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Disclaimers Xena Warrior Princess and all Characters of the Xenaverse are the property of Ren Pic and Universal. My deepest gratitude goes to them for the loan of these folks and I returned them none the worse for wear. Thanks for the Fertile fields.
BY APRIL MCKAIG
Gabrielle sat quietly in the dim coolness of the stone tunnel. Gently she rubbed her chafed wrists. The natural cavern had a large tunnel running through it and several small chambers branching off the main passageway. Hawks and Barbara had disappeared into one of the chambers a short time ago after dispersing his troops around the cavern. He had left four guards including the robed followers to keep an eye on her.
She was glad he had left her alone. Other than the chafed wrist, she had not been hurt physically nor would she. He had assured her of that much. After listening to his rantings and plans of conquest, she felt as if she had been beaten. Thanks to his bragging she knew his plans. Now she hoped for the opportunity to escape and tell the others. Casually, she glanced around the cave trying to formulate a plan. Then there was a large explosion toward the mouth of the cave.
Hawks and Barbara ran out into the tunnel clothes disheveled and startled. Another explosion shook the ground. "Check it out!" Hawks barked at the guards as a cloud of dust drifted down the tunnel toward them. Two of the four rushed forward, Hawks and Castille hot on their heels.
As they disappeared, Gabrielle looked at the two remaining guards. The one in the farthest corner stared ahead. The other, much closer, met her look. Slightly raising the barretta he was holding. She wondered if she could make it into one of the branching caverns. If she could outrun a bullet from the gun.
She stopped wondering when a frying pan appeared behind the gunmans head and crashed down with a resounding clang. Across the tunnel the same fate befell the other guard.
"Lets go." The older version of Xena urged as she stepped over the fallen guard. Another explosion outside got Gabrielle moving and she followed her rescuers into one of the tunnels.
Janice led the way, Pappy brought up the rear. Venturing into the twist and turns of the cave, they stumbled into bright sunshine.
Gabrielle squinted against the blinding light and felt hands steadying her. As her eyes grew accustomed to the light, she found herself high above the desert floor on a rocky ledge. "Lets get out of here." Janice smiled and began down the ledge.
Following close behind Janice, Gabrielle realized that the ledge appeared to be slender and crumbling. It was in fact quite sturdy and smooth. "How did you find me? Where are Xena and your granddaughters?" Gabrielle asked halfway down the ledge.
Before they could answer a voice sounded out above them. "There!"
All three women looked up and back. They saw one of Hawks soldiers leaning out of the doorway and taking aim. They were fully exposed to the gunman, the rocky cliff offering no cover. Janice pushed Gabrielle behind her and Pappy moved beside the older woman, completely blocking the Bard from harm.
The soldier took aim, smiling. A blur appeared and struck him in the chest. Staring down he saw the shaft of an arrow protruding from his chest. His heart slowed as the blood poured from the wound. Losing his balance he tumbled from his spot on the cliff. Another gunman immediately took his place. He too fell from the cave doorway, an arrow through his throat.
Assuming it had been Xena, Gabrielle was surprised to find Aven perched on the cliff opposite them, crossbow loaded and ready for the next rabbit. Motioning downward, Janice urged Gabrielle forward while Aven covering their escape.
Xena and Melanie were waiting below, Bronco ready to roll.
Learning his lesson the next gunman out the doorway eased out cautiously. Slowly he peered around the edge.
Almost to the desert floor, Gabrielle heard Melanie yell, "Jump." And quickly complied. She leapt off the last ledge and landed in the strong arms of Melanie and Xena.
"Welcome back." Melanie greeted with a smile.
"Are you alright?" Xena asked with concern.
"Glad to be back and yes." She answered. With care she was deposited on the sandy earth.
Janice and Pappy jumped down to their awaiting arms. Once on the ground, Xena pulled everyone back toward the Bronco and Melanie waved a signal to Aven.
Changing arrows Aven fired at the caverns back door. The explosive hit its mark. The opening disappeared in a flash of flame. An ensuing land slide sealing it tightly.
Receiving a thumbs up from the grandmothers and Melanie, Aven slung the crossbow and equipment bag across her back. Then she began repelling down to the others.
"She does love those big booms." Melanie grinned as she and Xena took up positions to cover Aven as she slid down. Aven had explained that when at Rams she had procured some explosive tipped arrowheads. Now it had seemed fortunate indeed, almost predestined.
A shot rang out bouncing off the rock right beside Avenss head. Keeping a steady grip on the rope Aven ducked aside as splinters of rock spraying her face.
In the blink of an eye, Xena had whirled around and released the chakram. Melanie stared in awe as the sharpened disk, the model for her families coat of arms, went into action. Ricocheting off two opposite stones, the chakram neatly sliced the gunmans throat before returning to its mistress hand.
"Too cool." Melanie smiled as Xena returned the Chakram to her hip.
Aven landed on the ground. Abandoning the rope she ran over to them. "Well done." Xena congratulated her.
"Its in the genes." Aven joked, directing a look at Gabrielle and Janice.
"I suggest we get our genes out of here." Janice replied motioning to the Bronco.
The distant shouting of Hawks soldiers was all the encouragement they needed as the six women climbed into the Bronco. Flooring the gas, the 4x4 leaped into the motion, Melanie at home behind the wheel.
In the back seat Xena protectively put her arm around Gabrielles shoulders, "Did he hurt you?"
"No." Gabrielle assured her. With each mile the caverns became a speck in the distance, "But I do know his plans now."
Glancing in the rearview, Melanie asked, "Care to share?"
"The guys we followed here from our time." Gabrielle began, "Their mission is to get something called an Antrax virus and bring it back to Dahok."
"Anthrax?!" Aven corrected. The nightmare came flooding back in all its vivid horror, "That was the plague from our dream." Her face paling, she realized his plans, "Shit Mel. Hes going to release the Anthrax virus in Ancient Greece."
"This Anthrax is deadly?" Xena questioned.
"Oh yeah." Melanie sighed. She couldnt comprehend what a virus like that would do to an ancient civilization. Anthrax was deadly in modern times but in the past. With no way to take precautions its effect on the populace would be devastating.
"Thats how he plans to cleanse the world. If this virus is kills most of the people, he can go unchallenged and rule the world." Xena finished.
"If he secures the Icon and uses the virus, he cant be stopped. All history will change." Pappy observed.
"Yeah, well he doesnt have the Icon and he wont get it." Janice said with conviction.
"Hell have to kill me before I let him get his hands on it." Aven vowed from beside Xena.
Gabrielle looked at her, hesitant to go on but knowing it was imperative. "He wont kill you Aven. Im for Dahok and you are for David."
"What?" Xena asked unsure of her hearing.
"Their men have orders to kill you and Melanie. Im the mother. Dahok wants me by his side, as a trophy. David wants Aven as his bride, to-- produce an heir."
Again Melanie looked in the rearview concentrating on Aven. The young woman had closed her eyes and seemed to shrink against the seat trembling slightly. Anger raged in Melanie. One way or another she was going to make Hawks pay for what he had done and was doing to her friend. Shifting her eyes, Melanie met Xenas stare. Two thousand years separated them but they shared the same thought and feelings.
"We wont let that happen." Xena voiced for both of them. Gritting her teeth and nodding in agreement, Melanie turned her attention back to the desert.
"Girls," Janice interrupted, "This is very dangerous business. You must get the Icon first. Then use it to open a portal."
Pappy turned in the seat to look at Xena and Gabrielle. "You two go through with the Icon. That should put a stop to this Dahoks plans. History shows he was stopped with it and now we know who used it. You know where the Icon is and weve got a head start."
"Pull over up there." Janice instructed, pointing at a group of adobes in the distance. "Thats where we get off."
"Youre not coming with us?" Xena asked.
"We werent in the dream." Pappy smiled, "Were not as young as we used to be and would only be a hindrance."
"The word hindrance is not one I would use to describe you Gram." Melanie replied as she eased the Bronco into the village.
Pappy offered Melanie a warm smile and Janice continued, "You four have the power. The ones who must face this evil and stop it." Janice directed her gaze at Aven, "Your whole life has been in preparation for this. You and Mel have a destiny."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. The words had been uttered between them as well at various times during their adventures.
"A destiny that binds us in past, present and future." Gabrielle thought aloud.
As Melanie pulled to a stop, several Indians approached the Bronco. A wave from Janice and Pappy seemed to dissipate the tension. "Ffollow the map to the caves and find the Icon. Then you kick his ass." Janice instructed and opened the Bronco door, "Pleasure meeting you two." She directed at Xena and Gabrielle, and then exited the vehicle.
"And you." Xena returned.
"Well be waiting here girls." Pappy said as she followed Janice hesitantly, "Be careful."
"Always." Melanie smiled bravely, "See you soon."
The six women, generations of the same family, exchanged final parting glances. A million thoughts, questions and words passing between them in silence.
Janice shut the door, snatching another quick look at her granddaughter, then she and Pappy stepped away from the Bronco. Both waved solemnly as the 4x4 eased away and disappeared into the horizon.
Thirty miles later the map led them to an unimpressive stone outcropping. Melanie maneuvered the 4x4 behind the corner of the mini mountain out of sight. Each woman grabbed their backpacks and weapons then exited the Bronco.
Slowly, they hiked around the stones, looking for the passageway indicated on the map. "Here!" Melanie called ten minutes later.
As the other three joined her, they found a doorway in the stones face. It was so well hidden by nature that without the map they could have walked by it a hundred times and never seen it.
"Wanna flip a dinar to see who goes first?" Gabrielle asked, searching the darkened access way.
All three women looked to Xena, expectantly. "Follow me." She sighed and walked to the entrance.
Melanie moved up behind her and held out a flashlight, "Youll need this."
Xena looked at the cylinder oddly, "What is it?"
"Modern torch." Melanie replied and flipped on the switch, chasing away the shadows from the entrance.
Smiling, Xena accepted it. She held it tightly, closely examining it and getting used to the weight. Melanie handed another flashlight to Aven, who volunteered to bring up the rear.
"Ready?" Xena asked. Nodding, they ventured into the darkness of the cave.
They moved slowly down the passageway. All keept their senses alert for clues to the Icon. As they got further into the cave they noticed how the path descended. The walls appeared to be closing in as well. "Its getting tight in here." Xena remarked as she slowed her step.
Melanie stopped behind her. "Maybe we missed the entrance of another tunnel."
Xena raised the flashlight and aimed it forward. The path narrowed even more and ended a few yards ahead in a large stone wall. "I hope so. This is a dead end."
"Maybe not." Gabrielle replied and slipped past Melanie and Xena. She studied the wall for a moment. Then moved closer until she was right in front of it.
Xena joined her and noticed what had caught Gabrielles attention. What she had assumed was a natural formation on the wall was a lever. "Good job."
"But I dont understand the language." Gabrielle replied, her eyes never leaving the markings on the wall. Following Gabrielles gaze, Xena saw the odd markings on the wall above the lever.
"Its Navaho." Melanie said as she stepped closer. She positioned Xenas flashlight to illuminate the markings even more.
"What does it say?" Aven questioned.
Squeezing past them, she touched the wall, "The--journey--begins--" She struggled to remember her grandmothers teachings, "with--the faithful."
The women fell silent as they thought about the message. "The journey begins with the faithful." Melanie repeated.
"What does that mean?" Gabrielle asked.
Aven offered a suggestion. "That to find the Icon, we must have faith."
"We wouldnt be here if we didnt." Xena pointed out. Turning her attention back to the lever, she inspected it closely. "This may open a secret passageway."
"I dont think so." Aven disagreed, "Its too easy."
Straightening up, Xena nodded, "Youre right. Its a trap."
"How do you know?" Melanie piped in.
"She knows." Gabrielle convinced them.
Xena began examining the wall throughly.
"There has to be a way in." Aven replied leaning against the wall, "We just have to think faith."
Melanies mind began running, "Faith. To have faith you must have belief. Trust."
Aven unconsciously looked upward and stiffened. She brought the flashlight up and illuminated the cave ceiling. "Yoohoo." She called softly.
Three other heads followed her lead and saw the slender shaft above them. It rose twenty feet into the stone and was two feet wide at most.
"We cant fit in that." Gabrielle whispered.
"Xena, shine your light up there with Avens." Melanie instructed, pointing upward.
Taking a step forward, Xena did as asked. With the shaft lit up they could easily spot the trigger mechanism at the end of it.
"Bingo." Melanie said in elation, then sighed, "But how are we supposed to reach it?"
"Are we supposed too?" Gabrielle countered, "Maybe its another trap."
"Thats our way in." Xena smiled with certainty, "And Aven can open the door."
Avens eyes froze in surprise, "Me?"
Xena stepped up beside Aven and draped her arm around the womans shoulders, "Of course we cant reach it. But you can use your crossbow. You hit the trigger and were on our way."
Aven tried to pull away but Xena held firm, still smiling. Aven sought out Melanie for help, "You can shoot the trigger. We have guns."
Melanie followed Xenas lead, "Bullets ricochet. If its not a dead on hit, one of us could be hit and killed."
"Youre a good shot. You can hit it." Aven argued uncomfortably.
Gabrielle jumped on the band wagon, "Ive seen you in action, Aven. You can hit that trigger. You did it once to save our lives."
"And if I miss this time, one of you could die." Aven sulked.
"Were wasting time." Xena said forcefully, "Aven, we need your skills."
Melanie appeared beside them, Avens crossbow and quiver of arrows in her hand, "You can do it." She encouraged.
Aven sighed deeply, surrendering.
In a matter of minutes, Aven was lying on the cavern floor, crossbow loaded and primed. Melanie stood over her, aiming both flashlights up the narrow shaft.
Xena and Gabrielle took up position a few feet back. They were giving them plenty of room but would be ready to act if something went wrong.
Aven focused. Her talent with the crossbow had won competitions at the Faire. She had successfully covered Gabrielles escape from Hawks but doubt still nagged at her. She looked up at Melanie. Melanie met her gaze, and she saw unwavering confidence reflected in those eyes.
Taking a deep breath Aven brought the crossbow up taking careful aim. Melanie held the lights perfectly still as Aven exhaled, releasing the arrow. The women held their breath as the arrow disappeared in the shaft. Melanie struggled to hold the flashlights steady as the arrow plunged into the triggering mechanism.
There was no movement or sound for a minute. Then a low rumbling filled the cavern. Melanie lowered the flashlights, tossed one back to Xenas waiting hand and reached her free hand out to Aven.
Aven grasped the offered hand and was pulled to her feet. The wall of the cave was shaking and groaning against its restraints. Melanie and Aven moved back with Xena and Gabrielle, watching as the wall slid away prepared to act if threatened. A small cloud of dust engulfed them as the wall came to a stop.
Tentatively, Melanie stepped forward aiming her light into the newly revealed opening. It was a pitch black cavern with a stone stairway leading down.
"Good shot." Gabrielle complimented.
Xena leaned in close and spoke so lowly that only Aven could hear, "Were you aiming at his head?"
"Lower." Aven blushed.
Satisfied that this was the way Melanie took a step forward. "Damn the torpedoes." She muttered and entered the new cavern.
The decent down the stairway was slow and treacherous. The stairs descended down the center of the cavern, leaving empty space on each side. To miss a step or loose your footing would result in a fatal fall into the darkness below.
Melanie carefully led the way, her flashlight barely illuminating the inky blackness surrounding them. Aven kept a firm grip on the back of Melanies shirt, Gabrielle doing the same behind her. Xena brought up the rear, her hand protectively on the Bards shoulder.
The cavern was silent save for the sound of their cautious steps and tense breathing. As they proceeded downward Melanie found her thoughts drifting over the events that led them here.
The night Aven had awoken her because of a dream seemed ages ago instead of only a few days. The first meeting with Xena and Gabrielle, the shooting at the dinner, her frantic search for Aven and Melanies first kill. It all seemed like a movie or elaborate dream. Jacques had pointed out that this was not like one of her role playing games or books and in that he was right. This was much better she smiled to herself. She had always thought her life was full and exciting and she had been rudely awakened. Despite the danger and close calls she loved the real life adventure.
Unconsciously, she had picked up speed and now felt a warning tug on her waist. Having no idea if Aven could see she nodded and slowed down. Now her thoughts fell on the young woman behind her. Aven had been to hell and back. Risking her own life and sanity to protect Melanie from Hawks. Melanie felt the anger rolling in the pit of her stomach. Her friendship with Aven had filled a whole in her life. Not much for sentimentality, she could never tell her friend how precious she was to her. Aven had no problem displaying her affection and how much she prized Melanie. But Melanie was more guarded and that was going to change. Hawks had taken Aven and abused her trust and spirit. When Melanie looked into Avens eyes, she saw that part of that spirit was lost forever. Even in her drugged slumber she had not been able to escape the nightmare David had planted. Gritting her teeth, Melanie fantasized about subjecting him to the same tortures he had visited on Aven. She formed a mental picture of him lying on the ground. Bloody, hurt and humiliated. She could almost hear his pleas of mercy as she punished him again and again for Aven.
She was so caught up in her dreams of retaliation that she missed the sprinkle of gravels on the step. She felt her foot skidding and threw out her arms to try to stop the tumble. With nothing to grab a hold on for balance her weight shifted and her feet launched off the step, tossing her into the darkness.
Falling! He mind screamed as an iron lock captured her wrist and kept her from tumbling any further into the abyss.
Looking up she saw Avens face above her hanging off the steps and struggling to keep from sliding off the perch.
Gabrielle jumped on top of Avens legs as she slid and wrapped her arms around her descendants waist, scrambling to keep from toppling over with them.
Xena moved in to anchor Gabrielle. She wrapped muscular legs around the Bard then she locked a firm grip on the opposite side of the stairs.
Eyes wide, Melanie glanced below her and found only blackness. Turning back to Aven, she saw the straining, sweat drenched face of her friend. Realizing how precarious the situation was she whispered, "Let me go."
Aven clenched her teeth, "NO." and tightened her grip.
"Theres no reason for all of us to die." Melanie argued, feeling the pull of gravity.
"Xena?" Aven called.
"Hurry it up!" Xena answered in a strained voice.
Aven extended her other hand, "Take it."
Reaching up, Melanie seized the awaiting hand. "Now climb up." Aven ordered.
Seeing the look of determination on Avens face Melanie knew that she wouldnt let go. Even if it meant both their deaths. With renewed strength, she began lifting herself up. Avens grip never wavered as Melanie eased herself up, using Avens body as a ladder to the steps. Grabbing Gabrielles shoulders as a final hold, Melanie pulled herself up and onto the steps.
Immediately, she turned and grabbed Avens waist and along with Gabrielle pulled her to safety. Exhausted, the four women sprawled on the steps, breath ragged and hearts pounding.
"Thanks." Melanie wheezed between breaths
"Couldnt let you leave the party so soon." Xena smiled, her arms still quivering from the strain.
"I wasnt paying attention. Im sorry. And I lost one of our flashlights." Melanie apologized.
"The flashlight," Gabrielle grinned, "We can get when we reach the bottom."
"Huh?" Melanie asked.
Gabrielle motioned over the side of the steps. Melanie, Xena and Aven carefully glanced over the edge and saw a very faint light below.
The four women sighed in relief. "Were getting close to the bottom." Gabrielle announced and then added, "And whatever may be waiting down there."
Xena rose to her feet. "Ill take point for awhile." Seeing Melanies head drop in shame, Xena directed her stare at the woman, "Youve had a bad scare and need some time to regroup. Its not that I dont trust you to lead."
Melanie looked up, wanting to believe but still doubtful. Xena reached out her hand, "We cant sit here all day."
Accepting the hand as well as the explanation, Melanie was lifted to her feet. "Ill bring up the rear." Aven volunteered.
"Well take it slow." Xena instructed, "Stay close and hang onto one another." Her face darkened when she added, "And be ready for anything."
With that, they continued their cautious descent.
The stairs ended in a smooth walled, circular cavern. Gabrielle plucked the fallen flashlight from the cavern floor and merged the light with Xenas as it swept the room. The search revealed three sealed doorways with messages carved into the stone.
"That language?" Melanie said puzzled, "It look familiar but I cant place it."
"Its Greek." Gabrielle acknowledged, "Our language."
Aven stepped closer, "Ancient Greek? Here?"
It took only a second for the implications to soak in. "Coincidence." Xena dismissed
"Destiny." Melanie countered.
"So what does it say?" Aven asked.
"Belief." Gabrielle stated.
"What?" Aven and Melanie questioned in unison.
"One word." Xena answered, "Belief." Turning her light, she walked to the next doorway. "Faith." Then proceeded on to the last, "Salvation."
Melanie stomped her foot on the dirt floor, "Thats it? Belief, faith and salvation?"
Xena nodded, "Thats it."
"So which do we choose. What door will take us to the Icon?" Gabrielle asked aloud the thought they all shared.
Again they scanned the doors, searching for more clues they might have missed the first time. "Belief led us here." Aven observed standing in front of that door.
"Faith opened the door." Xena added from her own spot.
Melanie pointed to the door in front of her, "Salvation when we find the Icon?"
There seemed to be no counter point, so the three women joined her in front of the Salvation door. Xena drew her sword, "Stand off to the side." She cautioned her companions.
Aven looked at the door and lever, "Someone has to open it and that means standing in front."
Xena started to move but Aven waved her away, "Ill do it."
"Aven?" Gabrielle and Melanie started to protest but Aven silenced them, "Were wasting time." She stated bluntly and grasped the lever.
Melanie drew her own sword and took a stance opposite Xena. Aven looked at both of them, then Gabrielle who was just behind Melanie, staff firmly in hand.
Nodding readiness, Aven pushed the trigger downward.
There was no delay as the door quickly retracted into the ceiling. Aven saw movement and then an approaching blur. She had no time to react as a faster blur reached out and intercepted the first. Blinking, Aven saw the well sharpened point of a spear only an inch from her face. Attached to the spear was Xenas hand, the halting force. "Unghh." Was the only thing Aven could get out as she swayed slightly.
Melanie moved in and maneuvered Aven to the side, away from the doorway, "You okay?"
Avens eyes were still wide in shock. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. Finally she managed, "Uh yeah. I think."
Xena had dropped the spear and was cautiously looking in the open doorway.
Gabrielle stood beside Aven, placing a calming hand on her shoulder, "Its kind of unnerving when she does that."
Had Xena not acted, Avens head would now be skewered to the stairway and in fully comprehending this, Aven began to feel light headed.
Leaving Gabrielle to steady Aven, Melanie ventured over and joined Xena in her examination of the open doorway.
Melanie emitted a muffled gasp when she saw what was inside the doorway. Xenas flashlight beam danced over the two unreleased spears, still resting in the ancient holder.
"Yea." Xena replied, "The firing mechanism on the other two must have malfunctioned, thank the Gods."
"Salvation in death." Melanie whispered as cast a quick look at Aven, understanding how close to dying she had come. Without warning, Xena reached out and shoved Melanie backward. Rolling backwards, Melanie felt a gush of musty air and her temper flare. Recovering, she assumed a crouching stance and glared at Xena, "What the hell...?"
Before she could continue, the salvation door settled back into its closed position. Melanie realized the purpose of the shove and bit back her anger, "Thanks."
Xena pulled her to her feet, "Sorry. I didnt mean to push you that hard."
Melanie shrugged it off, "No problem, but we still have two more doors to go."
"Faith led us in the first door." Gabrielle said as she and Aven joined them in their examination of the other doors, "Maybe thats the key."
"I think Ill let someone else open that door." Aven mumbled softly.
Xena cracked a smile, "Ill take the next one."
Aven met Xenas eyes, "You saved my life. Thank you."
Xena felt a blush heating her cheeks, "We have to look out for one another."
"Shall we see whats behind door number two?" Melanie asked in her best game show announcers voice.
They were prepared for anything when Xena activated the trigger on the faith door. After she depressed the lever, Xena flipped out of the line of fire. There was a slight delay before the door slid open revealing a darkened hole. Gabrielle and Melanie aimed their lights in the entrance and found a hallway clear of spears or any other welcoming devices.
"Slow and easy." Xena cautioned as she lead the way into the cave.
Fifty yards in the door slid to a close behind them. Gabrielle emitted a muffled yelp of alarm, the other three crouched down, ready to react. Holding their positions there was no other sounds or movement and they began moving again. Ten minutes later they found another booby-trap.
Xena stopped in mid step, foot hanging in the air. The others stopped behind her and froze in place. "Trip wire." Xena whispered over her shoulder and shined the light on a thin thread an inch above the ground.
She kneeled down and studied the wire and ground for a minute. Then she let her eyes roam across the rock walls. Satisfied that there was no second trip wire, she stood up and carefully stepped over the thread. Motioning for the others to follow she guided them gently over. Once they were clear they stepped back a few steps. Gabrielle stretched her staff toward the thread, Xena holding her waist band for balance.
The staff bounced off the wire and Gabrielle was pulled out of harms away. The ground where they had been standing on the other side of the wire fell away.
When the dust settled, all four moved as one to peer into the open pit. "Ouch." Aven stated as they observed the sharpened spikes rising from the ground of the pit.
"This place is really starting to get on my nerves." Melanie whined, propping her hands on her hips for emphasis.
Gabrielle moved back from them and turned, shining her light down the hallway. "Better look at this." She called over her shoulder.
The hall came to a dead end. Sighing, they moved toward the stone wall. As they got closer they saw the indentation in the stone. Further examination revealed a crevice, the trigger inside, a hand print indented on smooth stone.
"My turn." Gabrielle said and started to reach in the crevice.
Xena seized her arm, "Wait a second--"
"Xena," Gabrielle sighed, "Look at the imprint. Its for a small hand." She raised her hand up to Xenas face, "My hand."
Avens hand joined Gabrielles, "Or mine."
Melanie joined Xenas protest, "Hold on a second."
Both brunettes were silenced by the look the blonds shot at them. Aven was surprised when Gabrielle turned the look on her, "This ones mine."
An icy finger went down Avens spine. She recognized the look Gabrielle had on her face. It was the same expression she used when her mind was made up and arguing was useless. She was a master at delivering that look, not receiving it. The sensation was like looking in a mirror for the first time. She lowered her hand. "Agreed."
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle walked forward, pushing her arm into the crevice. Her arm disappeared to the elbow. "Perfect fit." She smiled over her shoulder.
Xena was right beside her, hovering protectively.
"What now?" Melanie asked, scanning the walls for any changes.
Gabrielle wiggled her arm in the crevice, "When I push I feel it giving like it wants to turn." With her hand settled in the cool rock she followed her observation and pressing against the stone, turned it clockwise. It moved smoothly and stopped after a quarter turn.
Without warning a stone clamp suddenly slid down seizing Gabrielles arm in place. Instinctively, she tried to wrench her arm out of the crevice but the clamp held firm. Xena and Melanie jumped at the wall, digging their fingers against the clamp, trying to prize it open. Aven grabbed Gabrielles waist, bracing a foot against the wall and tried to pull her free.
"Wait! Stop." Gabrielle shouted as she felt movement under her hand.
The three women stopped their rescue attempts but stayed in place. "What is it?" Xena questioned, a bead of sweat from her exertion trickling down the side of her face.
Gabrielles alarm had turned to wonder as she tried to reach further in the crevice. "A panel just opened." She answered, leaning against the wall. "Theres something...got it." She said triumphantly.
The clamp unexpectedly released her arm, disappearing back into its stone berth. Gabrielle pulled her arm out of the crevice, a small metal box in her grasp.
After everything they had encountered in the cavern, they werent that startled when a section of rock moved aside, revealing a new hallway.
"Is that it?" Aven gestured at the box.
The box was a simple, smooth iron box. No writing or jewels adorned the surface, only a thick coat of dust. "One way to find out." Gabrielle answered and pulled at the lid of the box. It refused to budge, ancient age fussing it shut.
"Let me try." Melanie and Xena said in unison.
Xena bowed slightly indicating Melanie to proceed. Melanie accepted the box from Gabrielle and placed it on the ground. She drew her sword and positioned it carefully over the box.
Gabrielle and Aven stared with concern, but Xenas look of confidence kept them silent. Melanie brought the sword down with just enough power to jolt the box slightly.
Gabrielle dropped to her knees and retrieved the box. This time when she added a bit more pressure the lid came off. A puff of ancient dust escaped and Gabrielle quickly waved it away.
Their flashlights illuminated the interior, revealing rumbled cloth. Gingerly, Gabrielle began pulling back the edges of the clothes, the beams of light flashing off something underneath. When the final corner was pulled away, they found a necklace. The chain was solid gold and heavy linked. The amulet on it was a miniature version of the Chakram, only in its center was a glass container. A dark fluid lapped at the interior of the glass and an air of power surrounded it.
Softly Gabrielle touched the amulet and felt a tingle shoot through her fingertips and encompass her entire being. "The Icon." She whispered.
Lifting it out of the box, she held it up for the others to see. The sense of awe they felt was obvious on their faces as they felt the power radiating from it.
"It will be safest with you." Gabrielle replied as she held it out to Xena.
Xena was going to protest but sensed that she was supposed to take it, for now. The words of John filled her mind, Listen to your instincts. That will be the magic speaking to you. She took it from Gabrielle and felt the same sensation jarring her.
"Theres something else." Gabrielle stated as Xena tucked the amulet down the front of her leather bodice.
"Thats the safest place I can think of." Melanie joked and nudged Xenas shoulder.
Underneath the cloth lay a scroll of papas. It was aged and brittle and Gabrielle eased it out of the box. Delicately she unrolled it and was shocked to see it was in her language and that the writing was familiar. She paled as she read it and had she not been kneeling already, would have fallen.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" Aven asked, trying to sneak a glance at the scroll.
Wordlessly, Gabrielle handed it over to Xena. Curious, Xena began reading. Her stoic features paling slightly and expression darkening.
"What is the big mystery?" Melanie asked impatiently.
"Later." Xena dismissed and quickly rolled the scroll back up. She pointedly handed the scroll to Aven, "Hang onto this."
Giving her an odd look, Aven shrugged and accepted the scroll.
Melanie motioned toward the new opening, "I guess thats the way out."
Aven tucked the scroll into her backpack and stood up. "Time to send you home." She remarked, her voice tinged with sadness.
"Yea." Gabrielle agreed, the same tone creeping into her voice.
Flashlights ready, they proceeded through the new opening.
"What will you do when you get back?" Aven asked anew as they maneuvered down the new hallway.
"Get to Olympus and stop Dahok." Xena answered, "That is if we can get back home with this thing."
"We can." Gabrielle said with confidence.
They continued on for several minutes in silence, a sense of finality encompassing them and settling in.
"You remember what you said," Gabrielle directed to Aven, "about being proud of your heritage?"
"We may not have much more time in this world." She continued, "I just wanted to tell you that Im proud of my descendants. Of you."
Blushing, Aven smiled weakly and dropped her eyes to the ground, "Thanks."
Xena leaned over to Melanie, "That goes for me too."
Melanies cheeks flushed, "Thanks. Im going to miss you Xena. Both of you."
"Yea." Aven agreed.
Gabrielle came to a stop, "Xena and I discussed it and were not leaving until we help you deal with Hawks."
"No!" Aven almost shouted causing Gabrielle to step back. She realized her mistake instantly and sought to correct it. "I mean, the best way to end this is for you to stop Dahok. You do that and things will change here. Leave Hawks to us."
Xena watched them knowing that there was more to it than that.
"Aven," Gabrielle began, "We will take care of Dahok but were not going to leave you to fight them alone. You and Melanie are outnumbered. We only want to help."
"We appreciate that." Melanie stepped in, "But we can handle it. Im sure youve faced odds like this before and won. The main goal is to get the Icon and get you home so you can put a stop to this guy." Melanies eyes darkened menacingly, "Hawks is mine."
Xena stepped forward, "I made you a promise at the cabin, Melanie. I keep my word."
Melanies eyes dropped for a second, "I know and I would like nothing better than to have you by my side. But the two of you must go home."
Gabrielle looked at Aven, then turned a puzzled face to Xena. Xena shook her head, "Not buying it. Try again."
Now it was Aven and Melanie that exchanged looks. "What?" Aven mumbled.
"Try the truth." Xena suggested.
Melanie pulled Aven to the side and they conferred in whispers. Xena and Gabrielle leaned against the wall, waiting for an explanation. Finally the whispers stopped and the two women faced their ancestors.
Aven took a deep breath and began, "This is something that Mel and I have discussed. True we may be outnumbered and out gunned but getting you back home is more important--than anything."
"You are not expendable!" Xena stated flatly, understanding what they were saying.
"Yes we are." Melanie countered grimly.
Gabrielle stepped forward, fire in her eyes and voice, "Not to us you arent. Weve been in tough scrapes before and well come through this, together."
"The greater good." Aven replied meeting their eyes.
Both women were jolted by the phrase and Melanie continued, "We dont plan on falling, but if it comes to that the two of you must survive. You are the beginning. The start of the war between good and evil. Your descendants have fought in this war for a thousand years, the two of us included. If you die here in this time we cease to exist. All the soldiers of good, your progeny will cease to exist but Dahok has already begun his line. He can proceed unchecked with his plans of destruction. Now do you understand? You have to go back and fight and let us handle the battle in this time."
The cavern fell silent as her words sunk in. Xena and Gabrielle wanted to argue. Both searched for a good counter point but could not find one. The greater good was what the fought for. No matter the cost or how high. They both looked at their respective kin, a deeper admiration growing. It was the same decision they would make if the roles were reversed. Although they didnt like it they respected it.
"It wont come to that." Xena finally spoke.
"Of course not." Melanie smiled, "Weve got your blood in our veins and that gives us a better than average shot."
Aven aimed her flashlight down the cavern, "We need to get out of here, then we can figure out how to open the portal and you two can go make history."
Nodding assent they continued on, each deep in thought.
Xena was the first to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Her eagle vision spotted it a good twenty yards before the others. Melanie squinted to see the distant light, "Weve been going up for a while but theres no way weve reached the outside yet.
"Another cavern?" Gabrielle guessed.
"Probably." Xena acknowledged, "But its too bright to just be torch light."
Cavern was an understatement as they ventured into the lightened room. They had found a huge stone Cathedral. Lit torches encircled the room and a single bright beam of sunlight shone down on a stone altar in the center of the room. The Cathedral was circular, the walls smooth except for the doorways situated at ten foot intervals, ten doors in all. An intricate pattern of lines and images decorated the floor as well as the altar.
"Its beautiful." Aven observed. Her mouth agape, she slowly moved around the circumference of the room.
"This must have some connection to the Icon." Xena said shadowing Aven.
"I certainly hope so." A deep voice boomed.
All four women had their weapons ready and assumed attack stances in the blink of an eye. They faced the doorways and were surprised to see Davis Hawks. Barbara and an entourage of twelve including the last two followers of Dahok emerged from the various doorways. Effectively they surrounded the women.
The four women began backing up until they were in a tight square, back to back and facing the enemy.
"Hawks." Melanie growled as she eyed him with contempt.
Smiling broadly he moved towards them arms outstretched, "None other."
Barbara stayed close to him as he walked to the altar and leaned up against it. "Im so glad you could join us." Turning his attention to Gabrielle, he brought his left hand to his heart and feigned hurt, "Mother, you left so quickly. I hope it wasnt something I said."
Gabrielle remained silent, holding his eyes and revealing no emotion.
Aven felt her palms beginning to sweat when his gaze fell on her. She couldnt still the bolt of fear that shot through her at the sound of his voice. "My dear bride to be." He greeted and licked his lips hungrily, "Im quite anxious to get on with our honeymoon. Ive learned a few new tricks that Im sure will get your attention."
When Aven spoke she tried to sound strong and sure but her voice failed her and was edged with terror, "Never again."
Melanie side stepped closer to Aven, a motion that didnt escape Hawks notice. "Im sorry, Melanie." He grinned, "But my bride wont be needing anyone but me from now on."
Melanie seethed with anger. She wanted to leap at him and ram her sword into his black heart. Suddenly, she was stopped by a flash of memory. Xena tapping her forehead, this is your best weapon. That thought made her squelch the anger and switch tactics. "Gee David. Aven said you were so lousy in bed that she wouldnt even date you again much less marry you."
Xena swallowed a laugh as she watched Hawks smile falter and become a sneer.
"You, little bitch, have served your purpose." And with a wave of his hand, Hawks sent her flying backward, landing just short of the wall.
Melanie landed hard on her rear end. A yelp of surprise rushed out along with the breath that was knocked out of her. The force of the landing had caused her to clench her teeth, biting a hole in her tongue. Now she tasted the coppery residue.
Aven jerked her head to where Melanie landed and was about to rush to her side. When Melanie waved her hand that she was alright. When Aven was sure she wasnt seriously hurt she turned on Hawks, "Bastard!" She yelled and charged at him, fear no longer a concern.
Amused, David let her get within feet of him before he flicked his finger and she too went flying through the air. Instantly, Xena was moving to intercept her as she crashed into the floor.
Gabrielle had gone to help Melanie up. Together they watched as Aven was caught by Xena, the force knocking both women to the ground.
"They fly through the air, with the greatest of ease--" David sang and waved his arms as if leading an imaginary band.
"Thanks" Aven replied as she rolled off Xena and got her bearings. Xena was on her feet a blink later, eyeing the guards around her. Next she focused her attention on Hawks.
"You know." She replied as she moved toward the altar, "You seem to be afraid of facing us, without resorting to warriors or magic."
Again David laughed and shook his head, "No, no. I simply want you to realize the power of Dahok. You should know what youre facing if you dont give me the Icon."
"We dont have it." Gabrielle tried.
She shivered when he flashed the same smile he had worn in the dream, "Mother please. I am not a fool."
"Stop calling me that!" She shot back.
Barbara giggled at the outburst. The other soldiers watched the scene with disinterest. When they had entered the caverns their number was twenty. The various booby traps had taken a good number of their force, almost half. They had lost two at the main door of the maze before Hawks had lost patience and had it dynamited open. One had fallen off the stairway, three more had died before they had gotten the belief door open. One more in a booby-trap in the cave that led them here and another once they reached the temple. They had been in the process of searching the temple when Hawks had sensed the coming presence of the four women. He had ordered them out of sight, to lay in wait for their pray.
"Give me the Icon." David said plainly, "I promise if you do, Ill kill you quickly." He motioned to Xena and Melanie, "Otherwise..."
One of the soldiers stepped forward and fired a shot at Melanie. Grunting, Melanie fell back to the floor, clutching her wounded left leg.
"Mel!" Aven screamed and reached for the gun in her waistband.
Xena and her Chakram were quicker. The disk soared past the shooter almost severing his head before ricocheting off a rock wall and returning to Xenas hand.
Gabrielle moved closer to Melanie, using her body as a barrier to protect the injured woman. Then she tried to access the injury.
One of the other soldiers had moved up and taken aim at Xena. Aven stepped in front of her becoming a human shield. With her gun drawn now, she fired three shots and took out two of the nearest attack dogs.
"Enough!" Hawks voice boomed.
The tone in his voice caused another shudder in Aven. It stopped when she felt Xenas strong hand on her shoulder.
He stopped leaning against the altar and stood up straight, his eyes reflecting his impatience. "I want the Icon."
Xena noticed that the two robed men stayed out of the action and close to the Altar. She reminded herself that they were the carriers of the virus that Dahok planned to unleash on Ancient Greece. The other solders began inching closer.
Gabrielle reached to Melanie and ripped off the tail of her khaki shirt, using it to bandage her leg. The bullet had torn through the calf muscle and exited neatly. The blood flow was slowing and it and made the wound look much worse than it actually was. Once Gabrielle had the bandage in place, Melanie blanked out the pain and with Gabrielles help rose to her feet.
Aven and Xena breathed a mutual sigh of relief as their two comrades joined them in front of the altar.
"I told you, we dont have it." Gabrielle repeated defiantly.
Mock disappointment covered his features, "Fine." He growled, "Well do it the hard way." He turned his focus on Aven.
Her head jerked slightly and she took a tentative step back. "Stop." She begged between clenched teeth. Her hands flew to her head as his stare intensified. "Get out of my head." She wheezed. Tensing, she fell to the stone floor, convulsing as her eyes rolled back in her head.
"What are you doing?" Xena snarled as the three of them surrounded their fallen comrade. Melanie tried to hold Avens convulsing body still but to no avail. Turning, she gave Hawks a hate filled glare, "Leave her alone, you bastard! Youre killing her!"
David took another step forward, "I dont need her mind, just her body."
Suddenly, Gabrielle was sliding backward away from them. When she stopped, she found herself unable to move, an invisible barrier around her. Xena was by her in an instant beating on the unseen barrier with all her might but unable to get through.
"Now," David clapped his hands together, "Mother and my bride are safe, so you can dispose of those two."
The soldiers, guns drawn, began moving in. Reluctantly, Xena and Melanie left their friends and prepared for battle. Xena sized up the situation. She and Melanie stood back to back slowly moving counter clockwise to keep the soldiers in view. Melanie had her gun but she could never use it against all of them. Xenas own sword was no match against the buzzing slugs from the guns. Reaching for her Chakram, she decided to even the odds.
Melanie, Hawks and Barbara watched as the Chakram arched and began ricocheting off the walls of the cavern and striking each gunmans hand, forcing them to drop their weapons. The soldiers cradled their injured hands as the Chakram returned and Xena replaced it with her sword.
"Lets play." She taunted.
Hawks gritted his teeth, "Kill them NOW!"
With the field more level, the two women leapt into action.
Xena jumped in the air kicked out her long legs and connected with the faces of two soldiers. Landing firmly, she brought her sword down across one of the stunned soldiers chest. She felt the warm spray of blood as he fell backwards, desperately trying to hold his innards in.
With the sword still clenched in her hand, she brought the other man down with a pulverizing right hook. Sensing movement behind her, she whirled around and delivered a firm, well placed boot in the soldiers groin. Eyes wide, the man grunted and dropped to his knees, clutching his crushed merchandise. Grabbing a handful of greasy hair, Xena introduced his face to her knee and let him fall. Without warning, she was hit from behind and sent sprawling onto the floor, stars speckling her vision.
Melanies injury kept her from any fancy footwork but as two soldiers circled her, she went into action. As the first man reached out to grab her, she seized his wrist. Firmly she twisted his arm and dropped to her knee, smiling when she heard the satisfying break of a bone. When the other soldier came up behind her, she drove her elbow backward, the target hit as the man squealed and fell over clutching his groin.
Turning her attention back to the broken arm soldier, she used his limp, useless arm to pull herself up and began delivering a blinding succession of punches to his face. She only stopped when she saw his glazed eyes droop and a steady, heavy flow of blood pour from his nose. With a soft shove, he fell to the ground unmoving. The other man groaned from his place on the ground. Swallowing the pain from her injured leg, Melanie brought her booted foot down across his chin, shattering his jaw. Stepping back, she started to turn when a fist connected with her chin. Melanie stumbled to regain her balance, her face on fire and the salty taste of blood renewed itself.
From the side of her eye Melanie saw the attacker advancing. Pulling her sword from its sheath, she dropped to the ground rolling toward him. Stopping quickly she thrust the sword upward, skewering the mans mid-section. He fell against her knees face surprised and pale. Weakly, he reached for her but his life was flooding out of the wound and puddling on the floor. A steady stream ran down the sword in his stomach.
A noise to the right caused Melanie to turn her head. Her eyes landed on Avens stiff form a few feet away still in the throws of Hawks mental assault.
Hatred of Hawks caused her to refocus. Using her legs for leverage she pushed the dying soldier away and let him drop to the floor. As she sat up she saw Xena sprawled on the floor, one of the men approaching her with Avens staff poised to strike.
Yanking the gun from her waist band she took aim and fired.
Xena rolled over and saw her surprise attacker moving in. She shook her head to clear the stars before her eyes and was about to raise her sword when she heard the shot. The man in front of her froze in place, a large red stain covering his chest. He dropped in place, Avens staff rolling out of his grasp. With a final look of surprise he met Xenas eyes and then fell still.
Xena flipped from her place on the ground and looked at Melanie. Melanie was pushing herself off the ground and locked eyes with Xena, nodding at the silent thank you she received.
The three remaining soldiers were wary of the women. None were anxious to rush into the awaiting death they were so adequately handing out.
Hawks watched the scene his face grim and angry. He felt the growing pressure of his father exerting itself in his head. Dahoks rage was growing and Hawks struggled to keep calm. He directed his stare at Barbara who was fidgeting in place, chomping at the bit to join the fight. "Dont disappoint me."
Gracing him with a smile her eyes glowed maniacally, "Never." Screeching in excitement, she rushed from his side aiming straight for Xena.
Gabrielle beat against the force field, desperate to escape and help them. She was unconsciously chewing her lip and stopped when she tasted blood. When Xena had fallen she had felt her heart leap into her throat. She went into a frenzy, almost breaking her arms trying to escape the hellish trap. She calmed when she saw Melanie take action and dispatch the threat. It was the second time the woman had come to her ancestors defense and it was like watching another Xena in action. When her eyes landed on Aven she shuddered. Knowing that the woman, her descendant was again enduring an assault that had almost killed her and she could do nothing to stop it. Movement from the altar caused her to pull her eyes from Aven and watch Castilles advance.
Melanie raised her sword as one of the men charged her. Executing a 360 degree turn, she came back around with enough power to slice him almost completely in half. He staggered back a step, looked down and saw his intestines lying at his feet. Eyes bulging, he sunk to the floor joining them.
Melanie prepared for the other two leaving Xena to handle Barbara.
Xena watched her approach. Head held down with her eyes cut upward, Barbara moved in slowly, twirling her sword and giggling. "We meet again, Xena."
"Joy." Xena sneered.
The giggling stopped as she took a stance. "Wheres the Icon?"
Bringing her sword up, Xena smiled, "Come and get it."
Barbara screamed, eerily reminiscent of her ancestor and lunged at Xena. Prepared for the attack Xena side-stepped, letting Barbaras momentum carry her past. Toying with her opponent Xena slapped her sword against the womans back side as she went by.
Barbara skidded to a stop and jumped around to face Xena. Her face flush with anger. "Bitch." She growled and charged again.
Xena met her sword. The clanging of exchanging sword blows filled the temple like a symphony. Barbara was skilled but her anger made her sloppy. Xena easily blocked her lunges and stabs, taunting her into an almost uncontrollable rage. During her play Xena miscalculated one exchange and Barbara landed the blade against her shoulder, laying it open. She ignored the pain knowing it was a bad gash but not serious and refocused.
The sight of the blood streaming down her adversaries arm excited Barbara and she began fighting harder. Desperately she sought another opening to draw more.
She was so wound up in the moment that she left herself vulnerable as she began bringing the sword down against Xenas over and over. Holding the sword in mid-air ready to bring it down again, she felt a searing pain in her abdomen. Letting her eyes drop she saw Xenas sword protruding from her stomach. Her arms fell to her sides as the realization of her death dawned on her. Her eyes locked on Xenas as the sword was withdrawn. Immediately, she clutched her wound and craned her neck toward the Altar, "David?"
Disgusted, he turned his face away from her and stared at the ground.
She crumpled to the floor. With her dying breath she understood the depth of his deceit and her own stupidity and she laughed.
Xena looked down at the woman as she began her journey to Tartarus. Lingering only a second she cast a quick look across the room and saw that Melanie had taken care of the two remaining soldiers and was now by Avens side.
Hawks remained at the altar shaking his head in disappointment and mumbling to himself. The two robed men were cowering behind the altar, doing their best not to attract the attention of the Warriors.
Satisfied that the next attack was not forth coming, she moved toward Gabrielle. Determined to break the barrier that held her friend.
"Help Aven." Gabrielle urged as she approached.
Xena complied and changed direction. She reached the spot where Aven lay and kneeled on the other side of her, opposite Melanie. Xena clenched her teeth when she saw the womans worsening condition. The convulsions had eased but now there was a slow trickle of blood running from her ear. It fed the growing puddle on the stone floor beside her head. The white of her right eye was now a bloody red and a single tear of blood was forming in the corner of her eye. During her lifetime Xena had seen many serious head injuries and she easily recognized it now.
Melanie looked at Xena, pain and pleading reflected in every motion and look. Gritting her teeth to the point of pain Xena could only shake her head helplessly.
Grasping Avens hand in her own Melanie leaned in closer, "Im right here." She whispered, hoping that somehow her friend could still understand her.
"Looks like the lights are on but nobodies home." Davids voice chided from a few feet away.
It was the last straw for Melanie. She sprinted at Hawks, Tackling him and bringing him to the ground with a loud thud. She landed a couple of punches and was just getting warmed up.
With lightening speed Xena was up and dashing to Melanies aid. Instead she was the receiver as Melanie came flying backward landing in Xenas arms.
Standing up, Hawks dusted himself off and stood before them confidently. He used his handkerchief to wipe away the single drop of blood that Melanie had managed to draw and stared at it for an instant. "That was a freebie."
Melanie tensed to attack again but Xena held firm watching Hawks warily.
"There is a way you can save her." He responded and began pacing in front of the altar. Sure that he had their attention he continued, "After being with Father for this long, her mind is pretty much oatmeal but there may still be a part of her aware. A part that the love of a friend might be able to reach."
Melanies eyes followed his movements. Her breath hitched in her chest at the chance to save Aven.
"I need her to start Dahoks new line but other than that, shell be of no use to me. Shell need a caretaker. A protector. Someone that cares about her. Ill spare your life and allow you to be that person. The question is are you willing to pay the price?"
Melanie looked over her shoulder at Aven and pulled away from Xena. "What price?"
He stopped pacing and smiled, "The Icon of course and--" He leaned closer as if revealing a secret. "Your soul as a welcoming gift for the Dark Lord, Dahok."
Xena watched Melanie carefully as she considered his offer. She was caught off guard when Melanie turned on her. "Where is it?"
"Where is it?" She asked more forcefully, taking a step toward her.
Xena kept her eyes level and focused on Melanies, "This isnt what Aven--"
"Dont you even say her name!" Melanie barked and cut her off. "She is my best friend and shes dying because of you. You and your battle against evil. We were willing to help you but not at the expense of our lives. If she dies, youll be right behind her."
Pleased that his ploy had worked Hawks stepped away from them, watching the scene unfold with rapt interest.
Xena instinctively gripped her sword, "Melanie, dont do this. Theres still a way to solve this."
Melanie had drawn her sword and bared her teeth, "Yeah and if you dont tell me where the Icon is, Im going to solve it with your blood on my sword." To emphasize the point she poked at Xena with the sword.
Using her own sword Xena fended off the taunting blade, "Thats the only way Ill tell you where it is."
"Ghrrah!" Melanie attacked with fury. Xena blocked the blows caught off guard by the womans ferocity. Melanies injured leg kept her from launching a full scale attack. But as the two of them fought across the floor she managed to hold her own against the fierce warrior.
The blows began to lack steam as Melanie forced Xena back around and maneuvered her toward the altar. Fatigue and exhaustion from the previous battles were settling in for both women as they stumbled slightly.
Gabrielle watched in horror as they fought. The four of them had been through so much together and now they were bitter enemies. Or so she thought. The closer she watched them, the more she realized that neither woman was taking advantage of openings that exposed them to injury. She was reminded of a ceremonial dance as they circled, moving closer and closer to the altar. The realization of what they were doing hit at the same moment Xena yelled, "Now!"
Melanie dropped to the ground releasing her sword and drawing the Colt from her waistband. Rolling on her side she took aim and fired at the same moment Xena threw the boot dagger for Hawks heart.
Their temporary elation faded as Hawks caught the blade in his hand and the bullets veered away from the target. One of the stray bullets ricocheted off the distant wall and found a home in one of the cowering robes behind the altar. The other one gasped and ducked lower, trying to become one with the stone.
Xena dropped to a crouch beside Melanie, her mind racing to find another plan of attack. Hawks dropped the dagger and it clattered across the floor, returning to its thrower. "Excellent try." He complimented, "But alas, play time is over. Now you die."
Melanie couldnt contain the gasp that escaped her lips as Hawks began to change.
He released all control and let Dahoks power flow through him. His entire body on fire as his face began to ripple and change. His eyes sank back, cheek bones protruding forward and his jaws elongated into something like a wolfs muzzle. His body seemed to swell, clothes bursting at the seam and falling away in shreds as his form doubled in size. He cried out weakly as the change overtook him. The cries soon became sounds of ecstacy as he finished the morphing. By the time it was over Xena recognized the strong resemblance he bore to the Destroyer that she had faced in Dahoks temple so many months before.
Melanie on the other hand had only seen something like this on a horror movie and was in shock. "What the hell?" She whispered as her mind scrambled to comprehend what she was seeing.
"Exactly." The Hawks demon replied in a low gravely voice.
Before either women could move or speak they were sent flying across the temple.
"I want the Icon." He stormed as they crashed into the walls of the temple dazed.
Giving neither woman a chance to regroup he threw them across the room repeatedly.
When Melanie hit the wall a third time she struggled to catch her breath. Every fiber of her being screamed in pain. She could tell by the ache in her ribs that they were cracked or broken and her leg was throbbing steadily. Catching a quick glimpse at Xena across the room she could tell that even despite her strength, the Warrior Princess was being worn down and hurting.
Suddenly she felt the invisible force wrapping around her and again she was tossed through the cavern like a childs ragdoll. When she collided with the wall this time she noticed it was softer and seemed to give. It wasnt until she was on the floor and saw Xena lying beside her, that she knew whom not what she had crashed into.
Lying on the cool stone floor her body no longer responded to her commands. She began to realize that she was going to die and there wasnt a damn thing she could do to stop it.
"Where is it?" Hawks voice thundered.
Melanie felt her head swimming and vaguely noticed that the room was getting lighter. Passing out she thought to herself. Although she had always thought that when you passed out everything got dark not light.
"Hawks!" A familiar voice boomed.
Understanding that she was not losing consciousness, she forced her head back and saw Aven standing up, holding a glowing bright object. She thought she was hallucinating until she realized that Hawks had stopped his assault and was staring at the figure across the room. Or more importantly what the figure was holding in her hands.
Aven stood straight and still the glowing Icon tightly clutched in her hands. Her face was pale and the single bloody tear streamed down her face but there was also a peace reflected on her face.
"The Icon." Hawks whispered with pleasure. Raising his voice to a powerful boom, he ordered, "Give it to me."
Aven remained silent and unmoving.
Furious at her refusal he looked down at Xena and Melanie and flicked his wrist toward them. Both women cried out simultaneously as a new pain seized them. Xena tried to steel herself against the crushing pain of her insides being compressed. Unable to catch her breath she felt her consciousness ebbing away.
"Hawks!" Avens voice thundered again. With that warning the pressure disappeared. Xena and Melanie were left gasping for desperately needed air.
Hawks looked at the two women sprawled on the floor and then unsurely at Aven.
Holding the glowing Icon a few inches in front of her, Aven began advancing toward the altar and him. Her steps were slow, strong and sure. And with each one the Icon grew brighter and surrounded her in a brilliant shimmer of light.
As she passed Xena and Melanie she stopped between them. The light seemed to pulse and they felt the pain and aches from the fight and Hawks assault fading. Aven closed her eyes as the light that was encasing her seemed to draw the pain away from them.
She continued her path to the altar as Gabrielle suddenly appeared beside her injured friends, "Xena? Melanie? Are you okay?"
Realizing that Gabrielle was free of the invisible cage Xena tried to sit up, "How did you--?"
Gabrielle simply pointed at Aven as she neared Hawks.
Slowly rising to her feet, Melanie moved toward Aven but felt two sets of restraining hands.
"Give me the power!" Hawks demanded again, his voice not as sure as before.
When Aven spoke her voice echoed as the voices of a thousand years joined as one. "It is not mine to give. It chooses us and if we are very lucky works through us. A power such as this cannot be harnessed and controlled. It must be received and allowed to grow, flourish."
Hawks ire was replaced by something else as Aven started her final approach for him. Fear.
"Whats happening?" Melanie asked in a hushed voice.
"The final battle in this war." Xena answered.
"Weve got to help Aven. Shes too weak to fight him alone." Gabrielle urged.
Firmly Xena said, "No." Seeing their reaction she added, "Shes not alone."
Not satisfied with that, Melanie pushed, "So what do we do?"
Xena met her eyes, "Learn."
Aven began ascending the stone steps of the altar and with every step, Hawks moved back. He stopped when he bumped into the altar. Unless he retreated and jumped over it he had nowhere else to go.
Mustering his courage Hawks threw his chest out, "I am David Hawks. Descendant and son of the Dark One, Dahok. My fathers kingdom will rise and cleanse the land with blood and we will destroy all those who oppose him." He pointed a long crooked claw at Aven, "You, mortal, are not worthy of the wielding the power he wants. I command you to give it to me. Now!"
Aven looked at him with pity. Her head held slightly sideways she studied him. Then she raised the Icon and held it out in front of her, "If the power chooses you, I cannot refuse."
Taking that as a yes Hawks stepped forward. He reached out and wrapped his hands around hers on the Icon.
A blinding flash washed across the room forcing Gabrielle, Xena and Melanie to shield their eyes and back away from the altar.
The light that encompassed the Icon and Aven now wrapped around Hawks and he smiled as the power washed over him. Opening his mouth he groaned in pleasure. Then his face contorted and he let out a long painful wail as the Icons magic settled in to stay.
The three women cautiously uncovered their eyes. The scene on the altar drew their undivided attention.
Hawks was beginning to tremble violently his normal appearance reasserting itself. Aven stood opposite him. His shaking caused her to tremble slightly but her face was calm as she watched his every move.
A gust of wind suddenly whipped through the temple and one of the walls of the room began to shimmer as a blue swirl appeared.
"The portal!" Gabrielle said with enthusiasm, "Our way home."
The three women unconsciously moved closer but stopped when they felt the pull of the force within it. A robed blur shot past them diving into the vortex.
"The virus!" Melanie yelled above the roar as he vanished in the blue swirls. She took a step forward but Xena grabbed her arm and pulled her back. "Thats our job." Then she proceeded to the vortex, but stopped and looked back at the altar.
Sensing hesitation, Aven turned and met Xenas eyes, "Go." Xena sensed a peace in those eyes that washed over her soul. A peace she long craved. Aven broke the connection and resumed her watch of Hawks.
"We cant leave. Not like this." Gabrielle argued.
Melanie grabbed Gabrielles hand, "You have to. This is what everything has been for. You have to stop the guy with the virus. Well finish up here."
Xena was just as reluctant to leave but knew Melanie was right. Placing her hand on Gabrielles shoulder she nodded, "We have to go."
The time had come. They knew it would but were still not prepared to leave. This new world was so frightening and yet so exhilarating. It was a nice place to visit but both women wanted to go home to their own world and time. The only thing they regretted leaving were their new friends. their new family. So many emotions and unspoken thoughts still lingered. As the vortex continued to pulse Xena could only sum up everything with, "Thank you."
Feeling the same jumble of emotions, Melanie returned, "Thank you."
Gabrielle gave her descendant a final look. Then she turned to Melanie, bestowing a hug on her for both of them. "Shell be okay." She whispered in Melanies ear, trying to convince them both.
Pulling away Xena moved in, her hand extended to Melanies. Melanie reached out and instead of a normal handshake, was introduced to the warriors handshake as Xena grabbed her arm above the wrist.
Repeating the action, Melanie grasped Xenas arm "Take care." Xena said lowly.
Melanie smiled, "You too."
The handshake broken, Xena firmly grasped Gabrielles arm. The two of them dashed for the vortex.
Melanie watched them vanish into the fierce blue swirl. Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the portal vanished, a final gust of wind, the last goodbye. Sighing, Melanie turned and rushed back to the altar.
The scene had not changed save for Hawks steadily deteriorating state. Unsure of what to do to help, Melanie moved closer to the two of them. Her feet skidded to a stop when she heard a voice say, "The sword."
Scanning the cavern she saw no one there that could have said it. Again she heard, "Pick up the sword."
A familiar voice. Startled, she recognized it was Avens voice she was hearing in her mind. Locating the sword, she retrieved it from the floor and headed to the altar.
Upon closer inspection Melanie could see Hawks was in obvious distress. Dahok had deserted his servant, leaving the man to suffer his punishment alone and unprotected. It was only then that she realized that Xena and Gabrielle had gone back without the Icon. Her mind raced at the implications but was distracted as she heard one word strongly reverberating in her mind, "Now!"
Understanding dawned almost the instant she heard the word. Firmly grasping the sword she took position behind Hawks. Focusing her rage and the deep hatred she had for the man before her, she took a deep breath and raised the sword. Its tip aimed between his shoulder blades.
Avens voice was softer as she repeated, "Now."
Not wasting another precious second Melanie thrust the sword forward, piercing the tattered remains of the shirt and the flesh underneath. Caught up in her retribution and savoring the feel of the blade going in she didnt stop until only three inches of the blade remained visible. The rest now resided in Hawks chest.
Hawks jerked and spasmed as the remainder of his life force was drained into the light. The glow surrounding him began to fade. With a last gasping wheeze he dropped to the floor dead.
Aven stood in place. The glow that surrounded her dissipating quickly. When the Icon returned to normal Melanie was there to catch her as she collapsed. Cradling her unconscious friend she noticed one of Hawks hands draped across Avens ankle. Angrily, she kicked it away.
Turning her attention back to Aven she noticed a growing bloody spot on Avens shirt, just below the neckline. Gently pulling back the soaked material, she peered under and was horrified to see the stab wound.
Glancing at the sword protruding from Hawks chest, she realized that in her anger she had pushed the sword too far and stabbed Aven as well.
With a shaky hand she brushed Avens face, the young womans skin rapidly cooling, "Im sorry." As Avens breathing became shallow she held her friend tighter, pulling her closer. "Dont you leave me." She begged as she felt tears stinging her eyes, "You hear me Aven Gabriel! Dont you dare leave me!"
Aven gasped deeply and fell still.
"No!" Melanie ordered, unwilling to accept this kind of defeat, "Dont give up. Not after all weve been through." Melanie began rocking Aven, cradling her in a fierce embrace. Looking up at the ceiling of the cavern, she prayed, "Please." So intent on her prayers, she was completely oblivious to the flicker of light from the Icon clutched tightly in Avens small hands.
Cool fingers softly touching her hand startled her out of her trance. Almost as much as looking down and seeing Aven open her eyes. "Hi." She whispered and tried to offer a lopsided smile.
Melanie stared down at the pale face of her best friend, her mouth gaping. "Hi yourself." She mumbled in disbelief.
"Im kinda tired. Could we go home now?"
Relief flooded through Melanie, merging with the already present concern. She could no longer stifle the tears or the chuckle that escaped her as she smoothed Avens hair. "You bet. Hon. Im a little whipped myself."