Copyright: Yes, I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.

Violence: There is violence.

Subtext: I really dislike this disclaimer.

Feedback: I love it because it is so rare these days. redhope@redhope.net

Homepage: http://www.redhope.net

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Started: September 23, 2006

Other Fanfictions                      Story Number: 66


Stranger in a Strange Time

by Red Hope


Chapter 18 – Unraveling

Janice Covington bent down then snapped the strap into place over her revolver's handle. She patted the gun's handle and grinned at finally having her precious weapon back. She stood up and slightly stretched so that the rest of her fitful sleep would work out of her body. She'd awoken half an hour ago and now was preparing for a long day with her squad.

Just at the thought of being a dekarchos was quite foreign to her. In many ways it was providing her with first hand account of Corinth, Greek military, and the people. So for Janice, it truly was a way for her to secretly carry out her archeological findings about ancient Greece.

Janice was clothed in her Amazon leathers minus her cloak and sword, which rested on the foot of the Conqueror's bed. She strolled across the large bedchambers and went into the washroom. After she was cleaned up and ready to the face the day, she stepped into the center of the quiet bedchambers. She figured Melinda must have left a couple of hours ago since she'd awaken alone.

Then something on the large coffee table in front of the long sofa caught her eye. Not that they had coffee in ancient Greece, inwardly joked the archeologist, but Christ it would be nice with a shot of whiskey. She neared the table then bent over and studied the bowl of fruit, her right hand eventually curled over a round fruit. Janice held up the orange in front of her face and smirked. "I'll be damned… an orange in ancient Greece." She peered back down and saw on the right side of the bowl a banana was tucked in between some apples. "Sweet Jesus."

The bedchamber door quietly opened up and two forms entered, Lao Ma and Melinda Pappas.

Lao Ma softly smiled at the archeologist's full absorption in the orange. "The Conqueror is very fond of citrus fruits."

Janice Covington quietly gasped after being scared out of her skin. "Christ… couldn't you have knocked?" She lowered the orange to her side as a slight flush colored her cheeks.

Melinda folded her arms over her chest and arched an eyebrow at her friend. "Good mornin' to you too, Doctor Covington."

The archeologist's blush proceeded to deepen. "Sorry," she muttered and put the fruit back on the stack. She approached the pair. "So what's today's agenda?"

Melinda's eyebrow descended but her lips spread into a wide grin. "Since ya asked, Janice you'll be spendin' the day with Ma."

Janice opened her mouth then closed it at the warning look over her friend's face. She smiled warmly at the Chin ruler. "Bored of the damn fortress huh?"

Lao Ma tilted her head then explained, "I believe I can help you find this mysterious Cronos Ring." At Janice's newly twisted features she further explained it. "I can detect its source of power."

Janice slowly nodded then peered up at Melinda behind the Chin ruler. "Should I take the squad?"

"It would be wise," agreed the southerner. "Lao Ma's two guards will join her."

"Alright." Janice Covington shifted her weight on her feet. "What about Alti?"

"I'll deal with her," answered Melinda. "Ya need to worry about this ring and the thief."

Janice nodded then returned her attention to Lao Ma. "When will you be ready to go?"

"The present is most desirable," responded the Chin ruler.

The archeologist blinked then a slow grin shaped her soft lips. "My kinda woman." She turned then called to the curtains, "Hu?

Within a few seconds, the tiger casually strolled in from the balcony with his tail flickering behind him. He came over and sat between Lao Ma and Janice Covington, his favorite two people. He dropped his head back and bared his teeth at Melinda Pappas though but there was no snarl.

Melinda narrowed her eyes at the furry beast.

Lao Ma ran her fingers through the tiger's heavy coat. "Two tigers form a deep bond but they always fight about who is in charge." Her words fell to Melinda despite she wasn't look at her.

Melinda grinned at this then softly replied, "I reckon so, Ma." She gently touched Janice's shoulder to get her attention. "Ya should get started before the sun gets any higher."

"Christ, Mel it's like nine in the morning."

The linguist's lips tugged with a warm grin. "And I have been up since seven."

Janice rolled her eyes then under her breath said, "That's for the birds." She felt a squeeze to her shoulder then Melinda released her.

"Find me later," ordered the translator, whose back was to the group as she left through the open door.

Lao Ma smiled at Janice then offered, "Perhaps we should get started."

Janice nodded then went to the foot of the bed. She'd made the bed when she first got up even though she didn't have to since it was Nakia's duty. She was just too use to doing it. She put her sword over her back then collected her cloak. "Where are your guards?"

"They're waiting down in the court," answered the Chin ruler.

The archeologist nodded then they were headed off. Janice had Lao Ma wait on the grounds with Hu and the two Chin soldiers while she went to the barracks to collect her men. She was quite impressed with the two Chin guards as they were almost as tall as Melinda. They wore a heavy black robe, their chests protected by coin design metal armor, and they carried a sword at their sides but spears in hand. Their faces remained impassive from years of training, high cheek bones, long hair that was tied into a bun, and thin mustaches.

It wasn't long before the large group mixed together and marched into the city of Corinth. Janice Covington decided the best place to start was back at the alchemist's shop. Lao Ma readily agreed because it would give her a feeling for what this Cronos Stone's powers were due to the green liquid that Janice described to her. It wasn't long before Janice and Lao Ma entered the alchemist's shop. Janice was happy to see that the posted guard was on duty at the shop. Janice led the Chin ruler to the back of the shop and showed her the workstation.

Lao Ma neared the workstation and studied the green teardrop that rested on the metal plated desk. She was quite intrigued as she leaned over it closer.

Janice closely watched the oriental woman. "What you think, Lao Ma?"

The Chin ruler didn't respond right away instead she cupped her hand over the green droplet then, to Janice's amazement, the droplet started to float up in the air. Lao Ma turned her hand over and the droplet hovered in the small woman's cupped hand without touching her skin.

"Jesus Christ," muttered the archeologist, her hands slipping from her chest. "How…."

Lao Ma turned to the archeologist, a thin smile showed. "Melinda did not tell you?"

Janice closed her gaping mouth with a sharp snap. "No." She tilted her head then asked, "You're a psychokinetic?"

The Chin ruler considered the word then replied, "I do not know this word, Janice." She studied the green droplet more carefully while mentioning, "My abilities come from Light."

Janice's interest showed over her face and she stepped closer. "Can anybody do that?"

"Essentially yes," replied Lao Ma, "but you must enter a new world… a world without desires and without will." She lifted her head and her soft brown eyes locked on the stranger. "It is derived from the qi. Do you know this concept, Janice?"

Janice Covington's archeological mind had a few bells ringing. She considered it deeply then whispered, "It's Chinese mythology and if I remember right it translates to life force or spiritual energy. It's really a Buddhist or Taoist concept." She tilted her head then further added, "It's used a lot in Chinese medicine."

Lao Ma's smile lengthened at the archeologist. "Yes but it is not mythology as you say."

Janice cleared her throat and stared back at the floating droplet. "No, it doesn't seem to be." She focused back on the Chin ruler's face. "Can you tell anything… about that?" She pointed at the droplet.

"It is very unusual," murmured Lao Ma, who was still dissecting it.

"There's the pot calling the kettle black," mumbled the archeologist.

"Do you know of anything called a Cronos Stone, Janice? Melinda mentioned you are excellent with ancient Greek history and stories."

The archeologist bit her lower lip then replied, "There's only one story about Cronus and any stone. Cronus was a Titan and ruled the heavens before the regular gods. When Cronus's children were born, all the current gods, he ate them except for Zeus because he wasn't born yet. When Rhea had Zeus, she hid him and gave Cronus a stone to fool him."

"Cronus ate the stone?" inquired the Chin ruler.

"Yes," answered Janice, "and not long after Zeus over threw his father and saved his siblings."

"Are Cronos and Cronus the one in the same?" probed Lao Ma.

Janice shrugged then replied, "They're inner changeable when the name is translated." She sighed for a second. "The stone that Cronus ate though was called Omphalos not the Cronos Stone."

"Perhaps they are the one in the same." Lao Ma lifted her hand and let the droplet lift in the air higher. "Perhaps much like Cronus's name, the stone's name has been lost in translation."

"It's definitely possible," agreed Janice. "But the Omphalos Stone is suppose to reside in Delphi with the oracle… not wondering from hand to hand."

Lao Ma's lips shaped a small grin. "Do you really believe that a powerful stone from the gods would remain in Delphi?"

"Now that you put it that way," grumbled the archeologist. "This is really sticky."

Lao Ma mentally moved the droplet deeper into her hand and she closed her hand around it to hide it. "This will help me detect any object with the same powers."

Janice released a long breath then nodded her head. "Great."

"The stone is very powerful, Janice. It is not something that should be in Alti's hands."

Janice stepped up closer to the Chin ruler. "Do you think it's possible to… split the stone's power in half and for it to remain just as strong?"

Lao Ma slowly nodded her head. "From that mere droplet it is possible to use its powers."

"Christ," muttered the worried archeologist. "That's not good… at all."

"We should begin our search," suggested Lao Ma.

"Yeah no telling what lunatic will use that ring… if it's real." Janice started out of the workshop and into the shop.

"The stone does have a safety feature," mentioned Lao Ma, "it is inactive if the bearer does not understand its powers."

Janice huffed. "Well thank god for small miracles… let's hope our thief is a dumb lunatic." She marched out of the shop and came to the street level where her squad waited along with the Chin soldiers and Hu.

Lao Ma glided down the steps and quietly stood beside the archeologist.

"We're going to sweep through the city," ordered Janice, "Keep your eyes open for anybody that might be talking about the murder from yesterday." She glanced over at the Greek soldier to her right. "You're free of your duty. Return back to the fortress's barrack. See the tetrarchès."

"Yes, dekarchos." The soldier clapped his fisted hand across his chest then marched back to the fortress.

"Let's go," ordered Janice.

The Greek file broke into half as five soldiers walked ahead and five behind. Lao Ma and Janice stayed in the center with Hu near them then the Chin soldiers stayed directly behind Lao Ma. Lao Ma opened her right hand and revealed the droplet that was a dull emerald shade.

Janice peered at the oriental woman and noticed Lao Ma was concentrating. "Just let me know if you… pick up on anything."

"Of course," replied the distant voice of the ruler.

Janice realized that many street vendors and citizens were observing them as they went and most likely because of Lao Ma and her unusual guards. She knew that ancient Europeans rarely encountered the Asian culture and very much the reverse too. Janice tried to not let it bug her since she was use to being popular in public eye.

By the time the sun was overhead, Janice was beat and there was no luck. She commanded the group to halt then ordered her squad to take a break for a candlemark and that they'd continue afterwards. She realized by this afternoon they will have successfully sweep the entire city but she just hoped they'd get a bite.

Lao Ma stayed with Janice as did Hu and the guards. Lao Ma reached into her robe then fished out a small, silver box that she opened.

The emerald droplet floated into the box then it was sealed away for later.

Janice tilted her head then asked, "How about lunch at a tavern by the port?" She grinned at the Chin ruler. "It'll be a cultural experience for you."

Lao Ma revealed a grin of her own. "I believe that would be desirable. Thank you."

"Come on, I know just the tavern too." Janice took them to the Fish Head Inn down by the port, the first tavern that Janice went to when she arrived in Corinth. She found them a large enough table and they all sat while Hu curled up behind Janice's chair and the wall.

The tavern's lunch special was shortly brought out then they ordered drinks as well. Janice, for her part, inquired about how Lao Ma came to meet the Conqueror, which really fascinated her. She could only wonder if Xena, in her world, met Lao Ma too. Janice mostly assumed that Xena had considering Gabrielle's scrolls were written not long after Xena's changes, not long after Hercules.

"Do you think the Conqueror will be able to change?"

Lao Ma had finished eating and she set her plate aside. She straightened up in her chair rather formally. "Anybody is capable of change, Janice but it is a matter of will." She studied the thinking archeologist. "Do you believe she could change, Janice?"

Janice Covington heavily debated with herself then she found that she was nodding. "In my world, Xena followed some of the same path as the Conqueror but she changed paths at some point."

"Do you know why?"

The archeologist cupped the wood mug in her hand then answered, "Xena changed because of this demi-god known as Hercules." She shrugged then after a beat she continued speaking. "Maybe the Conqueror is capable of that same change… she can't be that far different from the Xena in my world. Maybe Gabrielle will see that change in her. The Gabrielle in my world, she inspired Xena to stay on a set course."

"They are one another's balances," stated the Chin ruler. "Very much like you and Melinda are too."

Janice dipped her head down, peering into the quarter filled mug. "I'm not like Gabrielle though… nor is Melinda like Xena." Her head came up.

"You each have your path to follow," agreed Lao Ma, "but your karmas are fated. It is as certain as the sunrise each day or the moon's cycle." She sensed that Janice was somewhat uneasy still. "There is a common Chin saying, Janice. We say that it is impossible to change your basic characteristics."

"But it's easy to fine tune huh?" Janice slightly grinned.

Lao Ma stretched her hand out and collapsed it with Janice's. "A great tree can bend and stretch in the wind because if it didn't then it would topple over."

Janice nodded her head then she smiled as she took in the proverb more. "Do you mind if we make a stop somewhere?"

"Not at all." Lao Ma climbed to her feet, which prompted the guards to get up too.

Janice quickly paid the tavern owner then escorted the group out of the inn. They then trekked across the city until Janice finally located the back alley that she wanted. She went to the door and knocked on it but there was no response from anybody.

"You were expecting somebody here?"

The archeologist shook her head at Lao Ma's question. "Not really. It's Gabrielle's home actually." She stepped backed twice. "Watch out." She followed Iolaus's handy open the door trick and she gave a brisk kick to the door.

The door flew open and revealed the inside of the quiet, low lit home.

Janice went in first followed by Hu, Lao Ma, and the guards. "I just want to check on things in here. Why don't you wait here?"

Lao Ma dipped her head in agreement.

Janice glanced about the quiet home then she hurried upstairs to see if anything had been disturbed. Nothing seemed to be touch as far as she could tell. She entered Gabrielle's room last, where she removed the glowing matt from the window. She then scanned the room and found everything fine. She then sadly smiled at seeing her leather pack she'd picked up in the market with Melpomene.

Janice picked up the pack and put the straps over her shoulders. She then debated whether to take Gabrielle's scrolls but decided it was best not to do so. She put the matt back into place and hurried downstairs. "We better get back before the squad shows up."

"A wise idea." Lao Ma left the home then waited for Janice.

The archeologist closed the house back up and led the group to the location where the squad had separated. When they made it, a soldier hurried up to Janice's side with an excited expression.

"Dekarchos, I heard news of this thief."

Janice jumped at this and demanded, "Who? What? Where?"

The soldier slightly grinned at the dekarchos's excitement too. "Biton and I heard a vendor talking to a customer. He was rattling on about how he got this magical ring from some guy that sold it to him."

The dekarchos's eyes widened. "Do you recall the merchant?"

"Sure," answered the soldier, "he's hard to miss." He chuckled then offered, "I will point him out, dekarchos."

"Perfect." Janice saw the rest of the squad had arrived. "Let's go, men."

Within fifteen minutes, the squad entered the bustling market and Biton and his comrade directed the group through the people. They finally came to a stop in the busy street. Biton stood next to the dekarchos and pointed to the left at the merchant and his stand.

Janice Covington nodded then turned to Lao Ma at her side. "Are you sensing anything?"

"I do not believe it is here," sadly informed the Chin ruler.

"Well, let's see what we can find out… nothin' like a little detective work." Janice made everybody stay, except for Hu, and she stepped up to the merchant. "Afternoon, sir."

"Hello, little friend, looking for some Conqueror merchandise?" When the merchant saw the immediate irritation of his little friend, he quickly rattled forward. "Ssh, ssh not too loud, not just because of the Conqueror's squads but because these are incredible bargains."

Janice ticked off another back molar after not only taking a height joke but this man's annoying attitude. "I don't have time for this," she hotly stated through her teeth.

"Time? Who doesn't have time for a great deal? Trust Salmoneus, he only has the interest of the customer at heart. Ask anybody… later. Take a look at this huh?" The merchant picked up a small bag. "This nice pouch… you can put it on your back. You can put a vegetable in there… a scroll. Take a look…." He held it closer to his little friend. "It’s the Conqueror's seal. I call it my Conqueror pack… Conqueror pack… get it? You like that?"

"That's it!" growled the furious archeologist and her right hand shot out. She grabbed the merchant by the collar and yanked him up onto the stand. "Listen, I'm looking for some information."

Salmoneus held up his hands then replied, "I don't have any information for anything. I'm just a humble merchant."

Janice snarled deeper.

"My… perhaps you could use my handy scroll for proper manners?"

Janice Covington's eyes were growing a deep green by this point.

Quickly Biton came up to the merchant stand and asked, "Is there a problem?"

Salmoneus was relieved to see a squad soldier for once. "Ooo thank the gods, could you tell this woman to unhand me? She is wrinkling my best suit."

The archeologist proceeded to twist her hand and she wrinkled his shirt more. She then leaned in closer to the man but her words went to Biton. "Is it illegal to merchandise the Conqueror?"

The squad soldier scanned the merchant's hidden products behind the stand. "The Conqueror would be very displeased." He came around the stall to get the merchant. "You are to come with me," he ordered.

Janice tossed the merchant back so that the soldier could get him.

"Wait," argued Salmoneus, "I have every right to sell these." He held up his hands. "I was once the Conqueror's personal biographer."

"Yeah, yeah." Biton grabbed the man's forearm. "Sure you were, man. Come with me."

Janice huffed then stepped off the sidewalk and neared Lao Ma. "Nothing?"

"I am afraid not, Janice."

The archeologist sighed but turned her attention to her squad. "I want some of you to haul this merchant's stand back to the fortress." She saw the surprised features on their faces. "Right now," she chewed out. "He has illegal merchandise."

"Of course, dekarchos," spoke a soldier.

Three soldiers broke away and carried out the orders.

"Gilles, where will Biton take that merchant?"

"To the dungeons, of course."

The archeologist secretly flinched then nodded her head. "Alright, let's finished up our sweep of the city."

The thinned out group continued the last of the search through the city. Lao Ma never detected the mysterious ring but Janice still had at least one lead that was waiting in the dungeon. She only hoped that this merchant wasn't being torture much like what she'd seen previously. Her stomach pitched just at the thought especially since she would be the cause of it.

The small party finally returned to the fortress an hour before sunset with empty hands. Lao Ma parted from Janice and said she was going to rest in her chambers. Janice dismissed her squad then went into the fortress to seek out her friend. She wasn't the least bit surprised to find Melinda anchored to her desk chair behind the desk still doing scroll work.

"Did ya have any luck, Janice?" Melinda set her quill and got up from the chair. She needed to stand for awhile since she'd been sitting for far too long.

"Not really," admitted Janice. She padded across the office and stopped in front of Melinda. "Either there isn't one or it's out of the city by now."

"God," whispered Melinda, "I hope the latter ain't the case."

"I did… um…." Janice hesitated as her right hand went to the back of her neck.

"What happened?" urged the translator.

"I arrested a merchant."

Melinda Pappas's eyebrow hiked up. "Ya what?"

"I… arrested a merchant… he really pissed me off too."

"Janice, ya can't just arrest merchants 'cause they piss ya off."

Janice held her hands up to stop her friend's rant. She saw Melinda take a steady breath then she explained the situation. "I think he might have information about this ring thing. He wouldn't answer me then one of my squad soldiers came up to stop me from doing anything stupid." She lowered her hands. "Did you know merchandising the Conqueror is illegal?" She then realized who she just asked and she moaned softly. "Don't… say anything to that."

"Where is this merchant now?"

"Down in the dungeons."

"Ooo my," whispered the linguist. "You think he might be a lead?"

The archeologist shrugged. "I won't know 'til I try."

"Let's handle this together," stated the linguist.

Janice easily agreed then she and Melinda left the office together. Janice stole a few silent minutes to admire her friend in her leathers, bronze armor, and the chakram glinting at her side. The old memory of the chakram running up Janice's arm hit her and she unconsciously shivered. By the time she got rid of the memory, she and Melinda were on the first floor of the dungeon where Janice had been for some time.

The archeologist tried to remain calm but her breathing was labored.

Melinda touched her friend's midback after detecting the uneasiness. She then dropped her hand when the guard in this sector of the dungeon approached them. "A merchant was brought in earlier?"

The sentry clapped his right arm across his chest. "Yes, my liege. He is in the last cell. Do you wish to go in?" At the Conqueror's nod, he escorted the former prisoner and ruler down the dark, stone corridor. He stopped at the end of rowed cells on his right and turned on his heels. He removed the ring of keys from his side and stepped up to the door.

Janice let her friend enter the cell first.

The Conqueror swept into the cell then her eyes sought out the man slumped on the floor.

The merchant stared at the Conqueror's boots. "Wait a minute. Those boots...." His eyes traveled up. "That leather." His gaze journeyed up the Conqueror's legs. "Those legs." Finally his beady eyes met the dark, dour face of the owner of those boots, leather, and legs. "Conqueror!" He jumped to his feet.

The Conqueror folded her arms over her chest. "Salmoneus."

Janice sidestepped the ruler and huffed at the annoying merchant.

"You!" Salmoneus pointed a finger at his little friend. "That's the little Miss Innocent that got me thrown in here in the first place."

The Conqueror smirked then stated, "She's my dekarchos."

"She's your… dekarchos," whispered the suddenly fearful merchant. "She's your dekarchos? You have a female dekarchos? What? Is she an Amazon?"

Janice's temper sparked again. "Hey, hey back off! You know, you wouldn't be in here in the first place if you kept your mouth shut!"

Salmoneus stepped back and smiled real brightly.

The Conqueror held up her hand to silence Janice, her warning look given to the archeologist.

Janice grumbled then rested her hands on her hips.

The Conqueror rotated her head back to the merchant as her hand fell. "Salmoneus, I hear you're merchandising me… again."

"Just call it fringe benefits after being your biographer," rambled Salmoneus, "You're more than welcomed to collect royalties. Everything has been a real big hit."

"Especially the Conqueror pack," jabbed the archeologist.

Salmoneus glowered at the dekarchos. "I've been meaning to send you one of everything. I just have gotten so busy lately… business and all. You should really stop by my stand, Conqueror."

The Conqueror's features darkened considerably. She took two long strides and towered over the older man. "Listen, Salmoneus I don't have time for this."

Janice rolled her eyes at the similar line.

"You have information that I need."

"Information?" squeaked the merchant, his back against the wall. "Conqueror, I have never hidden a single thing from you. What could I possibly be hiding from you?"

The Conqueror's ruthless smile appeared. "Does a green ring sound familiar?"

"Green ring?" dodged the merchant.

"Salmoneus," snarled the ruler, "if I find you're hiding anything from me then our trust will be quickly broken… along with a few other things."

Salmoneus smiled suddenly. "I think I do recall such a ring, my liege. Made of silver perhaps?"

"You're getting warm," encouraged the Conqueror. "Tell me more and I might let you leave without a scratch."

"Does that include my Conqueror merchandise?" Salmoneus heard a low throaty growl from the ruler. "Well actually you should keep the merchandise since I've been meaning to give you a set."

"Salmoneus," warned the ruler. Her hand slowly rose up and her fingers wrapped around his collar. "My limited amount of patience are almost gone."

"My liege, please it was several candlemarks ago that I had the ring."

The Conqueror tensed at this news. "Where is the ring, Salmoneus?"

"I already sold it to some guy… I don't know who he is or anything."

Janice took a step closer then questioned, "Do you remember what he looks like maybe?"

Salmoneus grinned. "I do not divulge my customer's identities… its bad for business."

"And if you don't," hissed the ruler, "it'll be bad for your health."

"But for you, my liege I am willing since you are the realm," back peddled the merchant's words. "And no, I didn't really get a look at his face."

"Why not?"

"He wore a hood over his face, my liege." Salmoneus held up his hands. "The only thing I can remember was that he had blue eyes… similar to yours actually." He then smiled weakly. "Did I ever tell you, my liege that I'm very fond of your eyes?"

"You and a thousand others," clipped the ruler. "Who did you get this ring from, Salmoneus?"

Salmoneus lowered his hands some then replied, "That I can tell you!"

The Conqueror backed off finally then took her spot beside her dekarchos. "Start talking, Salmoneus."

The merchant straightened out his flashy Chin mockup robe. He cleared his throat then peered up at the waiting women. "I didn't get his name but I did get his face."

"Jesus Christ, just tell us already, man," demanded the agitated dekarchos.

"You know, you could probably use my temper management scroll too along with the proper manners," offered the merchant.

Janice took a dangerous step closer to the merchant.

Salmoneus looked at the Conqueror for help.

The Conqueror shrugged and folded her arms over her chest. "It would be wise to answer the question, Salmoneus… and quickly."

Janice Covington reached back for her sword just to toy with him.

Salmoneus's eyes widened in fear and his hands came up. "Wait, wait!"

The archeologist bit the inside of her mouth to hold back her grin at finally getting this man's goad. "Start talking before I show what a female dekarchos does differently from a male one."

"Sounds like an interesting proposition but I think I'll pass." Salmoneus lost his smirk when Janice started to go for her sword again. "Okay, he was a younger guy… like your age," he informed the dekarchos. "He had almost black hair, short… carried a sword and brown eyes." He considered something then brightened up. "He also had a few scars, right here." He demonstrated by running his index finger across his forehead. "And here." His finger traced across his right cheek. "And a third was on the same cheek." He paused, shrugged and casually added, "It looked a bit battle worn for such a young kid."

The Conqueror narrowed her eyes at the familiar description.

"Actually," mumbled the merchant, his eyes staring at the floor. "I swear I've seen him before."

Janice Covington processed the description in her head then she let out a low moan. "Ooo goddamn it."

"What is it?" questioned the cut tone of the ruler.

"I know exactly who it is, my liege." Janice shook her head. "He served in your army for twenty seasons… his name is Perdicus."

The ruler's eyes filled with realization.

"Ooo yeah." Salmoneus brightened up. "He was the foot soldier you conscripted from Potidaea, my liege." He nodded then smiled at the ruler. "See? I knew exactly who he was."

The Conqueror rolled her eyes but returned her focus on the dekarchos. "How do you know him?"

The archeologist realized she was slightly under the spotlight for this one. She cleared her throat then answered, "Long story, my liege." When her friend narrowed her eyes at her she hastily promised, "That I will tell you… later."

The Conqueror's agreement showed by her saying nothing in response but she turned her sights back on Salmoneus. "Salmoneus," she drew out in a sultry voice.

"Yes, Proud Warrioress?" Salmoneus tensed at the ruler's snarl and closer step. "I forgot you don't like to be undressed that way… I mean addressed!" He backed against the stone cell when the powerful ruler emerged high above him. He smiled sweetly then whispered, "Yes, my liege?"

The Conqueror bent over him and smiled sensually at him. "I'll cut you a deal… I know how much you love deals."

"Especially yours, my liege because they're so unfair… fair!"

The ruler arched an eyebrow then with her husky tone she offered, "I'll let you go right now without a single scrape if you do something for me." She placed her right fingertips under the merchant's bearded chin and tilted it back. "I want you to keep your eyes and ears open for this man you sold the ring to." Her eyes twinkled down at the man. "If he so much as breathes in your general direction you are to warn one of my soldiers."

"A stool pigeon, my liege?"

"No… not at all, Salmoneus think of it as life investment because it's either him...." The Conqueror's eyes went cold like her tone. "Or you."

"You are most gracious as always, my liege… truly." Salmoneus slapped on a fake smile.

"I know I am," murmured the ruler as she freed her hand. "So we have an agreement, Salmoneus?" Her hand came up.

The merchant swallowed and decided it was definitely in his best interest to shake. He took the larger hand and suddenly bit his lower lip when the ruler's grip was strong enough to almost crush his hand.

"You've agreed to a deal of a lifetime, Salmoneus." The Conqueror released the man's aching hand. She then backed away suddenly.

Salmoneus sighed in relief then slumped against the wall.

The Conqueror stopped next to the archeologist. "See that Salmoneus's stall is returned to him."

The merchant perked up as he carefully listened.

"Without the Conqueror merchandising," further emphasized the ruler.

Janice was smug at the merchant but peered up at the ruler. "Of course, my liege."

The Conqueror went to the door however stopped and glanced back at the merchant. "See that you use all your resources, Salmoneus… I know you have a sea of them."

"Most definitely, my liege," hastily replied the merchant.

The Conqueror nodded, opened the door, and left with her dekarchos trailing her.

Janice held the door yet she couldn't help poking the merchant one last time. Her head hung around the corner of the jail door as she tormented, "I'll be sure to stop at your stall daily, Salmoneus to check that you're keeping up on your side of the deal." She then slammed the heavy door.

Salmoneus let out an aspirated and long breath then slid down the wall until his butt hit the floor. "By the gods… women leaders… what's this realm coming to? Next any Amazon army will really exist."

The Conqueror's long strides carried her out of the dungeons and into the many portion of the fortress.

Janice had to walk quickly to keep up with the ruler.

"How do you know Perdicus?" questioned the Conqueror.

The archeologist peered up and gauged that her friend was still in the ruler mindset. She held back her sigh then replied, "He's a guard in the rebel faction."

The Conqueror came to a complete stop in the middle of the hallway and faced the small woman. "The faction," she drew out carefully. "Why would the faction want the alchemist dead?"

The archeologist also was considering this too; she shook her head. "Maybe they caught wind of Alti going to the alchemist's shop." Her head dipped forward as a slight headache was beginning to appear. "I'll be sure to ask when I get my hands on Perdicus." She rubbed her forehead.

"You're going to find out tonight, Janice," commanded the ruler.

"Tonight?" questioned the archeologist. Her head came up and she tried to blink away the dull ache behind her eyes. "Why tonight?"

"We don't have time to waste so I want you to go out tonight. Find Perdicus and question him." The Conqueror tilted her head. "You can also tell them what's going on with Gabrielle."

"Alright," murmured the archeologist.

"And where is Hu?" snapped the ruler.

Janice's features tightened. "I left him with Lao Ma for the afternoon… I thought he could use a break from me."

"He needs to be with you at all times, Janice." The Conqueror stepped closer then threateningly whispered, "Or I will reinstate those two guards on your backside again."

Janice's mouth opened some yet she didn't say anything. Her tightened features loosened then she murmured, "I'm sorry, Mel… I didn't mean to…." She shook her head as her headache strengthened.

The Conqueror's tense shoulders slightly lowered. She stepped closer to the smaller woman and her hands came up to Janice's temples. She slowly worked the muscles to soothe her friend.

The archeologist let out a quiet moan of gratitude, her eyes now closed.

"If something happens to you, Janice I will tear this realm apart," warningly promised the ruler.

"I know, Mel," whispered the archeologist. "I'll keep Hu with me all the time."

"Thank you," murmured the Conqueror. Her left hand disappeared while her right hand trailed down to Janice's cheek then under the side of her chin. She carefully tilted the archeologist's head back as she lowered hers.

Janice released a moan as her right hand now clung to her friend's leather clad hip. She inhaled the sensual smell of leather and sandalwood coming from the ruler. She pressed her body against the Conqueror's just as their tongues met.

The Conqueror slowly withdrew from the kiss, her eyes glowing in more warmth. "Take care of Salmoneus and Perdicus then come back here."

"After I get Hu," emphasized the slightly grinning archeologist.

The Conqueror's body shook with a silent laugh. "Exactly." She lowered her head and brushed their lips but only bit Janice's lower lip then huskily whispered, "I'll be waiting for you tonight." She then separated their bodies and retreated down the hall without another word.

Janice completely forgot about her headache as she was overtaken by other sensations in her body. She exhaled loudly and stared down at her friend's retreated back. "Wow," she murmured then tried to shake off the hazy over her head. She quickly went to work to get things finished up. She first went to the Conqueror's bedchambers and dropped off her pack, next was to Lao Ma's to get Hu, followed by the babbling Salmoneus and his stall, which she swore she wouldn't sock the man, and finally she separated from him and went through the sunset lit city.

Janice figure the best place to start was going to the faction meeting place. She figure either she'd find somebody or stir up attention first. She eventually found the place and banged on the door but there was no response. "Great. What you think, Hu? Should I bust it open and double-check?"

The tiger yawned but then he unexpectedly started to growl, his head turned to the right.

The archeologist looked up and spotted a silhouette of somebody at the end of the alley. "Who's there?" She then heard the distinct sound of a sword being unsheathed. "Christ," she mumbled but didn't go for hers yet especially since she had her gun now.

Hu though didn't relax as he stepped in front of Janice.

"Listen," called Janice, "I'm not here to fight. I'm just looking for some friends of mine."

The figure moved forward; their sword now at their side. "And what friends do you think you have here, Janice Covington?"

The archeologist sighed. "Joxer… Christ you really scared me." She peered down at Hu and petted his backside. "It's okay, boy… come on."

The tiger gave a last growl for good measure then he sat down, still between the stranger and his human friend.

Joxer still hadn't sheathed his sword and his expression was unwelcoming. "What you want, Janice?"

"What's with the damn chip on your shoulder?" snapped the archeologist. "I came here to talk to Perdicus but you'll work too."

The faction guard narrowed his cold eyes. "We're not allowed to speak to you… to traitors."

"Ooo sweet Jesus," muttered the annoyed archeologist. She swore her headache was going to return any second. "I'm not a damn traitor, Joxer."

"And yet you're a dekarchos now? I heard how you arrested that merchant without any reason."

Janice narrowed her eyes at the man. "He is perfectly fine right now and free." She sighed then tried to keep her temper at a minimum. "Listen, it's really complicated, Joxer and I just need you to trust me on this." She impersonated Melinda's arched eyebrow technique. "If I was really with the Conqueror don't you think the entire faction would have been killed by now?"

"Maybe it's just a trick," challenged the faction guard. "We're completely in the dark… we have not heard anything from Gabrielle or Cyrene and you're now apart of the Conqueror's legions. What in Hades are we suppose to think?"

"That maybe something is a little fishy," shot back the archeologist. She groaned and hastily spoke again. "Maybe fishy in another way than you're thinking." She tried to think of a way to calm the man. "Look… see if this helps you decide." She carefully reached up and undid the clasp to her cloak. She removed her cloak to reveal her scabbed body from her torture.

Joxer stared at the woman's body that the setting sun poured over. He was astonished by the number of cuts but then something else caught his eye. He lifted his sword and the tip of his blade caught the ends of the purple leather thong. "And this?"

Hu reacted hotly by growling loudly and his left arm shot up and pawed away the sword. He was up on all fours and snarling at the stranger for threatening his friend. His eyes were fired by protectiveness.

Joxer jumped back and lifted his sword in defense.

"Joxer, just put the sword away before he does something we'll all regret."

Hu's lips curled up higher and revealed his sharp teeth, his whiskers flinching from the motion.

"Hu, its okay." Janice carefully touched the tiger's prickly backside. "Joxer, just put the goddamn sword away. I'm not here to fight you or run you in or whatever else you're thinkin' in that damn pea brain of yours. Just put the fuckin' sword away."

The faction guard swallowed then he slowly sheathed the sword after agreeing to Janice's promising suggestion. As soon as he released the hilt, the tiger backed away and he sighed in relief.

"Thank you," breathed the archeologist. She then quickly put her cloak back on to hide her body again. "Listen Joxer, I'm here to help but I just need your trust on this. I also need to talk to Perdicus… there's a lot going on here. Do you know where he is?"

"I can get him," answered the faction guard.

"Alright how about this…" Janice stepped closer and her expression was softer. "I'm really damn hungry so how about we all meet somewhere? I'll tell you everything that's going on."

Joxer hesitated then he slowly nodded because he wanted to trust Janice. "Alright. Give me a half a candlemark."

How long does a candle take to burn to half a mark mentally speculated the archeologist. "Where do you want to meet?"

"There's a tavern right on the street in front of the port. It's called Jellyfish Jason's."

Janice chuckled at the name but she went serious. "Okay, I'll meet you both there and we'll work this out."

Joxer nodded then turned to leave yet Janice's voice made him stop.

"Thanks, Joxer."

The faction guard wavered, glanced over his shoulder, and gave a smile but it was solemnly. He disappeared out into the busy street.

Janice let out a deep breath then peered down at her furry friend. "Thanks too, boy." She ruffled his furry head. "Just try not to eat him later."

Hu smiled with all teeth showing.

The archeologist laughed then joked, "Who would believe a tiger can understand English? Come on." She quickly hurried off and went in search of this tavern. It took her about fifteen minutes to get to it as it was a pretty busy place. She reserved a table in a corner that was enough room for them all. She thought on a few occasions that some people were going to ask her to move but when they saw the tiger near her they decided to look someplace else.

Then a half a candlemark passed or what Janice deducted was thirty minutes, and the faction guards appeared in the doorway. Janice signaled them over and tried to remain relaxed as they sat with her.

Perdicus and Joxer sat the opposite side of the round table from Janice.

Hu was lying on his stomach beside Janice's feet and yet his ears were perked to listen for any trouble from these strangers.

"Thanks for coming, guys," mentioned the archeologist.

Perdicus eyed the archeologist warily then nodded his head. "You look like you got in a fight with a dagger and lost, Janice."

The archeologist huffed, which caused a few blond strands to pop off her forehead then flutter back down. "You could say that, yeah." She leaned back in her chair then asked, "So where you wanna start?"

"How about after I left you at the cave," offered Joxer.

"Right… good place." Janice saw that the waitress, or rather barmaid as they called them in this day of age, was very busy. She figured it would be a little bit before they'd have meals so she hoped her mood wouldn't go under because of that. "I got into the dungeons fine and eventually into the fortress." She continued to tell them what'd transcended for the past several days. By the time she was finished telling them, the barmaid showed with their plates of food.

Joxer shifted his plate around but hadn't started eating just yet. "So you're telling us that your best friend, who happens to be the Conqueror's descendent, is here and posing as the Conqueror?"

The archeologist pushed her feta covered fish around for a second then replied, "Yes. I know it sounds quite off but that's what happened."

Joxer shook his head and exchanged looks with Perdicus.

Perdicus shrugged and started to eat.

"Well," muttered Joxer, "it can't be that far fetched if you're here, Janice."

The archeologist grunted then started to eat before her complaining stomach gave her another type of headache.

The group quietly ate then after the meal the conversation picked back up again. Janice could tell that Joxer and Perdicus were relaxing now that they knew what was going on despite it did seem unreal. She didn't though tell all the details such as what may be going on with this odd ring; she was saving that for later.

"Perdicus," questioned Janice, "did you happen to be near an alchemist recently?"

The faction guard glanced at his companion then back at Janice, he let out a low sigh. "I've heard word you're trying to find the thief… murderer."

Janice leaned back into her chair and stretched her legs under the table. She gave an inquisitive look. "I heard you may have sold an… interesting ring to a merchant."

Perdicus pushed his plate away as he debated what to do.

Joxer poked him in the ribs with his elbow. "Just tell her, Perdicus."

Perdicus's lips were tightly set but he focused back on Janice. "I did kill him… by accident really." He saw that Janice was waiting for him to share his story now so he reeled into it. "I saw Alti leave the fortress… one of our duties as a faction guard is to keep track of her movements. So I followed her and saw she went into an alchemist's shop and I went to an open window that was on the back of his shop. I heard them ranting on about this stone and powers… I couldn't hear it all but I knew enough." Perdicus stopped and quickly took a drink from his mug. He set it back down but played with the handle for a heartbeat. "I followed Alti back to the fortress but I was worried about this alchemist so I happened to track him down in the port area."

"You were tailing him for awhile huh?" questioned the archeologist.

"Yes," answered the faction guard, "and I realized that ring he was wearing had that power that him and Alti had been talking about. So I decided I had to get it away from him."

"Perdicus didn't mean to kill him," answered Joxer.

"The alchemist was going to stab me," clarified Perdicus. "The plan to steal his ring turned out really bad."

"You got the ring though," suggested Janice.

Perdicus nodded then pushed his mug away, his eyes finally meeting Janice's. "I took his ring and the money just to make it look like a robbery gone bad."

"What'd you do with the ring?"

"I sold it to that merchant you arrested today," answered Perdicus.

Janice let out a low groan and she shook her head because that wasn't what she was hoping for. "Why'd you sell it to him?"

Perdicus frowned. "I thought that if the ring was in circulation and nobody knew what it really was then it couldn't be used."

"That is the most idiotic thing I think I have ever heard," snapped Janice, her eyes alive with anger. You should be arrested for stupidity Perdy boy, mentally threatened the furious archeologist. "Didn't you think that the ring could fall into the wrong person's hands?"

Perdicus clenched his jaw tightly and looked away.

"Better than in the Conqueror's hands," reminded Joxer.

"No, instead it could fall into some lunatic's hands who wants to destroy the timeline or people's lives! Yea that's really fucking smart," shot back the archeologist.

"I'm sorry," hotly snapped Perdicus. "It was a mistake… a stupid mistake." He saw how Janice instantly retreated from her attacking manner. "We didn't have much choice though, Janice. We didn't know what the ring could do or anything nor are there many people we can trust right now."

The archeologist dropped her head at this as she realized they were in a tight squeeze. "I'm sorry, Perdicus… it's just there's a lot happening here. Mel and I just didn't need this on top of everything else."

Joxer could tell that Janice had been through a lot and the stress was wearing on her. He let go of his earlier frustrations and insecurities about everything and he softly promised, "We'll help you as much as we can, Janice."

Perdicus nodded his agreement.

Janice sadly smiled as she calmed down. "Thanks." She and the faction guards continued to talk for another half an hour or so then they left the tavern. She said goodnight to them and promised to catch up with them soon so that they could collaborate on their efforts. She and Hu then made the journey back to the fortress and her walk was rather brisk as she could only imagine what Melinda was doing.

Janice Covington quietly entered the Conqueror's bedchambers and found the room was dimly lit by candles. "Mel?" she called as she scooted in and let Hu in too. She leaned against the heavy doors then she smiled when Melinda appeared from the balcony, the curtains open and letting a cool breeze flow through the room.

"Hello, Janice."

The archeologist lifted her head from the door. She was awestruck by what Melinda was wearing. "Holy…." She bit back the rest of her swear then tried to think of something much more appropriate. "Mel, you look amazing." She lifted her body off of the door as her friend slowly moved across the distance to come to her.

Hu quickly concluded that these humans needed private time so he vanished out on the balcony for some fresh air and silence.

Melinda Pappas's body was being hugged by a red silk dress that was simple yet beautiful. It was sleeveless except for one strap that went over her right shoulder. At her waist she wore a golden chain belt that matched her left golden arm band. Her midnight hair was twisted into a bun and kept in place by a gold headband while her gold chandelier earrings displayed rubies.

Janice held her breath when her friend was upon her.

"Thank you," came the linguist's sensual voice. "Come sit with me." She laced her hand through Janice's then guided her to the long sofa.

Janice could only follow but before she could sit, Melinda's hands were at her neck and worked the Amazon clasp open.

"You should stay awhile," warmly teased the translator. She removed the cloak then moved down to the other end of the sofa, she draped the cloak on the arm. "Would you like some wine with me?"

The archeologist mutely nodded. She didn't detect any southern accent from her friend yet she wasn't going to disrupt this moment that Melinda obviously planned out and quite well at that. Besides that, she fully trusted Melinda.

Melinda had been bent over, pouring a sweet wine into two gold cups. She straightened up and handed one to Janice. "It’s a rare, sweet wine from Chin."

Janice carefully smelled the wine from the cup as she asked, "It's not made from rice?"

"No," answered the linguist, "that's why it is so rare because most Chin's wines are but this is a sweet grape mixed with lychee… it’s a plum fruit."

Janice was very interested by this and it showed.

Melinda softly grinned yet she drew Janice down onto the sofa. "Try it." She and Janice each took a delicate taste of the incredible wine.

The archeologist peered into the cup and whispered, "Wow… that is very sweet."

"It’s a beautiful mix of flavor," agreed the translator. "Do you know what wine is in the Chin tongue, Janice?"

Janice slightly grinned then answered, "Mel, this is why you're the translator between us."

Melinda mirrored the grin but with how she sat, side against the sofa, she was able to lean closer to Janice. "It is called pútáo ji?, which literally translates to grape wine."

"Pútáo… ji?," carefully tried the archeologist.

Melinda smiled at the perfect attempt. "Exactly." Her smile spread at seeing Janice taking another taste of the wine.

Janice kept the cup between her hands as she lowered it to her lap. She cleared her throat quietly then informed, "I took care of everything tonight with the faction."

The translator nodded after just taking a sip of her wine. "We'll talk about it tomorrow." With her freehand she lightly touched Janice's cupped hands. "Tonight we're going to talk about us… nothing else."

Janice's lips pulled into a smile at this promise for tonight. She released her hand from the cup and that was being touched by Melinda. She threaded her fingers through Melinda's.

"Now, Janice Covington, tell me something about yourself that I haven't learned yet." Melinda released the archeologist's hand so that she could twist around from her spot. She picked up the gold flask that contained the sweet pútáo ji?. She refilled her and Janice's cups while she waited for a response.

"Hmmm." Janice grinned then mentioned, "I'm sure I could tell you one thing that'll throw you for a loop."

The translator had returned to the flask to the table and now revealed a smile at her friend. "It's always worth a try."

Janice softly laughed at Melinda's challenge. She hesitated then shrugged, her eyes lowered to her cup of wine yet when she lifted her gaze she found Melinda studying her over the rim of her cup.

Melinda finished her draw of the sweet wine and lowered her cup away.

Janice was on the verge of fidgeting as Melinda's inquiring blue eyes made her almost squirm.

Melinda propped her left arm on the back of the sofa, her hand stretched out and running through Janice's short hair. "What don't I know about you, Janice Covington?" she tried again.

The archeologist bit the inside of her lower lip then she answered, "I actually do understand how you feel about society… back at home, I mean." She briefly glanced down at her wine then back at Melinda. "I know we seem really opposite at first glance but honestly there are some similarities."

"What are those similarities?" posed the linguist.

Janice took a brief drink of her wine and the alcohol helped sooth her earlier retention of will. "I was actually baptized Roman Catholic."

Melinda shifted some as she took complete interest in this unexpected topic.

"I went to Sunday School," went on Janice, "and service every week." She tilted her head at Melinda. "I went to confession for the smallest swear and carried out my Hail Mary's."

"What changed?" encouraged the translator.

"It started to change when my mother ran out on Dad and me." Janice stopped then corrected, "I guess when she was… murdered." She took a second to enjoy the wine again and Melinda did the same. She lowered the cup then sadly smiled at Melinda. "My mother was Roman Catholic and she really followed the faith so she instilled that in me too. Dad… well he just went along with it because it made Mom happy but he really didn't care one way or the other."

Melinda cupped her left hand behind Janice's neck. "So after you thought your mother ran out on you, you gave up the religion?"

"Yeah that's about the sum of it," answered Janice. "I just gave up on the faith… I just thought it was worthless since Mom believed in it."

"Just like she was," theorized the translator.

The archeologist sadly nodded. "It didn't happen all at once… old habits are hard to break but as I got older I just turned away from the faith." She shrugged. "My dad, for some reason, he gave me my mother's silver cross necklace that she wore everyday. You would never catch her not wearing it." She let out a long breath then quietly added, "I always wondered how he managed to get it if she'd really had ran out on us."

Melinda carefully studied her friend as she saw the flicker of emotions on Janice's face.

"I still have her cross necklace," softly mentioned Janice, "I could never bring myself to throw it out." She peered up at her friend. "Just too many memories linked to it, ya know."

"I know, Janice," murmured the linguist. She then saw the tear track down Janice's right cheek. She easily moved her hand from Janice's neck and caught the tear. Her thumb brushed it away along with the trail. "You know, your mother does love you."

"Yes," whispered the archeologist, "I know now. I just don't… don't know why my father never told me."

"You were young, Janice… I would imagine he was protecting you from the horrible truth."

"So instead I'm left thinking my mother never loved me or Dad and left us?" Janice huffed then shook her head.

Melinda brushed her friend's soft, blond hair back. "I don't think it was an easy choice for your father."

"Yea… you're right, Mel." The archeologist took another drink, which calmed the ache in her heart. She slowly grinned at her friend as another thought came to mind. "You want to hear the biggest scandal in my family history?"

Melinda softly laughed after taking her own drink. "This should be quite interesting."

"Ooo it is that," joked the archeologist. "I may have been born in New York but my roots go to the south."

The true southerner gracefully lifted an eyebrow and gave a challenging grin. "Oh really?"

"Mmmhmmm." Janice chuckled then defiantly questioned, "Does the last name Caldwell sound familiar?"

Melinda drank her wine but when she drew back the cup she had a devilish grin. "It is an old southern name, yes."

Janice nodded then proudly stated, "Janice Caldwell Covington." She chuckled at Melinda's mix of amusement and fascination. "Can you guess who my great, great… great uncle happens to be?"

Melinda's eyes lit up as she toyed back. "Perhaps Vice-President John Caldwell Calhoun."

Janice smiled proudly. "Don't you see the resemblance now?"

"I believe so… the hair and the attitude."

Janice dropped her head back and laughed. She smiled at her friend.

"Covington is also a very southern name," informed the translator.

"It's an all around name," argued Janice, "that's from the British originally."

Melinda grinned as she swirled the last mouthful of wine in her cup. "So what's your family scandal?"

Janice chuckled then replied, "Well I'm not that far placed from the southern roots it seems. My maternal grandmother was born in Georgetown, South Carolina."

Melinda turned and picked up the flask of wine. She refilled her and Janice's cups then returned the flask. "So what trouble did Grandma Caldwell get into?"

The archeologist stifled her laughter but her eyes were just glowing. "Grandma Caldwell fell in love with a damn Yankee and moved to New York City."

Melinda covered her chest with her freehand then fake gasped, "Ooo my, the thought is even enough to swoon."

"Well that's only the half of it," mentioned Janice, "not only did she marry the damn Yankee but she changed faiths just to marry him." She leaned in then quietly whispered, "She went from Methodist to Catholic."

Melinda was glowing from enjoyment of the topic. "Unthinkable… such disgraces to the Caldwell name."

"It sure was," agreed the straightening up archeologist. "Needless to say, Grandma Caldwell lost out on her father's big fat will."

Melinda softly smiled now at her friend but she held up her cup and started a toast. "To family scandals… we shall proudly continue them, Janice."

The archeologist laughed then clanked hers against Melinda's.

The translator then refilled their cups once again as she knew the alcohol was soaking into their bodies and minds. She noted the coy smile on Janice's face, which made her grin.

"Are we back to your seduction plans, Mel?" The archeologist indicted her continued flow of wine.

"Hmmm." Melinda's eyes darkened a shade. "Do you require more seduction, Doctor Covington?"

"To be honest," mentioned the archeologist, "I just don't think I could last much longer." Then Janice really debated whether she just said that out loud or not.

"Then perhaps this conversation is better suited for the bed, Doctor Covington." Melinda set her cup down then stole Janice's away too.

Janice blinked as she realized the switch of tide here. Then there were strong hands that simply helped her rise up from the sofa before she figured out what was happening.

Melinda lowered her head and captured Janice's lips.

Janice held onto Melinda's hips as the translator's sweet wine tongue ran across hers. She wistfully studied Melinda at the end of the kiss. "That really is amazing wine."

The linguist's lips curled into a predatory grin. "Yes, even sweeter in the kisses I've noticed." She laced her hand through Janice's then slowly brought her across the bedchambers that was softly lit by candles. She came next to the bed but stopped and pulled Janice against her body.

Janice's stomach twisted with passion and her heart was very alive. She felt Melinda's warm hand on her shoulder then nimble fingers working her leather strap across her shoulder. She hastily ended the kiss then rasped, "Mel, are you sure… I mean…. Christ I think a tiger has my tongue again."

Melinda had Janice's leather strap just on the edge of Janice's shoulder. She did have a cat like smile on her face as her sultry voice whispered, "Don't worry, Janice this doesn't require any talking… it's actually preferred that there are sounds over words."

That little speech didn't help Janice's shattering resistance. She whimpered then held onto the stronger body against hers for support. "Mel, I just…."

Melinda smiled warmly then lowered her head closer to Janice's again. "I told you, it's just us tonight… nothing outside these walls matter here." Her lips diverted from Janice's and came to the silky skin of Janice's neck.

Janice closed her eyes as Melinda's lips brushed over her neck then she sharply inhaled at the light nip that went straight between her legs. "Ooo god," she muttered. She then followed Melinda's guidance to the bed where she sat then warm, large hands trailed down her legs.

Melinda easily removed Janice's boots then rose up some. Next she removed the sheathed sword and placed it by the boots.

Janice still had her eyes closed but when a warm hand pressed against her stomach and lightly pushed, she followed the signal. She crawled back onto the bed but she opened her eyes when warm lips brushed against hers. She was amazed to see the beautiful mix of passion and tenderness in Melinda's face and illuminated eyes.

Melinda remained poised over top of the archeologist. She moved her head, her lips closer to Janice's right ear. "I've wanted you since I first saw you at the dig site, Janice."

Janice had her eyes closed and she slightly lowered but rested on her elbows against the inviting bed.

"The way you handled those men," murmured the translator, "and used that big gun." Her tone showed she was teasing.

Janice had to chuckle as she lightly bantered back, "Machine gun, Mel."

"Mmmm," simply agreed the southerner. Her left hand came up and returned to working off Janice's shoulder strap but much slower this time. "You remember how I said sounds are preferred over words, Janice?" She gently pulled the leather shoulder strap off finally just as her tongue's tip touched Janice's earlobe.

Janice sucked in her breath then whispered, "Yea… I remeb…er."

"Good," breathed Melinda, "I want to hear those sounds, Janice." Her teeth lightly grazed over Janice's earlobe and she received a moan of enjoyment. "Just like that, Janice." Her left hand came back down onto the bed as she crawled more over Janice.

The archeologist was forced to lie down completely.

Melinda's right hand now worked the left strap off Janice's shoulders while her lips found Janice's neck again. "I want to hear what makes you feel good."

Janice's pleasing moan escaped her lips. She arched her neck when Melinda's tongue touched her burning skin. Her hands slid up Melinda's back as her right leg wrapped around Melinda's.

Melinda now had both straps removed from Janice's shoulders then she easily helped Janice arch her back up instead. Her hands made quick work of freeing the back strap from Janice.

Janice released a louder moan when Melinda's cool silk brushed over her already hardened nipples.

Melinda lifted her head and met Janice's hungry lips in a long kiss but her hands kept busy with Janice's heated body. When she withdrew from the kiss, Janice moaned in protest, which made Melinda grin and huskily whisper, "You're so amazing, Janice and now I'm going to make you feel that way." And Melinda soon delivered on her promise with every sensual kiss and exact touch.

Janice was convinced she was more than amazed as she later lay heavily breathing with a heart rate that was frantic. Her body coated in perspiration and her mind empty of any rational thought. She took some time to gain any balance again before she was able to show Melinda what she thought of her.

The new lovers spent most of the night taking and giving until Apollo had his beautiful quarter moon high in the starry sky. The couple now rested in a tangle of sheets with Melinda on her back and Janice's hot body curled up against her. Melinda was currently trying to catch her breath after receiving a demonstration from Janice about how shooting a machine gun gave her exceptionally strong fingers and arm strength.

"You okay, Mel?" softly spoke the archeologist.

"Hmmmm?" asked the wistful southerner.

Janice's head popped up with a smug look. "Are you okay?"

"Mmmhmmm." Melinda turned her head and smiled. Her left hand brushed Janice's cheek then she lifted her head for a short kiss. "Very okay." She lowered her head then watched as Janice lowered her head back down. "Now are you ready to sleep?"

"If I recall correctly," prompted the taunting, husky voice of the archeologist, "you started this here party."

Melinda softly laughed at the joke then slowly started running her fingertips up and down Janice's bare back. Occasionally she would detect a scab but she tried not to think about that tonight or else it would spoil the mood. "I reckon I did."

Janice kissed her lover's shoulder then carefully asked, "No regrets?"

Melinda turned her head so that her chin rested on top of Janice's head. "If I thought I was gonna regret this I would have never started it."

"True," readily agreed the archeologist. "I just wanted to be sure."

Melinda considered this then returned the question. "How 'bout you?"

"I would have stopped you at hello, Mel."

The southerner genuinely smiled in the dark room; the candles having expired a long time ago. Then Janice's movement made her peer up to see the archeologist's hovering features. Before she could say much, Janice kissed her and it was a kiss of passions for more. At the end of it, she hoarsely whispered, "I take it ya ain't tired yet?" She saw Janice's glinting grin in the moonlight coming from the balcony.

"Mel, sleep is for those that are in bed… alone."

Melinda's eyebrows hiked up as she realized she let loose a monster in this bed. "Ooo my," she murmured yet she pulled Janice down for a passionate kiss. She wasn't about to be caught on the descending side of something she started in the first place, especially making love to Janice Covington.

Chapter 19 – Welcome to Tartarus, my Liege

The Conqueror slowly opened her eyes and the low lit beach filled her view. She inhaled the sharp poignant scent of the black river in front of her. She swallowed hard when she realized all her teachings of Hades were now in full truth before her eyes.

"Well, well… welcome to the underworld," greeted a gritty voice off to the left.

The Conqueror turned her head to the left and assessed the pale, robed man that had a long reaper in his left hand. "You must be Charon." She spotted the black boat behind him.

"No, I'm Tilulu the dancing girl. Of course I'm Charon. Who else would be crazy enough to be down here?"

The Conqueror remained calm despite she was beginning to grasp her fate. She glanced to the right when a man walked past her. His ghostly eyes fixed on her as he strolled past.

Charon watched the same man go past then he mentioned, "Excuse the pauper… he only has ninety years to go before he can cross." He then neared the ruler. "Let's have my obolus." He held out his hand.

"I don't have any money," remarked the ruler.

"Sure you do… you're the Conqueror of most of the living." Charon grinned at the ruler then ordered, "Open your mouth… go on."

The Conqueror opened her mouth almost involuntarily.

Charon stretched out his bleach white hand and plucked a gold coin from under the ruler's tongue. He held it up in display. "See? Somebody among the living cares enough for you." He tucked the coin away then ordered, "Get on board."

The Conqueror paused as another pauper passed her. She shivered some then neared the boat. Her thoughts were a mere daze as she stood in the center of the small boat.

Charon climbed in next then put his long reaper into the water. "How about a guided tour on our way across the river Acheron?" He pointed with his chin off to the right. "That's the river Styx… the river of hate." He smirked at the dark ruler. "I'm sure you can appreciate that river out of the five."

The Conqueror's cold eyes settled on the ferryman. She ignored him and glanced off the edge of the boat but she stiffened once she realized the water wasn't really black but a deep red.

"The river Acheron is the river of sorrow," explained Charon, "there is much blood in sorrow." He watched as the former ruler backed away from the edge of the boat. "You don't want to fall in the Acheron." He lifted his reaper from the water and showed how it was stained red from his time being a ferryman. "I've seen some men try to cross the Acheron. They'd only make it so far before the blood water filled their lungs and they'd scream before disappearing under the surface." He continued to use his long reaper to push the boat across. "Hades only knows what's at the bottom of the Acheron."

The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder when she saw the other shore came closer. Her stomach slightly pitched but certainly not from the boat's rocking motion.

"And here we are the shores of Hades." Charon disembarked just as the ruler did the same. "Follow me now."

The Conqueror tried to recall from her memory how the underworld worked. She knew everything but yet her mind was so foggy for some reason. She could only trail behind the ferryman.

Charon waved his reaper at the snarling, large dog that had three heads. "Down, Cerberus."

The heavily fanged dog's three heads bore at the very evil soul coming with the ferryman. He howled as the pair walked past him.

Charon finally came to a stop before three men in front of a black gate. "I have brought you Xena of Amphipolis." He bowed to the men then turned and left the Conqueror to her fate.

The Conqueror stared at the three lined men and her quickening mind recognized the men. Old paintings from the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea and the island of Aegina from the Saronic Gulf quickly flashed in her head.

"Do you know who we are?" spoke the man in the center.

The Conqueror's mouth was dry but she whispered, "You're Minos… the former king of Crete." Her eyes flickered to the man on the right. "Rhadamanthus… Mino's brother and…." Her focus went to the far left man. "And Aeacus the king of Aegina."

Aecus folded his arms over his chest. "I hear Aegina suffered under your reign, Xena of Amphipolis."

The Conqueror clenched her hands at her sides because she realized that it was Aecus that would judge her. Rhadamanthus only judged those from the Chin providence while Minos held final say. Her history with the island of Aegina would not bolster well for her judgment not that she stood a chance anyway.

"We have long awaited this moment, Xena of Amphipolis," spoke Minos. "You have kept us busy with spirit after spirit coming to the gates of Hades but now it is your turn."

The Conqueror wanted to move away, to run and be free of her fate but she stood her ground.

Minos signaled the judge to his right.

Aecus now approached the former ruler and smiled toothily at her. "There are two punishments that await you, Conqueror." He lifted his right hand and waved it past the woman's beautiful face. "First, your inner ugliness from your life will now show outside." When his hand lowered, his smile shifted into a grin of satisfaction.

The Conqueror's skin cracked open all over in various spots. She lifted her hands and saw that her hands and arms were covered in slash marks. Her eyes lowered to take in the view of her now mutilated body.

Aecus chuckled at the astonished look on the Conqueror's slashed face. "For every life you killed you suffer a cut." He backed away but stopped and held out his hands at the Conqueror's ugly body. "Now look how many you've killed, Xena of Amphipolis."

The Conqueror touched her face that was plagued with thick gashes. Her eyes were wide as her hand pulled away she saw a new cut forming in the center of her palm.

"Another life has just died because of your hands," mentioned Minos when he saw the cut form. "There are many that will still die because of you." He then stepped up to the ugly, former ruler of most of the known-world. "Your second punishment, Xena of Amphipolis, is you will spend eternity in Tartarus where you will be confined to a field. The field contains the hacked, bodily remains of all those that you've killed. You will spend eternity making those bodies whole again so that they may finally have peace for what you've done to them." He backed stepped, turned sidelong, and held out his hand to the right.

The black gates of Tartarus creaked open to the black, unknown space behind it.

Minos turned his head to the mangled Conqueror and harshly stated, "Welcome to Tartarus, my liege."

The Conqueror uncontrollably walked up to the open gates then she was engulfed by blackness once she passed the gates. Her scream suddenly exploded through Tartarus to show her arrival then the world around her cleared. She found herself on her hands and knees on something cold but soft, her eyes closed. She rasped as she lifted her head and opened her eyes. The Conqueror scanned her surroundings as her dead heart pounded against her chest.

Spread out for more leagues than any human could see was a covered field of human remains. The stench in the air was that of dead, decaying bodies. In one spot, stood a hill like mound of stacked bodies or pieces with legs or arms jutting out. At the top was one of the Conqueror's flagged pikes with a man's head skewered on top and it was the head of Julius Caesar with his mouth open in his final cry.

The Conqueror now felt a breeze that circulate the stench, which caused something to move on her left hand. She gazed down as the hair of a bodiless, nameless man covered her palm. Horror and terror exploded in the Conqueror's dead body as she realized she was kneeling on top of a thin stack of body parts. She hastily climbed to her feet but her weight crushed the bodily remnants under her boots. The head under her left boot crunched, which meant she'd have to put it together as well as find the rest of its body.

The Conqueror ignored it as she stood on the small mound of hacked bodies. She stared in horror at the endless field of people she'd killed in her lifetime. She frantically shook her head then whispered, "No. By the gods… no." She realized this would take longer than eternity to repair.

Just then she felt a cut form on her left arm and she glanced at it. She then heard some strange noise high above so she gazed up. From the bleak clouds above came a body falling down. She stared in revulsion as the body was marred into pieces in midair then blown across the field to be tangled in the mess.

The Conqueror made a small circle where she stood and her vision just filled with endless mounds, hills, and piles of mutilated bodies. She came full circle and stared at the pierced head of Julius Caesar at the top of the opposite mound. Her rage for Caesar's betrayal never surfaced like it use to every time but instead her dead heart pounded wildly and a cry of pain broke free from her lips.

After the Conqueror tried to release her endless pain, she went down the small pile she was on and her boots connected with the blood soaked grass. She turned to the pile she'd just descended and started her punishment for eternity. Time moved by slowly as the former ruler started to sort the body parts and tried to identify and match but it was almost impossible.

The Conqueror did not cry though. She did not escape her pain. Her memories of her life agonized her. She worked nonstop at her punishment but would never make any really progress. Finally after some unknown time that could have been candlemarks, days, or moons, she stopped and collapsed to the red grass.

The former ruler remained still, breathing heavily, and her inward rage high. Then something caught her ears and it was the sound of somebody coming. She jumped to her feet and held up her mutilated hands. "Who's here?"

From around a pile stepped out a familiar face, his shiny yellow teeth showing. "I'd wondered where you were, Conqueror." Darphus put his hands on his hips. "Once I saw this field, I knew it couldn't be anybody but you." He inhaled until his chest filled then he remarked, "Smells just like you too."

"Leave me, Darphus," snidely ordered the Conqueror.

The dead warlord laughed and shrugged. "I figured we could spend eternity together, Conqueror." He tilted his head as an amused expression over his face. "I see your remark about my ugliness has come back to haunt you."

The Conqueror's bleak azure eyes narrowed at her enemy.

Darphus smiled toothily but he twisted his head to the right, which made his slashed neck show more. "I've brought another old friend of yours too."

The Conqueror took a faint step back when another of her past commanders stepped around the other side of the pile.

"Hello, Xena," greeted the sultry voice.

The Conqueror realized that maybe her punishment for eternity wasn't just this field but all her dead enemies. She glared at her other commander. "How's Tartarus treated you, Draco?"

"Better than it seems to be treating you," replied the smirking warrior.

"It seems Draco and I have a few things in common," mentioned the warlord. He reached to his side where he had his sheathed sword. "One of those is seeking revenge for our deaths."

"You can't kill me," reminded the grinning Conqueror.

"Maybe not," agreed Draco, who unsheathed his sword. "But having you live in pieces for eternity in this field sounds like a great start." He charged the former ruler.

Darphus followed suit.

The Conqueror's warcry vibrated through the field and she back flipped onto a pile of bodies. She just missed the top so instead went surfing down on the crumbling pile. She launched herself into midair from the speed then sailed into the air high above the field. She tucked into a ball to help her go further then when the drop came, her body opened again. She neatly landed on her feet, her boots crushing an arm. She distinctly heard her two opponents running after her not that she could see them with all the mounds in the way.

Darphus and Draco chased after her but the Conqueror had no weapons to defend herself. They chased her almost in a perfect circle in the field.

The Conqueror launched herself into the air as she came back to the mound with Julius Caesar's speared head. She landed at the top of the mound and yanked the spear free. Her purple flag snapped in protest loudly in her right ear.

Draco and Darphus stopped at the bottom of the mound and leered up at her.

"Come on, Xena," coaxed Draco, "I never thought you were the one to run."

The Conqueror smirked then shot back, "I'm not… I'm just buying some time." She gave the pike a sharp slash in the air, which caused Caesar's head to go flying.

Caesar's head landed then rolled a few paces then a booted foot stopped the rolling head. The head then was picked up from the ground by a pair of large hands.

"Nice to see my destiny hasn't changed here either." The heavily clad Roman lifted his pale brown eyes to the Conqueror at the top of the pile.

The Conqueror's lip curled at seeing her old enemy. "Long time, Caesar… I expected you here sooner."

Julius Caesar tossed the head over his shoulder then approached Draco and Darphus. "Come down here, Xena… we can talk this out."

The former ruler grunted then pointed her spear at the three men. "Over my dead soul." Her joke was lost on her past commanders but it wasn't on Julius Caesar.

Caesar smirked then called up, "That is already being arranged, Xena."

The Conqueror shivered at his threat that most likely could mean anything. Her warcry tore through the air and she sprung up, twisted, and landed behind the three men. "Come and get some, boys." She gave a loud cry then came at her enemies.

Darphus and Draco attacked together.

Julius Caesar unsheathed his sword from his side. He stood still and observed as his gold plated chest reflected the movements of the fighting. His focus then shifted beyond the dead ruler and centered on another arrival, an Amazon.

Velasca snuck up behind the Conqueror with her sword at the ready. She raised it once close enough.

The Conqueror moved the thick pike behind her back as the Amazon blade tried to slice her back. She spun around Velasca, kicked the Amazon onto her face, and grabbed up the sword.

Velasca growled and wiped the blood from her face. She jumped to her feet to face her killer. "I had everything planned out," she yelled in outrage.

The Conqueror stepped back and pointed her sword at the evil Amazon. "Except for your death I suspect." Her eyes flickered to the gaping hole in Velasca's stomach. She hefted the pike in her left hand then stared at the four opponents. She suspected that more would show up looking for a piece of her hide. Her confirmation was made when a very familiar man stood atop the pile just a few paces away.

The Conqueror stared in horror at the face she'd never forget. His face often haunted her dreams at night especially as a child.

The man hurried down the pile and stood beside Julius Caesar. "Did you ever know, Xena that you were of Roman decent?" He held out his hand to Julius Caesar. "Caesar here is distant relative of yours."

Caesar showed his smug smile at the Conqueror. "I take it your heritage never came up in the family discussions huh?" He clapped the man beside him on the back. "Your father and I have been catching up on old memories, Xena."

The Conqueror shook her head then hotly yelled, "I am Greek… not Roman."

Atrius, Xena's father, moved past the Roman then chuckled at the dead ruler's fighting spirit. "You were Roman before you were Greek, my dear." He extracted his sword. "I am pure Roman but your mother…" He shrugged then stated, "Supposedly she's Greek but she's all whore."

The Conqueror's anger instantly flared up at her father's words. "You fucking bastard!" She threw the spear with all her strength at Atrius.

Atrius didn't bother to duck as the spear pierced through his gut. He easily ripped it out then tossed it aside. "Temper… temper, daughter." He extracted his sword from his side. "After we're all finished with you, I'll have to tell you the family history. You've followed well in the footsteps." He smirked then approached his daughter.

The Conqueror tensed up as the score of enemies started to close in on her. She spun her sword and stepped backwards between two large carcass piles. Her ragged breathing heightened her senses as she prepared to fight them all.

Abruptly there was a loud cry then a soaring body from nowhere landed in the space between the Conqueror and the approaching enemies.

The Conqueror was stunned and frozen by her shock.

The newcomer was a dark colored female, who had another spear that had the Conqueror's flag. She rammed it into the ground and gave a loud cry as she ran then jumped up. Her famous whirling kick managed to knock out Velasca, Draco, and Darphus then she rocketed into the air and landed beside the Conqueror. "We must run, quickly." She grabbed the Conqueror's hand and didn't waste time in fleeing.

The dead ruler recovered from her initial shock and hastily escaped with her unexpected savior. Behind her, she could hear the yells of her pursuers but they were falling behind them. She and her savior came to quick stop behind a tall pile of body parts. She glanced around the corner of it and saw nobody was tailing them then she turned her head back. "What are you… you shouldn't be here, M'Lila."

M'Lila smiled at her old friend that she hadn't seen in so many long seasons. "But I am here, my friend." Her smile widened, which brightened her beautiful features. "It has been a very long time, Xena."

The Conqueror wanted to touch the Gaelic but she didn't because of the nearing voices of her enemies.

"We must go," urged M'Lila. She grabbed the woman's wrist and started to haul her away.

"Where are we going, M'Lila?"

M'Lila didn't respond as she was worried they'd be overheard. She finally let go of her friend's wrist when she felt that the Conqueror would stay along side her. "We are getting close," she assured.

The Conqueror shook her head as she wasn't sure what woman had in mind. She came to an abrupt stop when a shadowy figure formed ahead.

M'Lila went a few more paces but stopped and glanced back at her friend. "Come on, Xena. There is only so much time." She followed the concerned gaze of the Conqueror's to the shadowy figure ahead. "It is okay," she hastily assured.

The Conqueror's attention snapped away from the shadowy figure when she heard her nearing chasers. She turned back to M'Lila and the figure that hid in the shadows of a corpse pile.

"He is a friend," promised M'Lila, "we came to help. You must come, please." She held out her hand to offer assurance.

The Conqueror stretched out her hand and her cut fingers laced through her friend's.

"Come, now." M'Lila pulled her friend along hastily.

The Conqueror held her breath as they approached the silhouette that soon took on a face.

M'Lila called out to the figure. "I have her, we must hurry… they are not far behind us."

The Conqueror inhaled sharply when the man smiled at her and took up running pace at her side.

"What can I say, Xena? You still have my heart after so long." Borias winked at the Conqueror then focused on where he was going.

The Conqueror hadn't expected this help but she wasn't in any position to argue either. Just ahead, she saw a wall of fire that rose up to the skies and it was what defined her punishment field from the rest of Tartarus.

Borias rushed ahead of the pair and he leapt through the fire wall to land on the other side. He turned back and yelled, "Hurry!"

M'Lila was next as she passed through it with ease.

The Conqueror came to a jerking halt at the edge of her punishment and Tartarus. "I can't leave this field," she called through the roaring flames.

"Yes you can," hollered back Borias. "Hurry your ass up, Xena!" He was thrusting his hand through the flames while yelling, "Take my hand."

The Conqueror's right hand collapsed his but she still feared the flames as she took a step closer. Her body protested it and her open wounds peeled back at the nearing heat. "I can't come through!" She held up her left hand at the wall of fire as it lapped at her.

M'Lila put her hand through and grabbed her friend's freehand. "Ni h-ea, you must hurry, Xena. They are coming for you!"

"I can't," hotly debated the Conqueror.

"Trust what M'Lila is telling you, Xena," growled the Conqueror's former lover.

"Please, Xena… you'll be safe." M'Lila tugged on her friend's hand.

The Conqueror closed her eyes then quickly went through the flames. Her skin screamed in protest but her cries were muffled by her clamped jaw. She then felt relief when she was safely yanked to the other side. She bent forward then kneeled with heavy breathing.

M'Lila knelt down beside her friend, her hand still linked to the Conqueror's. "See? It wasn't that bad." Her bright smile appeared again as her friend glowered at her for the smart comment.

"What are you two doing here?" the Conqueror whispered as her body started to calm down.

"We're here to help you," answered M'Lila. "We must keep moving… we're not safe here." She hauled the dead ruler to her feet.

The Conqueror straightened out her back, which popped into place. She then stared at yet another familiar face that she hadn't seen in so long. She sadly smiled at him. "Chuang."

Chuang, the Conqueror's commander from Chin, smiled and nodded.

The Conqueror's lips curled as she teased, "Still even loyal to me in Tartarus?"

Chuang bowed then straightened up and clapped his fisted hand across his leather chest. "Always, my liege."

"Listen," broke in Borias, "we don't have time for chitchat if we're going to make it."

"Borias is right," agreed M'Lila. "We must go now." She looked up at her friend then promised, "I will explain as we go."

The Conqueror nodded then she and her small alliance of friends broke out into a jog across the bleak yet fiery domain of Tartarus. To her right, M'Lila stayed at her side and Borias to her left while Chuang remained ahead. "What is happening, M'Lila? Why are you here?" She shook her head then urged, "You should be in Elysia."

M'Lila bitter sweetly smiled at her friend. "I have been judged for life in Tartarus, my friend. I have committed my share of crimes during my life."

The Conqueror hadn't known because she was never able to communicate with her friend. "What happened?"

"It is a long story," refused the Gaelic, "but I betrayed my clansmen." She looked away from the troubled features of her friend. She gazed down the long, endless road they were traveling along. "We must discuss our plans."

"Where are we going?" probed the dead ruler.

"Have you ever heard of the Tree of Life?" M'Lila saw her friend's mind working through the thickness in her head. "Perhaps in Norse folklore?"

The Conqueror confusingly questioned, "The Yggdrasil?"

M'Lila nodded then explained, "It is even in Greek stories too… the bay tree?"

The Conqueror's mind ran through the tales then she nodded her head. "The nymph Daphne turned into a bay tree by a river side." She shook her head then quickly added, "Even in Chin folklore there is a famous peach tree and that eating its peach will grant immortality."

"Yes but the peach grows only every three thousand season cycles."

The Conqueror did recall that minor detail. "Every culture has some folklore about a great tree. Why are you bringing that up?"

M'Lila smiled at her friend's lack of perception but she explained it all. "The Tree of Life is the link between all the cultural folklores. It does truly exist because I have seen it with my eyes."

"I think we have a problem ahead," called back Chuang. He stopped as the group came up to his side. He pointed ahead as his feet shook overtop of the ground.

"We must hide," cursed Borias. He waved the group away from the brightly lit road.

M'Lila grabbed the Conqueror's hand then pulled her quickly off the road as the ground shook under her feet.

There was a loud roar in the air.

The group ducked behind a large boulder as the ground continued to shake under their feet.

"By the gods," breathed the Conqueror, "is that really a hecatonchires?"

Borias huffed then murmured, "If it has a hundred hands and fifty heads then it must be huh?" His dark eyes flickered up to the stomping monster.

"There are three hecatonchires of Tartarus," informed Chuang to his former leader.

The Conqueror nodded then quietly stated, "Briareus, Cottus, and Gyges."

M'Lila tilted her head then stared at the gargantuan giant stomping nearer. "That hecatonchires is Cottus."

The dead ruler blinked and turned her head to M'Lila. "How in… Hades can you tell?"

M'Lila slowly revealed a grin then murmured, "Cottus is the ugliest of the three."

"They're all damn ugly," lowly shot back Borias. "We need to do something to distract him."

The Conqueror started to stand up but M'Lila's sure grip stopped her.

"Ni h-ea," M'Lila started in her Gaelic tongue, "what are you doing?"

"I'm going to distract him… be ready to move any heartbeat." The Conqueror stood up then hurried out onto the road.

"She's crazy," spat Borias however he grinned.

Chuang grunted then joked, "She's still reckless like always."

The Conqueror held the Amazon sword in her right hand. She cupped her left hand over her mouth then gave a resounding warcry to get the hideous monster's attention. "Chaaaaayaaaaaa!"

Cottus spun around on his heels and flayed out his hundred swords then his fifty pairs of eyes honed in on the prisoner.

The Conqueror laughed at him and held up her single sword in display. "Come and get some, big boy."

Cottus's mouths all opened and Tartarus erupted from his fifty yells. He then stomped across the short distance after the escaped prisoner.

The Conqueror cracked her neck to the left then muttered, "The bigger they are the harder they fall." She spun her sword, did an about face, and took off at a fast run.

"What is she doing?" whispered the worried Gaelic.

"She's keeping him busy," answered Borias. He clung to the bouncing boulder as the monster came after the dead ruler. Once the hecatonchires was past them, he quietly ordered, "Let's go."

M'Lila stepped up onto the road then stopped. She stared down at Cottus chasing her friend then she heard Borias and Chuang calling for her. She turned her head to them and called, "I must help her. Go, we will catch up."

Chuang stepped back but Borias yanked him forward.

"They can handle it. I have a plan to stop that ugly thing." Borias saw Chuang's agreement so he and Chuang hurried off.

M'Lila followed the distinct cries of the monster and the Conqueror's laughter faraway. Then she was amazed to hear swords clashing loudly but it was impossible for it to be her friend fighting Cottus. Her heart rate picked up and she ran faster. When she broke through a dark mist on the road she came to a quick stop.

The Conqueror's warcry break from her lips while she back flipped from Caesar's attack. "You have gotten slow, Caesar!"

Cottus wailed at the all the escaped prisoners. He lifted his right foot and stomped down but only smashed one prisoner, some scantly clad female.

The Conqueror's laugh filled the air as she did several back flips away from her enemies then sprung high up into the air.

Cottus slashed with three swords at the flying form of the ruler.

The Conqueror easily twisted her body past the large blades and landed on her feet neatly.

M'Lila inhaled sharply at the amazing display because she never imagined her friend learning so well. She hastily joined into the battle and stopped Darphus from coming at Xena. She kicked his sword free then punched him square in the face.

The Conqueror smiled at her friend's help. She then heard Cottus's piercing cries, which meant he was about to attack. She saw he was going after M'Lila and Darphus so she warned, "M'Lila!"

The Gaelic peered up when a foot shadow came over her. Her eyes widened then she saw Darphus was too shocked to do anything but she acted quickly. M'Lila copied Xena's amazing back flips and launched into the air but lost control.

The Conqueror held her breath and chased after her friend, trying to gauge it just right.

Cottu's foot flattened Darphus but his screams rang out for missing the dark female.

The Conqueror braced her body as the tumbling woman came at her. She dropped her sword then caught M'Lila with her back slamming into the ground.

M'Lila was rasping but she lifted her head then stated, "You did not have to catch me."

The Conqueror smirked up at the smaller woman on top of her then whispered, "Just giving you a soft landing."

The Gaelic's head snapped to the right at seeing Caesar, Draco, and Atrius coming for them. "We must go." She jumped to her feet.

The Conqueror picked up the sword then sensed the hecatonchires's next attack. "Time to go is right." She grabbed her friend's hand then dragged her away.

M'Lila ran along side her friend back down the road towards Borias and Chuang's direction. She glanced over her shoulder to see that the monster just flattened Caesar and Draco. "Only your father is alive."

The Conqueror grunted then muttered, "Alive… right."

M'Lila had a thin smile as she teased, "Meeting your father was not what I imagined it to be."

The Conqueror glanced at her friend then shook her head with a grin at the joke. "I never expected you'd have such a sick sense of humor, M'Lila."

"If we cannot laugh here in Tartarus then where can we?" challenged the heavily breathing Gaelic.

"By the gods, life was dull without you, my friend." The Conqueror's feature didn't show a smile but her eyes were lighter. "So why the Tree of Life?"

M'Lila glanced over her shoulder. She spied that Cottus was coming for them now. "Because it is the only way to bring you back to life."

"What?" yelled the astonished Conqueror.

"Hurry up, you two!" hollered Borias. "This way! Bring him this way!"

The Conqueror raced for the stone bridge that rested ahead, her feet vibrating under her. She broke out onto the bridge with M'Lila at her side. She glanced over the edge and realized it was a bridge over a deep chasm that seemed bottomless from her point of view. Just as she came to the middle of the stone bridge, she came upon a black pile of almost fine looking sand. She stopped and grabbed M'Lila. "Run ahead, get out of here."

M'Lila shook her head then stated, "I must stay with you."

The Conqueror growled then shoved her friend towards Borias and Chuang. "Go! Now!"

M'Lila stared at her friend but could see she wouldn't accept the help. "Be careful." She turned and hurried down the stone bridge the rest of the way.

"Where's Xena?" demanded Borias.

"She's still on the bridge," informed Chuang, "she found my black powder."

Borias gazed horrified at the man he'd fought along side for many seasons. "You told her about your black powder!"

Chuang cringed but nodded yet his attention was drawn away when the ground shook heavily under him.

The Conqueror grinned up at the hecatonchires's ugly faces then yelled out, "Hey Cottus, I hear you're the ugliest of the hecatonchires!"

The monster roared in protest then stepped out onto the bridge.

"Come on you ugly centaur ass," muttered the crouching ruler. She stepped back, her boots scraping over the black powder. "Come to momma."

Cottus took another step forward.

"Get ready, Borias," whispered Chuang.

Borias walked over to the tall pillar at the ledge. He ripped a lit torch then stepped onto the bridge at the ledge. "Bring him further down, Xena!"

The Conqueror kept her back to her comrades as her boots scraped down the stone bridge.

The monster stepped out again but carefully so he wouldn't misstep and slip.

"The bigger they are the smaller their brain," huffed the ruler. She then stepped back as the monster took a fourth step out onto the bridge. She needed him just a bit further to make sure he didn't grab onto the ledge when the bridge would go out from under him. "Come on! I heard you came out of Uranus, Cottus!" She laughed at her bad joke then back peddled a few steps. Her feet jounced on the bridge when the monster came further out.

The bridge suddenly protested at the great weight. Cracks quickly formed in the center of the bridge, near the black powder, and at each end of the bridge.

"Ooo Hades," growled the former ruler. "Borias, I need that torch now!" She spun around then yelled, "Throw it to me!"

Borias spun his arm with the torch in a windmill technique then launched it.

The torch rocket into the air then went reeling back down a third of the way over the bridge.

The Conqueror sprung up into the air then caught the lit torch before the air could extinguish it. She landed on the bridge but the monster's step made her stumble towards the ledge.

"Xena, look out!" yelled M'Lila.

The ruler caught her balance just in time then stepped into the middle again. She turned to the hecatonchires and leered up at the monster that was now far enough.

The bridge crunched but it wasn't quite giving way as it faithfully held Cottus weight.

The Conqueror was halfway between the end of the bridge and the middle. She had one clear shot at this so she traded the sword and torch hands. She inhaled deeply then gave her loud warcry. The Conqueror mimicked Borias's windmill throw and sent the torch on its way.

The lit torch shot through the air then clunked off of the monster's metal clad chest. It bounced then started its quick decent.

The Conqueror quickly turned and began her frantic run for the end of the bridge. Behind her she heard Cottus cry in protest then there was a loud explosion.

"Jump, Xena!" shouted M'Lila.

The ruler took the good advice then launched her body into the air just as the stone bridge crumpled under her feet. She aimed herself for the ledge that was many paces away.

"Back up." Borias pushed Chuang away but he noticed M'Lila wasn't moving. "M'Lila, I would…." He trailed off as M'Lila rooted her feet then the heavy Conqueror's body slammed into hers.

The Conqueror gasped as she lifted her body off of M'Lila's and stared down at her. "M'Lila, you didn't have to catch me." Her words echoed the Gaelic's earlier ones.

M'Lila softly moaned after deciding returning the favor wasn't in her best interest. "I think you're right, Xena."

The Conqueror deeply chuckled then got to her feet however made sure to help her friend. "Come on, no time to lie around."

M'Lila groaned but got up too.

"Thanks for the black powder, Chuang." The dead ruler smirked at her former second in command.

Chuang dangled a small leather pouch at all his comrades' faces. "Don't leave the living without it."

Borias rolled his dark eyes then ordered, "Let's go… it’s a long trip to the Tree of Life."

"Can we walk for awhile?" protested the aching Gaelic.

"We'll stop in awhile," offered the Conqueror.

M'Lila nodded as she walked along side her friend. "You were brave to do that, Xena."

The Conqueror grunted then mentioned, "I am sure Borias would tell you otherwise."

Borias threw a smirk over his shoulder at the women. He held his tongue though then turned his head around.

M'Lila adjusted her red headband then touched the ruler's arm. "You have learned much since we last met."

The Conqueror, for the first time, realized how M'Lila's touch tingled against her skin. She peered at her arm when the Gaelic removed her hand and her eyebrows furrowed tightly. "What did you do?" Where M'Lila had touched her there were no more cuts.

M'Lila pointed at the Conqueror's hands.

The Conqueror lifted her freehand and left hand with the sword. Her hands were completely healed from the cuts of her punishment. Her amazed features turned to the Gaelic for answers.

M'Lila shrugged then quietly offered, "I will tell you when we stop." She brushed back her disarrayed curly locks.

The Conqueror sighed yet she agreed with a simple nod.

The group continued down the torched lined road that seemed so endless. Occasionally they would see other prisoners that were trapped in their punishments. One familiar punishment in Greek folklore was that of King Sisyphus and the Conqueror actually saw him pushing the heavy boulder he was chained to up a hill. The Conqueror decided that punishment was far more to her liking than hers. She also found it amusing to see the former king of Corinth, who's Isthmian Games she still upheld to this day.

After a solid candlemark, the group steered off the road and walked into the ruins of some temple. They sat on the steps and tried to let the dull ache wear out of their legs and feet.

The Conqueror though was the only one that sat on the stump of what was a column. She propped her boot up on the toppled pillar next to her. "Now tell me what's going on here."

Borias sighed then glanced at the group as he suspected he was the one that had to explain. "It's because of Alti, Xena." To this day, he still said the shaman's name with pure hatred.

"It always is," grumbled the Conqueror.

"Now that you're dead," explained Borias, "Alti will take your soul."

M'Lila stood up, came over, and sat on the fallen column next to the Conqueror's foot. "She will be far too powerful to be stopped."

The Conqueror dropped her foot from the pillar and shook her head. "What's this have to do with the Tree of Life?" Her eyes flickered between the three silent faces then it struck her. "You want me to live again so that Alti won't have my soul."

M'Lila leaned forward so that she was closer to her friend. "She must be stopped, Xena."

The Conqueror closed her eyes then turned her head away.

Borias jumped up to his feet then yelled at the Conqueror, "Its time you finally corrected your mistake, Xena!" He pointed finger at the now staring ruler. "You made her and now you must destroy her."

The Conqueror stood up hastily. Her upper lip curled into a snarl at her old lover. "Don't tell me what to do, Borias. You know very well how I respond to that."

M'Lila popped up and got between the pair. "Borias is right," she softly spoke.

Borias side stepped the Gaelic and gently reminded, "Xena, she was my mistake as well."

Chuang sighed from his spot then muttered, "All of our faults." He sensed the group staring at him and he murmured, "All of us saw what she was capable of but we didn't stop her."

The Conqueror's tense expression shifted to M'Lila. "You have nothing to do with Alti though."

M'Lila licked her parched lips then nodded her head. "You're right but...." Her hand came up and touched the ruler's right cheek. "I was your last hope in life." She placed her other hand to the ruler's other cheek. "It was because of my death… my sacrifice that made you so angry."

"No," whispered the ruler, "it was Caesar's betrayal, M'Lila." Her past pain filled her eyes. "It was never about you."

"But it was," protested the Gaelic, "and I must set that right again." She then leaned in the rest of the distance.

The Conqueror's cracked lips were sealed by M'Lila's sweeter ones. She moaned at the tender depth in her friend's kiss. She felt her face no longer cold but swallowed by warmth then her eyes fluttered open at the end of the kiss.

M'Lila's genuine smile brightened between them when she saw her friend's beautiful face restored.

The Conqueror lifted her hand and touched forehead where she knew there'd been a large gash. It was completely gone and no scar left behind. "What… how'd you do that?"

M'Lila pulled her hands away to reveal the ruler's healed face completely.

Borias observed with open interest at the scene.

"It is because I love you," murmured the Gaelic. "For every heart that loves you, your wounds will heal to an extent." She gathered the larger hands into her dark ones. "Just stop and think about those that love you."

"Nobody does," protested the ruler softly.

"Yet I do," argued the Gaelic. "Stop… listen for once, Xena." She squeezed the ruler's hands. "When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen…"

The Conqueror did listen for the first time since her arrival here in Tartarus. Her eyes drifted shut and she tightly held onto M'Lila's hand for moral support.

"Xena… Xena…," whispered Cyrene's voice. "I know you can hear me. I am so sorry… I never told you how sorry I am. I was never there for you after Lyceus's death." Cyrene's voice faded then came back again. "I'm so sorry, Xena. I spent moons regretting that I shunned you and now I pay with a life where I can't tell you that there was never anything to forgive you for." Cyrene's voice faded again but returned at a low whispered, "I love you, Xena no matter who you are because you will always be my little one. I love you…"

"You were my greatest enemy, Xena but I always knew you would defeat your own darkness. I was proud of you that day when you conquered your darkness. The Amazon Nation will honor your sacrifice as you've repaid your debt." Cyane's whisper wavered then filled the Conqueror's mind again. "I am learning to forgive you, enemy of mine."

M'Lila felt how tightly the ruler clenched to her hand. She squeezed back then whispered, "Listen, harder now, Xena."

The Conqueror inhaled sharply when the usually sweet but now painfully constricted voice of the rebel leader came to her.

"Conqueror, I know you can hear me… wherever you are. I know you probably think I am strong… but I can't be, not now. You can't leave me. I know it's not your time. I can feel it… in my heart. I feel this emptiness that I never felt before… and it scares me. Above all, just remember to fight… fight to come back. Your realm needs you… I need you." Gabrielle's whispered plea floated away but rested in the Conqueror's mind.

The Conqueror slowly opened her eyes and sadly stared at M'Lila. She understood the very emptiness that Gabrielle felt because it was the same kind she'd felt when her brother died.

M'Lila peered up into emotional blue eyes. "Now do you see?"

"Yes," whispered the ruler.

Borias stepped closer to the pair, his voice breaking the spell between them. "Alti must be stopped, Xena or else she will condemn thousands upon thousands of souls to her karma. If she takes yours then there is no stopping her."

The Conqueror bit her lower lip then softly asked, "Why are you helping, Borias?" She shook her head then reminded, "I killed you."

"In fair combat and under Alti's influence," also reminded the former warlord. He then rested his hand on the ruler's left forearm. "You may have never loved me, Xena but… you had a place in my heart." He tilted his head then his usually harsh voice calmed. "And you have always protected our son from a life of violence."

"Solan," she sadly whispered and dropped her eyes.

"He fairs well," confidently stated Borias, "I thank you everyday for keeping him safe, Xena."

The Conqueror locked eyes with Borias. "He'll never know or follow his parents' lives."

Borias nodded then removed his hand. When his hand drew back, the Conqueror's skin was healed over her forearm. "We must hurry now… Alti could take your soul at anytime. Time is a luxury that we can't squander right now."

Chuang stood up then neared the group. "Let's go."

The Conqueror and the rest of the small party continued the journey on the road. Her thoughts wondered off to the evil shaman back in the land of the living. By the gods, she realized that once Alti had her soul that she would undoubtedly strike out against Melinda, Janice, the Amazons, her mother, and most of all Gabrielle. A sense of urgency to stop the shaman filled her as her long stride grew faster.

M'Lila hastened to stay along side. She peered up her friend's determined features and she whispered, "She will not succeed, Xena."

"No, she won't," snarled the newly driven ruler. "Not in this lifetime or any other."

Chapter 20 – The Tree of Life

The Conqueror knelt down just as a small, warm hand touched her right shoulder. She turned her head and her eyes lightened at her friend, M'Lila.

"We are close," whispered the Gaelic.

The dead ruler simply nodded her head as she gazed through the brush, her right hand parting the branches as she peered through the small opening.

"We must cross the bridge first," quietly reminded M'Lila.

"And it seems to be heavily guarded by…." The Conqueror's mouth remained open as mind tried to process what was guarding the bridge just ahead.

"Tree nymphs I believe you call them," finished M'Lila. She then leaned closer to her friend.

"What kind of tree is the Tree of Life?" murmured the ruler.

"I believe it is an oak, Xena."

The Conqueror nodded as she released the branches, her head now turned to M'Lila. "Those aren't just any nymphs… those are dryads." She sighed then saw the inquisitive look on M'Lila's face. "Dryads can only be killed one way, which won't work for us."


The Conqueror shook her head then explained, "A dryad's life force is derived from the tree it was born from… the mother tree is its life force so to speak."

"So the only way to kill a dryad is to kill its mother tree," summarized the Gaelic, "and we can't kill the Tree of Life."

"Exactly." The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder before saying, "Let's head back and work something out." She and M'Lila carefully lowered onto their bellies then crawled backwards for some distance. They then got to their feet but stayed hunkered down as they returned back to Borias and Chuang.

Borias and Chuang waited at another set of ruins from another temple, some unknown temple. Borias had wondered inside of it while Chuang merely sat on the cracked, disheveled steps. Chuang climbed to his feet when the Conqueror and M'Lila appeared around the thick trees by the side of the temple.

"Where's Borias?" questioned the ruler.

Chuang pointed a thumb over his shoulder at the tilted entrance of the temple.

The Conqueror decided to follow after her former lover and partner while Chuang and M'Lila waited outside for them. When she entered, her eyes squinted from the unknown source of light that poured through the wide opening in the ceiling. With her head tilted back, her vision focused on the opening but she could not make out the source of light but only that it was strong and warm, much like the sun. She moved away then her eyes adjusted again to see Borias's back to her at the opposite side of the temple.

"Xena, look at this." Borias half stepped around and signaled for her but he turned back. "These temples in Hades are leftover from the fall of the Titans." He sensed the ruler at his side now. He glimpsed at her to see her also looking over the wall painting before them.

"This is a temple to Gaia," muttered the Conqueror. Her right hand stretched out and touched the weathered and cracked mural.

"Look at this." Borias took several side steps and pointed at the picture in the very center of the mural.

The Conqueror inhaled quickly and stared at the beautiful painting of a gigantic oak tree. The tree's branches stretched to the skies, its trunk through middle earth, and its roots spread out below the underworld.

"Now look here," offered Borias, he was now down by the left side of the mural.

The Conqueror moved down then saw that there stood a gorgeous woman that was almost as tall as the tree. Her right hand was stretched out, pointed to the tree, and her left hand was cupped upwards and some lifting movement.

The Conqueror glanced between the woman and the tree. "The Tree of Life was born from Gaia," she theorized and from the corner of her eye she saw Borias nodding.

"But on the right side there's more to the story." The former warlord strolled down to it with the ruler at his side.

The Conqueror tilted her head as she pieced together the mystery of the mural. "So Gaia birthed the Tree of Life then when the Titans were banished to Tartarus, Zeus ordered the hecatonchires to attack the Tree of Life… destroy it."

"Zeus was afraid that the Titans would use the Tree of Life to escape from their prisons in Tartarus," added Borias. "Come here." He turned, walked off the broken and tilted dais, and went to another wall with a mural.

The Conqueror followed then verbally described the mural to them both. "The dryads are the protectors of the Tree of Life… they keep the hecatonchires away from it."

"So does one other protect the tree." Borias stepped forward and pointed to a green creature that was wrapped around the base of the tree.

"A dragon," murmured the ruler.

Borias grinned at his former partner. "Not just any dragon, Xena… that is the dragon we heard about in Chin."

The Conqueror stared in awe at the dragon wrapped around the tree as she murmured, "The Lóng… it can't be, Borias." She rotated her head until her gaze rested upon him. "It's impossible."

"You would think so," slowly agreed Borias, "but Xena, we have already seen a hecatonchires."

"The dryads are real as well," stated the Conqueror. "So why wouldn't the Lóng be too?" She stared directly at the dragon's painting.

"This isn't going to be easy," observed the former warlord. He turned his head to Xena. "We have to get past the two remaining hecatonchires, the dryads, and the Lóng."

The Conqueror slowly revealed a dark grin at her ex-lover. "Nothing is ever easy between us, Borias." She leaned towards him then sultry whispered, "It hasn't been that long… has it?"

Borias supplied a sly smirk as he throatily whispered, "Xena, you should know me by now." He leaned in too, his lips a mere brush from hers. "Or hasn't it been that long for you?"

The Conqueror chuckled then she leaned in so that her lips grazed over his and she saw Borias's dark eyes close. She smirked then quickly drew away while saying, "I keep myself… satisfied in the mortal world." She then strolled away with that satisfied look on her face

Borias showed all his teeth at the ruler's backside but he shook his head as some things just would never change. "Maybe we can use this battle between the dryads and the hecatonchires to our advantage."

The Conqueror paused in the slanted opening of the temple, her head turned to Borias. "That's exactly the plan." She disappeared out of the temple.

Borias followed but stopped and he stole one last glance at the green dragon at the base of the Tree of Life. He turned away and joined the rest outside the temple.

"So what is the plan exactly?" questioned Chuang.

"Well we have a slight problem," mentioned the Conqueror.

"Slight?" Borias huffed then peered down at Chuang, who was standing next to M'Lilia. "The slight problem is named Lóng."

Chuang's eyes bulged and he quickly shook his head. "You are joking." He glanced between his two former leaders and slightly paled.

"Come on, Chuang," tormented the Conqueror, "you have the jewels for this, don't you?"

"My liege," started the oriental warrior, "it is not a lack of courage but a lack of success." He rested his hands on his hips. "The Lóng is immortal and very powerful in Chin stories. It will be impossible to stop him."

"Who said anything about stopping him?" The Conqueror chuckled at her former second in command's dim features. She then turned her sights to M'Lila. "Do you know what I have to do to be… reborn?"

The Gaelic sighed then neared her friend. "I believe you simply must touch the tree."

"Touch?" repeated the dubious ruler. "M'Lila, it can't be that easy?"

"It's easy minus the hecatonchires, the Lóng, and dryads."

The Conqueror chuckled at Borias's reminder. "I suppose we will see." She tilted her head then slowly grinned. "Now for that plan…."

It was within quarter of a candlemark that the group had worked out the plans to find a route to the Tree of Life. The plan itself was quite straightforward, which called for more brute strength than anything. They used the trees that were surrounding path to the Tree of Life as the path directly connected to the bridge across some deep, dark gorge.

The Conqueror was located behind the tree near the edge while her comrades were hiding behind the tall trunks further back. She knelt down with her left hand resting on the tree to steady her body. She carefully watched the dryads wondering up and down the stone bridge; they were faithfully guarding it. She gave her sword a quick spin then started to move forward yet she tensed and spun around with her sword moving fast. Her sword's tip just stopped under the intruder's chin.

The Conqueror had that sly grin because she'd caught the stranger sneaking up on her however she instantly lost it. Her sword slowly lowered to her side and she stared, shocked. Just as she was about to speak the stranger jumped forward because of some distant noise.

"Be quiet," hushed the stranger. He tugged the tall ruler down behind the tree to hide them while the sounds grew louder and closer.

The Conqueror heard it but it didn't matter to her as all she did was be awestruck. She then emotionally murmured, "Lyceus?"

Lyceus smiled at his sister warmly then touched her arm. "I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner." He turned his head away and pulled at his sister's broad shoulder. "Duck down… they're coming."

The ruler tore her gaze away from her young brother and her features darkened when the noises developed into footfall and voices.

"Come on, hurry up," ordered a gruff voice. He waved is axe in the direction of the bridge to the Tree of Life.

The Conqueror shook her head and muttered, "Kallikantzaroi."

Lyceus grinned then murmured, "You remember them? From mother's stories?"

"I do," whispered the Conqueror, "How could I forget? She always teased me that I would turn into a kallikantzaros during Solstice." She watched as about a dozen goblin-like creatures that were small and hairy waddle by with their chopping axes. Once they were gone and out of ear shot, she stood up and pulled her brother up to his feet. She looked him up and down in pure amazement as he looked like the exact same young man when he'd died. "Ly, is this…."

Lyceus lifted his hand and pressed his palm against his sister's cheek. "It is me."

The Conqueror revealed a long forgotten smile as she suddenly grabbed her brother into a long embrace.

Lyceus felt more alive than ever when he hugged his sister. He'd almost forgotten what it was like to hug her. He drew back but his sister still wouldn't fully release him. "You've grown, Xena."

The ruler cracked a grin. "You haven't aged a day, brother." She softly laughed at his boyish features and amazingly gold locks that reminded her of the forgotten sun. Then his eyes, gods they were still striking and reminded her so much of only one other back on the mortal earth. "You were always the catch of the village," she teased and clasped her hand into his.

Lyceus rolled his eyes. "I think you attracted more men than I did women," he thoroughly joked.

The Conqueror wistfully smiled at old memories then as her quick mind worked it out, her features darkened. "What are you doing here?" She shook her head then separated from him some.

"You've caused quite the stir in Hades and should I expect anything less of you?" Lyceus folded his arms against his chest.

"Tell me you're not here in Tartarus, Ly?" urged the concerned sister.

Lyceus sighed and dropped his arms finally. "Not exactly… I'm neither in Tartarus nor in Elysia."

"The meadows then," murmured the Conqueror, which was confirmed by Lyceus's nod. "Why are you here?"

"To see you," answered Lyceus, "and help you. Word travels fast here… faster than Pegasus."

"So it would seem." The dark ruler then saw that her comrades were coming to her with concerned features.

M'Lila hastily asked, "What were those things? And who is he?" She carefully studied the young man and tilted her head.

Borias rested his hands on his leather clad hips. "Who's the new stray, Xena?"

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her former lover. She then clapped her right hand on her brother's shoulder. "This is my younger brother, Lyceus."

Borias blinked and his smirking features disappeared. "You have a brother?"

The Conqueror relinquished her hold from her brother and folded her arms. "Yes."

M'Lila stepped forward and warmly smiled at Lyceus. "I am M'Lila." She held out her hand.

Lyceus clasped arms then met Chuang and Borias as well. He could tell that each of these people had history with his sister but he wasn't sure about all of it. He then turned to his sister. "Getting you to the Tree of Life is very dangerous… you risk losing your soul."

"My soul will be lost either way," informed the ruler.

"Yes," muttered the young man, "to Alti."

"How do you know Alti?" inquired the Conqueror.

Lyceus released a sigh then answered, "Let's just say I know people, sister. I've kept my tabs on you beyond just your thoughts." He tilted his head before explaining, "The kallikantzaroi are exactly as they are in the legends… they are sawing the Tree of Life down."

"Solstice is a couple of moons away," reminded the Conqueror.

"Yes, but their numbers have increased this cycle… where there use to be six now there are twelve. They will manage to saw the tree down this cycle before Solstice… Zeus had proclaimed it."

"What happens if the Tree of Life dies?" questioned the Conqueror.

Lyceus frowned and his hands clenched at his sides. "If it dies then so does Gaia."

"The gods and Titans are not of my concern," stated the ruler.

Lyceus stepped closer to his sister then whispered, "They will be your concern when your realm dies because of plague, polluted water… crops failing. Without Gaia, Xena nature will die and so will life."

"Why would Zeus want the Tree of Life destroyed if it is the breath of nature?" questioned M'Lila.

"The gods want to beat the Titans. They do not care about any mortals." Lyceus glimpsed between his sister and the darkly tanned woman. "Gaia is the last Titan to have any influence in mortals' lives and Zeus wants to snub that out."

The ruler grunted and shook her head. "And I am the tyrant," she mildly joked.

Lyceus ignored the remark and instead asked, "Do you recall mother's stories about how to kill a kallikantzaros?"

"The sun and the holy number three."

Borias quietly laughed then asked, "So since there's no sun light here, you're telling me we have to get these hairy guys to say the number three? While they're swinging axes at our heads?"

Chuang smirked. "Don't forget the dryads-"

"The hecatonchires," added M'Lila.

The Conqueror sighed and muttered, "And the great Lóng."

Borias threw up his hands in the air and walked off then hotly yelled, "I rather face Alti alone than do this!" He turned around with the most frustrated features and his teeth showing.

"Listen," started the Conqueror, "none of you need to be here." Her eyes scanned her friends' faces and her brother's. "This is my fight." Then without another word, she started down the path with her sword at her side. She would try because if she did not then it would cost her soul regardless because there was not much to lose.

Lyceus quickly ran off and joined his sister side at the edge of the bridge. "Your fight has always been my fight, Xena."

The Conqueror turned her head to her young brother and whispered, "Not this time, Ly… you lost your life because of me. I won't let you lose your soul now."

Lyceus grabbed his sister by the wrist. "I have never regretted my life." His stared out at the bridge full of moving dryads. "Now I will not regret my death." He stepped out onto the bridge.

"Lyceus, no!" The Conqueror inhaled sharply when his brother's boot met the bridge then all the dryads reacted at once. She gave a battlecry and exploded forth with her flying jumped that landed her between Lyceus and the charging dryads. She raised her sword. Then unexpectedly she lowered her sword and her left hand shot out towards Lyceus behind her.

Lyceus gave a small yelp as his sister yanked him forward.

The Conqueror quickly moved forward on the bridge as she and her brother dodge over, around, and through dryads without being caught. She saw that the distance to the end of the bridge was rather long and there was also a thick fog that obscured her view of what was there, waiting.

"Xena, watch out," hollered Lyceus and he jumped forward towards an oncoming dryad; he unsheathed his sword simultaneously.

"No!" The ruler's sword shot out and stopped Lyceus's blade from striking the dryad. She then wrapped her left arm around his waist and quickly shot up into the air.

Lyceus closed his eyes as the world spun around him. He tried not to get too sick feeling then his feet connected with the bridge again. He dared to open his eyes but he instantly regretted it. "Sis, I think that was out of the frying pan and into the fire."

The Conqueror released her brother and growled at all the surrounding dryads. She lifted her sword in preparation. "Fight now, talk later."

Lyceus raised his sword, the sword he'd fought and died with. He gave a strong yell and charged the nearest dryad. Behind him he heard his sister's war cry, which was much more powerful than he last recalled. He fought against two dryads that tried to use their long branch-like hands and fingers to grab him. He cut one dryad's fingers off but he was stunned to see them instantly regrow. "Xena?" he shouted while doubling his efforts. "I think we have a major problem."

"I know," hotly called back the ruler. "You have to get them off the bridge… it’s the only way." She then made the unknown mistake of slashing her sword vertically down a dryad.

The dryad merely split in half and become two.

"I think these things are closer related to hydras," muttered the frustrated ruler. She backed stepped then another step when a dryad swiped at her. Suddenly her backside hit her brother's.

"Any more fancy tricks, sis?" Lyceus swiped at a groping tree-hand, which he cut off but it only regrew.

The Conqueror was about to reply but she suddenly smiled when she heard M'Lila's fighting cry sailing overhead. "Ly, drop… now!" She squatted just as her brother did the same.

M'Lila landed neatly between the pair, slammed her pike in the ground, and gave a cry as she lifted into the air. She effectively kicked every nearby dryad off the bridge and shot up into the air then neatly landed beside the Conqueror. She held down her hand and ordered, "You must not lie around, Xena if we are to succeed."

The ruler smirked at the joke and clasped her hand into her friend's. "Thanks for the backup."

M'Lila nodded and turned her head to the standing brother. "You are senseless like your sister. I had better hopes for you."

The Conqueror glowered at her friend but then she growled, "Duck, M'Lila."

The Gaelic obliged as her tall friend charged her then jumped over her.

The ruler nailed an approaching dryad in the torso and sent it flying into another dryad and off the bridge.

"I think its time to move!" yelled Borias, who dodged away from two more dryads and behind him was Chuang.

"Press forward," commanded the Conqueror. She sensed her comrades lining up beside her with her brother at her right and M'Lila to her left.

The group quickly moved forward as they covered the width of the bridge. They slashed their way forward, pace by pace, and shoved the dryads off the bridge. They edged closer to the end of the bridge where the heavy fog hid what was ahead and where the thick trunk of the Tree of Life plunged down into it. Finally with one last kick, the Conqueror was able to step off the bridge and into the fog.

"Xena?" called Lyceus. He then felt a warm hand grab his and hauled him into the thick fog. He could barely make out his sister's outline in the fog.

"There are steps here. Be careful, Ly." The Conqueror held his hand and guided him down deeper and deeper.

M'Lila was between Chuang and Borias but she hollered, "Can you see anything, Xena?"

The ruler came off the last stop and stared in wonderment at the gigantic trunk that was surrounded by a decorative marble stand. The marble floor that she stood on had brown lines that spread out like veins in every direction. She could only guess it was the great root system of the tree. When her eyes focused back on the marble stand around the tree she realized the kallikantzaroi had stopped hacking at the tree and turned to her and Lyceus.

Lyceus released his sister's hand and lifted his sword.

The Conqueror held her sword between both her hands and pointed her tip at the goblins. "Sorry, boys but you're not saying timber this time or any other." When she finished, her three friends materialized out of the fog and took sides with her.

A kallikantzaros pointed his axe at the intruders and hotly commanded, "Stop them!" He watched in satisfaction when his immortal comrades flooded down the stand and came at the dead souls.

"Chaaaaya!" The Conqueror laughed loudly and began the charge for the small, hairy creatures.

The battle between the immortal creatures and the dead souls raged forward but it were the souls that started to tire. Lyceus was caught off guard at one point and took a nasty swipe at his chest that almost missed but still cut his chest lightly. He stumbled back and caught the next whirlwind swipe with his sword.

The Conqueror saw it and her anger flared so she jumped and landed between the goblin and her brother. She laughed at the goblin's shocked features then she took her opening by kicking him hard.

The kallikantzaros sailed through the air and slammed into the tree trunk and slumped unconscious.

"Xena, this isn't getting us anywhere!" hollered Borias.

The ruler sighed because she thoroughly agreed. "Borias, remember what I wanted to do between the House of Lao and the House of Ming?"

"How could I forget?" chided the ex-warlord.

"Well now is a good time to execute that idea," suggested the ruler. She swiftly grabbed Lyceus and quietly ordered, "Back up to the bridge."


"Just go," snapped the ruler, who shoved her brother towards the steps. She turned around quickly and caught an attacking kallikantzaros.

Lyceus, M'Lila, and Chuang hurried up the steps but stopped on the last one because if they touched the bridge again the dryads would react.

The Conqueror and Borias slowly went up the steps backwards while fighting off the goblins and drawing them upwards.

Lyceus glanced at the reformed dryads on the bridge and was amazed they'd regrouped so fast.

"Oh no," muttered Chuang. He pointed his sword at the new problem they'd forgotten.

M'Lila gasped and stared at the two remaining hecatonchires roared out and displayed their ugly faces and plentiful swords. "Xena," she yelled down, "The hecatonchires have arrived!"

The Conqueror cursed under her breath as she stepped upwards.

"This isn't exactly how we… planned it," growled Borias.

"You gotta be flexible, Borias." The ruler gave a hard kick and sent a screaming goblin flying downwards through the fog. Her boots then rattled on the step from what she assumed was the stomp of a hecatonchires.

The hecatonchires, Briareus, stepped out onto the bridge and started the attack on the dryads. Behind him his brother, Gyges, followed him slowly.

The dryads cried out in pain then all together they attacked the gigantic monster to stop it.

Lyceus saw his sister's silhouette now form in the fog then come out of it. His eyes widened when the kallikantzaroi unexpectedly rushed up the steps and swarmed them all. He ended up stumbling back onto the bridge however the dryads were far too busy with the hecatonchires.

"We're wearing them down," yelled a kallikantzaros, "kill them! Throw them off the bridge!"

The Conqueror was suddenly hard pressed by four goblins at once and she tried to duck away from the wielding axes. She and her comrades were pressed backwards onto the bridge completely. She then lost her footing when a hecatonchires stomped on a handful of dryads.

Lyceus yelped as he teetered on the edge of the bridge and the nearest kallikantzaros charged him with a vertical slash. Lyceus tried to duck but lost his balance and went over the edge. "Xena!"

The Conqueror was already in motion and leapt into the air. She purposefully landed on her stomach just on the edge of the bridge as her brother lost his grip. Her left hand shot down and caught his wrist. "I've got you, Ly!"

Lyceus wrapped his fingers around his sister's larger wrist and held on tightly. He glanced down below his feet and saw nothing but blackness ready to swallow him.

"Xena, look out!" Borias couldn't make it yet Chuang did.

Chuang stopped the approaching goblin from attacking Xena's unprotected back.

"Lyceus, drop your sword and take my other hand," ordered the Conqueror.

"I need my sword," argued the young man.

"You need your soul more!" angrily shouted the ruler. She'd already let go of her sword and was stretching her right hand down. "Take my hand, now!"

M'Lila gave fierce kick to her opponent then jumped at him. She grabbed his axe by the shaft then gave a powerful swing, which caused him to lose his grip on the axe. She now had a better weapon and made her increase her efforts.

The flying goblin however went over the Conqueror then down towards the pit. His piercing scream came to a sharp stop when his claw hand ripped into Lyceus's leg.

Lyceus cried in pain and peered down at the monstrous creature hanging onto his right leg, his claws digging through his skin.

"No," whispered the Conqueror in fear.

Lyceus tried to stab at the kallikantzaros with his sword but couldn't reach. He then screamed when the claws went deeper.

"Lyceus, take my other hand!" commanded the Conqueror.

The hecatonchires gave a powerful cry of battle and stomped again on the bridge.

Borias fell onto his back then a goblin's axe went into his right thigh. He howled in pain but tried to roll away with his sword. Chuang quickly came to his side to support him.

The M'Lila only stumbled back but recovered easier.

The Conqueror however was shaken over the edge more so but she held tightly to her brother. "Ly, let go of the damn sword and take my hand!"

Lyceus finally let go of the sword and threw up his hand.

The Conqueror clasped it and held tightly. She quickly tried to pull him up but with the extra weight it was incredibly hard.

The hecatonchires growled loudly then sent two swords slamming down and connecting with the bridge. His swords not only took out several dryads but it sent a crack ripping down the bridge.

The Conqueror quickly felt the bridge's ledge buckling under her from the tremendous quake from the hecatonchires. She released her brother's left hand and yelled as she slammed her right hand against the bridge where it didn't crack. A chunk of the bridge broke away and fell from under her chest and just swiped past Lyceus.

"Xena, just let me go!" Lyceus emphasized it by releasing his grip on his sister's wrist.

"I am not letting you go!"

Lyceus gritted his teeth when the goblin dug his claws deeper. The kallikantzaros was obviously didn't agreed with Lyceus's idea.

The Conqueror growled and urged her body not to betray her now. She tried to use her right hand to lift them up but the angle was against her. Her left arm socket was already aching from holding the weight of her brother and the fat kallikantzaros.

"Xena," whispered Lyceus, "let me go." His voice was low but so soft. "I'll be fine."

"No," snarled the ruler, "I won't… not again." She closed her eyes and brought on a powerful surge in her body as she started to lift her body up and worked her knees under her.

The kallikantzaros decided not to wait any longer as he threw up his right hand. His claws dug into Lyceus's right thigh. He slowly started to climb up the young man's prone body.

Lyceus wailed out in pain but his eyes met his sister's. "He'll kill you too, Xena! Just release my hand before he gets to you!"

The Conqueror just had her knees under her but when she was going to move her right hand down to Lyceus's wrist the hecatonchires stomped again. She lost her advantage and her knees caved in under her. She slammed her forehead on the edge of the jagged, broken bridge and it almost knocked her unconscious but she wouldn't surrender.

"Xena," called Lyceus, "Xena… Xena... Xe-"

"-na," softly called a warm, feminine voice.

The Conqueror's heartbeat slowed in the middle of the chaos.

"Xena," warmly called the same voice.

"Lao Ma," murmured the ruler and her blue eyes glossed over with the image of the Chin ruler. The noise of the battle washed away from her.

"Xena, have you really forgotten what I tried to teach you? Heaven endures and the earth lasts a long time because they do not live for themselves. Remember the world is driven… driven by will… you control your own limitations. To conqueror others is to have power. To conqueror yourself is to know the Way. Remember Xena,…."

"Stop willing," whispered the Conqueror, "Stop desiring. Stop hating." She repeated the words in a mantra.

Lyceus cried out in pain from the ascending claws of the kallikantzaros.

The hecatonchires gave a vibrating cry and kicked at several dryads while taking another step out onto the bridge.

M'Lila hissed painfully when a goblin's axe sliced down her arm.

Borias fell to his knees because of the heated pain in his thigh. He lifted his head as the goblin raised his axe, prepared to behead the former warlord.

Chuang stopped a horizontal axe slash but didn't see the second one coming from behind. Then he closed his eyes because he knew it was too late for him.

There was a loud eruption of unseen power that rippled out from the end of the bridge.

The kallikantzaroi all screamed in unison as they exploded into midair and flew off the bridge, over the edge.

Lyceus briefly lost sight of anything but then he found his feet safely on the bridge and the goblin no longer clinging to him. He moved past his astonishment as he sought his sister. He held his breath when he saw his older sister actually glowing a dark pink shade and slowly walking down the bridge.

Borias limped up to his feet with Chuang's help. He peered down at the ruler.

Chuang gazed that way too and whispered, "She poses the qi… by the gods… it is real."

M'Lilia was heavily breathing as she neared Lyceus. "What is she doing? What has happened?"

"I don't know," murmured the astonished brother.

The Conqueror stopped several paces away from the lump of dryads. She lifted her hands as red orbs began to develop in her palms and she was still murmuring a mantra. Her hands shot out forward and the orbs flew from her hands.

The hecatonchires, Briareus, released a painful cry from the powerful explosion. He lost several of his swords however he had plenty left. He stomped his foot hard on the bridge, which caused the bridge to crack again.

The Conqueror ignored it but instead of sending off more orbs, she half turned and stretched her right hand out towards the Tree of Life.

Lyceus saw his sister's eyes were lively with something he'd never seen before and she was also gazing beyond them. He turned his head and called, "Look!"

The group turned around and watched as the fog surrounding the base of the tree was suddenly being moved away by an unknown and unseen force.

The Conqueror took a deep breath then called out loudly in an exploding volume, "Lóng, it is time, finally!"

"By the gods," rasped Chuang, his head dropped back.

The air filled with a piercing cry then the dark sky was filled by a green dragon swooping through the air. He lifted up higher and higher until he disappeared but his call cut through the chaos.

The Conqueror turned back to the two hecatonchires and she produced red orbs in her palms again. The powerful orbs grew larger than the previous two then she screamed at the top of her lungs. She threw them at the hecatonchires with all of her strength.

Lóng swooped down from the darkness above and attacked the hecatonchires as the red energy bursts struck them. The dragon shot out fire over Gyges, which engulfed the hecatonchires in fire. Lóng then reared back as his sharp hind legs came out and his talons burried into Briareus's shoulders. Lóng's long wings begun to beat heavily and he lifted the ugly monster off the bridge then they vanished into the black sky.

The Conqueror clenched her teeth as she willed new energy balls into her hands. She held up her hands and brought the balls towards each other. The energy spheres melted together then were lifted over the ruler's head. The Conqueror gave her fierce battle cry and hurled the powerful energy sphere at the hecatonchires.

Gyges was already wailing in pain from the fire but when the energy orb exploded against him and he lost his balance on the edge. He slipped off the edge of the gorge and disappeared into the darkness but his cry resounded back up.

The Conqueror was breathing heavy but she turned her head to the right when she head a new cry from above.

Suddenly Briareus was tumbling out of the black sky then vanished down in the gorge with his brother.

The Conqueror suddenly fell to her right knee and her head drooped, her eyes closed.

"Xena!" Lyceus ran down the bridge to his sister. He knelt down next to his sibling and touched her hot skin. "Are you okay?"

The ruler could only nod but she was recovering.

M'Lila hurried down the bridge too and checked on her friend, an axe at her side.

Chuang and Borias remained still since Borias couldn't really walk yet but his wound was slowly healing. He considered the dryads at the other end of the bridge. "They're not attacking anymore."

Chuang noticed it too and he was quite happy about it. "Lucky for us."

The Conqueror stood up with gritted teeth. Her muscles ached however she would ignore it. She studied the slowly moving dryads that posed no threat now. She sighed in relief then turned to her brother. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," promised Lyceus, "thank you." He quickly pulled his sister in for a hug.

The Conqueror tightly hugged him back then when she pulled away M'Lila took her attention.

"We must get you to the tree," urged the Gaelic, "before it gets any later."

"You're right." The Conqueror hastily started into a fast walk then a jog as she gained control over her body. She, M'Lila, and Lyceus hurried past the guys then down the marble steps. She came to a quick halt though when her gaze met a very curious set of eyes at the base of the hacked tree.

Lyceus stopped beside his sister and stared at the beautiful rustic colored bird, which was perched on the edge of the tree's stand. "By the gods… what kind of bird is that?"

The bird squawked at them for a heartbeat then she flapped her wings to hover up in the air. She turned and landed again but now faced the badly chopped Tree of Life. She cried again but this call was slightly different and a small flame formed on her head. The flame grew larger and crept over her body until she was completely on fire. She spread out her wings of fire and flapped them at the injured trunk.

The Tree of Life's trunk hastily healed over and was returned to normal as if never touched.

"It is the phoenix," whispered the Gaelic.

The phoenix seemed to hear this and hopped along the edge of the base. Once again she faced the souls but her focus centered on the dark ruler in the middle.

"Go to her," softly suggested M'Lila.

The Conqueror wasn't sure why but she agreed and carefully approached the beautiful firebird. She stopped a pace away then her eyes locked with the phoenix's and she became lost in it.

"Xena of Amphipolis, you wish to be granted life again," spoke the phoenix in an angelic voice but her beak did not open or move.

The Conqueror was uneasy however things haven't been all that normal since her arrival in Tartarus. "I wish that, yes. I must return to the mortal earth."

"To continue your plunders?" questioned the phoenix, her head twisted to the right. "The Fates decided it was time for your life to end."

The former ruler sighed as she hated to admit this aloud but she argued, "It's not really about my life… it's about everybody else's lives."

The firebird squawked and lifted her head as if considering this statement. "Since when has it not been about you, Destroyer of Nations? I have not survived thousands of lifetimes to believe such lies."

"They are not lies," argued the ruler hotly, "because I would have not done all that I have done here if it was only for me."

"Instead of paying your debt to those lives you've destroyed here in Tartarus, you greedily demand to be reborn. Where is the selfness in that?" The phoenix shook her head then folded her wings over her side. "You are incapable of change, Xena of Amphipolis and I will not grant life to the Bringer of Death."

"I am capable of change," shot back the Conqueror. "And if you do not grant me life then you'll be sealing thousands of souls to be imprisoned by a dark shaman. I am the only one that can stop her."

"The high and mighty Conqueror demands a chance to correct something that she did wrong so long ago. You should have thought of that long before your death when you had so many chances." The firebird's eyes glowed a brighter red. "And I do not trust you to keep your word to stopping this shaman. Perhaps the mortal souls imprisoned by the shaman are better suited than the suffering they shall endure under your rein." She spread out her right wing and pointed it straight ahead. "Return to your deemed punishment, Xena of Amphipolis."

The Conqueror took a step forward then declared, "I will not." Her blue eyes held those of the firebird's burning pupils. "I am asking you to give me a chance to set all of this right." She hesitated and glanced back at her friends but mostly her young brother. Lyceus had been the only one to believe in her, ever but when she gazed back the firebird, who was the link to rebirth; she knew there was another that believed in her too.

"What is her name?" asked the phoenix, as if reading the ruler's thoughts.

The Conqueror's clenched hands loosened at her side as she whispered, "Gabrielle."

"The name of strength," defined the phoenix, "such a fitting name for such a powerful woman." She noted that the dead ruler wasn't arguing with her. "She believes in you when others do not."

"It didn't start out that way."

The firebird seemed amused as her laughing voice replied, "I can imagine." She folded her wing back up then stretched out her long neck. "Is it her life you wish to destroy above the rest?"

The Conqueror sighed then truthfully replied, "At one point, yes I thought so but I can't now… I don't want to."


"I don't know," admitted the former ruler, "but I do know that out of anybody she can help me change."

"She cannot make you change," reminded the firebird.

"No but she can help as long as I want to change."

The phoenix hopped to the right then tilted her head. "Is there some reason you want to change?"

"It's more of a somebody than a something… my brother." The Conqueror sighed then softly admitted, "I thought when I conquered the known-world that I would have everything. I was wrong. As a child I owned nothing but I had everything but now I own everything and having nothing… nothing but debts."

The phoenix chirped then straightened her head out. She thoughtful mulled over the ruler's words then she blinked and explained, "I am phoenix… I give rebirth and change. The Tree of Life creates life, which you've already expired. I can give life again but only in the form of rebirth otherwise it fails and your soul will be lost. If you wish to return to the mortal life you must be reborn from the ashes of your old, dead self." She waited a beat and stretched out her neck so that her face was closer to the Conqueror's. "If you cannot do this then I suggest you turn back now. Are you willing to stake your soul to be reborn, Xena of Amphipolis?"

The Conqueror kept her chin up as she confidently answered, "Yes, I am."

"Then so be it." The phoenix waved her right wing at the souls behind the ruler. "You may have a moment with them before it is time."

The Conqueror dipped her head then stepped back once and turned. She approached her friends and explained, "The phoenix will try to grant me life again."

"Try?" questioned M'Lila. "What do you mean, try?"

The dead ruler exhaled audibly then explained, "The Tree of Life creates life and only once but the phoenix can give rebirth."

"What's the catch?" urged Borias.

"The catch is I have to be truly willing to change or else the rebirth will not work and my soul will be destroyed."

"Don't you think that's a little risky, my liege?" argued Chuang.

The Conqueror folded her arms across her chest. "I'm better off trying… if I fail then at least my soul can't go to Alti so either way she loses."

"And so do I, sister," cut in Lyceus.

The Conqueror lowered her arms and relaxed her posture then faced her young brother. "Ly, I have to try." She grabbed up his hands into hers and held tightly. "You were right about what you said… when you… when you were dying. I did become lost."

"It doesn't matter now though," whispered the brother. "We can spend the afterlife together."

"Here in Tartarus?" argued the Conqueror. "I am in punishment and you're in the meadows, Ly." She lowered her head closer to his then whispered, "Besides that Alti may soon have my soul then where's that leave us… any of us?"

Lyceus bit his lower lip before saying, "I can't lose you, Xena."

"You won't, Ly… I promise." The Conqueror revealed a soft smile only meant for her brother. "You always told me I could be a great warrior… for people, not against them. You remember?"

"I do," murmured Lyceus, his eyes now burning. "You protected Amphipolis… mother and me from harm. Even Toris."

"Then please let me try this, Ly. I don't know if it'll work but I have to try."

Lyceus finally nodded then whispered, "You can do it, Xena." He then quickly pulled his sister into a long, warm embrace and between the hug, he murmured, "I believe in you, Xena."

The Conqueror pulled away from the hug then moved over to Borias and Chuang.

Chuang had his left arm free while her right was supporting Borias. He held out his arm then stated, "I don't do hugs, my liege."

The dead ruler huffed and took his forearm in a brisk shake. "I think I'll pass anyway." She flashed a grin but sincerely sated, "Thank you, Chuang."

"For one last adventure it was worth it, my liege." Chuang released the strong arm.

Borias put his weight on his good leg and released Chuang then tried to near the Conqueror. "Xeeena, I hope it’s a long time before I see you again."

The Conqueror grunted then rested her hands on her hips. "Thank you, Borias… truly."

Borias rolled his eyes however he limped forward and held out his arm. "Maybe in our next lives we'll meet again."

"With any bad luck, we will," jested the ruler. She released his arm but leaned in and murmured, "By the way, you did have a place in my heart." She slipped away without saying anything else and went to M'Lila last. "M'Lila… I…."

M'Lila stepped forward until her body pressed against her friend's. She lifted her hands and pressed her palms against the ruler's cheeks. "Xena, I will miss you but I am happy we have met again."

"When we see each other again you can teach me Gaelic," murmured the ruler.

M'Lila softly laughed and a few tears trickled down her cheeks. "We will do that," she promised. "Thank you for all that you gave me in life. I made my sacrifice in life because I loved you… please never waste that again."

"I will not," promised the Conqueror.

M'Lila nodded then lowered her hands. She reached behind her neck and untied her prized Gaelic necklace she'd bore for most of her life and death. She picked up the ruler's left hand and placed the necklace into her palm. "Wear this when you return to the mortal life… it will protect you."


"You will take it." M'Lila closed the larger hand over the necklace. "Please."

The Conqueror sadly nodded then she lowered her head some, her eyes closing.

M'Lila met her halfway and began the brief yet conveying kiss. When she pulled back she quickly gave into a hug and wished her friend the best.

The Conqueror clenched the necklace in her hand but with her freehand she held it out to her brother.

Lyceus understood and laced his through his sister's. He walked with her back to the phoenix but they stopped in front of the bird. "You're sure about this, Xena?"

"Positive," answered the ruler. She squeezed his hand then gently swore, "I made you promise a long time ago… now I'm going to live up to it."

Lyceus finally smiled and nodded his head. "I know, sis." He then met his sister in a long hug. He closed his eyes tightly at the thought of not seeing his sister for so long again. "I love you, Xena."

Xena tightened her embrace then emotionally whispered, "I love you too, Ly." She kissed his temple. "Always."

When Lyceus broke the embrace he saw that his sister was completely healed of all her wounds that'd been given to her as her punishment. He didn't mention it as he knew Xena mostly likely sensed it.

Instead Xena turned to the firebird and nodded her head. "I'm ready."

The phoenix squawked and opened her wings to the dead ruler. "Take my wings and do not let go."

Lyceus stepped back to give them room.

Xena quickly tucked M'Lila's necklace away in the small, hidden pouch of her leathers in the front. She then stretched out her hands and her fingertips went through the hovering flames over the wings. She carefully collapsed the wings.

The flames lapped at her hands and trailed up her wrists, over her forearms, and up towards her shoulders.

Xena closed her eyes as the burning fire swallowed her face and hastily went down her body. She'd been holding her breath but she suddenly had to breathe and when she did she inhaled the flames into her body. The phoenix's cry suddenly echoed in her ears and her body was weightless then instantly it was all fire around her and in her. Xena let out a sharp cry that didn't contain pain but it was a release of her former self.

"Conqueror, wake up… come on."

The Conqueror rolled her head to the right and moaned. Her moan deepened into a low groan filled with pain that was coming from her lower left side at her back. She sharply inhaled and picked up the scent of balsam.

"That's it… you're safe," ushered a familiar, warm voice.

The Conqueror dared to open her eyes but the lighting ached against her eyes. She waited for everything to adjust, which took several heartbeats and she enjoyed the cool compress dabbing against her forehead. When her eyes finally adjusted and focused on the fuzzy head above her, she realized there were concerned green eyes observing her.

"Welcome back," whispered Gabrielle, who pulled the damp cloth off the ruler's forehead and set it back in the water bowl on the nightstand. "How do you feel?"

The ruler tried her throat first by clearing it then she murmured, "Like I've been through Tartarus and back."

The rebel faintly grinned but her face showed she was quite weary and she leaned heavily against her walking stick. "I'm sure you do."

"How are you?" questioned the ruler.

Gabrielle was remotely surprised by the obvious concern the ruler showed for her. "I'm okay… now."

The Conqueror blinked away some of the sleep then asked, "Your leg?"

Gabrielle was further shocked by the ruler's keen memory about her injury from the battle. "It's healing but still hurts."

"Sit down," ordered the ruler and she was glad Gabrielle listened. She then took a chance to try and sit up some in the soft, warm bed. "Where are…." She was somewhat up and glanced about the room.

"We're in a guest hut," answered the bard, who sat heavily in a wood chair by the bed. "You've been sleeping for three days now." She lifted her walking stick into her lap then mentioned, "We thought we almost lost you there at one point."

"What happened?" asked the ruler, who was working her fingers through her hair. She felt some dried blood in her mussed hair.

Gabrielle grabbed her walking stick. "I'll tell you in a beat… let me get you some food. It's been three days." She stood up and very slowly limped to the front door.

The Conqueror carefully observed and she spotted the wrap around the rebel's leg that was only slightly tainted red. She then stole a moment to reach into the tiny pocket of her leathers. When her fingertips went inside she felt the bronze charm there so she pulled it out and sadly smiled at it. She clenched her hand around it tightly then her head came up when she heard the bard conversing with a familiar Amazon.

"How is she?" questioned Ephiny.

The bard nodded. "Her memory seems strong." She leaned heavily on her cane. "Can you get some food? She hasn't eaten in three days."

Ephiny nodded then murmured, "Neither of you. I'll get enough for you both." She turned her head to the right at another Amazon. "Solari?"

Solari had her mask off so her soft features showed along with her smile. "I'll get it now." She started off but heard the head guard calling a thank you.

"Go sit down, Gabrielle." Ephiny touched the bard's shoulder. "Solari won't be long."

"Thanks, Ephiny." The bard gave a warm smile then closed the door and returned to her chair by the bed. When she sat she released a long winded breath and studied the worn ruler. "What do you remember last?"

The Conqueror had already tucked away M'Lila's necklace and had worked her weak body up higher on the bed. Her bright blue eyes remained centered on the rebel leader. "The hemlock arrows, killing Darphus… Velasca… and you."

Gabrielle's head bobbed as she scooted back into the chair more.

"I should be dead right now," declared the ruler.

"You almost were," confirmed the bard. "After you… I guess passed out or whatever happened I started screaming for help." She stopped and dipped her head as her memories of the battle from three days ago came back to her. "I kept yelling and…."

"Help! I need help!" Gabrielle's tears rushed down her cheeks at the resounding silence coming back to her ears. "Gods please, help!!" She tried to get up, tried so hard but her legs were failing her more and her skin felt chilled. When she lifted her left hand, which had been holding the Conqueror's frozen hand, she saw that her sliced hand's blood had mixed with the Conqueror's.

"Oh gods no," murmured the rebel. Her skin was already cold from the hemlock seeping into her system from the mixing of bloods. She'd sensed the fuzziness of her thoughts much earlier yet now it was settling deeper. She stared down at the dead ruler and her emotions exploded again, which caused her to scream out, "Help!!" Her labored breathing was starting to slow and she felt very little sensation in her legs. "Somebody help us!"

"Gabrielle!" cried out a voice.

The bard's tear stained face turned to her left and she yelled, "Eilis! Over here… I'm over here!" She was relieved to see the healer burst through the forest into the clearing.

Eilis sheathed her bloody sword while she ran to the swaying rebel, who sat beside a motionless and bloody ruler. "By the gods… I'm too late." She was breathing hard but she knelt beside the bard. "What's happened? Do you get hit by a hemlock arrow?" she hotly demanded and grabbed the bard's shoulders to steady her.

"I... help… help the Conqueror," murmured the rebel, "she… was hit… back."

The Amazon healer glanced down at the ruler but saw the ruler's chest wasn't moving and blue eyes were beginning to gloss over. "I can't do anything for her now, Gabrielle but I can for you."

"No!" yelled the rebel. "Help her, Eilis. I can wait." She grabbed the healer's wrist then begged, "Please."

The healer relented because the sooner she proved to Gabrielle that hope was gone for the ruler the sooner she could help the bard. She reached to her side and pulled out the antidote she'd mixed when Cyrene had repeated to her what Gabrielle had told her. She untied the leather pouch and it fanned open to reveal a thick, yellow tinted paste.

Gabrielle's head rolled some but she steadied her weakening body by clinging to the ruler's body as an anchor. She observed Eilis placing the paste into the ruler's mouth.

Eilis then removed a skin from her other side as she wiggled behind the ruler. She lifted the Conqueror's upper body some after uncorking the skin. She poured an oozy liquid into the ruler's mouth, which washed the paste down into her throat. She then shook her head then declared, "It's too late, Gabrielle." She lowered the ruler back down.

"No," growled the bard, "keep trying."

Eilis ignored the command and came over to the rebel again. "Listen to me it's her time to passover. Let her go, Gabrielle." She picked up the leather pouch from the ground near the bard and ran her fingers through the paste. "Now let me help you." She held the paste up towards the bard yet hesitated. "So help me or I'll shove it into you."

Gabrielle swallowed but nodded. She detected the mustard scent of the paste but she opened her mouth. The mustard taste exploded in her mouth and her faces instantly screwed up.

"Here, drink this quickly."

The rebel brought her lips around the skin's spout and helped the oozy, amber colored liquid move into her mouth by sucking it. The taste repulsed her and she almost spit it up but she forced it down with the mustard.

Eilis pulled the skin away when she thought enough of the castor oil was in the bard's system. "Now lay down… you'll be out of here soon."

Gabrielle only nodded as she lowered her body against the lifeless ruler without really considering it. Her head rested on the Conqueror's warm chest, similar to last time, but she started to pass out from the quiet yet steady heartbeat under her ear. It was the most beautiful rhythm Gabrielle thought she ever heard even if she thought she was hallucinating yet it was all that could comfort her.

"I was wondering what that bad taste in my mouth was," complained the ruler. She caught the fain grin on the bard's face.

"I don't know how it happened," whispered Gabrielle, her head shaking and her gaze distant. "You just started breathing again… or maybe you were and we just didn't see it." She focused on the ruler again. "Eilis doesn't even understand."

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow then teased, "Did you think I was really that easy to kill?"

Gabrielle grunted and stretched her legs some. "I should know better huh?"

"Mmmm." The ruler lowered her eyebrow then quietly asked, "What of mother? Melpomene?"

"They're all fine," promised the bard, "even the queen is recovering." She shook her head. "I didn't see the rest of the battle but I heard that after Darphus was killed, his men started to fall apart. Then as the Amazons took the advantage a small cavalry from Tricca arrived and helped defeat Darphus's men."

The Conqueror's interest peaked and she carefully asked, "Does the Tricca Cavalry know that I am here?"

Gabrielle read the ruler's undertone and figured out that it was best to honestly answer. "No, we didn't think it was safe."

"Good." The ruler didn't add anything else as a knock came at the door.

"Come in," offered Gabrielle. She started to get up but the entering Amazon told her to sit down again. She decided not to argue as she was just too worn out to do that right now.

Solari set a tray of food down on the table then picked up a bowl of soup in either hand and handed one to Gabrielle and the other to the ruler. She then picked up the spoons and gave those too. She grabbed the table that was slightly behind the bard and dragged it closer to the bard to make things easier. "There's some fruit there too, Gabrielle. There's hot water in the skin to make tea when you're ready." She straightened up after getting everything in order then further informed, "Eilis will be in later to check on you."

"Have you seen Cyrene lately?" questioned the rebel.

"That last I heard," started Solari, "she went to your guest hut. Would you like me to check on her?"

"No but thank you, Solari." Gabrielle gave a tired smile. "Tell Ephiny thank you too."

"I will," promised the Amazon then she quietly left the pair.

"What's next? Somebody is going to feed me?" jested the ruler.

Gabrielle had her head down because she was stirring her soup. She paused and peered up then a slow grin shaped her soft lips. "The Amazons are grateful." She lifted her bowl up then spooned up some of the soup but before she ate it she mentioned, "You saved a lot of lives that day."

The Conqueror said nothing and silently ate her meal. The warm soup felt great and warmed her insides completely. She enjoyed the flavor of lamb mixed with vegetables and she could already feel her strength returning. After she ate half the soup, she paused and asked, "How many Amazons died?"

Gabrielle frowned while staring into her bowl but she answered, "A hundred and twenty-seven."

"A little less than half the Nation," calculated the ruler.

The bard only nodded but then her gaze met the ruler's. "It would have been worse… a lot worse. If you hadn't stopped Darphus and Velasca… they would have succeeded."

"I knew I disliked that Amazon for a reason," muttered the agitated ruler. "There's always one psycho path in every state that thinks they can do better."

Gabrielle grunted as Alti's name came to mind but she said nothing.

"So what happens now?" inquired the ruler.

The bard stirred her soup again but before she ate anymore she replied, "We finished the trial in a couple of days." She swallowed but was relieved to see the ruler's agreement. "Today the Nation is mourning their loses then tomorrow the queen returns to power."

The Conqueror considered this however she didn't voice her thoughts. She finished off her soup then Gabrielle took her bowl from her. Just as she decided that maybe she'd tried to move out of bed there was a rap at the door.

"Come in," commanded the bard.

The healer, Eilis, strolled in and shook her head at the sitting up patient in the bed. "I know you were not going to move out of bed, Conqueror."

Gabrielle realized indeed that the Conqueror had been caught in midmotion of getting out of bed. She quietly chuckled then limped once over to her chair and sat down. "Eilis, I am verbally relentless and she's physically relentless."

"Such a charming pair of patience to have too," remarked the healer. She sighed and came to the other side of the bed. "How do you feel?"

The Conqueror knew the question fell onto her so she nodded. "Better."

Eilis huffed at the simple answer. "Your back?"

"I've had worse," quipped the ruler.

Eilis rolled her eyes then ordered, "Turn over to your left side." When the ruler compiled she started probing the sewn wound where the leathers had been cut away for easier inspection. "It seems to be healing but I suggest you get out of these leathers." The healer decided that was a good idea. "Do you think you can get up and move around?"

"I believe so," answered the ruler. Her body was only partially covered by the pulled back bedsheets. She used her arms to move about as she swung her legs off the bed. She finally stood up and straightened out her back where a small pop sound came from.

Eilis tilted her head in question at the sound.

The Conqueror shrugged.

The healer sighed then pointed at the washroom. "Take your leathers off and I'll be in there in a heartbeat to clean your wound."

The ruler's agreement showed since she went to the washroom, which was a slow journey from all her aching joints, muscles, and general weakness.

Eilis went to the sitting bard and knelt down beside her. "What does she remember?"

"Everything," answered the bard, "She doesn't seem to have forgotten anything."

"Excellent," murmured the healer. "How is your leg today?"

"It's getting there." Gabrielle released a sigh then nodded her head.

Eilis touched the bard's flushed cheek then lowered her hand. "You need to rest soon. Have you stayed in here the past three days?" At the bard's faint nod she let out an annoyed breath. "Why do I bother to ask?" She shook her head then straightened up and went into the washroom.

Gabrielle chuckled but leaned back into the chair. Her aching eyes drifted shut but she listened to the healer caring for the ruler in the washroom. She even smelled the renewed scent of balsam in the air. She opened her eyes when the ruler padded out of the washroom with a white nightshift on now. She smiled at Eilis scowling features and she bit back her laugh.

The Conqueror got onto the bed again but sat on it instead of lying down.

"I advise you stay here for the rest of the day," suggested the healer, "until tomorrow but what do I know?" She started for the door then stopped and glanced back at the rebel. "I'll check on your leg later."

"Thank you, Eilis." Gabrielle gave a weary smile then watched the healer leave the hut. She then returned her attention to the ruler.

"What time is it?" questioned the ruler.

"Just a candlemark before Helios high," reported the bard.

The Conqueror pulled her legs in as she sat cross legged in the bed.

Gabrielle blinked as she never expected to see the Conqueror in such a mortal looking state of being. She'd always viewed the ruler as much higher despite she knew the truth that the ruler was of peasant stock. It was a fascinating scene for the bard. "Your guards have been reduced to just Ephiny, Solari, and Callisto. You're allowed to move about the village and this is your hut until the end of your stay." All she heard was the Conqueror's breathing then finally the Conqueror spoke.

"What of the trial?"

Gabrielle tilted her head then replied, "Most likely you'll be pardoned of your charges but they still want to go through the motions of the trial." She twisted in her chair and started to get the cups with tea leaves.

The Conqueror though was faster as she came around the bed and brushed the bard's hands away. "I've got it… just relax." She picked up the warm water skin and after uncorking it, she poured the steaming water into the wood mugs. "What of the Tricca Cavalry?"

"Princess Terreis told me they returned back to Tricca but the princess and the…." Gabrielle couldn't find the right title that was on the tip of her tongue.

"Ilarchès," supplied the ruler.

"That's it," agreed the bard, "well he and the princess argued about what to do with the prisoners from the battle."

"What happened?" The Conqueror handed the rebel her cup of tea.

Gabrielle gladly received it and her hands cupped around the warm mug. "Princess Terreis relinquished and let him take them back to Tricca. She was too concerned about stepping on toes just after getting help from the realm."

"Smart leader," murmured the ruler as she sat on the bed again but this time she sat on the side facing the rebel. She propped her bare feet up on the bed's frame along the side. "When did you sleep last?"

Gabrielle shrugged and peered down into her mug as if it was more interesting. "I've nodded off here and there."

"You've been here the entire time," summarized the ruler.

Gabrielle could tell it wasn't a question but a statement of fact and she nodded anyway. "I just wanted to be here when you woke up, Conqueror." She still wouldn't look at the dark ruler.

"Xena," supplied the ruler, "I already told you."

Gabrielle finally lifted her head and saw that the ruler was very serious. "I'm sorry… I just thought… you were… I…." Her words jumbled up but she stopped when she saw the faint, teasing grin on the ruler's face. It made Gabrielle quietly laugh yet she shook her head and murmured, "I just thought since you were drugged then that…."

"That I didn't mean it?" finished the ruler. At Gabrielle's nod she let a low exhale but she stole a beat of silence as she drank her tea. She lowered it to her lap again then mentioned, "I meant it."

"So...." Gabrielle bit her lower lip then urged herself to ask it aloud. "So we're friends?"

The Conqueror observed how nervous the rebel leader was by this and she was inwardly surprised but as she reflected on it she too was nervous to answer. She steadied herself as she honestly replied, "We are if you're comfortable with that?"

Gabrielle had a thin smile at the ruler's consideration so she nodded her head. "I'd like that." For the first time, Gabrielle witnessed a small yet precious smile grace the ruler's usually dark features. It warmed Gabrielle more than the tea and soup were doing and she felt a sense of peace settle over her. Now she truly felt exhausted from the endless seasons of weight on her shoulders that finally mounted to this, to an unexpected but welcomed friendship with her former enemy.

"You should rest soon, Gabrielle," suggested the ruler, who discerned the bard's high level of fatigue.

"For once," started the bard, "I completely agree with you." She then was shaken by the deep laugh coming from the ruler, which passed into her and Gabrielle softly laughed along side her new friend.

To be continued.

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