The rain had stopped.
Gabrielle threw another log on the fire in the hearth and stood by the flames, warming her hands and still slightly damp clothes, as Iolaus and Hercules spoke quietly with one another. They were sitting at the kitchen table, deep in discussion, eating the fish dish she'd prepared for them. The minute the demigod arrived the house had suddenly become a "men's club" -- of which she was excluded -- and Gabrielle couldn't help feeling slightly hurt.
Both men now appeared dry and comfortable, in no small part to the warming fire, although Iolaus appeared concerned by something Hercules said. He glanced once in her direction, deceptively calm.
What was Iolaus feeling? The interruption by Hercules had caught them both off guard but Iolaus was quick to recover. It seemed so easy for him to drop everything, as if what they were preparing to do only a half hour before, hadn't mattered. Gabrielle stared into the flames. No, that wasn't fair. Hercules was imparting something important and they had worries. With a sigh, the bard slowly walked over to the table and lifted a pitcher of cider to refill their cups. Instead of lamenting another botched attempt at getting closer to Iolaus, it was time to take part in the discussion.
Iolaus offered her his chair and stood.
Hercules told them the entire story, including what Hera had planned for him by way of Xena's supposed destiny.
"She just doesn't give up, does she?" Iolaus looked disgusted as he leaned most of his weight against a wooden cupboard near the kitchen table. "And now she's threatening a child. Why should we be surprised?"
Gabrielle, sitting across from Hercules, was thoughtful and troubled. "I knew it." she murmured. Then, louder - "I knew it was a bad idea. I told Xena I had a horrible feeling about her going to Hecrtich by herself -- but do you think she would listen to me?" Gabrielle knew she was blathering but couldn't stop. "Hercules, we have to do something." she whispered urgently. "Not just because Xena could lose her soul to Hera but she could very well slay some innocent person if out of control." The bard was torn by what she knew and what she felt, "There is so much good in Xena but I've seen when the blood lust takes over." She closed her eyes trying hard to forget what Xena was capable of when out of control.
"I know." Gently rapping the knuckles of his right hand against the wooden table top and taking one of the young woman's hands in his other, Hercules said, "That's why I'm here, Gabrielle." Glancing at Iolaus, he wanted to asked his friend why, of all the places where she could stay while Xena was away, Gabrielle was here -- but there really wasn't any time to hear what was probably a detailed answer, "But we won't be able to get to Xena in time if we walk or even run. She's had too big a head start. There's only one way we'll get to her before it's too late."
For a count of three Iolaus looked puzzled then what Hercules was referring to suddenly came to light and he grew anxious, "Hercules, we can't. Do you remember what happened last time?'
"We have no choice. Not only is Xena on Hecrtich, a mountain mortals can't climb, but we have no time. Besides," he forced cheer into his tone, "maybe it will be different this time. It's been years, Iolaus."
Gabrielle attention bounced from one man to the other during their exchange and none of their odd conversation made sense. "What are you two talking about?"
"Pegasus." Hercules answered.
"The winged horse?" Gabrielle asked, not sure she heard him right.
Iolaus sighed and explained, "When Hercules was a boy Pegasus was given to him by the goddess Pomona, the guardian of orchards and gardens. The horse was a thank you gift. Hercules, through hard work and persistence, managed to save one of Pomona's favorite cultivated areas in Athens."
"Unfortunately," Hercules took up the story, "Hera found out. Being Hera she cursed Pegasus with madness. I was suppose to destroy him with one of my father's swords but ... I couldn't. Pomona, understanding my grief, took the sword I was suppose to slay Pegasus with and drew him into it ..."
"Into the sword?" Gabrielle sat a little straighter and looked over at Iolaus' weapons wall.
"Yeah." Iolaus saw where her attention was directed, "That one. The sword you were so interested in when you first arrived."
"The one you were nervous about." She murmured, "I thought it was different." Then, a bit more excited, "Does Pegasus really fly?"
Hercules nodded, almost giddy. "Yes, and he's about twice the size of a regular horse. You can easily seat five adults on his back. All I have to do is take the sword and hit it against a hard surface, like a stone, and Pegasus will be released."
"But Herc," Iolaus lifted a hand and gently scratched the side of his head, "Pegasus is crazy. He nearly killed both of us last time he was freed. I think I still have an indentation on my back from his hoof."
"I need to risk it, Iolaus ... for Xena."
"Oh, risk-schmisk!" A flighty yet melodious voice, which didn't belong to anyone in the trio, was heard. "What's risk when your sister is The Goddess of Love?" and she suddenly materialized in front of them, in all her pink and practically unclad glory.
Hercules stood, "Aphrodite, what ...?"
"I've been hanging out, little bro." she answered his question before he could ask. Aphrodite patted the back of her blond, perfectly quaffed hair and took in Iolaus and Gabrielle. If there was ever a couple that needed watching and seemed to have the worst luck when it came to romance it was these two -- and Cupid absolutely refused to shoot his arrows. He kept going on about how they were soulmates and would eventually find their own way ... Kids were pains! Aphrodite turned to her brother, "So, what you need is for Pegasus to behave for awhile while you and your friends here rescue Xena and get rid of Horse-Face Hera, right?"
"That pretty much says it all." Hercules agreed.
Iolaus looked long and hard at Aphrodite. She said she'd been 'hanging out'. But why here? Unless it was because ... He suddenly felt uncomfortable and was glad everyone's attention was diverted. Iolaus could almost feel himself taking on color.
"Okay, well this is cool." Aphrodite paced in front of the group, concentrating. "I'm the love goddess so I should be able to do something with that ..."
Gabrielle and Iolaus glanced at one another, wanting to laugh but not daring.
"See, I can't dissolve the spell but I might be able to turn it away for awhile, to keep him calm and have Peggie follow directions -- at least until you get to Hecrtich. Deep down inside we all, even cursed horses, know who loves us --" Again she glanced at Iolaus and Gabrielle who were successfully managing to play very dumb, "-- although some seem to take forever to get it out in the open --" Then back at Hercules, " -- and Pegasus knows you love him. I'll work on that, 'kay?"
With a smile of relief , Hercules raised a hand and touched Aphrodite's slender shoulder, "You know, you can be pretty great when you want to be." he said and gave a short laugh when she giggled charmingly.
They took the sword outside into a moist and grassy clearing behind Iolaus house. Hercules lifted the large silver blade over his head, ready to strike it against the large bolder the hunter had fashioned into a decorative bench - "Remember Aphrodite, the minute Pegasus begins to act strangely you do what you have to."
"Got it Herc!" she called, bouncing on her heels and giving her half brother a thumbs up gesture.
"This is going to work. I can tell." Gabrielle murmured, standing away from the area, beside The Goddess of Love.
"Sure it is." Iolaus agreed, sounding unsure and a bit more serious than usual. He stood next to Gabrielle and looked out at Hercules.
Aphrodite gazed at the couple. Geez, these two were so obviously right for each other. Why did it take them so long to see it?
The girl, having married that Perdicus guy, would have been so miserable - not being able to go out and adventure - and Aphrodite's own Sweetcheeks, Iolaus, finding what he thought was true love with not one but two female rulers. First Niobe then Nebula! Wrong! Not that he wasn't worthy of royalty but, come on, how could he be happy when one lady was obviously into the relationship for herself - not willing to even try to reach out for the man who was her real husband, Ortese. Why? Because Iolaus, the hero, was all she could obsessively think about. And the other? A beautiful, practical but acid tongued, world weary Sumerian pirate? That probably would have been good for awhile but Nebula was so stubborn and, when it came down to it, she and Iolaus had little in common other than some eastern training. Aphrodite sighed internally. Nope. It just wouldn't have worked. She wasn't his soulmate.
Nah, the best destiny for this couple were in each other's arms, where they could love and fight and live ... That's right. LIVE. No more death or near death experiences ... and who knew who their children might grow up to be? Perhaps heroes! Just like Mom and Dad ...
"Are you listening to me, Aphrodite?" Hercules called.
"Hunh?" She looked from Iolaus to her brother, "Oh, you bet! Go to it, Hercie!"
Hercules rolled his eyes. Great, now she's calling him "Hercie". What next?
The sword slammed down upon the stone, eliciting a metal tune and sparks. Then, there was a rumble and a blinding flash of light --
-- and there stood the most beautiful creature Gabrielle had ever seen. Tall, pure white with large bird-like wings, at least twelve feet across when expanded. He jumped energetically up on his hind legs - kicking out - and landing on all fours again. Pegasus seemed healthy and happy to be free ...
"Wait!" Hercules called to Aphrodite, "He seems okay ..." He approached the horse, laying a gentle hand on its back and speaking soothingly.
Pegasus rubbed his nose against the demigod's chest and neighed in low tones.
"This is great!" Gabrielle clapped her hands together and laughed.
Iolaus, still pensive, wasn't so sure, "Hercules, he seemed okay last time too until ..."
No sooner had the words been said then Pegasus began to huff and bray in distress.
"Whoa, boy. Whoa." Hercules patted Pegasus gently on the mane and attempted to calm him.
Pegasus would have nothing to do with it. Suddenly he bucked and the noises coming from its mouth sounded like the muffled scream of a she-demon.
"Aphrodite, now!' Iolaus called.
She nodded and lifted her hands towards the beast - "This is tough! He keeps moving."
Foam appeared around Pegasus lips and he charged Hercules, trying to pick the half god up with his nose and throw him as the demigod held him still.
"Hurry!" Gabrielle cried.
"Got him!" Aphrodite yelled in triumph, sending a pink bolt of godlight at Pegasus and watching, with the others, as he calmed -- allowing Hercules to touch him, unabused, once again.
The threesome walked over to where Pegasus and Hercules were getting reacquainted.
"I wish there was a way for me to keep him like this for you, Hercules." Aphrodite said, sensing her brother's love for his one time equine companion. "Hera's such a b..."
She stood at the aperture with her sword drawn. Sounds unlike anything human she ever heard were coming from the deepest regions of the blackened cave. Xena, through experience, knew it could only mean danger. Then she heard chanting, as if from many men and women, and prayers: "Oh great goddess! Give us a sign of your magnificence!" someone, probably a priest, called.
"Mom likes ovation." Ares said. He appeared behind her at the edge of the cliff Xena just crossed. "I have to congratulate you, Xena. That was quite some climb. I've seen experts take falls and never make it to this point. 'Course, if they'd been worthy they probably wouldn't have fallen, right?"
Xena relaxed her grip on the sword and sighed, "Ares, don't you have anything better to do?"
He approached her, "No, not really. I would be playing with my son about now - you know the one you and its Grandmother killed awhile back - but since that went the way of Chronos and Zeus is a bit peeved at me for the "betrayal of the gods' as he calls it, I'm just not as busy as I once was."
"You've been demoted? You're not The God of War anymore?" Xena couldn't help a smirk.
"Oh yes, that's still my job and always will be. Let's just say I'm on restriction for awhile, until Zeus decides Discord is a lousy Goddess of War. She's erratic so it shouldn't take that long."
The Warrior Princess looked again into the darkened cave and started forward.
"Xena," Ares paused then continued when she looked over at him - meeting his eyes, "I know we've had our differences in the past and I know you don't trust me. I've never given you a good reason ... "
She didn't have time for this. "Don't try to stop me from entering."
"I won't. Why should I? Just realize this - If you go looking for something don't be disappointed if what you find isn't what you were hoping for."
What was this? Friendly advice from The God of War? Suspicious, Xena deliberately looked long and hard at Ares. "I'm prepared for that."
When he said nothing further she entered the cave.
"Are you really?" Ares smiled ... triumphantly.
I'm flying! I can't believe it! Flying!" She held her arms out to her sides and closed her eyes, imagining she really was a lone being soaring through the sky, instead of a mere passenger on one of greatest wonders of the known world. The pretense was a somewhat difficult task when one considered she was sandwiched between Hercules, tall even when he was sitting, and Iolaus -- the latter man's hands comfortably resting on her hips, supposedly to keep himself (and Gabrielle) upright and planted on the great white Pegasus' back -- but she was inclined to wonder a little about that - although Gabrielle would be the first to admit she really didn't mind the familiarity. Not from him. They had unfinished business.
Iolaus chuckled at her wonder and childlike antics as he watched Gabrielle from behind. Didn't he do the exact same thing, lifting his arms as if to glide when - long ago now - he had his first ride on the back of this incredible horse? Iolaus remembered well that first time on a Pegasus cruise with Hercules, feeling the wind and seeing clouds, close enough to touch. Such exhilaration! That feeling of power! Almost as if he was a god - - but he wasn't. Not even a half god. It didn't really bother him, then and now, because Iolaus had seen all the trouble gods cause and the way they treated their own wasn't something to be envied.
'Pegasus,' he thought. To be such an incredible animal but never really enjoy your gifts -- because of a curse.
It was a dark journey from the mouth of the cave to its inner sanctum. A few times, while listening to the voices of the devout, Xena slid and nearly tripped over stones, gravel and small scattered golden idols that decorated the floor of Hera's temple. The light, when it came, was soft and radiated from a fire on a ritualistic alter.
Xena took in the sight in front of her. A large room, carved from the inside of Hecrtich and decorated with large jewel imbedded tapestries; each depicting one of Hera's children - her personal ideals - and certain important events during their lifetimes. Xena was not surprised to see Ares, Hera's proudest achievement, with the largest and most detailed tapestry. Hecrtich wasn't the most glamorous and decorative of Hera's temples but it was the most sinister and anointed, possessing a power hardly touched by any of the goddess' others. Hecrtich was essentially a place for gods and goddess to worship Hera.
The chanting, heard from another room, stopped and Xena instinctively touched her chakram.
"Go to the book of scrolls."
Startled, the Warrior Princess swiveled about and looked closely at the mature woman, with thinning white hair, who was wearing dark ceremonial robes. Hera? No, couldn't be.
"Go to the book, child ..." She lifted a withered hand and indicated a large tome laying on a stone platform, "All of the answers to your questions are in the book, Honored One." And she bowed to Xena, backing politely away so she could pass.
"Were you expecting me?"
"For years." The woman replied. "I am a follower with great power, as are you. They call me Priestess Hoth. We were told of your coming a lifetime ago, Hebe."
The book, embossed with a peacock feather - the symbol of Hera - was large and leather bound. The minute Xena flipped a few pages she could feel an unusual tingle move through her fingers.
Hoth smiled at Xena's guarded reaction but said nothing.
The parchments - yellowed with age and use, were in perfect order and thoroughly well taken care of. The tome was old. Older than man. Older even than most of the gods. Written by who? Hera herself? The old priestess? The first few chapters spoke of the Titans and Chronos, then gradually fell into Zeus' rule and his marriage to Hera. Flipping pages randomly, Xena wasn't surprised to see that Hera was hailed - by her followers - as a powerful but fair goddess. She was a queen that generously rewarded loyalty and obedience in her human followers ... for the greater good. "Amazing." Xena whispered, aloud.
Then she found it. New pages added to the end of the tome. The story of Hebe - Mortal daughter of Hera. Hand written with a dull quill, there wasn't much to read. It narrated the story Cyrene had told Xena just before she died, how Hebe was born to Hera by a human male and how it was in The Queen of the Gods plans to have Hebe be The Destroyer. A great warrior who would conquer the known world and make it a better place for the strong and loyal.
Xena's eyes narrowed as she read further, "An afflicted child and the death of a hero will bring Hebe back to her inevitable destiny. With her own sword she will slay the obstacles. And, in the end, find true peace and glory amongst her own kind, at the right hand side of her mother, on Olympus."
At the turn of another page Xena's breath caught in her throat. A drawing of Hebe. It was her. The blue eyes, dark hair and strong jaw. The figure was bowing before The Queen of the Gods.
"What the book does not tell you, Honored One, is that the child - who is marked for death - can be spared if you destroy the hero ... However, if you decide to go against the decree you will be driven insane with pain. That is the punishment ordained by The Furies for such blasphemy."
The Warrior Princess slammed the tome shut and turned on the old woman, "You cannot make me kill anyone!" she shouted. But her attention was diverted when an image, reflected up against one of the stone walls, was thrusts in front of her. Xena could see a small boy asleep in bed and beside him crouched the sad and anxious figure of his father. "King Iphicles?" she murmured.
"Yes, the boy is a nephew of Hercules. He will sleep until he dies."
"Unless I murder Hercules?" Xena's brow raised as she absorbed the news. She should have known. Hera up to her old tricks. And who else? "He would never let that happen. Hercules probably already has the situation well in hand."
"He is nearly here -- with two friends."
Suddenly worried, Xena's normally strong voice quaked, "Not Gabrielle."
"No ..." Didn't they know how dangerous it was for them here? Only gods or halfgods were allowed access. How did they expect to climb the mountain? Still, if Hercules was helping them ... Wait, Hercules would know that ... Hercules ....
"Kill Hercules and you will truly please Hera. But, kill them all ..." Priestess Hoth's voice raised an octave, "... and your mother will certainly grant you, a demigoddess, all the greatest gifts of ..."
"NO!" Xena pulled the chakram from its hook on her belt, wanting to plant the sharp edge into the old woman's skull. "I will not kill Hercules or anyone else -- except maybe you." She suspected it and now she was sure, "Ares, you are as transparent as stone-still water!"
"All right." And the old woman was gone, replaced by The God of War in all of his black clad brilliance, "I should have known you'd catch on." Xena's intuitiveness was one of the things he most admired in The Warrior Princess.
"I was a fool." Xena clipped the chakram back onto her belt, "There you were, egging me on while I was climbing the mountain, knowing I couldn't be stopped. I fell right into your hands, Ares." Xena felt used and angry, "Is any of this real?"
"Oh yeah. This is Hera's temple and the scrolls are real. Every word. As a matter of fact, I was instrumental in making a lot of it happen." He glanced at the image of Antak and Iphicles, "What will happen, I should say." The temple rumbled ever so slightly with a spiritual presence and Ares amended, "Along with Hera, I mean. I always was Mom's favorite."
"Hera's in Tartarus."
Xena's eyes opened wide, "Isn't she?" and her expression grew taught. Hera alive? Really alive? Could he be telling the truth? She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of her uncertainty. "Do you really think I'd kill Hercules?" Xena quickly changed the subject.
Xena seethed and her voice grew deep, "How can you be so sure?"
"Because by your refusal you will be driven mad and an insane woman can be molded. I'm here to mold, Xena."
She was about to throw out a retort when something inexplicable happened. Xena lifted her hands to her dark head when a searing pain abruptly made its way into her brain, followed by a loud, mind numbing beat, as if from a drum or ... an amplified heartbeat. She could hear hushed voices telling her conspiracies and half truths and urging her to only do as Ares asks -- It was her destiny. "No!" Xena shouted. A piercing agony enveloped her and the warrior woman fell to her knees, sobbing for breath. "Ares!" she cried in pain, "Stop this!"
"You did it yourself the moment you touched the tome, Xena. It was Hera's idea. A wonderful conduit, don't you think? Her powers aren't quite back yet but she channeled everything into the scrolls." Ares moved in swiftly and stood close beside Xena. He forcibly removed her powerful hands from her head and looked deeply into Xena's stunning eyes. You will become Hera, Xena. The Queen of the Gods in the flesh. She will be you and you will be her. You only need to do one thing to stop the madness, pain and guilt ... Do it, Xena. Kill Hercules and all of the pain will go away ... Be Hera's daughter. Be Hera!"
Once on Hecrtich at the mouth of the correct cave, they sent Pegasus down to play with Argo.
"They'll like each other. Argo seldom gets a chance to be with other horses." Gabrielle summed up. "I just hope Pegasus doesn't change before we return."
"Aphrodite will watch over them." Hercules assured although he really wasn't certain himself. His sister wasn't really reliable. "This way." Hercules lead them into Hecrtich, aware of the dangers yet knowing they had to be faced. He was more than worried but would never tell the others. Not that Iolaus would need telling. He knew the score. Hercules not only humiliated Hera by beating her on Olympus but he had also managed the ultimate blasphemy. He'd thrown his evil step mother into the pit of Tartarus, supposedly imprisoning her forever. Now returned, Hera would be a bitter force to reckoned with. And yes, that was putting it mildly.
However, right now he was far more concerned about Xena. What was Hera really planning to do with her?
They could hear the chanting as Xena had before them and, after awhile, saw the dull light illuminating from a room purposely carved into the mountain. There was a fork and none of the trio could make up their minds which way to go.
"I'll check the right way first." Hercules told his friends. "The light seems to be stronger there. Follow me when I call."
Normally, Iolaus would have been anxious to go in by Hercules side, fighting to the death if necessary, but he saw wisdom in holding back, not knowing what was ahead of them. He was worried about Gabrielle. Her best friend was in there somewhere and the bard was anxious to see her, to be sure she was well. Who knew what Gabrielle would do if she found matters not to her liking. She was emotional and eager for a confrontation with whatever was putting Xena in danger. Once again Iolaus realized that Gabrielle was much like him. Distraction was usually the best course of action - "I want to give you something."
Gabrielle, holding a torch they had picked up along the way, looked from where Hercules entered the inner area to staring at Iolaus, "Give me something? Now?"
"We might not get a chance to be alone later." Iolaus pulled a package out of the back of his waistband. It was small and she recognized the paper the gift was wrapped in from a stand at The Thebes Village Market, "This was the one item I didn't give to Gickis for all of the trouble we caused him. I had a friend make it while you were off bargaining."
Gabrielle, with a questioning expression, passed Iolaus the torch and took the small loosely wrapped package from his extended hand. She slid off the wrapper and was stunned to see an impressively fashioned ornament attached to a thin string of brown leather, "Oh Iolaus ... It's so ..." The gift was a more petite version of the amulet Iolaus wore around his neck. The color and etching were identical. She marveled over its delicate lines and the strength of the characters depicted. Her head tilted up and her eyes searched his, overcome. A hand reached over to touch one of his cheeks. "I don't know what to say." Gabrielle whispered and nearly laughed. That was something that didn't often happen to the bard. She knew Iolaus' own amulet meant a great deal to him, passed down from his grandfather to his father then to him. He told her its history the first night she was at the house. It was really the only tie he had to the male side of his family. Gabrielle spoke uncertainly: "Iolaus, I don't want to come off sounding naive or assuming too much but ... does this represent something? Between you and me, I mean."
How to answer that. Iolaus stared at her for a moment and thought carefully about what he should say. "To be honest with you Gabrielle, I'm not entirely sure. When I had it made," he reached forward and ran a finger under the black textured stone as she held it possessively with her small fingers, "I just thought of it as a special parting gift. I know you like mine, the way you sometimes gaze and touch it. But now," His fingers moved from the stone to her chin. He looked deeply into her eyes. "I'm just not sure that's all it was." She hadn't been the first to admire the amulet and wouldn't be the last. It meant a lot to Iolaus for reasons he couldn't truly put into words. Yet, he had never given a woman a gift like this. Well yes, Nebula had kept his for a time when it looked like he wouldn't be coming back from ... But no, never as a gift to another person.
When Iolaus got down to it, Gabrielle was the only woman he had ever considered sharing the image with and he could suddenly see why she was curious about his motives. Could he have subconsciously had the necklace made for her because there was, even yesterday, more to their association than what met the eye? He rolled it quickly over in his mind. Their last parting, after Cyberus, had been hard. He almost felt physical pain as he and Hercules watched Gabrielle and Xena leave. But it had passed. Adventure beckoned and life went on. Would their parting this time be any different?
'Oh gods', she thought, 'I shouldn't have gone there. He's thinking too hard. I've made him uncomfortable. Why can't I learn to keep my big mouth shut ....?'
He recognized her nervousness and put reassuring hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, "I really care about you. I may even lo---"
"Sh." The bard raised fingers and placed them on his lips, "Don't say it unless you're absolutely sure, Iolaus. Because once you say that word I'll never let you forget it." Almost shyly, she slipped her arms around his waist, amulet still clutched in her steady hand, and held him close.
Over her shoulder he whispered, "I always felt it brought me luck. Yours has a small compartment in the back and it opens." He was pleased by her expression as he pulled back to look at Gabrielle again.
Gently, they smiled at one another and the couple reached out to kiss -- but they were interrupted.
"Come on you two. This way." Hercules called, "I think I've found her."
'Why do these interruptions keep happening?' Gabrielle wanted to cry. With a sigh, she slipped the amulet around her neck and followed Iolaus and Hercules through the cave.
Xena sat in the middle of the room on the stone floor, her legs crossed, attempting to feel no pain. The voices in her head were telling her what she must do and how to do it effectively. These voices were gentle and caressing and instructive. They liked her and praised her spirit and encouraged her to kill quickly and cleanly. "Hercules won't feel a thing." they said, "if your swift."
.She could hear people entering the temple and knew who they were. Demons from Tartarus sent to destroy her or send her to their domain. Yes, that was it. Or no, that wouldn't make sense because Hera wanted her to kill Hercules. How could she do that if she were busy elsewhere?
She heard the whisper from behind. It sounded like someone she knew. The girl. What was her name? Gab... What? Confusion, pain and insanity. "Go away or I'll have to kill you." Xena told the intruders quite honestly and dully. 'Hercules is here. Kill him!' she heard a voice. It sounded as if it was in the throes of passion.
They were standing behind her, looking at her. She couldn't see them but she could feel them.
Her friends. They were here to rescue her. But she couldn't get up and look at them. It was taking all the strength she could muster to speak and not attack. 'The pain will go away and your thoughts will clear if you kill Hercules.' he had said. 'But if you kill them all ...'
The pain intensified, exploding in her brain like a bolt of lightening thrown from Zeus' hand, and Xena stood and screamed in torment. Madness - Images of murders long past and enemies she had conquered - their mocking screams echoing through her agonized brain - - She wanted it to all stop -- horribly and desperately ... But her friends ....!
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out and moved with the two men to help her.
"NO!" Xena drew her sword, one hand clutching her aching head. "You don't understand. If you come near me I'll kill you. It's the only way to stop the pain -- I'm insane!! I can't help myself!"
"Look at her eyes!" Iolaus warned, noting how they darted and seemed to glow as if Xena had been invaded by the most diabolical and despicable demon in Tartarus
Priestess Hoth appeared before them, "She's the daughter of Hera. Destruction is her destiny. It is what she is suppose to do." She stood on the pulpit near the scroll book and fire.
"It's YOU." Hercules called, "She's the woman who told Iphicles I had to come here and she warned me about what Xena could become."
"It's Ares!" Xena spat out, impatiently.
Once again The God of War materialized and Hoth disappeared. "She's right." he smiled and spoke with a taunting sort of simplicity, "Hera needed you two here to fulfill a prophecy. The temple and its priests disbanded long ago, only a few loyal keeping the temple up to par." The explanation turned into a sneer, "After you dropped Hera into the pit of Tartarus a few of her loyal god-followers were able to raise the old girl again. She came to me weakened and, being the good son I am, I couldn't resist her requests. Killing Hercules and bringing Xena back to the fold ... How could I defy? Especially when it has the extra added advantage of putting Zeus in his place. He's been a thorn in our side for far too long."
"But he's your father ..." Gabrielle said, a little amazed by his disrespect.
"Your point being?" Ares eyed Gabrielle as he always did. A sweet girl and a pest. He should have had her killed long ago.
"So, where is she?" Iolaus, looking about, asked. He had drawn his own sword but didn't know what to do with it.
Ares detested this little man. Why couldn't he have stayed dead in Sumeria? "Hera? She's around."
With a loud clatter, Xena dropped her weapon to the floor. "I won't kill Hercules." she said calmly and under control, although the madness and pain were wracking her body in waves. She held onto an inner strength that refused to make her step back into that world of a vicious warrior, intent on destroying the world -- and the man she loved. If she killed Hercules it would happen. She knew it. And so many people would die ... Gabrielle included.
A frown appeared on Ares face. The woman's strength amazed him still. She would be unstoppable if left in his care. "You will because you must do as your mother commands." He looked over at Hercules, "And you must kill her or your nephew will die! That's what's at stake, Hercules."
The demigod spotted the image of Iphicles and Antak as it appeared again on the temple wall. He looked around Hecrtich and shouted, "You can't get us to fight each other, Hera!" he cried to the air, "She's not yours. Xena is her own woman and nothing you can do will change that!"
"Oh - do you really think so?" the goddess' voice, weak but filled with menace, suddenly echoed around the chamber. "If given the right reason Xena will do whatever I ask. And so will you, Hercules!"
Stunned, the heroes looked about the temple. They hadn't expected to actually hear from Hera.
Only Ares smiled and seemed at ease. This was going to be good.
Then they felt it, a great build up of electricity and orphism in the air. Something was being processed but none of them, especially the glassy-eyed and nervous Warrior Princess, could fathom it. Then, without warning, a bolt of explosive energy shot from the alter fire, splitting in two and struck both Iolaus and Gabrielle squarely in the chests. They were thrown at least twenty feet, Iolaus sword dropping to the ground, and fell to the stone floor, only a few feet away from one another. The man and woman lay as if dead.
With a cry of horror and anguish, Xena ran to her friend and Hercules followed. "I feel no pulse," she sobbed, "No heartbeat! She's killed them!" The Warrior Princess shrieked in pain and - unbalanced - acting on premonition alone, drew her chakram yet again but wasn't really aware of who she could reasonably fight over her loss.
Hercules pounded the cave floor with an anguished fist as he leaned over his friend. "Iolaus ...." It was his fault. Dammit, all! When would he learn?! "Not again ... not again ..."
"They are not dead." Ares came to the foreground, "but they might as well be because if you two don't fight they will be sacrificed." He folded his arms arrogantly across where his heart would be if he had one, "However, if you do fight the winner will be rewarded with the life of his or her friend."
"Ares!" Hercules shouted in contempt, furious.
Xena stood straight, her expression impassive. 'Kill Hercules!' the voices whispered and, Zeus love them, they were right. If she'd had listened in the first place Gabrielle ... Xena knew what she had to do - "Hercules, I'm sorry ... but I can't lose Gabrielle again." Yes, she would revert to the old ways again but for Gabrielle she was willing to let it happen. Gabrielle had to live! Xena did several back flips that landed her close by her sword. She picked it up gingerly at first, looking at the weapon as if she wasn't entirely certain what to do with it then, with a warrior cry, Xena ran at Hercules. He had to die!