Body Heart and Soul

Part 22

Solari pulled her hood around her more closely and got her hands up against the wagon, leaning her weight against it as the horses struggled to draw it up the slope.

The snow had started falling so heavily it was impossible not to breathe it in, and the ground was fast becoming slick and iced, making climbing up the slope harder by the minute.  

There was no shelter. There was no other way to go, no turn offs, no stands of trees to break the snowfall for them.   “Brr.”  Solari was glad to be behind the wagon.  “This is crazy.”

“It’s crazy.”  Pasi agreed. “I’ve never been so cold in my life.”

The soldiers were all leading their horses, huddling with them as the animals blew and shook their heads, annoyed with the snow.  They were clustered around the wagons and the foot soldiers and archers were behind them, helping to move everything upward.

“Shoulda kept hacking at those rocks.” Paladia had come up next to them, and leaned her weight against the wagons. “This is crap.”

“Woulda taken us forever.”

“This won’t?” The taller woman asked. “We’re gonna freeze solid.”

Well.  Solari was forced to agree with that.  The plan, which had now cost them a score of dead, was rapidly starting to become something everyone was sort of regretting.

Starting with her.   At least back in the cavern, they could have all taken turns keeping warm and hacking at the wall. “Eh.”  She felt her boots start to slip and grabbed the edge of the wagon to keep her balance as she felt it jolt. “Hey!”

“Easy lads.” The driver of the wagon coaxed the team. “Ben, need to give em a break. Put the chocks in for a bit.”

Bennu unwrapped his scarf from his face and regarded the path.   “Flat up ahead, we can stop there.”  He indicated a spot just up the slope.  “Send some scouts forward there.”

He passed the word back and as they eased onto a slightly flatter part of the slope the other wagons clustered up next to them, men and animals coming together in a thick cluster that blocked out the snow and provided at least a little warmth.

“Why are we stopping?”  Artemis was on the third wagon.  “There isn’t much time.”

“Need to give a rest.” Bennu told her.  “Get some rations!”  He called out, leaving his horse near Solari and starting to edge along the lines.

Solari turned around and leaned against the wagon back, tucking her hands under her arms and appreciating all the warm bodies that surrounded them.   “Nother candlemark or so.” She said to her fellow Amazons.

“Until we get to the doorway to the underworld.”  Pasi said.  “Not really sure I’m looking forward to that.   My mam used to tell stories about it.”

“Some of our friends are in there. We need to find them.” Solari contradicted her.  “And then, we can tell stories about it that are like, real.”

Paladia nodded. “Gotta get that nutcase out of there before she does something crazy to it.”   She rubbed her arms. “Probably be warmer anyway.”

Pasi leaned next to her, unslinging her waterskin and bringing it out from under her cloak, uncapping it and taking a sip.   Solari joined her, chewing on some venison jerky as she watched the snow pile in drifts all around them.  “Crazy.”

“Persephone.”  Artemis had dismounted and walked over to them, cradling her injured hand in it’s splint.  “She brings winter, when she enters the underworld.”  She looked around at the snow and shook her head a little.  “The land becomes barren until she leaves Hades, and returns to Zeus’s gardens.”

“Is that really true?” Paladia asked.

Artemis looked at her, then indicated the snow, as her eyebrows lifted. “Do you not see the cold coming every year?”

Paladia studied her for a moment “Yeah, but I heard stories about places where they don’t got winter.” She said. “Gabrielle talks all about that.  She’s been those places.”

A small silence fell over the group of women, as they furtively watched each other and waited for Artemis to answer.

“Yeah, actually.”  Solari finally said, as the goddess remained silent. “I remember her telling those too.”

Bennu appeared and leaned his arms on the wagon.  “Scouts went up the path a bit.  We don’t move on now, we aren’t.”  He said.

“So we should move.”  Solari answered, after a quick look around.  “Don’t want to freeze solid here, Benny. I can just picture her nib’s face when we all tromp in there like snowmen.”

That got a brief smile from the soldier. “Right you are.”  He stripped his gauntlet off and put his fingers between his teeth, letting out a loud, piercing whistle.

Solari pulled her hood closer and tied the fastenings around her throat more securely, then she shifted her cloak, and got as much of her covered as she could before she put turned and put her hands against the wagon, ready to start pushing again.

Artemis, standing there quietly holding her broken hand, looked profoundly thoughtful. “I remember when Hades kidnapped Persephone.” She remarked conversationally, as the other women started to sort themselves out to move.  “He fed her some of the food of the Underworld, and his law was, anyone who ate of that, belonged to him. “

“But?”  Pasi got her gloves on.

“But Hera was so unhappy, they made a deal. That Persephone would spend half the year in the underworld, and half the year on Mount Olympus.  And that half would bring winter to the mortal lands.”

Paladia settled against the wagon as it started to move. “So does that mean those other places just don’t buy into you all?”

Artemis walked along side them, as they all moved upward.  “You know.” She finally said. “That’s an interesting question.”

**

They walked downward and inward and the further they got, the more Gabrielle thought that what they were doing wasn’t going to end well.   She exhaled quietly, keeping tight to Xena’s heels as they followed Aphrodite.

She was glad Xena had chased Cait and Jessan out.   She would have been even more glad if they’d joined them.   “Hey, Xe?”

Xena reached over to clasp her hand in a natural, unconscious motion.  “Hang in there, sweetheart. I know how you feel.”

Gabrielle smiled a little. “Do you?”

“Yup.”

“Its not a lot further.”  Aphrodite said, glancing back at them. “I’m glad I found you guys. I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Aphrodite.” Gabrielle said. “Can I ask a question?” She went on without waiting for the Goddess of Love to answer. “Why do you need our help?”

“Duh.”

“No, really.”  The bard said. “You’re a goddess. What do you need us for?”

Aphrodite gave her an exasperated look.  “Because I can’t get him out of here.” She said. “Believe me I’da rathered you kept going and us along with you.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks, then shook their heads in identical motions.  They sped up and caught up to the almost running goddess, as the path they were on started to slant more significantly downward.

Still were nondescript walls, still torches set at regular intervals, but now sounds started to drift up from the direction they were heading, screams and moans and the scent of death.

“H’boy.” Gabrielle muttered. “That can’t be good.”

“Mm.”  Xena glanced behind them, and almost stopped.

“Don’t look back.”  Aphrodite warned, grimly.  “Just keep going forward.  Uncle’s pissed.  At you, me, the rest of the family and everyone else.”

“Why at us?”

“You knocked him off his pedestal.” The goddess said

“He yanked us in here!” Xena protested. “He should have left us where we were damn it, Aphrodite! We were going home!”

Gabrielle was about to turn around, but felt Xena’s hand gently grasp her neck, keeping her head from moving and in the next moment they were coming around a bend and under an arch of rock and they all came to a halt.

“Oh piss.”  Aphrodite exhaled.

They were facing a chamber that had no floor, just a bubbling surface of noxious liquid that stank, and no way to get across to the other side.

“What’s the point of this?” Xena asked. “More petulant crap from the gods?  We’re over the games.”  She put a hand on Gabrielle’s back, and briefly looked behind them, to see a dark, solid black wall at their heels giving them no route out.

“Well.” The goddess sighed. “What can I tell you Xena. We’ve been fighting with each other for an eternity. “ She walked forward and put her booted feet into the liquid, and grimaced. “You think you’ve been doing the sword thing for a long time?” She looked at Xena.  “Babe, you’re an eyeblink.”

“What is that?” Xena asked, pointing at the liquid.

Aphrodite shrugged.

“Will it hurt us?” Gabrielle followed up the question with one of her own.

The goddess shrugged again. “Screw it.” She said. “I’m pretty tired of this too.”

With a lift of her head she plowed into the depths of the bubbling stink, with every step going deeper and deeper into the pool, a fetid mist rising up around her and making Gabrielle clap her hands over her mouth.

“C’mon.”  Xena took a step forward, then paused, as she felt ..  something.. from the goo now sloshing around her boots.   As Gabrielle moved to her side she turned. “Hang on.” She put her arm around the bard’s shoulder then picked her up, cradling her in her arms. 

They regarded each other solemnly. 

“If you have to fight this is going to be gross.”  Gabrielle said, as she pinched her nose closed. “I’d rather take my chances, hon.  Let me down?”

Xena shook her head and started walking forward, shivering as the liquid soaked through her leggings, making the hair on her arms stand up straight and her guts knot.   “Ugh.”

“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle’s eyes searched her face.  “Is it hot? Does it hurt?”

“Feels like I’m walking through long dead bodies.”  Xena’s face tensed in disgust. “Like on top of maggots.”

“Oh Xe.”

“Yeah. Glad you’re missing it.”  Xena muttered, but kept going, resisting the urge to throw up.

Gabrielle seemed to realize it, and she reached up to put her arms around Xena’s neck releasing her own grip on her nose. “Easy.” She murmured, feeling her own jaw clench as the smell got into her throat. “Oh gross.”

“Toldja”

It was horrible, and she wasn’t walking through it.  Gabrielle glanced ahead of them where Aphrodite was wading then back up at Xena who was unconsciously grimacing.  Could she help?

Sure she could.  “Xe?”

One blue eye opened fully and looked down at her, while the other squinted almost shut from a cloud of mist that nearly made them both retch. “Yes?”

Gabrielle rubbed the side of her neck with her thumb. “Think about that spring by our cabin, Xe. You and me, in there, it’s summertime, and night, and we can smell jasmine.”

Xena’s eyebrows lifted in patent skepticism.

“Can’t you smell it?” Gabrielle smiled at her. “C’mon. An owl’s going to hoot any minute and ruin my mojo.”  She said. “Think of it.  Remember what it was like that last night we were up there, just when it was starting to turn cold.”

“We were idiots and we both got sick.”  Xena reminded her

“Yeah, we did, but it was worth it.” The bard gently stroked her skin. “Remember the frost on that spider web?”

Xena could picture exactly what Gabrielle had suggested, and as she did, the discomfort of the cavern faded, and she could, at the edges of her senses, smell the jasmine.  “I do remember that.”

“There’s a million stars, and I can smell the pot of duck stew in the cabin.”  Gabrielle continued. “I just hope Dori doesn’t wake up.” 

“She’ll ask you for that damn cow story.”  Xena finally responded, investing herself fully in the scene, aware her body was continuing to move forward but also aware of a slipping of her senses, a fading out of the cavern and the horror as she savored the image in her mind’s eye.

“Not tonight, I promise.” Gabrielle said, in a fond tone. “See Xe? It doesn’t even smell that bad anymore does it?”

“No.”  The warrior admitted. “Remind me to have you do this next time I take a header into the manure pile willya?”

“Anytime.”

“Hey!”

Xena jerked and stopped walking, just before she was about to crash right into Aphrodite who had likewise stopped.

“Good job.”  The goddess said, quietly, gesturing behind them.

Xena turned her head, and saw nothing but an empty, dry cave.  There was no liquid, no stench, no mist.  Just dry air, and a rocky, dirt covered floor. “What the heck?”

Aphrodite came over, as Xena let Gabrielle down and they both looked around them and then back at her. “That’s why I need you.”  She said, in utter seriousness.  “I can’t do that. None of us can do that.  What you told Hades scared the piss out of him, about how you got out of here the last time.”

Xena frowned, but Gabrielle nodded in understanding.  “That’s why Hera backed off.”

Aphrodite nodded.  “C’mon.” She turned and started down the path. “Let’s get this over with.”

**

It was growing dark by the time they struggled up the last part of the track and found themselves on a flat area covered in snow before a tall, triangular opening in the rock face that was bleak and shadowy inside.

The animals blew out their breaths heavily, streams going up from their heads in a continual fog as they shifted their hooves, moving them off and on the ice covered ground.

Solari and the rest of the Amazons moved through the troops to the opening,  Paladia carrying a torch in her hand.   She poked it inside the rock face and then edged inside, walking in several steps and then looking around. 

Solari came in after her, pushing her hood back as snow dropped off her from all directions.  “Huh.”  She motioned Bennu inside. “There’s lots of space in here, Benny.”

Artemis entered just behind him, and walked over to where they were.  “The true entrance is at the back of the cave here. “She said. “It might be locked.”

“Well.” Bennu let out a whistle. “Might be so, but we’ll get all inside and out of t’weather for they freeze hard. “

The troops started coming inside, bringing light and activity with them, spreading out to plant torches inside the wall and guide in the sorely suffering horses.  The wagons came in behind them and in a few minutes the cave was loud and getting cramped.

Argo had been brought in and was with the rest of the spare horses.  She edged aside from them, and ambled through the crowd, gently nudging people aside until she was at the far edge of the camp. 

She kept walking, and after a minute Solari, Paladia and Artemis followed her, as she snorted a little, then turned down a passage in the back.

“Hey.” Solari broke into a trot. “Argo! Where ya going!”

“What is this animal?”  Artemis asked Paladia.

“It’s Xena’s horse.” The Amazon commented briefly.  “She’s pretty smart.”

They rounded the corner and found Argo standing in front of a huge, arched ancient looking gate, with thick bars bolted into the rock.  She was peering through them, nostrils flaring.  As Solari came up next to her, she turned her head and regarded the Amazon through dark, liquid eyes. 

“Hey Argo.”  Solari peered past the barred door, seeing nothing but darkness beyond it. “Bring that torch up  huh?”

“Sure.” Paladia came up next to her and put the torch as close to the gate as she could.  The light only showed a long, dark hallway slanting down, into the distance. 

Argo snorted.

Artemis examined the door, reaching out with her good hand and touching the lock. As her fingers brushed the cold metal, it glowed briefly.   She let her hand fall, and took a step back. “I had not thought to find this locked.” 

Paladia looked at her. “Do you mean we just all humped up here for nothing?”

Artemis drew breath to answer, when she paused and turned as Cereberus appeared, ears perked up on all three heads as he approached the gates.  

They all drew back except for Argo, and he reached out a paw and curled his claws around the metal, and gave it a tug.

Nothing happened.  The three headed dog tugged again, then shoved his weight against the metal.  Aside from a faint creak, it remained shut, and Cereberus sat down and regarded it for a moment, then let out a loud incredibly deep bark.

The echoes went on and on, and he barked again, making the women next to him cover their ears and Argo pin hers back.

The hall behind them filled with soldiers and Bennu shoved his way through, fingers plugging his ears. “What the Hades?”

Cereberus turned all three heads around and stared at him, then opened his multiple jaws and emitted a roar that made the walls shake so badly rock started falling down on top of them.

Argo reared up and struck out at him with her front hooves in obvious irritation, snapping at his ears with her teeth, making the three headed dog shy sideways in shock and stop his noisemaking.   Argo dropped to all four feet again and snorted, shaking her head.

It was momentarily silent, then Artemis cleared her throat gently. “That is a smart horse.”  She acknowledged, gingerly putting the palm of her hand out for Argo to sniff.  “To no purpose though.  This gate is well and truly locked.”

“Ho boy.” Solari sighed. “Well, at least we can get some rest up here and not get snowed on.” She turned and started exploring the other side of the hallway.  “Think there’s a crack in the rock up here we can make a fire in.”

“Aye.”  Bennu turned from the gate as well, taking his silver linings where he found them. “Got some firewood in t’wagon. Have the lads bring in some from down the slope.”

“Stupid.” Paladia went over and examined the gate, then she lifted both hands and curled her fingers around the bars.  “Should have stayed in the other place.”

Pasi patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. “Let’s go get some wood. Maybe if it’s lighter in here we can see something.”

“Peh.” Paladia gave the bars a shove, prepared to released them and step back when she felt them shift under her touch. “Huh.. hey!”

To everyone’s surprise, the gates opened silently at her touch, and swung back to fold against the walls, leaving an opening wide enough for both Argo and Cereberus to walk through together, and after a shocked and almost breathless moment, they did.

“Hey!” Solari blurted. “Hey Argo!”

Cereberus shook himself happily and bounded ahead, outpacing the mare and disappearing quickly into the darkness.   Argo slowed to a halt and turned her head back to look at them, just at the edge of the light.  

“Guess we’re not getting any rest.” Solari sighed, as she left the crack in the rock behind and tailed after Paladia who was jogging over to join the mare.  “Pasi, go grab our waterskins.”

**

“Jessan, I don’t quite think I can go any further.” Cait sounded apologetic.   They were halfway down the path to the plains and the snow was almost up to Cait’s chest, and showed no sign of slowing down. “I think I’m freezing.”

Jessan had been plowing ahead making a path, but he now stopped, and looked around, turning and clawing his way back up to where Cait was.  “Not sure we can just stop here.” He said, shielding his face from the blowing snow. 

Cait was shivering, and her lips were blue. “You go on then.”  She said, in a quiet tone.  “I’ll try to find a spot to shelter.”

Jessan grimaced wryly. “You don’t actually think  I’d do that right? Leave you here?”  He asked, plowing his way back over to her and looking around for options.

“Well really does it make sense for both of us to get stuck here?”

“Yes.”  Jessan responded.

“Really?”  Cait smiled a little. 

“Would you leave me here?” The forest dweller countered.

The Amazon sighed. “This whole heroic thing is a bit nonsense sometimes.” She said. “No of course not.” She pulled her cloak closer. “But we really are going to freeze.”

“Nah.” He looked past her into the thick stand of stark trees that slanted down the slope.  “There’s a couple of logs there.  Let’s build a snow fort.”

“A what?”

“C’mon.” Jessan plowed through the drifts off the path, stamping the snow down as he moved further into the trees.  The ground was thick with broken branches, and he carefully climbed over them, until he’d reached the small bowl between two lines of pines he’d spotted.

He turned and reached a hand out to steady Cait as she climbed after him, and then he pulled several of the downed branches out and started stacking them against the top of the tumbled lots.  “We put a bunch of these in here, and pack the snow in, we’ll do okay.”

“Hm.”  Cait found that as soon as they piled the branches up it cut the wind and that helped.  She could barely feel her hands or feet, but she managed to use her gauntlets and yanked the branches up, between them finally clearing a spot of ground and surrounding themselves with a round wall of branches.

“Lets put a roof on.”  Jessan scooped up claws full of snow and packed it on top of the branches, and Cait knelt and pulled up some smaller branches, tucking them in place as the fort thing formed around her.

It was already a lot warmer.  Cait blinked, and felt droplets coming off her eyelashes.   She removed the pack from her back and dug out two travel cups, filling them with snow and setting them down.   She turned and saw Jessan bending the last limb into place, leaving an oval shaped opening she could see the snow falling down through.

“There.”  Jessan squirmed inside and  sat down.  “See?” Snow fort.”

Cait pulled her legs up crossed under her and pulled her pack over, opening it again and sorting through it, removing packs of dried meat and nuts.  “I suppose it has to stop at some time.” She handed over half of her supply. “I’m just a bit anxious about the whole telling the army thing. Xena might need some help in there.”

Jessan chuckled.  “She might.”  He agreed. “But chances are, whatever she’s doing in there, she’s doing it right so don’t worry, Cait.  She sent us out of there to keep us out of trouble not to get help for her.”

Cait thought about that, as she chewed a piece of dried venison, a little stunned by how quickly she’d gone from being a frozen and miserable person to this relative comfort.   It felt strange, almost like she’d woken unexpectedly from a dream.

She had never been as cold as she was on the path.  Her cloak had become stiff with frozen snow around her and it had been all she could do to keep moving her boots forward.  Just horrible.

 

“Glad you said to stop.” Jessan remarked. “I was getting ice balls between my toes.  It’s really uncomfortable.” He indicated his fur covered feet, which were coated with snow. 

Cait looked sideways at him.

“Hey it is. You’ve got boots on.”  He smiled his toothy smile at her.  “I know it’s really kinda crappy here, Cait.” He said, in a gentle tone. “But we’ll make it.  It can’t snow forever.”

Cait found that her face had unfrozen enough for her to smile back at him, and she did.  “It’s just been such rot this past while.” She explained.  “Every time we thought  it was getting better, it didn’t you know?”

“I know. “ Jessan exhaled, looking around at their shelter with a satisfied expression. “But I’m so happy to be out of that place it can’t get me down.” He ate a nut.  “Being in there is like having my head stuffed inside a big poo filled sack.”

“What do you mean?”  Cait started to break off some of the dead twigs, setting them aside to dry.  “Because it was so dark and grotty in there?”

“Um no.. it’s.. I have this… “ Jessan wiggled his fingertips. “Didn’t Gabrielle ever tell you guys about us?”

“Tell us what about you?”

“About our thing.”

Cait’s eyebrows lifted sharply.

“No, not that thing.”

**

At the last, they came to the bottom of a long sloping hall, where the torches had faded out and only a faint golden glow lit the way. 

It was very quiet.  There was only the sound of the rasp of their boots against the stone and the tick tack of toenails as Ares the wolf kept up with them, panting a little as he stuck close to Xena’s heels.

It was breathless, and oppressive, even though the air was reasonable in temperature, and the ground they walked over even and without blockage. There was a sense of being at the center of a profound dark solidness and Xena was sure someone or something was watching them.

Ugh.

The hall stopped, and there was a tall, arched opening at the end of it and Aphrodite walked through it with her head high and without hesitation.  

Xena and Gabrielle followed, their heads turning in almost unison as they crossed into the chamber and stopped, looking around them in startlement.

“Wow.” Gabrielle said, after a moment. 

After the close hallways they’d been traveling through the feeling of vast open space around them was surprising and they slowed to a halt to look around, while the goddess of love walked on oblivious.

The cavern was huge, so big that they could barely see walls around them, the stone glowing with that same golden light but dimmer here, going completely around the cavern showing no breaks, and no exits save the  one they’d entered from.

Overhead the ceiling was sparkling with what looked like stars, vivid and bright, twinkling and patterned as the heavens were and Xena thought she could hear the faintest of tinkling noise coming from them.

“Xe.” Gabrielle whispered, pointing at the center of the cavern where  they saw a stone platform, which Aphrodite had hurried up onto. They could see a body lying on it.

“Yeah.”

There was a hush around them, and by common consent they reached out and took each other’s hands as they slowly moved to the center of the chamber and the table.  

It was Ares, of course, and his body was outlined faintly by the starlight or whatever it was over head.

Xena felt an uneasy ball form in the pit of her stomach.    She kept hold of Gabrielle as they mounted the steps up to the top and then they were standing there next to the stone slab table that extended an arm span around the body on top of it.

Ares was laying still, naked, only the faintest motion of his chest indicating any sign of ..  Gabrielle stopped the words from sounding in her head, because she wasn’t really sure how the words life and death applied to him.

“C”mon, bro!!”  Aphrodite was shaking him. “I got your besties here! C”mon!” She looked around at them. “Give me a hand here, girls.”

They came up next to her and looked down, the familiar profile a little unfamiliar, flattened in the silver glow without it’s customary haughty expression.  “What’s wrong with him?”  Gabrielle asked, after a moment’s quiet.

Xena gently moved Aphrodite aside a little and examined the body on the table.  Ares flesh seemed cool to her touch, and when she pressed her fingertips against the inside of his wrist she could only feel a faint vibration.

Was that normal? Xena looked at Aphrodite, then she reached out and grasped the goddesses wrist, and put her fingers across the woman’s pulse.

“What the..” Aphrodite almost jerked her arm free in reflex. “Hey! He’s the one in trouble here!”

Xena released her.  “Just wanted to see what kind of pulse you Olympians have.” She said. “As in, you have one.”

“Have one what?” 

“A pulse.”  Xena touched her fingers to her own wrist. “You can feel your heartbeat.”  She returned her touch to Ares’s arm. “I can’t feel his.”

Aphrodite went very still, watching her. “What does that mean?”

Xena took a breath. “Not sure if we can do anything for him.”

The God of War’s face was still, and very pale, the faint light outlining his profile in a bluish alabaster that made Gabrielle think of being halfway up a cliff, in the extreme outpouring of her strength, seeing that profile in much that same stillness over her shoulder.

In pure human reflex, she reached over and took Aphrodite’s hand, watching her expression shift as she realized what Xena was saying. 

“Oh that’s not cool.” Aphrodite said faintly.  “Xena, you gotta do something.”

“Aphrodite… sometimes there’s things even Xe can’t fix.”  Gabrielle said in a quiet tone.  “Unless… Xe, was it giving back the sword that did it last time? Could you try that again?”

“Sure.” Xena walked around the table to the other side, and after a moment, she drew the Sword of War out, and laid it down on Ares’s body, settling the hilts right over his chest.  “Gladly in fact. “  She glanced over at the goddess of love. “Doesn’t belong in my hands.”

Then she released it, and stepped back.

They all watched in silence, but absolutely nothing happened.  Not a single nerve in Ares face twitched, and the faint motion of his chest remained faint.

Xena frowned. “C”mon.” She flicked the hilt of the sword with her fingertip.  “Go back to where you belong.”

Nothing.

“Oh wow.” Aphrodite murmured.

“That’ will do nothing.”

The dark, loud voice echoed from behind them.   They all turned to see Hades standing there, in his long robes ,hood up to frame his face.  “He gave up his powers willingly. He is mine now.”

“Hades, that’s not fair.”  Aphrodite objected. “You know that’s against the rules.”

Hades smiled unpleasantly. “There are no rules anymore. “  He lifted his hands and started to shape two red pulsing balls  “I have destroyed war.  Now I will destroy love.”

“Xe.”

“Yeah. Stick with me.”

“Like the stripe on a skunk hon. Go.”

**

There really wasn’t much time for her to decide what to do. Xena took the moments there were, and at the end of them she reached out and grabbed the Sword of War, bolting off the platform and swinging it up to intercept the fireballs Hades pitched hard at Aphrodite.

Behind her she heard Gabrielle tackle the goddess to the ground, and if she looked behind her she knew she’d see her partner yanking her behind the table. 

She didn’t look, though, because the pain that shunted through her hands as the blade impacted the fireballs took up all her concentration as she landed and braced herself, bringing the blade up and around in time to knock aside another aimed this time at her.

Painful.

He drew out a long bright column of fire and gripped it like a sword, and came at her.  “You are just a plaything, Xena. This is beyond you.”

Xena braced herself and lifted the sword up over her head to block the flowing fire blade as it smashed against her, sending a wash of brilliance across her skin that smacked against her nerves.

He had intended it to crush her, sure that his older power would break the Sword of War but she drew in a breath and felt the energy flare in the other direction as her joints locked and her grip held against the onslaught.

“Play this.”  She arched her back and shoved off against the ground, forcing the blade screeching against hers up and away from her.  She let the anger build inside her, then she turned and pulled the sword down, ducking as Hades lunged at her and slipping around behind him.

Past him, she could see Gabrielle, crouching on the edge of the platform, a big rock in her hand.  As Hades turned and whipped his blazing weapon at her,  she heard the soft grunt and as the rock struck the god of the underworld in the head she leaped over his sword and brought her own around in a roundhouse motion, both hands gripped on the hilt.

The blade hit him, just on the side of his neck as he stumbled forward from the unexpected strike on his skull. 

A tiny spray went up, as Xena felt the sword recoil back in her hands and she only barely got her balance under control as her body was flung through space towards the back wall.

Tumbling around she got her feet under her and landed on them, straightening back up as she turned to meet his attack.

For a moment, he stared at her.

Then another rock smacked him on the back and he turned around, raising his hand and loosing a fireball at Gabrielle. It spread and enveloped the end of the platform as Xena launched herself towards it, but a golden blast met it, and sent the energy scattering to all sides.

“No.”  Aphrodite said, putting herself between Gabrielle and her uncle. “No you don’t, Hades.”

“You dare raise hand to me here, in my house?”  Hades raged, turning fully to go after her then lunging forward as an angry Sword of War wielding Xena slammed into him from behind, letting out a roar of rage as she wrapped her arm around him and whacked him in the head with her sword.

“Kill love?”  Aphrodite let out a blast of her own, pink and cheerful and devastating as it threw Hades offbalance as he tried to get himself free of Xena’s grip. “You have no idea what you just got yourself into.”

Xena sheathed the Sword of War and grappled with the god of the underworld, throwing herself to one side and yanking him ot the ground as Aphrodite pounced on him, slamming him with fireballs.

Gabrielle got herself another big rock and rambled sideways, waiting her chance.  She could see Xena get Hades into an arm lock, rolling him over to expose him to Aphrodite’s ferocious pummeling, all the while growling with anger.

Ares the wolf wisely stayed under the table, crouched on his haunches, his eyes watching the scrum going on below him.  

A scent came in on a sudden cold breeze coming from the opening and he turned his head towards it, letting out a growling bark.

The chamber suddenly started to fill with gray clad soldiers, and Gabrielle turned just in time to see them attacking.  “Oh, you big coward.”  She threw the rock in her hands at the first of them and when he dodged and came at her with his spear, she grabbed it and yanked as hard as she could.  “Xena! Look out!”

“Gotcha!”  Her partner’s voice came back, along with a whistle.

The wolf scrambled down from the platform and responded, evading a spear and latching onto one of the gray soldiers legs with his powerful jaws, shaking his head vigorously as he bit down.  He released the man then went on to the next, squirming between the soldiers to get to where Xena was fighting.

“She’s right.” Xena growled into Hades’ ear. “You are nothing but a coward. You deserve to fade.”

“You dare.” He snarled.  “I will see you ripped asunder.”  He twisted and tried to grasp her. “Foolish mortal.”

“Not as foolish as you are.” She responded.  “Draw me in here? I’ll teach em all how to leave.”

There was a deep, purple flare, and a loud crack, and then she was holding nothing, as Aphrodite thumped to the ground next to her from where she’d been kneeling on Hades chest and sprawled awkwardly across the stone.  “Oof!”

“Bastard.” Xena started rolling up onto her feet.

Hades was gone, but the gray army wasn’t and Gabrielle used the spear she’d liberated from the soldier to hold the first of them off until Xena could get up and come to join her.  They went shoulder to shoulder as the gray army let out a yell.

Aphrodite also scrambled to her feet and rushed up onto the platform, standing behind the two women and lifting her hands.  “What a suck filled day.”

“No kidding.” Gabrielle exhaled. “And I don’t see any end to it.”

Four men rushed them, and Xena drew the Sword of war with no hesitation this time, holding it in front of her and blasting them back.   She took a step forward and moved the sword in an arc, sending the ranks tumbling to the ground before she lifted it up and whipped it into a figure eight to repel the incoming hail of arrows.

Aphrodite flung pink balls in response, and Gabrielle stood to one side of Xena, swiping some arrows with her borrowed spear, and watching for someone trying to get behind her.

The room kept filling though, and now they were all the way around the central pedestal, and pressing forward.

Xena got herself on the point of the pedestal and spread her booted legs out, taking a breath and releasing it and preparing herself to repel as many of them as she could. 

The soldiers yelled.

Xena yelled back. “I will kill you all!”  She felt the rage erupting inside her, a mixture of frustration at the attack, and anger at the cowardice of it.    She shifted her grip on the Sword of War and released herself to it’s will, allowing all that passion to fill her as she set herself to defend herself.

Herself, and the love of her life, and the two gods who more than any other defined the two of them.

**

“So we’re just hauling ass down into the underworld.”  Pasi commented, as she adjusted the straps on her pack. “At least it’s warmer in here.”

“No kidding.” Solari glanced behind her, where the bulk of the army was steadily marching along, the gates fallen back a long ways by now. 

They had left the support people in the cavern, safe and warm with two large fires made.  Artemis was walking next to them, her cloak draped over her body protecting her injured hand.

Paladia was on Solari’s left hand side,  and Bennu was on the right past Pasi, all of them slowly looking to either side as they walked down the sloping, faintly lit corridor. 

It felt creepy, Solari decided. It was too quiet, and the air didn’t smell like anything in particular, and the ground – instead of being raw rock like the walls were – was neatly set and chiseled stones with a repeating pattern carved into them.

Cereberus was long gone.  Argo was just ahead of them, ears twitching as the mare walked steadily along, pausing to sniff the air periodically. 

“So what is this again?” Solari asked Artemis. 

“Persephone’s path.”  The goddess answered. “It is how she goes to Hades house, deep underground, when it’s her time to spend here.”

“Isn’t she like a goddess too?” Paladia spoke up.

“Yes.” Artemis nodded. “She is the daughter of Demeter, who is of the elder ones and of Zeus.”

Paladia eyed her. “He gets around.”

The goddess gave her a dour look, but then shrugged.  “She is the goddess of the Underworld while she is present here and so this path is a smooth and protected one.”  She said. “It will lead to Hades’s great chamber, and surely if you are looking for your friends that’s where they’ll be.”

“Why?” Solari asked.

“Hades would not tolerate mortals in his kingdom.”

Solari looked at her, then turned around and looked at the columns of soldiers behind them.  “So we’re gonna piss him off, huh? Cause everyone here is sorta mortal.”

“Yes.” The goddess agreed. “He’s going to be very upset.” She paused, and a faint smile appeared on her face. “I believe I will enjoy that.”

“We probably wont.” Paladia muttered. “Probably everyone’s going to get their ass kicked until we find Xena and Gabrielle, and they’ll end up taking care of the whole thing.”

Artemis looked at her with interest. “And yet, you opened the gates.” She remarked.

“Yeah how’d you do that?” Solari asked.

Paladia gave them all a slit eyed look.  “Like I know.”  She said. “Maybe I pushed and the rest of you pulled. “

The quiet, empty air coming at them suddenly shifted, and on the wind that gusted up they could smell fire and musk along with the sound of battle.  The sound of swords clashing and yells of anger flowed up and got louder by the moment and above that, rising high, a battle yell they all knew.

“That’s Xena.”  Solari and Bennu said at the same time.  

Bennu let out a whistle and they sped up from a walk to a run, as they let out a yell of their own, hoping it reached her.

**

They’d finished the jerky and nuts, and Cait had managed to make a small fire with the branches she’d collected.  They were sitting on a bit of log, and the fire produced enough warmth that she could push back her hood and relax a little.

“So anyway.”  Jessan said. “Those two were the first humans any of us had met who kind of had that connection, you know?”

“I see.”  Cait tucked her knees up and circled them.  “I’ve seen that work. It’s quite .. ah…”

“Creepy.”  Jessan smiled, showing his fangs. “Hey, its okay. We think you humans are creepy too.”

“Not creepy exactly.” Cait objected.  “It’s just..  it must be awesome, you know? Its like they can talk to each other without speaking.”

“That’s not just the connection. That’s just them living together like they do.” Jessan explained. “Just because you’re a soulbond, you don’t always get that understanding.”

“Really.”

“No, I mean.. it’s sort of like what we have, but not exactly. They’re different.”  The forest dweller said. “In some ways.  Like the thing with Dori.”

Cait cocked her head. “But I thought Gabrielle said you had something like that too.”

“Legends.”  Jessan responded. “But even the legends, about children of the spirit.. the people.. I mean it’s kind of like two people who could actually have a kid.” He blushed a little. “You know?”

“Not really.”

“Our soulbonds go boy girl.”  Jessan said in a rush. “Like, I wouldn’t be able to have a spirit child with another guy.”

“Oh.”

“So yeah, they’ve got something like us, but in other things, they’re nothing like us.”

“Hhm.” Cait mused. “I wonder then how they did that?”

Jessan shifted a little, and scooped up another mugful of snow, holding it near the fire to melt. “I think it’s just something Xena wanted to do.”  He studied the flames.  “She knew Gabrielle wanted it, and she made it happen.”

They both stopped, and paused, hearing a soft crackling near by.   In the same motion they stood and drew weapons,  Jessan ducking out from under their snow packed branch shelter and lifting his sword up and around into place.

The hooded figure approaching them stopped and went still, as Cait appeared, her own sword out and ready, a dagger in her other hand. 

Slowly, the figure raised it’s hand and pushed it’s hood back, straightening up as the snow continued to fall down heavily around them.  “Who are you?” It asked, with a deep, raspy voice that somehow did not seem either male or female.

This wasn’t someone she knew.  “Well then, who are you?” She countered.

He was of middling height, and he had black hair with faint gray streaks in it, and a thick dark brow over equally dark eyes that held more than a shade of irony. “I am Apollo, son of Zeus.” He said, in a mild tone.  “Probably the last being you wanted to see.”

Cait and Jessan exchanged glances. “Actually you’re not the last. “   Cait said. “Would you like to come in out of the snow? We have a.. “ She eyed Jessan.

“Snow fort.” The forest dweller supplied.  “We got tired of freezing.”

Apollo smiled.  “A better reception than I expected, truly.”  He crunched through the snow and joined them as they ducked back inside the shelter, and returned to the fireside. “I will tell you what brings me to Hades’s hillside, then maybe you will be willing to tell me the same.”

“I’m Cait.”  She extended a hand to him. “This is Jessan.”

Apollo gave the both graceful nods.  “I’m looking for my twin sister, Artemis.”

“Figured that.” Jessan said. “Last time I saw her, she was with Xena’s army, heading back towards the pass out of Thrace.”

He nodded again. “Was it so.  She has entered the realms of Hades through Persephone’s Gate, and my father sent me to try and retrieve her. He knows Hades will make her fade, as he already has Ares.”

“I see.”  Cait digested that. “Shouldn’t you be all secretive and lordly over us and all that? The rest of you lot are.”

“I should. But to tell the truth, I’m tired and it’s gotten us no where lately.” Apollo rested his elbows on his knees, lacing his fingers together.  “So I thought I’d try being nice for a change. Is it working?”

Cait smiled at him. “It is actually.” She said.  “But I’m not sure what we could do for you. We’re not really good at the whole underworld thing.”

“What she said.” Jessan chimed in.

Apollo smiled back, seeming a bit bemused.  “I was trying to enter through the door at the top of the mountain path. But it seems it’s sealed. I cannot.”  He said. “I will have to go the way Artemis did, but there’s a problem.”

“You don’t know where it is?” Cait said. “Can’t much help you there, I’m afraid.”

“No I do, I just can’t use it.” Apollo said. “Unlike my sister, I’m not mortal. They can walk that path or Persephone can. I cannot.”

Jessan grimaced. “Not again.”

“Listen, you don’t have to worry if that’s where she went.” Cait said, in a serious tone. “Because Xena and Gabrielle are there, and they’ll sort it all out.”

Apollo looked steadily at her and Cait returned his stare without flinching.

“She’s right.” Jessan said.  “There’s nothing either of us could do that would beat what Ares’ Chosen and her soulbond can do if they put their mind to it.”  He added. “Especially since she’s got the Sword of War.”

Apollo’s eyebrows contracted. “What?”

“Ares gave it to her.” The forest dweller said. “So you know, maybe it’s better if you, and us, just stay out of her way.”

“Ares gave the sword to her.” The god murmured. “Voluntarily?”

Jessan nodded.

“Then I may be too late.” He exhaled, his shoulders slumping.  Then he looked over at  them. “Will you let me take you to Persephone’s Gate anyway? Your friends are there, the ones that didn’t go with the soldiers inside.”

“Absolutely.” Cait said. “Right?” She glanced at Jessan, who nodded after a brief pause.  “Maybe we can find a way to help you anyway.”

Apollo stood up and rubbed his hands together. “Too late for that. But lets get you back to your companions. It’s the least I can do.” 

They gathered their things and Jessan put the fire out, then they stood quietly as Apollo raised his hands and stepped forward, already looking ahead to rejoining the army, and getting out of the snow.

**

Xena hopped up onto a layer of dead soldiers and repelled the nth attack on her, having worked herself around the side of the platform and she took a breath and exhaled, lifting the sword of war up and into position.

Gabrielle was behind her, guarding her side with the spear she’d stolen gripped tightly in both hands, and Aphrodite was on the top of the platform, shooting pink fireballs and keeping the bulk of the soldiers back.

It was surreal. The gray soldiers were unrelenting, faces blank as stone,  set to keep moving forwards towards them regardless of their losses. They did not care.  As one fell under Xena’s sword, another came in to the entrance in the rear, a neverending supply of fresh fighters.

How long could they keep going?  Xena didn’t feel tired yet, but she knew Gabrielle was, she could see it in the set of her partner’s body.  

What was the point of it?  Somewhere, Xena was sure Hades was laughing, all his own risk gone as he watched his soldiers attack, attack, attack, with no way out for the three women and one fading god left behind.

Could she carve a path to the entrance?  Could they  force their way up through this relentlessly mindless army to the path they had been on to the outside world?

“Hey.”  Aphrodite spoke up. “Sorry about this, guys. I really am.”  She tossed a fireball at the front lines and watched as it blew the bodies advancing back.  “I should have let you just keep going out there.”

“That’s okay” Gabrielle took a step back and released one end of the spear, wiping the sweat off her brow. “If there’s one god I’d fight an army for, it’d be you.”

Aphrodite paused and looked at her, hands still raised in the air.  “You serious?”

Gabrielle nodded, without turning around. “You’ve shaped my entire life.”   She swung the spear again, knocking a soldier back onto his heels. “The only thing that’s ever meant anything to me, you know? It’s love.”

Xena cut off a head, and then took a step forward, as six soldiers launched themselves at her.  “Yeah me too.”   She whacked at the attackers who swarmed over her and nearly knocked her over, emitting a roar of rage as they hacked at her with war axes and a mace.

Two blows got through her defences and whacked against her leather armor, her cloak having been discarded long ago to give freedom to her arms.

Gabrielle got her spear point past her and the first of the soldiers was gutted with it.  He yanked himself back wards and pulled her with them as she couldn’t let go fast enough and the two of the others jumped on her.

A heavy blow impacted her back, and then a second later she heard Xena’s wild yell echo above her and two boots came to bracket her on either side.

She felt a surge of energy, then the weight came off her and she could scramble back, rolling over and getting to her feet on the steps to the platform, catching her breath. “Jerks!”

A soldier broke through and lunged at the tabletop, driving his sword towards Ares body and without thinking Gabrielle got in the way, slamming the spear down to knock the sword aside as Ares the wolf darted between her knees and clamped his jaws over the arm holding it.

A second later, they all heard yelling in the distance, and a horn. 

Xena had leaped up onto the top step and turned to put herself between the army and Gabrielle, yanking one of the soldiers back with a grip on his armor and her head lifted as she heard the sounds.  “That’s Bennu.”

“It’s the army.”  Gabrielle agreed, with a grimace, still trying to get her breath back.  “Ow.”

Aphrodite scrambled over and put her hand on each of their shoulders . “Lets get out of here.”  She said. “I can get us to Hades throne room. We can go out from there.”

“What about Ares?” Gabrielle asked, since Xena was busy killing soldiers.   “We can’t just leave them here. Those guys are going to cut him up.”

Aphrodite looked at her with an oddly grave expression on her face. “We can’t save him, Gabrielle. I’m not going ot let you guys get crunched in here cause of my family crazy.”    She drew in a breath. “So let’s go. It’ll be what it is, you know?”

Xena knew she had a few breaths to decide what to do and then, it didn’t even take one breath as she turned and extended her hand back, laying the Sword of War across Ares’s body as Aphrodite’s fingers tightened and she felt the room around her dissolve.

Then they were in the big chamber.

Then chaos happened, as the room erupted in torrents of flame, and creatures were coming at them from all sides.

“Oh. Whoa.”  Aphrodite grabbed for them again, but Xena and Gabrielle were already running, heading for the huge, arched entrance out of the chamber.  She bolted after them, ducking a blast of fire as a dragon sinuously slithered past and headed after them.

She heard laughter, hard and cruel and then they were out of the chamber and running down the hallway. “This is so not cool!” 

Xena was in the lead, and she then pulled up as she came to a crossroads, hearing the sounds of running down the path to her right, and screaming up the path to her left.   She turned and headed right, whistling as loudly as she could.

After a moment, she heard a response, and then the sounds got louder and she could hear hoofbeats among the boots.

“Xe! Behind us!”

She heard the roar and felt the heat and as they turned a corner in the hall she had to pull up to avoid crashing into the rear group of her own army who let out a yell of joyous recognition on seeing her.

Her name rang out from a number of throats then and she turned as Gabrielle and Aphrodite came past, to find a beast breathing fire coming right at them.

And behind that, she heard many many feet thumping along the ground.

Gabrielle came up next to her.  “Hon.”

“Shoulda stayed in bed.”

“Shoulda.”

**

The army had flattened against the walls to let Bennu and the Amazons bolt through them and they reached Xena just as the beast let out a long breath of fire, deflected at the last moment by Aphrodite’s pink foam.

“You!” Artemis gasped as she reached them.

Aphrodite turned and regarded her. “Chick, please.”  She turned back around and started tossing fireballs as the dragon opened it’s jaws and regurgitated flame right back at her. 

“Use the sword!” Artemis told Xena. 

“Only have my own.” Xena drew it and flexed her hands. “I left his where it belonged.”

Artemis groaned. “You idiot.”

Aphrodite smiled, giving Xena a sidelong glance.  “Wrong, you pinheaded bimbo.  She did it right.” She pulled up her diaphanous sleeves. “C’mon, kids.  Lets go bap this thing.”

Paladia had gotten to what was now the front of the army, with Solari and Pasi behind her. “So where’s the nutcase?”  She asked Gabrielle.  “You didn’t like leave her someplace didja?”

Aphrodite started walking forward, with the rest of them clustered behind her, being shielded by the pink cloud she threw out ahead of them.

“We did, actually.” Gabrielle got her spear into place. “Xe and I made her and Jess get out while they could.”

“Yeah?” Paladia seemed surprised. “For real?”

“Yeah, she was supposed to find the army and tell them what was going on but like usual with our plans that turned out to be a cock up.”  Gabrielle sighed. “So they’re probably out on the mountainside freezing their buns off.”

“Crap.” Paladia exhaled. “I did all this poop for nothing.  Figures.”

“Hang in there.” Gabrielle reached back and patted her on the arm.  “With any luck we’ll be in the same place soon and we can all freeze together.”

Bennu had gotten up next to Xena’s shoulder, sword out and ready. “Gen’rl.” 

Xena turned her head and regarded him.  “Glad to see you, Benny.  Did we keep everyone together?”

He nodded. “Lost some in a battle, yeah? With some of those lot.” He pointed over his shoulder. “Saw the back of ‘em and then they went gone.”

“When we did.” Xena agreed.

“Aye. Musta been.” Bennu said. “Then word came up they heard you t’back of us.”

“Yeah, we were in a dead end.  One of the gods popped us out of it.”  Xena told him. “Long story.”

“They all are at this rate.” Gabriele muttered.  “Xe, there’s more behind that damn thing>”

Xena sighed. “Let’s see if we can get past this and get back out.”  She shaded her eyes and peered through the pink foam, watching the by now very angry and annoyed dragon taking reluctant steps backwards. 

Bennu peered at Aphrodite.  Then he looked at Xena, with a cautious raised eyebrow.

“Goddess of Love.”  Xena acknowledged.

“Ah. “ The big soldier grunted.

“We’re all in with her.”  Gabrielle smiled briefly.  “C’mon Ben. If you had to worship a god, wouldn’t it be her?”

Bennu looked at her, then he shifted his eyes to Xena, then he looked back at her, and winked. 

The army surged forward and got behind Xena, who had one hand on the shoulder of the goddess of love.  They let out a yell and stomped booted feet on the ground,

Boom. Boom.  Xena felt herself falling into the rhythm and she stamped her own boots,  half turning her head in surprise when she heard the distinctive clank of horseshoes behind her.  “What the…”

Argo shoved her way between the soldiers and caught up to her, ears flat back, nostrils flared.   Shes shoved her head into Xena’s shoulder and snorted, blowing her rider’s hair back away from her face. 

“Hey girl!”  Xena patted her cheek. “Look, Gab! Look who’s here!”

“Made us come down here. “ Bennu said. “Fought off that big dog thing too.”

“What?”

“What?” Gabrielle repeated.

Then a huge, and loud, and ominous bang sounded cutting off all speech as Aphrodite got her hands up and stopped unexpectedly. “Whoa! Look out!”

A chunk of rock fell down almost on Xena’s head, and she batted it away only to see more of them coming down. “Oh crap.”

“I think we need to just run, Xe.” Gabrielle pointed. “Lets go right through that thing.” 

Xena gripped her sword and started forward. “Run!”  She agreed and lifted her voice in a yell. “Run! Everyone get out! Out!”

The army surged forward behind her and she pushed Aphrodite ahead as they came up the hall as the dragon lifted it’s head and prepared to blast them.  Xena didn’t wait for the flame, she sped up and leaped at the creature, angling her blade as the fire started towards her and splitting it to either side.

She hit the ground and leaped again and ducked the flames as she turned and swiveled in mid air with her sword outstretched, closing her eyes as the heat flowed over her and aiming for the dragon’s throat.

She felt the blade impact, felt the grinding crunch as the hand hammered steel cut through the creature’s hide and turn and twist as she did, hearing the rumbling roar as the cavern roof was collapsing over all of them.

Then her shoulders hit the dragon’s chest and she ripped the blade out of it’s throat as she continued around and ducked under it’s falling head. 

She heard Gabrielle’s yell of warning and dropped flat, rolling as the creature writhed and smacked the ground,  as huge chunks of rock fell all around it.  “C’mon!”  Xena scrambled to her feet and climbed over the still moving dragon, jumping to the ground on the other side of it and barreling up the hall.

A moment later, Gabrielle was at her side. “The place is collapsing!”

“I know.”  Xena turned and saw the army flowing over the dying dragon, as the roof crumbled. “Hurry!!!”

Aphrodite ran past it, dragging Artemis along with her.  

Xena kept running herself, her sword in one hand and her other around Gabrielle’s bicep, ducking her head and shrugging off the shards of rock falling all around them.  She could hear rumbling booms from further down and there was a sense of something coming up behind them she didn’t really want to see.

The noise was incredible.   Xena wished she could cover her ears as they stumbled along with rocks hitting them in the head and shoulders but she kept going, yelling encouragement to everyone that was following her.

She drew in a breath for another yell and was shocked with a taste of air that held cold moisture, not the dry, lifeless dust of the underground.   Looking forward, she could see a bend at the top of the passage they were in.

Already half full of rubble.  “Move it!”  Xena sped up, almost stumbling when she was bumped from behind by Argo.   They surged together almost as a huge single animal and went around the bend, seeing the outside world as light and cold past huge, closed iron gates.

“Oh crap.”  Paladia panted. “Who the damned crap blank head closed those damned things.”

They surged against it, pulling at the bars as Aphrodite braced her back to it, blinking with the effort of keeping most of the ceiling up over their heads. 

“Won’t open?” Paladia yanked herself on them.  “Aw crap.”

A loud crack sounded over head and Xena moved just in time to get her shoulders under a sliding plate of rock, the muscles in her legs jumping visibly through her leggings as she caught the weight and held it.

Everything came to a halt.  

Xena let out a shrill whistle, her eyes closing as she concentrated on not letting the rocks smash her flat.

Argo walked to the gates and snuffled at them, stamping the rock with her front hoof.

Artemis edged around the rocks and went to the gates, putting her free hand on them and pulling.  They didn’t budge, and she turned and put her back to them, looking back down the hallway.  It was full of soldiers, the ceiling over their heads outlined in pink mist, bits of rock and debris falling down among them with the snick of stone on stone.

Then they heard the rattle of boots on stone and Xena’s support team came rolling around the corner, led by Jessan, who let out a roar when he spotted them. “Hey!”

“Need to get that space open.”  Xena shouted back. “Whatever it takes. Get horses and ropes in here.” She could feel the weight of the rock against her shoulders bearing down on her, and a moment later Gabrielle was wedged in next to her,  boot against boot, hip against hip as she pressed her hands up against the stone.

“You can’t open them that way.” Artemis told her. “The doors open inward.”

“Great, then pass the ropes in here.” Xena said. “Everyone grab on and pull.”

The first rank of the soldiers and the Amazons surged forward, getting to the gates and calling out instructions to the support people on the other side.  They were passing ropes through the iron when two figures squirmed through the crowds and came to the gates, grabbing hold of them and peering thorugh.

“Artemis!” The taller male said. “By Olympus I found you.”

“Apollo”  Artemis answered, in a quiet voice. “Get these gates open. Let us out.”

He shifted to one side and looked up, putting his hand on the metal surface, as Cait got past him and peeked between the bars. “Pally!”

Paladia darted over. “There you are you damned nutcase.” She sounded profoundly relieved. “I thought you croaked.”

Another loud crack sounded, and a huge rumble started coming towards them.  “Oh oh.” Aphrodite grimaced. “That doesn’t sound good.”

The floor started shaking and the pink mist started to shiver and fade, as the floor began to crack and open.

Xena felt it.  “Gab.” She turned her head. “Screw the rocks grab onto me.”

For a frozen moment, the bard merely stared at her, then she dropped her hands and turned her body, coming around in front of her partner and putting her arms around her.   Xena braced her back and let her own hands drop, the sword falling to the ground as she returned the hug.

It seemed like it was the end, again.  Time, again.  Gabrielle drew in a breath, then something clicked and she turned her head towards the gates. “Cait!!!!”

The young Amazon had been feeding in ropes that were ultimately going to be useless. “Gabrielle” She dropped the rope and stared through the bars.

“Push the gates!” The bard yelled. “Want to come in here!”

With a puzzled expression, Cait did, to no effect .”I tried that!” She yelled as the floor started to split open,  cries going out as men and women slipped through it.

“HARDER.”  The bard said, in a fierce tone. “You have to really want it, Cait!”

“ Yeah, c’mon nutcase!”  Paladia caught on and grabbed the bars from her side. “You’re an idiot aren’t you? Wanna die with us? C’mon!”

Cait’s eyes met hers.  Then with a slight gasp of understanding she lunged against the bars and shoved with all her strength.

**

Completed in Part 22