AUTOR'S NOTE: I'd love to hear any comments (hopefully good ones) if you have any. Besides that, just sit back and enjoy the story!
The sun was already perched up in the sky, highlighting the day with peaceful warmth. The air was delicately softened by a cool breeze, steadily blowing down from one of the high mountains that outlined the lands of Greece. Up high on one of those mountains walked a Warrior Princess and a bard as they made their way higher and higher up a dirt lined path that spiraled up the outer edges of the monstrous rock. Gabrielle occasionally kicked the dry dirt under her feet and sent it floating in a huge cloud of dust off the side of the mountain. Then she would continue talking on and on about the day and life and anything her mind could reach out at and verbalize. Xena would listen without interruption, occasionally titling her head to look at the bard just to assure her that she was still listening. Argo was obediently trotting behind, snorting whenever Gabrielle kicked up the sand.
"Sorry girl." Gabrielle said as Argo let out a loud sneeze from behind her. "The wind must have changed direction again. You know, it is said that every time Aeolus makes the wind shift direction it brings forth a new change somewhere in the world." Gabrielle looked out at the sun for a moment while the wind played around with her hair. "Well, you must have met your wind more then once Xena. Think of how much you've changed."
"My wind huh?" Xena laughed. "I don't think I can blame my life on a breeze, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled. "You're taking it too literally, although that doesn't surprise me."
"Speaking of change," Xena pointed out towards the sky. "Look what's headed our way." A mass of dark clouds had taken form in the distance, spreading a growing darkness throughout the land below. "Looks like we're in for some bad weather. We better find that cave before it hits."
"The message said it was on the east side about halfway up. Do you know why this person wants to meet you there?"
"No idea. But something about this whole situation seems strange. The rumors about people disappearing in this area for starters. Then there was the bird. Why send the message by bird?"
"Maybe there was no one this person could trust to deliver it. It did say, 'Help me Xena', remember?"
"Yeah, it also said 'come alone'." Xena said as she glanced over at Gabrielle.
"Hey, you should know by now that I don't stay behind. You means we, and we are a team. Besides, what harm could I possibly cause by going with you?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Should I make a list or should I just start naming things off the top of my head?"
A grunt escaped Gabrielle's lips, which was all she could muster for a comeback at the moment. Her mouth was so dry from talking she didn't feel like defending herself, and besides she knew that Xena was right anyway. There were plenty of times she had stumbled into a jam that had almost gotten both of them killed. She owed Xena her life countless times over, and was reminded of that every time she looked into her blue eyes knowing that life without them would be torture.
Gabrielle moved in closer to Xena as the trail started to narrow. "Remember that person we met down at the bottom of the mountain?" Gabrielle asked.
"The one who was ranting about the curse?"
"Do you think it has anything to do with why we're going up here? Maybe there's a connection."
"Gabrielle, the man was practically drenched in ale. He was about ready to pass out when we left him."
"It's just that... the way he was describing everything, it sounded so real. And to tell you the truth, I've heard some stories about this mountain myself."
"How come that doesn't surprise me?" Xena said keeping a watchful eye on the closing storm. "So what have you heard?"
Gabrielle's eyes lit up. There were no sweeter words a bard could hear then when asked to tell a story. "There are those who say on this mountain lies the presence of evil. They say that souls long dead dwell within the caves, just waiting for someone to walk by and become their victim. Many have gone up the mountain, but few have come back down. Those who do usually come back with horrible stories, stories of monsters that had tried to throw them off the edge. Although most believe that it was all made up just to keep children away from the cliffs. But for those who swear they've witnessed this evil can still be seen giving warnings at the mountain's bottom." Gabrielle finished, seeming maybe a little shook up from her own words. "So you see, that man could have been telling the truth after all."
"I wouldn't worry about it, Gabrielle." Xena said trying to ease her friend who was suddenly tense.
"Xena, if there's one thing I've learned while traveling with you is when you say "don't worry", trouble is sure to come leaping around the next..." Gabrielle was interrupted by the sound of a small rock bouncing down the mountain from somewhere above them. "...cliff."
"Get up against the wall! Hurry!"
Xena pulled on Argo's reigns until she was up against the mountain's side where a short ledge hanging a few yards overhead provided them cover. A few more rocks made their way down and went rolling off the cliff, followed by clouds of sand that had come loose from the fuss of rocks. After a few moments, nothing else moved. It seemed that whatever had caused the commotion had stopped.
Xena drew out her sword. "Stay here."
"Be careful, Xena."
Xena took careful steps out from the shadow of protection, and spun her back to the edge of the cliff so she could look above her. All she could see from where she stood was the underneath of the ledge, and had to slowly back up until the top was almost visible. Suddenly, a burst of sand flew down from the ledge and into the warrior's eyes. Before she could react, a large man jumped on top of her, sending them both to the ground. She felt her sword rip out of her hand at the impact, and it was sent just beyond her reach. The man had a good grip on her neck, and was struggling to push it downward. Trying to avoid the stinging in her eyes, she forced them open, and as soon as she did, a flood of panic came over her. There was no ground under her head, except for the one that lay thousands of feet below. Her body was dangling halfway to its death over the edge of the mountain.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled, also feeling a sudden wave of panic come over her. She lifted her staff high in the air and unleashed it down on the man's back. He acted as if he didn't feel a thing, and continued his struggle with Xena.
"Gab... Gabrielle!" Xena said in choked gasps. "Get him off me!"
"I'm trying!" She yelled as she threw her staff down on him again, and again. "Xena, this isn't working!"
Xena couldn't believe how strong this man was. No matter how hard she tried, he wouldn't budge. His grip was like iron claws wrapped around her neck. She felt her body sliding closer and closer to the edge, the ground below her disappearing as quickly as the air in her lungs. "Gabrielle!!!"
Gabrielle looked around, desperate to find anything that could possibly help Xena's situation. She found a large boulder leaning up against the side of the mountain, and using all her strength, lifted it up into her arms and made her way over to the edge of the cliff. With a deep breath, she hurled it through the air and it crashed right into the back of the man's head. For a second he seemed phased by the blow, but took no time in returning to the fight.
"You've got to be kidding me!" Gabrielle said in disbelief.
Xena felt her body dip further near death, and realized that there wasn't much room left to spare. She had never felt so helpless in a battle before, and had never felt this kind of power. He looked into her eyes with such lifeless expression. There was no anger or hate. There was no emotion of any kind.
"Xena, please hang on!" Gabrielle cried to her friend.
Through all the darkness that was in her head, and all the evil that consumed her soul, it was always Gabrielle's voice that cut through her like a thunderbolt. And as Xena looked around her now, she knew that the only thing left holding her up was that voice. She could remember when everyday it seemed like she was in this situation. Hanging near death, surrounded by nothing and no one there to help her. But when she had met Gabrielle, there was always a hand that reached out to her, and pulled her back to a place where she felt safe. Although now, no matter how hard she tried to break free, there was just no way out but down.
"If I die, you're comin' with me," Xena promised as she stared into those lifeless eyes for the last time. She tightly grabbed onto the man's shoulders, and pulled on them with all the might she had left. For a moment Xena thought she saw fear on the man's face as the two of them hurled forward into the air. With nothing left to hold them up, they both disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
The scream tore through the air, echoing in Gabrielle's ears over and over. Her worst fear had happened all in one brief moment. The reality struck her harder than any blow, and she fell to her knees in an instant as if the world had just crashed down upon her shoulders. Her best friend was gone. Gabrielle crawled near to the edge, but kept herself from looking over. She felt warm tears slide down her face, cutting a path in her dirt smudged cheeks. She had lost Xena twice before, but this time the pain seemed even worse. Her body was consumed with emptiness once more as if a part of her heart was just torn away. "Xena, don't leave me here alone."
A hand suddenly clutched onto Gabrielle's wrist from over the edge, startling the bard backward. Another hand sprung up over the edge and reached for a rock wedged into the ground. Gabrielle wasn't sure if it was Xena or the man who was after her, but she had no choice whether or not to help the person up. The grip was tight around her wrist.
Gabrielle pulled back as hard as she could, and soon managed to drag the body halfway up onto the ground. There was so much sand stirred up from all the commotion she couldn't see a thing. As the air cleared, she began to see the figure in front of her. A large smile poured onto her face as she recognized the crystal blue eyes staring back at her.
"Who said anything about leaving?" Xena said out of breath.
Gabrielle laughed through sobs. "Xena! You're alive!"
"But how did you..."
"Ask questions later. Right now I need you to help me pull her up." Xena said turning her body towards the edge of the cliff.
"What? Pull who up?" Gabrielle questioned as she walked over beside Xena. She was surprised to see a young woman hanging from the cliff below. Getting on her knees, she helped Xena pull the woman up onto the land.
"Thanks," the woman said as she brushed the dirt from off her raggedy clothes. They both got a good look at her for the first time. Her hair was very short, cropped off right below the ears, and dark except for a few shades of warm brown that the sun had shaded into it. Her skin was very pale, and almost looked as white as snow next to Xena's tanned complexion. Her eyes were a dark brown, but seemed as if they were constantly distant, and dim. She was about Gabrielle's height, and looked to be just a few years younger than her.
Gabrielle looked over at Xena, her face still streaked with tears she had not yet wiped away. Her eyes were full of confusion as to where this person had "appeared" from. Xena was wondering the same thing herself. "I think I'm the one who owes you a thank you." Xena said helping the woman up onto her feet. "If it wasn't for you, I'd be dead."
"She saved you?" Gabrielle asked, now more confused than ever.
"Yeah, she has quite the grip. As I was falling she reached out and grabbed my hand." Xena looked back over towards the woman. "What's your name?"
"My name's Calyce." She said while her eyes started to study Xena's body, all the way up and down as if she were taking note of every detail. After what seemed like a thorough inspection she met the icy blue eyes again. "I didn't expect the Warrior Princess to get beaten so easily. Otherwise, I wouldn't have sent for you."
"The message..." Gabrielle said. "You're the one who sent for us?"
"No, I sent for Xena. Having one of you up here is dangerous enough." Gabrielle found herself struggling to keep her mouth shut. There was nothing she hated worse than being seen as a nuisance. And in Xena's company, it was hard not to be.
"Gabrielle can handle herself." Xena defended her friend. "You don't need to worry."
Calyce shook her head. "The cave is right around this corner. There's plenty of room for all of us and your horse. We can take shelter there until morning. Fighting these things in the dark is suicide."
"Things? You mean they're not human?" Gabrielle asked with wide eyes.
"I'll explain it all later. Let's just get settled before that storm hits." The sky had darkened immensely since before the fight. The clouds were closing in around the mountain, and it wouldn't be long before it surrounded the area from above. Already there was a dampness in the air, and the steady breeze had turned unusually calm.
Xena found her sword on the ground and secured it within her scabbard while Gabrielle took hold of Argo's reigns. Calyce was already walking ahead.
Gabrielle leaned in towards Xena and spoke in a low voice. "I have a bad feeling about this... not to mention her."
"She saved my life, Gabrielle."
"I know that. There's just something about her. Did you see the way she looked at me when I asked about the message? She doesn't want me here."
"If that thing we fought is what we're up against, I don't want you here either. I know we've been through a lot of dangerous situations before, but this one's going to be different. I don't want you getting hurt or even worse, killed."
"Same goes for you. There's only so many times you can be thrown off of a cliff and live, Xena. You really need to work on that whole dying thing. Just, you know, maybe stop doing it for awhile?"
A large smirk spread up the warrior's face until it could not help but break into a full-toothed smile. "Hey, you got yourself a deal."
Argo stood uncomfortably near the back of the cave. There was plenty of room overhead to move about without having to worry about hitting anything, but the walls were closer than any of them would have liked. Calyce had already gathered up enough wood for a fire which was now burning steadily, and while she tended to it, Gabrielle prepared some fish they had caught earlier in the day and had wrapped up in cloth for later. Xena was doing the usual "warrior" thing. She stood at the entrance of the cave, her senses on high alert to detect any movement from outside. The storm had arrived and so had the rain, but Xena knew it was just the beginning. She had seen lightening far off in the distance, and it wouldn't be long before it was striking down overhead.
"It's getting pretty rough out there." Gabrielle said as she sliced into a fish head with a cutting knife they used for such occasions. She had learned long ago not to go cutting into things with Xena's weapons, especially slimy, smelly fish.
Calyce poked a stick into the fire, and signaled Gabrielle to come over with the food. "I'm glad you brought food. There isn't much up here."
"When's the last time you had a meal?" Gabrielle asked. "You don't look like you've eaten in awhile."
"I haven't. I found some berries a couple days ago, but that's the last time I've eaten. I almost miss those meals back in the den, even though they weren't real, they sure tasted good."
"The den?" Gabrielle said as she helped place the fish over the fire. Xena turned towards them suddenly interested in the conversation. "Is that a place on this mountain?"
"Yes, and that's where we have to go."
"What did you mean when you said the food wasn't real?" Xena asked as she walked over to the fire and found herself a seat on the sandy ground. She was preparing herself for a story and a long one too. Gabrielle sensed the same thing and found a spot to sit also.
Calyce took in a deep breath, her thin cheeks sinking in as she inhaled one big breath of damp air. "Have either of you ever heard of a man named Tantalus?"
Gabrielle nearly jumped at the question. "Tantalus! He was an evil man sent to Tartarus for stealing ambrosia from the gods and giving it to his men; forever doomed to stand neck deep in a pool of swirling water with fruits that would hang right over his head. When he would try to eat the fruit, the wind would come down and blow them out of his reach. When he would attempt to drink the water, it would swirl away from him." She finished in a breathless puff, a smile of satisfaction on her face.
"That's right." Calyce said seeming impressed with the bard's story. "He was also a very clever man, clever enough to be able to steal the ambrosia from the gods. Until he got caught of course, but all that time in Tartarus gave him plenty long hours to work out a plan. He tricked Hades into releasing him from the whirlpool somehow, and later on he escaped... but not alone. He freed others from Tartarus' torture so he could have an army when he returned here."
Xena adjusted her legs trying to prevent her foot from falling asleep. "Why would he want an army?"
"For revenge against the gods. He didn't make it out from the underworld completely, though. He had forgotten about one important detail."
"The Hand of Hades!" Gabrielle proclaimed loudly. Argo glanced over at the bard with her ears perched up high. "It is said that anyone who escapes from Tartarus is cursed, but I'm not sure exactly what happens to them."
"Hades made it so that all who got away only escaped with their body and mind, but not their soul. They would remain this way until they could reclaim a soul for themselves, and only then would they come alive once more."
Xena already didn't like the way this story was going. A bunch of freed men from Tartarus running around half-dead, and Tantalus even. If there was one man who could get revenge against the gods, it was him. "And how does one reclaim their soul from Hades?"
Calyce flipped a charred fish to the uncooked side. She looked reluctant to tell the rest of the story, and her eyes seemed to get even more distant than they already were before. She swallowed hard before she continued to speak again. "The solution is simple really, but the hard part is the conditions. Those who know the true story of the Hand of Hades have called this mountain "Souls Peak". Once out of Tartarus, you are condemned to stay here on these cliffs until you get back a soul. The only way to do that is by killing someone." She spoke the last words softer than the rest, and once again a hard lump pushed down in her throat. "Then you claim their soul, and they will take your place in Tartarus forever."
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. It was the most tragic tale she had ever heard. Innocent people doomed to Tartarus, their souls ripped away from them like it was some prize to be won. It was more then unfair, it was heartless and cruel. Hades didn't seem like the type of god who would make a punishment that would senselessly take the lives of people who had done nothing to deserve an eternity spent in suffering. "So that means that man who attacked us earlier, he was- he was trying to-"
"Yes, take your soul." Gabrielle glanced over at Xena for a moment, her eyes full of worry. "What's even worse is that these monsters have only one thought, and that is to kill anyone, child or man. After being tortured for so long they do not want to go back to experiencing that kind of pain again. This makes them very powerful and very hard to kill." Her deep brown eyes met directly with Xena's. "Now you know what we're up against."
Thunder cracked loudly in the distance as if it wanted to heighten the intensity in the cave. Xena was quiet, her mind stuck on one image she couldn't shake off. That man's lifeless eyes staring into hers, his hands trying to rip her open and take the very thing that made a human human. He wanted her soul, and would have taken it if he hadn't failed to kill her. She could be somewhere with fire devouring the inside of her stomach and no water to put out the flames. Or she could be falling down an endless hole with nothing around her but darkness- whatever kind of torture Hades had in store for her. "And why are you here? What do you have to do with all this?"
Calyce's eyes turned down to the floor. "I was captured by Tantalus. He wanted to use me as a slave."
"Why didn't he just kill you and take your soul?" Gabrielle asked. "It would seem more valuable to have a soul rather than a slave."
"Tantalus doesn't want my soul. He is a god." Gabrielle and Xena both looked at Calyce with wide eyes and gaping mouths.
"As if this situation wasn't worse enough," Gabrielle added under her breath. "So now we're dealing with a god and a pack of soul-stealing zombies?"
"A god?" Xena asked still trying to unravel the whole situation in her head. "How?"
"The only way a mortal can become a god... ambrosia." Calyce said. "That's what I meant when I said the food wasn't real. Tantalus can create feasts just with a wave of his hand, and a lot of other things."
"Like what?" The curious bard questioned. She could just imagine the powers a god must possess, and what it must be like to have that kind of domination over the world. It reminded her of when she played a goddess to rule over the titans. It was so long ago, but the feeling stayed with her even stronger than the memory. The largest creatures on earth stood waiting for her command, even afraid that she might use her "godly powers" on them. It almost made her laugh just to think about it. But to be a true god with real powers... there would be so much she could do to help the world. A peaceful god, she thought. If Xena heard me say that, she'd laugh her head off for sure.
Xena cut off Calyce before she could answer Gabrielle's question. She didn't want to go off the subject. Time was important. "How did he get the ambrosia?"
"The same way he did the first time, stole it. I don't know how, I only know what I've heard up in the den, well, that's what Tantalus calls it anyway. It's just a bunch of large caves near the peak of the mountain, and that's where he and his army stays."
"Even if Tantalus is a god, wouldn't he still need a soul?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean, doesn't he need one to leave this mountain?"
Calyce shook her head. "Yes, but not just any soul. He wants the soul of a great warrior. You see, a soul reflects a god's power. The stronger it is, the more power a god will have. Tantalus will not kill until he has found the one person who can give him that. And it gets even worse..."
"The ambrosia..." Xena spoke with sudden realization. "Tantalus is going to give the rest of it to his army so he can lead them in battle against the gods." Calyce nodded slowly. "And just how big is this army?"
"It's not big at all." Calyce said with a shrug. "Only ten."
"You call that an army?" Gabrielle snickered. "Xena could defeat them all on her own."
"Yeah, but that's all he'll need right now. They will be his best warriors, the one's who will be the start of hundreds. Once they are all gods, Tantalus plans to release hundreds more from Hades' gates. Think about it... the most vicious, heartless, murderous demons from Tartarus free to be gods!!! I assure you, ten is just the beginning. Unless we do something now, evil will destroy this world and kill everything that is good. Darkness will replace light. Water will turn into fire. The land itself will wither away. There will be nothing left." Her voice was shaking, and so was her body. She stared into Xena's eyes as if she was the world's last chance to survive. Xena could feel her heart pounding against her chest, more so than it had when she was hanging off the cliff. If Calyce was right, they had to do something before it got to a point where the only ones who could stop Tantalus would be the gods themselves. It had been too long since they last experienced the real fear of a battle. The titans were defeated ages ago, and surely even Zeus himself had forgotten what it was like to wage war.
Gabrielle was searching the warrior's eyes as they stared dazed at the burning fire. She wondered what she was thinking. Was she going over every detail of the conversation, trying to get a sense of what the situation was? Some kind of plan maybe? Gabrielle wanted to think that's what she saw in those deep blues, but it wasn't. It was worry. It was fear. She could see the tenseness in her entire face, the fire exposing strained muscles in the sides of her cheeks.
Calyce was the first to move. She pulled the burning fish from the fire and set them back down on the cloth they were wrapped in before. Xena snapped out of her trance and glanced down at the smoking food, the smell triggering hunger pains in her stomach. She turned to Gabrielle, saw the still worried expression on her face, and gave a reassuring smile. "Looks like we left them on the fire too long, huh?"
Gabrielle allowed the concern to melt into a small grin, and took in a deep breath of air. "Still smells good though. I say enough talk for now... lets eat."
The moon was covered with thick gray, the storm still dominating the entire night sky. It was almost pitch black outside with the exception of an occasional thunderbolt or two. Even in the dark, the warrior had other means in which to see. Her senses focused on everything around her, her body listening closely to even the smallest of sounds. She had come out of the cave only a few moments ago, but already she was soaked and freezing. She wanted to be inside, back near the warmth of the fire, but her restless thoughts wouldn't allow her to even if she tried. She wanted to make sure those things weren't outside. The thought of waking up to hands around her throat wasn't exactly appealing. It was still sore from her last encounter. Although, she doubted that anything would be out in this kind of weather.
Gabrielle sat quietly near the fire with Calyce, unusually silent for some reason. Supper would have been pretty quiet too if it wasn't for the fish being so crunchy. She kept trying to think of things to say, but her mind kept wondering off to other things. By now, she had gone over the story five times in her head, visualized every moment of it. If it weren't such a dangerous situation, she would already have out a piece of blank parchment, writing down every single detail so she wouldn't forget any of it.
Calyce finally broke the silence. "Gabrielle, is it?"
For the first time, the bard realized she hadn't even introduced herself to the young woman. She had just assumed she knew because she had known Xena's name, although she didn't have quite the same well-known reputation as her friend did. "Yeah, that's right. I'm sorry I didn't tell you my name, I just thought- well I don't know why but-"
"It's okay." Calyce said stopping an explanation that could have went on for hours. "I know it seemed like I didn't want you here earlier, but it's just that, well this is very dangerous. Maybe even too dangerous for your warrior friend out there. Tantalus is enough of a problem himself, nevermind having to contend with ten others-"
"Hey, make that nine others. We defeated one, and yeah it wasn't easy, in fact if you weren't there to help us, Xena would be..." Her voice trailed off, but she quickly withdrew the thought from her head. "But we did it. Now all we need to do is focus, work out some kind of plan. I can guarantee you that Xena is working on a plan as we speak." She said pointing towards the cave opening.
"She's never been up against anything like this before."
"Even better." Gabrielle replied insistently. "The harder a situation, the harder she works. If there's one thing I've learned is not to doubt Xena. We've gotten through a lot, and we're not about to stop now." She reached out and put a comforting hand on Calyce's shoulder. "She'll get us through this. I know she will."
A faint smile appeared on Calyce's face; it was the first time Gabrielle had seen her smile, or show any emotion besides worry for that matter. It didn't seem like she found much hope in anything, Gabrielle thought. Like she had given up on it along time ago. Her young face held such delicate features, but sadness over the years had dominated much of their beauty. The same sadness had sunk into her eyes. She could picture them once being wide, the brown pupils rich and deep. The bard wondered what torment such a young girl could have went through to have undergone that much change. And it didn't take her long to pursue an answer. "I see so much of Xena in you. There's a darkness hidden under the light." Gabrielle could see that bringing up this topic wasn't such a good idea. Calyce's smile faded as if it were never there and her eyes narrowed. "I- I didn't mean that as an insult. I was just-"
"Look, it's getting late." Calyce said stretching up her arms. "I really should get some rest- you too. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, um, I'm just gonna wait up for Xena."
Calyce set up her bed at the far end of the cave, and settled in under the covers. "Night," she mumbled and closed her eyes.
"Goodnight." Gabrielle replied, slightly confused at Calyce's sudden urge to bolt to bed. "Calyce?"
"Yeah," came a muffled reply.
"It's okay, you know... if you don't want to talk about it. I understand."
There was silence for a moment, and Gabrielle was wondering if Calyce had fallen asleep or if she was just trying to ignore her. "Xena is lucky to have such a good friend." She opened her eyes and smiled briefly. "Without you she could still be wondering the earth a dying woman. You saved her. You became her friend, and in you she found protection."
"Protection?" She could hardly picture herself protecting Xena, a warrior who could take on ten armed men blindfolded if she had to. "What do I protect her from?"
"From herself." Calyce's eyes were suddenly wide. "Once evil gets inside of you, it's like a disease. It spreads throughout your entire body, eating away at you from the inside out. It will kill you slowly, almost unnoticeably at first. But then you start to feel it, like poison in your veins. Your body becomes weak, the air hard to breathe, until finally there's nothing left to do but wait to die." She talked as if in a trance, but her eyes were focused sharply on Gabrielle. After a few moments, she seemed to return from wherever her mind had taken her. "Evil, like a disease, can be stopped with the right cure. Xena's cure came through friendship and love. You believed in her, taught her to forgive and let go of the past. You became a healer that saved her from a darkness that eventually would have killed her." Calyce sat up in her bed, her face becoming tired again. "You see Gabrielle, you can protect her, not as a warrior, but as a friend. You are an important part of her. Don't you ever forget that."
Gabrielle saw extreme pain in Calyce's face, and it was obvious by the way she talked that this meant a great deal to her. It amazed the bard how much she knew about Xena's life, not to mention Xena herself. The way she described certain feelings was as if she had experienced them at one time in her life, knew what it was like to be alone and full of hatred. Gabrielle was sure that there was something she was hiding, and whatever it was it was torturing her inside. Her body was practically screaming to let out whatever it was that suffocated her thoughts so much, but something was holding her back.
Gabrielle found it hard to swallow, but managed to clear the dryness in her throat. Calyce still stared at her waiting for some response. "I won't forget." She promised. Calyce nodded and slipped back under the covers, ending any more conversation for the night.
A flash of lightening revealed a figure crouching up upon one of the high ledges. The warrior's eyes caught it immediately, and she had already begun her ascent up the side of the cliff. Her fingers tightened on extended rocks, her feet searching for sturdy surfaces to stand on. Mud trickled down over her fingers, some uncomfortably making its way down between her breastplates, most splashing onto her face. She reached up for another holding, gripped it, and started to pull herself up. She was supported for only a second before it came loose from the mountainside. Quickly she reached down for her chakram, slammed it hard into a slab of rock beside her, and held on for dear life. Her body slid downward, rocks and mud tumbling along with her. Soon she was dangling in the air, hands wrapped tightly around the circular weapon above her head. She heard someone move from somewhere near by, running in her direction. Her eyes darted upward, but the combination of rain and fog made seeing nearly impossible. There was nothing to do but keep trying. She reached over towards the cliff again, probing for something stable. There was nothing but loose dirt and smooth rock. In another attempt she kicked her feet forward, and luckily her boot caught a small hole. She pushed it in until it was snug and then used it to push herself back onto the surface of the cliff. Her other boot found a rock, and soon she was on her way again. Using her chakram to climb, she made her way up to the top of the ledge.
Xena's sword was already drawn. The figure she had seen near the rock was gone, as she suspected. "Didn't exactly do a great job of catching him off guard." She said to herself. A smile played on her face as she scanned the area around her. The excitement of a nearing battle rushed through her clenched fists, her crystal blue eyes shining like cats' in the dark. This time she was ready. She knew what she was up against, and was fully prepared for the kind of power her enemy held. Every little noise was a distraction. Cracks of thunder bounced from rock to rock, water pounded the ground like hammers, wind whipped against the warrior's ears; sounds came from every direction making it hard to distinguish between what was movement and what wasn't. Her eyes continued to survey all potential hiding spots, checking high and low; so many places for someone to stay unnoticed, just waiting for the right moment to pounce down on her. She wondered who was the hunter, and who would be the prey. Movement. A reflection that could only be made by metal, a sword blade perhaps, about ten paces to the right. With cautious slow-paced steps, Xena began her pursuit. Her eyes were fixed, her body low with knees slightly bent, sword positioned at her side in preparation. Her teeth were clenched, every muscle tense with anticipation as she closed in. There was a deep shadow; dark enough that anything inside of it would be concealed. It was only a few feet away, but Xena had stopped dead. All it would take was a bolt of lightening and the shadow would be drowned in a flash of light. Going forward without knowing what was there was too risky, and she would have no advantage. Patience. Wait for the right moment. Zeus threw a thunderbolt into the sky bringing the dark land to life in a bright flash. The shadow disappeared. Before Xena could react to the man in front of her, two strong arms reached around her neck from behind, threatening to break it. The man from the shadow rushed at her with sword drawn, ready to thrust it into her captured body. Waiting until he was at the right distance, the warrior released a high kick into his face sending him down to the muddy ground. The hands on her neck struggled relentlessly to snap it in two, causing Xena to release painful shouts as tendons were stretched to their limits. She rammed an elbow into her attacker's stomach, followed by an over-the-shoulder punch to the face. He stammered backward, a hand nursing his bloody lip. The man on the ground recovered and stood once more ready to kill. Xena reached down for her chakram, the cold metal burning through the warmth of her hand. With a flip of her wrist she launched the disc spiraling into the air. It cut through the wind like a ship parting calm water, the designs nothing but a hypnotizing blur as it soared forward towards its intended target. Soon only half of it was visible, the other half buried deep into the man's chest. He gazed down at it, his expression blank as he watched blood stream down the front of his chest. It seemed like minutes that he stood there- unfaltering, unmoving. Finally, as if the wind had just pushed him down, he fell to the ground. Xena was sure he was still alive, refusing to die because death meant back to the torture, the endless pain and suffering in Tartarus. Any time he had left to squeeze out of life, he was going to take it even if it was bleeding to death in a puddle of mud.
Xena turned towards the remaining attacker, ready for another round. He watched her closely now. A new sense of awareness had set into his movements. The warrior's kill had proved her to be a threat, and he was no longer rushing for the kill. He studied her carefully while maintaining a good distance from her sword, his own held defensively in front of his body. He took notice of the shifting under her feet, the way she leveled her body so that her eyes stared directly into his, even the places that looked most vulnerable to attack. Xena took advantage of the shift in his eyes, and made the first move. He jumped backward, narrowly missing the metal blade. Xena took no time in unleashing another swing that was blocked this time by a muddy sword. The aggression built with each hit, the warrior almost losing balance from the strength of her enemy's blows. He fought well, no doubt a great warlord once in his day, probably killed in a battle just like this one, Xena thought as she dodged a would-be deafening blow to her head. With her opponent off-balance she suddenly dashed forward. The man stood stunned as she began running vertically up his body, flipping once in the air, and returning to the ground with a fierce kick across his face.
"When you get back to Tartarus tell Hades that Xena says hello," she taunted with a smirk on her face. The man suddenly stopped dead in his movement, his sword dropping low by his side. He seemed to whisper her name under his breath, as if trying to recall who she was. In an instant he was running in the other direction, Xena standing there in complete astonishment. What just happened here? Xena thought to herself as she watched him head for the cliffs. She couldn't let him get away. She would have to fight him again sooner or later, and better now when he was without the aid of the rest of Tantalus' so-called army.
She raced after him, her heels kicking up mud behind her. It appeared as if he was planning on climbing the cliffs, probably back to the den to join the others. Whatever the reason he was running, she had to find out why. Maybe it could help her defeat Tantalus... or maybe it was a trap. She could picture the rest of his army waiting up beyond the next ledge, and she was heading right towards them like a good little girl. This whole mountain could be nothing but an ambush, traps set up everywhere ready to spring beneath her feet or loose rocks rigged to fall at the slightest touch. Why else would he run? The warrior's mind was racing along with her feet. Nothing around her seemed safe anymore, not even the ground she was running on. She could still see the man in front of her, not too far away. He was just about to the cliffs now; it was only a matter of time before she caught up to him. But on the cliffs it was anyone's game. One wrong step and you were back down at the bottom again, hopefully still in one piece. Her chakram was still buried inside the corpse so it wouldn't be very helpful this time around. Xena reached the mountain face but the man was already on his way up with a decent lead. She found a sturdy footing and made her way onto it, the familiar feel of mud clinging to her body again as she leaned against the wall. She kept her head down to avoid the falling rocks that were coming loose under the man's feet, some large enough that the impact would send a person out cold. But she wanted to stay directly in his path to get the fastest reach on him. It wasn't too far to the next ledge so either she pulled him down now or it would be another chase on flat land. A rock skimmed the side of her hair, almost making her loose grip. The fall from this point would definitely result in a lot of pain, but it wouldn't be fatal. If she could just reach his boot she could probably yank him down, hopefully dodge his falling body, and get back down the cliff before he could get moving again. But he was still just beyond her fingertips. Maybe with a good stretch she could get hold of his foot, but she wasn't stable enough to risk it. More climbing, closer and closer. He was checking back behind him now, making quick glances at her now and again to see where she was. He was deliberately kicking the rocks beneath his feet now, but the warrior was quick. Her body rocked left and right with an almost gradual rhythm as if she sensed where it was safe to move. He pounded the ground again, but this time it was not only rocks that fell, but also the entire ridge caved beneath him. The warrior covered her head with one arm as the broken shelf came down on her. There was suddenly tremendous weight on top of her, and she realized it was not a rock, but the man's body. Her hands were ripped from the cliff immediately, unable to hang on against the pressure. Her feet weren't long to follow. Soon they were both falling, the warrior knowing that this time there was no one waiting to catch her. Mud flew in all directions as they both hit the ground. In a way, Xena was actually relieved to be surrounded in the cold wet muck. It had cushioned the landing... somewhat. She knew her back would be sore in the morning, not to mention every other part in her body. But given the circumstances it could have been much worse, and she was more than thankful to have cheated death for the second time today. She noticed that the mud beside her was soaked red, and then noticed the pain in her arm. It was scraped up pretty bad, but it was only surface cuts. None deep enough to do any real damage, but bleeding severely just the same. Slowly she forced herself up, muscles already responding in pain. The man was beside her, unmoving, but as alive as a half-dead person could be. His body had taken more damage from the fall than Xena's had; his wounds severe enough that it could probably kill him in a matter of time. His ripped shirt exposed a large gash across his chest, possibly the one most likely to make him bleed to death. He didn't seem to be in any pain though, Xena thought examining his blank expression. Maybe he was even incapable of feeling pain or just couldn't show it.
Xena leaned in over him, "You got two choices to make. You can die quickly or you can die slowly. Considering your current destination I'd want to spend as much time living as possible." Xena grinned. "I can numb your body enough to slow down the bleeding. If you're lucky it'll keep you alive until morning, you might even see the sun rise. All you have to do is answer one simple question."
It seemed like he was listening to her, but she couldn't be sure. All he did was stare at her the whole time; it was like looking into the eyes of a dead man. After a few moments his pale chapped lips began to quiver as he struggled to say something. His words came out as a whisper. "No pain."
"I'll take that as a yes." Xena grinned and patted his shoulder lightly. "So tell me, why did you run from me?"
"You are for Tantalus." He replied dryly. "You will make him the ultimate god."
"He wants my soul?"
He shook his head. "Yes."
The soul of a great warrior. A sudden thought rushed through her. If she was right, she had to get back to the cave as fast as possible. Quickly, she pressed two fingers into the side of the man's neck, dug them in firmly, and twisted. "This will numb your body. Try to lie as still as you can, you'll live longer." She headed back for her chakram, and then towards the cave.
When Xena entered the cave she expected the worse, but it was far from it. Calyce was silently rolled up in a blanket near Argo, while Gabrielle was struggling to keep her eyes open by a dying fire. She let out a sigh of relief, and headed towards her friend with her wounded arm clutched in one hand. As soon as Gabrielle noticed she was there, her eyes sprung open and she was off the ground in a heartbeat before Xena could even say a word. "Xena, are you-"
The warrior hushed her with an extended finger. "I'm alright," she said with a failed attempt to disguise the obvious. From head to toe she was covered in solid mud that even the rain hadn't been able to wash off. It had already begun to stiffen back into dry sand, small grains falling to the floor with every small movement she made.
Gabrielle shook her head. "What in Tartarus happened to you?"
"It's what in Tartarus did happen to me."
"There was one outside?"
"Take a good look at me Gabrielle."
"Okay, yeah, I guess the whole mud-look does kind of give it away."
"There was two of them, both dead now. Hopefully, this time they'll stay that way. But there's an even bigger problem here."
"Bigger problem!?" Gabrielle yelled and received another hush signal from Xena. She clenched her firsts together and took a deep breath. More quietly, "Bigger problem? What could possibly be bigger than the problem we have now?"
"I had a chat with one of Tantalus' men outside..." She peeked over Gabrielle's shoulder and made a quick check on Calyce- apparently, still sleeping. "I think our new friend might be more involved then we thought."
"Calyce?" Gabrielle looked doubtful. "Why would she-"
"Tantalus wants my soul." Xena said. "He's going to use me to get his supreme god hood. Don't you think it's a little more than a coincidence that I'm heading right his way, and by whom? Why would a young girl want to take the risk of going back and getting caught by Tantalus again when instead she could be halfway to Athens by now?"
"Well, like she said, if you don't stop him now there might be no one left who can. Maybe she just wants to help."
"Look at her, Gabrielle. There's something very familiar about the way she is, and you know just as well as I do what that thing is. She's got that same buried hatred inside; the guilt in her eyes is distinctive. I use to be her."
"But I think she's changed, like you've changed. She just hasn't had as much time to heal as you have or a friend to help her out. I talked to her earlier, and you should have been here Xena! She described you even better than I could, and I mean feelings, emotions that only you would understand."
"That's exactly my point. She knows too well. Look, all I'm saying is keep an eye on her from now on. And no matter what she says, don't trust her. Believe me, you'd be surprised at how much hatred can control and deceive your mind."
"I've been there once, I know." Gabrielle said softly, her mind filling with images of Perdicus she had tried her best to let go but could never forget; especially the way she had felt after his death. How she thought of nothing but revenge and just how quickly her reverence for life was swallowed by her desire to kill Callisto. She shook the thought. "What about your arm?"
"Oh, that." Xena said as if she had completely forgotten about it. "It's just a couple of scratches, nothing to worry about."
"I know I'm not the one with many skills here, but shouldn't you at least wash it? Put a bandage on it maybe? All right, just sit over there. I already set up your bedroll." The bard started looking around the cave, tip-toed over to Argo, and began rummaging through one of the sacks. Xena watched in amusement as she poked through half of their belonging and finally came up with a long, unused cloth they kept for such medical purposes. "Don't move. Just relax. I got it all under control." She added as she disappeared out of the cave and came back in with a newly drenched cloth.
"What are you doing?" Xena finally asked as Gabrielle took a seat onto her bedroll. Gabrielle didn't answer, but was more concerned with examining the wounds on her arm. "It's not as bad as it looks."
Gabrielle looked up at her. "For once let me take care of you. Now just sit still and hold out your arm," she instructed. With a reluctant sigh, Xena extended her arm and Gabrielle began gently wiping off layers of hardened dirt and blood. Soon it was the only clean spot on her entire body.
"Gabrielle, are you sure you don't want to head back down the mountain? It's not safe here, not for anyone. And if Tantalus wants my soul he's going to do whatever it takes, even if that means using you to get it."
"Xena, there isn't a god alive who can make me leave your side. You know that." She squeezed the cloth tightly off to one side and then started scrubbing the warrior's blackened face. Xena almost opened her mouth to protest, but she knew it would be losing battle. Besides that, her muscles ached so much she actually didn't mind being taken cared of just this once. "How are you with all this?" The bard asked.
"Tantalus, you know, wanting your soul?"
"I haven't given it much thought yet." Although the truth was she had thought about it, several times in fact. The idea of losing her soul sent an overwhelming feeling of fear throughout her body, but not just a fear of death, it was something deeper. Death was a fear known and accepted because there was no living forever, but even fate couldn't take away the core of one's body. It was the one thing she knew was eternal. But the people on this mountain had proved that to be wrong, that a soul was something that actually could be extracted from a body rendering a person not dead, but non-existent as if they were never born.
"Xena, this man wants to take your soul." Gabrielle reminded her. She knew her friend had a habit of always putting her own problems in the back of her mind. It was something she admired, but there were just times when she didn't agree with it, like now.
"Well, he can get over it." Xena said titling her head to the side so Gabrielle could get the mud off her neck. She could feel the bard's hands trembling, at first guessing it was because of the cold breeze sweeping through the cave, but then she saw it in her eyes. A look she knew well because it was there before every battle, and she had been through many. "Gabrielle, listen to me." She said as gently as a warrior could. "When we reach the caves tomorrow, I want you to remember something... something you taught me a long time ago. You told me that a soul does not endure as one, but it is shared throughout life with the people you love. In you there is a part of me that no one can destroy, not god or man. Even when I die, I will go on living inside of you. Our friendship ensures that, for the both of us."
Gabrielle looked up at her with a smile on her face. It always amazed her that underneath all that armor lied a sensitive person, a side most people didn't even know existed. There would be times when she would feel unsure or scared about something, and Xena would just pick up on her feelings in a second like she could read her thoughts. It frustrated the bard sometimes that she couldn't do the same thing. There were things about Xena that were still a mystery to her, and she had a feeling that was the way the warrior liked it. She had always given her that extra space because she understood it was something she needed. "You know, you're always turning my ideals of life into your advice."
Xena grinned. "Well, at least they're good for something."
"Hey, I think a lot of the things I say are pretty useful."
"Oh yeah? How about the one about mountains being boulders and boulders being rocks and rocks being sand and sand being..."
"Alright, that wasn't one of my better ones."
"Or your theory about fish?"
"It could be true."
The storm remained dominate in the morning sky, the sun somewhere buried beneath the thick darkness. The rain had turned into a light drizzle, but Xena was sure it was just a matter of time before it started up again. Darker clouds threatened from a far distance, and the strong steady wind would surely have them blowing over the mountain within the next few hours. She was hoping by then they would be at the peak, and safely in the caves before the weather turned back into its raging form. By then there would be another storm to contend with, but this one ten times more powerful. Xena knew that Tantalus' powers were not as effective without a soul to control them, and she was counting on that as the one weakness that could help her defeat him. The one thing that concerned her most was the ambrosia. He could have already given it to some of his men, and maybe even some of them already had souls. Going up against a single god was hard enough, never mind having to contend with several others just as mad for power and revenge as Tantalus himself. There could be no stopping them if that were the case, and if it was, she would need help from the gods, but that was definitely her last resort. Gabrielle was taking Xena's advice and keeping a close watch on Calyce whom walked only a few paces in front of her. She had stayed up most of the night considering the possibility that Calyce might somehow be a part of Tantalus' plan to lure Xena to the top of the mountain. It was hard to see her as someone who could be evil. There were things about her that hinted she had a difficult past, but even underneath all the sorrow on her face there was a young girl- as innocent looking as any other. Gabrielle wasn't always as quick to judge as Xena was, but usually Xena had a good sense about things she normally would overlook. It was just her nature to search for the goodness in people, and sometimes that side of her that trusted too much made it difficult to see things as her friend did.
"So far so good." Calyce shouted over her shoulder. "Hopefully it'll stay clear all the way up."
"I wouldn't count on it." Xena said not as easily convinced by their so far trouble-free traveling. "I'm sure Tantalus knows we're here by now. He's not just going to sit around and wait for us to come walking in. We'll run into somethin'... don't worry."
"Are you sure your horse will be okay by herself?" Calyce asked.
"Fine. She's stayed in worse places." Xena had decided it was safer to leave Argo in the cave. The trail would get narrow and steeper the higher they climbed, and with a bunch of men running around ready to slice at anything moving it wouldn't be a good idea to have a scared horse with no place to run or hide traveling with them.
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena's arm, the bandage she had wrapped around it last night still in place. "How's your arm?" She asked.
"No circulation, but besides that, fine."
"I'm sorry. I knew I put it on too tight..."
Xena held out her hand. "I'm just kidding. I couldn't have done a better job myself. Besides, if anyone is going to cut off the flow of blood around here, it'll be me."
Gabrielle laughed and then went on to talking about the weather which had been her favorite topic to fall back on during most of the morning. Calyce hadn't said much of anything the whole morning, not even to ask about what had happened to Xena last night. If she did talk, it was always brief comments about the situation. Gabrielle had tried to start a few conversations with her, but they all ended up pretty one-sided with the bard doing most of the talking. After awhile she had just given up on it and went back to her usual sand-kicking routine, which wasn't working so well this time since the sand was more like mud, and most of it just ended up sticking to the tip of her boot.
"Calyce," Xena called out quickening her pace. "When you were in the den did you ever see where Tantalus kept the ambrosia?"
"No I never saw it." Calyce answered in her usual abrupt fashion.
"Any ideas where it could be?"
"I really don't know. The caves are so big and there are so many places- anywhere."
"When we get into the den, your job is to look for it. I'm sure Tantalus and his goons will be too busy fighting to notice. Can you do that?"
Calyce nodded. "No problem."
Xena walked next to Calyce for awhile partially attempting to get information out of her about Tantalus and herself- which ended up just as unsuccessful as when Gabrielle had tried it- and partially because she didn't trust her. It was hard by looking at her to think she was somehow part of an evil plan to take over the gods. She was just a young girl, as young as Gabrielle was, with as innocent looking a face. Sometimes she would catch a glimpse of her looking over the cliff at the land below and her eyes would become detached from the world again, staring motionless downward for long moments before returning back to normal. These "trances" were another reminder of Xena's own past. Most of the time it was at night near the campfire, or when she was alone. It was the only time she allowed herself to think about anything else besides when the next battle was going to be. Her thoughts were usually nothing but a torment though, her mind full of images she wished today she could forget. Xena wondered if Calyce was fighting those same kinds of images now.
Xena turned her head to check on Gabrielle since the constant sound of mud being kicked around had stopped. Her body immediately bolted into panic when she saw that her friend was not there, just her staff left fallen on the ground a distance away. Her eyes darted upward and scanned the cliffs with no luck. She reached back and drew out her sword; Calyce startled as she turned around to see what was going on. Xena was already running towards the deserted weapon, her eyes desperately searching every possible place she could have gone, except over the edge. That was one option she did not want to consider.
"Xena!" Calyce shouted as she ran over to the warrior's side. "Where did she-"
"Take this." Xena said slapping the staff into Calyce's hand. "Look around here, I'm gonna check back along the trail." She was already dashing forward before Calyce could say anything more.
Xena checked along the ground as she ran. Gabrielle's footprints were there; long skid marks where she had dug her staff into the mud, nothing out of the ordinary. She checked above her again, but there were no ledges or obvious places where someone could have stood on. It was so strange. Gabrielle hadn't cried out and there wasn't any noise to indicate a struggle. It was as if she just disappeared. Could Tantalus have taken her? Yes, he was a god. He could have appeared out of no where, grabbed her, and vanished without anyone ever knowing. She could be anywhere. Xena felt her muscles beginning to ache again, tightening around her throat and in her face. She was tense with fear, and filled with a feeling of extreme helplessness not knowing were her friend might be.
A sound came from behind her. She twisted around in time to dodge a headlong charge meant to throw her off the cliff. A large man turned around in surprise having missed his target. He stood eyeing her for a moment, and then a large rotten-toothed grin spread across his battered face. Xena recognized him right away.
"So the Princess returns." He said with amusement as he reached up and ran a finger down a jagged scar on the side of his cheek.
"Darphus." She said in disbelief. "Where is Gabrielle you soulless bastard!"
"Nice to see you again too. I've missed you, Xena."
"Funny, I can't say the same thing about you. Coming back from the dead... same old, same old I guess."
Darphus seemed mildly amused by the whole situation, but his face was as dead as the rotting teeth in his mouth. The only way Xena could tell his emotion was through his words, and right now they seemed to express sheer joy at the sight of an old enemy, and a revived chance at revenge. She could still see the large scar she had made in his chest through his ripped clothing. Darphus noticed her looking down at it and moved his shirt even more to expose the scar completely. "Take a good look at it Xena-" he said. "This was your revenge. And now it's my turn to have mine."
"I'm afraid my soul is already reserved by your leader. Did you miss the meeting?"
"Forget Tantalus! Your soul is mine!"
"You always did do everything your own way. Things haven't changed much have they?"
"Except you. What happened to the warrior? You're the biggest laugh in Tartarus with all your good deeds. And your friend, well, she's the biggest laugh of all! Why you drag her around with you is beyond us all. You are capable of so much and instead you waste your time playing babysitter to this little girl who wants to be just like you. What a joke." Xena clenched her teeth together, but didn't say a word. Darphus continued, "I'm doing you a favor, taking your soul. And you'll go where you belong... under Hades' watchful eye."
Xena couldn't hold her anger any longer. With a loud yell she ran at Darphus, sword high and ready. He quickly drew his own sword and smashed it against the charging blade, pushing the warrior back on her heels. She quickly regained herself and made another attack, again blocked by Darphus' quick movements. A misjudged thrust left Xena wide open for a strike, and soon a series of punches ripped pain through her whole body. As a punch headed for her face, she quickly moved to the side and let the fist fly right past her. She took hold of Dafus' arm and smashed the inside of it with her elbow. Then she unleashed a sharp kick into his face, which immediately sent him to the ground. He got up instantly and with sword flying. Again blades clashed on the narrow trail, the rain beginning to come down harder as the fight raged on. Hit after hit sore muscles discharged pain throughout the warrior's body, her back taking the worst of the battle still tender from last night's fall. Another kick under her ribs, she almost fell backwards but managed to stay balanced. She didn't like being on the defensive side of a struggle, but that's where she was now. Dafus' attacks were incredibly strong and relentless, his rage surging within each of his assaults. It was much different then when she had fought him last. Before, she was the one thirsty for revenge. Now it was the other way around. She knew what it was like to have one emotion consuming your every thought, the strength and power that came so rapidly, taking control of everything inside you. Darphus had that power now. It was the one thing that made being evil so inviting. It was an emotion you could cling to and feed off of, a source that was an endless supply of energy. Xena crashed into the mountain wall releasing sand from the thousands of small crevices and into her eyes. Darphus came forward ready to thrust his sword into the warrior's chest, but she spun away just in time to avoid it. He turned to face her and again his rage surged him into fits of slashing and jabbing, each executed with such fury that even Xena was having a hard time keeping on her toes.
"What's the matter Xena?" Darphus asked between swings. "Afraid to die?"
"I'm not the one who'll have Tantalus breathing down my neck when this is over."
"I'm not scared of Tantalus. Soon I'll have a soul and I'll be a god! Then we'll see who is afraid."
Xena was stunned. "You plan on stealing the ambrosia."
Darphus grinned wildly, "You should have listened to me a long time ago Xena. We could have been the fiercest fighting force the world has ever seen."
"I don't regret it."
"You will now." Darphus sliced at Xena's bandaged arm and cut right through the dressing, exposing the wounds in her arm and adding another long deep gash into her skin. What was left of the bandage was soon covered with blood. She looked up in time to see Darphus' sword handle as it smashed against the side of her face, knocking her onto the ground. A large boot planted itself onto her stomach and a sword waited inches from her neck, as she lay pinned to the muddy earth. "I'm going to put you out of your misery, Xena." Darphus grinned. "If only you hadn't changed- you could have had everything. But now all you'll have is the same scar you gave me, and it'll remind you of your mistake everyday in Tartarus." He lifted the sword high above his head and yelled loudly into the stormy sky.
Xena watched in surprise as Calyce appeared from behind Darphus and sent Gabrielle's staff flying into his back. His body lunged forward and tumbled to the ground, his sword ripped away from his hands at the impact. Calyce took no time in taking another swing, this time to Darphus' face, and returning the staff back with a fierce hit to the other side of his face. He stood there stunned by the young girl before him, his body wobbling unsteadily back and force as he struggled to remain on his feet. He reached down into one of his boots and pulled out a hidden dagger. Calyce charged for him before he had the chance to make use of his new weapon. With the staff held securely in front of her, she threw her entire body forward as she leapt into Darphus. They collided hard and somersaulted out of control as both bodies flew through the air. Xena watched horrified as she realized that there wasn't enough ground for them to fall onto. Calyce had hit him with so much force it had launched the both of them over the side of the cliff. There were no screams, just silence. The same eerie silence that came after a clap of thunder or the cries of war- the silence that left the world too quiet and desolate. Xena felt suddenly alone.
Xena tried her best to continue on with the journey and keep focused on what lie ahead, but her mind was so distracted by the disappearance of Gabrielle and Calyce's death that it made it extremely difficult to concentrate on anything else. She hated not knowing where her best friend was, not knowing if she was safe or injured. She felt responsible for her in every way, and even though she was sure Gabrielle could take care of herself, when something would happen to her like this she always took fault for it. In times like these it was when she most regretted letting her come along in the first place. If Gabrielle had ever died she could never forgive herself because she would be the only one to blame for taking her into such a harsh lifestyle. Although, she couldn't imagine a life without such a good friend by her side, and she knew that one way or another Gabrielle was destined to achieve whatever dreams she had in life, and Xena had helped her make those dreams come alive. She also knew deep inside that she needed Gabrielle to keep her from going back towards her old ways. They both needed each other. Xena could not deny that, and she knew Gabrielle felt the same way. The consequences did not matter.
Xena's thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of footsteps up ahead on the trail. She stopped in her tracks and searched for the cause of the noise but a thin layer of fog had concealed whoever was approaching. She waited ready for anything, not jumping to pull out her sword just yet but still cautious enough to keep one hand close to her chakram. A shape appeared in the fog, still walking forward, enclosed by white and shaded in as a dark shadow which forged the outline of a body. As the fog thinned out the light exposed the figure in its entirety. There was Gabrielle, alive and well, walking forward with a gentle smile on her face as she neared Xena who could do nothing but stare back at her with a look of uncertainty and almost disbelief in what her eyes were seeing. Gabrielle stopped just a few steps away from her, and they both looked at each other for a few moments before one of them finally said something.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly. "It's okay now. I'm okay."
Xena's doubt left with those words and she pulled Gabrielle in close to her, embracing her just relieved to have her back and safe in her arms. "What happened? I was so worried about you."
Gabrielle swallowed hard. "Tantalus captured me. He just came at me and I couldn't get away. I tried to call you but-" Her voice started choking up and Xena held her tighter.
"I know. I know. Everything's going to be okay now. You're safe here with me." Xena comforted her friend the best she could. She went to pull away but Gabrielle hung onto her tightly and pulled her back.
"Please... I just want to hold you right now." Gabrielle cried as she clung tightly to her best friend. Xena placed her hand on the bard's head and stroked her soft blonde hair lightly, gently rocking her back and forth. Gabrielle slowly reached down behind her back and as discreetly as possible, lifted a small dagger from her skirt. She brought her arm back around Xena's body, still holding the dagger firmly in one hand. Xena hadn't noticed a thing and was still unaware of what was happening. "I was so scared, Xena."
"I got you now. Everything is going to be fine."
Gabrielle moved the dagger down Xena's back and carefully shifted it around to the front of her waist. She rested her hand along the leather suit with the dagger waiting in her grip. Her fingers adjusted over the handle lightly as she anticipated when it would be the right time to make her move before Xena could have time to react to what was going on.
"Xena!" A voice cried from somewhere above. Xena and Gabrielle looked up to see Calyce looking down over the side of a ledge at them. "Get away from her- it's not Gabrielle!" She warned. "It's Tantalus! He's trying to trick you! Get away now!"
Xena looked back at Gabrielle and began searching her eyes suspiciously. There was nothing. No emotion, just dead sorrowful eyes staring back at her. She quickly backed away just in time to escape a dagger from being shoved through her stomach. She watched as Gabrielle's body began to change, and soon the innocent face of a young girl was replaced by a vicious looking man who looked more monster than human. The many years in Tartarus had turned him into a heartless creature whose face was so scarred with the effects of torture that it was impossible to even imagine what he once looked like.
Even though his face was emotionless, the rage within him was obvious as he glared up at Calyce. He pointed up at her and started to scream, "Calyce, you traitor! I made you a god and you betray me?" Calyce just started back at him, her face a mixture of both anger and guilt. "I will kill you!"
"Tantalus!" Xena broke in. "Where is Gabrielle?"
"In Tartarus if you don't give your soul to me!" Tantalus demanded.
"Xena, don't do it!" Calyce yelled as she extended a finger towards Tantalus. A sudden flash of light followed by a loud "crack" erupted into the sky as a thunderbolt discharged from the young girl's hand. It struck Tantalus' chest exploding into a ball of fire. He groaned loudly as his body was thrown backward and slammed against the mountain wall. He looked up at Calyce with more anger showing now than ever. "I'm twice as powerful as you Tantalus!" She shouted with her finger still threatening to release another bolt. "Leave now or the next time I'll send you right over the edge."
Tantalus looked furiously over at Xena, his scars now singed and blackened by the fire. "Your soul Xena... I want it!" He screamed. "Unless you give it to me I will send your little companion straight to Tartarus."
"You touch her and I swear I'll make you suffer far more than Hades ever will."
"Such a threat coming from a mortal. I guess that's what makes your soul so strong- you got guts. It's your heart that makes you weak." He glances up at Calyce for a moment and then back down at Xena. "At the top Xena... I'll be waiting for you. Let's hope your friend can manage to stay alive that long."
Like the air had just swallowed him up, he disappeared no where to be seen.
"So why didn't you tell me?" Xena asked Calyce who walked by her side. She had stayed very quiet after the attack on Tantalus. Xena figured she must be too ashamed to talk, and decided to give her time to think about what she needed to say. It was obviously hard for her to deal with, and this was probably the first time she was ever offered the chance to open up to anyone about it.
After a silence, Calyce prepared herself with a deep breath. She looked slowly over at Xena trying to allow the words to escape from her lips. "I've done horrible things in my past. Things that even you would have trouble imagining."
"Trust me, I can imagine a lot."
"I didn't mean to lie about Tantalus. I was just scared to tell you the truth because I knew you would hate me for it."
Xena shook her head and placed a hand on Calyce's shoulder. "I won't hate you, I promise. Whatever you did it's obvious that you've punished yourself enough for it."
Calyce paused trying to find the courage to speak again. "A long time ago, I watched as my family was murdered by a vicious warlord. My mother, my father, my brother... they all died in front of my eyes. After that things just got worse and I... I..."
"You went seeking revenge." Xena said with an all-to-familiar tone.
"I was so full of anger and hate, it just got worse everyday. I needed to release it all somehow and that's when I started killing. I felt like I was avenging their deaths with each life I took, but I know now that I have disgraced them more than anything else."
"How did you die?"
Calyce stopped walking suddenly and reached for the bottom of her shirt. She pulled it up slowly until a long gash became visible across the length of her stomach. "He caught me off guard and before I knew it I just felt a cold blade sliding across the front of my body. All I remember seeing was blood, it was everywhere. It was the last thing I saw." She covered the wound back up with her shirt and began walking again. "I woke up to the worse sound I had ever heard. A horrible screeching noise, so loud that it felt like a million knives were being shoved through my body. I tried to run away but it didn't matter- it was inside of me." She looked up at Xena like a scared child, her face full of panic and fear. "You never get use to it. In Tartarus, the pain just gets worse and worse the more time passes. Every moment of everyday, all you can feel is pain and fear. There is nothing else."
Xena felt her heart stinging within her chest. Just imagining all the horror this girl went through, seeing the pain in her eyes, she could forgive and forget all the bad things she had done in her past in an instant. It all seemed so unfair, that she had to be punished for something that she didn't cause. It wasn't her fault that her parents were murdered and Xena knew how hard it was at a young age to find the right guidance one needs to keep from turning to revenge. "I'm so sorry Calyce." Xena said sadly.
"Please, don't feel sorry for me. I haven't even told you the worse part yet."
"Calyce, I know about your part in Tantalus' plan to..."
"No, that's not it." Calyce sighed deeply. "After Tantalus freed me, all I could think about was getting a soul. You don't know what it's like... there's this incredible emptiness inside you. It's indescribable to anything I've ever felt before, even in Tartarus. It consumes and controls your every thought and emotion." She reached up and wiped the tears from her eyes trying her best to keep herself from crying. "One day I saw this little girl. She had this doll with her... she was singing to it, making it dance along the trail." Calyce couldn't stop herself from crying this time and soon her face was drenched in tears. "I walked over to her and she looked up at me with these big blue eyes and asked me if I wanted to play a game with her. I didn't even feel anything, I just grabbed her and I... and I pushed her... over the edge. I couldn't stop myself... I killed her. I killed her... I murdered this little girl. I'm so sorry Xena. I'm sorry."
Calyce collapsed into Xena's arms and cried. Xena put her arms around her and did all she could to ease her suffering. She didn't know what to say or how to feel. All she knew was Calyce could never forgive herself for what she had done. Not even Tartarus could torment her long enough to set her free from all her crimes. Her confession was not a desperate plea for redemption but a way of telling the world she was sorry. Xena thought of Gabrielle. She always wondered how her friend could forgive her after all the evil things she had done. Now she was beginning to understand why. Gabrielle had always looked passed the darkness in her heart and brought out the goodness that hid underneath. She didn't judge anyone without looking beyond their faults and misdeeds. Because of her, Xena learned how to move on and stop focusing on all the things she did wrong in her life. That lesson had not only given her the strength to change herself, but to allow others to do the same. That is why she could forgive Calyce now.
As they neared the peak of the mountain the fog grew extremely thick, the wind harsh and cold, and the rain even worse. The sandy trail had ended and was replaced by steep rocks, some so steep that Xena and Calyce had to find alternate routes to get around them. Even though Calyce was a god and could easily avoid the harsh terrain, she remained by Xena's side the whole way. The warrior needed help staying on the right path and Calyce knew all the shortcuts so it was better that they traveled together. Calyce secured an arm firmly around one tree and used her free hand to pull Xena up one of the incredibly steep slabs of rock. Her boots skidded against the wet surface as she worked her way up onto the next section of flat land. Since the weather had been so bad they hadn't been making as good of time as Xena had hoped they would. Each delay lessened the chances of Gabrielle's survival so getting to the den before nightfall was extremely important. With no light to guide them through the fog it would be like traveling blindfolded.
"Right through here." Calyce motioned Xena towards a gap in the rocks. "We're not far now. Once we get over the next set of rocks would should be able to see the caves." Xena followed close behind barely managing to squeeze her body through the narrow passage. After several more obstacles they finally caught sight of some large caves far off in the distance. "That's the den." Calyce whispered pointing ahead of them.
"I suppose now is a good time to come up with a plan." Xena said studying the caves. "I'm sure Tantalus has already rounded up the welcoming committee." She turned to Calyce and put a hand on her shoulder. "You're the best chance I got right now. I can't defeat him on my own."
"I don't think my powers alone are strong enough to kill him." Calyce said.
"I know... we might need to find another way."
"I have something that could help us," Calyce offered as she reached down into a small pouch attached to her belt. She carefully pulled out a small vial containing a light blue liquid.
"What is it?"
"When I was escaping from Tartarus, an old man approached me. He was known to be a great prophet, and often predicted what was going to happen in the future. He spoke of a vision he once had that showed the world being destroyed by a god of ultimate evil, and a warrior who was given the power to stop it. That warrior was you. He handed me this vial and told me it was something called "Hades Revenge" and could be used to kill anyone cursed by the Hand of Hades." She reached over and took Xena's hand, placing the vial in her palm. "Xena, if what he said was true, you're the only one who can stop it."
"I guess it's our only shot." Xena smiled and tucked the vial safely away into her leather.
Calyce took in a deep breath. "Well, this is it." She looked over at Xena with new hope in her eyes as if the sadness within her had been released by her decision to overpower the darkside that had haunted her for so long. Although there was still a part of her left grieving for the wrong things she had done, and that was something Xena knew could not be so easily let go of.
"Calyce-" Xena called to her as she was walking away. She turned around to look at her. "What you did, and what I did... it's all in the past. Even though it's hard and sometimes you feel like you can't get away from all the horrible things, it does get better. If you are truly sorry for what you've done then that's what matters in the end."
Calyce paused before answering. "It still won't bring her back." She replied somberly and turned around to head towards the caves. Xena sighed wishing that Gabrielle were here. She would know what to say. She always knew what to say. It was never one of Xena's specialties when it came to giving advice. Before she met Gabrielle she talked only one way and that was with a sword. And now a young girl was suffering and there were no words she could think of that could change any of that. But for now she would have to let the thought go for a more important battle lay ahead, and so did the future of the entire world if Tantalus could not be stopped.
There were several entrances into the den, but Calyce had picked one that she said would give them the shortest route to where she figured Tantalus would be waiting for them. The inside was lit by torches, which were fastened onto the walls of the cave. It was obvious that this was not the first battle ever to be fought here. Blood stained almost every surface in sight, old bones scattered the ground beneath their feet, and it even smelled like rotting corpses every time the breeze stirred the dead air around. Tantalus wasn't the first ever to be cursed by Hades, and that was obvious by the their surroundings. There had been many slaughtered here, mostly innocents who were now spending the rest of their lives in a cruel world of unending suffering. And still, those who had succeeded in beating the curse roamed free and unpunished while someone else took the weight of all their past crimes. Xena promised herself that if she survived this battle she would spread word of the true evils that plagued this mountain and make sure the name "Souls Peak" was a story told by every parent to every child for many years to come.
Calyce waved her hand to call Xena over to her side. She stood at an opening with her back up against the wall making sure she was clear from view to the next room. Xena joined her, pressing her body against the wall as well. "What is it?" Xena asked in a whisper.
"This next room is full of traps." Calyce cautioned. "Follow me and watch your step."
Calyce slipped through the opening and Xena followed behind. The room was narrow and the ceiling just high enough that you could stand without hitting it. The next opening was about twenty feet away, but what lied in front of them was hidden well. Even as Xena scanned the room now it was hard to tell where the traps were, and Tantalus had done a good job of providing only a small amount of light into the room.
"About five paces straight ahead," Calyce pointed out with her finger. "There's a trigger under the dirt so stay close."
"Got it." Xena said. They slowly started forward again; Xena's eyes locked onto the position where Calyce had pointed.
"This way. To the left." They both veered to the left making their way around the hidden trap. Calyce suddenly stopped walking and stared down where her foot had just stepped. "Look out!" she yelled.
The room became alive with the sounds of objects moving inside the walls. Calyce quickly threw Xena to the ground and covered her with her own body as much as possible. An arrow shot through the air from the ceiling and stuck in the ground right next to Xena's head. Four more arrows came down from above and landed just inches from their bodies. The room creaked with more sounds and soon there were spears ripping through the sides of the walls, each long enough that it went straight across the entire room and to the end of the next wall. One sliced across the top of Calyce's back, but it wasn't low enough to go through. Xena covered her head, as another spear ripped through the wall beside her, so close she was sure she could feel the cold steel against her skin. Everything went silent for a moment. Calyce lifted her head from underneath her arms and looked around at the destroyed room. "I'm glad that's over," she said with a relieved sigh as she began to lift herself off Xena's body. The warrior still had her head down, tilted to one side so that her ear was against the surface of the ground. A small clicking noise emitted somewhere in the cave and Xena heard it clearly under the dirt, and even felt the small vibrations tickling the side of her face. Suddenly she turned and pulled Calyce back down to the ground as another row of arrows came flying at them. This time they flew from all directions and the cave became nothing but blurs of thick black arrows. Xena felt two arms cover the top of her head as the arrows came down at them. Calyce's body jolted upward every few seconds followed by painful cries from her lips. Xena could feel the impact of the arrows as they tore through the young girl's body above her, each hit causing the girl to hold onto Xena tighter. When it was all over, neither of them moved right away. There were no more sounds left in the cave. Xena was convinced that all the traps were released and thanks to Calyce, there was not a scratch on her. "Calyce." Xena said and got no response. "Calyce? Calyce, are you okay?" There was no answer. As carefully as she could, Xena slid away from under Calyce's body. She didn't want to disturb any injuries she might have received from the arrows. When she turned around to look at her she almost didn't recognize the young girl's body. From top to bottom, layers of arrows were deeply wedged into her skin. Her eyes were closed and she lay completely still, either unconscience or dead. Xena didn't think that arrows could kill a god, but with such a young girl who possessed a child's soul, it could be possible.
Calyce suddenly started coughing, and then her eyes opened slowly as she struggled to recover. Xena smiled and Calyce looked up at her also trying her best to make a smile on her face despite the pain. "Maybe we should have went right instead." Calyce said.
"Tantalus must have switched things around knowing we'd come this way." She paused as she studied the arrows in Calyce's body. "Are you going to be alright?"
"Yeah, just give me a second." Calyce said. She forced herself up off the ground and took in a deep breath. She closed her eyes and concentrated all her powers onto her body. A light blue light began to glow off of her becoming more and more intense. The arrows seemed to just disintegrate one by one as they too were covered with the intense glow of light. Her skin healed over the deep wounds and even the tears in her clothing repaired themselves. Xena watched with wide eyes, reminded of the time when Callisto had once cured herself from the same injury using her powers as a god, although she had done it in her own twisted evil way which was very different from what she was seeing now. This was more gentle and even in some ways beautiful to watch. This was a power that was clearly distinctive with a god's soul, and when driven by a soul of a young girl it became somehow altered in a way Xena had never seen before.
Calyce opened her eyes and it was like she was never hurt. Although she was weakened, and she looked very tired all of a sudden. Xena helped her up off the ground and she stood supported by the warrior for a few seconds before standing on her own. "Don't worry, I'll be alright." She said noticing the worried look on Xena's face.
"Maybe we better wait until you get some of your strength back." Xena suggested, but Calyce shook her head right away.
"The longer we wait, the more time Tantalus has to kill Gabrielle. We can't slow down."
Xena knew that Calyce was right. This trap had already cost them time they didn't have. "Thanks for saving my life... again. I owe you three times now." She smiled. "C'mon, let's go."
Xena could hear the sounds of laughter echoing through the cave. They were close now. She could feel her body tensing and the fear inside her rising to levels higher than it had ever been in any other battle. This was a risk-all situation. If Tantalus succeeded then the whole world would be next to suffer. In no way did she underestimate what he was capable of. Even if his army could be defeated he could easily recruit more in a matter of days. And as long as he possessed ambrosia he had the ability to create even more gods. She also realized that if he got her soul that he would become stronger than most gods because she knew in her soul there lied a darkness that could be easily harnessed by evil. If Tantalus got a hold of it he would be even more evil than he already was, and with that kind of power there could be nothing to stop him from destroying all the good left in the world.
Xena and Calyce reached the last opening that lead into the center of the den. The sounds of voices were clear now, one in particular that Xena recognized to be Gabrielle's. She was doing what she did best, stalling her own death by saying anything that came to her mind. Right now she was telling about one of the adventures they had with Callisto, and it seemed like Tantalus was even interested in what she was saying. "She's good." Xena said to herself.
"What do you mean?" Calyce asked.
"She's talking about Callisto. If there's one person Tantalus would consider having in his army, it's her. Gabrielle knew he couldn't resist that kind of offer." Xena smiled.
Calyce leaned her head through the opening of the cave and quickly looked around the inside of the room. She turned back to Xena. "Alright, there are five men standing guard. Tantalus is near the back with Gabrielle. It looks like she's chained to the wall, but I'm not sure."
"Let me handle the guards, you go after Tantalus. As soon as I get the chance I'll go for Gabrielle, just distract him as much as you can. How are you feeling?"
"I'm not one-hundred percent but I can still hold him off."
"Alright." Xena drew her sword and held it by her side. "If you can't kill him I'll be ready with the vial. Just buy me as much time as you can."
Calyce nodded. "On three then." Xena prepared herself at the entrance ready to rush in. She looked over at Calyce as if to say a final "good luck". Calyce started counting, "One... two... three!"
They both rushed into the room. At once Xena headed right for the five men, her sword already flying through the air while she shouted her battle cry. Calyce went straight for Tantalus and soon she was standing just a few feet from him. "Calyce!" Gabrielle cried happily. Her hands were chained so tightly to the back of the wall that it restricted her from any movement. Tantalus stood in front of her glaring into Calyce's eyes with dead ones of his own.
"I created you, Calyce." Tantalus said angrily. "And I'll be the one to destroy you." He sent a ball of fire into Calyce's chest instantly. She threw back one of her own, but this one was larger and even more powerful than his was. He slammed up against the wall beside Gabrielle.
"You're weak Tantalus." Calyce taunted. "Anything you throw at me I can throw back ten times stronger." Again, Tantalus released a large flame from his fingertips, and at the same time so did Calyce. Both flames met and became one long stream of fire, each side struggling to overpower the other. Tantalus' body shook as he tried his hardest to compete against the girl's power, but as he weakened so did the fire from his hand. He watched his flame as it was devoured by Calyce's powerful inferno, and before he knew it his body was struck hard against the wall again.
Xena thrust her sword through the man's chest, jabbed it forward once more to make sure it did the job, and then pulled it back out. She turned around but not in time to stop a kick into the side of her ribs. She caught her wind again and whirled her sword around in a full circle above her head, clearing the crowd of men behind her. The man in front of her, armed with a spear, charged for her. She ducked low and hammered her sword right beneath his knees. He fell to the floor, tried to scrambled back up, but not fast enough. Xena dug her sword through his back, and left it there so she could use both hands to grab one of the men behind her and throw him over her shoulder. She reached down and exchanged her sword for a spear. She used the back end to jab it into a man's stomach and then swung it upward to knock him in the head. With a gleam in her eye she shoved the tip of the spear into the sand and began running a circle around it until she picked up enough speed to get off the ground. Using the pole to spin around, she kicked furiously with her legs as she circled again and again delivering as many blows to as many heads as her momentum would allow. The Warrior Princess flipped from the spin and landed by her sword. She yanked it out of the corpse and flipped it around in her hand as she looked from one guy to the next. Her eyes quickly glanced over to Calyce who was still engaged in battle with Tantalus, and from what she could tell through all the smoke from the fire, she was doing well. But she knew Calyce couldn't hold it up forever and she had to finish off these guys fast. There were three left, all relentless in their loyalty towards Tantalus. Xena knew they wouldn't kill her, but they would still wound her as badly as possible. As long as she was alive, that's all that mattered.
"C'mon, did dying make you forget how to fight?" Xena scoffed at her remaining foes. "Maybe this will help you remember!" She lunged forward with her sword, but another blocked it. She went from one man to the other trying to hold off three swords all at once. She couldn't get to one in time and it sliced the side of her face. She put her hand up to her cheek, the blood running down over her fingertips. The man who had wounded her was in for a quick death as Xena drove her sword through his body and sent him to the floor.
Tantalus dove out of the way as Calyce let another blast of fire erupt from her hands. He landed on the ground breathing heavily, his face and body covered with black soot. His body was drained and his powers were fading fast after countless attempts that only succeeded in rendering him helpless on the floor with little strength left to fight back. And even though he was a god, he began to fear that death might once again take him back to his eternal prison in Tartarus. Hades wouldn't be so lenient on him the second time around- this was his last chance. He couldn't let it slip by after all the time it took to plan an escape and his revenge on the gods. And in no way did he want to return to the whirlpool that kept him thirsty and starving for so many years. Tantalus began to crawl his way across the floor on hands and knees with Calyce keeping a steady eye on him. She was also feeling very tired after using so much of her strength to hold Tantalus back. Her face was red and rippled with sweat, her hands shaking from exhaustion. She wasn't sure how much longer she could delay Tantalus, and she was sure she didn't have enough power left in her to kill him. But Xena was still struggling with the remaining two men so she would have to hope she could defeat them soon before Tantalus began to gain his strength back. The vial was becoming their only chance, and if it didn't work, Calyce was prepared to use up every ounce of energy left in her to keep Tantalus from getting Xena's soul. Even if it meant having to sacrifice her own life.
"Calyce!" Xena screamed from across the room. Calyce looked over to discover her trapped between two men. One had her head locked from behind while the other laid a series of kicks and punches into her stomach. Calyce summoned up her powers again and released a bolt of lightening across the room. The man behind Xena was struck and thrown half way across the room before landing in a mass of smoldering black ash on the ground. The effort was too much for Calyce to handle. She fell to her knees on the sandy floor and struggled to catch her breath through fits of coughing. Xena realized that Calyce's powers were limited due to the fact that her soul was that of a child who couldn't yet handle the strain of such an intense battle. It hadn't had time to develop with the rest of her body and that hindered what her true abilities as a god would be if she possessed a soul that was her own and one that had had time to grow and mature inside of her. But it hadn't. It was ripped away from a little girl and thrown into another being which was much older than it was, and like anything in an environment where it didn't belong, it needed to adjust. Calyce had worn it to the limit now, and Xena knew it would be up to her to defeat Tantalus now.
The last man left standing refused to back down and with clenched fists he took to the Warrior Princess in a frenzy of swings. She dodged them one by one looking for an opening to strike, but he kept it up ruthlessly even knocking the warrior in the face a few times. While in the middle of ducking another blow, Xena reached down for her chakram and took hold of it in one hand. She returned to stand and at the same time sliced the metal disc through the air and into her attacker's neck. The flesh tore open releasing pools of blood down the front of his body, which ended in a massive puddle on the floor. He fell grasping his neck in terror; his dull blackened eyes sunk far back into his head as he dropped dead on the red-soaked dirt.
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed out. Xena turned around to see Tantalus on the floor near her, a sword clutched in his hand as he scrambled towards her. Calyce was trying to chase after him, but she was still too weak to catch up to him. He looked over at Xena with a slight grin as he struggled up onto his knees. He held the sword as if it weighed one hundred pounds in his hands and needed to use all his might to lift it from the ground. The blade hovered inches from Gabrielle's stomach, unsteady and shaking, but still just as threatening.
"I wanted the soul of a hero," Tantalus yelled over to Xena. "You were my first choice Xena, but seeing I can't kill you without a soul I'll have to settle for second best." He raised the sword high over his head. It seemed like everything was set into slow motion as he began to drive the blade forward towards Gabrielle's restrained body. Xena reached down for her chakram, but by then the sword had already plunged through Gabrielle's flesh. Her scream went through the cave as if it was carried by the wind; the long cry echoing on and on long after it was released. It raced through Xena's heart like a knife, cut deep into it with terrifying force as she stared horrified by the sight of her friend's body now hanging limp from the chains. It was as if it were just some dream, some awful nightmare she would wake up from at any moment now. She would open her eyes and sleeping soundly on the blanket beside her would be Gabrielle, unharmed and safe. She would reach over and put her hand on her arm just to make sure she was alright, reassure her that her dream was just a fear that would never surface beyond her sleep. But it was real. Gabrielle was dead... and it was her fault.
As Tantalus held the sword through Gabrielle's body, a white thick mist began to pour slowly out from Gabrielle, over the sword, and around Tantalus like a snake. He seemed to be draining her, as if her energy was being transferred into him, her life being absorbed into his body. Strands of red began to mix into the fine white, twisting into each other and blending all into one hazy cloud that surrounded Tantalus. His body began to change suddenly- the scars on his face smoothed and healed, his eyes became rich and alive, and a new life filled his veins and strengthened his muscles. Xena and Calyce watched as he was reborn. God and soul combined as one delivering with it a power that commanded absolute fear and control, a power that made him nearly invulnerable.
The transformation completed, Tantalus stood renewed with rage and powered by soul. His eyes gleamed with anger as he turned towards Calyce who was still overcome with exhaustion on the ground. He walked up to her as if he were a giant ready to crush her under his feet. It was as if she was the one chained to the wall now, restrained by her own weakness, and here came Tantalus ready to drive his sword through her chest and take her life too. Calyce did her best to look brave, but you could see the fear in her eyes as the god approached, his long shadow hovering over her like death waiting to pounce down upon her. When he was at her feet, he stopped and stared down at her. "I trusted you with everything I had." He said in a deep voice. "I thought that a girl capable of killing so many out of revenge would want to get what she deserved. The world owes you so much, don't you know that?"
"We all choose our own fate." Calyce said. "What happened to me was my choice. It was unfair, but what was even more unfair was what happened to all the people I killed because of it. Now here you are faced with the same decision. You have a second chance at life Tantalus, you can change. You don't have to do it this way."
Tantalus laughed. "Touching... really very touching. It makes me feel even more sorry for you." He extended a finger towards Calyce and turned to Xena. "Watch this Xena, cause you're next in line!" A bright flash consumed the room as a powerful blast released from Tantalus' hand. Calyce was thrown off the ground in an instant and whipped across the room with such force that when she collided with the wall the impact from her body tore a hole right into it. Pieces of rock and dirt crumbled on top of her body as she lay motionless on the ground. If the blast hadn't killed her, then the collision with the wall probably did. As weak as she was, Xena was doubtful she could've survived. She began to feel a rage swell within her that she hadn't felt in a long time, maybe even more powerful than she had ever felt in her life. Calyce was dead. Her best friend was dead. The thought of Gabrielle being tortured somewhere in Tartarus brought tears to her eyes. More than anything she wished she could take her place right now. She was the one who deserved it.
Suddenly Xena screamed. It was so loud that it disturbed a flock of bats sleeping somewhere far off in the hidden depths of the caves. With only one thought in her mind, she charged for Tantalus with sword held high. She didn't even bother getting out the vial. Her anger controlled her now and nothing could hold her back. Even Tantalus appeared stunned by the madness that seemed to take over the warrior. He didn't move as she closed in, just waited. Tantalus held his sword out just as Xena reached him and blocked her blade. Over and over again she attacked with determined blows, each driven with such a passion that the warrior's blade became like an implement of revenge, the steel turning even stronger and more deadly when in her hands. The sword Tantalus held began to dent and chip away with each strike and soon it just ripped in half as if it were a blade of grass. While he was vulnerable, Xena plunged her sword through his chest as hard as she could. Tantalus hardly flinched. She pulled it back out again expecting to see a gaping hole where her sword had been, but there was nothing- not even a mark.
"Did you think that would kill me?" Tantalus said. "That all your hate and rage would allow you to strike me down with just a sword?" Xena's face was streaked with tears out of frustration, but more than that, grief. She wanted so much to be able to reach through his body and tear out his heart. The fact that she couldn't even harm him made her so angry because that was the only thing she could do right now. It was the only thing that could release the pain. "I can feel her." He said as he put his hand to his chest. "All her feelings. All her thoughts. Everything." Slowly he reached out and took hold of Xena's hand, and for some reason, most likely just pure curiosity, she didn't resist. Her hand was guided to his chest and pressed up against his skin. "She is a part of me now. Do you feel it?" He pressed Xena's hand harder against him. "She is very scared right now, very sad, but mostly alone... she misses you. I can hear her cry out your name. She's in a lot of pain. The torture is so unbearable she feels like she's been there forever."
Xena quickly removed her hand from Tantalus' chest. "I felt her." She said softly as she stared down at her hand in amazement. "She's inside you."
"Her soul is full of goodness, that's what makes it so strong. Now that it's inside me, it will grow evil, and soon more powerful."
"Gabrielle is not capable of that kind of evil."
"I control her now. She will be." He took hold of Xena's throat and lifted her off the ground. "Don't worry, Xena. You'll be seeing you're friend sooner than you think." He said laughing. Xena could not get away from his grip. It was so tight she thought her neck would break in two. He threw his arm back and launched her through the air like a catapult. She landed down hard on the side of her body about twenty feet away from where he threw her. Her shoulder snapped and dislocated from the socket. It was painful, but she had dislocated it so many times that it wasn't hard to get use to the feeling. She sometimes went through an entire battle with it dangling out of place so she learned to work without it. It was the least of her problems anyway.
Tantalus held out his hand and in it appeared another sword. He looked at it approvingly and swung it back behind his shoulder as he started to walk over to the warrior. Xena could hear his footsteps crunching one by one behind her, and knew she didn't have much time. She quickly reached into her leather and pulled out the vial of liquid. There was a very small amount in it, just enough to do the job. She opened the top and quickly spread the contents onto the tip of her sword. It hardened as soon as it came in contact with the metal. Xena took in a deep breath. This was her last chance. If it didn't work she was dead for sure, and the rest of the gods would have to deal with Tantalus on their own. She held her sword close to her body to keep it hidden from Tantalus' view. His footsteps were very close now. She listened carefully to each one, she needed to time her move just right or it wouldn't work. Suddenly, the footsteps stopped. He was above her either thinking of some clever thing to say or about ready to thrust his sword through her back. She lay still and waited.
Tantalus raised his sword above his head with the blade tilted downward towards Xena's body. He hesitated for a moment as if he wasn't sure he wanted to kill her or not. Then he just burst out in laughter. "You know, this is kinda funny." He said with an amusing look on his face. "A part of me doesn't want to kill you. I guess having the soul of your friend is going to be quite a new experience for me. Maybe I'll even regret killing you later on. Wouldn't that be something?" He laughed again and Xena almost turned around to sink the blade into him, but she decided against it. She was sure he still had more to say and wanted to wait until he was just about to strike her with his sword. But after he finished laughing the room went completely silent for what seemed like forever to Xena. She was wishing she had made the move because now she didn't know what the god was doing. To her relief, he suddenly began speaking again. "The worse part is if I had gotten your soul killing would be like an instinct. I bet you wouldn't even think twice, would you? You know what else I think?" All of a sudden he reached down, pulled Xena's body around, and snatched the sword from her hands. She looked up at him, her eyes wide with surprise. "I think you've been hiding things from me. You can't hide something from a god... especially this." He said eyeing the blue liquid on the tip of her sword. "The smell is very strong. I knew you had it as soon as you opened it. Nice try though. You almost had me. But I'm through playing games with you now." He raised his sword again. "Tell Hades I'll see him on the battlefield."
As the sword came down, Tantalus' body was suddenly engulfed in flames. He looked over to see Calyce standing there with finger extended, and still alive. Her body was shaking tremendously and she had to support herself against the wall with one hand in order to even stand. She may have recovered from the fall but she hadn't gained back much strength. It was obvious that it took all her energy to release the fire into Tantalus. The flames didn't even seem to bother him, like they were just annoying bugs flying around his head. He brushed them off and they disappeared from his body. Even though the fire didn't seem to hurt him he was extremely upset to see Calyce was still alive. He dropped the two swords to the ground and extended both hands towards her. He started to move them in a circular motion until a faint glow began to develop between them. It grew larger and brighter and soon it was nothing but an immense white orb between his hands. Xena couldn't imagine what kind of damage something like that was capable of doing, but she was sure if it hit Calyce there wouldn't be much left to her. Her eyes moved down to the ground and there was the answer. Tantalus had carelessly left her sword laying near his feet, no doubt too angry at Calyce to even think about her at the moment. She carefully slid her body across the ground, using mostly her legs since her injured arm wouldn't be much help. Her eyes stayed on Tantalus the whole time she moved making sure she wouldn't be discovered and to see how much time she had left before he released his power. The ball was still swelling in his hands, and Calyce was still too tired to get to safety. She had to move fast, but cautiously. Her fingertips could barely touch the handle of the sword. Little by little she pulled at it until the sword was tucked safely under her palm. Tantalus was about ready to release the intense energy from his hands. Quickly, her fingers closed in over the handle and she lifted the sword off the ground. Just as he opened his hands to discharge the power, Xena thrust her sword into his back. The ball was released, but didn't go in the intended direction. Instead it went right through one of the cave openings and erupted into a loud explosion in the next room. The whole cave shook for a few moments and it seemed like the entire place could fall apart on top of them. But the noise subsided into a steady rumble, and then into nothing but the sounds of small rocks bouncing down onto the dirt.
Xena withdrew her sword from Tantalus' back, the hardened blue liquid still plastered to the tip. He dropped to his knees with his eyes still opened, no longer filled with rage, but lifeless as they were before. The same white mist appeared around his body, but instead of flowing into him it was being released outward into the air. The scars on his face slowly resurfaced back onto his skin and even his lips grew chapped and pale once again. He seemed to be withering away before their eyes. Everything he had received through god hood was being stripped away, leaving him nothing but a hideous dying creature. Finally he fell to the floor, the mist stirring up around him almost covering his whole body from view. He was still unwilling to die, holding onto the little life he had left in him. But he couldn't hold on for long. His last breath blew deep and heavy from his lips, and then it was over. The white cloud consumed his entire body like a swarm of ants taking to its prey, you couldn't even see the body anymore it had become so thick.
A gust of wind suddenly blew into the cave. It was almost unnoticeable at first, but then Xena felt it on her shoulders. A cool breeze was definitely coming from some place. She figured the storm must of really been picking up outside, the high winds strong enough to sweep through the entire cave. But the strange part was how gentle it was. It wasn't the damp cold feeling that the rain thickened the air with. It was like the breeze found on a warm summer day after the sun had been beating down upon it from the sky. The kind that came and went almost unnoticed except by the ripples of water on the surface of a pond. Xena knew there was something different about it. A feeling, an incredible feeling, came over her. She wasn't sure what it was or why it was, but it was filling the whole room. It seemed like even Calyce had felt the same thing for she was looking around to find out what was causing such a strange sensation. And at that moment, Xena suddenly knew. She got down on her knees beside the cloud of mist. With trembling fingers she reached out and touched it, allowing the fog to glide along the surface of her hand. It felt incredibly warm and soothing on her skin, like sitting near a campfire on a severely cold night. She extended her arm even further through the thick mist until it disappeared out of sight. The further down she went the more the heat increased. Xena felt like her hand could go on forever without touching anything, lost somewhere inside the cloud- but then she hit something solid. She knew what it was right away. The feeling was so soft and smooth under her fingers that it could only be the skin of a human being. Then there was movement. At first she was so startled she almost pulled away but she managed to keep her hand in place. She felt the familiar touch of fingers moving under her palm as if they too were trying to determine what or who she was. Xena closed her fingers around the hand and began to pull it towards her. The fog parted as the body emerged from underneath it, and finally came to the surface to be seen. Xena's eyes confirmed what she had been hoping ever since she had felt Gabrielle's essence inside Tantalus. All she had to do was kill him and the curse would be broken, her soul would be set free. Gabrielle looked at Xena as if she hadn't seen her in years. There was so much she wanted to say, but there were no words she could think of to describe anything she felt. What she had experienced in Tartarus was beyond definition, and even though she had only been there for a few minutes, it seemed like an eternity. It had been the most horrible experience of her entire life. She never knew how much torture could not only bring pain to you physically, but mentally as well. It stirred up so many emotions inside of her that she didn't even know she had. She learned more about herself than she ever wanted to know, things that struck immediate fear straight through her. With nothing she could say, she did what words could not. She took hold of Xena with both hands and pulled her in close. They both held each other like they were afraid to let go.
"Xena..." Gabrielle said softly.
"I'm so sorry Gabrielle." Xena said like she had been holding her breath for a long time to let out those words. "I'm sorry I left you. I should have never brought you here, I..."
"Xena, I didn't come all the way back from the dead for an apology." Gabrielle said smiling. "And you never left me. I was with you." She leaned back and put her hand against Xena's cheek. "I was always with you."
"But I did leave you, Gabrielle. I let you go to a place someone like you should have never seen. The pain you must have gone through... I can't bear the thought of what happened to you down there. What kind of a friend am I? Look at what I've put you through all these years. I love you- but because of that you suffer. I can't keep doing that to you. I can't keep on hurting you." She couldn't help but cry. The warm tears could not hide in her eyes any longer, although she tried to hold them back. She hated crying, especially in front of Gabrielle, not because it made her feel like any less a warrior, but because she knew that it hurt her to watch. There she was, this strong independent woman curled up in her friend's arms and sobbing like a child, instead of being the support Gabrielle needed her to be.
Gabrielle wiped the tears off Xena's face, trying to do so without crying herself. "Xena, I know how you feel. I felt the same way many times, like everything was my fault. But you can't keep doing this to yourself every time something happens to me."
"I am responsible for what happens to you."
"No, you are responsible for waking me up when I'm sleeping too late or kicking me when I snore too loud or yelling at me when I use your chakram to cut into smelly fish... but what happens in between all those things, that's my responsibility. Being here with you is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and even though there are a few things I wish I could forget, there are a million more things I'd like to remember." Gabrielle took Xena's hand up into hers and placed it against her heart. "I felt your touch when I was alone in the darkness. You were there with me."
"When your soul was in Tantalus, I reached out and felt you inside him."
"No, I was inside of you." She said squeezing Xena's hand in hers. "You are a part of me, Xena. That's why you never left me." Xena looked up at her just gazing into her eyes, allowing all her guilt to be drained away. They both hugged again for a long time. Calyce had been watching admiring every word the two had spoken. Even though she had spent most of her life avoiding any type of love offered to her, she wished for it now more than ever. She felt that if someone loved her right now that she would be healed, her life restored and her past just a memory. In time she could find someone to love her, she knew that, but it was too late now. Life would be nothing but a constant reminder of her past mistakes, and every ounce of happiness she received would be torn away by guilt. If she wanted a second chance, it wasn't going to come through doing good. It was beyond that now. There was only one decision she could make that would change anything at all, more than she could ever do by living her life struggling to amend her ways.
"Xena." Calyce interrupted quietly. Xena looked up at her noticing something different in her eyes. They seemed filled with hope. She let go of Gabrielle who nodded her off towards Calyce. It seemed obvious that she wanted to talk to Xena alone.
"How are you doing?" Xena asked examining the bruises along her arm.
"I'm fine. Look, Xena I need you to do something for me. It's very important."
"What is it?"
Calyce took in a deep breath and knelt down to the ground pulling Xena along with her. "I can bring her back."
"Bring who back?"
"That little girl... I can bring her back just like you brought back Gabrielle." Xena gave her an skeptical look. "Xena, that child deserves a second chance. I don't."
Xena shook her head. "Calyce-"
"Xena, if you were me you would do the same thing. You would want that girl's life back. Wouldn't you?"
"Yes, but your still young. You have so many years left ahead of you."
"I had my chance, Xena. I made the wrong choices. Now I can make the right ones. Please, you have to do this for me."
Xena still looked doubtful. Her mind raced with reasons for Calyce to live, but in her heart she knew the girl was right. "You can still have a life, Calyce. You don't have to do this."
"Yes, I do." Calyce reached over and grabbed Xena's sword from off the ground. She held it flat on her knees and looked down at the blue liquid that was still hardened at the tip. "Besides, you owe me- three times remember? Do this and we'll call it even." She held out the sword for Xena to take. It took a few seconds, but reluctantly the sword was passed over to its owner.
"Are you sure you want to do this Calyce?" Xena asked still hoping she might change her mind. But she knew just by the determined look in Calyce's eyes that there was no going back. Suddenly Calyce reached down and opened the pouch on her belt. When her hands returned, they held a small doll- slightly beat up and worn like it had been thrown down in the dirt a few times. Even one of the arms were hanging on by just a few threads of yarn. She wore a light blue cotton dress that went right below her bare feet, it too soiled with stains from obvious travel. Calyce held it like it was a fragile treasure in her arms. She looked down at it as if for the last time, and then carefully handed it over to Xena. "Make sure you give this to her." Calyce said.
"I will. I promise." Xena said standing up with the doll in one hand. She walked over to Gabrielle and handed it to her. "Gabrielle, can I have a few minutes alone with Calyce?"
Gabrielle didn't question why because the look in Xena's eyes was all she needed to know. "I'll wait near the entrance." She said placing a hand on her friend's shoulder.
"I'll be there soon."
Gabrielle looked back once as if she knew what was about to happen, a silent goodbye sent to Calyce through a smile, and then she left. Xena turned around with the sword hanging in her hand, the metal feeling heavier the usual. She wasn't sure if she could do this. If she could get up enough strength to drive the sword through the girl's body. She could even imagine what it would feel like as it went through, and could hear the girl's scream echoing through the cave like Gabrielle's had before, going on and on as if she was dying a thousand times over. Xena stood above Calyce looking down at her. She felt like she needed to say something, but Calyce had already closed her eyes, ready and waiting. Xena stepped behind her and crouched low to the ground. Her hands were shaking as she brought the sword up and around to the front of Calyce's neck. It was so quiet, she could hear the girl's heart beating rapidly against the inside of her chest. It was like the countdown for when she would slice her throat- each beat seconds off a clock ticking slowly down to the end. Calyce shivered as the cold blade came inches from her neck. She wanted to much to yell out and stop the blade from cutting in. The only thing that prevented that from happening was the thought of the little girl she was about to save. She kept picturing the last time she had saw her, sitting on the path with the doll in her hands. Her sweet little voice kept singing the same song over and over again. She could remember every word.
"Come fly with me, little one, To the sky, little one. Soaring free, little one. Dance with me."
Xena slid the blade across her throat.
Xena and Gabrielle reached the nearest village two days later. Argo was faithfully trotting behind Xena, a reign guiding her through the obstacle of busy people. Gabrielle rode sleepily on top of her with her arms wrapped around a child that sat on her lap. Xena stopped the horse and helped both of them down.
"Is this it?" Gabrielle asked looking around her.
Xena shrugged as she tied Argo up to a nearby wooden post. "I don't know. I guess we'll find out."
Gabrielle ducked down to the ground so she was level with the little girl. Xena was surprised at how quickly the two had bonded over the last few days. At first the girl was shy and refused to even look at either of them, but it didn't take the bard long to gain her trust. She told her all the children stories she could think of until the girl couldn't resist blurting out a question. Xena even contributed with a few stories of her own once in awhile, but Gabrielle had to jump in with her less graphic version every time she got too carried away with the details. After that, things just got easier. The girl talked to them without having to be coaxed into a conversation, mostly just to comment on something that caught her eye while traveling. Although there were times when she would get a weird look in her eyes and start mumbling words that were usually just nonsense, but a few were clearly understood: "loud sound", "ears hurt", "help me". She would grab her ears occasionally and start tearing at them like she wanted to rip them off. She did it so much that there were scabs all along the side of her head where she had been scratching at them. Xena hoped that time would help her forget what had happened in Tartarus, but she was doubtful that it ever could.
"Do you remember this place?" Gabrielle asked the girl. She still didn't know her name, even though she had asked her many times, she never answered. "Is your home here? Your family?"
The girl looked around but her expression was blank. Gabrielle looked up at Xena and shook her head. "Well, let's go have a look around." Xena said. "If we're lucky we'll bump into her parents somewhere and they'll recognize her."
Gabrielle nodded and looked down at the girl. "Wanna go up?" She asked spreading open her arms. The girl happily agreed and Gabrielle lifted her up into the air.
Xena had hoped the village would be small, but it was actually quite populated. There were people everywhere either rushing to get a deal at one of the shops or sitting quietly watching their children playing a game of tag. Xena and Gabrielle walked by every house they saw but it sparked no reaction in the girl. She seemed so preoccupied with everything else that was going on that it was impossible to get her to concentrate on anything else. Gabrielle kept pointing out certain kids or parents and asking the girl if she knew them but she just shook her head each time. Xena was beginning to feel like they were finding a needle in a haystack.
"Malinda?" A voice cried out suddenly from behind them. Xena and Gabrielle turned around to see a woman frantically chasing after them. "Malinda! My child, is that you?" When she reached them she practically scooped the child from Gabrielle's arms.
"Is this your child?" Xena asked.
"Yes! Yes, my Malinda!" The woman screamed excitedly as she hugged and kissed the child all over. "She's been missing for days! Where did you find her?"
"The mountain." Gabrielle answered. "We saw her there all alone and figured she must have gotten lost."
"Oh, my poor dear! I told her not to go there so many times. It's so dangerous!" She looked at the child and examined the scabs on her ears. "Oh no! You've been hurt. My poor dear, what happened to you up there, huh?" She looked over at Xena and Gabrielle. "Thank you so much for finding her. I don't know what I ever would have done if I had lost her."
"Happy to bring her home." Gabrielle smiled. "She's a great kid."
"Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all? Would you like to come in and rest for awhile? My husband and I will be more than welcome to have you as guests in our home."
Gabrielle was about to take her up on the offer but Xena interrupted with her own answer. "Actually, we better get going. But there is something you can do for us."
"That mountain your daughter was on is not safe, not for anyone. There is a deadly curse on it and whoever goes up there can easily become the next victim. Unless a warning in spread, innocent people are going to continue to die senselessly and monsters of unthinkable evil will be created. You can stop this from happening. Tell people of Souls Peak. Make them fear it so much they'll be afraid to even look at it."
"I will make sure everyone knows. I promise you." The woman squeezed Malinda tightly in her arms. "Good thing none of that bad stuff happened to you." She said to the child. "Now your safe with me. Nothing can hurt you now." She waved good bye to Xena and Gabrielle and quickly took off to go spread the good news to her husband.
Gabrielle looked over at Xena. "Do you think we should have told her?"
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle and started walking back towards Argo. "I don't know. But I think some things are best left unsaid. I just hope that child won't have to grow up with the painful memories of what happened in Tartarus."
"You know, I think by saving that little girl you saved Calyce at the same time. Maybe she can forgive herself now."
"I don't think she was looking for forgiveness. I think she just wanted to do the right thing."
They reached Argo and Xena started untying the reigns while Gabrielle made her way onto the top of the saddle. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "How many times have we both come back from the dead?"
"I don't know. I lost count. But I think I'm winning."
"Do you think the gods will eventually just give up and make us immortal or something?"
"You know, I think at this point in our lives... anything is possible."
Gabrielle laughed. "You said it."