Chapter 30

Joxer slowly and carefully approached the place where the map told him the Scepter of Helios was hidden. He raised the piece of animal hide into the sun's path. "Right on target." Joxer congratulated himself on a mission accomplished, well, half accomplished anyway. "Right through that thick over-growth should be the entrance." He gave the map a last perusal before folding it in half. As he turned it inside out, a thought struck him. "Why is the sun setting in the wrong direction?" He quickly unfolded the map and looked at it closely. "Uht-oh." In one motion, Joxer flipped the skin, top over bottom. "Son of Echidna! I've been going the wrong way! Xena's gonna use my hide for maps when she finds out about this!"

The wannabe warrior exhaled deeply. "Well I've come this far, might as well check it out." Once he reached the specific location, according to the upside-down map, Joxer reached behind the tangled heap of branches, vines, and moss to feel for the opening, if one in deed, existed. Nothing. The rocky surface that lay beyond the foliage appeared massive, and intact. "Some great warrior I am!" Joxer yelled, pulling like a wild man at the greenery that surrounded him. "Can't even follow stupid directions!" With that, he kicked repeatedly at the boulder beyond the thicket, when a sudden, thunder-like clap, rang through the air.

Joxer's temper tantrum forgotten about, he fell down on his hands and knees and crawled up for a closer inspection. A section of the rock was smashed in, cracks spread out across the gray concaved surface like a spider's web. "Huh, don't even know my own strength," he mused.

Joxer ran a timid hand across the area and watched in amazement as the "rock" turned to dust. As he continued with the sweeping gesture of his hand, more of the boulder fell away. Soon he was using both hands, and before long an opening large enough for a small man to crawl through, had emerged.

With a good-sized branch in hand, wrapped in oiled cloth and lit using a piece of flint, Joxer scooted through the hole. The flame roared unexpectedly as he stood upright and Joxer jumped. The interior seemed much bigger from the inside. He craned his neck to see, but there only appeared to be one object within. He moved forwarded cautiously, inside the hollow stone, guided by the small alter and the incandescent box that stood perched upon it. By the look of it, the stand was made of ice- clear and reflective. But when Joxer touched the smooth surface, it wasn't cold; to the contrary, it was nearly hot enough to burn his flesh. He jerked back his limb then tapped the alter lightly to test its actual temperature. Upon finding it within reason, he reached for the lid of the opaque box. Joxer sheepishly looked inside the container.

It was actually there . . . the Scepter of Helios, all bluish-silver and glowing and swirly.
"I have it!" He held the scepter up in his right hand, triumphantly.

Unbeknownst to Joxer, a shadowed figure crept up silently behind him; a flash of red and it was over. He lurched forward from the impact, knocking the torch out of his hand, throwing the cavern into darkness.

"I HAVE IT! " Discord purred, reveling in her achievement. Her body began to shimmer, becoming tiny pinpoint sized lights, but before completely fading out, she announced out loud to no one, "Mortals, they're so easy. Now to take care of Ares."
Then she and the Scepter of Helios vanished.

* * *

The soldier listened intently to the fool buying the drinks. Only a fool would act and speak as this one did. He kept bragging about his adventures with Xena, the ex-warlord, and the Bard who was her companion; as if either one would give this joker anything but a black eye. Then he began to blather on about having to leave and go on an important mission for his friend, Xena, something about it being very hush-hush and involving time-travel, but by the time he left, the soldier knew exactly where the fool was headed. The soldier wasn't going to take any chances; he went straight to the Halls of War.

Joxer left the tavern and headed down a familiar path. Then the kind, but simple face began to change, hair growing longer, fur skins and body armor turning into black leather and a bustier. A slim, black-polished finger-nailed hand held up the Scepter of Helios. A devilish smile formed on black lips. "That- takes care of that."

* * *

"You do know when I get free you're all going to be very sorry, I'm Joxer the mi- OOF! Hey watch it!"

Ares snorted at him and motioned for one of the men to whack him again. He circled around the man hanging from a noose above him. "Where is the Scepter of Helios?"

He was getting dizzy spinning around and his eyes rolled. "You won't get any information out of me, my lips are sealed! OW! Stop it! You obviously don't know who you're messing with."

Ares had had enough. "Kill him!"

Joxer's heart began hammering. "No, wait!" He was beginning to sweat. "Look, Ares, oh great God of War, I don't know where it is. I went to get it, just like Xena asked, but one second I had it in my hand and the next, POOF, it was gone and I was out. Honest, that's all I know about the Scepter of Halitosis."

"Helios . . . the Scepter of Helios." Ares screamed at Joxer, "What do you mean, it was there and then it was gone? Wait…" An idea began to form. "Wait…" Veins began to bulge in Ares' neck and temples… "DISCORD!!!!!!!!!"

Ares shimmered out, and then shimmered back in, "Kill him anyway."

"Xeeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnaaaaaaaaaa." Joxer howled moments before a knock on the head made everything go black.

Chapter 31

Xena awoke early, noting that Gabrielle had fallen asleep while on her watch. The three of them had taken refuge for the night underneath an outcropping off a cliff face. At first, Xena had hesitated at the location, afraid that it was too close to Ares and his Halls of War. But upon closer inspection, she discovered that it was a near perfect place to lie low for at least one night.

The shear granite facing of the cliff was worn smooth, making it virtually impossible to climb down for a surprise attack. The turbulent waters of the Euxine lie to the West cutting off attack from that direction, which only left the Halls to the East and the path that forked off to Amphipolis and the Amazon camp on the South. Granted, the overhang did not leave much room for restless sleep, but it was shelter, and it was relatively safe.

Xena raised her head carefully and glanced around. Dari was gone. "Great!" She threw off her furs and did a back roll to clear herself of the granite ceiling before jumping up and breaking into a run toward the Halls. She stopped up short when she glanced down a small slope and spotted the woman. Relief settled inside her and she smiled as she made her way down to where Dari was located.

Dari was stooped over, up to her thighs in a nearby pond, listening to the water, waiting. Xena noted she'd cut her . . . what did she call those odd leg coverings again? Oh, yes... jeans . . . into shorter leg coverings; except they really couldn't be called 'leg coverings' anymore. Actually they looked like a variation of the bottom part of Gabrielle's outfit, but Xena wasn't about to tell Dari that. "What are you doing?" Xena asked, coming up behind the taller woman, but not going into the water.

"Catching breakfast," Dari answered, smiling as she turned her head to look back at Xena. "Got to be of some use to you two considering you saved my life twice now."
"Uh huh…" Xena's smile grew wider and brighter. "Here, come on out of there, let me. We'll be here all day waiting for you to catch something."

"Is that so?" Dari mimicked, remembering her first day with this woman. She turned back around and dove both of her hands into the lake, coming back with a slithering eel. She flipped the scaly creature over her shoulder, toward Xena, and turned. "Ah ha!" she said with glee.

Xena caught the fish and threw it to the ground. She pursed her lips, her eyes continuously on Dari. "Not bad, not bad at all. Now come on out of there anyway."
"Hey, I just caught one. We'll need more than that, considering Gabrielle has a bottomless stomach." They shared a laugh, knowing it was true.

"Just the same, I'd rather you be over here and out of that lake."

"I'm a big girl, Xena…"

"Yes, bigger than most," Xena smirked at her. "But still innocent to the ways of evil. I wouldn't put it past Ares to have you swallowed up by a fish or something else his crazy mind could conjure up. Now out you go." She leaned over and grabbed Dari by the arm and hauled her from the lake.

Dari complained the entire way. "Man…" She snatched up a robe she'd brought with her and dried her legs. "He only got me that night because I wasn't prepared. Now I know about that disappearing trick, and what happens when he touches my head."

"Just sit and be quiet." Xena had taken Dari's place in the water.


Xena smiled and reached into the water, grabbing another fish. When she had a sufficient enough pile, she climbed out of the lake and dried herself off with the robe Dari was now using as a pillow.

"We'd get along famously if you weren't such a-"

"A what?" Xena gave her an innocent look.

"Never mind." She grabbed the robe back and laid it out on the grass, then started to pile the fish on it. "A carrying sack," she explained when Xena just stood there with one brow raised, watching her. "You don't think I'm carrying these smelly things cradled in my arms, do you?"

"Tell it to Gabrielle," Xena stated with a chuckle in her voice. "That's her robe." With a smirk, she turned and headed back toward the cliff.

* * *

Roscoe fidgeted with the buttons of his jacket as he and Karl stood at the end of the gate. Mr. Lutheran had phoned them late last night with orders to go to the airport the following morning and pick up some foreign female. The boss man had given Karl the woman's name, the fight number of the plane she'd be arriving on, and what time it was due in. Unlike most flights, this one had departed from Greece on time with no delays along the flight path.

The two men watched and waited as passenger after passenger disembarked the large aircraft. In his huge hands, Roscoe held a sign with the name of their assignment written across the front in black marker. The longer Roscoe stood there, the more anxious he became, finally turning to playing around with the piece of white cardboard as a way to relieve the tension. It didn't take long before the once flowing stream of people exiting the plane slowly dwindled down to a trickle.

"Stop that, Roscoe." Karl admonished the big man. "We have ta look professional." The smaller wise guy looked up at his partner while adjusting his tie for the tenth time. "What if this broad is somebody important? We need to make a good first impression."
"Right Karl. I'm tryin', but you know how nervous I get meeting new people." He bounced the heel of his right shoe on the plain gray tiled floor of the airport terminal.
"I know big guy. But it'll be over soon."

"Hello there," came a voice from in front of the duo.

Both Roscoe and Karl jerk as a result of the startle. "Where did you come from?" Karl asked the woman in a higher pitched voice than normal.

The small elderly woman pointed unaffected at the grand picture window to her left. Karl looked in the direction of the bony finger and saw the plane that had just begun to pull away from the walkway on route to one of the many hangers that lined the outskirts of the airfield.

Before he could turn his head back toward her, the woman stated, "I believe the two of you are here for me."

"What makes ya think that?" Roscoe asked innocently enough.

"Because, young man, that's my name on that piece of paper you have there." She pointed again, only this time in the direction of Roscoe's massive chest. "I'm Ms. Eve Hill."

* * *

"I'm going to go back to Amphipolis," Xena said after breakfast was over and the dishes were washed. They were settled down near the lake resting. "Gabrielle, you take Dari back to the Amazons." Dari groaned loudly at the thought. Xena ignored Dari, her steady gaze remained on Gabrielle. "Stay with them until I return." Gabrielle nodded and stood to pack.

"Why can't we stay here? Nothing's happened so far."

"That's what I'm afraid of, nothing's happened. They're biding their time, waiting for us to be off our guard. With the Amazons you'll be a lot safer."

"I agree," Gabrielle chimed in, already gathering up the supplies for each of their journeys.

"Safety in numbers, huh?" Dari commented as she dragged herself up from the comfortable spot she had settled onto before she fell asleep.

"In this situation, yes." Xena stood as well. "The Amazons are under the Goddess Artemis' protection; Ares, or any other Olympian will think twice before they mess with her beloved disciples."

"We had better head out so we can get there before night fall." Gabrielle advised while pulling on Dari's arm to get her moving in the right direction.

"Yeah," was all Xena replied before grabbing hold of Argo's saddle horn and throwing a muscular leg over the animal's back, swinging her tall form up into position. She hated the idea of being away from Gabrielle for any length, but knew, at times, that it was a necessity of their way of life. This time though, she felt an especially hard pull to keep Gabrielle close to her, not that she didn't think Gabrielle could take care of herself, the warrior knew better than that. It was the fact that her bard was going off with Dari that gnawed at her insides. In truth, it wasn't Dari that bothered Xena; it was the mere idea of Gabrielle going away with anyone else that disturbed her.

* * *

Just before reaching Amphipolis, Xena smelled a campsite set up on the wooded outskirts. A rather large campsite if Xena's sense of smell wasn't failing her. Just then she heard the unmistakable squeal of Joxer in trouble; a perpetual state of being for the warrior wannabe.

With the step of a panther, lightning-quick and quiet, Xena snuck up behind the guards standing over Joxer's fallen body.

It didn't take but a moment and their stilled bodies were lying beside his. Xena reached down and whacked Joxer on the chin. "Joxer?" She shook his shoulders and he finally came to, grumbling until she covered his mouth with a hand. "What happened?"

"Why does everyone keep asking me stupid questions? I'll tell you like I told Ares, I don't know anything." Having only half regained consciousness, Joxer had no idea to whom he was speaking.

"Well we all know that, Joxer. Now wake up and tell me what Ares has to do with this?"

He slowly began to recognize the voice, and realized that Xena had come to his rescue… yet again. His head bowed, Joxer went on to relay the conversation he and the very ticked off God of War had about the scepter in question. Once again he'd failed his friends.

"What?! You found the Scepter of Helios?"

"That's what ya asked me to do, wasn't it?" Joxer rubbed the back of head where Ares' goons had hit him.

"Yeah." Xena knew to say anymore would alert Joxer to the fact that the map she had given him had been a rouse she had concocted to get him out of the way. "Well the next time I buy something at a 'Mount Olympus Souvenir Stand,' I'll take it more seriously."

"What are you mumbling about, Xena?" Joxer asked, wincing from the motion of looking up at the statuesque warrior.

Xena turned, having momentarily forgotten about him. "Oh, nothing. What were you fixing to tell me about Ares?"

After Joxer told Xena, in vivid, if not entirely accurate, detail about how he came to find the scepter, the warrior took a long moment to sort out the pieces. Coming to the same realization as Ares, that Discord was now in possession of the Scepter of Helios; Xena dragged Joxer to his feet, muttering to herself, "Things just keep getting better and better. Let's go."

Xena noticed how grim Joxer looked, like somehow he believed that this complete debacle was entirely his fault.

"It's not like I asked the Goddess of Grunge to take the thing." He kept mumbling.
Joxer expected a verbal bashing from Xena, at the very least. He quietly followed behind the warrior, concern drawing his face into a tight knot. He'd rather have a physical battering than this silence.

"It's ok, Joxer; it wasn't your fault." Xena did some quick improvising. "I didn't think we'd get the scepter without some trouble. I was prepared for this setback."

Joxer beamed. "What's the plan?" He was the epitome of an eager beaver.

"There isn't one, Joxer, I said I was prepared, not that I had any planned repercussion's." They snuck out of the campgrounds just at the break of dawn. If they paced themselves, they would make it back to the Amazons by mid afternoon.

Chapter 32

"You're pretty handy with that." Gabrielle watched Dari skin an apple as they strolled down a tree-lined path. The knife was new, one of the small touches Ares had designed to go along with the rest of the costume, and the only part of it she had kept. The six-inch dagger was a miniature reproduction of his godhood sword.

Gabrielle glanced off into the wooden area beside the path. They were close to the Amazon camp; Gabrielle had taken notice of the markers denoting their land. The one they had just passed told the abdicated Amazon Queen that they were less than a mile away from the center of the tribal courtyard.

Dari looked at the knife in her grasp. "Yeah, well, ya learn new things quickly in this type of situation. Besides, I'm pretty good with food. Have I told you I'm a fabulous cook?" She smiled as her eyes came to rest on Gabrielle. The traveler then nodded emphatically, "Yep, I'm quite the chef. I'll cook you one of my famous dishes some time."

"I can't wait." Gabrielle linked her arm with Dari's and moved closer. "What is it?" She nodded at the apple. It had ceased to resemble an apple, but she couldn't make out exactly what it was.

"A swan," Dari smiled, and held it up for closer inspection. "I kind of messed up the wings, but it's a swan." She nodded affirmatively, assessing her own handiwork.
"Uh huh…" Gabrielle contained the chuckle, but not the smirk.

Without warning, Dari came to a stop, dragging Gabrielle to an abrupt halt. "What?" Gabrielle's defenses were alerted immediately and she glanced around, scouting every direction for any sign of trouble.

"Now I know what's missing!" Dari exclaimed.

"What's wrong?" Gabrielle's confusion was evident.

"It's so quiet. Back home, that's a rarity. Listen…" She was silent for several moments as they did just that. "Absolute silence. Just an intermittent tree branch falling, or the sound of a rippling stream." She shook her head in amazement. "I could get used…" Then she stopped talking.

Gabrielle stared at her, anticipating the end of her comment, which never came. The bard's face fell. She dropped her hand from Dari's arm and started walking again, this time alone.

Dari quickened her step and caught up to the smaller woman. "Gabrielle listen, whatever happens, no matter what, I'll cherish the memories of this place, of Xena…" As the two walked, Dari placed her hand on Gabrielle's bare shoulder, continuing. "but especially of you."

Gabrielle gave her a smile, but it wasn't convincing. "It's ok, Dari, if you stay, you stay. If you don't…" The unfinished sentiment hung thickly in the earthen-scented air.
Dari took her hand and stopped walking. She pulled Gabrielle closer to her, staring down into her clear green eyes, now shadowed a bit by the turmoil she held inside. "Why does this trouble you so?" she asked softly, brushing some fly away strands of hair off Gabrielle's forehead.

Gabrielle didn't know how to reply. She shook her head and looked away from Dari's penetrating eyes. "I… I'm not content," was the best she could come up with.

"Gabrielle, you and Xena have a destiny together, I'm not a part of that."

"No?" Her gaze flew to Dari's and she pinned her there, silent. "Then why are you here?"

"I can't answer that. I prayed for release and this was what I got." She gestured at the surrounding area with the sweep of her hands. The birds seemed to silence their song to listen to the two territorial invaders. The other forest animals fell just as silent. "Fate intervened and here I am. Interrupting your destiny, invading your lives, bringing harm to…"

"Dari." Gabrielle covered the taller woman's lips with slender fingers. "Xena and I live in harm's way. Our lives are dangerous. We exist on the brink. This is no different."

Gabrielle shrugged. "If it weren't you, it would be someone else in dire straits. Do you understand?" the bard asked, uncertain if her point was being made. "It's not so much the who, as the what."

Dari nodded. "Yes, I see. But that still doesn't answer why this is affecting you so badly. Especially now that I'm a what and not a who." She smiled down hesitantly at Gabrielle.

But the bard was in no joking mood. "Don't twist my words. Most times it is about the situation, but there are times when it's about the individual. You're what matters to me. I don't want to say goodbye to you, Dari."

"Then don't. We have no way of knowing our fate; we don't have that kind of power."

"Ah, but some of us do, Dari, maybe not in detail, but in spirit." Gabrielle reminded the cop of her India scrolls. "I'm so torn inside. I've seen into the future; I've been to the future; I've been in heaven, and hell. I've looked inside the Elysian Fields and Tartarus. I've stared into the abyss. Through it all, Xena was by my side. Now you're here, carrying a promise of salvation…" She dragged an arm across her eyes to wipe away the sudden rush of tears. The display of emotion made her angry; she shouldn't be crying. Xena was right; things affected her far too easily, and harshly.

"What kind of salvation?" Dari thought she knew, but wanted Gabrielle to say it.

"Xena and I have known one another for many years now. We've been through so much together. We've had our bad times, sure, but we've always found our way back to each other; but that's where it ends." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her midriff in an effort to support herself for what she was about to admit. "I want more. I need more. I need security, commitment, unlike the commitment we have as friends, as warriors, together. I need the total emotional bond we could experience." She inhaled deeply, holding in the air for a moment, and then expelled it in one ragged breath. "I love her like nothing in this known world, and yet, I haven't loved her, not the way I want or need to. And it hurts." The bard's voice cracked. "It hurts so badly sometimes I can't even think straight. And that's not good in the work we do. Now that you've come into my life… I feel that I could have . . . everything."

"Gabrielle, don't." Dari pulled the trembling woman into her arms. "I know this isn't easy. There are people who come into our lives that we know we've bonded with at some point in our existence, maybe in other lifetimes; we keep meeting them over and over, whether they be family or friends or enemies. That's what I think is happening here."

"Do you feel it, too?" Gabrielle stared up into those familiar blue eyes.

"Yes." Dari admitted. "There's a bond, but what kind of bond I don't know. We may never know." Dari held the bard's chin between her thumb and index finger. "I let fate dictate my actions, Gabrielle. 'Go with the flow' is a common expression where I'm from. Why don't we do that, huh? Go with the flow and see where it takes us… all three of us."

Gabrielle laid her head against Dari's chest and just listened to her beating heart. "I'm not usually so selfish, well, only except where Xena's concerned… Normally my main goal would be to see that you got where you belonged, but I want you to belong here. I can't explain it, it's just a feeling I have . . . have had since the moment you opened your eyes."

Dari couldn't deny that she had the same feeling, a feeling of belonging, of bonding. "We'd better get going, eh? Xena'll get upset if I don't obey orders again."

Gabrielle lifted her head. "It wasn't an order; she cares about you Dari. If she didn't, she wouldn't have risked her life, twice now, for yours."

"Hmmm, I suppose you're right."

Lifting a brow, and the corners of her lips, Gabrielle gave her a look, then stood on the tips of her toes and planted a soft kiss on Dari's lips. She withdrew from her arms and started on the trail again, without looking back.

Chapter 32

"Welcome back!" Queen Cyan beamed like a ball of sunshine when she spotted Varia, her tribe's finest warrior, leading Dari and Gabrielle into camp.

Gabrielle returned the welcoming smile and even giggled somewhat at the Queen's enthusiasm. Despite, or perhaps because of her talk with Dari on the way to the encampment, she was feeling quite jubilant, even noticing the return of a bounce to her step. 'Now where did this come from?' she wondered silently as Dari clasped forearms with Cyan in greeting.

"Where's Xena?" A young buxom blonde inquired as she strolled up beside the four.
Gabrielle turned to address her fellow Amazon while Cyan and Varia escorted Dari off somewhere. "She'll be here sometime today. There was something she needed to do." Gabby bid the woman a smile and hurried after Dari.

* * *

Ares was all a rage; his fierce brown eyes glowing black with it. "How DARE you interfere with my plans!" he thundered at Discord.

His rage was ineffective on her. She went on examining her nails as if he had asked her about the weather. She rolled her eyes to express her boredom and implored, "Dear Ares, I haven't interfered in anything. If Joxer had been the one to get his hands on that scepter, he'd have taken it straight to Xena and you'd have NO plan at all. I simply helped you out."

"Helped me out?!" He could barely contain himself from shooting a bolt of fire at her face to wipe off that smug expression. "You didn't HELP me at all. You just alerted Xena to the fact that not only was I trying to get Dari over to my side, but that now she has YOU to worry about." The God of War turned and shrugged his shoulders, not believing his immortal ears. "Do you think she's just going to let us stroll in and take Dari again?" He whipped around to face his apprentice. "Well DO YOU!" Ares was seething; veins popped out on his forehead and bulged in his chest and arms. His coloring turned to a ripened shade of eggplant. "I have a mind to zap you someplace where you can do no more harm," he threatened.

"As if." She shrugged nonchalantly.

That was it!! He had all he could stand of her smug attitude. He was going to teach the Goddess of Retribution to think twice before she interloped in his plans again. Throughout this whole Dari ordeal she had caused nothing but problems. Normally he liked that, but this time he made no allowances for screw-ups. Ares wanted Dari, and that was the way it was going to be. He'd take care of anything that got in his way; no matter what or who it was.

Before she was aware of the danger she was in, Discord found herself slammed with a powerful display of energy aimed carefully, and angrily, from Ares. She disappeared slowly into a vortex of lights, screaming vengeful epitaphs at her "dear" mentor until she completely vanished. Ares brushed his hands together and turned on a well-clad heel, quite pleased with himself. Then just as he was about to plop down on his mahogany throne, he froze. "Well, gods-dammit! I forgot to make her tell me where she hid the Scepter of Helios!" The War God dropped down upon his throne, throwing a leather-clad thigh over one armrest. "Women!!"

* * *
"Is everything OK?" Varia asked, popping her head into the hut to which Dari and Gabrielle had been escorted.

Gabrielle was seated at a small table writing vigorously on her scrolls, and Dari seemed to have passed out on the mattress beside her. She was even snoring softly.

"Gabrielle?" Varia inquired attentively.

Gabrielle sensed, more than heard her, and looked in the direction of the doorway.

"Hmmm? Oh yes, we're fine. I'm just catching up on the day's adventures and she," thumbing a gesture over her shoulder at Dari, "is out cold. Any word of Xena yet?"

Varia shook her head. "I'll leave you two then." She smiled and left them alone.

Gabrielle returned to her scroll, tapping the quill against her smiling lips as her mind went off into its own world. She laid quill to scroll and began writing again.

Today started out interestingly enough, and here we are, alone together, but not together. I don't know what has happened to me. Xena is my life, my reason for being, and yet, here's Dari, someone who could easily take her place…

Gabrielle stopped writing at that line. NO . . . no one could ever take Xena's place, and certainly not easily. What was she thinking? She had a mind to bunch the scroll up and toss it. But she didn't. She sat there looking off into nothing, but seeing everything, India, Alti, their adventures, the life they had built together, so many experiences between them, how could this even be happening to her, and furthermore, why was it happening to her? Was it a sign? Should she and Xena finally part ways and she go with Dari? Was that her destiny? Was it Dari's? 'No, don't be silly,' she admonished herself. There had to be some other reason why Dari was in her -- correction, she amended -- their lives. Maybe it had something to do with the future, or maybe she was just going insane.

There were no easy answers. None that she would figure out any time soon. Gabrielle rolled her scroll up and put it in her sack. She would deal with what she'd written . . . later. For now, she'd spend this quiet time with Dari and just be glad she had it. But in the back of her mind, a place she was easily ignoring, a fear started to fester.

Chapter 33

"No, No, No, No, No!" Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, was pacing back and forth in her temple, arms folded across her waist. "Why can't these mortals get it right! Why do we always have to lead them?" She asked her own reflection. Setting her hands on her hips, she blew up a fallen strand of golden hair hanging over her forehead.

"For once, Gabrielle, couldn't you allow a plan of mine to actually work?" She shook her head in frustration. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. With Gabrielle all down in the dumps and Xena just not getting it; Aphrodite did what she does best, she intervened. She wanted to make a little love match of her own, but this new scenario was not what she'd planned. "You're not supposed to fall for Dari. Hellooooo… You're supposed to realize how much you love Xena." She growled. "Oooohhh, you mortals!"

Plucking Dari from a future time had been simple. Aphrodite had discovered where Zeus kept the Scepter of Helios hidden when she was a child. So "borrowing" it from Daddy had been no problem. Now figuring out how to use it to get Dari… that had been a problem. She still didn't know what she was going to do with the three mortals she had accidentally pulled from their times in her previous attempts to grab the right one.

What in the name of Mount Olympus was she going to do with a Union Leader, an Airplane Pilot, and a Rock Star? "Oh well, a Goddess's work is never done."

The fourth time had been the charm for Aphrodite. She used the power of the Scepter to open a portal and poof, a well thought out plan actually turned into reality. She hadn't realized how far into the future she'd have to go to find Dari, but that made it even more interesting.

Except for that pesky lightning. She hadn't taken into account what might happen if a genuine electrical storm crossed paths with her well-executed Scepter scheme. Boy, when the two got together did it carry a kick. She had tried to turn down the scepter's juice, but to no avail. Aphrodite had then turned her attention to the lightning, but that hadn't worked either. And she tried everything, too. Stubborn, electrified air currents. If it hadn't been for that small miscalculation, Dari would have never been hurt and Ares would have never gotten involved. The Love Goddess pursed her lips together. He and the skanky she-creature were going to be an eternal pain in her perfect backside.

And now… now all her beautiful plans we're going to pot. Gabrielle cannot fall for Dari; no, there would have to be something done about that, and soon. She'd managed to keep Xena off her scent for quite a few days now; her fake Alti act -- appearing in Dari's dreams had kept Xena off balance. And that waking vision she had given the time traveler was sheer genius. She was quite proud of herself.

All Aphrodite needed was some time to fix this new problem. She didn't want to have to deal with any broken hearts, they just take too long to fix; and if she parted Dari from the two warriors, they'd be concentrating more on finding Dari than falling in love. She growled again, stomping a petite, pink-encased foot. Always Gabrielle. Every time, without fail, that mere mortal ruined a perfectly good plan.

Chapter 34

Joxer wasn't looking forward to facing Gabrielle, and he definitely did not want to see that Dari woman again. If that's what the female sex was like in the future, he was happy right where and when he was.

"Come up with a plan yet, Xena?"

"We'll probably have to attack them head on. They would never see that coming. Yeah, the element of surprise is our best weapon."

"Attack . . . Ares and Discord . . .both. Sssounds gggreat. I . . . I can't wait for Ares - gulp -- to taste the steel of Joxer the Mighty's sword." The tremble in his voice was accentuated by the total lack of enthusiasm. "Xena, I was thinking. With Ares all wrapped up in this future chick, glowy scepter thing, that camp of soldiers . . ."

"You mean the one I rescued you from?"

"That would be the one, yeah . . . Anyway, they won't have anyone around to give them orders, so they're going to get bored, be looking for some action, causing innocent villagers problems … so maybe . . ."

"Maybe you should go keep an eye on those soldiers, to make sure they don't go looting and pillaging the surrounding villages, eh, Joxer?" The warrior glanced behind her, the smile on her face completely hidden.

"Xena, you read my mind. Don't worry I won't let you down. Joxer the Mighty protects those helpless and in need. No harm will come to that village, you have my word. Take care." Joxer had been backing up in the direction they had just come from during his entire monologue. Once he spoke his final goodbye, he turned with a wave in Xena's direction.

The Warrior Princess just shook her head and continued on toward the Amazon encampment. In the distance, she heard a familiar voice, singing his familiar theme song.

* * *

Xena arrived at the camp shortly past mid-day, greeted by Varia, Gabrielle, and Dari.

"We need to head out," Xena informed her two traveling companions.

"So soon?" Varia asked. "We hoped you'd all visit a little longer."

"I wish we could, but we have some unfinished business."

Once the goodbyes had been said, Xena, Gabrielle, and Dari left the Amazons.

"All right Xena, what's going on?" Gabrielle asked, as soon as they were out of earshot of the camp guards. "I thought Dari was suppose to stay hidden until we found the Scepter of Helios?"

"Plans have changed." The warrior spoke dryly.

"Kinda stating the obvious, aren't ya?" Dari snorted. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."

"OK!" Xena nearly shouted as she came to a sudden stop. "You know that 'mission' I sent Joxer on to find the scepter?"

Dari and Gabrielle exchanged knowing looks and turned to Xena with affirmative nods.
"Well…" The warrior placed her hands on her leather clad hips. "He actually found it!"

"What?!" The word came out simultaneously from the shocked mouths of the two women listening to the impossible.

"I know. I know. I couldn't believe it myself." Xena's arms flew up in an exaggerated shrug.

"Are you sure about this?" Gabrielle questioned, still flabbergasted. "You know how Joxer has a tendency to . . . how should I put this? . . . stretch the truth, especially if it makes him look more like a warrior.

"Under normal circumstances, I'd agree. But the fact that I had to rescue him from some of Ares' thugs tells me all I need to know."

"Ares . . . I should have known he'd be involved." Gabrielle grumbled.

"That's not the worst of it." Xena said, beginning her steady march through the forest once again.

A still stunned Gabrielle and Dari sprinted to catch up. Or more precisely, Gabrielle sprinted. Dari merely strolled. "What could be worse than Ares having the scepter?" Dari asked, her fog of disbelief slowly lifting.

"Discord having it." Xena answered with an irritated, but determined growl.

Chapter 35

Xena decided they'd stay at the same cave they'd been in the night Dari arrived to their world. "The best place to start over from is the beginning." Xena had stated once Gabrielle and Dari realized where they were headed.

The closer to the familiar cave the women got, the more threatening the weather became. Odd, Xena was sure there would be clear skies, but the storm that had brought them Dari had done anything but dissipate since they'd left. It seemed the rains unleashed their wrath more so here than anywhere else they'd traveled over the past days. "Very odd . . ."

That night, Gabrielle watched the amazing light show, when suddenly a repeating image struck her. She noticed a pattern within the continuous currents of light. "Xena?" she called over her shoulder as she rose from her comfortable position.

"Mmmm?" Xena was sharpening her broadsword while Dari watched. She glanced over at Gabrielle. "What's up?"

"Come here and look."

Both Dari and Xena joined her at the cave opening, directing their gaze where Gabrielle's upturned eyes were staring. The sky. The lightning.

"Wow," Dari exclaimed and moved around them to stand just outside the cave. "That's some storm, eh?" she asked over her shoulder when she felt them both come up behind her.

Gabrielle's mind was spinning. "Xena, haven't we seen this exact same show, in the exact same place, before?"

Xena had an agreeing expression on her face and in her eyes. "Yeah, it sure looks to be the same pattern in the same spot where Dari dropped from." Her thoughts joined Gabrielle's in their hectic dance for an answer from this new information. It didn't take Xena long. "What if it wasn't only an instrument of a God that caused Dari's appearance?" Ares' ex-pupil studied the skies long and hard before she finished her thought aloud. "What if it had to do with one of nature's instruments as well?" Xena, with her sword still in hand, pointed the weapon upward.

Dari and Gabrielle stared at her, Xena's insight slowly seeping into their psyche, finally bringing them to similar conclusions. Dari joined her thoughts to Xena's first. "It did seem odd that all the times I've prayed there never was such a bold and direct answer. So if it wasn't my praying, and just the lightning, then all I'd have to do is get inside the lightning again and I'd be home!"

"Now hold on!" Gabrielle interjected before Dari got completely carried away. "First of all, Xena didn't say it was only the lightning that brought you here. Even so, Ok, suppose you are right?" She looked back and forth at the two, indicating she meant them both. "And it was the lightning alone that was the vehicle for your arrival." Her gaze rested on Dari. "What makes you think it would reverse time and take you back? And for that matter, do you remember the condition you were in when you came out from that lightning? If you do something like getting captured in it again, there won't be any Ares on the other side to heal you."

Xena smiled her appreciation of the bard's commentary. "She's right, Dari. There's no telling where you'd end up even if it worked. It's too risky." She slammed the door on any more interest in the idea.

"I think I should be the one to make that decision." Dari wasn't quite ready to let the theory go just yet. "Ok, so yeah, I was a bit bruised…"

"A bit?" Gabrielle almost guffawed.

"Ok, I was a lot bruised. But I don't recall if it was the lightning, slamming into Xena, or the water that caused all those broken bones." She added quickly before Gabrielle's argument had a chance to leave her gaping lips, "And neither do you."

"So then just forget it." Xena wanted an end to the subject.

"But this could be my only way back home, Xena. I can't just forget it."

"There are other ways, Dari, we just have to find them. This," she indicated the thrashing heavens with a nod of her head, "isn't a viable one of them. And that's the end of it!" She walked inside before Dari could argue further.

Dari's narrowed eyes followed her then came to rest on Gabrielle's adverted stare. "Well thanks for siding with me on this one."

"I don't want you hurt…" the bard began.

"Save it, Gabrielle." Dari spun around and stomped down the mountainside, oblivious to the rain tattooing down on her head and shoulders.

Gabrielle stomped right after her, grabbed her arm, and spun her back around. "There's no reason to get angry and treat me like that. You know I care for you; I would never want to see you come to any harm. I'd give my life for you in a heartbeat, Dari. And if you had a valid argument, yes, I would have taken your side and helped argue your point, but you don't have one. That," she thrust an angry arm to the sky, "is not something I care to let you just throw your life away on. It's too risky. I'm with Xena on this one."

"Trying won't hurt."

"It could hurt, a lot, mostly you." Gabrielle shook her head slowly and walked a circle around Dari. "I know you want to get home, believe me, I know, and I've been trying to accept it. But doing something foolish like throwing yourself into a lightning bolt will just get you killed. But then, of course, your problem would be solved."

Dari wouldn't, couldn't let it go. "I still think it's worth a try."

"Your life is 'worth a try,' is that it? Ok." Gabrielle nodded. "Say it worked, and the lightning took you away to another time and dumped you farther into the past, maybe even before the spoken word. Then what? You think there'd be someone there who could help you? You think there'd be a God who could make it so you could be understood?"

"Why not? There was one here, and I would have never thought, or believed that if I'd considered it in my century." The traveler argued, as both her and the bard's clothing became saturated with rainwater.

"That's because we have evolved, Dari. We still believe in gods and goddesses. Where you come from, in the tales you've told me, there's not much believing going on at all -- some people don't believe in any God, let alone one or more. Our way of life is a fantasy in your world. Who knows, maybe it is? Or maybe it will be one day? But here and now, this is real, and this is our life . . .your life. There are no written words about prior Gods before this time, there was just land, and the man-animals that roamed it."

"You're not going to give up are you? You'd stand here all night arguing this with me." Dari slowly came to that realization.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not when it means so much to me, I would debate every point even if it took all night." She agreed and slipped her arm through Dari's. She spun them back towards the cave. "Besides, we still have the Scepter of Helios to consider."

"Yeah, if we ever get our hands on it."




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