Body Heart and Soul

Part 20

The caverns twisted and turned, and as they picked up  more torchbearers Gabrielle had the faintest sense of familiarity as the rock floor started to slant downwards.  She took a breath of the air coming at them and then she slowed, and came to a halt. “Hold on.”

“It’s just past this bend.” The soldier said. “You can hear it there, not quite up here. Jax was looking to see if there was maybe a spring there he thought he heard water.”

Gabrielle advanced slowly.  The soldiers went to her side immediately and Solari nearly collided with them as she and Pasi jumped forward. “Easy guys.”

They eased around the curve in the rock and halted, all of them falling silent.  The light from the torches flickered and spread into the dark, the harsh floor falling away into a sloping distance.  “Now listen.” The soldier said.

Gabrielle took a step forward, then she turned her head and focused on the sounds trickling up to them.  “Water.” She agreed, after a moment. “I can hear it trickling.”

“Aye.” The soldier nodded. “We heard that.” He paused. “And that.”

Gabrielle frowned as she tried to analyze the sound that now overran the whisper of the water, an odd, chuckling, gargling noise that grated on her ears with unpleasantly.  “Oh.”

“Aye.”

“What is that?”  Solari asked. 

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her staff.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that before.”  She admitted. “Sort of like an animal or something?”

Solari eyed her. “If you’ve never heard it, what makes you think I would have?” She asked, plaintively. “But you know what? I don’t really want to know what that is it sounds gross.”

“What she said.” Pasi stated firmly.

“Aye.” The soldier rounded out the opinion.  “Problem is don’t know if it’s going to come closer.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle sighed.  “Y’know what?”

“We need Big X.” Solari suggested. “Right?”

“Right.”  Gabrielle closed her eyes. “Hang on.”  She felt out along that odd and intermittent link between them and in silent sympathy her free hand closed and pulled up next to her throat in a gesture of beckoning. 

No true answer, but a pulse of emotion came back at her, brash and raw and she exhaled, opening her eyes and letting her hand fall. “She’s on her way.”

Everyone was staring at her, with widened eyes. “Wow.” Solari said, after a moment.  “Never saw you do that before.

Gabrielle took a breath to answer, then paused, as the sound down in the dark started up again, and she had the impression it was getting louder. “Let’s go back into the other cavern.” She said, shooing them ahead of as they moved away from the darkness and back towards the firelight.

As they reached the edge of where the camp was Gabrielle spotted her soulmate making her way towards them, and as Xena reached her she turned to point towards the back of the cavern. “Xe, we can hear…. Oh crap.”

In the darkness beyond the curve, they could suddenly see glowing eyes looking back at them. 

“Mm.” Xena grunted in response.  

The glowing eyes were surrounded by tiny other eyes, and Gabrielle suddenly saw the hairs on Xena’s arm lift up in reaction, and her skin show goosebumps that matched the feeling of cool air on the back of her neck from her own nape hairs rising

“Ohhh Xe.”  Gabrielle took a step backwards out of instinct, bringing her staff up across her body as Ares trotted into the cavern, clearly in search of Xena.  “Ares, stay.”

The wolf spotted the creature and his ruff shot up with an almost audible crackle. He growled and lifted his lips, exposing his fangs.

Jessan came rambling after him, hauling up as he spotted the glowing eyes. “Uh oh.”

Xena sighed and started forward, waving back the surging horde.  “Stay here.”

“No way.”  Gabrielle was at her heels. “That thing’s creepy.”

“Didn’t mean you. “ Xena approached the darkness, reaching behind her and drawing her sword, her own sword, which rang softly as it came out of it’s sheath.   “Hey you.”

Gabrielle felt fear clench her guts, looking at it.  She could see the size of it, and the waving, glowing eyes surrounding those, and as the air moved past it towards her she could smell a dusky, damp scent.

“Hey wait!” Jessan said. “I know that thing.  It’s Cereberus.”

A lot of things happened then.  Ares bolted past Xena and threw himself at the creature.  Xena let out a yell and tried to intercept him.  Gabrielle saw the creature start to lunge for Ares, and her partner, and got her staff in there between all of them, feeling a horrible jolt as  teeth clamped down on her weapon and ripped it out of her hands.  “Yow!!!”

Xena grabbed the staff and yanked it back, then turned and kicked the creature hard as it went for Ares. “Ares, get back!”

The wolf shifted, ignoring her, as he snapped his jaws, shoving himself between the creature and Xena meeting teeth with teeth as the creature tried to swallow his head. 

It’s mouth was that big.   Ares clamped down on it’s lower jaw, as a dozen soldiers rushed forward with torches and arrows.

“Stop!”  Xena ordered, as the light flared and she got a good look at the creature. “Jess’s right! It’s Cereberus!”  She grabbed Ares by the tail and hauled him backwards. “Leave him alone!”

Jaws agape, Cereberus swung his nearer head over and stared at her out of those fire colored, ageless eyes.  The snakes around his heads hissed, and he reared himself up, until he towered over both Xena and Jessan, letting out  a roar that shook the cavern and brought rocks down all around them.

Xena sheathed her sword and pulled out the Sword of War, getting a grip on it as she took a step towards the three headed dog and lifted the weapon ahead of her. “Don’t do it, buddy.” She warned. “You’ll go through me to get to them.”

Ares stalked up next to her, stiff legged, ruff fully extended. 

Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s hip and as she did, she sensed something coming up behind Cereberus.  Before she could move a black, visible wind erupted into the cavern, and a moment later she was sucked hard against Xena’s body as they were pulled forward.

Xena slammed against Ares, then got her leg over him and braced it, slicing hard at the ribbons that were circling around them and winding them together.  The Sword of War sizzled as it cut through them, and there were screams from behind them as the ribbons whisked past and started grabbing anything they could.

Cereberus launched himself forward and galloped directly at them, veering at the last second and standing up on his hind legs to snap with all three heads at the ribbons, catching them and crunching them as one set of eyes watched Xena for her reaction.

“Atta boy.”  Xena bumped him lightly.   “Keep your head out of the way.”   She slashed free of the winding sheets and felt Gabrielle press against her back, as they felt themselves being pulled slowly towards the dark passage.

“Xena!” Jessan was braced against the wall and extending a hand and in the next moment Xena had reached out and caught it,  Gabrielle had wound her arm around Xena’s waist, and then the pulling force suddenly overwhelmed them.

Gabrielle heard Cait let out a shout, the felt something grab her belt just as they all were yanked off their feet and sucked into the opening, with a loud growling howl that ended with an even louder resounding crack.

The wind stopped.

The people left in the cave went silent, seeing a clean slate wall where a moment before there had been a gaping opening, the only sign something was different was the absence of their leaders, and the presence of a three headed dog.

For a moment it was very quiet.

“Oh crap.” Solari finally said.

“Booh.”  Bennu let his sword arm drop, the tip of the weapon smacking the ground.

Cereberus seemed as stunned as they were.  He reached out with a paw and clawed the wall, then bumped his closest head against it, backing away with a bewildered expression on his faces.  He sat down and turned all three heads around, looking at them.

Paladia walked over and smacked the mace she’d picked up against the rock.  “Son of a bitch.”

One of Cereberus’s heads turned and regarded her.

“Now what?”  Pasi wondered.

Bennu lifted his sword up and let it rest against his shoulder.  “Now we sit for a while.” He said. “I ain’t leaving without them.”

Everyone was nodding.  Cereberus licked his lips.

“And wait for the damn rock to open?”  Paladia asked. “Well if we’re gonna just sit here I’m gonna make a hole in that thing.”  She shortened her grip on the mace and whacked the wall again, breaking off a few flakes of the rock.

The snakes had gone to sleep around Cereberus’s head and now he turned one of his heads towards Paladia and watched her efforts with seeming approval. 

Solari put her sword away. “Lemme go find a pick. “ She turned and went back into the front of the cavern, as the soldiers stirred. 

“We going to break into Hades?” Jax asked. “That’s where that went, right? Since that .. uh… “ He looked at the three headed dog. “I mean, that’s the one from all the stories, right?”

“Can’t think there’ll be more than one.”  Bennu agreed. “Lass there’s got a good idea. Ain’t no telling how long it’ll take em to do nothing but why not try?”

“Why not.” Jax agreed. “I’ll setup some shifts. Aint’ got a lot of space back here.”

The stunned surprise faded, and the troops started sorting themselves out, adjusting to what had just happened, and the sudden absence of their four comrades.

Paladia kept plugging away at the wall, sending tiny rock chips flying.   “Stupid bullcrap.” She shook her head. “Shoulda kept on going, get our asses out of here, leave these jacktards behind.”  She muttered. “Crank assed nutcase.”

Cereberus regarded her solemnly, his amber, ageless eyes reflecting the torchlight.  After a moment he moved his head over and licked her arm, nearly making Paladia levitate and drop the mace.

“Hey!” She recovered.  “What was that?”

Cereberus  stood up and then launched himself up on his haunches, slamming his clawed feet against the rock and sending some chips flying as well.  He let out a weird, echoing howl, and paused, but there was no response and he went back to digging.

Paladia edged to one side. “Yeah, thanks.” She muttered.   “Can’t you just snap your fingers?”

Cereberus paused and regarded his paw, then looked at her.

“Nevermind.”

**

The sound of the wall closing echoed and echoed as they all slammed against the wall then unexpectedly pitched downward as the floor tilted under them and sent them into the depths of Hades.

Gabrielle felt the strangeness of it, and she clamped her fingers down on the hold she had on Xena’s belt, grimacing as they bounced against the stone and it sent jolts of pain up and down her body. “Ow!”

“Hang on.” Xena had managed to get the Sword of War into it’s sheath, and she turned in mid roll and got herself wrapped around Gabrielle, attempting to shield her against the hard surface. “Jess!  Cait!”

“Ugh!”  Cait managed to answer. “This is a bit rotten.”  She had gotten her cloak wrapped around her as they tumbled helplessly.

“What she said.” Jessan responded unhappily. “I just got out of this place.  Didn’t really want to go back.”

“Oof. Sorry Jess.” Gabrielle felt more than a bit guilty, understanding at least a portion of what it was her friend was feeling. 

She, herself, did not have that issue, since her soulmate was wrapped around her and solidly present.  “Xe, can we stop somehow?”

Then abruptly,  they did. They came to the bottom  of that endless rock ramp and slammed against an equally hard rock wall, but after a long, breathless moment they stayed still.  

It was very dark.   The air seemed breathless to them, lacking the energy of the world outside and tasting harsh and dry on the back of their throats.  

Far off, there were screams and moans, and the sounds of flame and the closer silence was broken by a coughing grunt and the sound of toenails on stone.

Xena scrambled to her feet and turned around, getting her hands up just in time to intercept the furry form hurtling at her. “Hey!”  She barked, then recognized the thick, wiry coat against her hands. “Ares.”

“Four legged one, right?”  Gabrielle was getting to her feet.  “Though I’d love to see the other one right now.”

“Me too.”  Xena dusted herself off and looked around. The walls, to her eyes, glowed faintly in green, and she could see shadows moving past and around them, brushing against her almost like a breeze.   Above them she could see the steeply slanted surface they’d just fallen down.

The wall they had collided with was just that, a rock wall, and it backed into a corner.  So the only reasonable route they could take was the one to her left, where all the hideous sounds were coming from. 

Of course.

Xena sighed.   She turned and started to climb up the slanting ramp, her boots getting some purchase on the stone until it abruptly dissolved under her, becoming a blank, stone wall going straight up.   She fell back and caught her balance, and as she did, the corridor beyond where they were standing started to glow very faintly.

Footsteps then commenced, heading in their direction, and they all gathered together turning to face that direction. 

“Lets get this over with.”  Xena hesitated, then she started into the hallway, the green light outlining her as she strode towards whatever was coming at them.  After a moment, they all followed her.  “Since we don’t really have any choice.”

**

Solari had found a battle ax, and she was standing shoulder to shoulder with Paladia, with two of Xena’ soldiers next to them chipping away. 

The sound of the weapons hitting the rock was high pitched and incessant, as they worked steadily at getting their way through the wall.

It was crazy Solari acknowledged.  Nuts that they thought they could dig through a mountain like that but it gave them something to do,  and soldiers and Amazons were lined up behind them waiting to take a turn at it.

It was accepted by all that they would stay there, until either they made their way inside the tunnel, or their leaders returned.  

Solari certainly wasn’t going anywhere without the queen.  She wasn’t going to go back to the village, and face Eph, and said she’d just walked away once Gabrielle had been sucked into Hades.

No, no way.

Cereberus was sitting on his haunches, digging at the rock industriously with claws that seemed to be made of steel, so little impact did the stone make on them.  

 The three heads, huge and seemingly unbalanced pursued three different missions, one watching the stone, one watching Solari and Paladia and the other looking around randomly while all three tongues lolled out panting.

He made Solari squirm a little.  The snakes that ringed his heads were somnolent and hung limply,  and she peered cautiously at one when his attention was elsewhere.

Looked like a small garden snake, she decided, as the snake she was studying opened one eye and peered back at her.   It’s mouth opened and it’s tongue protruded, tasting the air.

Hastily Solari shifted her attention to the rock wall, and brought her ax down on the walls surface,  holding the weapon close to the head to control it’s fall.  There was, perhaps, a hand depth indent from her work so far and her shoulders were starting to ache.

“Would you like to swap out?” Pasi seemed to read her mind, lifting a pickax and hefting it. 

“Sure.” Solari stepped back and out of the way as the younger Amazon took her place, and started pounding determinedly on the surface.

Paladia didn’t hesitate though, and kept on beating the wall. 

Solari watched for a moment, then she turned and went back into the main cavern, detouring through the milling soldiers to where she’d left her gear.  She picked up her waterskin and uncapped it, taking a long swallow of the chilled liquid as she sat down on a boulder.

It was cold. She felt that through the hide leggings she was wearing and briefly wished they were home.

She was tired. 

She was more than a little worried about her friends now stuck behind blank stone and probably facing danger and scary stuff there in Hades, even though she knew it probably took a lot at this point to scare either Gabrielle or Xena much.

And Xena had that sword. 

“What are they doing?”

Solari looked up with a start as Artemis entered, her hand wrapped in a bandage.   “Huh?”

The goddess sat down, her face pale.  “What are they doing in the cavern? That noise?” She repeated. “It is making my head ring.”

“Oh.” The Amazon sighed. “Xena, Gab, our Cait and Jessan got sucked in a cave, and it sealed, and we figured they’re  in Hades realm now.”

Artemis blinked at her in silence.

“So we’re breaking the wall down to go help them.”  Solari concluded.  “But yeah, it’s tough. Hard rock  and all that. Sorry about the racket.”    She sat down next to her gear and fished inside it, pulling out some dried venison and a withered, wrinkly pear. 

“What good would that do?”

Solari bit off a bit of her jerky and chewed it, slicing into her pear.  “Might end up helping them out.” She offered. “They’re friends of ours, you know?”

Artemis sighed, leaning gingerly and resting her elbows on her knees. “No, I really do not.” She admitted. “I know pain, and exhaustion, and a dozen things I wish I never would have experienced. “You mortals live in the insanity of the world and it tires me to no end.”

Solari studied her from the corner of her eye.   The goddess did look knocked around and exhausted, there were bruises across her face, and the bandaged hand looked really painful.  “This kinda sucks for you, huh?”

Artemis looked over at her.  “Yes.” She said, after a long moment.  “At first I was horrified, then outraged. Then furious.” She exhaled, her eyes shifting to her hand and then back to Solari. “Now I would like to just go home.”

“Yeah, us too.”  Solari dug in her pack and offered Artemis a hunk of venison.  “We’ll get there.”

The goddess stared at her blankly, then, after a long hesitation, she reached out and took the dried meat.  “I don’t know if I will.” She said, with  a visible sigh.   “I’m not sure my home even exists anymore.  Olympus could be empty. “

Solari nodded.  “We’ve had times like that.” She admitted. “When we went to war, a few times. You never knew what you’d come back to.  Whole village coulda been burned out. We went through some places on the way here that were.”

Artemis thought about that for a while, chewing the venison with a thoughtful expression. “Hades has taken your friends.  He wont give them back.” Her voice was mild, though.

“He won’t be able to hang on to Big X and our queen.” Solari duste her hands off and stood up.  “And maybe he’ll open up that tunnel again when he realizes he left his dog outside.” She headed back through the cavern, leaving the goddess behind.

Artemis had stopped chewing.   She stood up carefully and eased after the Amazon, passing through the crowd until she was inside the inner area the sound of rock breaking was coming from.   She slipped into the space and put her back to the wall,  staring at the small group in the back chipping at the stone, and the ungainly, three headed figure working next to them.

**

It seemed like the corridors were dark and endless, filled with smokey stench and screams that made their ears itch but never got any closer.   “Any idea where we’re going?” Gabrielle finally asked, as Xena paused at a crossroads of two dark paths.

“Not really.”  Her partner said, selecting one of the two tunnels and striding off into it.

“Xe.”  Gabrielle caught up and slid a hand through the crook of her arm. “Would you consider going back to where we came in?  Maybe we can find a way out?”

“Look behind us.” Xena answered, as they felt the floor start to slope downwards.

Gabrielle did, sucking in a breath as she saw nothing but rock wall at their heels. “It’s chasing us.”

“Herding us.”  Xena agreed.  “So faster we find out where we’re supposed to go maybe the faster we’ll get out of here.”  She glanced at the other two with them. “You two okay?”

Cait was right at her heels, her eyes wide as she looked around them, and her breathing faster than normal.  “Not really, no.” She admitted.

A loud scream stopped Xena from responding, and she whirled and reached over her head as the walls opened in front of them and then they were pitching forward and falling into a cavern full of flames and agony.

Xena twisted in mid air and grabbed hold of Gabrielle as the ground came up at them.  She bent her knees as she landed and shoved them both back against the wall, dodging as Jessan and then Cait fell past them.

There were pools of smoking liquid around them and it was only pure luck that let them avoid them. Xena pulled Cait back against the wall as Jessan hopped over the nearest pool and joined them. 

The light flared, and the walls stood out in stark relief, writhing bodies pinned to them being lashed with flames that seemed more like whips than fire. 

“Xena, is this…”

“Yes.” 

Gabrielle sucked a breath in, tinged with an acrid stench.  “Ah.” She turned as Cait edged closer to her, the Amazon’s eyes wide and terrified.  “Easy, Cait.” She patted her on the arm. “It’s just Tartarus.”

“Just?” Cait whispered.

“Just.” Xena slowly looked around the cavern. The way they’d entered had closed, and there was no obvious way out.   The walls rose over her head, and the ceiling of the cavern was lost in darkness, the air stifling with rank heat.

It was like it had been her first time here, and yet not.  She could remember being tormented here,  but now she was a bystander, watching others rip their heads back and moan in agony, their bodies twisting in pain.

Why was she here now though?  Xena searched the faces, but none of them seemed familiar to her.  Was she supposed to free them?  Fight them?  Run? Climb out?

“Xe.”  Gabrielle grabbed her arm. “Look.”

Leave it to Gabrielle.  Two figures of fire detached themselves from the far wall and approached them, and the heat increased as they moved forward.  

Xena took a step in front of the rest of them. “Stay back.”

For once, everyone listened to her, even Ares, who was cowering behind Jessan’s legs.   She braced her own legs wide and reached behind her head, curling her fingers around the Sword of War and taking hold of it’s hilt.

She could feel the pull of it.  The desire to draw it and feel it’s power was almost sexual in it’s intensity and she came within a heartbeat of succumbing to it, when she paused, her arm going still as a sudden internal warning made a ball in her gut.

No!  She could almost hear the word in her head, echoing strongly enough to override the roar of the cavern around her.  

No.

This was, after all, Hades realm.   With a slight exhale she shifted her grip and pulled out her own sword instead, feeling the familiar weight of it as she brought it around in front of her, and readied herself as the two flame figures suddenly rushed forward at her.

The wash of heat nearly made her pass out, but she gathered energy and met the sweeping lash of fire coming at her from the first one, feeling a gigantic shock as her blade cut through the lash and split it in two.

It blasted to either side of her and she yelled a warning to get down as she engaged both sides, whipping her sword into a figure eight and slicing through the flames, ignoring the buzzing shock in her hands and the pain that accompanied it.

She thought she heard something scream.  A wash of heat blasted across her and she ducked her head, glad she’d pulled her hood up as she closed her eyes in reaction and half turned, as the air itself seemed to ignite buffeting her hard.

“Xena!”

She went to one knee from pure instinctive reaction, and felt something pass over her head, then heard a searing crack of rock splitting. 

Not good.   She got her eyes open and shielded her face with her free hand as she came out of a crouch just in time to see a fireball coming right at her.  “Stay down!”  She yelled, as she got both hands on her hilt and carved the air with the blade, feeling her whole body tense as she tightened her grip and sliced through the ball of flame as it came into her range.

The pain was shocking and incredible, but she let it pass through her, focusing only on the swift, tight motions as her sword disrupted the sphere of energy as it scattered in a dozen pieces and sloughed off to both sides of her.

Then she squared her body to the oncoming bodies of flame, straightening up and tossing her head to throw her hood back, daring them, staring insolently into the eyes of the nearer one  - pits of fire that were only marginally brighter than the body around them.

A blast of heated air came at her, blowing her hair back as she spread her arms out, getting as much of her body as she could as extended as she could between her and the rest of friends as the two figures spun up fireballs between their ephemeral hands and raised them over their heads.

Much bigger.  Xena winced internally at the pain she knew was coming.  “G’wan you little pieces of Hade’s crap!” She bellowed at them.  “Prove how worthless you are!  No wonder no one worships you!”

A moment later, from the corner of her eye though she saw Jessan step forward on one side of her, and Cait on the other, both with swords drawn, taking courage from hers.

Then as the flame creatures came at them Gabrielle stepped past Xena and held her hand up. “Stop!”

For a moment, everyone did. 

“We don’t belong here.” The bard stated, calmly. “We are not of the dead.  If you hurt us, you break your own laws.”

For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of fluttering flames as even the screams of the tortured faded out.

Then the fire faded, and the cavern they were in was just moist, and dark, lit now just by torches in chinks in the rock.

Xena let her arms drop. “Glad you read that scroll, Gab.” She said, after a moment of awkward silence.  “What laws were those again?” She sheathed her sword and ran her hands through her hair, feeling the residual tingles of pain ease from her skin. 

“Have no idea.”  The bard leaned back against her. “I made that up.”

Everyone swiveled around and stared at her. 

“Hey, it could be true.”  Gabrielle managed a faint smile. “You never know. Right?”

Xena chuckled, giving her partner a brief hug. “Wouldn’t be the first time you invented something that became real.” She remarked, with a wry smile of her own.

Cait put her sword away, not without some shaking hands.  “Gosh.”  She exhaled. “I think I’d rather dozens of smelly guys in leather coming at me.”

“Me too.”  Jessan said.  “I hate this place.”

“Me three.”  Xena let her hands drop. “Sorry.  Pretty sure this is my fault.”

Gabrielle patted her on the side.  “Let’s get out of here, huh? There’s a tunnel over there in the corner.” She pointed.  “I guess we didn’t see it when all the fireworks started.”

Xena flexed her hands a little. “Or it wasn’t there.” She started to cross the cavern floor, now thankfully free of firepits or pools of scalding liquid.  It was dank and dark and looked mostly just like a cave floor thousands of which she’d walked over before.

The walls were just cave walls and even the torches seemed like normal workaday torches, their flickering giving off the distinct scent of pitch. 

All very normal. And yet, Xena reached back and drew her sword again, as they approached the tunnel entrance and passed through it, hearing a set of soft crackling sounds that made them jump, and turn, and find a solid rock wall at their backs where the entrance to the fire cavern had been.

“Figures.” Gabrielle sighed.

Then they were in total darkness, in air so cold it hurt to breath it.  Xena sheathed her sword quickly and put her hand out, pulling Gabrielle back as the other two moved in from either side, and the wolf scooted between her legs, growling.

“Gggosh.” Cait chattered.

“Just stay still.”  Xena’s voice sounded from the darkness.  “Stay close. “

Everyone moved towards her, except Gabrielle, who was already wrapped around Xena’s body.  She was shivering, the change from heat to cold penetrating their clothes and cloaks, and as she breathed, Xena could feel the hairs inside her nose freezing.

She wished she had a light.   She knew if she drew the Sword, it would light for her, and even as she thought that, her hand was moving towards it.

No.  She forced her arm back down to her side and blinked her eyes instead, trying to force them to focus in the shadows.

“Xe, I think we have to do something. We’re all getting frostbite standing here.” Gabrielle uttered. “Sheeps it’s cold.”

Instinctively, Xena reached for the sword again, and again, paused before she touched it.  She cast her mind back to her first sojourn in Hades Realm and remembered how miserable it was, and how much she hurt, and how she couldn’t so much as close her eyes.

She couldn’t not see the faces of all those people she’d killed, all screaming at her, telling her how horrible she was, and how she’d ruined their lives.

She remembered the heat of the flames burning her.  And she remembered how, in self defense, part of her refusing to submit to the torture, she’d concentrated her mind on something she remembered that denied the absolute knowledge those voices had about what she was.

She couldn’t be so completely without merit if she had that one thing she’d done, that one person who had, for whatever reason, cared about her.   Who had reached out her hand in friendship in so unlikely a way.

And the voices had laughed at her, hearing her thoughts, taunting her with the accusation that even in this, she’d been evil, and caused Gabrielle so much pain that it was certain the girl was really glad she was dead.

They screamed at her. Daring her to say they were wrong. Sure that they weren’t.  Calling her coward for thinking anything else.

But of course, though she was and had been very many things in her lifetime, the one thing she had, that she’d been born with for good or evil was that ephemeral thing humans called courage. 

Coward she wasn’t and never had been and she had the arrogance and pride in self to know it.

So she used that courage to reach out and find out if that was really true, seeking out her friend on the other side, hearing Gabrielle’s thoughts loud and clear as a bell.

 In that moment, Xena remembered vividly, everything had changed, even though nothing about who she was had.   She had, being true to herself, ignored all the horrible things she’d done, and the countless people she’d killed and focused on this one present problem.

This one present, pungent grief she’d caused, this one surprising prize she saw within her grasp to claim. 

This unearned gift of the heart, that the mercenary in her had lunged for, setting aside the bawling shouts of Hades that told her to deny it, set Gabrielle free of her, let her find a peaceful life because in her supreme arrogance she’d shouted back that Gabrielle wouldn’t want that.

Gabrielle wanted her, regardless of what the future would bring the both of them and that – Xena smiled faintly into the darkness – that was still true for both of them. 

She looked down to find Gabrielle looking back up at her. “Think good thoughts.” Xena spoke up. “All of you. Think about who you love, and what’s good about your lives.”

“Easy for you to say.”  Cait sighed. 

“Brrr.” Jessan added. “She’s got a point, Chosen”

“Tell yourself it isn’t cold.”  Xena gently rebutted.  “Convince yourself you’re not here. You’re there, with them, just like I’m here, with Gabrielle.” Her voice lifted a little. “Will it!”

Gabrielle was quiet, but Xena could feel her smile as she buried her face against her chest.

“Want to be out of here.”  Xena let her voice lift up. “ The only torture this place can do to you is what  you LET IT!” She ended the sentence in a yell,  hearing her voice echo against the rock she now could sense around them.  “NO ONE HAS TO BE IN TARTARUS!”

**

“What are you trying to do?”  Artemis finally spoke up, edging over closer to the work. 

“Get in there.”  Paladia answered, shortly.  “Find those idiots.”

“They’re not idiots, they got sucked in.” Pasi objected. “C’mon now.”

Cereberus had swung one of his heads around hearing Artemis’s voice, and a pair of his golden, ageless eyes were watching her.

Two more of Xena’s men came up and tapped the two women, hefting axes in their hands. “Give us a go.” One of them said. “Got some cider mulled t’back.”

Reluctantly, Paladia and Pasi exchanged places, and cleared out of the way, putting down their tools and dusting their hands off.

“That’s insane.” Artemis spoke up again. “You’ll never get through that wall, and if you do…”

“They will.”  Bennu appeared behind them, offering cups to the two Amazons.  “Take long enough at it, nothing’ll stand up to us.”   His voice had a calm confidence, and he gave Cereberus a pat on the back as he edged past him.

Artemis rubbed the bridge of her nose with her uninjured hand in a very human motion.  “Do you truly wish to enter Hades’ realm?” She asked, with a sigh.  “Truly? All of you wish to risk your mortal lives going after a few who might be already lost?”

“Surely.”  Bennu sat down on a bit of rock ledge.  “Would go to Hades for ‘em every time.” He looked around the cavern, where a dozen of Xena’s troops were waiting to take their turn, the rest of the army outside sorting out supplies and fixing wagons that had taken damage in their travels.

Artemis sat down next to him. “Why?”  She asked, seriously. “Because she holds the Sword of War? Is it that you pledge to?”

Everyone fell silent waiting for Bennu to answer, only the sound of the axes hitting stone sharp and clear on the air. 

“Nah.” Bennu said. “Don’t much care about that.” He let his hands rest on his thighs, big, rawboned fingers bruised and cut visible in the torchlight.  “Been a fighter all my life. Started when I was maybe ten? Twelve? Something like.” He turned one palm upright and looked at it. “Never knew why until I met her.”

Artemis frowned “What?”

“Fights for a reason, Xena does.”  Bennu said. “Hard as horseshoe nails, yeah? But a heart big enough to share a bit of it with us.”

“Aye.” One of the young soldiers, standing by with a pickax nodded.  “Kin follow her and know if you die, ain’t because she wasted you.”

Artemis’s brow was still furrowed.  “Is this some mortal insanity?” She asked, hesitantly.

Paladia had sat down on a rock with her cup, her skin covered with rock dust.  “Probably.”  She stared morosely at the wall.  “Caring about people makes you crazy.”

Bennu chuckled and so did a number of the soldiers.   “S’true.” He nodded. “Aint nothing I wouldn’t do for Xena.  She took my heart first time I saw her.”

“But why?” Artemis persisted.  “What is this mortal that you worship her as you should us?”

There was a long silence as everyone sort of looked at each other, save the four workers hard at it against the stone. 

“Oh.” Paladia finally said, in a surprised kind of tone.  “Well, that’s easy. She gives a crap. You don’t.”  She looked at the goddess.  “We are crazy but we ain’t stupid.  Freaking minotaur be charging at you and both those wingnuts would step in front of it for ya. You do that much?”

Artemis stared at her in complete silence for at least a thousand heartbeats.  “You would have something from us?” She finally asked.

“Sure. What’s the point otherwise?”  Pasi spoke up.  “I mean like, what do you think all those offerings are for? You know?” She rubbed her palms on her leggings.  “My mam prayed her voice out to the lot of you, and still watched all my brothers and sisters die and her after. S’how I ended up an Amazon. Had to find me another family.”

“Strue.”  Bennu agreed. “All them years praying for good crops and healthy babes – and nothing from it.  No matter the carcasses or t’wine bottles, got to know we had to make our own luck.  Never got nothing from the lot of you.”

Artemis seemed completely nonplussed.  “But we could destroy you.” She pointed out.

“And we should worship you for that?”  Paladia asked. “Nice.”

The goddess remained silent for another thousand heartbeats.  “You will never get through that wall.” She finally said.  “Hades has made it inaccessible.”

“Thanks.”  Paladia took a sip of her cider.  “That’s useful.”

Artemis stood up, carefully cradling her hand. “But I know of an entrance you could use.  I will take you all there if you wish.”

Cereberus’s ears perked up. He left his digging and came over to her, sitting down and watching her expectantly, as though she was going to produce a treat for him.

“It is Persephone’s gate. How she joins Hades in the wintertime.” Artemis said. “You all are mortal and can pass it if you wish, and those who take that path can return.”

“Near by to here?” Bennu asked, after a brief pause. 

“In the heart of this mountain. “ She responded. “I will lead you there.  Will you follow?”

The soldiers all looked at Bennu, and the Amazons looked at Solari.

They looked at each other.  “Yes.”  Bennu said. “If that’s the way to our friends, yes.”  Solari added.

The goddess nodded. “Then come. Perhaps I will find a way home as well.”

**

They stood in a huddle, arms around each other, eyes closed.  If anyone had been there to watch there would have been a mist coming off them, rising a crisping into frost. 

A rumbling started over head.

“Xe?”

“Keep thinking.”  Xena said, on an exhale.  “Think hard, Gab.  We’re somewhere else. It’s warm. There’s sun.”

Gabrielle remained silent for a moment. “Is that how you did it, then?” She asked.  “It’s so cold.”

‘Yes.” The warrior answered. “I had to be somewhere else.”

Somewhere else.  Gabrielle felt that memory surface, felt again that flutter of her heart and impossible to suppress surge of hope as she opened her eyes in that mist and found her heart’s desire in front of her.

Somewhere else.   Gabrielle took a breath and released it, then she concentrated on the caves and trees of Jessan’s valley,  hearing in her mind the rush of the waterfall and the thunder of horses running and the sound of children laughing.

The echo in her head expanded, and she drew in another breath, convinced she could smell the forest dweller’s cookfires, and the green scent of the trees, and in her mind she called out for Dori and knew she heard her daughter’s voice calling back.

“Mama!”

Clear and precise, and as she took another breath, the air was getting warmer, the sounds of the valley more clear.

Then there was a horrendous crack, and they were falling,  Xena’s curses sounding loud and distinct as the cavern around them vanished and they were tumbling through the air into a different place.

They hit the ground hard, and scattered apart,  Xena recovering first and getting to her feet, hand on her sword hilt as she bounced forward and got in front of the rest of them.  “About time you bastard.”

Gabrielle hiccupped as she got to her knees, one hand going out to Ares who was at her side, licking her face. “Okay. Okay.”  She looked around to see who Xena was talking to, and realized where they were. “Ah.”

“Ugh.” Cait was getting to her feet. 

“Ugh.” Jessan echoed.  “I don’t think we ended up where she wanted us to.”

“No.”  Gabrielle exhaled, as she got to her feet and looked around.   They were in a vast hall, this no cavern or crudely carved place but instead a chamber full of white alabaster walls and columns, at the end of which was a mounted dias and two massive chairs.

Hade’s hall.   She limped over to where Xena was standing, brace legged, facing the figures seated there.   Faced with a faint sense of familiarity, it still took her long moments before she realized why. “Just like Olympus.”

“Yeah.”  Xena looked around at them. “Might be a good idea for all of you to stay back here. Let me go face him.”

They all looked at her, even Ares.

“Okay. Never mind. Let’s go.” Xena waved them all forward.  “All or nothing.”

**

It was remarkable how fast the army got ready to march.   Jax and Redder were settling Artemis on the front of one of the wagons, as the mounted soldiers were forming up on either side of it.   The support staff had gotten rest while they waited, and everyone seemed glad to be wrapping themselves up and moving on.

It helped that they were still on the road to home. 

They turned their backs on the coast and started off in the early morning light, dawn just breaking in the east and making the sky a pale grayish blue. 

Cereberus was stalking next to the wagon Artemis was riding in, his shoulders almost reaching the top of the seat.  The horse team pulling it were eyeing him  uneasily, and the rest of the horses were keeping their distance but so far the three headed dog was keeping to himself and behaving  rather mildly.

Solari was glad of that.  She was mounted on her horse, and had just come back from where the spare mounts were, more than usually aware of their increased numbers.  It was odd to see Argo and Iolaus there, and Cait’s mount Shadow in line with the bulk of Jessan’s big, shaggy Eris.

But being on the move was good.  She tugged the ties on her hood a little closer, blinking into the cold damp air as they moved along the road, heading along the line of the hills towards a break between them they could just see.

That’s where they would turn, Artemis had told them.  Then they’d see a stone lined way up into the heart of the mountain that would lead them into Hades Realm.

Pasi came up next to her, seating a dagger into one of her boot sheaths. “Y’know what?”

“What?”   Solari was glad enough to be distracted. 

“I was just thinking about being back home,  y’know?  Back in the village.”  Pasi said, re settling her boots back into her stirrups.  “And listening to the queen tell everyone this story.”

Solari grinned briefly.  “Everyone’s gonna croak.” She said.  “I just wish we were on our way back with all them with us already.”

‘They’ll do it.”  Pasi said. “You see Xena with that sword?  Splatting that big thing?  That was so cool.” The young Amazon looked around then back at Solari.  “You think she’ll keep that thing?”

Solari shrugged. “I don’t think she wants to.” She mused.  “But you never know. I think she’d rather give it back to his nibs  - that kinda thing ain’t nothing but trouble.”

A horn sounded and they both looked up and past the wagon, to see one of the scouts galloping back down the road towards them.  “Ah, now what?” Solari clucked her tongue at her horse, and started towards the front. 

“Troops ahead!” The scout yelled when he was in distance. “Comin fast! Look to cut us off from the pass.”

Bennu let out a whistle, and the cavalry surged forward, stringing out ahead of the wagons and moving their pace from a canter to a full out gallop.  

The archers and foot soldiers broke into a run themselves, moving in a group and readying weapons as they went.

**

There was a small dais at the foot of the steep stairs up to the thrones and Xena climbed up onto it, followed by her little gang, including Ares the wolf.   She paused at the front of the platform and looked up at Hades, her hands coming to perch firmly on her hips.

Hades and Persephone gazed coldly back at her.  “You seek to disrupt my realm.”  Hades said. “This I will not allow.”

“Fine.” Xena replied. “Send us back where we came from. None of us asked to be dragged back in here again.”

Persephone rose and walked down the stone steps, approaching them.   She was very tall, and pale skinned,  with beautiful eyes and an oval shaped face and a faint glimmering followed her, illuminating the pedestal as she reached them.

Gabrielle shifted as she approached,  coming to stand next to Xena and letting a hand rest on her shoulder in silent support.

“So you are the renegades.”  Persephone said, studying them. “And you, who have that which does not belong to you.”

“It does belong to her.” Jessan spoke up, quietly.  “Ares gave it to her.”

Ares the wolf looked up at him in question.

“It was not his to give.” Persephone told him.  “That is a thing from beyond time. He only may carry it as befits his title.  He cannot give it. He knows it. He suffers for it.”

She circled them. 

Cait just closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing, her knees shaking under her.  She could feel Ares leaning against her, and Jessan’s near presence, but she wished for nothing more than for this to be over.

Hades’ realm terrified her, in a way that battles and near death never had.  There was a miasma of fear that she could almost taste, and it was hard for her to believe – admirer though she was – how oblivious Xena was to it all.

“If Ares sent me this sword, he did it for a reason. “ Xena said. “So let’s cut to the chase, and put our cards on the table. What is it you want from us?”

Persephone stopped and stared at her,  making intense eye contact with the dark haired woman on the pedestal.

Her head was even with Xena’s, so tall was she.  “Be glad it is not you we wish anything of.” She said. “That least thing we want is for your continued presence here. “

“Good.” Gabrielle spoke up. “Then we’re done here. Put us back.”

Persephone slowly shifted her very cold eyes from Xena to the bard, her hand twitching a bit.  But after only a moment she looked away.   “Gladly.  But the mortal who put blade to our son stays.”

Cait felt her breathing hitch.

“No.” Xena said, in a calm voice.  “He was killed in battle, fairly.”

“You do not make the rules here, Xena”  Hades said. “We will have our price.”

Xena put her hand on Cait’s shoulder as Gabrielle and Jessan moved at the same time to enclose her in a circle of mortal flesh.  “No.” She repeated.  “You said it yourself, Hades.  Your time is over.”

“Cait’s family.” Gabrielle said. “And your son was attacking me. “

Xena lifted her hand and clasped the hilt of the Sword of War.  “C’mon.  Let’s see if this thing belongs to me or not.”  She let out a yell and drew the sword, hearing her own voice echo out against the rock walls and down long, dark corridors.

**

Solari kept her sword sheathed and lifted her crossbow up instead, as they galloped around the bend in the road that would lead up to the narrow pass Artemis had directed them to. 

Ahead of them were troops, engaged in battling their scouts, pinned down behind a tumble of fallen rocks to one side of the snow covered road.  Solari released an arrow, and quickly reloaded, as the enemy reacted to their oncoming force.

It was hard to see faces, they all had helmets on and the bulk of them were pouring up the path that led up the mountain and a hail of arrows came at them as Solari and the rest of the cavalry thundered in.

Bennu was in the lead and he galloped right into the front lines, leaning over from his horse to smack one of the enemy in the head with a mace.

The army was right at his heels, and in the next few moments they were all engaged.  Solari had pulled her horse to a halt near the rockfall and jumped off, thumping to her knees next to a scout and aiming past them.

Pasi came up on her left hand side, and they fired together, then reloaded in almost the same motion.   The enemy were easy to tell apart from Xena’s troops – they were all in gray overtunics and their helmets were silver, where Xena’s fighters wore their black half armor with the yellow hawk’s head bold on the back. 

Convenient. 

Solari saw one of her arrows catch an enemy soldier in the eye socket, and he went over to the side, grabbing at his face.

“Nice.” Pasi complimented her.  “Who are these guys?”

“No idea.”  Solari fired her last arrow, then slung her bow on her back and drew her sword. “Ready to get in close?”

“Almost.” Pasi fired the last of her arrows into the melee, then she drew her sword and joined Solari in scrambling past the rocks and heading for the fight. 

One of the enemy soldiers jumped into her path and Solari swung her sword to meet him, and then they were battling fiercely, blades crossing and crossing again, sparks flying off them to either side.  Solari ducked a brutal backhanded swipe, and as she did a spear came over her shoulder and into her opponents gut.

“Augh!” He grabbed at the spear but there was force behind it and he toppled over backwards, the weapon swinging up into the air.

“Thanks.” Solari turned, to find Paladia coming past her, reaching for the spear to pull it free.  She took a moment to regard this onetime enemy, who now had a cloak around her with Xena’s hawk on the back of it.

“No problem.” Paladia put her boot on the downed man’s chest and yanked the spear free.  “Sooner we get past these yonks, sooner we get this over with.”  She half turned as a soldier came at her, swinging the spear at him almost like a staff.

It hit him in the neck, and he stumbled to one side and Solari took the opportunity to bring her sword down and sever his hand, sending it and the blade in it’s fingers clanging to the ground.

He grabbed his arm and then Paladia ripped his helmet off and punched him in the face, just as the archers and footmen came running up behind them and the surge of Xena’s soldiers shoved the enemy back.

But it was going to be a long, tough fight.

**

They went from on a pedestal to running in a blink of an eye, as the chamber filled with bolts of fire, and creatures lunged at them from every side.

“Over there!” Gabrielle spotted a tunnel and headed for it, with the rest of the chasing hard on her heels as Xena brought up the rear using the Sword of War to deflect the bolts as best she could.   “Son of a bitch.” 

Persephone had vanished from their side and appeared back up on her throne, as Hades raised his hands and brought the roof down on top of them. “Challenge me?” He’d roared. “You have stepped too far, Xena!”

Xena leaped over a writhing snake heading her way and sliced downward, cutting it’s head off, before she whirled in mid air and intercepted a raptor, talons stretched to grab hold of her.

She closed her hands tightly around the hilt and focused her will along the blade, shutting her eyes as a bolt of iridescent light exploded from the weapon and sent the attacker into many different pieces across the room.

She landed and caught up to the rest of them, as they dashed into the corridor, and as she turned, she saw Hades lifting his hand in her direction and quickly brought the Sword up again,  exasperated and angry at the never ending persecution.

That focused and erupted through the Sword again and intersected the stream of red fire heading her way, splitting it and sending it to either side of the tunnel entrance as the bright, white light ripped across the chamber and struck Hades in the chest.

It surprised him. It surprised her, and seeing him reel back and his throne tumble off it’s high place backwards wasn’t what Xena was expecting.

Persephone stood in shock for a moment, then she hurried over and leaped off the platform and out of sight as he had fallen.

“Oh boy.” Jessan muttered. “I don’t think that’s good.”

Xena stared at the sword, then at him, then she pushed him back into the hallway, almost knocking over Cait and Gabrielle. “Let’s go.” She said. “While we still can”

“Xena.”  Cait reached out and took hold of her. “Should I just stay with them? If they’ll let you go?”

“No.”  Xena, Gabrielle, and Jessan answered at once, as they all started down the dark corridor again.  “Listen.” Xena said, after a moment.  “I refused to stick around here when I was dead and legitimately in Tartarus.”

“Maybe you weren’t really..” Jessan started.

“I was dead. I crossed over.” Xena overrode him.  “But I belonged here when I did, and I got out.  Don’t think you’re gonna volunteer to take my place.” She had her hand on Cait’s back, as they hurried along.  “Forget it.”

Gabrielle concentrated on the path ahead of them, having nothing really to add to her partner’s statement.  She lifted her head up a little and sniffed the air, convinced she could smell cleaner air. “Xe?”

“Yeah?” Xena sounded frustrated and exhausted. 

“Up to the left?”

A pause. “Yeah.”  The warrior agreed. “Smells fresher.”

They got several paces further along, when suddenly a blare of light brought them up short, and something appeared in front of them. 

Xena squirmed her way through and got in front, lifting the Sword just as the flare faded, and the figure left behind was just faintly glowing, but recognizable.

“Aphrodite!”  Gabrielle said, startled.

The Goddess of Love hopped forward a little, looking around her. “I need your help.”  She said, without any preamble, and lacking her usual casual attitude.   She was dressed in what appeared to be a dress of silver scale, which rippled with a faint light of it’s own. “Please.”

“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked, stepping forward towards her, drawn by the obvious distress.

‘Gabrielle, hold on.” Xena lifted her free hand. “Can we get out of here first, then help you all you want?” She asked. “We’ve got half of Hades realm on our asses.”

“No.”  Aphrodite reached out and touched her fingers. “We’ve got to get Ares out of here. He’s fading.” She looked intently at Xena. “Please, Xena.”

For a long moment, they looked at each other.  Then Xena sheathed the Sword of War, and nodded. “You know where he is?” She asked. “And if the goblins start coming at us you gotta help me.”

Visibly relieved,  Aphrodite nodded. “This way.” She pointed down the other corridor.  “Follow me.”

They did, but Gabrielle gently caught Xena’s arm as they rambled down further into the earth, away from the fresh air she’d smelled. “Xe.”

“Have to.”  Xena muttered softly back at her. “We owe her.”

“We do?”

“We do.”

**

Solari scooped up the last of the grounded arrows and went to earth behind a rock, selecting one and setting it into her crossbow.  She rested the weapon on the stone and sighted down it, releasing it to sink deep into the chest of on of the gray clad enemy.

It was a mess.  She rearmed her bow.  It had started snowing hard again and the melee was one big morass of churned up half frozen earth, the footing becoming perilous and most of the horsemen dismounted to keep their animals from having to negotiate the slippery ground.

So it was hand to hand.  The grooms had squirmed up past the fighters and captured the frightened animals and now the archers had settled behind the lines to pick off what enemy they could.

The ground was littered with bodies.  More gray than black coated, but Solari had seen Jax fall, and his body was under two enemy dead so she had no idea if he was as well.   Bennu was holding his own with his back to a boulder and there were a half dozen men around him fighting off an equal number.

She shot another enemy in the head, finding a good attack point in the space between the headpiece of their helmet and the plate covering their jaw.  The body slumped sideways and was kicked aside, tumbling into the snow covered churn and immediately stepped on by two fighting men.

A surge of Xena’s troops came up along the path, a score of heavy fighters who went up against a block of enemy that was holding the path upward.   With a yell they plunged into battle, and Solari could see the face of the enemy closest to her, his helmet knocked off his head by a blow from a mace.

He was starting to take a step back, holding an arm up to protect his head, and then, as Xena’s troops forced their way upward the soldiers they were fighting against melted back, turning and scrambling back and to the side to get out of their way.

Bennu let out a bellow of triumph, and pointed,  whistling loud and long as all of the troops he led shouted out in response.

“Getting somewhere now.” Pasi was at her side, wrapping a long cut on her arm with a bit of cloth.  “Damn it’s cold.”

Solari stayed where she was, methodically removing arrows from her quiver and picking off enemy soldiers. 

“You’re pretty good with that.” The younger Amazon noted.  “Safer for us, yeah?  Those guys are rough.”  She settled down with her own crossbow. “They got a lot more armor than we do.”

Solari saw two of the enemy clamber up onto the rocks and leap for Bennu together, long daggers out.  She aimed and hit one in the side of the neck, but the other escaped Pasi’s shot. “Benny!!!” Solari let out a bellow. “Ware!”

Bennu wrenched around and saw the danger, and he jumped aside, swiping his sword downward and to the left as the second man reached for him, knocking aside the dagger.  “Ya bastard!”  The big soldier kicked the man in the head, sending his helmet flying and the man standing next to him turned and whacked his skull with an ax.

Shattered bits of bone littered the freshly laid snow as Solari and Pasi got up and went around the rocks, coming up behind the lines as the enemy stumbled and fled, Xena’s troops following them and cutting them down from behind. 

“Brooh.”  Bennu shook himself, watching them retreat.   “Sure is easier to do this when the Genr’l’s here.”

“Got that right.” Solari agreed. “She’s always right at the front.”

Bennu regarded the scattering of friendly bodies. “Aye.”  He said, after a moment. “Draw’s the worst of it to her, she does.  We paid for that.”

“Bring the horses up!”  Redder yelled, wiping blood from a cut on his head.  “S’go and get up there for we get covered in t’snow!”

Troops started dragging aside enemy bodies, blinking in the thick downfall, and there was a rumble and creak as the wagons started to come up the road behind them.  Healers were already coming into the lines with their carrybags over their shoulders.

Pasi drew her cloak around her and looked around, then nudged Solari. “Here comes her nibs.”

Solari looked up from her task of picking up arrows. “Ah.” She straightened, as Artemis climbed slowly up the path to meet them.  The goddess was muffled in her thick cloak but she put the hood back a little with her good hand as she reached them. “Is the way clear?”

“Pretty much.”  Pasi said. “Once they move all the bodies.”

Artemis nodded. “The entrance is halfway up the path. You can see the edge of it.” She pointed.  “That dark crevice, there.”

Bennu had come over and was looking up to where she pointed. “Narrow, that.” He judged. “Tough getting all the kit up it.”

“Yes.” The goddess agreed. “It is the only way, though.”  She edged past. “You must hurry.”  She started up the path, stepping over the bodes growing cold and stiff with frost.

Solari exchanged glances with Bennu, then shook her head.  “We taking the horses up there with us?” She asked, as one of the grooms led Shadow over to her.

“Can’t leave em here.”  Bennu regarded the path. “Wide enough for a wagon t’go. So let’s get em.”

**

After a few minutes walk they were at a crossroads in the dark, uniformly torchlit halls and Xena halted in the center of it, reaching out to grab Aphrodite’s shoulder to stop her. “Wait.”

“There’s no time.” The goddess objected. “Honest, Xena.”

“I believe you.” Xena said, turning to look at the rest of the group. “But I want to get these guys out of here first.”

“Whoa.” Gabrielle inhaled sharply.

“Not you.”  Xena cut her off with a gentle motion of her hand.   “Hades is after Cait, and Jessan’s got something on the outside he needs to get back to.”

“Xena.” Aphrodite quickly glanced around.  “There’s really no time for this!”

“We have to make time.  I want them out of here safe.”  Xena looked past them at the way they’d come.

“Xena, wait. I don’t want to leave you here. “Jessan objected. “It’s been what it is. I can take it.”

“I don’t want you to take it.”  Xena told him. “I want you and Cait to get out of here.”

“But.”

“Don’t argue with me.  Either you’re under my command or not.”  Xena’s voice deepened a little, and took on a tough tone.  “Which ways’ out?.”  She directed her next statement to Aphrodite, who pointed back the way they’d come. 

“That way.  Up the path I found you on there’s a door just a little ways away.  It’s that place you were outside of.” She said. “During your chat with Hades.”

“You heard that?” Gabrielle asked.

Aphrodite gave her a look.

“I know where that is.” Jessan said, reluctantly. “On the top of the ridge?”

“Yes.”

Gabrielle moved closer to the goddess. “Aphrodite, will they be safe going back there?” She asked. “I don’t want them to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.”

The woman gave her a wry look. “A lot safer than we’re gonna be going the other way, for sure.” She exhaled. “C”mon, peeps.  Make up your mind we’re running out of time here.”

Xena nodded, and put her hands on Cait’s shoulders. “Find the army.” She told her. “Get them as far away from here, and towards home as you can.”

Cait merely nodded, her jaw muscles tense.

“Don’t wait for us.”

Cait was shaking, a little. “They won’t go without you, Xena.” She managed to get out. “And I won’t either.  Don’t ask me to do that.”

Xena studied her, then simply patted her cheek.  “Okay. Go.”  She said.  “Just get out of here.”

 “Xena.” Jessan took a step closer, then stopped when the warrior’s pale blue eyes met his.  “C’mon Cait.” He put his hand on Cait’s back as Xena released her, and they stood there watching as the other three started quickly down the hallway, until they disappeared from sight.

Cait sighed.

“C’mon.”  Jessan guided her upward, taking a breath as a puff of air brushed against his muzzle, bringing the scent of the outside world to him. “Something’s just not right about this.” He muttered. “I don’t like it.”

“Yes.” Cait agreed softly.  “But I’m glad they sent us away.” She admitted as they started to climb up the slanted pathway. “I just don’t now how to be brave here.”

The forest dweller looked at her with wry compassion.  “Trust me, Cait. I’m shedding like a skunk in spring in here.” He said. “Creeps me the heck way out.”

“I can’t even think about fighting.”  The young Amazon agreed sadly.  “I’m just scared. I’ve never felt like that before.”

Jessan thought about that, as they climbed up the slope in a passageway far quieter and far emptier than he remembered it being from the last time.  “Im glad we’re going too Cait.”  He admitted. “I want to feel my world again.”

They could feel the cold air coming in now, harsh and moist but along with it there was light, and they turned a last corner and saw the opening, empty and outlined in gray with a thick blanket of white coming down like a curtain.

Cold and unpleasant.  They emerged into it with mutual relief, then stopped at the sight of snow so thick it came up to Jessan’s kneecaps.

“What was that about fire and frying pans?”  Cait asked, after a long moment.  “Goodness, we could do with both.”

**

Continued in Part 21