God. Looking briefly at each other and then at Ares, they both stood still, waiting passively for one of Ares' bolts to strike them down.
"Now what are you doing?" Ares said, furrowing his brow.
"Waiting for you to kill us," Xena said calmly.
"Like a couple of sheep? Hades, no, I want you to charge me! I want my two best warriors to die in combat, dammit!"
After a few moments, Gabrielle shrugged and she and Xena turned away from Ares.
"It's over, Ares," Xena said over her shoulder as they left the Halls of War.
After exiting the main hall, Xena and Gabrielle found themselves in a large hallway. Three narrower, well-lit corridors branched off in three different directions, but it was impossible to tell where they went.
The large hallway itself was lined with tall pillars made of green marble, and the floor and the walls were made of a paler marble. For every third pillar, a small portal had been carved into the wall, but they were all black and dusty like they hadn't been used in a while.
"Hmmm," Xena said and rubbed her chin.
"We're on Mount Olympus. I recognise those pillars," Gabrielle said, nodding at the marble pillars.
"Yeah. And that means that the exit is right over... hmmm. There," Xena said and turned left.
After walking for a few minutes, a strange form of music hit Xena and Gabrielle's ears. It had a rhythmic drum beat that was unlike anything they had ever heard and it sounded like it had several electrified lyres playing along to it.
As they turned down a corridor, the music became much louder and they could see pink, blue and red lights flashing out of one of the rooms.
"Aphrodite," Xena and Gabrielle said as one.
They peeked around the corner of the doorway and saw the Goddess and a shirtless hunk engaged in a very strange dance, shimmying back and forth and twisting left and right to the strange beat. Around them, many other couples were performing a similar dance.
"Should we interrupt her?" Gabrielle said - but before they had time to slip away unnoticed, the Goddess caught them looking at her.
"OOOOOOH! My favourite girl group! What up, babes?" Aphrodite said and snapped her fingers, making the music and the other dancers freeze in place.
"Hi, Aphrodite," Gabrielle said, grinning.
The Goddess slithered towards them, swinging her hips like there was no tomorrow.
"Do you think this is the real Aphrodite?" Xena asked, putting her hand on Gabrielle's neck.
"HIIIII! Oh, it's so good to see you... it's been a few weeks at least. What are you doing up here?"
"That's a long story, Aphrodite," Gabrielle said, pulling the Goddess into a hug.
"You gotta come inside, girls. We're doing something called the disco and we've got strawberry daiquiris and coconut rum and everything. Kick back, dance a little, love a lot. Huh?"
"Some other time, perhaps. We were on our way home."
"Bummer, dudettes. Hey, Xena, remember the couch? Remember what we *did* on the couch?" Aphrodite said, winking constantly and nudging the warrior.
"When she brought me back," Xena said off Gabrielle's raised eyebrow.
"Yeahhhh, that's how I did it. I just gave her the kisssssss of life. Oh, yeah. But I didn't slip her the tongue. No way, nuh-uh. That's for you alone, sweet pea."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, rubbing her forehead.
"And it's not like we haven't kissed, either. Remember? Huh? Huh?"
Xena grinned and put her hands on her hips.
"Back when we were dealing with Caligula. She was out of it, and she and I, uh, we... I'll tell you later," Gabrielle said, her cheeks assuming a faintly red colour.
"Well, if you don't wanna dance with Dite, can I, like, help you get anywhere?"
"Yes, you can zap us back to where we left our horses. Just outside the Temple of Fire," Xena said.
"The Temple of Fire? That hasn't been used in years. What do you want to go to that grody place for?"
"You wouldn't believe us if we told you," Gabrielle said and shrugged.
"OK. Whatever. One Dite Express comin' right up!" the Goddess said and snapped her fingers.
A split second later, they were standing just outside the Temple. While Gabrielle went over to calm down the horses, Xena studied what Ares had done when he had trapped them inside the temple.
"Hey, who closed the entrance?" Aphrodite said and scratched her hair.
"One hint, he's wearing black leather."
"Oh... he wouldn't!"
"He would and he did."
"Oh, Ar!... but why?"
"He wanted to seduce Gabrielle. He wanted her to join him," Xena said quietly.
"Seduce her?!" Aphrodite blurted out so loudly that a flock of birds took off from a nearby tree.
"Not like *that*, Aphrodite. Seduce her by power."
"Ohhh... I guess he can be very, uh, persuasive. I can't believe he'd do that! Not to my sweet little, innocent, pure, virginal darling Gabrielle!"
"Well, he did."
"I'm gonna have a word with him. I haven't kicked his butt since we were kids, but lemme tell you something, once the Mighty Dite rolls out the hardware, watch out!"
"Don't let the pink stuff fool you... if one of my friends gets threatened, there's a ferocious predator inside me jus' waitin' to get out!" Aphrodite said sternly, repeatedly stomping her fluffy, pink slipper into the ground.
"I believe you, Aphrodite," Xena said with a grin.
"Don't go anywhere. I'll be right back," the Goddess said and vanished in a pink cloud.
"The horses are ready. Where did Aphrodite go?" Gabrielle said as she pulled the two Amazon horses over to Xena.
"No idea. Let's go home. I'm fed up with all these Gods," Xena said and put her foot in the stirrup. As soon as she did so, the horse became skittish and began to dance around on the spot.
"I know, I know. Second on our to-do list is to go to Scythia so you can get yourself a new palomino mare."
"Second on our list?"
"First we need go back to Palchos and apologise to Gustavius, the man I beat when we were there," Gabrielle said quietly.
Xena nodded sombrely and tried again to get on her horse. With a little effort, she finally managed to get up on the skittish mare. Gabrielle soon mounted her own horse and let it trod up next to Xena.
Suddenly, two simultaneous crackles of ozone heralded the arrival of both the surviving Greek Gods. Once she had fully materialised, Aphrodite beamed like a little sun and held out her arm, pointing at Ares.
"Here, now you can tear him a new one yourselves," she said.
"Aphrodite, we were trying to get away from him," Gabrielle said with a heartfelt sigh.
"Oh... oops. Sorry."
"Forget it. You couldn't know."
With a grunt, Ares shoved his sister aside and went up to Gabrielle.
"You may have won this round, but you should know that it won't change the final outcome. It's inevitable. Mankind will always wage war... you don't know any other way to solve your problems," the God said, looking at both Xena and Gabrielle.
"We understand that perfectly, Ares," Xena said.
"Then perhaps you'll reconsider?"
"No. And stop wasting your energy following us. We'll never join you," Gabrielle said vehemently.
"My dear, I know you too well. You can no more stop fighting than you can stop breathing. Even if you pretend that it's for the 'Greater Good,' " - Ares waved his index fingers in the air - "you'll still be fighting. And killing."
"So be it. I'll just have to live with that," Gabrielle said and motioned to turn her horse around.
"And I'll be there to back her up," Xena said.
"Well, that's amicable, but Gabrielle... you can walk away, but you can't deny the fact that I'm in your blood. You may say that you're over me, you may even think that you're over me, but in your heart, you know that I'm right there, on tap whenever you need me. And that is your true self," Ares said, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Uggh, go away, bro! You're, like, so embarrassing. You're giving me the willies with all your creepy talk. GO GIRL POWER!" Aphrodite said and turned away from her brother. She waved at Xena and Gabrielle and then snapped her fingers, disappearing in a pink cloud.
Xena turned her horse around and left without bothering to talk to Ares, but Gabrielle stayed behind and looked directly into the eyes of the imposing God of War. After a few moments, she sighed and nodded a quiet acceptance of his words.
With a 'yah!', she turned her horse around and rode away, soon gliding up next to Xena.
Riding close, the two women looked silently at each other. Fatigue was etched into Xena's face and Gabrielle knew that the same was true for her own. She had expected to feel elated once they had escaped Ares' grasp, but she discovered that she was too exhausted from the hellish experiences to feel any joy.
As Gabrielle and Xena rode into the sunrise to start the journey back to Palchos, Xena sought out Gabrielle's hand. When she found it, she gave it a firm squeeze that held a promise of eternal, undying love.
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