by Norsebard






This Halloween short is an Uber/original. All characters are created by me though some of them will (should!) remind you of someone.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.





Written: July 5th - 14th 2021 for the 2021 Royal Academy of Bards' Halloween Invitational.

- Thank you very much for your help, Phineas Redux!


As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Description: Xandra, Gail and Jonas return for a third round of Halloween zaniness. This year, the young, Xena-worshipping friends trek through a park straight out of the deepest level of Tartarus as they try to help the police find a shoplifter…






Even for someone who had reached the ripe old age of thirteen, some things were just too much fun to skip. For Xandra Collings, the prospect of spending a cool, spooky Halloween with her real-life best friends and fellow Xena Warrior Princess enthusiasts Gail Pendergast and Jonas Ohlsson trumped anything the virtual world of social media could ever come up with.

The African-American girl had been through a recent growth spurt that had seen her gain several inches in height in addition to filling out elsewhere. The elements of her genes that controlled her skin tone and general build came from her father, Frank Collings, whose tall, broad frame gave him the gravitas needed for holding a senior position in the Robbery-Homicide Division of the city police department.

The gated residential area where they all lived with their families was quiet for most of the year save for Halloween and the other major holidays. Xandra grinned at the sight of all the excited kids she met as she strolled along her home street at an unhurried pace. There was plenty of time to reach the open square at the far end of Cypress Lane before the big show started; the bell in a distant church tower chiming seven thirty PM confirmed it.

Greater responsibilities had come with her advancing years. Where the last two Halloweens had given her and her friends the freedom to go off on their own adventures - and what adventures they had been - she was now in charge of one of the most important services in their suburban neighborhood: the booth offering free hot chocolate. She, Gail and Jonas were still allowed to do a little trick-or-treating later on, but there would be less time for it this time

October had been a chilly affair so she wore a stylish down jacket over her costume to stay warm until the fun things would start. On a similar note, she wore a pair of black basketball boots that featured brass-colored laces. The footwear was perhaps not a hundred percent faithful to the original costume, but the boots were comfortable and, above all, cool-looking.

Like every year, a large section of streets in the gated residential area had been closed off to allow the local kids to go trick-and-treating without having to worry about traffic. Through mutual agreement with the organizers of the event, if a home owner did not want to take part in the fun and games, a note had to be put up in plain sight so the trick-and-treaters would know where not to disturb.

The distance from Xandra's home to the main square where the booths had been set up was so short she made it there in less than five minutes. In addition to the booth she would be in charge of for the big event, there were other food vendors selling cotton candy, hot popcorn and home-made healthy snacks.

Further down the line, a professional vendor sold all kinds of Halloween-related items like T-shirts and masks as well as gruesome accessories like hairy spiders, smoking cauldrons, demonic pumpkins made of resin, bouncy-ball eyeballs and erasers shaped like severed fingers. The year's big sellers for the kids seemed to be Disney and Marvel onesies while their parents wore costumes like the Wicked Nurse, the Schoolmarm or Caveman Uggh Ugghlysson, or even a high-quality reproduction of the legendary Tor Johnson fright-mask from the immortal B-movie Plan 9 From Outer Space.

In an unfortunate coincidence, the booth adjacent to the one selling the outrageous Halloween accessories had been rented by a local family who used it to sell various religious texts and collector's cards of saintly figures.

Xandra came to a halt to watch the upset patriarch discuss the matter with one of the organizers. It seemed an agreement was soon reached as the family packed up their items and swapped spots with another family who did not seem to mind their new neighbors - the inventory of the small-scale flea-market they brought with them had soon been distributed on the small table.

Once the matter had been resolved, Xandra continued over to the hot-chocolate booth where an employee from the company providing the equipment and the cocoa powder was in the last stages of preparing the stainless steel bowls.

Xandra smiled at the employee before she took off her jacket to reveal her costume. Although it was the same she had been using for a couple of years now, she and her mother had remodeled it over the summer so it would continue to fit her developing body.

Soon, a faithful rendition of Xena's trademark brown leathers came into view: a frilly mini-skirt, a corset with a sewn-on breastplate, two shoulder pads, two gauntlets and finally a soft pouch resembling Xena's scabbard that she wore on her back. The pouch carried a foam sword, her telephone and a handful of wrapped candy in case she was unable to get away from the chocolate booth to get some of her own.

To avoid exposing quite as much of her skin as the original costume did on TV, she wore a toffee-colored sweatsuit underneath it all - it was a perfect match to her skin tone so it really did look as if her arms and legs were bare.

Her shoulder-length, dark-brown hair was nowhere near as long as her big heroine's but there was little she could do about that. Once she had fluffed it out to give it a little more volume, it gained the feral look she had been going for.

The employee from the company providing the accessories closed the lid of one of the stainless steel bowls after pouring several gallons of water and plenty of cocoa powder into it. After pressing a button that activated an electric heating element and a large stirring hook down at the bottom of the bowl, he dusted off his hands and turned to the young girl next to him. "Okay, it's up and running. It'll be a couple of minutes before it's ready. This LED-" - he pointed at a red light on an integrated panel - "will turn green when it is. And never forget, the liquid will be very, very hot when you pour it. All right?  Any questions?"

"No, Mister. I know what to do," Xandra said with a smile.

"Okay. Say, that's a great costume. Are you Wonder Woman?"

"I'm Xena. Xena of Amphipolis." When it became obvious the man didn't know who the Warrior Princess was, Xandra smiled a little more. "They're kinda related."

"Oh, okay. When I was a kid, we were always cowboys or astronauts. Or we put a sheet over our head and played ghosts. I guess times change," the technician said while he packed up his toolbox and other things. Once he was ready, he shuffled over to his van and drove off leaving Xandra at the controls of the cocoa-maker.

Within a space of thirty seconds, three things happened that all required Xandra's undivided attention: first, she waved at her best friends Gail and Jonas who walked side by side a short distance up the closed-off Cypress Lane; then, her father approached from the other side looking like he wanted a word before the big Halloween razzmatazz got underway. The item that rounded off the triumvirate of events was the most interesting in that a patrol car from the local precinct drove onto the street with its roof-lights flashing.

The patrol car caught everyone's eye, and just about all of the neighborhood's kids flocked over to it to see if it would pick up or drop off someone they knew. When the officers did nothing but talk to Frank Collings, a moan of disappointment rippled through the crowd of excited junior spectators.

Jonas and Gail soon reached the hot-chocolate booth where Xandra waited for them. The fourteen-year-old Jonas Ohlsson was the oldest among them and he was all arms and legs. Already somewhat uncoordinated even before hitting puberty, the growth spurts had seen him turn even more accident-prone and thus insecure - that his voice had a tendency to break at the most inopportune moments only added to his misery. At least his favorite Joxer costume had only needed minor corrections here and there to continue to fit him.

The twelve-year-old Gail Pendergast's costume was an old chestnut as well: an insulated, skin-colored body suit. In addition to that, she wore brown, lightweight hiking boots, a pale-brown skirt and a pea-green sports top that reflected the classic look of Gabrielle of Potaideia before she became known as the Battling Bard.

Gail and her two moms had in fact considered going for the early season one look with the long skirt and the knitted cardigan, but the idea had been dropped when Gail had found the long skirt uncomfortable to walk in. To complete the ensemble, she wielded an Amazon fighting staff that may have looked like the real thing but was made of soft foam so nobody would end up getting hurt.

Her honey-blond locks had been trimmed not too long ago so they were shorter than regular, not to mention much shorter than how Gabrielle's hair had been in the first three and a half seasons of the show. The slight discrepancy paled into insignificance by the positive news that she had finally been allowed to lose the braces on her teeth - they had been the cause of countless tears and plenty of pre-teen angst over the past few years.

"Xena!" Gail cried while she waved her Amazon staff high in the air so her best friend could see it among all the other costumes on display.

Xandra waved back with just as much vigor. It only took a few moments for Gail and Jonas to run over to the hot-chocolate stand so the immortal trio could be together once more. Beaming, Xandra pulled Gail into a BFF-crush that belied the fact they had already been together earlier in the day before they changed into their costumes. "Gabrielle, you look amazing!" she said as she took in the familiar sight of Gail's button-cute face and braceless teeth. Once they separated from the hug, she put out her hand to bump fists with Jonas. "Greetings, Joxer. Did you have a safe journey here?"

"We did. The Bacchae know not to mess with Joxer the Mighty," Jonas said with all the manliness he could muster. He underlined his words by pulling a bright-green plastic sword a couple of inches out of the scabbard on his belt - nobody had a Joxer-sword for sale so the prop was in fact from the Masters Of The Universe range instead.

Seeing that, Xandra realized she had forgotten a couple of important details of her own appearance: Xena's sword and Chakram. The foam sword was soon stuck into the sewn pouch she carried on her back; it was a converted gym bag and thus not the genuine article, but the cost of a proper leather scabbard far exceeded what the Collings family was willing to invest in a Halloween costume.

The wooden Chakram was given a spin around her index finger before she attached it to a hook at her right hip - the brand new accessory was a replacement for the old plastic one. It had served her well over the years, but the plastic had become brittle and had cracked in several places. Xandra had painted the new one herself, and she was very pleased with the look of the silver base and the gold lightning bolts.

The officers in the patrol car were still talking to Frank Collings, but just as Xandra, Gail and Jonas gawked wide-eyed at the fascinating scene, Xandra's father stepped back from the open window to allow the police vehicle to drive on.

"Dad!  Dad!" Xandra shouted to get Frank's attention. The veteran detective who was dressed in a dark-blue police department tracksuit - he and his regular partner, Detective Jill van Allen, were going to hold their usual self-defense demonstration later on - waved at his daughter and her friends before he began to walk toward her.

"It's Hercules!" Gail exclaimed and ran ahead to intercept the tall, buff fellow. She and Frank grinned at each other once they met up; they soon bumped fists which looked odd given that his hand was twice the size of hers.

Though Jonas wanted to add his two cents' worth as well, his voice chose that moment to break which rendered him unable to produce a single syllable that did not sound like it was made by a chipmunk. Blushing hard, he settled for greeting the police detective through a wave.

"What was that all about, Dad?" Xandra said once her father was close enough.

"There's been a shoplifting incident down at the convenience store on Nineteenth Street," Frank Collings said in his silky baritone. "The suspect was last seen running this way-"

Jonas and Gail exchanged a quick look before Gail rubbed her chin and broke out in a "Hmmm…"

"-so the patrol officers wanted to know if I'd noticed anything. I hadn't. How about you guys?"

Xandra shook her head. "No, I only just got here… a shoplifter?"

"Yes," Frank continued; he cocked his head when he noticed the pondering look on Gail's face. "Gail… oh, pardon me… Gabrielle?  Joxer?  Have you seen anything?"

Jonas was still unable to speak which made Gail step forward while clutching her Amazon fighting staff. "I don't know if it's important, Mister Collings, but Joxer and me were almost run over by Buzz Tomlinson who sprinted down Cypress Lane like he was chased by a pack of Harpies!"

"Or Bacchus' wolves!" Jonas said - his voice broke halfway through the last word which made his cheeks explode.

"Or hungry wolves!  Good point, Joxer. They run. Harpies fly," Gail said while she nodded hard.

Frank Collings needed to hide a grin at the dead-earnest interaction between the two adolescents - it took some effort, but he managed. "I see. Joseph Tomlinson… figures. When was this?"

"Five minutes ago, Mister Collings," Gail continued. "I had just said goodbye to my moms. Joxer waited for me on the street… it was just after that. Oh, and Buzz ran toward the park."

"Right," Frank said and began to look around for the patrol car so he could update his uniformed colleagues of the latest development.

Xandra stepped up to her father and tugged on his sleeve. "Dad, please let us help!  We know the park better than anyone around here," she said in an enthusiastic tone - Gail and Jonas both nodded. "If he's in there, we can-"

"Not this time, Xandra. Joseph Tomlinson's not a minor anymore so this is serious police business," Frank said in a no-nonsense voice. A moment later, he let out a slight chuckle. "Besides, your mother would roast my backside over an open fire when she found out. And believe me, she would find out!"

When Xandra drew a breath to counter the statement, Frank uttered a decisive "No. You're in charge of the hot chocolate this year," that put a sudden stop to all attempts at debating the issue.

Gail and Jonas nodded hard all over again to show they understood. Xandra seemed less understanding on the whole but eventually offered her father a downcast smile while letting out a muted "Yes, Dad…"

Exactly on cue, the patrol car drove back into the open square where the four people were talking. Frank let out a piercing whistle at the uniformed officers to let them know he had something for them. Once the car came to a halt, he jogged over to it to talk to his colleagues about Gail's observation.

Xandra seemed a little disappointed with the outcome of the interlude, but Gail did her best to comfort her friend by running a hand up and down her arm. "Don't feel too bad about it, Xena… Hercules knows what he's talking about. It could be dangerous. And scary!  And my moms only gave me a little candy and that's gotta last the whooooole evening unless we can go trick-or-"

"Gabrielle," Xandra said in a dark, insistent tone that she had spent hours perfecting, "aren't you at all concerned that an escaped warlord is running loose inside the sacred Amazon lands?  Who knows what he might be up to!"

"But… but… yes, but…" Gail mumbled while her eyes grew wider. She looked to Jonas for moral support but her friend had wandered off on his own - he was too busy sniffing the contents of the machine creating the hot chocolate to notice anything else. "But Xena, Hercules said we should stay out of it this time… I heard him say that!  He was right there when he did!" she continued, pointing at the spot on the street that had only just been vacated by the tall detective.

As she fell quiet, she clutched her meager bag of candy - the utter disaster from two Halloweens ago was still fresh in her mind: then, all her glorious loot had ended up on the grimy, dusty floor of the suspected vampire Florian Dumitrescu's creepy basement when the bag had split wide open.

Xandra's shoulders slumped. "Oh… you're right, Gabrielle," she said in a voice that had turned even more downcast. A brief moment later, she broke out in a shrug and pulled Gail in for a sideways hug that made the honey-blond let out a sigh of relief. "I don't want to disappoint Dad… let's have some hot chocolate instead. We need to check it before all the kids show up."

"And we better save Joxer, too!" Gail said and let out a snicker at the sight of Jonas dunking a mug straight into the steaming-hot open bowl instead of using the stainless steel dipper like he was supposed to.

What happened next was all too predictable: the hot chocolate lived up to its name which made Jonas yelp and pull back his hand in a hurry. The frantic gesture made him drop his mug into the bowl where it soon went under like a leaky submarine. Staring wide-eyed at the brown liquid, he took a step back and scratched his neck. After a few seconds, he let out an embarrassed laugh that sounded a great deal like those often delivered by his hero Joxer the Mighty.

Xandra and Gail quickly looked at each other wearing mirrored expressions - they had seen it all before. Chuckling, Xandra began to look for something they could use as a fishing pole.


An hour and a half later - just past nine in the evening.

The large-scale Halloween event went on without a glitch: The cast-iron cauldrons sent out columns of steam from the green slime brewing in them, the black cats hissed, the hand-carved pumpkins glowed with proper menace and a pack of witches were spotted flying in a perfect broom-handle formation on their way to the Grand Gathering. As the hands of time moved further ahead, a slight breeze picked up which sent fallen leaves swirling around on the streets and sidewalks - it all helped to build up the spooky atmosphere needed for such an event.

An endless supply of excited neighborhood kids had kept the people at the hot-chocolate booth busy all evening. Xandra and Gail worked in perfect tandem to serve the hot beverages to all their friends and neighbors - one of them was in charge of filling the mugs while the other took care of all the small talk and general chit-chatting with the expectant kid customers. They would swap around at regular intervals so they would not get stuck doing the same thing for too long and thus lose interest.

To keep everyone happy, they made sure to praise all the costumes they saw, be it Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Lara Croft, Wonder Woman, mad scientists, Imperial Stormtroopers, all members of the Fantastic Four, Shrek, Disney princesses, and even an elaborate Howard The Duck.

Jonas had been given the safest task possible while still being near the hot-chocolate booth: he moved around between all the little kids and picked up the inevitable litter and assorted other dropped items. He had in fact manned the actual booth for a short while, but it had soon become evident he was in over his head - Xandra and Gail had stepped in at once to rescue their uncoordinated friend.

Everyone's attention was stolen by the arrival of another patrol car. Excited murmurs spread like wildfire among the kids as two further uniformed officers stepped out of the vehicle to confer with their colleagues and Xandra's father. The murmurs soon grew to unrestrained yapping as Frank was given a portable radio and proceeded to stride over to the hot-chocolate booth.

"Xandra… Gail…" Frank said in a voice that held a strong undertone of authority, "would you happen to know if Joseph Tomlinson has a hideout or something similar inside the park?  He's managed to evade the search so far."

The two girls shared a brief look while they composed their thoughts; once they started talking, it came as an unstoppable tidal wave of talking: "Yes!" -- "He does-" -- "over by the petrified tree-" -- "you know, the really, really old tree-" -- "yes, and it's not that far behind that-" -- "wait, it's not behind it, it's right next to it-" -- "that depends on where you come from-" -- "oh, that's true-" -- "but in any case, it's-"

"Okay, okay… okay!" Frank said and put his hands in the air. "One at a time, please!  Gail, there's a petrified tree?"

"Yes, Mister Collings," Gail said while she nodded hard, "a really, really old one. And big, too!  Very tall. There's a natural cave not too far from it… sort of next to it, but not exactly. And the cave is actually three boulders that lie really, really close but there's a big space between them."

Xandra stepped in: "The cave is more behind the tree than next to it… it's kinda hard to explain."

By now, Frank had almost given up trying to make sense of what his daughter and Gail told him. He bared his teeth in a frustrated grimace and looked at each of the two young girls in turn. "Okay… the cave is somewhere close to the petrified tree. I get that part. But where's the tree?"

"In the park-" Gail started to say before she interrupted herself and broke out in an embarrassed snicker. "Well, duh… but it's not too far from the east entrance. That's the one with the fountain-"

Xandra shook her head and put her hand on Gail's shoulder to cut her off before they would confuse her father too much. "No, wait… that's not the right entrance, Gail. The petrified tree is nowhere near the fountain-"

"Yes it is…"


Gail turned around to look in the general direction of the park like she was trying to get her bearings - of course, all she could see from that distance was a bunch of foliage displaying the splendor of the autumn colors. She scratched her neck as she turned back to Xandra and Frank. "Listen… I'm sure it is…"

"Well, I'm sorry," Xandra said and shook her head, "but it isn't. It isn't the entrance with the fountain."

While Frank let out a grunt that was a mix of mirth and frustration, Gail's neck-scratching grew extra intensive. She opened her mouth several times without any sounds escaping. Eventually, she said: "It isn't?"


"Then where is it?"

"Over by the south entrance," Xandra said and broke out in a wide grin.

"Ohhhhh!  That's right!  That's right!  Yes, Mister Collings, it's not too far from the south entrance!" Gail exclaimed with great enthusiasm. Two seconds later, she turned back to Xandra. "But which one is the south entrance?  We never use the south entrance… we only use the east entrance 'cos that's the one at the end of Cypress Lane…"

For once, Frank was able to add his two cents' worth to the confusing conversation: "The south entrance is on Crawley Lane, Gail. Not too far from where the old mansion used to be. The one with all the bats. Remember?"

"Brrrrrr!  Yes!" Gail croaked as she thought back to the horrors she, Jonas and Xandra had experienced in the old, creepy mansion - they had been looking for Buzz Tomlinson on that occasion as well, a fact that she hoped would not be indicative of how the rest of her present Halloween would unfold.

All the talking had made the younger kids waiting in line at the hot-chocolate booth lose all their remaining patience. Through a chorus of high-pitched complaints - and a few wails - they demanded to get their hot chocolate so they would actually have time to go trick-and-treating afterward. Gail jumped back into action at once and began to pour hot chocolate into mugs at a high rate of knots to keep everyone happy.

While Gail poured and Jonas swept the sidewalk, Xandra stayed at her father's side and wrapped an arm around his strong waist. "Dad, why do you think Buzz does all these bad things?"

"He's still innocent until proven guilty, Xandra."

"I know… but he's always so mean and aggressive… especially to Jonas. Buzz pushes him around and breaks his things… it's like he enjoys seeing Jonas get sad and upset."

Frank let out a dark grunt as he observed the gangly and youthfully innocent Jonas Ohlsson sweep the sidewalk near the hot-chocolate booth. It was clear by his interactions with the world surrounding him that his brain had yet to catch up with the advances his body had made over the past few years. Although he had a tendency to fumble along, he nearly always got it right on the second attempt. "Well," Frank said and turned back to his daughter, "I think it's because Buzz is relieved he's found someone weaker than him. Someone who won't fight back when pushed… someone he has command over."

"That's just sick," Xandra said and folded her arms over her chest. For a split second, her face was home to an expression of fiery determination that was a perfect mirror of those often seen on her great heroine, the Warrior Princess. "Dad!  Please let us help. I know Gail and me kinda got you confused with the petrified tree and all that… and I know we're in charge of the booth this year… but we know exactly where the tree is. If Buzz is in his hideout, we'll find him in no time and bring him back to justice!"

A brief grin flashed across Frank's face upon hearing the strong conviction in his daughter's voice. He weighed the pros and cons for a few moments before he broke out in a nod that left Xandra jumping up and down in excitement. "All right. I'll find a couple of adult supervisors who can take over here. But you have to promise me two things, Xandra. One, call your mom and explain exactly what's going on. You know how worried she gets if you come home later than what we've agreed on."

"I promise!"

"Good. And two, don't take any risks!  No heroics or wild adventures, do you hear me?" Frank continued and put his big hands on Xandra's shoulders. "Call me the moment you find Buzz. In fact, I want you to call me even if you can't find him there. All right?"

"Yes, Dad!"


"We won't let you down!"

Grinning, Frank pulled his daughter in for a brief hug. "I know you won't. I need to get going… I'll catch up with the uniformed officers down the other end of the park. Stay in touch!"

"We will, Dad!"

After Frank Collings had taken off in a run, Xandra clenched and swung her fists in glee. The wooden Chakram was given an entire series of spins and twirls as she hurried back to her friends at the hot-chocolate booth to share the news. "Gabrielle!  Joxer!  Saddle up!  We have an important job to do!"


The scene at the south entrance to the park was a classic one: a tall, dark warrior carrying a Chakram on her hip and a sword on her back stood next to a shorter blonde who wielded an Amazon fighting staff while she and her best friend waited for their trusty companion to catch up with them. What was less classic was the fact the blonde spoke into a smartphone.

"I know, Mom," Gail said into the telephone, "I promise I'll be real careful. Xandra is here with me and- yes, Mister Collings is organizing the- yes. At midnight?  We're definitely home by then… of course we are. Ohhhh, I can't wait for that!  Yep!  Bye-bye… love you all. Hugs and kisses!"

Once Gail was done speaking to her birth-mom Eve Pendergast, she handed the smartphone back to Xandra who stuffed it into the soft pouch on her back that also carried the foam sword.

"Xena," Gail said in a voice that spelled out that she was about to say Something Very Important. "My moms are gonna have hot chocolate with marshmallows and hazelnut-chip cookies and a pumpkin pie with whipped cream and everything ready for the stroke of midnight. And then we're gonna watch a Xena and Hercules cavalcade together and they promise to hold my hands and cover my eyes when it gets real scary!"

"Sounds wonderful, Gabrielle. It won't take us that long," Xandra said and glanced at the dark, foreboding, forest-like park beyond the entrance with only a tiny amount of concern written on her face.

"Ahoy, my warrior chums!" Jonas cried from a short distance up Crawley Lane. The gangly fellow jogged along which made his costume and his bag of candy flop around. Once he reached Xandra and Gail, he adjusted his hat and flashed a beaming grin at the girls.

Gail eyed Jonas' bag of sugary loot with a look of raw envy upon her face. She knew Jonas had many qualities in spite of what some people thought of him, and scoring tons of candy was one of them. It never failed that he brought home bags filled to the brim with various treats from Halloweens and Fourth of July parades. She had a hunch it was because the people he trick-or-treated at felt sorry for him based on his lanky stature and somewhat simpleton-like looks - they would almost always give him two handfuls of candy instead of only one like she and Xandra usually got.

"We're about to enter the Bacchae Forest!" Xandra said in a strong stage-whisper. "If we're lucky, Orpheus will play his lyre to keep the wolves at bay!  If not… well…"

Gail had already set off for the south entrance, but Xandra's words made her come to a screeching halt, spin around and stomp in the opposite direction.

Snickering, Xandra intercepted her friend and steered her back toward the iron gate that marked the entrance to the forest. "I actually have some recordings of lyre music on my telephone so we're gonna be safe, Gabrielle!" she said as she swung open the spring-activated gate.

"Hot chocolate and marshmallows and cookies and pie and whipped cream," Gail chanted as she stepped into the park that seemed far scarier at night than it did during the day. Casting a worried look up at the dark crowns of the tall trees, she had to gulp several times as she and her friends moved onto the woodchip-covered trail.


Xandra assumed the lead as the trio set off to brave the hostile environment. She clutched the hilt of her foam sword so hard it bent, but she needed something to hold onto as they trekked further and further into the park that was filled with untold terrors on both the physical and supernatural planes.

The breeze produced unpredictable gusts of wind that made the trees lining the trail creak and groan. As the branches swayed back and forth, the leaves would rustle in a way reminiscent of whispering ghosts or witches conjuring up vile curses. Now and then, owls and other nocturnal animals would hoot, chirp or squeak to give everyone a sense of being on a real safari somewhere in Africa.

Although lamp posts had been put up at irregular intervals to cast pale-green LED light down upon the trail, only one in three worked; the rest had either been vandalized or simply turned off due to energy-saving measures.

This caused deep, terrifying patches of darkness to form among the impenetrable shrubbery that had often been placed on either side of the trails that crisscrossed the park. The darkness was only broken by the occasional flicker of light from the LED lamps, but instead of providing relief, it produced grotesque, scary shadows that played on the tree trunks and on the ground.

Xandra, Gail and Jonas were still more than three-hundred yards from the old, petrified tree and the adjacent cave when they came to a dead stop. Directly ahead of them, a tall weeping willow let out a spine-chilling sigh before it began to morph into something far more sinister. The sigh was repeated as its lightweight branches were manipulated by the breeze; a shriek suddenly tore through the night as a large bird took off from a nearby tree to go on the hunt.

"Is- is- is th- th- th- that a Cy- Cy- Cyclops?" Gail croaked while she covered her eyes with her hands.

Xandra needed to swallow several times as she took in the frightening sight of the creature that literally was as tall as a tree. "I d- don't know, Gabrielle… it could be a Titan… or a Hydra…"

"By the Gods, Xena!  We can't fight a Hydra!"

"No… we need to run. Run, Gabrielle!  Run like the wind!" Xandra cried and took off in a sprint. Gail followed her best friend at an even faster pace which soon saw her catch up with, and then overtake, the somewhat spooked Warrior Princess. In an instant, the girls had raced past the terrible creature whose rear side failed to offer a reprieve from the horror.

Panting, Gail came to a halt in the middle of the woodchip-covered trail some fifty yards beyond the tree-mendous monster. "Where's… where's Joxer?" she whispered as she whipped her head around to find their friend.

"I don't kn-  There he is!  Joxer!  Joxer!  Jonas!  We're over here!" Xandra cried. When that proved to be insufficient to alert the strolling Jonas Ohlsson, she put two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle.

The trio was soon back together; Jonas grinned and pointed over his shoulder. "Wow, did you guys see that awesome owl?  The wingspan must have been four feet!  I think it maybe found a mouse or something 'cos it dove onto the ground and then I kinda lost track of it."  His voice bounced through several different octaves as he spoke, but he paid no attention to the embarrassing sounds for a change since he knew he was among friends.

Xandra let out a snort at Jonas' unaffected state, but Gail did one better and slammed her hands onto her hips. "Who cares about the owl, Joxer!  Didn't you see the Hydra?  Or the Titan?  Or maybe it was a Cyclops after all?"

"Uh… no… where?" Jonas said and looked back at the weeping willow that continued to sway in the breeze.

Gail let out a dramatic sigh before she spun around and stomped further along the trail. After a few moments, Xandra chuckled and put her arm around Jonas' shoulders to give them a couple of pats. A very large question mark had appeared above Jonas' head as a result of the confusing conversation, but he eventually shrugged and carried on.


The search for Buzz' secret hideout proceeded with little success. All around the intrepid explorers, the trees continued to creak, sway and groan as the branches and leaves were manipulated by the gusts of wind that seemed to increase as the minutes went by. The leading edge of the wind also held a scent of approaching rain which made it imperative they would get some results soon.

The trio moved ahead like their fictional idols always did with Xandra in the lead, Gail almost - but not quite - next to her with the Amazon staff at the ready, and Jonas bringing up the rear a short distance behind the others. The lanky youngling was more interested in munching on his candy and observing the wildlife than searching for any hideout, so he fell further and further behind his female associates.

Xandra had her wooden Chakram ready to fly in case they were attacked by Harpies, Banshees, Furies, renegade Centaurs or any other kind of mythological creatures. As they moved past a playground for small children where the City Council had created a maze of low hedges, she kept an eye out for the dreaded Minotaur because everyone knew those hairy beasts loved to hide in mazes.

An odd chattering made the would-be Warrior Princess stop and look around for the culprit. Nothing seemed untoward so she turned to her trusty companion: "Gabrielle," she whispered, "can you hear that?  The chattering?  Sounds like an army of skeletons waiting for us around the corner…"

"Skele-?!  Nuh-uh!  I can't hear anything!  La-la-la-la-la-nothing!  Nothing!" Gail said and shook her head with great vehemence. She was about to stuff her fingers in her ears as well when she noticed Xandra grinning at her. "What?"

"I know what it was."


"It stopped when you spoke!  Your teeth were chattering!"

Gail assumed a miffed expression that only lasted for a few seconds; then she broke out in a goofy grin. "No wonder… sheesh," she mumbled as she dove into her own bag of candy to find a good treat that would help her take her mind off the scariness surrounding them. She smiled when she found a Caramel Twist that she unwrapped at once and threw into her mouth.

Jonas soon caught up with his friends - like Gail, he was busy munching on a piece of candy. "Did you guys find the hideout yet?" he said after rearranging the jawbreaker so his tongue had room to form the words.

"Not yet, Joxer," Xandra said with a grin.


It only took the hardworking trio another five minutes before they located the petrified tree and the nearby cave. After Gail had run over to stand at the opening to the natural cave - which was in reality the space between three huge boulders - she let out an indignant "By the Gods!  Xena!  Xena, I need some light over here!" that made Xandra and Jonas hurry over to her.

Xandra shook her head and let out an annoyed grunt at the sight. Reaching for the soft pouch on her back, she soon used her telephone's flashlight app to shine a strong cone of light onto the cave's interior.

"What a mess!" Jonas exclaimed as he clapped eyes on the piles of litter just inside the mouth of the cave - it seemed someone had neglected to clean up after spending time in there despite the countless information boards telling the park's guests to do so.

"Sweet Aphrodite!  Look at that!" Gail exclaimed as the horrific state of the cave came into view. There were beer cans, cigarette butts, comic books, plastic wrappers and all sorts of other litter everywhere. The walls of the cave had been smeared with lewd graffiti and there was even a dog-eared adult magazine that literally appeared to have been around the block a couple of times as it was crumpled and torn. Buzz Tomlinson was nowhere in sight, but that was perhaps a good thing considering the angry-red blotches that appeared on Gail's fair cheeks.

Stunned silence spread among the three explorers until Gail let out an explosive huff and slammed her hands onto her slender hips. "Litterbugs!  I hate, hate, hate those people!  These are sacred Amazon lands!  Xena, is there room in your pouch for my candy?"

"Uh… sure," Xandra said as she pulled the soft scabbard off her shoulder and held it open. Once Gail's meager loot had been dumped into it, Xandra pulled the string which closed it again. "But you already have a bag-"

"I'm gonna clean up this mess. We can't leave it like this," Gail said as she crouched down and began to throw the empty cans and other waste into the plastic bag she had brought with her.

"Good thinking, Gabrielle. While you do that, I'm gonna call Hercules… Dad 'll know who to contact about the vandalism," Xandra said and turned her telephone around so she could make a call. As she did so, the cone of light from the flashlight app happened to swing past the opening of the cave that was suddenly empty. "Hey, where did Joxer go?"

Gail had stopped working while she waited for the light to return so she could see what she was doing. She used the lull to sweep a few strands of honey-blond hair out of her eyes with the back of a hand. "I don't know… I didn't even notice he'd gone…" she said as she moved out of the crouch.

Chuckling, Xandra found her father's number in the registry. The connection proved poor inside the cave as the boulders were too dense for the signal to get a solid lock, so she stepped over to the opening to try again. The signal continued to prove elusive so she waved the telephone around in the hope it would improve matters. When nothing worked, she shrugged and turned back to shine a light at the cave's interior so Gail could carry on the cleaning process.

"No signal?" Gail said as she went back to throwing various pieces of trash into the plastic bag.

Xandra craned her neck to look at the display while the flashlight app had been activated - the reception was still very poor so there was no point in making another attempt. "No. I'll try again once we reach the maze on our way back. The trees aren't so close to the trail there. No problem."

A presence that suddenly filled the opening to the cave right behind Xandra made her spin around so fast she nearly fell over her own feet. Out of sheer reflex, she whipped her hand down to retrieve the Chakram - unfortunately, the frantic gesture made her drop her smartphone that sailed through the air until it bopped Gail on the shoulder.

Spooked by the ghostly hand that suddenly clamped down on her shoulder, Gail let out a piercing shriek that created a terrifying echo inside the small cave. She flailed her arms to get the ghost off her which made her tilt forward and end up on her knees amid the trash she had been busy cleaning up. When her right palm sunk deep into a pile of ash and cigarette butts, she stared at the offending filth like it had insulted her on a personal level.

"Guys!  Guys!" Jonas cried as he stormed all the way into the cave. "You'll never guess what I just saw!  Bats!  Dozens of them!  Isn't that awesome?"

Xandra tried to hide her brief moment of panic by chuckling, but the strangled sounds that came out did not help much.

Gail grumbled hard from her spot down on the ground while she tried to find something she could use to wipe her hand. "Yeah. Way awesome. Anybody got a hankie I can borrow?  It's gonna get filthy…" she said and held up her dirty hand.

"I do!" Jonas said and dug into one of his pants pockets. When that proved empty, he went onto the next one and then the next one after that. "Oh… I'm sorry, Gabby… I must have dropped it. Or forgotten it somewhere," he said with a shrug.

"Great," Gail mumbled as she looked around for something else to use. When she spotted the smartphone among the trash, she put two and two together and came up with the appropriate sum - 'one,' as in one spooked Warrior Princess. Snickering, she handed it back to her best friend who accepted it without a sound.

The last thing Gail wanted to do was to wipe her hand clean on her costume since she and her moms had spent hours perfecting it, but it seemed it could well be her only option. Looking around a little more, she discovered a T-shirt that had been thrown into a corner. She grabbed it at once and grunted at the sight of the price tag that was still attached to it - it seemed Buzz and his cronies had indeed added shoplifting to their long list of offenses that already included being masters of bullying.

The brand new, and obviously stolen, T-shirt was far too neat to use as a rag, so Gail threw it back into the corner where she had found it. She gave up and ran her filthy hand along the cave's inner wall instead. The results were not as good as a rag or a handkerchief would have provided, but it would have to suffice.


Xandra was unable to get a clear signal even outside the vacant hideout, so she and her friends decided to walk back to the maze that would offer better working conditions for the telephone. Ten minutes later, they had yet to reach the maze though it was only supposed to be a five minute walk from the cave.

The wind had increased again and caused the brightly-colored autumn leaves to flutter down onto the chip-covered trail. A few spots of rain had arrived as well, but not enough to make the trio run off to seek shelter. It did not help that the hedges and shrubbery they went past grew darker, thornier and far more menacing the further they got into the never-ending park.

All of that was more than enough in and by itself, but it only grew worse from there: creepy shadows started playing on the trunks of the tall trees, horrific creaks and groans came from all around the three explorers, and the night-time animals made their presence felt by hooting and shrieking like they were most annoyed with the human intrusion into their realm.

When a particularly impressive shriek echoed through the dark evening, Gail wrung her foam Amazon fighting staff so hard it was almost torn in two. "Hot chocolate… marshmallows… cookies… pumpkin pie… whipped cream… hot chocolate-" she chanted in a croaking voice to take her mind off the horrors surrounding them.

Xandra continued to point her telephone in all sorts of odd directions and angles, but it was to no avail - no matter how she held it, it would not go past a single bar on the signal-strength symbol. She knew that would not be enough to maintain a connection so there was no point in trying to call her father.

Instead, she accessed the music player app and found the lyre MP3-files she had copied onto it. The odd, old-fashioned music soon started playing, but while Orpheus' handiwork did make the scariness around them take a step back, it never crossed her mind that the remedy would only eat up the telephone's battery.


A further ten minutes later, the three friends came to a dead stop and stared wide-eyed at the impossible, not to mention improbable, sight ahead of them. They were back at the petrified tree. The vacant hideout they had only just left behind was a short distance off to their right.

"By the Gods, Xena… what is this?" Gail croaked. "Are we in Illusia?  Or that weird, weird place with the weird, weird guru guy who made everyone turn blue?"

Xandra rubbed her brow as she took in the sight of the tree - it seemed to mock her with all its wind-induced creaks, groans and sighs. "I don't know, Gabrielle… it might even be Tartarus. Perhaps we should be looking for Charon?" she said and performed a slow three-sixty degree turn to study their surroundings for clues.

"La-la-la-la-I can't hear you!  No Charon, no thank you!  I hated, hated, hated that ugly, horrible creep!" Gail croaked as she dove a hand into her plastic bag to get some candy. When all she found was the waste she had scooped up in the cave, her lips curled up in a disgusted grimace. "Ew!  Ew… Xena, I need my candy from your pouch…"

Jonas already had his bag ready, so he stepped forward and held it open for his friend. "Here you go, Gabby!  You can have some of mine."

"Ohhhh, thank the Gods on Mount Olympus," Gail mumbled as she thrust her hand into the bag to scoop up a selection of treats. When most of them turned out to be liquorice sticks, she shot Jonas an odd look and swiftly dug in for another attempt at finding some chocolate, gumdrops or peppermint-flavored candy canes. The second attempt proved more successful and she soon popped a piece of chocolate that had a creamy center into her mouth.

"You know," Jonas continued as he also dug into his bag of treats, "this is almost kinda sorta like Haunting Of Amphipolis when Xena and Gabby and Eve returned home but Cyrene had been burned at the-"

"Joxer!" Gail cried, but she found herself ignored.

"-Stake and there were ghosts and zombies-"

"Jox!  Errrr!" Gail tried again at an even louder volume.

"-Maggots and slime and rotten fruit-"

Gail slammed her hands over her ears to stop the gory details from entering her brain. "Gah!  Will you stop already?!  I'm eating here!  Thank you!" she cried as she shook her head hard.

"Oh… you're welcome. You want some more candy?"

Finally able to lower her hands, Gail shot Jonas an exasperated look that seemed to fly right past him. "No, thank you. Not right now. Maybe later."


Xandra chuckled at the interaction between her friends. For some strange reason, their surroundings were less frightening when they talked, so she decided to keep doing so: "Did your moms allow you to watch that episode, Gail?"

"Not yet. But it doesn't matter 'cos I don't want to. I still have nightmares about the one with the cannibals… by the Gods, that was horrible. I don't want to watch any of those… those… those… sick episodes. Nuh-uh. Joxer, I'd like a little more candy now, please…"

"You betcha!" Jonas said and held out his bag. He took the opportunity to unwrap several of his beloved liquorice sticks and stuff his mouth full of the soft, black candy that he had been introduced to by the Swedish branch of his family.

Xandra decided that munching was a good idea at that particular point in time, so she dove into Jonas' nearly filled bag of candy to get a few, good ones of her own. "Thanks, Joxer!  I'll pay you back later… that's a promise," she said before she was too busy enjoying the chocolate treat to speak.

As everyone munched, the evening's scary soundtrack returned. The owls hooted, the trees groaned, the bats flapped their wings, the busy rodents squeaked and the leaves rustled. The three friends' munching slowed down until they just stood there wearing worried expressions. Even the lyre music playing from Xandra's telephone had little effect, so she turned it off for good which left everything even quieter - and scarier.

Xandra and Gail were fresh out of good ideas of how to combat their terrifying surroundings, but Jonas saved the day by mumbling the lyrics to the Joxer The Mighty theme song. The notion caught on, and his two friends soon joined him in a spirited and only slightly off-key rendition of the classic tune.


Six verses later, all three jumped up on tip-toes when their singing was interrupted by In a time of ancient Gods, warlords and kings! that blasted out of Xandra's telephone at deafening volume - before she could reach into the soft pouch to retrieve it, more ancient Gods, warlords and kings were announced. "It's Dad!" she said with a grin as she tapped on the display to accept the call.

"Hi!  We're- I know, but I couldn't get a signal… we found the cave but there's no sight of Buzz. No. Dad, there's something you need- We're still at the petrified tree. Yes. Listen, Dad- Yes, that's right. Dad, I need to tell you something importa- No, none of us is hurt. The inside of the cave has been vandaliz- yes, all kinds of graffiti and everything."

"Real ugly!" Gail chimed in.

Xandra grinned and gave her best friend a thumbs-up. "Gail says it was real ugly. Yes. Who needs to be told- oh, the Park Rangers?  Okay. Are you gonna- okay. Where are you, anyway?"

While Xandra spoke on, Gail saw an opportunity to get some of her own candy from the soft scabbard that her friend carried on her back. Reaching into it, she scooped up a handful of various treats that she sorted into two groups in the palm of her hand. She owed Jonas three pieces of candy so she found two that she knew he liked plus one of her own favorites to show her gratitude. The treats soon exchanged hands which squared it between them.

"Okay," Xandra continued as she looked at the petrified tree and the nearby hideout. "But there's just a little problem, Dad… ah… we're kinda… lost."

Her cheeks grew red as her father's reply came through the connection in a loud and certainly clear fashion.

Gail and Jonas shared a quick look - they knew Frank Collings rarely blew his top with Xandra but that fireworks often ensued when he did. To support her friend in the moment of misery, Gail shuffled over there and wrapped an arm around the older girl's waist. Now that she was closer to the telephone, she was able to hear what was said at the other end; it was restrained but still not pretty.

"I don't know how it happened, Dad," Xandra said into the telephone. "I guess we walked around in a circle 'cos the petrified- yes, I know Mom will be really upset. Yes."

While Xandra continued to try to explain the situation to her father, Jonas shuffled over to Gail and tapped her on the shoulder. His expression seemed to suggest he had a solution, or at least an idea, that might fix the mess they found themselves in.

Gail gave Xandra's waist a little squeeze before she moved over to Jonas. "Did you wanna talk to me?" she whispered.

"Uh-huh!" Jonas said and nodded hard. "I just thought of something… why don't we drop a piece of candy on the ground for every five steps or so?  That way, we can see where we've already been!"

The suggestion seemed to need several moments of careful parsing; during that phase, Gail just stood there with her mouth somewhat agape - she eventually scratched her neck and broke out in a shrug. "Yeah, but… we already know where we've been. We don't know how to get back to the south entrance from here… that's the real problem."

"Oh…" Jonas said and mirrored Gail's neck-scratching. "Wait… sure we do."

"Sure we do, what?"

"Know where the south entrance is. It's the one we used to enter the park!"

Gail had to hide a smirk at her friend's comment; the goofy grin almost made it onto her lips but she managed to nip it in the bud before it could arrive. When Jonas continued, she went from a-mused to be-mused to flat-out stunned in five easy seconds:

"We just gotta walk three-hundred yards up the woodchip-covered path, turn right, walk another eighty yards straight ahead and the south entrance is right there," Jonas said and pointed at the path in question. The woodchips were visible even from their vantage point at the petrified tree - and at no point during their continued trek through the park had they even contemplated using that particular trail a second time.

"Buh…" Gail said and turned back to Jonas. "But we never turned right to get here…"

Jonas shrugged and pushed his Joxer-style hat back. "No, we turned left. And since we're moving backward, we need to turn right."

"Joxer, you're a genius!" Gail cried before she grabbed hold of Jonas' arms and gave him a strong shaking. "Xena!  Xena!  You'll never guess what Joxer just discovered!  He's found the way out of Tartarus!"

"Oh!" Xandra said while she still held onto the telephone. "Dad, I gotta go!  Jonas found the way out!  Yes, I said Jonas… yes, I promise I'll call Mom as soon as we get out of here. Yes. Okay, bye!"

Once the telephone was back into the soft pouch, Xandra ran over to Jonas and slapped her friend so hard across the shoulder he was pushed several feet to the side. "That's awesome, Joxer!  So how do we get out of here?"

"Just follow the woodchip-covered path," Jonas said and pointed at the correct trail that led away from the small clearing at the petrified tree and the unused hideout.

Xandra grinned and wrapped an arm around Gail's shoulder now she was there. "As easy as that, huh?  Well, lead on, Joxer… this time, we'll bring up your rear!"


The first part of their journey back went by without hitches, glitches, witches or any other kind of itches. Just as Jonas turned right onto the path that formed the final stretch back to the iron gates at the south entrance, they came to a dead stop and stared wide-eyed at each other.

The cry that had startled them soon returned; the creepy sound sent cold shivers down their backs. "I just watched that episode…" Gail croaked just before the cry returned once more, "and that's definitely a griffin… eating a live cat."

"Hey, maybe it's ALF!" Jonas said with a grin. When his comment only prompted blank stares on the faces of his companions, he tried again: "Don't you guys remember that show?  With the furry alien?  Oh, come on…" The additional details were no help, so he shrugged and dug into his bag to take a piece of candy instead.

"Hot chocolate… marshmallows… hazelnut-chip cookies… pumpkin pie… and whipped cream…" Gail chanted as she once again clutched her foam Amazon fighting staff.

Xandra furrowed her brow as the sound returned. Drawing her Chakram, she moved off the woodchip-covered path and entered deeper into the shrubbery and undergrowth. She crouched down behind a tree trunk like she had seen the real Xena do a hundred times when she hunted down various bad people. When nothing unusual could be spotted anywhere, she carried on and moved beyond the first line of trees.

"Xena!" Gail croaked in a semi-whisper. "Xena!  Where are you going?  I'm gonna be real annoyed if you get hit by a log again!  Or meet Prince Chesty Forelock!  Oh, that's such a good episode… don't you think so, Joxer?"

"Can't remember… is that the one where she's wearing a fur bikini?" Jonas said while he munched on a caramel treat.

Gail narrowed her eyes down into slits. The comment required no counter-comment other than a sigh and a slow shaking of the head, so she turned back to the spot where she had last seen Xandra. A moment later, the would-be Warrior Princess came back out into the open with her hand wrapped around the arm of none other than Buzz Tomlinson.

An awkward silence spread among Jonas and Gail when it dawned on them that Buzz was not only white as a sheet and trembling, but that he was weeping.

The aggressive bully and juvenile delinquent - who had just turned eighteen and was thus headed for an encounter with the adult judicial system the next time he was caught for crossing the line between right and wrong - wore white sports shoes and a multi-colored track suit over a white T-shirt. His buzz cut that had given him his nickname was as flat-topped as ever, and it appeared he wore a gold chain around his neck like some of the inner-city thugs and gang members did.

At present, the tough-guy image the terror of the gated neighborhood wanted to convey was nowhere in sight. His chin quivered as he fought to hold back the tears, and it was clear he understood how pathetic it all made him look because he did nothing but stare at the ground in front of his feet.

Jonas assumed a surly expression as Buzz had bullied him so often he had zero compassion or empathy for the young man. Gail put her hands on her hips to show that she was not inclined to cut him any slack, either.

"What were you doing back there?" Xandra said in a civil tone.

"Don't talk to me, dork!" Buzz mumbled. He yanked his arm to the side to get Xandra's hand off him. Once the limb had been liberated, he rubbed his upper arm like her grip had hurt him.

Rolling her eyes, Xandra stepped around Buzz and walked back to the woodchip-covered path; a "Whatever," escaped her as she did so. She winked to Gail and Jonas before they set off once more for the south entrance.

"Don't leave me here!" Buzz cried behind them. "There are evil ghosts and ax murderers and chainsaw killers and shit behind every tree here!"

Xandra turned around and performed a perfect eyebrow-arch that the real Xena would have been proud of. "Yeah?  That's what you get for vandalizing the cave. I'll bet the forest warriors are chasing you as payback for what you destroyed."

"What kind of bull is that?!"

"Or maybe it's because of what you stole from the convenience store?"

Buzz let out a deriding snort at the comment; some of his natural color returned and brought his regular abrasiveness with it. "You losers think you're so clever… look at you!  You're dressed up like a buncha five-year-olds!"

"See ya, Buzz," Xandra said calmly as she and her friends set off along the woodchip-covered path. They had only made it fifteen paces away from Buzz when he caught up with them and assumed a position a couple of feet back so he could avoid speaking to any of them.


"I suppose that's true, Joxer," Gail said a short while later, "but The Titans is actually one of my favorite early episodes. Oh, Gabrielle is so funny and cute in it… and the scene where she and Xena throw scrolls at each other so she can read them aloud is just soooo much fun."

Jonas nodded while he munched on another piece of candy from his loot. "Whenever I feel sad, I just watch one of the comedies and everything's all right again-"

Behind them, Buzz suddenly closed the distance so he could give Jonas a hard shove in the back. "You lamers make me wanna puke!  That show stinks!"

"Shut up, Buzz!" Xandra barked.

"Ooooh!  Make me, big girl!" Buzz said and thumped his fist against his chest. By doing so, he tried to imitate a hand gesture that he had seen some of the real tough guys use down at the gas station at the intersection of Perry and Sullivan Street, but he had little insight into what it meant or how to do it properly so it only ended up looking ridiculous.

Xandra, Gail and Jonas shared a brief look. Instead of giving Buzz the satisfaction of seeing the trio of friends get riled up by his comments, they decided to ignore the pest. Gail smiled as she unwrapped a piece of her own candy. "Doesn't this remind you of Forgiven?  Ohhh, I really hate, hate, hate Tara in that episode. She was okay in Muses, though. That was a fun one. The dancing was cool and the freeze-frame at the end was so beautiful."

"Yeah…" -- "I agree," Xandra and Jonas said at the exact same time. They grinned at each other before they carried on toward the exit.

Behind them, Buzz let out a snort and shook his head at the ongoing conversation.


The final part of their long trek back to the south entrance was an easy one compared to the drama and high-intensity frights the friends had been exposed to going into the park - even Buzz perked up when he could see Crawley Lane beyond the gate.

"The Quill Is Mightier or Punch Lines?  Hmmm…" Gail said while she rubbed her chin.

Walking next to the blonde Junior Amazon, a grinning Xandra was busy digging into Jonas' bag of candy while she waited for an answer to the old Either-Or game.

"By the Gods, that's a toughie," Gail continued, " 'cos I love 'em both. Okay, I'm gonna say… Quill- no, Punch Lines 'cos of the fun, fun, fun pie fight. Now it's my turn!  Joxer… Death In Chains or Death Mask?"

Jonas needed to munch his way through a sticky toffee treat before he could even contemplate answering the question. The toffee resulted in much smacking of lips and heavy chewing, but he was soon ready: "Death In Chains. Toxeus is really cool. Does anyone actually like Death Mask?  I mean, that's so-"

"I like Death Mask!" Gail said as she narrowed her eyes. "What's wrong with Death Mask?  Gabrielle is so cute and funny in it!"

"Well… yeah… okay," Jonas said and broke out in a shrug, "but the rest is kinda weird."

Gail moved closer to Xandra to gain a little moral support - she got it when her older friend hooked an arm inside hers. "I like Death Mask. So there," Gail said in a mumble that earned her a little shoulder-bump as well.

"Me too," Xandra said with a grin. "Joxer, it's your turn."

"I need to think-"

Behind them, Buzz let out a scathing laugh at Jonas' expense. "You need a brain for that, dork!"

"Shut up, Buzz!" Gail and Xandra barked as one.

"Make me!"

Jonas sighed at the negativity that seemed to burst out of Buzz Tomlinson each time he opened his mouth. After reaching for a little more candy, he was ready to continue the Either-Or game: "Xena… King Of Assassins or Key To The Kingdom?"

"Oh… uh… well…" Xandra said and scratched her neck. She glanced at Gail for a little help, but there was none to be found as the rules of the game clearly stated that her reply had to be her own and come from the heart. "Uh… neither?   They're not, uh… my favorites, but… uh… Key To The Kingdom. Autolycus is great in that."

"He's in King Of Assassins as well," Jonas said around a piece of candy.

Xandra's eyes opened wide for a brief moment before she broke out in a shrug. "Oh… he is? It's kinda been a while since I've… uh… okay, Gabrielle, how about-"


When they were close enough to peek at the real world beyond the gate of what had to be an enchanted forest, it seemed the Halloween festivities were still going strong. Among other things, several little ghosts and witches were chased by a grizzly bear, a Count Dracula, a Bugs Bunny and - last but not least - a green-topped, bright-orange carrot wearing yellow tights.

Everyone squealed with laughter as they played tag and all the other classic street games. Two adult supervisors drank coffee and chatted to each other while they kept a close eye on the kids and the many bags of candy that had been left in their custody.

A car was parked not too far beyond the gate to Crawley Lane. It struck Xandra as odd since the entire area was supposed to be closed off for traffic while the Halloween event took place. When they got a little closer to it, she recognized it as one of the patrol cars that had arrived when they had still been over at the hot-chocolate stand at the small square. She peeked over her shoulder to gauge Buzz Tomlinson's reaction, but he had yet to spot the police vehicle.

"Gabrielle," Xandra said in a quiet whisper so her friend knew something was up. "See the police car?" - Gail nodded - "Okay. If Buzz runs away when he sees it, I'll bet he really is guilty." - Gail nodded again and let out a grunt to convey that she agreed - "If he does, it's down to us to stop him," Xandra concluded before she moved a foot or so away from Gail to have room to work her Chakram if needed.

Unfortunately, even the best laid plans would come up short when faced with the unpredictable nature of Jonas Ohlsson. Upon noticing the patrol car, he let out a loud whoop and began to wave his bright-green plastic sword at the officer to catch his attention.

A split second later, Buzz charged ahead and thumped into Xandra and Gail who were nearly sent sprawling onto the ground. The delinquent raced along the woodchip-covered trail in a mad rush to get back to his own turf; it was obvious he did not want to spend another second in the deep, dark, scary park behind them.

Before Xandra could even regain her balance, Gail had thrown her foam Amazon fighting staff at the escaping Buzz. Although the soft toy was usually unable to make as much as a dent in a pile of feathers, her aim was so precise the staff caught Buzz' legs and tripped him up - howling in surprise, he landed on the path with a thud that sent woodchips flying everywhere.

"Wow, Gail!" Xandra cried while she stared at the fallen Buzz who fumbled a great deal trying to get back on his feet. "That was a fantastic throw… way, way better than Gabrielle's in A Good Day!  Remember?"

"No, 'cos my moms won't let me watch that episode… it's too intense," Gail mumbled as she ran over to the loudly cursing Buzz to retrieve her Amazon staff. She gave the brute a wide berth just in case he wanted to retaliate, but it seemed he was too busy rubbing his knees and scooping out woodchips from his pockets to pay her any attention.

"Oh… yeah, I guess that's true… but trust me, it was way better," Xandra continued as she gave Gail's shoulders a big squeeze.

Jonas' whooping and the subsequent action had alerted the police officer who had been waiting by the patrol car. After he questioned Buzz about his name and address, he dragged the juvenile delinquent over to the car, opened the rear door and told him to remain there until further notice.

Xandra, Gail and Jonas strolled out of the park and onto Crawley Lane like they owned the whole place. Several of the little kids who played tag stopped to gawk at the three fearless explorers as they continued over to the police vehicle.

"Good evening," the police officer said with a smile. Like all who worked for the City Police Department, he wore a dark blue uniform and a cap in a matching color - the word 'POLICE' had been printed on the back of the uniform and the front of the cap in reflective letters. "I'm sure you must be Xandra Collings, Gail Pendergast and Jonas Ohlsson. I'm Jack Carvin."

"That's right!  Hello, Officer Carvin!" Gail said and waved at the officer - Xandra and Jonas soon mirrored her gesture. The moment seemed right for some candy, so she instinctively moved her hand into her bag. Realizing it was still full of Buzz' trash instead of yummy treats, she began looking around for the nearest public garbage can so she could dump the whole pile of junk into it.

Jonas found the game of tag far too exciting to ignore, so he shuffled over to ask the little kids if he could play - although they stared at the teenager for a few seconds, he was allowed in and was soon running around with a big grin on his face.

While Gail kept looking for a garbage can and Jonas had plenty of fun with the laughing kids, Xandra stepped up to look at Buzz through the police car's side window. She was tempted to stick out her tongue or pull some kind of horror-face, but she held it back. The real Warrior Princess never gloated nor did she ridicule defeated opponents - much - so neither would she. "What's going to happen to Buzz now, Officer?" she said as she stepped back.

Jack Carvin had been fiddling with the knobs on his portable radio, but he soon turned to face Xandra. "Well, once the search team returns, my partner and I will drive Mr. Tomlinson over to the convenience store to see if the owner can identify him. If so, we'll be going downtown."

"Right…" Xandra said and looked back at Buzz.

The Officer let out a chuckle before he continued: "I was just talking to 'em over the radio. Get this, they've gotten themselves lost in there!  Can you believe that?  They said something about a cursed petrified tree that kept popping up everywhere they went…"

"Oh!  Oh, they need to… I better call Dad at once… and I need to call Mom as well," Xandra said and swung the soft scabbard off her shoulder. Her telephone was soon turned on and ready to be used - but then she noticed that the charge level was a mere six percentage points from not being there at all. "Hades…" she mumbled as she looked around for something else to use.

Gail had noticed the small drama, so she hurried back from her fruitless search of a public garbage can. "What's wrong, Xena?" she said as she put a calming hand on Xandra's elbow.

"No power… and I gotta call Dad. They're lost and going around in circles near the petrified tree just like we did!"


Snickering, Xandra reached over to bump shoulders with her best friend. "That's what I said!  Officer?  Officer, we know how my Dad and the others can get out of there. They only need to look for a woodchip-covered path… it's really close to the petrified tree. It'll lead them back to the south entrance in no time!"

"Yeah?  Sounds good," Jack Carvin said and pressed the transmit key on the portable radio. "Six William Fifty-four to Mobile Unit One. Six William Fifty-four to Mobile Unit One. I hope you're still out there… or in there, to be exact. Over."

'We're still here, Six William Fifty-four. This better be good news, over,' a voice said through a wall of static - the numerous hisses and crackles did their worst to hinder the transmission, but the speaker's annoyance with the whole thing was plain for everyone to hear.

"Two pieces of news and both are good. One, the suspect has been detained at the vehicle. Two, you need to find and follow a…" Jack stopped talking and furrowed his brow as he turned to Xandra. "What did you say they needed to follow?"

"A woodchip-covered path."

"A woodchip-covered path, Mobile Unit One," Jack continued into the radio. "Apparently, it's close to the petrified tree. Did you copy that, over?"

'That's an affirmative, Six William Fifty-four. Stand by while we're searching for it, over.'

"Standing by," Jack Carvin said and put the radio on his belt so he could have his hands free in the meantime.

Xandra and Gail were already grinning at each other, and their joy was only given a boost when the radio crackled to life once more:

'Mobile Unit One to Six William Fifty-four. The path has been located. We're on our way back. ETA three minutes. Over and out."

"Six William Fifty-four copy. Out," Officer Carvin said before he clipped his radio onto his belt for good. Turning around, he offered the two girls a big thumbs-up that was responded to by a resounding high-five between Xandra and Gail.


The unusual police activity in the quiet, gated neighborhood drew plenty of interest from the local kids and their parents. Cowboys, ghosts, werewolves, superheroes and various Disney princesses were lined up three or four deep in some places to gawk at the goings-on. The parents and the adult supervisors gossiped and pointed fingers at Buzz Tomlinson who continued to sit in the back of the patrol car looking sorry for himself.

Gail finally spotted a public garbage can that had room for the contents of the bag of junk she had scooped up in Buzz' cave. With her face set in a determined expression, she stomped over there to get rid of all the trash.

When the search team exited the south entrance, Xandra ran over to her father to give him a hug. She remained a little cautious around him following his earlier outburst over the telephone, but he was back to his normal, good-natured self after he and the other police officers had also experienced getting lost in the same confusing maze of paths that circled the petrified tree. "Hi, Dad…" she said; it was clear she wanted to say more but the words failed to come.

Frank wrapped his large arm around his daughter's far more slender frame and pulled her close to show everything was all right once more. "Hi. I'm sorry for yelling at you before. The park looks completely different at night, huh?  I couldn't recognize anything. It didn't matter which path we tried, we kept coming back to that damned petrified tree!  Again and again…"

"That's exactly what happened to us until Jonas found the way home," Xandra said and let out a snicker.

"Yeah… that's the most amazing thing…"

"And we found Buzz. He's over in the police car. Dad, I think he's guilty… there was so much stuff in the hideout. Some of it looked to be stolen."

Frank looked at the squad car. By chance, Buzz locked eyes with him through the side window. The youngling was unable to withstand the experienced detective's cold glare and soon looked away. "Perhaps, but like I already told you tonight, never forget that he's innocent until proven guilty."

"Of course…"

"Did he have the chewing gum with him?"

"The what?  Chewing gum?  Did all this happen because of some fifty-cent chewing gum?" Xandra said and came to an abrupt halt. Her eyes grew wide and her jaw became slack at the odd news; like her father, she stared at Buzz through the side window.

"Yes. A pack of ChewyBubblez chewing gum. That's what was stolen from the convenience store."

"Well… I didn't see any gum. But there was so much junk and stuff in the hideout it might have been there. Did you see the graffiti?"

"No, we never made it over there. I need to call the Park Rangers. We were too busy trying to avoid that damn tree," Frank said before his attention was taken by one of the uniformed police officers who approached them. "I better hear what he has to say… why don't you go over to Gail in the meantime?"

Grinning, Xandra ran over to Gail who had finished emptying out the trash she had picked up in the hideout. A thought suddenly flashed through Xandra's mind and she began to sift through the unpleasant items down in the public garbage can.

"Sweet Aphrodite, Xena… what in the world are you doing?" Gail said as she stared at her friend who went through the trash with the strength of a small hurricane.

Xandra did not have enough hands to pinch her nose while she rummaged through the can, so she resorted to pulling a horrified grimace at the contents and the smell that rose to greet her. "I'm looking for chewing gum," she said in a voice strangled by the grimace.

"By the Gods… why don't you just buy some?!" Gail croaked and took a long step back.

"No, no… not like that, Gabrielle. Did you happen to have a pack of ChewyBubblez in your bag?"

"ChewyBubblez… what are you talking about?  Oh no… the Furies!  Are the Furies punishing you again?!  Madness and… and… and… that other thing that I can't remem-"

"No, a pack of ChewyBubblez was stolen from the convenience store," Xandra said and looked up from her disgusting job. "So if you found one in the cave, we can maybe prove that Buzz did it!"

"Ohhhh!  Okay… uh… I don't know. I just emptied out the bag. Let me help you," Gail said and hurried back to the garbage can. Although her expression told a tale of really, really not wanting to do it, she reached into the can and began to sift through the various trash.

"Eureka!" Xandra cried a short minute later. "That's Greek and means… there's the chewing gum!" she continued as she spotted a brand new, unopened pack of ChewyBubblez Cool Mint-flavored chewing gum down among the rest of the items. "Dad!  Dad!  We found something you really need to see!" she shouted while she pointed at the public trash can.

Frank acknowledged them by waving, but he needed to talk to the uniformed officer first; the short pause was filled by Gail taking a long step back from the smelly garbage can. "You know, Xena… this reminds me of when the real Xena and Gabrielle found the Sumerian treasure… remember?  With Petracles and that creepy assassin guy… what was his name… Talamites- no… oh, never mind. And then they found the ambrosia. This is our ambrosia!  Except that it's Cool Mint chewing gum… but anyway…"

"That's true," Xandra said with a grin. Frank Collings soon joined them at the public trash can; like the other two had done, he crinkled his nose at the unfortunate smells that rose from it. "Dad, what does that look like?" she said and pointed down into it.

Frank moved forward with some reluctance, but he let out a grunt of satisfaction at the sight of the pack of chewing gum. "Interesting. Can we make a positive connection to the-"

Gail and Xandra both set off on a wild ride of explanation: "It's like this, Mister Collings-" -- "Back in the cave-" -- "It was really, really, really disgusting-" -- "There was so much trash everywhere-" -- "And a T-shirt that still had a price tag on it-" -- "And graffiti on the walls-" -- "Beer cans and everything-" -- "And it smelled of cigarette smoke-" -- "And I scooped it all up and put it-" -- "-in the bag!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa… one at a time!  Please!" Frank said and thrust his hands in the air. "Gail?"

"The chewing gum was in the hideout, Mister Collings. I'm sure of it," Gail said and nodded hard. "It must have been 'cos I just scooped up all kinds of garbage and stuffed it into the bag and then I emptied the bag here and all the rest of the trash I found in the cave is there as well like the beer cans and all that and it doesn't look like any of the trash that was already in the-"

"Okay!  Okay… okay, I get it, but you need to be one-hundred percent sure the gum came from the hideout. Are you positive it did?"

"Uh-huh!" Xandra and Gail said as one - they both nodded.

"Did both of you touch it?"

"No," Gail said, "only me. I had to- oh… oh… my fingerprints… oh… oh, no… Shark Island here I come…" Her voice trailed off into nothing when it dawned on her that doing a good deed might have earned her a one-way ticket to the dreaded maximum security prison in the middle of the Aegean Sea.

It was obvious by Frank's furrowed brow that he failed to understand the comment, but he let it slide. "Don't worry about that, Gail. First of all, we'll bag the chewing gum as evidence. Then we'll drive Buzz over to the store to see if the owner can ID him. If he does, we'll take it from there. Okay?"

"Okay, Mister Collings," Gail said in a mumble. It was only when Xandra wrapped an arm around her shoulder that she was able to smile again - and even then, it was only a small one.

While Frank took care of securing the evidence, Gail and Xandra shuffled over to the section of Crawley Lane where Jonas still played tag with the kids. They observed him for a short while until he excused himself from the game and joined his friends.

"Hullo, my warrior chums!" he said, flushed and beaming with joy from the fun game. "So what do we do now?  Apprehend more escaped warlords?  Battle vicious monsters?"

"Do you know what I think we should do?" Xandra said and pulled Gail even closer. "I think we should go trick-or-treating while we still can!  Gabrielle needs to be home at midnight… right?"

"Midnight, yeah…" Gail said. "Ohhhh, and then me and my moms are gonna watch a Xena cavalcade and have hot chocolate with marshmallows and hazelnut-chip cookies and a pumpkin pie with whipped cream and everything!"

Xandra nodded as she looked at her smartphone - there was just enough battery power left to operate the clock. "We have an hour. What do you say?"

Gail and Jonas shared a brief look before they both cried: "Battle on, Xena!"

After belting out a reasonable facsimile of Xena's legendary war cry, Xandra Collings gave her wooden Chakram a good twirl before she, Gail Pendergast and Jonas Ohlsson strolled up Crawley Lane to get their bags - and tummies - well and truly stuffed with candy…




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