The River

 

By Aslan


This little piece of fanfic is a direct sequel to "Forgiveness". This story makes a lot of references to that one and you will probably be hopelessly lost if you haven't read it first.

The usual disclaimer applies. Xena and Gabrielle (and any other characters that may appear in this story) are the property of MCA/Universal. There is no attempt to infringe on their copyright.


Part One.

 

"D'Lara, hand me that towel over there," Arianna said as she reached her arm behind herself without looking back.

 

"You looking for this?" came the now familiar, low husky voice

 

Arianna and D'Lara both turned around and were greeted by a smiling Xena with towel in hand and one eyebrow raised.

 

"Xena! What are you doing here?" Arianna asked, half smiling, half puzzled.

 

"We couldn't very well let you go off and face Talinares alone now could we?" came another familiar voice. Gabrielle was just turning the corner and coming into the room.

 

"Gabrielle!" D'Lara exclaimed as she went to greet her new friend with a hug.

 

Xena and Arianna watched the friendly exchange for a moment, then turned back towards each other.

 

"I didn't even hear you come in," Arianna noticed

 

Xena raised her eyebrow and gave a crooked smile. "We thought you could use our help. Besides, if I were to just walk away from what Talinares did to me, what would stop others from doing the same?"

 

"I appreciate that Xena, I really do, but you don't have to you know. D'Lara and I are quite capable of...."

 

"I don't doubt your capabilities." Xena interrupted. "But we could both benefit from each others help. Gabrielle and I want to do this."

 

Arianna regarded Xena with a smile. "Thank you," she said quietly. She extended her hand towards Xena and they shook briefly.

 

"We're going to need some information before we set off." Xena said. "I want to stop back into the tavern and talk to the bartender. I'm sure I can...persuade him to tell me where Talinares was headed."

 

"How do you know that he knows anything?" Arianna countered.

 

"Well......we'll find out. Won't we?" Xena smiled wickedly and turned to face Gabrielle and D'Lara. "Are you two coming or are you gonna talk all day?"

 

With that, the foursome grabbed the rest of Arianna and D'Lara's belongings and headed out the door. They walked out of the inn and secured the articles to the horses. Once everything was packed, they headed into the tavern.

 

The bartender was busy laughing it up with the boys around the bar, bragging about how he had outsmarted Xena and placed the poison in her cup before she came into the tavern. No matter what she ordered, he would have poured it into that cup and she would never see the poison placed there. The ruffians around the bar were amused and cheered the bartender. He exalted in their praise of his deception. He was a brave man indeed.

 

"I was wondering how you were able to pull that off without me seeing you." Xena stated loudly.

 

The laughter stopped abruptly as all heads turned towards the tavern door. The foursome stood together in a defiant wall. Xena eyed the bartender with a viscous leer.

 

"X-xena!" the bartender stuttered

 

"Hello again!" she answered back in a very stern tone. She dipped her head slightly forward, narrowing her eyes and keeping her stare on the bartender.

 

"What are you waiting for! GET THEM!" he yelled

 

Suddenly, a unison yell came from the ruffians at the bar as they advanced on the women. Xena and Arianna pulled their swords instantly, Gabrielle readied her staff and D'Lara positioned her bow in a like manner. Xena greeted the first attacker with a boot to the midsection. She finished him off with a forearm to his cheekbone. Then she swung around to her right, lifting her leg in the air and connecting her heal to the next attackers jaw. As she kicked the second man, a third was approaching from behind. Xena didn't even look when she made a fist and thrust her right arm up and back, hitting the third man straight between the eyes. He staggered and she turned around, gave a wicked smile, yelled and head butted him. He was still standing, though not steadily, so she took the opportunity to slap him down with the hilt of her sword. When she turned around again, she searched for Gabrielle. Gabrielle was busy thrusting her staff into her oppositions stomach, then sweeping his feet out from under him. When he tried to get up, she leveled him with another sweep to the forehead. Arianna and D'Lara were easily dispatching their attackers also. D'Lara used her bow as a staff. It was sturdy enough, especially around the center, to cause significant damage where she intended. Arianna in the meantime was parrying a thrust by the last man standing. He sliced his sword in a downward arc starting above his right shoulder. It was a blow she easily blocked. She pushed his sword away and kicked him in the chest sending him backwards over closest table.

 

The bartender just watched the melee. He took to ducking behind the bar on several occasions to avoid the flying debris headed towards him. When the room was silent, he looked up from behind the bar. Suddenly he wasn't so brave anymore. The four advanced on him. He eyed the room for an escape route. Since there was no back door, he was stuck. He backed up against the liquor display rack, his eyes wide in fear.

 

Arianna, D'Lara and Gabrielle stayed slightly back as Xena approached him.

 

"I want you to tell me what you know about where Talinares was headed. You worked for him. He must have given you an idea." Xena said

 

"I-I don't know anything," he stammered

 

"Is that so?" Xena said. She moved closer to the bartender, then with lightning quick reflexes, she place two perfectly positioned pinches on his neck.

 

He grabbed his neck and looked at her in horror and confusion.

 

"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have 30 seconds to tell me what I want to know or you die."

 

The bartender took a moment to comprehend what was happening to him. D'Lara turned a puzzled glance towards Arianna who just stared straight at Xena and the bartender, watching with a renewed interest.

 

"Talinares is headed North. He's going towards the Strimon River." he said.

 

Arianna instantly shot a concerned look at D'Lara who seemed rocked by the mention of the river. She put her hand on D'Lara's shoulder. This caused D'Lara to flinch reflexively. Arianna squeezed her shoulder slightly to reassure her, but D'Lara was still tense.

 

"Well, you've been a good boy!" Xena said, patting the bartender on the back. Then she pursed her lips, furrowed her brows and reversed the pinch on the bartender. He sank to his knees in relief, choking and gasping for air. "Try to stay out of trouble will you?" she said, then she delivered a hard fist to the bartenders jaw, sending him into unconsciousness. "That's for messing with my drink."

 

D'Lara felt as if the walls were closing in on her. She needed air. She turned around and fled the tavern as Arianna called after her.

 

"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked with obvious concern.

 

Arianna looked towards the exit that D'Lara took, then back at Xena and Gabrielle. "We know where Talinares is headed. He has an encampment north at the edge of the river near Serres. He always stops there to regroup and recruit. That river, the Strimon, was were he tortured D'Lara and got her to renounce and repress her visions. We've never been back since." With that, Arianna left to find her friend.

 

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"YOU SEE NOTHING! SAY IT! SAY IT!"

 

The voice echoed in D'Lara's mind over and over again.

 

"SAY IT!" ......she was gasping for air......"NOTHING!"........air.......Talinares face.......

"SAY IT!"......his face became translucent and rippled as her head was forced under water........'I can't breathe, I can't breathe'......"SAY IT D'LARA....SAY IT D'LARA....

D'LARA.......D'LARA"

 

"D'Lara! D'Lara, hey, you in there? D'Lara!" came Arianna's voice. Her voice was intertwined with the memories D'Lara was experiencing, her words overlapping with the memories of Talinares' brutal torture, but they soon stood on their own and D'Lara recognized who was calling her.

 

She took a deep breath and turned to face Arianna who was regarding her with marked concern. "I'm ok," she reassured her. "I was just....remembering!"

 

"D'Lara, you don't have to go if you don't want to. You can stay here. Xena, Gabrielle and I will....."

 

D'Lara raised her hand and waved off the suggestion before it was finished. "I can't run forever. Now's as good a time as any to face my demons. I'm scared, of course I am, but I'll be ok. I'm not gonna let you face him without me, and I'm not going to let him have this control over me forever."

 

Arianna smiled at her friend. "Come on, let's get going then."

 

The two emerged from the behind the building that D'Lara had run to. As they turned the corner, Arianna saw Xena and Gabrielle giving her a concerned look. She just nodded affirmatively at them, silently indicating that everything was alright as she and D'Lara mounted their horses. Gabrielle and Xena took Argo by the reigns and started walking. North, towards the Strimon. North.

 

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Talinares moved about his camp in haste. His troops were depleted and demoralized by their previous run in with Xena and Arianna. The only thing that kept the remaining soldiers in camp at all was the fact that they had seen Talinares take on Xena with their own two eyes and defeat her. They still believed he was the one who would lead them to the respect and self worth that had eluded them until this point. Talinares was determined to keep it that way. They would never know that Xena was suffering from the effects of the poison he had given her when they had met on the battlefield that day. He called the scouts together and issued orders for them to go into Serres and find more men to replenish his troops. He had no time to do the recruiting himself. He was reasonably sure that Xena, Arianna, D'Lara and Gabrielle would be coming after him. Time was of the essence. He turned towards his tent, intending to structure his plans.

 

His boots kicked up the dust around him. He was always very heavy footed and never very stealthy. As he threw back the canvas and entered his tent, a strange voice greeted him.

 

"Hello Talinares!"

 

It was a feminine voice, but one he did not recognize.

 

"Who are you, what do you want, and how did you get in here?" he asked

 

"Who I am is not important just yet. Let's just say we have a mutual acquaintance, a mutual desire and a mutual plan to succeed." she said

 

The tent was dark and he couldn't make out her features. "Young lady, I suggest that you remove yourself from my tent and from my encampment before I make you sorry you ever showed up here." he threatened. Then he pulled his sword out, wrapped both hands on the hilt and moved forward on the woman in front of him.

 

Instead of fleeing as he thought she should, she just laughed. "Hmmnnn! Another day, another fight. Boring, boring, boring," she said in a sing-song tone.

 

Talinares wasn't about to be ridiculed by a mere woman. He approached, with intensity this time, withdrew his sword, raised it over his head and sliced it down towards his victim. His sword was met with another steely blade and his hands rang from the vibration as the motion of his sword was stopped abruptly.

 

"Uh, uh, uh!" she laughed, waving her index finger at him to indicate his naughtiness.

 

He was still unable to make out her features. It was too dark. Even at close range he could only see her silhouetted form. He tried to strike again and once again was met with the same forceful block. Talinares was getting frustrated. He charged full force at the woman, slicing his sword from right to left, then left to right. Each thrust he made was blocked beautifully and artfully by the shadowy woman. He swept at her legs , but she jumped straight up and blocked his next incoming thrust.

 

"Really now, you'll have to do better than that." she taunted

 

His anger was beginning to unbalance him. He lunged and missed. She cut him slightly on the left leg as he lunged. He lunged again and missed again. This time she cut him on the other leg. He was reduced to his knees and unable to continue lest he bleed to death.

 

"Who....are....you?!" he demanded through clenched teeth.

 

The woman stepped out of the shadows. Pulling a small dagger from her side belt, she began to clean her nails in a ho-hum manner. She continued towards Talinares, letting the dim light from the opening of the tent fall around her and revealing her identity to him.

 

"Callisto!" he said. He was stunned. "I thought you were trapped in a lava pit. How?"

 

"All in good time, all in good time." she teased "Now little man, I want you to listen and listen good. You want to be ruling warlord in these parts. I WANT XENA DEAD!!" she yelled. Then she calmed her demeanor down again, smiled, licked her teeth with her tongue and continued. "Now then, what one has to do with the other is very simple really. You help me kill Xena, and I'll help you gain a throne. Fair enough?"

 

"What do you want me to do?" Talinares asked. This woman made him nervous. Fine beads of sweat were starting to form around his brows and on his forehead. He could feel himself becoming very hot under the collar, but he was humiliated enough having been bested by this, this...woman! He didn't want to also give her the advantage of knowing that she intimidated him.

 

"I do believe I'm intimidating you!" Callisto laughed

 

'Damn!' he thought

 

"Really Talinares, there's no need to be frightened." she continued. "As long as you do what I say." she added as an afterthought. Then her tone became serious. "Get up and grab a chair. You and I have some......(a smile).....business....to discuss."

 

Talinares picked himself up off of the floor. He dusted his knees, then felt the wounds on the back sides of them. They weren't as serious as he thought. The wounds were already congealing and the bleeding had subsided on its own. Still ever aware of their presence, however, he made his way to the chair in a very deliberate and gingerly manner.

 

"Oh come now! A little on the dramatic side aren't we?" Callisto teased. She moved around to the opposite side of the table from Talinares and sat on the edge, ignoring the chair that was positioned right next to her. It was a power move. She deliberately elevated herself above this man. "This is what we're going to do. I'll supply you with an army, but unlike those morons you've got under your command, these men will be trained and highly skilled. Call it.....a gift. . We need to separate Arianna and D'Lara from Xena and Gabrielle. Then we need to separate Xena from Gabrielle. Divide and conquer I always say."

 

"Why is it so important to separate them?" Talinares asked. "If you're still a Goddess, why can't you just use your 'powers' to eliminate them? You are still a Goddess aren't you?"

 

"Oh I am. And more than that, but I need to lay low. You see, my escape from the lava pit was, shall we say, illicit! No one on Olympus is aware that I'm out."

 

"Then how did you escape?" Talinares was thoroughly confused, yet intrigued.

 

"It's funny really. In a way, I owe it all to you." Callisto smiled and walked casually around the table, running her fingertips along the edge as she made her way around it. "You see, when you failed to kill Xena the first time, Ares was pretty mad at Strife. He sent him into Tartarus to do some labor as a lesson for his copiousness. He was given the choice of cleaning centaur dung or continually studying the flow rate of the lava forms. Obviously, he chose the latter. That's where he found me." She paused and studied Talinares reaction. At seeing his wide-eyed expression, she let a slight smile escape before she continued with her malediction. "My pleas for release have been widely ignored by the Gods, but Strife is a different story. He's slightly miffed at Ares and he still wants a chance to prove that his plan could've worked. So we struck a bargain. My....temporary.... release for his ultimate success. If I succeed in seeing his plans through, then he'll go to the council on Olympus in my behalf and try to have me freed permanently."

 

"So what are his plans?" Talinares asked

 

"His plans are what they've always been. You kill Xena, gain some credibility and rule in Ares name." Callisto said. "Unfortunately, I have my own plans. You see, I don't plan on going back and waiting for Olympus to judge me. I wouldn't put my life in the hands of that hypocritical council. No, no! That would never do!"

 

She stopped and contemplated her position. For a moment, a forlorn look crept across her face, but the life of that look was only transient. She quickly gathered her composure and turned again to Talinares.

 

"Now as for the answer to your other question: We need to separate everyone because alone they can be defeated. Xena is formidable enough without that annoying blonde. Add her precious Gabrielle to the mix and she fights with even more passion and fire. And I really don't need your former protege around to make them all but unassailable. If we split them up, we have a chance. Then once that happens, I take the one thing away from Xena that she cherishes the most. Gabrielle. The best part is, Xena will be the one to eliminate her." Callisto smiled again and clasped her hands together in anticipation. "Oh this should be fun. It's been so long since Xena and I have had a chance to.....play! Now then, let's discuss the details of what I want you to do."

 

Talinares and Callisto huddled together for most of the evening, putting the plans into perspective. When they were finished, Talinares went to gather his men, brief them of his new plans and await the promised reinforcements. Callisto cautiously left the tent and stared intently towards the south.

 

"Not too long now, my sweet." She said out loud to herself. "Not too long now."

 

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The day had started what seemed like a lifetime ago. The gentle breeze that had felt so soothing during the heat of the day had faded and given way to the calmness of early dusk. There was something about the dusk that had always delighted Gabrielle. The radiant colors of the western sky, the cascading forms of clouds as they floated by, and the sun. Yes the sun. Covering the landscape with an almost garish cloak of golden orange. Gabrielle would take in the scenery with a silent, but unending appreciation for the beauty that kept trying to hold off the darkness.

 

As they approached the Strimon, Gabrielle felt a lump sneak up in her throat. This was the same river she had crossed on her way to Mt. Nestos with a mortally wounded Xena in tow.

 

"She's gone!" Nicklio said. Gabrielle's memories seized control.

 

"She can't be gone"

 

"Let her pass"

 

"Wake up, please wake up. WAKE UP!"

 

"Gabrielle?!" Xena said in her usual low and direct tone. She noticed the bard had started to lag behind the group and the look on her face was so unsettled.

 

Gabrielle stopped walking, keeping her head down and her eyes on the ground. Xena stopped walking and turned to face Gabrielle. She walked over to her friend and put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.

 

"Gabrielle what's wrong?"

 

Gabrielle slowly looked up into Xena's eyes. She looked for all the world like she was about to cry and that had Xena concerned. Finally, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and spoke.

 

"It's just that the last time we were here, you were.......I just don't have very fond memories of this place that's all."

 

Xena smiled and gave Gabrielle's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

 

"I'm gonna be ok you know!" Gabrielle stated with a smile as she simultaneously nodded her head. She was halfway talking to herself as if she were trying to convince herself of the truth in the statement.

 

"Yeah, I know. I count on that." Xena replied with a smile. "Come on." Xena motioned for Gabrielle to move along with the rest of them.

 

About ten paces away, D'Lara listened in on the short conversation. She understood Gabrielle's apprehension about the river. She had her own demons to exorcise where that river was concerned. Until now, she and Arianna had carefully avoided the river. Rarely going further north than Thessaloniki. It was actually Arianna who had been the one to steer clear of the river. There were times that the nearest town in which to gather supplies was Neopolis, across the river. Arianna always had a reason, or was it an excuse to head either south or west instead. In a way, D'Lara was grateful, but avoiding the pain and never confronting the fear inside was equivalent to running. D'Lara didn't want to run anymore. She had made tremendous strides in recovering her confidence again with Arianna's help. She now wanted, needed to take that last step.

 

"It'll be dark soon. We can camp here for the night." Xena said, indicating a clearing of trees up ahead. The brush was extremely heavy in concentrated areas all along the same queue. This indicated water nearby as the foliage was usually thicker along the banks of the streams and rivers.

 

The camp was set up in the usual fashion. When all the bedrolls and accessories were in place, D'Lara set out to find dinner for the group while the rest of them went to the stream for a light swim and to clean up. It didn't take long for one of D'Lara's arrows to find its prey. The boar was speared cleanly through the heart. It never even sensed D'Lara's presence. Secretly, D'Lara enjoyed her own proficiency with the bow. She couldn't really explain it. She had never taken lessons. It was just something that came naturally to her.

 

After she had hauled the prize back to camp, she cleaned and prepared the animal for roasting. Then she headed towards the stream to join the others. She took off her boots and submerged her feet in the water. 'Gods that feels good.' she thought. She proceeded to wash off her hands, arms, face etc. but she never joined the others in the stream. Xena , Gabrielle and Arianna were in the middle of the stream, up to their shoulders. They were facing each other and engaged in light conversation so nobody noticed when D'Lara had appeared. D'Lara just watched the three as they laughed and talked with one another. She envied how relaxed they all seemed.

 

At last, Gabrielle looked in her direction. A big smile graced her face as she yelled and waved to D'Lara.

 

"D'Lara, come on in. The water's great." Gabrielle shouted

 

The smile that Arianna had been sporting instantly disappeared and she eyed her friend with interest. D'Lara just waved off Gabrielle and nodded her head in a negative response. Then she got up and left to go back to the camp.

 

Gabrielle's smile disappeared as well. She furrowed her brows and was about to yell to D'Lara, but Arianna stopped her.

 

"Gabrielle, she won't swim." Arianna said

 

Xena and Gabrielle turned towards Arianna. Arianna was staring in the direction that D'Lara had headed.

 

"This is because of Talinares isn't it?" Xena concluded. "Because of what he did to her."

 

"That's right." Arianna replied "He beat her and he tortured her. He used the river as his greatest source of torture. He would keep her submerged under water until she nearly passed out from oxygen deprivation. Then he'd make sure she was revived before he started in again. It was a form of mental conditioning. He made her associate pain with her visions until she repressed and renounced her psychic abilities. This went on for several days before I found out about it. That's what solidified my break with Talinares. I didn't know who he was and what he was truly about until then. He's very good at disguising his true intentions. To his followers, he's powerful and almost righteous. This gives him the potential to be very dangerous in spite of his inherent cowardice."

 

Xena agreed. "Tell me Arianna, how did you eventually learn what was happening to D'Lara? Where did Talinares slip up?"

 

"It's funny. He never did slip up. I just had this...this.....feeling inside that something wasn't right. I didn't know where I was going or what I was looking for that day. It was like someone took me by the hand and lead me there, and none too soon. If I had gotten there even a moment later, D'Lara would've been dead. It was some sort of presence I had no control over. I've never felt anything like it before or since. "

 

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Arianna got out of the stream, dried off, dressed, then went back to the camp to check on D'Lara. When she got back to the encampment, she found D'Lara consoling herself with the lyre. Arianna quietly slinked up to a log situated behind D'Lara who was perched by the fire, lost in her music. D'Lara continued to play, unaware of the adoring eyes upon her. When at last she stopped, she felt Arianna's presence and turned around to greet her.

 

"You play that beautifully." Arianna praised

 

D'Lara blushed slightly.

 

"No, I mean that. You play that beautifully. You should really play it more often. Why don't you?"

 

D'Lara regarded the instrument with a disconsolate gaze. Without so much as a word of response to Arianna, she reached for the chamois cloth on the log next to her and gently wrapped the instrument until she was sure it was secure. She held the bundle as if it had the fragility of a newborn child. Then she gently packed it away.

 

Arianna sat quietly. She knew what was coming next and she was instantly sorry that she dredged up even more bad memories for D'Lara. She was only trying to be encouraging. She'd heard this story before, but as long as D'Lara felt the need to keep telling it, she would keep listening.

 

"I wished I could have known him. All I have of him are the stories my mother told me, this lyre and my bow. No memories whatsoever. When my mother died, all of my answers died with her. I still had so many questions about my father. Maybe if he were still alive, things would be different right now."

 

Arianna blinked in bewilderment. This was a new twist for her. Whenever D'Lara had talked about her father before, she had only mentioned her longing to know him, she'd never mentioned that she thought her life could have turned out differently from the mere interaction that she lacked. She leaned forward to listen to D'Lara with a new interest now.

 

"Maybe, if my father were still around, I would have never left home. My 'gift' of prophecy would have been nurtured instead of scorned. I would have never run into Talinares that day if I had stayed at home."

 

"And we would have never met." Arianna interjected angrily.

 

D'Lara looked at her, then put her head down. She stared at the pack that the lyre was in. In her mind's eye, she caressed it's musical frame, tracing the strings with her fingers as Arianna continued her gentle diatribe.

 

"I believe that everything happens for a reason. What you went through was horrible, but there's a reason for your experience. We all have a destiny. The roads that take us to that end are the builders or our character." Arianna got up from her perch and walked over to D'Lara. She positioned herself directly in front of D'Lara, got down on her knees and sat back on her heels. She then placed her right hand on D'Lara's thigh. "I don't know what it would be like to exist in this world without you. You've been the best friend and confidant anyone could ever ask for. I feel blessed to have you in my life. Whatever you're going through now, whatever you'll go through in the future to rediscover yourself, I'll be there with you and for you. You can count on that, but you can't spend your life looking behind you. The answers aren't there and if you stare down the road you've just traveled for too long, you'll miss the view up ahead."

 

D'Lara looked straight into Arianna's eyes. She was holding back tears, but the traces of moisture in her eyes was still evident. She had no words at the moment. Instead she just wrapped her arms around Arianna and gave her a hug that could squeeze the life out of a black bear. The hug was returned with just as much vigor by Arianna. Not a moment later, Xena and Gabrielle came into the clearing.

 

"Well that certainly looks nice." Xena said

 

"What, Arianna and D'Lara? I know what you mean." Gabrielle replied "It's good to see two friends so close."

 

"No, I meant dinner. I'm starved." Xena shot a crooked smile in Gabrielle's direction then headed for the fire.

 

Gabrielle, for her part, just smiled back, gritted her teeth and shook her head.

 

Arianna and D'Lara heard Xena and Gabrielle enter the camp. They unlocked their embrace. Arianna slid her hands from around D'Lara's back and placed them on her cheeks. She wiped away D'Lara's tears with her thumbs, looked up into her eyes and whispered, "Are you ok?"

 

D'Lara smiled and nodded.

 

"Ok then, good." Arianna said as she lifted her hands from D'Lara's face. Then she grabbed a hold of D'Lara's hands in hers and gave them a quick, tight squeeze for emphasis before turning back to the fire.

 

Xena already had the boar off of the rotisserie. For her part, Gabrielle gathered the olives, figs and oranges that were to be used as sides and garnishes for the meal. Each grabbed her portion and began to eat. As they ate, they once again engaged in some light conversation. The campfire, the meal, and the company provided the perfect milieu for such an engagement. Xena put a strip of meat in her mouth, tore it off greedily with her teeth and began to chew heartily and rapidly. As she continued to chew, a strange feeling enveloped her. She looked around her, chewing more slowly and deliberately as she perused the area around them. Finally, she swallowed and stood up.

 

Gabrielle looked up at Xena. She'd seen that look before. "Xena what's wrong?"

 

"Do you feel that?" Xena asked. "The sudden change in the air? How the humidity just lifted? Listen."

 

"I don't hear anything." Gabrielle replied

 

"That's exactly my point." Xena said in a low, drawn out tone. "Not a bug, not a frog, not a cricket. Nothing."

 

"She's right." Arianna said. She too stood up and started looking around. "I don't like this one bit."

 

Soon all had forgotten their dinner and were standing. Looking. Staring into the night. The quiet was deafening.

 

Xena stiffened and grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder. She pointed out away from the camp towards the hillside in the distance. The full moon made visibility easy on this night. And on this night, a dense fog was starting to roll over the hills.

 

"Xena?" Gabrielle said in a rhetorical manner. She backed up against Xena's body seeking some kind of intangible protection.

 

Arianna and D'Lara stood shoulder to shoulder watching as the fog slowly headed in their direction.

 

"It's not spread out." D'Lara noted. "It's coming straight for us."

 

Xena drew her sword. "Gabrielle, stay behind me."

 

Gabrielle wasn't going to argue with the logic of that suggestion, but she grabbed her staff just in case.

 

Arianna had also drawn her sword and D'Lara got her bow and arrows ready.

 

Something was out there. Something unnatural, and it was headed straight for them.

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The fog started rolling into Talinares camp at an alarming rate. His men tried to back away from it, acting as if it were the plague descending upon them. Callisto emerged from the tent with a broad grin and wide eyes as she viewed the spectacle before her. Talinares spotted Callisto as she approached the clearing.

 

"Callisto! What's going on? There should be no fog on a night like this."

 

"Patience little man. You'll see soon enough." Callisto kept her eyes trained on the fog as it continued its advance and began to envelop the camp.

 

"HOLD YOUR GROUND! HOLD.....YOUR.......GROUND!" Talinares yelled to his troops.

 

Some of his men obeyed. Standing as still as statues in their places. Others, too afraid to face the unknown scattered into the woods.

 

"DAMN! Those cowards!" Talinares yelled to himself. But his momentary anger with his deserters was stifled by the sound of laughter behind him.

 

Talinares turned slowly to see Callisto rather enjoying herself. This annoyed him. He tried to keep his annoyance to himself, but the look on his face betrayed him.

 

"Don't worry." Callisto laughed. "They won't get far."

 

No sooner had Callisto uttered those words than the sounds of anguished cries emitted from the woods. Blood curdling screams. Callisto's eyes opened wide and her smile grew even broader. Her mouth was open in wonder and amazement. This was the first time she had been able to test her Godhood and everything was working out perfectly.

 

The cries in the woods unsettled Talinares. He instantly forgot his annoyance and ran to Callisto. Pulling on her arm, he shouted at her without raising his voice.

 

"What is happening?" He said through gritted teeth.

 

Callisto's smile disappeared. An angry expression covered her face as she looked directly into Talinares' eyes, then down at the arm gripped by Talinares and back again. Talinares knew his mistake and instantly let go of her arm. He backed away a couple of steps, still staring at her. Callisto crossed her arms, then slowly redirected her attention towards the woods. The smile emerging on her face once again. The screams from the woods began to diminish until only a scattered cry here and there could be heard. Then........nothing. Talinares found the silence almost more chilling than the screams. His insides were about to explode from the nervousness, the waiting.

 

'What's next?' He thought.

 

The moon painted a silvery tint on the fog that completely shrouded the camp now. Callisto's eyes darted back and forth with expectation. Finally, the sound of footsteps. Several footsteps, followed by the first silhouetted appearance of the advancing army. They appeared in a massive formation. More troops than Talinares had ever dreamed of leading. As they entered the camp, they passed right by the remaining men in Talinares camp without the slightest acknowledgment. The bewildered and frightened men just looked about to one another, searching for some form of reassurance, but none was forthcoming. They were all scared out of their wits.

 

Talinares swallowed hard. His heart was pounding furiously in his chest. The troops converged on the spot that he and Callisto occupied. He looked over the strange battalion. Even in the fog, he could make out their features. Every last one had a commanding stance They were tall. At least six and a half steps. Their legs were burly and well muscled. Strong torsos with powerful arms and broad shoulders. Too broad in fact. Talinares tried to peer into their faces, but their helmets kept their facial features well concealed. There was something odd about the helmets too. Talinares stared even more intently. Then he realized that the helmets, like their shoulders, were commensurably over-sized. He could swear that he could hear grunts and snorts coming from the troops. Like animals.

 

'What are they?' He said to himself.

 

Callisto was still wearing her smile. She cocked her head sideways and looked at Talinares out of the corners of her eyes.

 

"Talinares, these are your new troops." She said. She motioned towards them with a wave of her arm and an outstretched palm.

 

One member of the battalion stepped forward and slowly walked towards Talinares. Talinares stared straight into the dark eyehole of the helmet and saw two glowing red eyes. He took a deep breath, swallowed hard and raised his chin so as to, at least, have the appearance of being confident. The soldier slowly raised his hands up to his helmet, grasped the sides and lifted it off of his head revealing the mystery of the face behind it.

 

Talinares eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He stared at the menacing figure. Then, in a hoarse whisper, he verbally acknowledged the sight in front of him. "Minotaurs!"

 

"Theseus would be proud wouldn't he?" Callisto said. Her laughter echoed through the camp as she joyously overlooked her creation. "Oh Xena! Won't you be surprised."

 

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Gabrielle peered over Xena's right shoulder to catch a glimpse of the encroaching fog. It was rolling in much too quickly. Like billowing smoke, pumping itself over the valley, directly towards the foursome. As it drew nearer, Arianna could feel the cold beads of sweat starting to form on her forehead. D'Lara looked around nervously. She saw Gabrielle place her hand on the small of Xena's back. Xena didn't react at all. She stood erect, head held high with her usual stoic look plastered on her face. D'Lara admired her seemingly endless supply of courage. That courage transposed itself onto the others. Each was silently grateful for the ethereal gift.

 

As the fog continued to approach, Xena could hear the sounds of several footsteps. She positioned her sword out in front of her, grabbing the hilt with both hands. "Get ready." she ordered.

 

The fog rolled into the camp. It instantly covered them in a thick, moist cloud.

 

THWACK!CRACK! "D'LARA!" Arianna yelled. She turned her head and leaned back to avoid the incoming blow. A staff flew by her head. She could see D'Lara on the ground, still trying to orient herself after absorbing the first hit. Arianna instantly dropped to her knees and covered D'Lara with a protective pose. She brought her sword up horizontally, just in time to meet a blade intended to finish off D'Lara. She pushed herself up and engaged the attacker in combat. This gave D'Lara enough time to get herself righted and on her feet again.

 

Xena's sword clashed with another attacker's as she blocked blow after blow in succession. "GABRIELLE, STAY BEHIND ME!" Xena yelled. But Gabrielle had other ideas. She turned around and aimed her staff at the next figure. She thrust her staff into his gut, doubling him over. Then she swung upwards striking the attacker on the helmet and staggering him. With a decided advantage, she swung her staff around behind his legs, cutting them out from under him and sending him to the ground.

 

Xena kept one eye on her attacker and another on Gabrielle. She parried one forward thrust, swung around and let her foot fly into the soldier's helmet. She landed gracefully, twirled her sword horizontally over her head and swung around just in time to block the thrust of another soldier. They traded blows until the soldier raised his sword above his head intending to slice downward at Xena. Xena was too quick, however and she thrust her sword into his exposed chest. Bracing her foot on his chest, she pulled the sword out, raised it up to her eyes and regarded the weapon with a smile and a slight nod of her head. Then her eyes narrowed and she swung around to meet yet another soldier. Their numbers were growing and they were soon crawling over the camp.

 

D'Lara had found her bow and arrows and began letting them fly. Her accuracy was remarkable as the arrows found their mark time after time. Arianna was holding her own, but was soon overcome by the shear numbers involved. Xena too was finding it difficult to keep up with the soldiers coming at her. Her difficulties turned to concern when she could no longer see Gabrielle.

 

"GABRIELLE? GABRIELLE1" Xena shouted. Fighting and searching. Eyes scanning the area. There was no answer from Gabrielle. Xena felt a swell of anger build up inside her. She gritted her teeth, yelled and bore into the soldiers around her. Her sword flew with a mind of its own. Slashing, cutting, and thrusting into anyone near her, but there were too many of them. She felt a kick to her midsection, then another to her jaw. A blow to her back and she dropped her sword and fell to her knees. She looked over and saw Arianna and D'Lara facing equal difficulties. It seemed like they were just about to be overcome when a strong wind kicked up. Suddenly, the attacks stopped. The soldiers retreated and the fog started to lift.

 

Xena felt her stinging jaw with her hand, then looked around for Gabrielle. "Gabrielle?" Still no answer. Xena raised herself on one knee, kept looking around and kept calling. The concern in her voice alerted Arianna and D'Lara. Each looked around the camp, calling for Gabrielle with no results. Finally, Xena spied Gabrielle's staff on the ground, almost completely covered with leaves and dirt. She ran over, picked it up and stared angrily at the retreating fog.

 

"Talinares." Arianna said.

 

Xena and D'Lara looked over at Arianna quizzically. "These dead soldiers are wearing Talinares' seal. They're his." she stated.

 

D'Lara bent down to one of the soldiers. She reached down for the helmet and began to pull. When the helmet was successfully removed, she looked up at Xena and Arianna in horror. "Minotaurs! But how?"

 

Xena threw down Gabrielle's staff, grabbed her sword and ran to Argo. Without a word, she jumped up onto the steed and rode off in the direction of the fog.

 

"XENA WAIT!" Arianna yelled. "D'Lara are you gonna be ok here alone?"

 

"Yes, go!" D'Lara confirmed.

 

Arianna ran to her horse and took off after Xena as fast as she could.

 

D'Lara watched Arianna ride off into the night. As she disappeared from sight, a chill ran up her spine. She took a deep breath and briefly shook her head so as to make the ominous feeling go away. "What was that all about?" she thought to herself. She turned back towards the remaining carcasses strewn about the camp. "Of course. It's those things. That's what this feeling is all about." She tried to console herself with that thought, but Arianna's image kept appearing in her head.

 

A sword. Arianna. Blood. "XENA NO!" D'Lara yelled out loud. She stopped suddenly and shook herself out of her vision. Her eyes were wide with horror from her premonition. Looking around, she spotted the rest of her arrows in a quiver by her bedding. She ran, gathered them up, then headed for her horse.

 

D'Lara jumped on the horse and reared her around. With a yell of encouragement and a swift kick in the side, she urged her horse on at full gallop. "This can't be true. It can't be." She thought to herself, and she continued to ride.

 

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"Bring her here!" Callisto said as her first battalion came back to camp.

 

Two Minotaur soldiers grasped the captive on each arm and began to drag her forward. She struggled against their efforts, but to no avail. Her wrists were bound tightly in front of her with a thick rope. Her legs remained untied merely for the ease of carting her around.

 

"Let.... go of me!" She protested as she tried turning from side to side to break their hold.

 

The minotaurs were unimpressed. They dragged their captive to Callisto and threw her down on her knees in front of the woman.

 

"Hello Gabrielle." Callisto snickered.

 

Gabrielle hadn't caught sight of Callisto before as she was too busy struggling, but the sound of that voice sickened her as she recognized it's owner. Slowly, she lifted her eyes from the ground and over to the familiar set of boots. She kept her gaze moving slowly, up to the knee, the thigh, the leather skirt and exposed abdomen. Then she suddenly lifted her eyes and stared directly into Callisto's. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and sneered in disgust. "You!" she said flatly.

 

"Surprised? Oh don't be. You should have known that someday I would come back and visit my two favorite people, and I am looking so forward to getting reacquainted."

 

"What do you want?"

 

"What I've always wanted. I want Xena dead, but first, I want her to suffer. I want her to suffer the way I did when she murdered my family. I want her to feel the pain of losing someone you love. The only difference is, she will be the reason for the loss. You see Gabrielle, I'm no longer content to have Xena watch you die. No, no, no. That would be too simple. I have a better idea. Interested?"

 

Gabrielle just sneered at Callisto.

 

"You see Gabrielle, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but........Xena.......is going to kill you." Callisto watched for Gabrielle's reaction.

 

"You'll never get away with this. Xena will stop you. Then she'll send you back where you belong. In the burning pit you came from."

 

"Your faith in Xena is touching. But faith doesn't get you results, action does. My plan is already in action, and working perfectly I must say. I'd love to stay and chat my sweet, but we've still got work to do. GUARDS! Take her away."

 

"IT WON'T WORK CALLISTO. CALLISTO!" Gabrielle yelled as she was spirited away by the guards.

 

"Callisto!" Talinares said. "The camp is nearly packed up and the troops are ready to head into Serres."

 

"Good. Let's move. Xena should be on her way as we speak."

 

Talinares nodded, then turned to gather the troops.

 

"Come on Xena. I'm waiting." Callisto said to herself through another demented smile. She continued to smile as she turned around and readied herself for the trip into Serres. This was going to be a glorious moment.



Part Two

 

Xena pushed Argo to a reckless pace. The wind whipped through her hair and her eyes were wet with tears from the air being forced into them. Or was it tears of concern for Gabrielle. At this point, Xena didn't know or care. All she could think about was getting her friend back unharmed.

 

'Damn! When did I lose track of her? I told her to stay behind me, why didn't she listen?' Xena's thoughts went back and forth between admonishing herself for letting Gabrielle get taken and getting angry at Gabrielle for not doing as she said. This mental vacillation replayed itself over and over again until Xena couldn't stand it anymore.

 

As Argo raced steadily towards the retreating fog Xena let out a piercing yell that echoed through the hills. It was a chilling sound and it caught Arianna's attention right away. She immediately steered her mare towards the sound in the hills. The fog had retreated enough that she couldn't use it as a visual guide to determine where Xena had gone, but that yell was something else. Arianna was determined to catch up with Xena before she ran into Talinares sentries. If there was anything complimentary to be said about Talinares, it was that he was very cautious where his river camp was concerned. Overly cautious in fact. It was bred out of his cowardice, but the defenses he had in place at this camp would serve notice to anyone who came near the perimeter. In Xena's state of mind, she might miss a crucial clue as to where the sentries were posted and it could be a fatal mistake.

 

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The fog floated over the hill. Xena cursed as it disappeared from sight. She pulled up on Argo's reigns and brought the horse to a stop. Argo was snorting and breathing heavily from the exertion, but Xena paid little attention. She searched furiously for clues as to the direction of the Minotaur battalion, but strangely, there was none. No footprints, no broken branches or twigs, no displaced earth, nothing. The lack of intimations frustrated Xena. She continued searching as she dismounted Argo. From her vantage point on top of the hill, Xena could see the whole valley below, but there was no sign of a battalion and certainly no hint of a military encampment.

 

"Gabrielle." She said softly to herself. Then she closed her eyes and threw her head back.

 

Arianna could see Xena silhouetted in the moonlight. She kept riding, hoping that Xena would stay exactly where she was. Soon, her hopes were rewarded as she came within earshot of Xena.

 

"XENA!" She yelled.

 

Xena stood still, looking out over the valley. Arianna rode up to her and dismounted her horse.

 

"Xena listen to me. I can get you to Talinares camp, but we have to be careful. Talinares has men posted in certain strategic positions and if we're not careful, they can get the drop on us."

 

"Talinares men don't concern me. Show me where his camp is." Xena said. She turned towards Argo but was stopped as Arianna's hand gripped her bicep firmly and pulled her back around.

 

"Xena." Arianna said sternly. She stared straight into Xena's eyes before she began again. "I know you're a great fighter, and I know that you seem to be blessed with powers that the rest of us lack, but now is NOT the time to be careless. You and I both know that what we just experienced tonight isn't natural. The Gods are at work here, and you're no good to Gabrielle if you're dead."

 

Xena matched Arianna's stare, but with those last words, her eyes softened into a look of disconsolation and understanding. Arianna loosened her grip and patted Xena on the shoulder.

 

"Let's go." she said.

 

Xena and Arianna mounted their horses once again and cantered steadily over the hill. It wouldn't be long before they were at Talinares' camp.

 

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The horses were left tethered to some trees several lengths behind so as not to chance blowing their cover. The campsite was surrounded by a small embankment around the entire perimeter. Dirt had been shoveled from outside the encampment so that it was shoulder high from the inside. However, it created a pit in front of the embankment that, in essence, made the small dirt barrier a formidable wall to scale from the outside. Not only was the wall twice as high from the outside, but an intruder had to contend with the loose rock and gravel that made footing almost impossible to master. That was all the advantage Talinares men would need before they easily dispensed with the onrushing enemy.

 

Xena and Arianna crawled up to the perimeter and lowered themselves into the pit in front of the wall. Arianna looked around wearily. Xena put her hand on Arianna's shoulder to get her attention. She pointed with her index finger and motioned upwards. Arianna nodded her head and complied. The two slowly scaled the wall, digging their feet in the loose dirt, clutching at it with their hands. Their advance was slow as they kept sliding back with every push upwards. Finally at the top, they peered over the wall cautiously. What they saw took them completely by surprise.

 

Arianna and Xena both looked at each other in disbelief. The entire encampment was empty. They climbed the rest of the way over the wall and came to their feet on the other side. Only an eerie silence awaited them.

 

"No wonder we were able to get so close so easily." Arianna observed.

 

"Hmmnn!" Xena agreed. "Look over there. Wagon tracks and footprints. They're definitely human. From the looks of it, I'd say they're headed to Serres. It makes sense. If Talinares uses those Minotaurs to capture Serres, he'll have a big stronghold on the northern region. Then he could go after the nearest port cities to control the waterways. That would take him to Neopolis and then............" Xena's words stopped in her throat as the realization hit her which city was next. "Amphipolis."

 

Xena's eyes narrowed and she could feel the anger starting to rise again. Arianna looked at her then looked out at the tracks leading away from the camp.

 

"They're going to Serres alright." Xena said. "But they're going the roundabout way. It's the only way to Serres that would allow them to allude detection until it's too late. I'm going on to Serres. I have to warn King Milos. I'll be able to get there before them if I cut straight across the valley."

 

"Xena wait. You can't go alone." Arianna pleaded.

 

Xena looked at Arianna and smiled. "You and I have come a long way since that meeting in the tavern." She said. "I want you to go back and get D'Lara. Tell her what's happening. If anything should happen to me, I'm going to need you two to get Gabrielle to safety. Promise me you'll help Gabrielle."

 

Arianna stared at Xena for a moment, searching her eyes. What she saw was shear determination and commitment. "I promise."

 

Xena nodded approvingly, then the two turned back to retrieve their horses.

 

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Once again, Xena pushed Argo. They rode on until it was nearly sunrise. As Xena reached the gate at the city of Serres, she was impeded by the guards posted as gatekeepers.

 

"Halt. HALT!" The guard yelled.

 

"Hiyaaahhhh!" Xena yelled as she and Argo spirited past the guards.

 

She rode right up to the palace gates and pulled Argo to a stop. A large band of guards had been in hot pursuit since Xena had ridden past the city gates. They caught up to her at the palace gates and had their swords drawn.

 

"Well I'm glad I got your attention." She said matter-of-factly.

 

"You're Xena! Warrior Princess!" one of the guards stated. "What do you want."

 

"I need to speak to King Milos. You're about to be attacked by the warlord Talinares. You don't have much time to prepare."

 

"We've heard of Talinares. Why should we be afraid of him?" Another guard interjected.

 

"Because he has the Gods on his side this time. His army is a battalion of Minotaurs. They're stealthy, they're quick and they're deadly. Now get me to the King or your city is lost."

 

"Stand aside. Stand aside," came the call from the palace gatekeeper. He opened the gate as Xena slipped off of Argo and stepped inside.

 

All the commotion had awakened and alerted the King. He was already on his way down to the grounds when he was met and briefed by one of his advisors.

 

The front doors of the palace opened and Xena carried herself confidently, in full stride across the polished marble floor of the grand entryway. Two soldiers followed closely behind. King Milos and his armed escorts greeted Xena in the hallway.

 

"Xena"

 

"King Milos. It's good to see you again."

 

"What's this I hear about an army of Minotaurs being led by Talinares of all people?"

 

"It's true. I've already done battle with a small brigade and believe me, they're no small task."

 

"I can't believe it. Minotaurs. I thought there was only one. If my memory serves me correctly, the Minotaur was a ferocious creature forged with the help of Poseidon. It caused much fear and destruction on Crete. King Minos commissioned Daedalus to build a labyrinth that was inescapable to trap the Minotaur in. Even though the Minotaur was captured and placed in the labyrinth, there were human sacrifices for nine consecutive winters until Theseus came along. He heard about the sacrifices and volunteered to end the Minotaurs reign of terror. Theseus entered the labyrinth to confront the Minotaur. Ariadne, King Minos' daughter, gave him a ball of thread so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth if he was successful. He fastened the thread to the entrance of the labyrinth and as he proceeded, unwinding the thread, he stumble upon the Minotaur while it slept."

 

"Theseus clubbed the Minotaur to death and led the others out of the labyrinth by following the thread to the entrance." Xena finished. "You've got your story straight alright. The problem is, these Minotaurs are just as ferocious as the Minotaur of Crete, but they're even deadlier."

 

Xena let King Milos digest what she was saying, then she continued. "King Milos, they're heading here to overtake your citadel, and they have Gabrielle. I will help your men get ready to defend the city, but my first concern is Gabrielle's safety."

 

"I understand." King Milos stated. "You will have my full cooperation. Capt. Valius, go with Xena. Prepare the army for a full assault."

 

The Capt. of the army stood forward and saluted.

 

"Xena, my army is well trained. We have plenty of weapons. We should have this invasion in hand with relatively little trouble." The captain said.

 

"Hmmnnn! We'll see. Just don't get overconfident on me." Xena said, as they headed out to gather the army.

 

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"ARIANNA! ARIANNA!" D'Lara yelled. She pulled on the reigns and took her horse out of a full gallop.

 

Arianna trotted towards D'Lara concerned by the tone of her voice. They both dismounted their horses and D'Lara ran up to Arianna and gave her a tight hug.

 

"Hey there, what's that for." Arianna said with surprise in her voice.

 

"Thank the Gods you're alright. I had a..... a vision."

 

Arianna grabbed D'Lara's shoulders and stared into her eyes. "D'Lara that's great. You're starting to gain back your powers of prophecy."

 

D'Lara shook her head. "No, no, no. This isn't good at all. What I saw, it was......you......Xena...." D'Lara paused, took a deep breath to calm herself down and continued. "I saw Xena and you fighting. Xena ran her sword through you. She had so much hate in her eyes. I couldn't believe it was the same person."

 

"D'Lara, you must be mistaken. Maybe, since you haven't used your powers in so long your images are a little.....distorted."

 

"I can only hope so. What I saw terrified me. The thought of losing you"

 

D'Lara's eyes filled with unshed tears. Arianna gave her a sympathetic look, then took her in her arms to console her.

 

"Nothing's going to happen to me. You'll see. I'm gonna be around for a long time."

 

"I'm gonna hold you to that."

 

The two laughed briefly. Then Arianna put her arm around D'Lara's shoulders and the two began to walk.

 

"Xena wanted me to come back and tell you what was going on. It's important because it will mean going back to the river camp. We can't avoid it if we're gonna get to Xena in time."

 

"In time for what?"

 

"Talinares and his army are headed for Serres. Xena thinks they're gonna try to take Serres, then head on to the port cities of Neopolis and Amphipolis."

 

"Amphipolis. Isn't that Xena's hometown?"

 

"Yes it is. Xena's going to get the army together at Serres. We need to be there to help her and to find Gabrielle. Are you up to it?"

 

"YOU SEE NOTHING! SAY IT! SAY IT!!!" D'Lara's mind raced backwards to the torture by Talinares once again, but she quickly snapped herself out of her stupor, and smiled at Arianna.

 

"Sure I am. Let's go."

 

Arianna smiled back at her. "Good. Let's do it."

 

The two mounted their horses and headed out.

 

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It was daylight now. It looked like Helios was planning to illuminate the day with intensity. The sun was already warm, and the sky, a bright blue. Xena hadn't wasted any time getting the Serrean army in position. They waited along the walls and behind barriers. The people of the city were ordered to stay in their homes until the melee was over. Most complied, but some wanted to be useful and volunteered to serve with the army.

 

As Xena stood on the wall, looking off into the distance, she suddenly stiffened at the sight of a large fog rising in the distance.

 

"GET READY! THEY'RE COMING!" She yelled.

 

Nervous soldiers eyed each other, looking for a small measure of confidence. None would admit openly that the sight of the fog on a morning such as this was unsettling, and the fact of what was lying within that fog was even more to be afraid of. But these men were going to defend their home, and as long as they had Xena with them, they had all the encouragement they needed.

 

The fog approached rapidly. Soon it was upon the front gate. The gate was closed and locked, but the fog acted as a battering ram forcing the gate open with plenty of fanfare. The gates flew open and fell off of their hinges. The fog billowed in and a hideous roar followed. The battle was on.

 

A sea of silver was visible through the fog. Swords clashing, helmets butting. The sunlight refracted through the fog, sending a dull gleam across the silver of the swords. The archers were having a hard time adjusting to the fog from their positions. For the time being, they weren't of much use. With the lack of backup from the archers, the swordsmen were being overtaken. Xena could see that the men were losing the battle and there was still no sign of Gabrielle. She was running out of time.

 

Suddenly, a strong wind began to blow. It blew with a ferocity that cause almost all the battle participants to pause and shield their eyes from the dust and dirt. Even the Minotaur battalion seemed momentarily stunned. Xena ran to a wooden platform in the center of the city square and grabbed onto one of the four corner support beams. The wind picked up blowing debris and dust throughout. It was also blowing out one more thing. The fog. The wind howled tempestuously until the last traces of fog were swept away. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, it disappeared.

 

Blessed with the sunlight and a clear view, Xena was the first to take advantage of the situation.

 

"ARCHERS ATTACK!" She yelled.

 

The archers sent a stream of arrows at the Minotaurs with most hitting their target.

 

"Ayiyiyiyiyiyi" She yelled. She somersaulted off of the platform and whirled around with her sword, slashing, slicing and thrusting into the opposition. Leaping into the air and thrusting her legs out in front of her, she was able to simultaneously kick the helmets off of two of the Minotaurs. Another one came at her with a spear. Xena side stepped the jab and grabbed the spear as the soldier ran by her. She turned the spear on its former possessor, ramming it into the Minotaurs hideous face. Then she dug the spear into the ground and used it to vault herself onto several more that had surrounded her. Xena gave her famous battlecry again and laughed as she stayed airborne, circling and kicking back all the Minotaurs around her. After successfully handling that retinue she caught sight of one of the Serrean soldiers fighting a Minotaur on the wooden platform.

 

Xena yelled again and somersaulted onto the platform just as the Minotaur had knocked the sword from the soldiers hand. It had its sword raised above its head, ready to send the soldier to Hades when Xena stepped in front of him. The Minotaur stopped its motion. Xena smiled.

 

"I don't think I'd do that if I were you." She taunted.

 

The Minotaur began to bring the sword down, but Xena's smile widened as she blocked the strike, then sent the Minotaur's sword flying. She turned in place and gave her sword a backwards thrust, straight into the Minotaurs ribcage. Xena mounted her foot against the attacker and pushed his body out and away from her sword.

 

More arrows flew from the Serrean soldiers. The tide had started to turn in their favor. Xena was taking on 2 and 3 soldiers at a time. She used her chakrum to take out whole rows of Minotaurs whenever it was possible.

 

Talinares saw what was beginning to happen. He'd heard how Xena had defeated the Horde with a small, depleted and demoralized band of Athenian soldiers and this began to frighten him. It was conceivable that Xena could completely turn the tide against his Minotaur battalion and the Serrean soldiers would be victorious. He couldn't allow that to happen. Fortunately, Callisto had prepared him for just such an occurence.

 

Talinares motioned to two of his men. They quickly turned around and ran away from the conflict. Moments later, they returned. Xena was still slashing, kicking, punching and stabbing. She was easily handling all takers who would challenge her.

 

"XENA!" Talinares yelled.

 

Xena whirled around and stopped at the sight that greeted her. Talinares had Gabrielle. Her arms were held behind her back and a knife was placed at her throat. Xena took two quick steps forward, but stopped abruptly when Talinares pushed the knife closer to her throat.

 

"GABRIELLE!" Xena yelled

 

"Xena?!" Gabrielle responded.

 

"Drop your sword Xena or Gabrielle dies." Talinares demanded.

 

Xena looked around. The fighting had stopped as all awaited her actions. Just outside of the city walls, Arianna and D'Lara were looking on. They had arrived only at this moment and Arianna, remembering her promise to Xena, made sure they stayed back and out of sight. Then Xena looked at Gabrielle and saw the fear in her eyes. She was too far away for Xena to try and take any action to free her. Reluctantly, she dropped her sword. Talinares motioned for two of his men to take the sword.

 

"Get her chakrum too." He ordered.

 

One of the men took the chakrum off of Xena's waist, then stepped behind her.

 

"Ok, you've got me. Now let her go Talinares. She hasn't done anything to you." Xena said.

 

Talinares relaxed his grip on Gabrielle and slightly lowered the knife from her throat.

 

"I can't do that Xena. Me and my new ally have plans for the two of you."

 

Talinares nodded his head at the soldier behind Xena once again. The soldier stepped forward and clubbed Xena on the back of her head with a baton. Xena's knees buckled from under her as she slumped down onto her side before rolling onto her back unconscious.

 

"XENA!" Gabrielle yelled. She struggled against Talinares and was successful in breaking free since Talinares had carelessly eased his grip on her.

 

Gabrielle ran towards Xena as fast as she could. Talinares soldier ran towards Gabrielle and greeted her skull with the same club he'd just used on Xena. Gabrielle fell forward, a mere stride away from where Xena was laying. Barely conscious, Gabrielle opened her eyes and saw Xena's right arm extended and her face turned towards her. Even unconscious, Xena seemed to be lending assurance to her. Gabrielle reached her hand towards Xena's, then all faded to black.

 

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A small group of Minotaurs gathered around Xena. They tied her hands together in front of her then pulled her up and lifted her by her shoulders and her legs. They carried her to a straw filled cart and placed her on it. Gabrielle was picked up by two of Talinares men. They each took an arm and began to unceremoniously drag her away from the city center. The Serrean soldiers had thrown their weapons down and surrendered. Talinares had won.

 

Meanwhile, Arianna and D'Lara stayed in the shadows and followed the soldiers dragging Gabrielle around. The soldiers turned a corner and were now alone and out of sight of the rest of the battalion providing Arianna and D'Lara with the perfect opportunity.

 

D'Lara pulled two arrows out of her quiver, took aim and fired them both simultaneously. The arrows rushed through the air towards Gabrielle, but at the last second, they altered their course and split, piercing each soldier through the neck. With their vocal chords severed from the piercing arrows, the soldiers couldn't even give out one last cry in pain.

 

"You have got to teach me how to do that." Arianna said. She winked at D'Lara and went to retrieve Gabrielle.

 

Arianna grabbed Gabrielle under her armpits while D'Lara grabbed her legs. They took her past the a row of shops and out of sight.

 

"Pssssst. Come here!" came a whisper.

 

Arianna looked around.

 

"Over here. Hurry!" came the whisper again.

 

"There." D'Lara said and pointed to a middle aged woman standing at her doorway.

 

They picked up Gabrielle and hurried into the dwelling.

 

"Put her over here." said the woman, pointing to a bed away from the windows and near the fireplace. "I have some medicine in the back."

 

"Who are you and why are you helping us?" Arianna inquired.

 

"My name is Falia. I've lived here all my life and I don't want to see Talinares destroy this city. I stayed hidden at the city center while the battle was going on. I left when they put Xena in the cart and our men surrendered. I've heard that they've already got King Milos in chains. I'll do anything I can to help."

 

Arianna regarded her for a moment trying to decide if she was telling the truth. She looked at D'Lara who nodded affirmatively.

 

"Thank you. It's good to have a friend here." Arianna said.

 

"We're all your friends here. Trust me. No one wants Talinares around." Falia said.

 

"Falia, how much influence do you have with the people of Serres?" Arianna asked.

 

"They listen to me. They respect my opinions." she stated.

 

"That may be of use to us later. We may need you to help gather the people up to challenge Talinares again, but first, we need make sure that Gabrielle is ok. Then we need to find out where they took Xena and get her out of there." Arianna said.

 

D'Lara was tending to Gabrielle, placing a cold towel behind her neck and on her head to help with the swelling, when she suddenly stiffened and sat straight up. Her mind was presenting her with another vision.

 

'Dark! Grey stones! Straw on the flooring! Chains! A metal door! "Xena." she said out loud.

 

Arianna and Falia turned their heads towards D'Lara.

 

"Falia, there's a place near here. It's dark. There's straw and dirt on the floor. A metal door leads into it and there's a length of chain attached to the wall with wrist cuffs on the end. Do you know where that is?" D'Lara asked.

 

"It sounds like the castle dungeons. I used to work there for King Milos, bringing food to the prisoners. Most of the cells have bars for doors, but there are a few in the very bottom of the dungeon that have metal doors. Those are reserved for the worst offenders of the law in our society. Those who can't be rehabilitated. Why?"

 

"Arianna, that's where they took Xena." D'Lara said.

 

Arianna smiled with pride. D'Lara was really starting to overcome her fear of having psychic abilities. But her pride was short lived, as Falia shared a bit of bad news with them.

 

"I'd hate to tell you this, but if they took her there, I don't see how you're gonna get her out. There's only one way in and it's always heavily guarded. I can only imagine what kind of sentinel force Talinares would have in place if he was keeping Xena there. Besides, even if you did get in, each dungeon only has one key. You'd have to get past all the guards, and then find the one with the key."

 

"There has to be a way. We'll think of something." Arianna said.

 

D'Lara continued her work on Gabrielle.

 

"Is there anything you need?" Falia asked

 

"Yes. I need a cup of water." D'Lara confirmed

 

Falia poured out a cup of water from a pitcher she had filled the night before and handed it to D'Lara. D'Lara removed a small pouch from her vest pocket and put three small pinches of the mixture in the water. Falia handed her a stir stick which D'Lara took graciously. She dissolved the mixture in the water and stirred it around a bit.

 

"What is that?" Arianna asked

 

"Do you remember the time you were injured at Dragon Lake at the top of Gamila Mountain?" D'Lara began.

 

Arianna nodded slowly.

 

"It was cold. Wintertime. I had to get you to shelter and keep you warm. The only place was the Perama Cave near Ionnina. I took you there, but you were severely injured. I was desperate to wake you up and make you whole again. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. Finally, and only because of shear exhaustion, I lied down next to you and fell asleep. I had a dream that night. My father came to me. He held his hand out for me to take, but I was apprehensive. Funny, I've never seen my father, but I knew it was him, just like I knew that it would be ok to accept the hand he offered me. So I placed my hand in his and he led me away from the cave. We glided without words, but with complete understanding, as if we were engaged in an intense conversation composed only of our thoughts. He showed me how to put this mixture together and etched the memory of it in my mind. These herbs, this particular combination was just what was needed for your particular injury. The same injury that Gabrielle has now."

 

Arianna listened intently. D'Lara had never told her this story before.

 

"When I woke up," D'Lara continued, "I was at the mouth of the cave, and this pouch was in my hand. I've never been able to explain it. Sleepwalking, maybe. I don't know. All I know is that I had to get you to ingest this. Once I did that, it was only a matter of hours before you were fully conscious again. The swelling on the back of your head had gone down and you were on your feet in no time. I'm hoping it will have the same effect on Gabrielle. Her injuries aren't as severe as yours were, so this should act even faster."

 

D'Lara continued stirring the mixture into the water. Arianna just stared at her.

 

"Help me with her." D'Lara asked.

 

Arianna placed her arm under Gabrielle's shoulders and lifted her slightly. D'Lara forced her lips apart and slowly poured some of the medicine into her mouth. She stopped after just a little bit to massage Gabrielle's throat and force her to swallow involuntarily. These steps were repeated until all of the medicine was gone. Arianna lowered Gabrielle back onto the bed and placed her head softly on the pillow. D'Lara felt her forehead for a temperature, but found none to her relief. After another moment of silence, Arianna finally spoke up.

 

"D'Lara. Why didn't you ever tell me about your..."

 

"My dreams?" D'Lara interrupted, finishing Arianna's thought for her. "Arianna, I wasn't in the best state of mind at the time. We weren't long past you rescuing me from Talinares. What could I have said that wouldn't have made me look like some babbling fool who'd lost her mind? It wasn't the right time, that's all."

 

Arianna understood and she didn't press any further. Instead, D'Lara offered her more.

 

"You know, I've dreamt about my father several times since then. Usually in a time of great need. I think I transpose what my image of him is into my own mind when I need direction. It manifests itself in my dreams and suddenly, I have the answers. I just wish I had the chance to know him."

 

"Xena?" came the soft whisper from Gabrielle. She began to move her head from side to side, struggling to regain consciousness.

 

"Gabrielle, can you hear me? Wake up. Wake up Gabrielle." D'Lara said softly in return.

 

"Xena? Xena? XENA!" Gabrielle shot up into a sitting position, opened her eyes and looked around frantically. "Xena? Where's Xena? We have to help her!"

 

"Gabrielle, it's ok. Take it easy." D'Lara said as she put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and tried to ease her back onto the pillow.

 

"What's going on, where am I?"

 

"We're at the home of a woman named Falia." D'Lara said. "You've been injured and you need to take it easy for a while."

 

"We have to help Xena. Where is she? What happened to her." Gabrielle looked around the room desperately.

 

"Gabrielle, we're going to help her, but we need to get you well first." D'Lara stated.

 

"Where....is....she!" Gabrielle asked again. With more determination this time.

 

Arianna took a deep breath before she began to explain.

 

"Xena's been taken by Talinares' men. We believe she's being held prisoner in the castle dungeons. Talinares has control of the city and has taken King Milos prisoner as well. We have to be careful Gabrielle. Once they realize you're missing, they're going to comb the city looking for us."

 

Gabrielle was starting to gather her senses again. She waited a moment to clear her head, then she began to speak.

 

"Ok! Now then! You say Talinares has control of the city and Xena's being held prisoner in the castle dungeons. How do we get into the dungeons?"

 

"That's just it," Arianna said. "According to Falia, there's only one key to each cell and getting past the defenses is close to impossible."

 

Gabrielle pulled herself up on her elbows. "We can't go up against Talinares alone. That's for sure. With Xena fighting with us, we stood a chance, but now that she's a prisoner, there's no way we can do it alone. And we're going to need someone to help us break into the dungeons. I know just what we need to do."

 

"What do you have in mind?" D'Lara asked.

 

"First, we're going to get out of here. I'm going back to the Amazons to see Ephiny. She'll help us put an army together, and as for getting Xena out of the dungeons....I know just the man." Gabrielle gave a wry smile. "Autolycus. He's perfect for the job."


Part Three

Xena slowly opened her eyes and lifted her head up off her arms. She was sitting and leaning against the cold gray stones of the dungeon wall. Her wrists were bound with metal cuffs attached to a small length of chain secured to the wall about midway up it. The length of chain was so diminutive that it didn't allow the prisoner to lie down. As it was, it only allowed her elbows a slight bend when she was sitting. but even in a sitting position, the prisoners arms were raised above their heads so as to intensify the discomfort and make it easier to break their resolve.

 

Xena's arms had fallen asleep during her period of unconsciousness and her wrists were raw and red from the pull of her body weight against the cuffs. She braced herself against the wall, got up on one knee, then pushed herself into a standing position. The rise was little too quick and Xena leaned against the wall for support when the headrush came. It didn't last long however and Xena slowly started to take inventory of her body. Her head hurt, her arms and wrists were sore, but that was about it. The next order of business was figuring how to get out of the dungeon.

 

She grabbed the chain with both hands and began to tug, then pull at it. It was too secure. She wasn't going to get loose that way. She stopped pulling on the chain, inspected her cuffs and found that they too were secure. Next, she started to scan the cell for any flaws or other defects that she might use to her advantage. Nothing.

 

"I have to hand it to you King Milos, your dungeons are definitely state of the art." She said to herself.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

A guard was heading towards Xena's cell with a tray of bread and water when he was stopped by a hand on the shoulder.

 

"Not now. I have some....business.....with the prisoner. Come back later."

 

The guard nodded, gave a slight bow and turned to leave.

 

Another guard was stationed right outside the metal dungeon door.

 

"Open it!"

 

He reached for the keys on his belt, retrieved the correct one and unlocked the door.

 

Xena turned towards the door to see who was coming to pay her a visit. The door opened slowly, and Xena's visitor stepped inside. Xena inhaled a quick breath. Her eyes were wide with surprise, but she quickly gathered her composure and assumed her usual stern look.

 

"Callisto." she said with an vexatious sneer.

 

"Oh Xena, it's been too long." Callisto said through a wide grin. " I've missed you so. I can't tell you how boring it was in that lava pit. Velaska's no fun to play with at all. Not like you Xena. I've missed all the fun we used to have."

 

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you're the one behind Talinares' Minotaur battalion, or that you escaped from the lava pit." Xena said.

 

"Aren't you even going to ask me how I escaped Xena?"

 

"I couldn't care less." Xena replied. "But there is one thing I want to know. Why Talinares? What's in it for you?"

 

"Talinares. Yes, well, he's just a pawn in my overall plan to destroy you." Callisto taunted. "My motives have never changed Xena, only my methods. Talinares was just the right person, in the right place at the right time. As far as what's in it for me..........I get to see you suffer, just like I suffered when your army set fire to my village and killed my mother and sister. An eye for an eye wouldn't you say Xena?"

 

Xena just stared at Callisto.

 

"The beauty of my plan is......you are going to be your own method of destruction. I only have to sit back and watch. You see Xena, I'm going to take away from you, the one person that you care about most in this world. Your precious little Gabrielle."

 

Xena stiffened at the mention of Gabrielle's name.

 

"I see I've gotten your attention." Callisto laughed. "The best part is, I'm not going to be the one to kill Gabrielle. You are!"

 

Xena's eyes narrowed. A look of anger crossed her face. "That'll never happen."

 

"Oh but it will, and you won't even know it's happening until it's too late. You see Xena, I'm a God now." The smile disappeared from Callisto's face and was replaced with a very serious stare. "And as a God, I have the power to make things happen that you have no control over."

 

With that said, Callisto raised her hands in front of her and pointed them out towards Xena. They began to glow until they built up an intense light. Xena watched Callisto, not sure what to expect. Callisto closed her fingers over her palms, capturing the energy emerging from her hands. Then, with a quick thrust, she threw her hands open in Xena's direction. The light turned into a bolt of electricity and quickly found its way to Xena. The energy burst hit Xena full force and sent her backwards into the wall, knocking her breath out of her.

 

Callisto laughed heartily. Xena, still standing, looked up at Callisto only to see her raising her hands once again. Instead of a bolt of electricity, this time, a sharp invisible pain was sent through Xena's body. Xena fell to her knees and gritted her teeth against the pain. Callisto pushed her hands towards Xena again. The pain intensified, causing Xena to arch her back and turn towards the wall away from Callisto. She started thrashing her chains violently, trying desperately to dislodge them from the wall. Callisto just continued her assault.

 

With each thrust of her hands, the pain in Xena's body heightened. Xena could no longer contain herself. She threw her head back and let out a scream of pain. Callisto smiled and gave her hands one last thrust before letting go. Xena collapsed to the floor and sat, sweating and out of breath, with her head against the wall and her eyes shut tight.

 

"This is only the beginning Xena. There's plenty more where that came from. By the time I'm through with you, you won't know which way is up."

 

Callisto turned and walked out the door, leaving Xena breathless and exhausted.

 

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"Falia, you used to work for the King, if anyone would know this, it's you. Is there a secret way out of the city that will help us to allude Talinares' men and the Minotaurs?" Arianna asked.

 

"There is. We can't go until nightfall, but as soon as the sun goes down, I'll show you the way." Falia replied.

 

"Gabrielle, how far are we from the Amazon village?" Arianna asked.

 

"We're not more than a day. If we leave tonight, we should be there by midday tomorrow."

 

"And what about this Autolycus guy. You said he's a thief. Are you sure he can be trusted?"

 

"The only person I'd trust more in this situation is Hercules, but he's in the south of Greece and it would take too long to get to him. Autolycus is close. We can get to the Amazon village and have Ephiny send out a scout to meet him. By the time we get the Amazons together and battle ready, he should be there as well."

 

For the rest of the day, Gabrielle continued to recuperate. D'Lara gathered up essentials that they would need for the trip and Falia prepared a meal for all of them. Arianna had left the dwelling to do some spying of her own and wasn't back until dusk. She came in quietly through the back door and made her way over to D'Lara and Gabrielle.

 

"They have Xena's horse in the King's stable. Argo is being heavily guarded. Our horses should still be tethered in the woods. We'll have to get by with the two horses instead of three. It shouldn't slow us down too much though."

 

"That's ok." Gabrielle said with a shy smile. "I'm used to riding on back." Secretly, she was relieved that she didn't have to ride Argo on her own.

 

"There's one more thing." Arianna warned. "They already know that Gabrielle is missing. They're starting to comb the city looking for her. They still don't know about us though. Falia, we need to get out of here as soon as possible. I don't want to chance us being here when they come."

 

Falia nodded approvingly. "You all sit down and eat something first. I'll go change, then I'll take you out of the city."

 

The three managed to eat a little food, but there was no time to enjoy their meal. Falia emerged quickly and urged them to follow her.

 

The sun hadn't completely settled yet and the danger of being discovered was greater with each remaining moment of light. They stayed out of sight, hiding behind walls and pillars and remaining in shadows whenever possible. Falia would lead the way and motion when the coast was clear. Several times, a troop of Minotaurs would pass by them as they stayed under cover.

 

As night began to fall, the anguished cries of the city's inhabitants started to fill the air. The Minotaurs were still uncivilized and retained much of the destructive qualities of the Minotaur of Crete. Their need for blood was never fully satiated and they would do what was necessary to appease their cravings. It was the unlucky person, straying too far from their home at night that fell prey to the ravenous monsters.

 

The distant screams unsettled Gabrielle. It wasn't that long ago that she was captured by these very same Minotaurs. Who knows what could have happened to her if Arianna and D'Lara hadn't rescued her.

 

"Quick, over here." Falia whispered as loud as she could.

 

Arianna, D'Lara, and Gabrielle ran up to her but stopped and looked at one another in confusion. They were at a dead end. Nothing but concrete walls with torches placed every six paces. Falia saw their confusion and smiled. She turned to one of the torches and pulled down on it.

 

Slowly, the wall at the end of the corridor began to open. Arianna looked at D'Lara and smiled. She was the first one through the opening. D'Lara and Gabrielle followed. Falia however didn't follow them in.

 

"Aren't you coming?" Arianna asked.

 

"I can't, I have to go back. Follow the pathway to the end. You'll come upon some steps. Go up those steps and unlatch the hatch. You'll exit at the far end of the woods. You should be safe then." Falia explained. "I wish you luck. I'll gather up the people of this city. When you return with your friends, you'll have allies here waiting to help. I promise you that."

 

D'Lara went to Falia and gave her a hug. "Thank you. Thank you for everything."

 

Arianna followed suit. "And I promise, you'll have your city back."

 

Finally, Gabrielle gave Falia a hug. "I owe you so much. Thank you."

 

Falia just smiled and nodded at the three women. "Go now and be safe."

 

The trio disappeared into the opening and Falia gave the torch another tug. The wall closed behind them. Falia turned around and retreated back towards her house.

 

Arianna, D'Lara and Gabrielle continued straight down the pathway, just as Falia had instructed. There were several turns and openings in the tunnel. They could easily get lost if they didn't know where they were headed.

 

"One of these paths has to lead into the castle, maybe even into the dungeons." Arianna said. "When we get back, we need to find out everything about these tunnels from Falia. It could be valuable to us and invaluable to Xena.

 

Gabrielle remained unusually silent during the rest of their trip through the tunnel. Her mind kept wandering back to Xena and how she threw down her sword to save her life. She felt a pain in her chest when she thought about Xena lying on the ground after being struck by Talinares' guard.

 

'God's, she's always risking her life for me.' Gabrielle thought. 'Now it's up to me to save her. I won't let you down Xena. I won't let you down.'

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

At the end of the tunnel, the trio found a set of footsteps leading upwards. Arianna went first. Gabrielle noted the roots protruding from the ceiling and the side walls. Arianna stopped at a wooden door, lifted the latch and slowly opened it outward. She peered around the door, saw that they were in the woods and stepped through. D'Lara and Gabrielle followed.

 

"Huh, clever!" Gabrielle said as she looked at the tree trunk which disguised and camouflaged the secret doorway.

 

Arianna closed the door behind them. With the door closed, the tree looked just like any other although it was a little wider than the rest. The latch was nothing more than a broken off branch and the door hinges were on the inside so that they didn't show. She looked at the city walls, looked up at the sky to get her bearings and figured out their position in the woods.

 

"Come on. This way!" Arianna said as she motioned with her hand for Gabrielle and D'Lara to follow her.

 

The three trudged through the woods, guided by the stars and the moonlight. Arianna noted the surroundings, recognized where she was and started speeding up the pace. They were all moving quickly, pushing aside branches, stepping over fallen trees and logs, and shifting through the underbrush. Finally, they found what they'd been looking for. The horses, still tethered to the trees, enjoying their leisurely graze on the nearby shrubbery.

 

Arianna looked back and threw a smug smile in Gabrielle and D'Lara's direction. The smile was returned by both women. They headed directly for the horses. D'Lara stopped short, looked behind the nearest tree and reached around.

 

"Gabrielle, I have something for you." she said as she tossed the item in Gabrielle's direction.

 

Gabrielle reached out and caught the object in mid-air. "My staff. Where'd you find it?"

 

"Xena found it at the last campsite. She threw it down when she went after you. I picked it up before I went looking for Arianna and ....well....there you have it."

 

Gabrielle smiled and slightly bowed her head in a nod of thanks towards D'Lara.

 

"Let's go find Ephiny." she said.

 

They quickly untied the horses and mounted them. Gabrielle climbed up behind D'Lara and they galloped off heading south east.

 

'It won't be long now Xena.' Gabrielle thought to herself. 'Hang on, help is coming.'

 

D'Lara sensed Gabrielle's thoughts and smiled approvingly. 'How lucky Xena is to have a friend like Gabrielle.' she thought. 'How lucky I am to have Arianna.'

 

The three continued to ride. They would ride until sunrise. They would ride as long as it took. They would get help, and, the Gods willing, they would get it on time.

 

------------------------------------------------------

 

The sun had just started to peak over the horizon. The horses were no longer running, but merely trotting. They had stopped several times to rest the animals and to stretch their own legs, but now they were close and Gabrielle began to get excited with anticipation.

 

"We're almost there, it's just over this ridge." she said, pointing to the shoal in front of them.

 

"What are we waiting for? Let's hurry." Arianna replied.

 

"No wait." Gabrielle cautioned. "This is the last place that we need to ride into wildly. The Amazons have several enemies. They don't just let anyone pass into their territory. Go slowly, and when I say so, follow my lead."

 

Arianna and D'Lara complied. The horses continued at a walking pace for the remainder of the excursion. Gabrielle kept alert, looking around and listening. As they passed over the ridge, Gabrielle finally heard what she'd been listening for. A soft coo-cooing emanating from the trees.

 

"Stop the horses." Gabrielle demanded.

 

Arianna and D'Lara pulled up on the reigns.

 

"Come on. Get off of the horses and do what I do."

 

Arianna and D'Lara, although confused, felt it was probably wise to do as Gabrielle suggested. Gabrielle dismounted, moved away from the horses, rested her staff on her shoulder and raised her arms, while holding her palms together above her head. Arianna and D'Lara did the same. Within moments, several vines were issued from the trees and a group of Amazon women descended. Arianna and D'Lara looked around in wide eyed amazement. They hadn't even sensed the Amazon's presence around them.

 

One of the Amazons took the lead. She walked towards Gabrielle, removed her headdress and bowed.

 

"Queen Gabrielle!" she said.

 

The other Amazons bowed as well.

 

"Queen Gabrielle?" Arianna asked as she eyed Gabrielle with obvious surprise.

 

Gabrielle ignored her for the moment.

 

"I need to speak to Ephiny. Can you take us to her?"

 

The Amazon nodded affirmatively. Soon, the women were back on their horses being escorted into the Amazon village.

 

Ephiny emerged from her hut and saw the entourage in the distance. She couldn't tell who was in the party, but she was determined to find out. She gathered a small group of women together and started walking towards the oncoming party. The groups met at the edge of the village. Ephiny saw Gabrielle and a smile lit up her face. Gabrielle's smile was just as evident. She dismounted the horse and ran up to greet Ephiny.

 

"Gabrielle."

 

"Ephiny"

 

The two women hugged.

 

"It's so good to see you." Ephiny looked around. "Where's Xena?"

 

Gabrielle's smile faded and her demeanor became serious. "Xena's been captured by Talinares. We need help getting her back."

 

"Talinares? You've got to be kidding. I've heard of him. How did someone like Talinares manage to capture Xena?" Ephiny asked.

 

"He has some help. Brace yourself for this." Gabrielle said.

 

Ephiny stared at Gabrielle, turned her ear slightly towards her and leaned slightly forward awaiting Gabrielle's news.

 

"Talinares is being helped by Callisto."

 

"Callisto!" Ephiny said

 

Arianna shot her head towards Gabrielle at the mention of Callisto's name. "Gabrielle, did you say....Callisto...is helping Talinares?"

 

Arianna jumped down off of her horse and started walking towards Gabrielle with the question still written in her eyes. D'Lara looked at Gabrielle in confusion as well.

 

"Arianna, I'm sorry. I didn't even think about it. I'm so sorry I didn't mention it before."

 

"Gabrielle, who're your friends?" Ephiny asked.

 

"Oh! Yeah! Ephiny, this is Arianna and this is D'Lara. They've been fighting against Talinares with Xena and I."

 

"Welcome!" Ephiny said as she extended her arm towards Arianna.

 

Arianna and Ephiny shook hands, but Arianna was still looking at Gabrielle with an inquisitive expression on her face.

 

"Callisto escaped from the lava pit with the aid of Strife. The Gods are unaware of her presence here and she's managed to do a good job of eluding detection so far."

 

"Gabrielle, if Callisto escaped, then what about....Velaska?" Ephiny asked.

 

"Oh no, it's just Callisto. Velaska is still very much interned in the lava."

 

Gabrielle looked around at the Amazon women surrounding them. She glanced at Arianna and D'Lara, then turned back to Ephiny.

 

"Callisto has managed to conjure up an army consisting of Minotaurs."

 

The mention of Minotaurs got quite a reaction out of the surrounding group of women. They started talking amongst themselves until Ephiny raised her hand and waved them off.

 

"These Minotaurs are just as fierce and destructive as the one we've all heard about from Crete, but Theseus was able to overcome that one and we'll be able to overcome these ones." Gabrielle continued. "Ephiny, I need your help. Not just to save Xena, but to free the city of Serres and stop Talinares from advancing any further. Will you help?"

 

Gabrielle's eyes pleaded her case for her. Ephiny didn't need to think twice.

 

"Oh course we'll help. We owe Xena a lot and you are our queen. We'll get Xena back."

 

Gabrielle smiled and gave Ephiny a big hug.

 

"Thank you Ephiny. I knew we could count on you."

 

"Come now. Why don't we eat? I'll bet you're starved after your long trip here." Ephiny suggested.

 

"Food sounds good." Gabrielle agreed. "Oh, but first, I do need another favor."

 

Ephiny waited.

 

"I need you to send someone after Autolycus. He's in the next village to the east of here and we're going to need him as well."

 

Ephiny nodded and motioned to one of the women standing nearby. Without words, the woman silently nodded and bowed to Ephiny, then turned to leave. She needed no descriptions to find him, however. Autolycus was well known in the Amazon community after his bold intervention at the Amazon funeral fire for Xena. His role in helping to restore her soul to her body became legend and his face was almost as familiar to them as one of their own.

 

"Come now. We have a lot to discuss and plans to make before we head out." Ephiny said.

 

The women turned and headed into the village. Arianna was lost in thought. She tried to picture the last time she saw Callisto. They were children. Callisto was standing in front of her mother's hut watching the fire burn it to the ground.

 

'Callisto. Gods, I can't believe it. After all this time. Callisto!'

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

"Xeeenaaaa! I'm baaaaack!" came Callisto's typical taunting voice.

 

Xena opened her eyes and raised her head. "And I was just beginning to enjoy myself."

 

"Oh Xena. Did you miss me. I missed you. I missed the fun we had yesterday. I'm back to play some more."

 

"I don't wanna play." Xena said through her teeth as she shot Callisto a sarcastic smile.

 

"Oh, but you'll like this game. Yesterday was just a tease. This time it'll be so much more fun."

 

Xena was just about to speak when Callisto shot her hands out in Xena's direction sending a shocking pain through Xena's body again. Every muscle in Xena's body tensed up. She shut her eyes tight trying to block out the pain. Callisto continued her assault as she did the day before. With each thrust, the pain grew deeper and deeper until Xena could no longer stand it. She tried again to pull her chains from the wall. Every time she tried to stand, another shot of pain would cause her knees to buckle. Xena's strength and will were slowly starting to fade, much to Callisto's delight.

 

The brutal torture continued throughout the day. Callisto would only break for small intervals before starting up again. At each interval, she would implant a suggestion into Xena's subconscious. Whispering to her. As the day went on and the time grew later, Xena became so exhausted from the torture that she was barely conscious and incoherent.

 

Callisto continued one last assault. Xena barely had the strength to fight back. She was on her knees, with her face and hands pressed against the wall. Her eyes were tearing up from the pain as she gave one last effort to pull the chains from the wall. Callisto smiled and released her hold on Xena. Xena collapsed to the floor, sitting up against the wall. She wanted nothing more than to lie down right now, but it was impossible. So she remained sitting, out of breath and sweating from the exertion.

 

"That's all for today my sweet, but don't worry. I'll be back again tomorrow and we can play some more."

 

Callisto exited the cell. Xena watched her through half open eyes until the door shut behind her. Xena's breath became ragged. She looked around the cell, then licked her dry lips and swallowed hard. Her mouth was parched as well and she was desperately craving water. However, Callisto hadn't allowed her any in the two days she'd been interned. She didn't have long to think about the water, however, as she involuntarily succumbed to her body's need to rest. Xena closed her eyes and was soon unconscious once again.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

"Amazons. We have a great battle ahead of us." Ephiny said as she stood in front of the bonfire and addressed the crowd of women before her. "You're queen needs you, and I know that I can count on you to give her your best."

 

Gabrielle stepped forward and stood next to Ephiny. D'Lara and Arianna stood together, but apart from the rest of the crowd. They were still trying to process the story that Gabrielle had told them about how she gained the right of caste and became Queen of the Amazons. For Arianna, it was almost too much to learn in one day. Gabrielle was an Amazon Queen and Callisto was still alive and allied with her arch enemy. They stood and watched as Gabrielle began to speak.

 

"I know that I'm asking a lot of you........But I'm asking not for myself, but for Xena. Xena desperately needs all of you to help free her. The citizens and King of Serres need you to help take their city back. I don't know how to fight a God. But I believe that if we free Xena, she'll know what to do and she'll lead the way. May the Gods be with you, and from the bottom of my heart.....thank you."

 

The group of women were proud to serve Gabrielle. She'd proven her worth several times over and they were more than happy to help their queen.

 

Ephiny stepped up once again. "MOVE OUT!" she commanded.

 

The women, all dressed for battle turned towards their horses and efficiently moved out towards Serres.

 

Gabrielle looked around worriedly. Ephiny saw the concerned look on her face and asked her about it.

 

"I'm just concerned that Autolycus isn't here. I thought he'd be here for sure by now. What if he didn't get the message? How're we going to get Xena out of that cell?" Gabrielle asked.

 

"We'll find a way." Ephiny assured her. She put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder for emphasis. "It would be nice if Autolycus were around but......."

 

"Did somebody say..........Autolycus?"

 

Gabrielle and Ephiny turned around to see the King of Thieves himself standing next to his two Amazon escorts.

 

"Autolycus, you're here." Gabrielle said through a wide grin. She ran and gave him a hug.

 

"Always glad to be of service Gabrielle. I understand why you would feel the need to call me, afterall, I am the best. There's no job to difficult for the King of Thieves." Autolycus said as he ran his index finger and thumb over his mustache.

 

Ephiny rolled her eyes and laughed at this man's arrogance. Gabrielle introduced Autolycus to Arianna and D'Lara. With all the players in place, they rode out and headed towards Serres.

 

'Hang on Xena, we're coming.' Gabrielle said to herself. She willed her thoughts to Xena with all her heart.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

'Hang on Xena, we're coming' came the distinctive voice in Xena's head

 

"Gabrielle?" Xena said softly. Her eyes were still closed. She didn't have the strength to open them.

 

Her head slumped forward as she was claimed once again by sleep.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

Falia had emerged from the last house. She had spent the entire day and night visiting several of the citizens of Serres. It wasn't hard to convince most of them to help, but some resisted getting involved. They were too scared. She had set up a signal with those who were willing that would indicate that help had arrived. She had also prearranged a signal to attack in case it became necessary. Now she headed back to her own house to await word from Arianna, D'Lara and Gabrielle. The wait was excruciating.

 

----------------------------------------------------

 

It was well before dawn when the Amazon force arrived at the secret entrance in the woods. Arianna had led the party directly to the spot, then easily picked out the proper tree amongst all the others in the woods. D'Lara was just as amazed with Arianna's scouting and fighting abilities as Arianna was with her own precision on the bow. The two still had a lot to learn from one another.

 

Arianna grabbed a hold of the upturned branch and lifted it, unlatching the doorway concealed by the bark of the tree. She opened it outwards and proceeded inside, followed closely by D'Lara. Gabrielle, Ephiny, Autolycus and the Amazons waited outside until Arianna and D'Lara returned with Falia.

 

"Wehehell!" Autolycus mused. "That's extremely clever. I'm sure this information will come in handy one day."

 

"Autolycus!" Gabrielle castigated him lightly. "We're not here scouting out your next 'job'. "

 

"Ah, yes, well, I want you to know, that I only have you and Xena in mind." he said while putting forth his best innocent look. "though a reward from the king would be nice." he said under his breath.

 

"What was that?" Gabrielle asked

 

"Oh, I was just saying a sword and a......DRINK.....would be nice."

 

"We can help you with the sword. As for the drink..." Ephiny began, but she didn't finish. It was a rhetorical comment and she wanted to emphasize the inappropriateness of his statement.

 

Autolycus wiped his hand across his vest nervously. "Ah ha, I see." he gave a short laugh. "Actually, a sword won't really be necessary, but I thank you nonetheless." He bowed and removed himself from the uncomfortable situation.

 

As the Amazons busied themselves tending to their horses and their weapons Autolycus found himself a rock to sit on. He picked up a twig, broke it in half and threw each half away one at a time. "Minotaurs! How do I get myself into these things." he said out loud to himself. "Oh, and let's not forget. Callisto! No problem. It shouldn't be too hard to overtake a God!"

 

"Autolycus?" Gabrielle called

 

Autolycus turned around and looked at Gabrielle.

 

"Look, I'm sorry for being so stern with you over there. I really do appreciate what you're doing for me and Xena. Really"

 

"Oh it's alright Gabrielle? I've been in tougher scrapes before. The actual situations escape me at the moment, but I'm sure I've been in tougher scrapes before." Autolycus smiled unconvincingly and slapped his hands onto his knees.

 

"I'm sure you have. At any rate, I want you to know just how much I appreciate you helping us out again. I don't know what we'd do without you." Gabrielle kissed him on the forehead then left.

 

"Well, this job may not be so bad afterall." he said to himself.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

Arianna and D'Lara emerged from the other end of the tunnel and made their way out of the dead end corridor. They proceeded cautiously through the city, retracing the path they took out of it until they found themselves at Falia's door. Arianna knocked lightly. Falia looked out her window, saw Arianna and D'Lara then quickly opened the door.

 

"Come in, come in." she said.

 

As they entered, she looked in both directions to make sure they weren't spotted. Convinced that they weren't she closed the door. She hugged both of them and welcomed them back.

 

"I'm glad your both ok. Where's Gabrielle?"

 

"She's back in the woods. We brought back an entire Amazon nation with us." Arianna said smiling.

 

"Thank the Gods. I've spoken to the citizens here and they're ready to help. What do you need?"

 

"First of all, we need disguises for the Amazons. If they're going to mingle amongst the rest of you, they have to look like the rest of you. Can you gather some clothing?" Arianna asked.

 

Falia nodded. "I can get a lot, but not enough for an entire Amazon nation."

 

"We won't need that much. Most of them will remain outside the city walls until they're called upon. Some will come with us to the dungeons to spring Xena. The rest will be placed throughout the city in strategic locations. They'll remain there until the call is given. Then they'll shed their disguises and ambush those around them. That'll be when we'll need the people you've gathered to join in and help."

 

"I understand. I'll let them know."

 

"Now, the last thing we need is for you to come back with us and draw us a map of the tunnels arcades. We need to know which corridor leads to the dungeons, which to the courtyard, the city center etc. Can you do that for us?"

 

Falia nodded.

 

"Good, let's go then."

 

Falia, D'Lara and Arianna headed out of the house and back to the secret tunnel. They hurried to the end of the tunnel and through the door to the woods. Gabrielle, Ephiny and Autolycus came over to greet them. Falia was amazed at the shear numbers of the women involved. That and the fact that she'd never seen an Amazon before. She was awestruck. Gabrielle made introductions all the way around then they all sat together to peruse the map that Falia had drawn and discuss their options.

 

"I'll leave Viceria in charge of the group outside the wall. Sentaria will go with Falia and will be in charge of the inside group. But I think we should all be present at the dungeons. That's the most dangerous place and that's where we're needed the most. We can take 6 of our best warriors with us. Once we get Xena out and she's able to help us, then we'll pull our surprise attack on Talinares forces." Ephiny suggested.

 

"That sounds good to me." Gabrielle added. "If we get Xena out without fanfare, then I don't think we'll have Callisto to worry about. She doesn't want to risk losing her freedom by having the Gods find out about her escape. As long as we keep the fight out in the open, we should be ok."

 

All agreed. The group broke up and began to prepare for their invasion. D'Lara started towards her horse to retrieve her bow and arrows when she suddenly stopped in her tracks. A fleeting vision of a sword in the hands of an enraged Xena passed before her, but just as quickly disappeared. She looked towards Arianna who was sharpening her sword, then she looked skyward. "Please! Don't let it be true." she prayed.

 

Arianna stopped sharpening her sword and looked up to see D'Lara praying. D'Lara felt Arianna's stare and returned it. The two spent a moment regarding one another, then Arianna smiled and gave D'Lara a slight wink. D'Lara smiled back, and Arianna went back to sharpening her sword.

 

"It's almost dawn. We have to get going." Gabrielle said.

 

With that, the group went into the tunnel along with the group of Amazons that Falia was to have outfitted with civilian clothes. They broke apart at the first split in the tunnel. Gabrielle and her entourage taking the path to the right, to the dungeons and to Xena.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

Ephiny and Arianna led the group to the end of the corridor and instructed them to wait. The two of them went ahead to make sure the coast was clear. As soon as it was, everyone emerged from the tunnels and proceeded.

 

"How are we gonna know which one is hers?" Autolycus asked.

 

"The one that's the hardest to get to with the most guards around it. That would be hers." Arianna replied.

 

Autolycus sighed, raised his eyebrows and rolled his eyes. Ephiny laughed to herself and smiled approvingly at Arianna. Arianna just smiled and shook her head.

 

"D'Lara said she saw a metal door. Falia said that those cells are at the very bottom of the dungeons. The steps are over there." Arianna said, directing everyone to the point of descent.

 

They quietly made their way to the steps. No one was in sight so far. Slowly they made their way down the steps. Arianna and Ephiny were near the bottom when they heard a couple of guards talking and walking by. They quickly backed up the steps and against the wall. The guards walked by without noticing anyone. Arianna stuck her head out and looked in both directions to make sure the coast was clear, then the group moved out again.

 

"D'Lara, which way?" Arianna asked.

 

"I'm sensing more energy and tension to the right." D'Lara said.

 

The group moved to the right and headed down the narrow hallway. Just as they were near the end of the hallway, a couple of guards turned the corner. Everyone stopped for a moment. The guards drew their swords, yelled and charged at the group. Ephiny and Arianna drew their swords and easily dispatched of the two guards, but not before they had alerted the others that something was amiss.

 

"So much for the element of surprise." Arianna said. Then she charged down the hall at the other guards with the others close behind.

 

Gabrielle took out one guards with her patented sweep and thrust of the staff. Arianna, Ephiny and the small band of Amazons with them became involved in a sword fight. D'Lara used her bow in the same fashion that Gabrielle used her staff and took out a couple of guards on her own. One guard ran away from the fight and escaped from the dungeon. It wasn't long before the battle was in hand and the remaining guards were disposed of.

 

Gabrielle ran to the cell door, slid open the food slot and peeked through. She could barely see in the darkness, but she was able to make out Xena's form slumped against the wall.

 

"She's in there. Hurry! Autolycus!"

 

Autolycus reached inside his vest and pulled out a little leather packet. He unwrapped it and withdrew two thin metal prongs. "Tools of the trade." He said as he turned towards the lock and began to work.

 

"Hurry Autolycus, that one guard got away. We may have company soon." Arianna said.

 

"It'll be just.....one.......moment....aaaaand....there you have it!" Autolycus smiled as the lock unlatched itself. He remove the lock and opened the door.

 

Gabrielle was the first one through. She ran to Xena who was still unconscious and slumped against the wall.

 

"Xena? Xena can you hear me?"

 

Gabrielle moved Xena's head towards her and drew in a deep breath. She bit her lower lip as she looked upon Xena's pale features. Then she noticed how the metal cuffs had cut into Xena's wrists.

 

"God's Xena, what have they done to you.?" she said with pronounced concern.

 

Autolycus was already at work trying to unbuckle the cuffs. The cuff holding her left wrist came off first. Xena's arm fell limply to her side. Gabrielle positioned herself behind Xena so that she wouldn't fall back when the right wrist was released. Xena's head was tilted back and resting on Gabrielle's right shoulder. Finally, Autolycus freed her right wrist and the full weight of her body fell back into Gabrielle's arms. Gabrielle rubbed both of Xena's arms as best as she could, trying to get the circulation going in them again.

 

"Xena, I'm so sorry." Gabrielle whispered to her.

 

"Gab-brielle?" Xena said. She struggled with the name as it escaped her lips in a horse whisper. She swallowed hard trying to get some moisture back into her mouth, but to no avail.

 

"Gabrielle?" she whispered again.

 

"Shhhh. Shhhhh! Xena. Don't talk. We're gonna get you out of here."

 

"Here, give her some of this." Ephiny said as she handed Gabrielle a waterskin.

 

Gabrielle raised the waterskin to Xena's lips and Xena began to drink greedily from it. Once she was finally done quenching her thirst, Xena tried raising her hand to touch Gabrielle's face, but it fell well short of its mark before she passed out again.

 

"Come on, let's get her out of here." Gabrielle said.

 

The group of Amazons came forth and gathered around Gabrielle and Xena. They carefully lifted Xena out of Gabrielle's arms, then picked her up and carried her out. Gabrielle watched as they took Xena's unresponsive body out of the cell. Her eyes began to well up with tears. Ephiny walked over to her and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. Without words, she escorted Gabrielle out of the cell.

 

Autolycus lingered behind in the cell, looked at the unclasped cuffs and patted himself on the back.

 

"All in a days work." He said to himself as he unconsciously brushed his mustache with his fingers again. Then he turned and followed the others out of the dungeon.

 

------------------------------------------------------

 

The group retreated back up the stairs, carrying Xena with them. Once again, Arianna and Ephiny lead the way. They reached the top of the steps easily. Arianna looked out and saw that no one was around. She motioned for the others to follow her as they headed back towards the tunnel entrance. The group hurried along. Arianna turned to and looked behind her to make sure that everyone and everything was alright. They rounded the next corner just as Arianna turned her gaze back towards the front. As they turned the corner, Arianna and Ephiny instantly grinded to a halt. The others stopped behind them.

 

"Arianna! How nice it is to see you again." Talinares said. He was surrounded by a large band of soldiers and blocking the tunnel entrance.

 

"Quick, the other way!" Arianna yelled.

 

The Amazons, Gabrielle and Autolycus quickly changed their direction and started heading out of the dungeon through the front entrance.

 

"GET THEM!" Talinares yelled.

 

Arianna and Ephiny drew their swords and held the men off in the corridor while the others escaped. D'Lara withdrew a couple of arrows from her quiver, and set them on the bow.

 

"GET DOWN!" she yelled as she let go of the bowstring.

 

Arianna and Ephiny ducked out of the way as the arrows flew by them. They hit their mark, striking the front guards and sending them flying backwards into their comrades. It created a domino effect, knocking all of the men off of their feet as they were standing too close together to begin with.

 

The distraction allowed Arianna, D'Lara and Ephiny to escape.

 

"IDIOTS! IDIOTS!" Talinares yelled. "GET UP! GO AFTER THEM!"

 

The men struggled to their feet, readjusted their armor and headed after the group.

 

"This way!" Gabrielle yelled as she pointed out the proper direction.

 

They headed towards the dungeon exits and were met by another four soldiers.

 

"Oh ho ho! Hey there!" Autolycus said as he raised his hands to his shoulders with his palms out in front of him. He spotted a candle filled sconce suspended from a rope just above the soldiers. The rope was attached to a pulley and tied off at the wall. He reached over to his belt, and withdrew a dagger.

 

"Pardon me gentlemen." he said. Then he threw the dagger towards the rope, splitting it from it's tie and sending the sconce crashing down on top of the extremely surprised soldiers.

 

Arianna, D'Lara and Ephiny had just turned the corner on time to see the sconce fall. Arianna slapped Autolycus on the back.

 

"Not bad!" she said, as she stepped around the fallen soldiers and resumed her lead.

 

"Yes! Well! Autolycus said as he tucked his thumbs in his belt and gave a smug grin. His smugness was short lived however as he noticed that he was being left behind. "Hey, wait up!" He yelled. He retrieved his dagger then went after the others.

 

They successfully emerged from the dungeons into the castle courtyard. It was well into daylight now. Talinares men were hot on their trail and they had to hurry. They headed towards the castle gate, but were spotted by another group of soldiers.

 

"Oh Gods!" Gabrielle stated

 

"This way!" Arianna yelled.

 

The group changed their direction once again, running away from the castle gates. The Amazons carrying Xena were starting to get winded. Her body weight and the constant running were beginning to take their toll. Arianna and Ephiny continued to lead the group away. They ran across the courtyard, turned the corner along the castle walls and headed down the narrow corridor.

 

"Now we have them." one soldier said with a feral grin. He continued his pursuit with the other soldiers who were soon joined by Talinares and his men.

 

"It's a dead end!" Ephiny stated as the group came to the end of the corridor.

 

"Not quite!" Arianna corrected. She ran to one of the torches, pulled down on it and was rewarded when the wall started to slide open.

 

Ephiny smiled approvingly at Arianna, dipped her head slightly and proceeded through the opening.

 

"Hurry, they're coming!" Arianna said. She ushered the rest of the group through the opening, then pushed the torch back into position. The wall slowly started to close. Arianna glanced down the corridor one last time and saw Talinares and his men heading towards her. She smiled, gave a salute and ran through the opening just before it closed up entirely.

 

"DAMN!" Talinares yelled. He ran to the wall and tried to pry it open. His men did the same with no luck. "GO BACK! CIRCLE AROUND AND HEAD FOR THE CITY CENTER!" He yelled.

 

The guards retreated and headed towards the castle gate, then out to the city center.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

Falia already had the people of Serres gathered up. The Amazons were outfitted with long brown, hooded robes. They looked like any other peasant in the city. Everyone else went about their daily chores, staring knowingly at one another and trying to look inconspicuous. They nervously awaited the call to action.

 

Falia was discussing the plans with Sentaria when a commotion in the city center caught their attention. Arianna and Ephiny came running into the opening followed by the rest of the group.

 

"What the.......they're supposed to be outside by now." Falia said. She started to move in their direction, but was held back by Sentaria.

 

"Wait, let's see how this plays out before we deviate from the plan." Sentaria advised. "The others aren't even at the gate yet. We'll be annihilated if we move now. We'll move when we have to, but not before."

 

-------------------------------------------------------

 

"COME ON!" Ephiny yelled.

 

The band ran into the clearing and stopped in their tracks. To the right was Talinares and his men. To the left, another group of soldiers. They couldn't go back the way they came because the wall opened too slowly to allow them to get away. They continued running forward until a swarm of Minotaurs cut them off and halted their progress. They were surrounded.

 

The Amazons put Xena down gently and took up their weapons. Arianna, and Ephiny stood together with their swords out in front of them. Gabrielle ran over to where Xena was lying and placed herself protectively next to her. Autolycus kneeled next to Gabrielle.

 

"This doesn't look promising." he whispered to her.

 

Gabrielle looked up and saw a figure emerge from behind the front line of Minotaurs.

 

"Leaving so soon? I wouldn't hear of it. And you're taking my playmate with you. This'll never do. We're not quite through with her yet."

 

"CALLISTO!" Gabrielle yelled.

 

Arianna shot her head around to face Callisto. There she was, standing in front of her, after all these years. She resembled nothing of the little child she remembered back in Cirra. D'Lara placed her hand on Arianna's shoulder. Arianna just continued staring at Callisto. She took a hesitant step forward and put her sword down.

 

"Callisto." Arianna said.

 

Callisto turned to Arianna. "Do I know you?"

 

"Callisto, it's me. Arianna."

 

Callisto just stared at her. "I don't know an Arianna."

 

"Callisto. I'm Arianna. From Cirra. Remember? We were best friends when we were children."

 

Callisto's features softened a bit and a slight smile made its way to her lips. "Arianna? Is that really you?"

 

Arianna smiled. "Yes. It's me." She took a step forward, but stopped when Callisto's expression changed considerably.

 

"I remember now. I remember you ran. You left your family and friends to die at Xena's hands."

 

"I was a child. I didn't know any better. I was afraid."

 

"I stayed! I watched my family burn. My mother and sister died that day and as far as I'm concerned, so did you."

 

"Callisto no. We need to talk. You can't continue to let this hatred consume you. Xena's changed. She's not that person anymore. I've forgiven her, why can't you?"

 

"Never. Xena will die, and if you're with her, you'll die too." Callisto stalled for a moment as a thought occurred to her. "It's all coming together for me now. You're the meddling little protege of Talinares that Strife warned me about aren't you? I must say, he was very taken with your skills and abilities. It doesn't matter. You won't be able to interfere this time."

 

Xena began to stir. She moved her head from side to side, struggling to regain consciousness. Her eyes fluttered open and she was staring up at the sky.

 

"Xena?" Gabrielle said. Her heart leaped for joy when Xena's eyes opened.

 

Xena sat up under her own strength, then got to her feet. Ephiny and Autolycus gave each other a smug grin. Now that Xena was up and around, the tide would definitely turn in their favor. Callisto was wearing a stern expression as she watched Xena steadily make her way towards her. Xena moved through the group very deliberately and headed straight towards Callisto. Callisto removed her sword from her sheath. Xena's face was expressionless as she move within one pace of Callisto. Callisto held her sword out with the tip at Xena's throat. Xena didn't move.

 

"Let's see if you've learned anything." Callisto said.

 

She lowered her sword, and raised the hilt towards Xena. Xena took the sword, then slowly turned around and faced the group that had freed her.

 

"What's going on?" Ephiny asked with alarm.

 

"Xena?" Gabrielle noted for the first time that Xena wasn't looking at her, but through her. Her sparkling blue eyes were a dull gray and she showed no sign of recognizing anyone in front of her.

 

"Xena? KILL GABRIELLE!" Callisto yelled.

 

Xena backhanded a stunned Ephiny sending her to the ground, she kicked right past Arianna and D'Lara, sending them sprawling as well, and headed towards Gabrielle. Gabrielle took a couple of steps back. Xena raised her sword. Gabrielle's eyes grew wide. She couldn't believe Xena was going to do this.

 

"Xena no. Don't!" Gabrielle pleaded.

 

Her words fell on deaf ears as Xena brought her sword down in a forceful downward motion, but it was met by another blade just in front of Gabrielle's neck. One of the Amazons had blocked Xena's blow with her own sword. Xena turned and sliced at the Amazon, from the left, from the right. The Amazon was blocking each slice. Another joined in and Xena fought with the two of them. Soon a third came running towards Xena. Xena kicked her in the stomach, blocking her advance. She continued to do battle with the two Amazons.

 

"XENA STOP! FIGHT IT! DON'T LET CALLISTO CONTROL YOU!" Gabrielle shouted.

 

The sound of Gabrielle's voice enraged Xena and made her fight harder. She fought off one of the Amazons and ran her sword into the other. The rest of the Amazons joined in now. Xena parried their thrusts. She backhanded one woman sending her sprawling backwards. Outnumbered five to one, Xena was still winning. She took down another, then another. One by one, the Amazons fell before Xena. Ephiny was still dazed from the blow that Xena delivered. She was just now trying to orient herself. Arianna got up as well. Seeing the commotion in front of her, she grabbed her sword and ran towards Xena."

 

"ARIANNA WAIT!" D'Lara yelled.

 

Arianna ran and confronted Xena head on. The two traded blows back and forth. Arianna meant only to disarm Xena, not to hurt her. Xena sent her sword arcing down towards Arianna. Arianna blocked her. Their swords locked and Xena sent a backhand into Arianna's jaw. Arianna stumbled back and lifted her sword horizontally over her eyes just in time to meet Xena's sword which was slicing down towards her. Xena kicked Arianna in the stomach and sent her backwards onto the ground.

 

"XENA STOP! PLEASE!" Gabrielle yelled.

 

"KILL HER XENA!" Callisto yelled back. Her eyes were wide and a huge smile was painted on her face.

 

Xena turned back towards Gabrielle.

 

"Oh no you don't." Arianna said.

 

She jumped in between Xena and Gabrielle again.

 

"ARIANNA!" D'Lara yelled desperately.

 

Arianna turned her head towards D'Lara to make sure she was ok. The way D'Lara yelled her name made her think that she was in dire circumstances. The distraction was all Xena needed. She took her sword and thrust it into Arianna's side with such force that it pushed all the way through her and out her back.

 

"NOOOOO!" D'Lara yelled.

 

Arianna dropped her sword. Her eyes were wide and her mouth open as she looked at Xena, then down at the sword protruding from her body. Xena was still holding on to the hilt of the sword. She gave the sword a firm yank and pulled it out of Arianna's body. She raised the sword up to eye level and stared at the blood lustily. Arianna dropped to her knees, clutching her side. The blood was pouring out of her and she began to feel dizzy. D'Lara ran to Arianna and threw her arms around her as she slumped to the ground.

 

Callisto laughed as Arianna lay on the ground dying. D'Lara wept openly. "I saw this. Back at the camp I saw this. I should have stopped it."

 

"Don't....blame....yourself,.... please." Arianna whispered. She gasped for her next breath. "You told me." She swallowed hard. "It was my decision, and mine alone."

 

D'Lara shook her head and wiped away her tears. "You'll be ok. You hear me? You'll be ok."

 

"D'Lara." Arianna whispered again. "I want you to continue to pursue your dreams. Embrace the gift, learn about your father, overcome your fears. Promise me."

 

"I promise." D'Lara said as the tears reformed in her eyes. "But you have to be there to help me through it. I can't do it without you."

 

"You can. You will. I'm sorry." Arianna whispered. She was forming tears of her own.

 

"Don't leave me Arianna. I don't know if I can live without you."

 

"D'Lara, I......" Arianna gritted her teeth and tilted her head back. She took a couple of deep breath to give herself one last bit of strength. "I.....love you."

 

Arianna coughed, inhaled, then let her breath out with a ragged cadence. Her muscles relaxed and she was still.

 

"No!" D'Lara cried. "No, please." She held onto Arianna's body and rocked her back and forth. "Arianna, please. Wake up. WAKE UP!"

 

"Wake up. WAKE UP..." the scene replayed itself for Gabrielle as she remembered Xena's lifeless body lying on Nicklio's table. She felt like it was happening to her all over again.

 

Ephiny looked on with tears in her eyes. The fighting had stopped. Xena stared at the blood on her sword. As the blood dripped down the sword, it triggered a reaction in her. She blinked her eyes, and shook her head.

 

"Xena?" Gabrielle said cautiously.

 

Xena looked at Gabrielle this time. Not through her, but at her. She had a confused expression on her face. She looked at the sword again, then down at Arianna. Suddenly, she started to comprehend the situation. She dropped the sword, and fell to her knees. Gabrielle ran to her and put her arms around Xena's shoulders.

 

Callisto saw her control over Xena start to disappear. "Xena. Kill Gabrielle." Callisto demanded.

 

Xena got up, wearing and extremely angry expression as she turned towards Callisto. "No Callisto. I'm coming after you."

 

Callisto shot her hands out towards Xena and sent her flying backwards with an invisible, yet painful burst of energy.

 

"Noooo!" Gabrielle yelled through gritted teeth as she began to charge Callisto.

 

Callisto greeted her with the same motion of her hands and another burst of energy, knocking Gabrielle off her feet. Ephiny and the remaining Amazons, upon seeing their queen sent flying rushed Callisto as well. They too were given the same treatment.

 

"Damn you Callisto." D'Lara said angrily.

 

Xena had gotten up and ran over to Gabrielle.

 

"Oh how touching. Still trying to protect her. You should know by now that it's useless trying to fight me. I'll just have to alter my methods again, but you're still going to die. Count on it." Callisto said.

 

She sent another burst of energy towards Gabrielle. Xena covered Gabrielle's body and absorbed the blow, as Callisto continued her assault.

 

Sentaria and Falia spotted Viceria and the rest of the Amazons outside the city gate. Sentaria whistled loudly and gave a cat call. The Amazons threw off their cloaks and began to attack. The people of the city took up arms as well and swarmed upon Talinares and his men. A couple of the Amazons overtook the gatekeepers and let in their sisters. Soon, the entire Amazon war party was inside the city walls.

 

Callisto stopped her assault and turned to see the onrushing Amazons. Xena looked up as well. Callisto turned back towards Xena, let out a shrill scream and sent her hands flying in Xena's direction. The burst knocked Xena back and away from Gabrielle.

 

"XENA!" Gabrielle yelled as she reached out to her.

 

Callisto continued screaming as she let out one burst after the other in succession. All aimed at Xena. Xena was sent sprawling.

 

D'Lara had just about enough. She gently put Arianna's body down, picked up her bow and arrows and aimed at Callisto. "Go to Hades you bitch!" she said to herself as she let the arrows fly.

 

Three arrows pierced into Callisto causing her to stop her assault on Xena. She looked down at the arrows extending from her body and began to laugh. One by one she pulled the arrows out. The punctures where the arrows had struck her healed themselves instantly.

 

"You little fool. Don't you know that I'M A GOD?" Callisto yelled as she stepped towards D'Lara.

 

-------------------------------------------------------

 

Xena was still lying on the ground, disoriented from the recent attack by Callisto. Gabrielle was at her side trying to help her to her feet. Autolycus had disappeared during the confusion and was nowhere to be seen. Ephiny joined the other Amazons in fighting the Minotaurs and Talinares troops.

 

Though the Amazons were great warriors, they were still greatly outnumbered. Even the group of Serreans that came to help weren't enough to overtake the battalion.

 

------------------------------------------------------

 

"You know, it's not me you should be mad at. Xena's the one who killed your friend."

 

"Xena was under your control. You are responsible not her." D'Lara said.

 

"You're a fool little girl, and you're starting to annoy me. I'll be happy to help you join your friend."

 

Callisto raised her arms, but at that moment, another fierce wind picked up. It was instantaneous and powerful. Dirt, dust and debris went flying. The Amazons, Serreans, Minotaurs and Talinares army all stopped fighting to take cover.

 

"GABRIELLE!" Xena yelled. "HOLD ON!"

 

Gabrielle grabbed a hold of Xena, wrapping her arms around her neck. Xena wrapped one protective arm around Gabrielle's waist and the other around a nearby tree. Callisto was even stopped by the wind. She stood in place, shielding her eyes. Two whirlwinds appeared simultaneously. They made their way across the center towards Callisto. As they came within ten paces of Callisto, the winds died down and the whirlwinds disappeared revealing two very attractive figures. One, a man, the other, a woman.

 

"Apollo!" Xena said. She was stunned.

 

"ARTEMIS." Ephiny yelled. She could hardly contain her excitement.

 

Gabrielle looked at Xena then over towards the Gods. She couldn't believe what she was seeing either.

 

"Callisto!" Apollo said. "You've been a bad girl. The Gods aren't happy, and neither am I."

 

"What have they got to do with this? And what do you care what I do?" Callisto shot back.

 

"I care. I'm not about to let you hurt my daughter." Apollo said, indicating D'Lara.

 

D'Lara's eyes were wide and her mouth open with disbelief. This was the man in her dreams.

 

"And I" Artemis stepped forward, "won't let you destroy the Amazons with your misguided Minotaur army."

 

"I'm not afraid of either of you." Callisto sneered. "ATTACK!" she yelled.

 

The fighting went on. Artemis transported herself to the wooden platform in the center of the square and waved her arm towards the scene of the fighting. One by one, the Minotaurs began to fall. With Artemis fighting with them, the Amazons had a renewed vigor. Autolycus emerged out of nowhere and ran to Xena and Gabrielle.

 

"Where've you been?" Xena asked sternly.

 

"I was busy putting my several talents to good use." Autolycus brought his hands out from behind his back and held them out towards Xena. In one hand was her sword. In the other, her chakram.

 

"Looks like you have many skills too." Xena said with a crooked smile.

 

She took the weapons from Autolycus and ran to help with the fight. Gabrielle smiled at Autolycus. He just nodded proudly.

 

As the Minotaurs were being taken down one by one, the Amazons got the upper hand in the battle. Artemis smiled and watched her warriors finish the battle.

 

Apollo and Callisto engaged in a battle of their own. Apollo grabbed D'Lara and took her to cover. He grabbed his own bow and arrows, took aim at Callisto and fired. His arrow hit its mark as it bore into Callisto's leg. Callisto was stunned. That actually hurt. She removed the arrow from her leg, but unlike before, the wound didn't heal. Callisto let out a savage scream and raised her hands towards Apollo, intending to hit him with the same burst of energy she'd attacked Xena with. But Apollo was too fast for her. He release a second arrow which found its way into Callisto's shoulder. Callisto screamed again and fell to her knees. She was in severe pain.

 

"I'm a God. YOU CAN'T DO THIS TO ME!" She yelled, but she was no longer in any condition to fight back.

 

The Amazons were busy putting the finishing touches on the Minotaur battalion. The last one faced Ephiny. She did a short sword dance with it. Slicing, thrusting and parrying until she disarmed it and ran it through. The men in Talinares' army surrendered without incident. A group of Amazons had been sent to release the King and the fighting was over. The Serrean people cheered as the Amazons took the remaining soldiers away.

 

Artemis and Apollo stood over Callisto and discussed her fate. After a short consultation, they held their arms out in front of them creating a soft bluish glow around Callisto. Callisto looked around, cursing and promising to be back. The blue light intensified and with a wave of their hands, the brother and sister Gods sent Callisto away from Serres.

 

"What'll happen to her?" Gabrielle asked.

 

Apollo turned towards Gabrielle and smiled. "She's going back to the lava pit, where she came from."

 

"Artemis, we humbly thank you." Ephiny said.

 

Artemis looked out over a large group of Amazons who were all kneeling and bowing their heads. Gabrielle decided that it would be wise to do the same.

 

Artemis looked at Gabrielle and Ephiny and bid them rise. "Gabrielle and Ephiny, you have been entrusted with the leadership of these women warriors. You have given the Amazons back their good name. I thank you for that. And I hope you'll continue to prosper. I have no doubts that the decision to make you queen." she indicated Gabrielle, "and you the acting queen in her absence" indicating Ephiny, "was the best decision for all involved. Guide them well."

 

Ephiny and Gabrielle bowed towards Artemis. She smiled, waved her arm and disappeared. The Amazons looked around at one another and engaged themselves in an excited conversation.

 

"You can hear the excitement in their voices." Gabrielle said

 

"Well," Ephiny replied. "It's not everyday you get to fight alongside a God."

 

"Not unless your Xena that is." Gabrielle laughed. "Speaking of Xena, where is she?"

 

Gabrielle and Ephiny looked around but didn't see Xena anywhere. They looked all around them at the several bodies that littered the city center. Gabrielle's heart jumped into her throat as a thought occurred to her. She grabbed Ephiny's arm.

 

"Ephiny, what if she was hurt, or even worse, what if...."

 

Ephiny hushed Gabrielle. "Come on, let's go look for her."

 

They walked over to Autolycus, asked for his help, and the three of them went through the grim task of searching the bodies for any sign of Xena.

 

-----------------------------------------------

 

Apollo turned towards D'Lara, but she had moved out from the protective cover he had placed her behind. He looked around and found her cradling Arianna's lifeless body once again.

 

"D'Lara?"

 

"I don't understand." D'Lara said. Her eyes never left Arianna's face. "I thought you were dead. Why did mother lie to me?"

 

"She didn't lie to you. She never told you I died. She just said I was gone. You assumed that I was mortal and that I was dead. Your mother was trying to protect you, as was I."

 

D'Lara looked up at Apollo. "Why didn't you reveal yourself until now?"

 

"I have. I came to you in dreams. I gave you your gift of prophecy. Your abilities with the bow, your musical talents and your healing abilities. These are all areas within my domain."

 

"But why couldn't you show yourself to me before. Outside of my dreams?"

 

"I didn't want anyone to know that you were my daughter. I have several enemies and you would have been a target for them had they known. Especially for one in particular. Python."

 

"Python?"

 

"Yes. We just defeated him at Delphi. Now that Python is no longer a threat, I felt it was safe enough to reveal myself to you. The rest of my enemies are nothing I can't handle, but I want you to know that I've always kept an eye on you. I tried to be there whenever you needed me. Not in the physical sense, but in the only way that I could until I was sure it would be safe to reveal your lineage. I hope you can understand that."

 

Apollo looked down at Arianna, then to D'Lara.

 

"She didn't need to die." D'Lara said as the tears dripped from her eyes again.

 

"D'Lara, it's not too late. You can still help her."

 

"What?" D'Lara wiped away her tears in disbelief.

 

"You have the power within you. Her soul has not crossed over to the other side yet. There's still time."

 

"How?"

 

"Put her down."

 

D'Lara looked at Apollo skeptically, but in her desperation decided to do as he said. She gently placed Arianna's body on the ground.

 

"Give me your hands."

 

D'Lara placed her hands in Apollo's. He took them and placed them on top of Arianna's wound.

 

"Now then, do you remember a dream you had when you were near Ionnina where you cured an injured rabbit with your hands?"

 

D'Lara nodded. She had been distraught to see a child abusing the rabbit, after snaring it. The child tortured the rabbit, and left it for dead. It was brutal to watch. After her dream, she went outside to find the rabbit, but it was gone.

 

"Did I heal that rabbit? Really?"

 

"Yes you did, and you can heal Arianna the same way. Now concentrate. Come on, you can do it."

 

D'Lara concentrated and poured every ounce of her soul into her healing method.

 

"That's it." Apollo said in a soft voice. His hands were still placed over hers.

 

Suddenly, D'Lara lifted her head skyward and closed her eyes. Their hands started to illuminate. Arianna's wound began to seal itself. D'Lara continued her ritual. Arianna remained motionless. D'Lara continued to concentrate. Suddenly, she felt movement under her hands. She opened her eyes and looked down at Arianna. Then she felt for a pulse and was relieved to find one. Tears started to well up in her eyes again as she felt an overwhelming excitement. Apollo put his hand on Arianna's head and she suddenly began to stir.

 

D'Lara gasped and placed her hands over her mouth. She hadn't dared to hope, but now.....

 

Arianna moved her head from side to side, then slowly opened her eyes. D'Lara smiled a cried in relief as she lifted Arianna on to her lap.

 

"D'Lara." Arianna said in a weak whisper.

 

"It's ok. You're back and I'm not letting you go." D'Lara said. She pulled Arianna closer to her and kissed her on the forehead.

 

Arianna closed her eyes and relaxed into D'Lara's embrace.

 

--------------------------------------------------

 

Gabrielle, Ephiny and Autolycus ran over to D'Lara.

 

"D'Lara, we can't find Xena." Gabrielle said frantically.

 

"By the Gods." Ephiny said as she looked down at Arianna and noticed she was breathing.

 

"By the Gods is right." D'Lara said smiling. She stroked Arianna's hair. "Apollo is my father. He helped me bring her back."

 

"Apollo is your father?" Autolycus asked rhetorically. "Well, that explains a lot of things where you're concerned."

 

Gabrielle was amazed that Arianna was going to be alright, but her concern for Xena was even greater. "D'Lara, can you help us find Xena?"

 

D'Lara looked at Apollo, then stared thoughtfully at the ground for a moment. In the castle. A marble entryway. She's there with King Milos."

 

Gabrielle gave a sigh of relief.

 

"And.......Talinares."

 

Gabrielle's relief disappeared with that statement.

 

"He still has some men with him. . He has the King. Xena's not at full strength yet. There's a standoff. The other Amazons are looking in the wrong place. They have no idea where the King is."

 

"We have to get over there." Gabrielle said. She turned to leave with Autolycus following close behind.

 

Ephiny turned to leave too, then stopped and looked down at D'Lara.

 

"I can't leave her." D'Lara said.

 

Ephiny just nodded approval and continued after Gabrielle and Autolycus. She motioned for a group of the Amazons nearby to follow her.

 

------------------------------------------------------

 

"Give it up Talinares. You have nowhere to run." Xena said.

 

"No way Xena. I have the King. Back off or I'll kill him." Talinares pressed his knife closer to King Milos' neck.

 

"Sorry Talinares. I learned my lesson the last time I backed off for you."

 

"I'll kill him. I mean it."

 

"I'm not gonna let that happen." Xena said matter-of-factly.

 

"And how are you gonna stop me when you have THIS to deal with. GET HER!"

 

Talinares men charged Xena. Xena grinned, gave a yell and charged straight towards them. The sounds of metal on metal filled the hallway. Xena blocked one thrust, kicked the soldier behind her, then backhanded another before continuing her sword fight. She could sense her endurance wasn't what it should be. There were too many of the soldiers and nowhere to retreat and regroup. One of the soldiers managed to get a kick in to Xena's midsection. Another hit her on the back with the hilt of his sword. Xena fell to one knee then rolled over onto her back to avoid the oncoming assault of swords. She blocked the downward arc of one sword with hers and rolled out of the way.

 

Once clear of the cluster, she got up on one knee, grabbed her chakram from her waist and threw it in the direction of Talinares' men. The chakram took down four of the soldiers before it returned to her. Just as she grabbed it, she was kicked in the side by another soldier and knocked to the floor. He raised his sword above his head, poised to strike when he was knocked back by a staff thrown into his chest. The staff fell to the ground. Xena grabbed it and looked behind her. Gabrielle came running over.

 

"Great timing." Xena said through a crooked smile.

 

"Xena, why are you doing this alone? I swear sometimes I could just...."

 

"Gabrielle, can we argue later. This is a FIGHT." Xena pushed Gabrielle aside and thrust her sword into the oncoming soldier's gut.

 

The Amazons found their way into the entryway and saw the commotion. They quickly joined in the struggle. It wasn't long before Ephiny, Autolycus and the small group of Amazons easily dispatched with the rest of the soldiers.

 

"Where's Talinares?" Ephiny asked.

 

They all looked around. Xena spied the opening in the wall that wasn't there before.

 

"Come on, through here." Xena yelled.

 

They all ran through the aperture in pursuit of Talinares.

 

-------------------------------------------------

 

"Quit struggling your majesty." Talinares said sarcastically. "We're almost out."

 

"I'll hunt you down for this. I promise you that Talinares."

 

"Pretty brave words from a dead man." Talinares responded.

 

They reached the end of the tunnel. Talinares reached up and grabbed one of the torches and pulled on it. He thought he'd seen Arianna do the same when they escaped from him in the courtyard, but he wasn't sure. It wasn't until the King confirmed it for him that he understood how they had alluded him. Now he was using the information to his advantage.

 

Talinares watched as the wall opened and let the sunlight enter into the tunnel. Xena was just rounding the corner. Talinares spotted her and hurried outside with his back to the exit. He backed out of the tunnel, with his arm around the King's neck. The moment he stepped through, he was greeted with a sword hilt to the head. He was knocked backwards. The King was released from his grip. Talinares grabbed his head and fell to his knees. He quickly turned around and looked up but was shocked when a sword was thrust into his stomach.

 

Talinares grabbed at the blade of the sword, then looked up to see its owner. He was taken completely by surprise at what he saw. Arianna was holding the sword. Her expression was one of extreme anger. D'Lara moved up behind Arianna with her arms crossed.

 

"I guess D'Lara saw something afterall, didn't she?! Arianna sneered. "Think about what you did to her and Xena when you're down in Tartarus you bastard."

 

She gave her sword one last thrust into Talinares' body. His shocked expression faded away along with the life in his body. He slumped over to the ground with his eyes still wide open. Arianna held on to the sword, but didn't remove it from his body right away. Xena, Ephiny, Autolycus and Gabrielle emerged from the tunnel and stopped at the sight in front of them. King Milos slowly got to his feet and walked over to Talinares' body.

 

Arianna was still furious. He died with his eyes wide open They revealed the same look of cowardice that she'd seen over and over again. D'Lara walked over to Arianna, put one hand on Arianna's arm and the other around her shoulders.

 

"It's ok. Let go. He's gone now." D'Lara said.

 

The sound of D'Lara's voice snapped Arianna out of her self induced trance. She blinked her eyes a couple of times and turned to look at D'Lara. D'Lara smiled and nodded. Arianna took a deep breath, turned back towards Talinares' body, put her foot on his chest and extracted the sword.

 

"How did you know where he'd be?" Gabrielle asked.

 

"D'Lara used her gift. She saw him exiting through here and we were ready for him." Arianna answered.

 

Ephiny walked up to Arianna and D'Lara. "I'd like to talk to you two for a moment if you don't mind."

 

The three walked away, engaged in conversation. The Amazons picked up Talinares' body and took it to one of the several piles of bodies that the Serreans and Amazons had worked together to clean up.Only those of Talinares' army and the Minotaurs were being disposed of. The fallen Amazons would be honored with a ceremonial funeral fire once the clean up was complete. Large pits were dug outside the city gates. The bodies of the Minotaurs, and soldiers were put into the pits and set ablaze. Talinares body was thrown on top of them. After all his efforts, he was now just one in a mass. Insignificant and forgettable.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

"How're you feeling?" Gabrielle asked Xena with some slight concern as she rubbed Xena's arm.

 

"A little tired, but I'll live." Xena replied.

 

Gabrielle smiled and put her arm around Xena's waist. "That's what I like to hear."

 

Xena smiled back and the two walked off to meet up with the others.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

D'Lara, Arianna and Ephiny returned to the city center and were surprised to see Apollo still there.

 

"D'Lara, I'd like to speak to you."

 

D'Lara walked over to Apollo. "Yes father. Gods, that's going to take some getting used to."

 

"D'Lara, as I told you. We defeated Python and now I control the Oracle at Delphi." Apollo took D'Lara's hands in his own. "The Oracle that's there now is known as The Pythius. She's good, but I'd like you to take her place. I'd like you to go to Delphi. Translate my wishes to the people. You would give advice to those who seek it. You could use your gift of prophecy and become the new Oracle. The Pythius could be moved to a different location. It would also give us a chance to get to know one another better. What do you say?"

 

D'Lara looked at Arianna, then at Ephiny, then back to Apollo. "I'm sorry father. Ephiny has asked Arianna and I to come live with the Amazons. We're tired of wandering and life with the Amazons sounds like just what we need."

 

"I see. I understand. Then The Pythius will remain the Oracle at Delphi. Take care my daughter. I will be around. And since you're going to be living with the Amazons, I guess my sister will be able to look in on you from time to time."

 

Apollo stepped away, smiled at D'Lara one last time, waved his hand and disappeared. D'Lara continued to stare at the location that Apollo had just left vacant. She still had plenty to absorb and a time of introspection was in order. Finally, she turned and started walking back towards Arianna and Ephiny.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

Xena and Gabrielle walked over to Ephiny. Xena shook Ephiny's hand.

 

"I can't thank you enough for what you've done for me." Xena said.

 

"For us!" Gabrielle corrected.

 

Xena smiled at Gabrielle and nodded in agreement. "For us." she said to Ephiny.

 

"It's nothing that you wouldn't have or haven't already done for us. We owe you much more than that Xena."

 

Xena smiled.

 

"Arianna. D'Lara. Here we are again. I'm glad you'll be staying with the Amazons. That means we can visit you once in a while." Xena said.

 

"We're looking forward to it." Arianna said. She shook Xena's hand. D'Lara did the same.

 

"AND," D'Lara said turning towards Gabrielle, "we're looking forward to serving our new queen."

 

Gabrielle blushed. "Please! I was your friend before I was your queen. I don't want that to change."

 

"It won't." D'Lara said.

 

She gave Gabrielle a big hug. Arianna did the same. And Xena and Gabrielle turned to leave.

 

"Are you two ready to go?" Ephiny said.

 

"Not just yet." D'Lara replied.

 

Arianna gave her a confused look.

 

"We'll catch up, but first........there's a river near here that I need to visit. I have to banish some old ghosts."

 

Ephiny smiled approvingly. "Don't be too long." Then Ephiny turned around, motioned for the Amazons to follow her and they headed out.

 

Arianna walked over to D'Lara and put her hands on D'Lara's shoulders. "Are you sure about this?"

 

"Yeah, I'm sure. I want to do this. After you died, I realized that life is too short to burden yourself with bitterness, sorrow and fear. We need to face our fears and move on. Not be paralyzed by our memories."

 

"I'm so proud of you. I've seen you grow so much recently."

 

"You know, we really have Xena and Gabrielle to thank for that. They really helped me a lot."

 

"Yeah, I guess they did. I guess they did. Let's go."

 

Arianna and D'Lara walked by Falia and King Milos and said their good-byes. Falia and King Milos seemed to be pretty engaged with one another. A fact that didn't get by either one of them. They headed for the castle gates, turned around and gave one last wave goodbye to Xena and Gabrielle. Arianna wrapped her right arm around D'Lara's shoulder and D'Lara reciprocated by wrapping her left arm around Arianna's waist. The two walked through the gates and turned towards the woods where they would gather their horses and ride off to the river.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

 

"Xena, you didn't seem too surprised to see Arianna alive again. We saw her die remember?"

 

"I remember." Xena said as she finished preparing Argo for their ride.

 

She jumped up on the horses back and reached her arm down to help Gabrielle up. Gabrielle mounted the horse and positioned herself comfortably behind the warrior.

 

"I remember, but I also saw Apollo. Apollo is the God of Healing. I knew he'd bring her back."

 

"How did you know that?"

 

"Apollo is also a very compassionate God. I knew that Arianna's spirit hadn't crossed over into Hades yet. There was still time to bring her back You forget, I've been to the other side. I was there. I know."

 

"Xena, I will never forget that you went to the other side. That was one of the worst moments of my life." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist, put her head on Xena's shoulder and continued. "In fact Xena, that experience made me do a lot of thinking about us."

 

"Is that so!" Xena said with a raised eyebrow and a crooked smile.

 

"Absolutely! In fact, there's something I've been meaning to tell you since then............"

 

Xena and Gabrielle rode off. Their ongoing discussion would be the source of a new understanding and a tighter bond between them. To Gabrielle, it was a source of intrigue that since time began, they were destined to meet and share their many adventures together. It was the kind of life Gabrielle had dreamed of. And now, with Xena and her finally safe, the dream could continue...... indefinitely.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

The River by Garth Brooks

 

You know a dream is like a river

Ever changing as if flows

And the dreamer's just a vessel

That must follow where it goes

 

Trying to learn from what's behind us

And never knowing what's in store

Makes each day a constant battle

Just to stay between the shore.

 

And I will sail my vessel

'Til the river runs dry

Like a bird upon the wind

These waters are my sky

I'll never reach my destination

If I never try

So I will sail my vessel

'Til the river runs dry

 

Too many times we stand aside

And let the waters drift away

'Til what we put off 'til tomorrow

Has now become today

 

So don't you set upon the shoreline

And say you're satisfied

Choose to chance the rapids

And dare to dance that tide.

 

There's bound to be rough waters

And I know I'll take some falls

But with the good Lord as my captain

I will make it through them all

 

And I will sail my vessel

'Til the river runs dry

Like a bird upon the wind

These waters are my sky

I'll never reach my destination

If I never try

So I will sail my vessel

'Til the river runs dry

 


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