Without further ado...

Long after she and Callisto had exited the aether, Xena still felt as if she were aflame. Her arms burned up and down; her heartstrings pulled roughly—pulled so far Xena feared they would break.

Or, perhaps it had not been her firey trip, but rather the knowledge of what she was about to do.

It was a suicide mission.

Callisto was nearly giddy at the thought of her own death, and though Xena wearily looked at the lunatic whenever she mentioned as much. In truth, however, the thought of oblivion was not entirely displeasing to Xena.

There would be nothing—not even darkness.

Or so she imagined. Xena shivered at the thought that Callisto was finally getting to her. It was not as if she wanted to die, she simply knew that death would be easier.

But a warrior never takes the easier path.

Xena finally decided that what happened to her after the fight didn't matter. Whether she was killed, tortured by Dahak, or even worse—given back to Ares, Xena had only one goal.

Save Gabrielle.

Her gaze lowered to the fire she and Callisto had made. She watched as the embers flickered against the cobalt sky. Each fluttered and glimmered before landing in the ashes to die.

Xena supposed that life was the same way. Fleeting. So bright and then so cold. Her brow weaved itself.

Tomorrow, live or die, I'll be a warrior. A hero. Someone that would make my mother and Gabrielle proud.

Xena laid her head against her fur sack, closing her eyes. She forced herself to stop worrying about a certain War God making a surprise visit. It was easier than she imagined, but somehow, Xena knew Ares would not be coming to her.

He knows I'll show at the ascension. He's waiting for me...

Somehow, his newfound patience was extremely unnerving.

Xxxxxxxx

The harsh light of day woke Xena. Callisto was already awake, sharpening her sword while she sat on a rock.

"Gods don't need as much sleep as mortals, Xena."

The Goddess said absentmindedly, eyes never looking up from her blade. Xena looked down at the crabgrass. She knew Gods rarely slept. Living in Ares' chambers had been enough to convince her of that. He would keep her up for hours to keep himself entertained, and sometimes he even watched her sleep.

Xena suddenly felt sick. To keep herself from such painful memories, she jumped up from her sack and looked towards Callisto. Before she could speak, the Goddess beat her to it, finally looking away from the sword sprawled across her lap.

"I don't have to tell you the odds aren't in our favor, Xena."

Xena looked at the woman solemnly. She knew better than to trust her, but had no choice. They would work together or they wouldn't have a chance.

"Go for Hope first."

Xena told her.

"If we attack her at the same time, maybe we can avoid a fight with Dahak."

She added. Callisto smiled darkly.

"What about Ares? You don't really think he'll sit by while we kill the little bitch?"

Xena smirked. Callisto stood up, sheathing her sword.

"Ares won't risk distracting me while I go after Hope."

At this, Callisto arched a dubious brow.

"What? Because he doesn't want to loose his little plaything?"

The comment struck Xena, but her facial expression hardly revealed that she was wounded. Instead, she explained:

"Yes. Or he wants to kill me himself. Either way, we can use it to our advantage."

Ares was always sentimental like that. At least when it came to me.

In that way, Xena could always count on him.

Xxxxxxx

Xena and Callisto went through the hidden entrance to Dahak's Temple, something the false Goddess had found during her time playing for the opposite team. They crouched along a rocky path, peering down. A dozen people were on their knees below, meant to be sacrifices. They were in a line leading to a pit of rolling lava and fire, which occasionally hissed out, spewing little bits of death. Priests dressed in crimson and black briskly walked around, some preparing the sacrifices—others preaching of the ascension. It was then Xena spotted Gabrielle. The woman was gagged, held by two priests at her arms. She struggled against them, forest-green eyes wide with panic. The bard was garbed in a white, flowing, gown for the ceremony. Hope, on the other hand, wore priestess' robes. Her hood laid over her strawberry blonde hair, leaving only her bangs to peak out. Ares stood beside her, dressed in his usual black, studded, vest, and leather pants.

Xena's attention snapped back to the priest, who then had started speaking in a strange, snake-like, tongue. He pulled a dagger from beneath his robes, and started towards Gabrielle. The bard screeched through her gag, twisting away to no avail.

Callisto nodded at Xena, and the two leapt from the path. Their war cries mingled together in raging harmony.

Xena flipped through the air, landing in front of the priest. The man raised the Obsidian Dagger and lurched forward, but she kicked the blade from his hand. The dagger landed on the ground with a clang. The man gasped as Xena drew her sword and buried it in his chest. He grunted, running red, before falling at her feet.

"Gabrielle!"

Xena shouted, rushing towards her friend. But before she could make it to her, the bard had already managed to set herself free from the priests holding her. She elbowed one in the face and sent a wicked jab to the other man's gut, jumping out of the way.

Xena smiled at how far she had come. She was quickly brought away from her proudness, however, as she remembered it wasn't Gabrielle she had to worry about: it was Hope.

The Goddess stood on a stone alter, a scowl over her brow. Callisto had formed a fireball in her hand, and sent it flying at her, but Hope knocked it away with a lazy swipe.

"Xena. I wondered if you were foolish enough to make an appearance."

Her friend's look-alike growled. Hope's neck craned awkwardly to the side, to Xena's confusion. It was only when a series of swords and knifes began to fly from the walls that she realized just how strong the Daughter of Dahak was.

Xena gasped as a sword spun towards her, barley sliding out of the way as it swished by. She ducked a dagger, and then used her sword to block the other weapons that flew towards her face. When there was nothing left for her mind to wield, Hope hissed,

"Ares! Take of them."

The War God, from the corner of her eye, had drawn his sword. Xena jumped back slightly, sword at the ready. But it was not she who Ares was going after—it was Callisto.

The blonde Goddess had a deadly smile across her face, practically egging the God of War on.

"Remember when I killed Strife? Wanna bet you'll be easier to off than him?"

The False Goddess taunted. Xena, as sparks leapt from the two's swords, used the oppertunity and went after Hope. The Goddess picked up a knife telepathically, tossing it with a ferocious spin towards Xena.

The Warrior Princess caught the dagger in her hand.

"Enough of the mind tricks, Hope. This ends here."

Xena yelled, sending the knife back with her best throw. The Goddess audiably gasped as she tried to slide out of harms way—the dagger grazed her arm.

She clutched the small wound, disbelief in her eyes.

Xena smirked,

"So you can bleed?"

Xena started to charge the blonde. Suddenly she found herself unable to move. It was if every bone of her body had been frozen. Her face contorted with stress as she tried to get to Hope.

She could hardly take a step towards her. Every muscle strained in pain.

"No, Xena. This is just the beginning. Dahak's reign shall bring about a new darkness—unfathomable to a mortal's mind."

Hope said in a grainy voice. The Goddess was backed up towards the lava pit, but Xena couldn't push her back any farther. She tried to take a step, but it was useless. Hope started to approach her, brow slightly furrowed with the concentration she needed to keep Xena frozen. A small hiss was all the Warrior Princess could manage as her sword was taken from her hand. Hope pried the hilt from her finger by finger, before taking the weapon as her own.

"I'm sorry you won't get to experience it."

The Goddess said, deadpan, raising the sword to strike. Though Xena could not turn her head, she knew the voice of who cried out from behind her.

"Hope, no!"

Gabrielle.

The bard came rushing into the scene, nearly brushing past Xena.

Move Move Move.

But she couldn't. All she could do was watch as Gabrielle charged into Hope, who grunted with pain as she dropped the sword and went toppling backwards. The two twisted together awkwardly as Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the Goddess, using her own weight to pull them both off the edge of the pit.

Just as Xena felt her muscles start to work again, she lurched forward—only to see a bitter sweet smile across Gabrielle's face before she went over the edge.

"Gabrielle!"

Xena screamed. She watched as Hope and Gabrielle fell into oblivion.

No, no. Not Gabrielle.

It wasn't supposed to be her.

It never was supposed to be her.