The Hinds Blood Dagger!

Disclaimer: With this story I violate the copyright of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I hope they can forgive me.

Violence: Hope and her henchmen aren't exactly the nicest people around, there are however less violence in the fic than in the episode itself.

Language: English, sort of. I just which you can understand it and that you will overlook the irritating grammar errors and word confusions it is stuffed with. Just pretend Joxer wrote it.

Size: About 36 pages.

Summary: The hinds blood dagger has to be found, and Joxer the Mighty is up to the challenge. Together with his sidekick Deneus he tricks Hope and her henchmen and - in the end - proves himself worthy of the mission. The fic takes place in the episode "Sacrifice II".

The cast:
Joxer - the lionhearted dork who turns out to be a real hero.
Deneus - the bright minded kid who suddenly finds himself in the middle of saving-the-word business.
Hope - Gabrielle's pretty but evil daughter.
Ares - god of war and the most masculine of all beings, according to himself.
Xena - the chakramflinging, swordslashing warrior princess.
Gabrielle - the heart-of-gold amazon princess.

Small note: I have taken the liberty to change some small details from the episode. Only because of artistic purpose, of course. I hope you will find this fic entertaining. I would love to hear what you think, so please send me comments. Enjoy your reading!



Chapter 1
In which three gorgeous women decide to go their own way, a plan is made and our hero got new travelling companions.
In which three gorgeous women decide to go their own way, a plan is made and our hero got new travelling companions.

Without really understanding what he just had heard, Joxer stared wide-eyed at the grim looking warrior princess standing in front of him. His face still ached from her punch, but his heart ached even more. Desperately he examined her face in hope of finding a sign that she was after all was joking with him. He didn't find any. Slowly he turned around. Hey, warrior chum! he said to himself. Come on, you have known the whole time this would happen one day or another. You really thought two wondergals like these would allow a jerk like you to hang around forever? Just walk away...there is nothing more about it. He struggled against an impulse to cry and slowly started to lift his feet. Don't let their last memory of you be a sobbing wimp he added faintly. He managed maybe five steps away, but then it become too much for him. With eyes filled of tears he turned to get a last glance of the two women that had come to mean so much for him. He opened his mouth to speak, to beg them for one last chance...

"You need a little lesson, huh? Listen to me, you bumbling fool..."

Xena gave him a push and pulled him down to the ground.

"Now, listen very careful, Joxer!" she eagerly said, locking his gaze with her radiant blue eyes. "I need you to go after the hinds blood dagger. We can't let Callisto have it, and she will watch every step Gabrielle and I take. It is hidden in the very temple of Hope. A statue of Ares holds it. Go get it and wait for me to get there and finish her. Do you understand me?"

Joxer swallowed, incapable of doing anything else than concentrate to keep breathing and wait for the storm of contradicting emotions to cease. An impatient sound from Xena made him return to here and now.

"You mean... that you really don't dismiss me after all?" His voice was so filled with relief that Xena couldn't help but give him a smile.

"But of course Joxer. You know that. Now - go there and prove what kind of hero you really are."

Before he got the chance to answer she rose to her feet and yelled at him again. He stood still, stared after her when she with determined steps walked back to the horses, still not rid of the chock she had given him. After just a few moments the three ladies continued their interrupted journey. He sighed and turned around to walk away. Pretending or not, he was not so little hurt to see that Gabrielle hadn't said a word to make Xena change her mind about him.

That night he sat a long time at the campfire. It was a nice night, he decided. Not very cold, but chilly enough to make the air fresh and convince the local bugs of staying home instead of paying visits to trespassing travellers. The sky was clear and the stars were bright. All the way to Olympia Joxer thought for himself as he let his gaze get lost into the star dotted eternity. His eyes went to Orion high up above in the sky. The mighty hunter stood as always with his bow ready. Joxer had as long as he remembered wondered what he was aiming at. The two bears, someone had told him when he was a little lad, pointing out another constellation. Joxer had deemed it a bit remarkable that a mighty hunter as Orion hadn't been able to catch the bears in all the aeons of time he had been after them. But than again - time probably floated differently among the stars. He shrugged. Tomorrow he whispered, half to himself and half to the various heroes in the sky, Tomorrow I will be a hero. Prepare a place in the sky for Joxer the Mighty. With these words he abruptly rolled over and buried his head in the blanket. Still trying to figure out what he would look like pointed out in stars he fell asleep.

The next day he awoke with a headache. Apparently his right shoe had under cover of the darkness taken the opportunity to crawl under his head and given him a very uncomfortable sleeping position. Muttering for himself he came to his feet and started to collect his stuff. He was hungry, but hadn't any food left. If he didn't make it to Hope's temple before lunch he would have to make a stop for supply in some village. He found his sword and decided to train some fencing before going to the heroic deeds of the day, but in the last minute remembered that the blade was bent. Shaking his head Joxer took a last stroll around the campsite and turned to the road. This wasn't a good start of the heroic day.

He was still grumbling for himself when he some hours later could be seen tramping along a road, leading in a direction he was hoping could take him to the temple. There had been no villages with lunch for him at all in the area, but it didn't really matter. Joxer was quite sure there wouldn't be much food left for him anyway. Hope's worshippers had been quite through looting the area. Maybe it was because of his distracting stomach he didn't notice that he wasn't alone until he stood right in front of them, maybe it was jet another manifestation of his common lack of awareness of the world around him. Whatever the reason, Joxer suddenly looked up and found himself standing face to face with a bunch of very self-assured thugs, all wearing the tasty red coloured robes Hope seemed to be so fond of. Behind them, he could se a large group of people being tied together and dragged like animals along the road.

"Hi, fellas. Nice robes" he said. He admitted for himself it maybe hadn't been the right thing to say, but he couldn't really think of anything better.

"It looks like we found another sacrifice" the most dumb looking of the thugs stated. "Get him".

That last remark was, as far as Joxer concerned, totally unnecessary. If he really was to be a sacrifice they of course had to get him. For sure, even goons of their low intelligence rate wouldn't expect him to voluntary throw himself for their feet. Two of the red-robes started to move forward, grinning. Oh yeah, he thought. Time to show you goons what Joxer the Mighty got up his sleeve.

As the two men closed up, Joxer took a step back, holding his sword in front of him. With a sudden wry face he remembered what state his blade was in and reached for the dagger instead. He took another step backward, gesturing with the small-bladed dagger in what he hoped would be seen as a threatening gesture. In the very same moment he stumbled on a little rock and fell backward. The shock when he lost his foothold and crashed to the ground made him see stars and birds circling over his head. However, the pain of his head crashing against the ground was nothing compared to that of the insight that the thugs were standing over him, laughing their heads of.

"Drag him to his feet and put him in the line" the Most Stupid Looking Thug ordered, immediately being obeyed by his fellow goons.

Joxer didn't even try to make resistance as they tied his arm's together in the line. This really was a bad start of the day.

Chapter 2
In which a long journey is proceeded, lunch is even further adjourned and our hero is introduced to a promising represent of the next generation.
In which a long journey is proceeded, lunch is even further adjourned and our hero is introduced to a promising represent of the next generation.

"So, when are you guys going to give us something to eat anyway? It is far beyond lunchtime, and I haven't been eating breakfast today."

A grumpy tug in the rope silenced Joxer. He had a while ago accepted the fact that sacrifices obviously wasn't supposed to eat - probably not being hungry either. However, as long as the thugs would keep being irritated, Joxer was quite satisfied with making fuss about it. Even if he had small hopes about curing his hunger this way, it at least gave him something to do. And there was always the chance they eventually would give him something just to make him stop.

"I understand if you aren't hungry, that's OK with me - even if I have to point out that a normal person actually DO eat now and when. However, you sure don't want us to go hungry being brought to that fancy god of yours and all. We all would like to meet him in our best shape, I can assure you that and for your information" - Joxer leaned forward to the thug walking closest, whispering conspiratorially in his ear - "I seldom is at my best when I'm hungry." He rose his voice to its normal tone again. "So how about it? What's for lunch?"

"Alright, that's enough for now. Let's take a brake" Mr Stupid-Looking-Thug (who obvious was the only one of them able to speak) stated, glancing grimly at Joxer. The other thugs grunted their acknowledges and halted. The prisoners tiredly sank down in sitting position at the side of the road.

"That's fine!" Joxer announced, looking around. "Finally it's time for food. Just let me have some bread and something to drink for now, as a teaser until you have managed to cook our main meal."

The Thug leader stared at him with hateful eyes, looking like he was going to hit him right in the face. But eventually he remembered his position as a Leader of Men and gave a nod to one of his goons. The goon immediately went forward towards Joxer and slapped him hard over his throat, making the hungry warrior fall backwards, once again hitting the ground.

"Auch! "Joxer yelled, lying on the ground. "That hurts."

However, that didn't seem to impress to the goon who with a content grunt turned to his master for a pat on the shoulder. Joxer sank back into lying position to rest his aching head.

"Why do you care to try?" a light voice next to him asked. "You know they won't give you anything, and that they will hurt you for asking. So what's the point?"

Turning his head, Joxer's gaze met with two wide, brown eyes, attentive attached to him. The eyes turned out to belong to a curiously raised face, topped with brown, quit untidy hair. The face itself belonged to a boy, maybe nine or ten years old. He was lightly dressed in torn but comfortable looking clothes. Grey trousers, brown shirt and shoes that were more than just slightly worn. The lad was sitting among the other prisoners with a rope tied to his wrists. Joxer immediately took a liking for him. Resting himself on his elbows he smiled warmly and caught the lad's eyes.

"Hi there. Nice day for a walk, isn't it?"

The lad smiled back at him. It was a warm smile, that kind of smile that seems to come from the heart. It lasted for some heartbeats while the lad curiously looked at Joxer. Then his face became serious again.

"But why DO you make them hit you?"

Joxer raised to sitting position and winked the boy closer to him. The other prisoners grunted slightly as the boy crawled some steps away, tightening the rope attaching them, but they didn't try to stop him.

"Well kid, you see, it's all very simple. These guys are bad, right?" The lad nodded.

"We on the other hand, you and me and these people, we are the good guys." The lad nodded again, agreeing that he and the funny looking man in front of him indeed were to be counted among the good guys.

"That means we are going to win. Good people always win. Evil people loose. This is how this world is constructed. And knowing that, there is no point in giving up, is it? That's why I bother to fuss with the red-robes. They are going to loose in the end anyway, so there is no damage made if I make some fun of them in them meanwhile."

"But we are not even close to win" the lad disagreed. "These... these..." he silenced, searching for a word.

"...goons" Joxer helped, rolling with his eyes towards the subject for the conversation, standing loudly complaining over the trip.

"Yeah, goons. These goons have raged our village, tied us together and are dragging us to the temple to kill us. How can you call that winning?"

"That's a hard one, but it's just how things are going. At first, everything seems totally impossible. The villains have every trump at hand, the good guys are tied at the stake with burning firewood at their feet and there is no hero whatsoever around. Do you recognise the situation?" The lad nodded again.

"Of course you do. This is exactly the situation at hand, not to mention the horrible future the world has to face as soon as their evil god enter the world." Joxer made a short pause for the sake off effect and to make sure he had the boys attention. He had.

"What you don't know, and what they don't know, is that there really is a hero up to the challenge. And that he is right here, under their flabby noses, using them to get to the very centre of their evil plots. So even if things really look hopeless" (Joxer cleared his throat, mentally shaking his head at the unintentional joke) "things are going to go us right at hands, before they even know it."

The lad looked at him with a mixture of doubt and fascination written in his face.

"You are a hero then?"

Joxer felt a strong urge to ruffle the lad's hair, so he did.

"Joxer the Mighty, at your service."

The red-robes had in some strange shot of humanity decided to pass around a waterskin among the prisoners. Joxer drank eagerly when it came to him, deciding not to push the subject about absent food any further. The conversation he was involved in at the present was far more interesting. The boy was waiting anxious for him to stop drink, so he made it short, giving the waterskin away to the boy. The time he spent drinking, Joxer used taking a closer look at him. He was dirty, his hands and arms were covered with scabs and he had a nasty looking wound in the forehead. Normally, Joxer would take these marks on a lad of that age as just a sign of wellbeing and following childish nature, but given the circumstances, and that he could se the traces of tears in his face, Joxer suspected that he wasn't feeling too well at all. Well, after all, he IS being dragged away from home to be sacrificed to an evil god. I suppose things like that could be kind of traumatic for a kid in that age. The lad was finished drinking and had passed on the waterskin, so Joxer bent forward and patted him at the shoulder.

"Tell me... are your mother and father here as well?"

The intonation had been cheery, but the lad looked down at the ground, biting his lips. Joxer could see a glint of tears in his eyes.

"They are..." the lad took a deep breath and looked Joxer right in his eyes. "They was beaten almost to death by the men raiding our home. They tried to..." he had trouble holding his voice steady. "...tried to protect me and was beaten until they just lied there on the ground. I couldn't help them, case the goons took me and dragged me away. The last thing I saw of them was how they just lied there, deserted. Daddy was bleeding..." His voice finally let him down and the lad silenced. Joxer could tell he wasn't far from crying. He patted the lad's shoulder with his left hand and ruffled his hair with the right, catching his gaze.

"Hey, it's OK. I'm sure your parents are all right. And they are probably worried to death about you. After all, they are not in danger any more. The red-robes have left the village. It's yourself who should be your main concern right now." He ran his fingers through the boy's hair and gave him a big smile. "I guess it's just you and me now, isn't it?"

The boy smiled back at him. Still tears in his eyes, but he was smiling. Much like watching a rainbow through a rain cloud Joxer reflected. He was already very fond of the boy.

"You really would let me hang around? I mean, when you do that heroic stuff or yours?" he asked doubtingly. Joxer's grin went even wider.

"Sure I would. Even the greatest heroes need a sidekick now and then. I am sure you would be just fine."

"Oboy! I won't let you down, I promise. That Dahok guy will be no match for the two of us!"
The lad's eyes were literally sparkling, the tears all forgotten. He released himself from Joxer's grip and sprang to his feet, like he was prepared to overrun their wicked foes right at the moment. Joxer laughed and dragged him back to the ground.

"Whoa! Not that fast. The first thing you need to know as a sidekick is when it's time to act and when it's time to rest. Now" - Joxer stretched - "is it definitely time to rest."

The lad loyally sank into sitting position, starting to explore Joxer's armourplate with eyes and fingers. Joxer took the opportunity to give him a hug. Suddenly, he came to think of a thing he hadn't asked yet.

"Do you by any chance have a name?"

The lad looked up from the strange piece of armour he was investigating and nodded.

"My name is Deneus."

"Well Deneus" Joxer said grabbing his wrist in that old, manly sign of friendship warriors use to be so fond of. "You are now sidekick to Joxer the Mighty."


Chapter 3
In which the destination of the journey is reached, the nightly guests are welcomed and given room for the night and a small change in living arrangements are made.
In which the destination of the journey is reached, the nightly guests are welcomed and given room for the night and a small change in living arrangements are made.

The walk to the temple took almost the entire day, and the prisoners were tired to death when they finally arrived. The closer to the temple they got, the more nervous the red-robes seemed to be, and the more brutal they behave against the prisoners in order to keep the group intact, a task that wasn't too easy. Most of the prisoners were fully prepared to just lie down and sleep at the spot if they got the slightest chance. As they draw nearer, they started to see other groups of prisoners as well, a sight that was becoming more and more common the closer to the temple they got. All the groups were guarded by a handful of red-robes, proudly bringing the sacrifices to the altar of Dahok.

Joxer and Deneus had no chance to continue their conversation as the march proceeded. They both were fully occupied putting the first foot in front of the second, enduring the travail of the march, the rope gnawing it's way into their wrists and the abrupt pulls when some of the other prisoners stumbled. Also, they weren't walking next to each other. Joxer was tied last in the line and Deneus was somewhere in front of him, in the middle of the procession. Mostly he saw nothing of his newly appointed sidekick for the backs of the others, but now and when he caught a glimpse of the boys brown hair or worn out shirt. He looked tired. Joxer wished there were some way for him to help his new friend, even if it would only give him the opportunity to walk behind the boy and support him. However, something told him the red-robes would not be enough interested in human welfare to appeal to this simple improvement of situations. So he kept walking, remaining silent and hoping Deneus would make it to the temple.

The temple of Hope was a huge colossus of stone. It was an impressive building. Joxer himself - who during his various travels had seen quite a lot not insignificantly sized buildings- was still struck by the raw force the temple was indicating. He caught himself standing still, gasping against the huge building. He could almost feel the overwhelming power of Dahok float out from the gloomy looking pile of stones, washing over him and through him, leaving him exposed to the evil will of the fiery god. Of course, the volcano in the background helped making the impression, Joxer reflected.

"More sacrifices! More sacrifices to the God of the New World Order" the red-robe at the gateway announced as the procession passed by him.

His face was decorated with a proud smile. A smile of the kind only a very self-confident kind of person - or a very greedy hamster in a very large granary - could achieve. It was as if the all overwhelming goal of his life was to stand at a gateway in a creepy temple and announce the visitors - especially those who weren't supposed to leave the place by their own. It was like he had all of his life, as long as he could remembered, been struggling and fighting and working hard and honest to once, just once, be able to stand in this particular doorway and inform those who cared to listen that Dahok had yet some more blood to expect in the immediate future. Or maybe he was just malicious. Joxer couldn't tell, and to be sincere, he didn't really care. He had far more important things to deal with.

They throw him down on his face, of course. People always did that. Lying there on the cell floor, he could hear the robust barred door being carefully locked behind him. Joxer kept being still for a moment to consider the situation. He was still hungry, his entire body was hurting in various interesting ways and he was looked up in some kind of dungeon in the very temple where some clueless thug was supposed to slit his throat in just a few days if nothing drastic happened. Things didn't look too bright. On the other hand, they had untied him, and he now had the chance to reunite with Deneus.

"Deneus? Joxer came to his feet. The other prisoners looked at him, but none of them were too interested of his doings, and he hadn't much interest in them either. The cell was not large, but he couldn't see his sidekick anywhere in it. "Deeeneus!" he yelled again.

"Joxer! I'm right here." he suddenly heard the boys bright voice. "Behind you."

The warrior turned and almost broke his neck in his attempt to find the source of the sound. He noticed the small, bared window, leading to the neighbouring cell. In the window he could see Deneus face, smiling at him.

"There you are!" Joxer said, maybe a bit unnecessarily, as the lad already seemed to be fully aware of where he was. "I was worried they had put you somewhere else in the building. You're OK?"

Deneus nodded. His eyes were tired and the bruises from the ropes on his wrist made him look more miserable than ever. But his face was glowing with eager and hope.

"I'm just fine. You know, I think they hope all this trouble they are making for as will make us give up and just wait for them to come and get us. We are going to show them we won't. Right? Won't we?"

Joxer nodded. "You've got that all right. That's the first thing we hero-types have to keep in mind. No matter have bad things seems to be, we won't give up. And cause we won't give up - we won't lose. As long as you remember that, all you have to do is to make up your mind about just how you will do to settle things right."

"I see..." the boy silenced for a moment and added thoughtfully. "So, now when we both agree we won't give up - what SHALL we do?"
"I don't know yet" Joxer confessed a bit embarrassed. "I first have to get an overview of the area and plot the next move."

"When..." Deneus started, but was interrupted by slam in corridor outside the cells.

They both looked in the direction of the sound and saw two of the red-robes approaching with a small wagon, loaded with an enormous basket, filled with pieces of what looked like bread. The red-robes headed with their burden right towards the cell Deneus was put in and unlocked the door. Through his viewpoint in the window Joxer could see how they entered the cell and started to hand out bread from the basket to the prisoners, making a short stop to check that no one was damaged too badly. Joxer wondered why they even cared. Maybe Dahok preferred his sacrifices in good health. When they moved on with their wagon, Joxer looked for Deneus to continue their little chit-chat, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Joxer hadn't much time to ponder upon his sidekick's whereabouts before the door to his own cell was opened and the red-robes entered. The first one was walking into the middle of the cell, looking around with a harsh face to make sure for those of the prisoners who eventually hadn't by this time quite understood his position that it was he and no other than he who was in charge in this particular dungeon. His companion was struggling behind him to get the wagon with the bread-basket into the cell. Joxer turned against them to tell something about HIS idea of a proper dinner, when he suddenly to his amazement saw Deneus' head sticking up from the basket. He produced an arm and gesticulated eagerly towards the red-robes, forming some words with his mouth. Joxer couldn't make out what his sidekick was trying to tell him, but it wasn't really hard to figure out that he needed someone to distract them. Well then, fear not. Joxer the Mighty is not known for letting down a friend in need.

"Now, guys. I think it's time for us to get some clear." He said loudly and clapped his hands to get their full attention. He got it. The red-robes both interrupted their doings and walked toward him. The first one grunted to the second. Great. This was obvious the non-talking kind of henchmen again.

"This little spectacle of yours have been entertaining, I will give you that. Tasteful atmosphere, nice clothing... maybe you could have been a bit more dutiful with the food... but in the whole it hasn't been bad at all. However, one shall never overdo things, so I would suggest..."

"Shut up!"

Joxer actually did take a break in his babbling, surprised by the fact that these red-robe after all turned out to be able to talk. In the corner of his eyes he could see Deneus climbing out from the basket, trying to be so quit as possible.

"Ah, please. You are sure doing a good job, and I will let your big bad boss up there" he paused and gestured towards the ceiling "know how good you are at... at whatever it is you do. However, I am not..."

"I said SHUT UP!"

"Hey, no reason to shout." Deneus had seated at one of the bunks among some other prisoners and blinked at Joxer who took this as a sign he wouldn't need to keep up the conversation anymore. "I know you aren't very good with words, but I did hear you clearly the first time. Now, we were talking about..."

Joxer had to admit that even if the red-robe didn't know too many words, he was the more skilled using his fists. For the second time this day, he rose from the stone floor and rubbed his aching chin. The red-robes were already leaving the cell, slamming the bared door behind them. The prisoners sat silently, chewing their bread. Deneus had sprung up the very moment the door slammed shut and was now standing at Joxer's side.

"Well, what do you say? Not so very bad... was it?" He looked hopefully at the warrior.

"Bad? Hey lad, I'm impressed. This was very smooth done." He put his hand on the lad's shoulder and gesticulated with the other.

"You haven't been in prison for more than a minute before you trick your guards, sneak behind their backs, bring a hungry partner some badly needed supplies..." he paused and took a loaf of bread from the lad who had taken the opportunity to help himself with some extra rations from the basket. "...and as a finishing touch you let them bring you out from your prison and..."

Joxer paused and looked around. Then he looked at Deneus again. He took a bite in his bread as he thought. The boy waited anxious for him to continue, so he did, however this time with a much more hesitating voice.

"...and you find yourself locked up into another prison. Say, Deneus. What was the point with all this?" Deneus suddenly looked a bit embarrassed.

"Doesn't look like much of an improvement, does it? You see... I wasn't really thinking of starting with all this heroic stuff right away. I figured it would all be easier if we were in the same cell." He paused and considered how he would go on.

"So when I saw the basket I took my chance. If I'm to be your sidekick, we could as well be roommates for the time being, don't you think?"

Joxer couldn't help laughing.

"Deneus, it's totally brilliant. You will have no problem at all in this job." He took another bite of the bread and brought the boy with him to an unoccupied bunk. "And I think it would be a good idea to spend the night sleeping. Tomorrow we will get Hope."

"That's it?" Somehow the boy sounded disappointed. "We are not going to do anything else today? Other than sleeping"

"Oh, of course we are. It's time for you to learn the second important thing you need to know to be a sidekick."

"What is that?"

"If on mission, whenever given the chance - sing."

And they did.

Joxer the Mighty, Deneus the witty
In the lair of the enemy, on their way to glory
When the world is at the stake
He won't make any mistakes
He is Joxer, Joxer the Mighty
He's Joxer, Joxer the Mighty


Chapter 4
In which a frustrating situation are turned to something useful, our heroes talk about friendship and heroics and the daughter of a pretty close friend makes her appearance.
In which a frustrating situation are turned to something useful, our heroes talk about friendship and heroics and the daughter of a pretty close friend makes her appearance.

"All right you scum! Get on your feet." The red-robe stood yelling in the corridor outside the cells with that common obey-me-or-else look these guys seemed to be practising. Deneus and Joxer stumbled to their feet to see what was going on. So were all the other prisoners.

"All of you! NOW!" Keys rattled in the locks and the bared doors flung open. The prisoners were driven out in the corridor by heavy-handed red-robes. Joxer was beaten several times before he made it to the corridor where he was placed in a row with other beaten, dirty, torn and on the whole miserable sacrifices. The yelling red-robe - who's face by the time had started to match the colour of his robe - walked to and fro and looked angrily at them.

"Listen to me now, maggots, and listen carefully. You are given the most generous honour to welcome our new god to the world. You are the chosen, even if you not by any chance deserve it. I expect you all to greet the mighty god Dahok with the all the respect you pathetic vermin can master..."

...and blablabla. Joxer grow tired of listen pretty soon. The red-robe went on, explaining the greatness of Dahok, the honour that was given them and how good the world were supposed to be as soon as the fire-god entered it.

Yeah, as if. Joxer thought for himself. This is the same guy that raped Gabrielle back there in Britannia. If he is good, Callisto is a Hestian Virgin.

He of course had noticed something was wrong as soon as he met Xena and Gabrielle after they returned from their trip to Britannia, but it had passed some time before she had told him what happened. It wasn't until after her daughter had returned and killed Xena's son Solan Gabrielle had told him the full story. No wonder it took her that long. Just to lose her blood innocence was traumatic enough for the warm-hearted girl. To be raped by an evil god and bring birth to a pretty but evil daughter, destined to bring ultimate destruction to the world was far more than anyone should need to deal with. He was surprised that Gabrielle had been able to handle it as well as she had. Joxer still couldn't think of it without getting his throat all lumped up with unspoken compassion for her. And now Hope had returned from the dead once again to claim the world for her father.

I'm not going to let it happen, Gabrielle. There is no chance HE is getting into this world if I have something to say about it. He didn't stop to consider what chances a clumsy wannabe like himself actually had against the fire-god and his daughter. Joxer seldom stopped to consider his chances. He had discovered that sometimes he was able to do a lot of things he would never even dare to try if he had stopped to think it over first.

"...you pathetic villagers should all be very grateful for this opportunity to pay Dahok your respect. Far better people than you would give anything to take your place..."

The voice of the red-robe rose to an even higher level and woke Joxer up from his daydreams. He couldn't believe his ears. The red-robe had started the speech all over again, and still didn't show any sign to be willing to stop. Joxer sighed and let his eyes drift among the other prisoners, their faces showed different degrees of misery and fear. He caught Deneus' gaze. The boy nodded at him and pointed with his eyes against the red-robe - who now had got to the "Dahok will save the world and make it a better place"-part of his speech again. Joxer rolled his eyes. Deneus stood in the other end of the corridor, but not so fare away they couldn't see each other. After he had exchanged glances with Joxer, his attention drifted back to the red-robe standing in front of him, attentively listening to the wisdom of his master. Joxer strained himself to see what it was with him the lad found so interesting. He followed Deneus' gaze to the red-robes belt, and lifted his eyebrows. He nodded impressed at the all but blushing boy when he begun to understand what he was thinking. In the guards belt, not more than two feet from Deneus hand, hung a large iron key. Undoubtedly, the same the red-robes used for the cell doors. Joxer had to admit his sidekick was coming into this job very fast.

Deneus twinkled his eyes, Joxer blinked back. Both their gazes drifted to the key and back again. Deneus glanced at the talking red-robe in the middle of the corridor and back to Joxer. Joxer nodded slightly. They smiled at each other. Both knew what to do.

"Dahok is here as the god of the new world. The old gods are going to be thrown from their mountain and driven from their deeps. The enemies of Dahok, and the enemies of those who follow him..." the red-robe got that self-righteous look on his face "...will all despair and perish..." He paused a moment to catch his breath. Joxer took the opportunity to clear his throat. Everyone's eyes were directed against him.

"Hrrrmm... Just curious about one thing. This Dahok flame of yours. Do you chop all the firewood for him yourselves or do you hire anyone for the job?"

The room was as silent as the grave. The red-robe were so dumbfounded he could just stand and stare, and the other prisoners didn't dare to make the slightest sound. This comfortable state of peace and quite lasted for about a moment, before the red-robe started to yell again. He was so angry it was almost impossible to make out any specific words from the raging torrent of noise, and the few audible words didn't make much sense either. The red-robes seemed to understand him, however. Those who stand closest immediately turned against Joxer, fist raised. Joxer grinned nervously at them. Suddenly, the plan didn't seem so brilliant any more.

"Are you OK?"

Deneus voice was concerned and he had a worried look in his eyes. Joxer raised from the cell floor, trying to ignore the pain flowing through him.

"Ouch. Why is it always me who do the distracting parts?"

"'Case you are so good at it" came the rapid answer.

"Did you get the key?"

"Sure!" Deneus answered proudly. "I got it right here." He gestured to his pocket and started to move his hand against it. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the red-robes standing in the corridor and halted, shrugging helpless.

Joxer grinned at him, but the grin turned to a grimace of pain when he happened to touch a tender spot. Immediately Deneus was at his side, supporting him to the bunk.
"Are you sure you are feeling well? It looks bad... and they beat you so many times. When they dragged you back into the cell, I surly thought they had killed you... your face is all bloody, Joxer... Have you broken anything?"

Joxer stroke his hand over the lad's cheek. His entire body was still hurting, but that wasn't something he couldn't live with. It made him more concerned to see how frightened the boy was. Joxer touch made him stop babbling. He looked up at Joxer with blank eyes. His lower lip were shiver slightly. Joxer dragged the kid over in a tight embrace. Deneus was at first surprised, but then wrapped his arms around the hero and buried his face in his chest. His body trembled and Joxer could hear that he cried. Actually, the warrior wasn't far from tears himself. He tenderly patted the lad on his back.

"It's all right Deneus. We are going to make this, I promise. I won't let the red-robes take you."

Joxer continued to talk to lad with soft, calming, voice. They sat there a long time, he and the boy, and hold each other until Deneus tears had dried.

They still sat there very tight together on the bunk in the afternoon. The fine moment they had shared had made them getting closer each other, and in this prison they both felt they needed all the extra comfort they could get. Joxer was feeling much better now. He had his arm wrapped around the lad. They had just finished some kind of porridge the red-robes finally had given them.

Deneus was busy playing with his bowl, pretending it to be a castle the two spoon heroes were about to break into. Joxer watched him. He couldn't help growing really fond of the kid. Joxer usually had a week spot for children. For one thing, he had never found a more devoted audience for all his swaggering and bravado. Besides, he mostly got along better with most kids than with their parents and their fellow grown-ups. But with Deneus, there was something more than that. The lad was smart, no doubt about that. Even more important, he was both bold and daring, but that coming with - and Joxer had to admit that differed from himself - a good portion of common sense. He was gladder than he could tell that he and Deneus had got to known each other. Besides he probably was going to turn out to be a really useful sidekick, there was a more personal reason. The warrior simply liked the lad. It was a lot of spirit in him that really appealed to the hero.

"I'm glad I've found you!" he said. Deneus surprised looked up.

"Really? I have not been to useful this far."

"Sure you have." Joxer adjusted his sitting position to find a more comfortable spot. The lad looked expectant at him.

"You are keeping me company, not to mention key-snatching, bread-picking and so on." He paused a moment to consider what he was about to say.

"I think we should have a little talk about what this hero-business is all about. Most people think all you have to do is to gallop into the battle, fling around with your sword and save the day. Oh no, that's just the easy part." He yawned and stretched his arms. Deneus waited patiently.

"As a matter of fact, most of this job is about waiting. Waiting, waiting and more waiting. Waiting for the right moment to strike, waiting for this or that thug to pass by so you can questioning him, waiting for your imbecile guards to give you breakfast... The REAL difference between a good and bad hero is not whether you are the best swordsman around or if you can jump fifteen feet up in the air. The real difference is whether you can take the opportunity when it shows up, or not." Deneus nodded hesitating. He didn't think he was very good at taking the opportunity when it showed up. After all, he was locked up in the dungeon. On the other hand, he decided, so was Joxer, and he didn't think the hero was going to let the red-robes - or anyone else for that matter - have them sacrificed.

"So if that's what the hero do" he curiously asked, "what's left for the sidekick?"

"The sidekick? That's the most important part of all. No hero could do without a good sidekick. He is the one to point out all the flaws in the hero's great plans. Or to just correct them by himself if he has to. When the hero is trapped, it's up to the sidekick to free him. If the hero is busy fighting or something, it's the sidekick who sneaks away to steal the mystic thingie from the villains... you have already proved to be a remarkable skilled sneaker, Deneus." The boy blushed slightly, but didn't interrupt. He was eager to hear the rest.

"So that's how these things go. The hero makes the fire, the sidekick scratch out the chestnuts for him. More than anything else it's a companionship, or rather a friendship. That's what most of all makes it so important for the hero to have a good sidekick. It's never good to be alone, and it's especially bad if you are alone among enemies." Joxer stretch out his hand and fondly stroked the lad's cheek. "That's why I'm so glad I found you, Deneus. A good friend is the best thing you can ever get." He suddenly got something in his eye and silenced.

"Let's talk about the mission at hand" Joxer said, quickly changing the subject.

"First of all" he continued "I will tell you why we are here."

"Oh, I know " Deneus interrupted. "We are going to stop Dahok, free the prisoners and kick some red-robe butt. Isn't that right?"

Joxer laughed and shook the kid in the shoulder.

"Right. You have got that. But there are some details to be dealt with before we get to that part of the plan. First of all - have you ever heard of the hinds blood dagger?" he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. Deneus shook his head with ears almost wringing to be able to catch every word.

"No wonder. There are not many people who know it exist. The gods want it this way. And they have good reasons." Joxer used his free hand to gesticulate as he continued. "You see, the hinds blood dagger is the only thing that can kill a god. Not only hurt or weaken them, but actually kill them. No wonder they want to keep it secret, don't you think"

Deneus eyes were wide as plates. He didn't say anything, just nodded and anxious waited for Joxer to keep on with the story. And he did.

"Hercules took the dagger away from the gods. They used it against each other, and he didn't want them to wreck havoc over the world with their bickering. He hid it. Now, Hope wants to use it against the Olympian gods."

"She want to kill them all?" Deneus knew he shouldn't be surprised, but he was. Kill the Olympian gods? Those who ruled the world, decided upon life and death. Could Dahok and his daughter really just wipe them out?

"Sure she wants to. She and her father are here to take over the world, remember. Not just terrorise some villages or gain control over a land or two. They want it all. The entire world. All other worlds as well. Tartarus, Elysian fields, whatever more worlds the gods may control. Everything. Full pot. And to get it, they have to get rid of the other gods, cause they are not likely to give away anything if they can help."
Deneus shivered in Joxer's grip. He hadn't really understood the gravity of the situation. Sure, it was grave enough he and his dear was going to die - and it was still the thing that concerned him most - but there was more at the stake. Life and death and the entire world. Suddenly he felt very small. Joxer felt him shiver and hugged him again. Deneus gratefully let him.

"Yep, this is serious. But we are not going to let it happened. That's why we are here." He smiled reassuring, and Deneus relaxed in his arms.

"Where are that dagger?" he asked curiously.

"That's the best part of it." Joxer's smile broadened even more. "Hope hasn't found it jet. She is still looking for it. And I happen to know where it is."

If Deneus had been fascinated before, now he was almost ecstatic. "You know where it is? And you are going to get it? You are going to kill Hope, aren't you?" He looked at Joxer with reverence in his eyes.

Joxer hesitated. It was so easy to get the lad's affection. By this time, Deneus all but worshiped him. People seldom worshiped Joxer. On the contrary, actually. It was therefor very easy for him to lose his head the seldom times he met someone who liked him as open-hearted as Deneus did. He absolutely didn't want to say anything that could make the kid think less of him. But on the other hand they were partners, and if they should be able to trust each other when things got to it's edge, they had to be honest to each other.

"No" he said with regret in his voice. "I will find the dagger all right, but I will not use it against Hope. I..." He took a deep breath to encourage himself to finish. "I am not that good. She would stop me and take the dagger, everything would be in vain if that happened."

Deneus frowned thoughtful. He didn't seem to notice the struggle the warrior was going through. Or - and Joxer hoped that was the answer - it didn't bother for him that Joxer wasn't that good he had been led to believe.
"Who is going to use the dagger then?"

"An old friend of mine. The same one who told me where to find the dagger. Her name is Xena. She is trying to get here before it is to late. I will get the dagger and give it to her. She will finish Hope off."

"Xena! The Warrior Princess? You know her? You are kidding, right?" Deneus stared at him with disbelief in his eyes."

"I know her all right. Her and her sidekick Gabrielle. I have known them for a few years."

"I can't believe it. She's a myth, a legend. And you know her. Tell me... how is she - as a person I mean?"

"She is... well grumpy. But she has a heart of gold. Under that harsh surface, that is. Gabrielle has really made wonder with her, and it's not hard to understand. Gabrielle is the kindest, sweetest and most wonderful girl I have ever met. She is literary radiating of goodness and joy of living. It's catching, too. It makes you glad to spend time with her. The world seems brighter and the life seems to have more meaning." Joxer's voice faded as his thought drifted away. Deneus watched him with a sympathetic smile.

"You're really fond of her." He stated. It wasn't really a question.

"Yes I am." he admitted. "She a pretty close friend... no, more than that. She is the single person in the whole world that means most to me. I..." He had to clear his throat before he went on. "I really lo... like her. You should see her."

"What does she look like?" Deneus asked interested.

"Well... she has wonderful golden hair. Oh, it's like spun sunshine. Her nose has this cute little curve and her eyes..."

"Something like that?" Deneus interrupted, pointing towards the bared door. Joxer looked in that direction - and froze. There, in the corridor, thoughtful looking around, stood Gabrielle, complete with green top and all.

"Gabrielle!" he yelled, jumping up from the bunk, running towards the door. "Gabrielle! What are you doing here? You have to..."
Suddenly, he stopped in the middle of a step, feeling like he had turned to stone. The girl had turned towards him, calmly studying him with cold, green eyes. Joxer couldn't tell what made him recognise her. If it was the gaze, the carriage, the creeping sensation along his spine. Whatever it was, he was totally certain. This wasn't Gabrielle. This girl was Hope.

He stood like dead, mouth open, eyes wide, just staring. She calmly looked back, her mouth forming a mild smile. Her voice was low but carefree when she spoke.

"Joxer, was it?"

He nodded dumbly. That was all he could mange. She turned to one of the fawning red-robes in the corridor.

"Take him to my room. I want to talk to him."

Without a second glance at the hero she continued to walk along the corridor. Joxer stared after her with his heart beating as crazy. He didn't even notice when the red-robe opened the door to obey their goddess' order.


Chapter 5
In which we overhear a heart-to-heart about a mutual friend, locked doors are forced and the creepy temples equally creepy interior are examined.
In which we overhear a heart-to-heart about a mutual friend, locked doors are forced and the creepy temples equally creepy interior are examined.

The room was impressive in every sense of the word. The floor was covered with thick carpets and a cosy fire sparkled in the fireplace. The dominating piece of furniture was a large canopied bed with red curtains. On both sides of it were skilfully forged iron firepans, spreading a fresh scent throughout the room. The stone walls were all covered with carved relieves, showing legendary monsters and heroes and gods. Joxer was seated in a comfortable wooden armchair with a confused look on his face. Hope stood at the window and looked out. She held her hands at her back.

He took the opportunity to give her a good look. He was still surprised - more than surprised - how exact she had copied the look of her mother. From the face to the dress to the haircut to the way she moved. Why, he could even see a staff standing leaning in a corner. However, there were differences. The way she talked for one thing. And something in her gaze. Gabrielle's eyes were warm and tender. Even in her most bitter or exited times, the sweetness in her could bee seen in her green gaze. Hope's eyes were hard and cold. They made Joxer think of sapphires or icicles. And they seemed to be able to see right through him. If her look indicated who was her mother, Hopes eyes clearly pointed out who was her father.

She turned from the window and faced him. Taking her time, still not breaking the silence, she moved to a small footstool next to the armchair and seated herself on it. She rested her hands in her lap and lowered her gaze for a moment. Then she looked up, straight into his eyes.

"She hates me. Doesn't she?"

"What?"

Joxer didn't know what he had expected, but certainly not this. He blinked one time. Two times. Was she making fool of him? Was she trying to trick him in some strange way? Hope, however, patiently kept looking with a sad expression on her face. He swallowed once before he managed to form an answer.

"You mean Gabrielle?" he cautiously asked.

"Of course it's mother I'm talking about" she answered with an irritated edge at her voice. "Who else?"

Joxer had to admit it was a stupid question. He remembered the last time Hope had questioned him about her mother. At the time, he hadn't understood a bit what she was getting at. Now, he believed he was beginning to understand. And it didn't make him a bit lesser confused.

"I know she hates me" Hope softly said, interrupting his thoughts. "I don't blame her. She never wanted me in the first place... and then it was this boy I killed... she had already tried to kill me by then, of course. She hated me from the moment I was born."

Hope's voice faded. She lowered her gaze again. But before she did Joxer caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were filled of emotions. Sadness, regret, sorrow... What really shocked him, however, were the tears quietly trickling down her cheeks. He wasn't sure why that made him this surprised. Of some strange reason he hadn't thought Dahok's daughter would be able to cry at all. She did however, but the tears soon ceased. She spoke on. Her voice was beginning to rise.

"Its not like I want to be bad or do the wrong things, but she didn't gave me much time to sort things out... She never gave me a second chance. Or I should say, Xena didn't. Mother would have forgiven me. I know she would. But she loves Xena, not me."

An angry tone was slipping into her voice. Joxer - still speechless - could see how she clenched her fists.

"Xena always wanted me dead - she made mother try to kill me two times. Funny thing she never tried it herself. Oh no. That's not her stile. Posses and manipulate. That's how Xena works. And she uses mother for it."

Hope's eyes sparked of anger. Joxer felt his back-hair rising in fear, half expecting her to rush up and strangle him - or worse. She calmed down, however, and her eyes turned cold and emotionless again. The next time she spoke, she spoke directly to Joxer.

"You know her. You now I am right. Don't you?"

He caught himself holding his breath and had to gasp for air. The thoughts were rushing as crazy through his head. Franticly, he tried to think out an answer that would please the angry demigoddess in front of him, but without success. All he could think of was the truth - well, the truth as he saw it anyway. And before he knew it, he heard himself speaking it out loud.

"She loves you Hope, and she always has. Never say she doesn't, because that would be a lie." He never knew what made him finish the sentence. Actually, he never knew what kept him from simply fainting and that way disappear from the situation. He sure would have wanted to disappear, but he didn't faint. And there didn't seem to be any other escape. So he had no choice but to continue.

"You never had the chance to get to know her, but I have know her for a long time. She still cries at nights because of you. She misses you and she has never forgiven herself for abandoning you. She loved you when you were born, she loved you when you returned - even if she had to kill you. She even loves you now, and whatever you do, she will always love you. That's how your mother is."

She didn't say anything. Or move. She just looked at him, motionless. Joxer swallowed.

"There are things..." he hesitating said "There are some things one must decide for oneself. To be good or bad is one of these things. Of course, there are always a lot of people who wants to make the decision for you, but in the bottom line, it's up to you. Gabrielle has chosen. And she is good. No matter how much she loves you, she can't allow you to kill all these people and let Dahok into the world. The real question is - have you really chosen to be bad by yourself, or have someone made the decision for you?"

Joxer held his breath. Now, he had said it. It was stupid of course, more than stupid. His little speech could very possible have him killed, and thereby ruin the mission, Xena's chances and the fate of entire world. Just to satisfy his curiosity. But really, now when he was given the chance, he couldn't help trying to understand Hope. He just couldn't believe a daughter of Gabrielle could be all bad. He heard a soft noise coming from her. Was it angry growls? Was it sobs? It took him some moments to understand that she chuckled.

"Joxer, Joxer... I really appreciate that you try to help me, but the world is not as simple as that. There is a lot more in it than good and evil, and what one does or doesn't depends of a lot more than mere choices. I think you will understand it some day." Her amused expression faded and her face became serious again. "Or rather, you would understand it if you would live that long. But you will be one of those who open the door into this world for my father. And that is not a question of good or evil. That's just one of those things a daughter does."

She rose from her footstool and walked to the window again. Joxer could have sworn she hadn't made the slightest sound that could serve as a signal, but yet the door was respectfully opened, and two red-robes entered.

"Take him back to the cell" she ordered without turning around. And keep your eyes on him. It's more in him than it looks like."

The last thing he saw of her before he was dragged out into the corridor was how she stood in the window with both her hands resting on the window-shelf and her head bent down. Maybe she cried. He wasn't sure.

"Come on Joxer. We have been sitting here for hours. Why can't we go now?"

"Not yet. We have to wait for the night."

"It's boring to wait. I have done nothing but waiting since we got her. You are the one having all the fun, mocking with red-robes and talking to demigoddesses and whatever. It's not fair."

Joxer laughed. "Whoa, not that fast. We are still in a very dangerous situation. We can't start fooling around just for the fun of it."

"But just sitting here will not get us any closer to the dagger, will it?"

"Just calm down kid, before dawn, I'm sure you will get your dose of adventure."

"It's still not fair" he said whiningly.
Joxer rolled his eyes but didn't answer. They had been going through this discussion a number of times already. Deneus was not, he suspected, as anxious as he was scared. When the red-robes had brought him back to the cell, the lad had been almost in a state of dissolution in concern for his friend. Joxer didn't blame him. When he was dragged to his little conversation with Hope, he didn't himself believe he was going to survive the day. Now, when Deneus had learned he was still sound and safe, and the first chock had settled, the lad tried to hide his fear with bravado. Not a bad strategy, Joxer decided. He often used it himself. Whatever the reason, he was glad his sidekick didn't show any sign of sinking down in apathy as the other prisoners.

"There are no red-robes in the corridor" the lad informed. "No one will see us."

"It's not only the red-robes I am concerned of" Joxer answered, glancing around. "It's the other prisoners as well."

Deneus' eyes widened. "The other prisoners? But why? The are on our side. They won't betray us."

Joxer grimly shook his head. "I wouldn't be so sure of that, Deneus. If they see we have the key to the door, don't you think one or another of them will get the excellent idea of using it to open the door and run for the hills as fast as their legs can carry them?"

"Yes but..."

"...and don't you think that the red-robes, seeing this, will be a bit curios about how their sacrifices could leave the cell, and when they find out, take the key from us?"

Deneus didn't answer, but Joxer could see he began to understand where he was getting. He smiled sadly at the boy

"They would betray us Deneus. Not because they like the red-robes or want us to fail, but because they are scared and will take every chance to get away from here."

The lad nodded slowly, but didn't say anything more. Joxer could see he had got something to ponder about, so he kept quit himself, waiting for the night.

Joxer's heart almost missed a beat when he heard the cell-door creak. No one seemed to have noticed it, however, so he and Deneus slipped out, carefully closing the door after them. Quickly, they sneaked up for the stairs to the main floor of the temple. It was dark, but they still could see enough of the stairs not to stumble. Deneus was taking the lead, eager for adventure. Joxer followed, casting worried glances all around. Leaving the stairs, they found themselves in a small corridor, leading to the main hall of the temple. With all senses at full stretch they entered it.

It was dark. Not completely dark, because the fires in the middle of the hall still roared - not to mention the lavapit in the backside of it - but there were no torches lit in this late hour, and along the walls were almost complete darkness. They couldn't see anyone. Joxer stopped, uncertain of where to head next. Deneus, walking some paces ahead, turned around and walked back to him.

"Looks all right, doesn't it"

"Yes..." Joxer answered hesitatingly. "Everything is just fine, I'm not just sure where to start" he added when he saw what effect his words had on the already nervous boy.

"I see... where is the dagger?"

"Around somewhere in the temple I hope. Look for a statue of the god of war, Ares. It should hold it."

Deneus took a good look around. Slowly he turned to Joxer again and spook. "You are saying, you don't now where in the temple it is hidden?"

"That's right."

"It is a large temple."

Joxer sighed. It was just that part of the plan he had wanted to forget about. "Well, we have nothing other to do than start to search for it, don't we? Let's split up. That way we can cover a larger area."

Deneus gave him a doubtful look. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. That's the way heroes do." He gave the lad another of those encouraging, goofy grins. Deneus nodded bravely and started to sneak away along the wall. Joxer looked after him for a moment, and then turned and started to walk in the opposite direction.

How long time he spent sneaking around, poking in dusty corners and examining obscure statues he never knew. The temple was even bigger than he had imagined, and those who built it seemed to take some strange delight in long narrow corridors, corners and alcoves in the most impossible places and stuff like that. More than anything else, the temple was a labyrinth. Joxer couldn't help feeling like one of those newts he sometimes had been playing with as a child, forced to run in labyrinths made of rocks and pieces of wood. Only, this labyrinth was populated, and the people in it weren't very fond of him. So far he hadn't seen anyone, but he didn't count on that luck to last forever.

He was searching a room not far away from the main hall, carefully making as little noise as possible. As the other rooms, this one was furnished with huge pillars supporting the roof. Joxer slowly circled around one of them, nervously looking backwards in the case someone would enter the room. Suddenly he felt how he bumped into something. Someone. He had to bit his tongue not to scream out loud. He heard a sharp gasp for air, and looking forward he saw Deneus, white in his face and eyes wide open.

"Shhhh. It's OK. It's me. Take it easy."

"Please, don't sneak up to me like that. I was this" Deneus used his thumb and index finger to indicate what he meant, "close to wake the whole temple."

"Good thing then you didn't. Any luck?"

"Nope. Nothing. I saw some of the red-robes, but they just went by. "

"I didn't find anything either. Say... what about walking together from now on."

Deneus looked grateful for the opportunity of not having to face the horrors of the temple alone anymore, but still kept a concerned look in his face.

"But I thought you said heroes use to split up?"

"Nah, only sometimes. If we stick together, we will know for sure we don't miss anything and have to go back. That's way much better." Joxer smiled that broad-grin again. "Trust me. This is just the way heroes do." He didn't mention the fact that he could use some company himself.

Together, they searched room after room after gloomy room. Sure they found a lot of statues, not so few of them showing Ares self-righteous face, but no dagger. At last, Deneus noticed how the sky they could see now and then through the small windows began to brighten. Disappointed they decided to call that a night and return to the cell before someone would miss them.

"Well" Joxer said. "We have at least decided it isn't in the main hall or the closest rooms. It has to be somewhere else. All we have to do is find it."

"Yeah, piece of cake." Deneus muttered dryly. Joxer chose to not comment that.


Chapter 6
In which we follow our heroes in jet another nightly expedition, The Mighty One suddenly get busy with a nice looking lady and her company and it's up to the sidekick to get the mystic thingie and save the day.
In which we follow our heroes in jet another nightly expedition, The Mighty One suddenly get busy with a nice looking lady and her company and it's up to the sidekick to get the mystic thingie and save the day.

The next day seemed to take forever. The red-robes did there best to beat into the sacrifices what was expected of them, but the prisoners had by this time started to get numb of the daily bullying and didn't take it too personally. Joxer and Deneus were sitting as on needles in wait for the night, and as soon Joxer deemed it safe enough to leave the cell, they almost run up the stairs. This time, they didn't waste any time in the main hall, but went directly through it to the conglomeration of rooms behind it. In some ways, it made their task more difficult, because it was in these regions of the temple the red-robes had their quarters, and the risk of meeting someone was larger. However, most of the rooms were empty, and the whole place was so perforated with corridors so there was almost never any risk of getting trapped.

They searched yet another room. It was dark and gloomy and not too clean. Like so many other rooms, it was stuffed with corners and nooks and crazy recesses. The room was located somewhere in the middle of the temple, and therefor lacked windows. The only light came from the corridor outside where someone had lit a torch. There were candles placed in several places in the room, but they didn't risk light them. Deneus was somewhere in the other end of the room, searching. Joxer stood with his thumbs in the belt and looked around, trying to think. They had been going through a great deal of the rooms on this floor by now, and yet they had found no dagger. Of course there were probably almost as many rooms in the basement, besides the cells, and he was quite sure there was some attics to search as well. But some way he didn't think that would be the right track to follow. A statue of Ares... he thought. Sure there are some of these. Couldn't she have been just a little bit more specific? He looked around again. No Ares-statue here, and they had already checked most of the others. Had he misunderstood Xena? No, he was quite sure he hadn't. He had a gnawing sensation that the solution of the problem was right under his nose. All he had to do was to find it.

"Sure this place would need to be put in order" he said to himself. "All this dust and cobwebs and rubbish. That statue even misses it's head..." Suddenly a thought flashed through his head. He took a step forward, towards the statue. He wasn't sure, but it looked like it had a vest, just like the other Ares-statues. What if...

"Hades, I wish I had some more light" he cursed as his eyes examined the statue. He took another step forward. Sure it looked like it held something in it's right hand, something that gleamed...

"Please, let me light up for you" a soft, calm voice suddenly said behind him, and a burst of light illuminated the room. Joxer nearly jumped out his skin. The voice hadn't been very loud, but after a night of whispering it cut like an axe through his ears. Turning around, he noticed that every single candle in the room had started to burn with a bright flame. He smiled faintly towards the figure behind him.

"Hello Hope. Nice night, isn't it?"

"Very nice" she answered with a small smile of her own. "Very nice indeed."

Suddenly, everything was lit up. Deneus gasped in surprise and fear at the unexpected sensation. He turned to ask Joxer what was going on - and froze. Joxer was not alone. At his side stood the girl he had learned was Hope, the goddess to whom he was meant to be sacrificed. In panic, he threw himself behind a pillar. He got himself a quite nasty bruise that way but he didn't notice. He was far to busy finding out what was going on at the other side of the pillar.

"You look good in red" he heard Joxer say, sounding as calm as if he was talking to the girl next door and not an evil demigoddess.

"Wearing a dress is more practical right now than that top mom is so fond of" Hope answered in the same light tone. "The special circumstances make it so" she added cryptically.

It became quite for some moments. Deneus could hear his heart beat - making as much noise as a drum he thought. But Hope didn't seem to notice a thing.

"I told them to keep an eye on you, but do you think they did?" she sighed. "Oh no. They are good at follow orders, my worshipers, but their memories are not any longer than their noses. Guess I will have to keep an eye on you myself."

"I consider it a great honour" Joxer answered immediately. "I assume there are not many prisoners being this privileged?"

"None. But you are a special case."

"Really? And why is that?" He actually sounded curios. Deneus couldn't for his life understand how Joxer could be that unconcerned, so close to his death. He himself was almost half-dead of anxiety, and yet he was the one hiding away like a scared rabbit, not the one having to face the enemy.

"Oh, there are several reasons" Hope's voice said. "You refuse to give up for one thing. Most of the other prisoners have surrendered for the powers of my father by now, but you are still making resistance. Another reason is that you know mum. Of course, that makes me personally interested in you... but all this is really not important. There is another reason." Deneus peered out from his hiding place and could see how Hope stood right in front of Joxer, with her hands in her sides, staring intensive at him.

"And that should be?"

"You now where the hinds blood dagger is. Xena sent you to get it. That's why you are here, and that's what you are looking for." Her voice rose, and Joxer bent forward gasping as if he had been hit hard in the stomach. The moment after was he flung in the wall. It looked as if an invisible hand had tossed him like a child could toss a rag doll. Moaning, he sunk down along the wall. Hope didn't move.

"I know it's here somewhere. I haven't found it yet, but I will. And you will help me, Joxer." Her voice had a sharp, but yet soft, edge Deneus found more threatening than if she had been yelling and shouting for all she was worth. He closed his eyes and trembling ducked back behind the pillar. He had to strain himself not to sob. However, a clink told him Joxer had managed to get up to his feet.

"You are flattering me" he said unsteady. "Xena don't trust me very much you know... least of all this time. Thinks I'll just get in the way... what's that dagger for a thing anyway?"

"You lie." Hope said, not so much as an accusation as a statement of facts. "If you hadn't been looking for it, you had been trying to leave the temple as soon as you brook out of the cell. But you are still here, aren't you."

"Yes... I am, am I not" Joxer mumbled for himself. "Eh... But that's only because... because... I figured you would never think of looking here. Tomorrow I mean, when your henchmen would notice I was missing, they would send someone to look outside the temple, search the road and stuff like that, because they would all figured I should have left that way. But if I instead was sitting right here, they wouldn't find me that easy... that was the plan anyway, until you found me." Deneus couldn't believe his ears. Joxer were actually lying for that demon. If he had ever doubted Joxer's bravery, it was time to let go of that doubt. That was now obvious for him.

"Don't make a fool of yourself" Hope said, and Deneus heard a surprised gasp from Joxer. Taking the risk of being spotted, he took a peek beside the pillar again and to his astonishment he saw Joxer hanging free in the air with no support whatsoever. Hope smiled sweetly at his chock and spook again. "You are a terrible liar, and you ARE going to help me find the dagger. One way or another."

Joxer only gasped, looking much like a fish on dry land. Hope still didn't move, but Joxer rotated slowly in the air, his limbs spread in every direction. Deneus was so worried he was getting sick. What in the entire world could he - or Joxer for that matter - do against a being with such powers? Having a clue of where to find a dagger that would be able to kill her didn't sound very useful for him right now. Suddenly a new voice spook.

"He is a terrible liar, sure. However, right now is he telling the truth, my dear."

The voice came from a spot near the door. Both Hope and Deneus - and Joxer as well as he could - looked that way. Where it the minute before had been nothing but stale air, now a man stood. A man with black leather vest, a huge sword at his side and black beard. Deneus immediately recognised him. He had spent this night and the night before looking after statues of that man. It was Ares, god of war.

"You see honey, I know this bad excuse for a man a little bit. I have some interests in his family, and he has been hanging around with Xena for quite a while now, so I have... well, been watching him now and then." He went forward with steady, masculine steps and put a steady, masculine hand on Hopes shoulder. She irritated shook it of.

"Of course I know he travels with Xena and mother, Ares. That's why I think they sent him for the dagger. What are you getting at?" She turned away from Joxer to face Ares instead.

Immediately Joxer fell to the ground with a crash and a yelp. Deneus could see him lying in a moaning pile of body parts and armour, but he didn't dare to leave his hiding place to help him up.

"This man is a full blood moron" Ares said, catching Hopes gaze in his. "He call himself a warrior, but in truth he is more of an village idiot. All the time I have watching him, he has done nothing to be reckoned with at all. I have no idea why Xena allow him to hang around, but I can sure understand that she dumps him now when things start to get more important."

A muffled moan - maybe meant as protest, came from the Joxer-pile. Ares gave it an ignorant glance and instead amused looked at the headless statue Joxer was laying in front of.

"Oh, it was here Callisto enjoyed herself beheading me, wasn't it? I can remember the two of us sharing a very special moment right here..."

Hope shook her head slightly, not prepared to allow him to change the subject that easy.

"So how do you explain that he is here at all? Or that he is sneaking around in the temple instead of taking the opportunity of leaving?" She crossed her arms and gave him a displeased look.

"Damned, I don't know. I figure he was caught by these worshipers of yours. And it doesn't surprise me a bit he is screwing up the escape, taking the wrong turn or something." He took a step forward and stroke Hopes chin with his thumb. "The point is, darling, that he is not a threat to us. He is not important at all. And you and I could be doing something much more... satisfying right now..." He jerked back as if he had burned himself, snatching his hand back to where it belonged. Hope angrily looked at him, her voice was chillier than ever.

"Ares. Your part in producing my child is fulfilled. When your further services is needed, I will let you now. Until then..."

"Jadajada, I know. I just thought..."

"I suggest you prepare yourself. Tomorrow is the bloodletting ceremony to take place. I wish you to be ready if something should happen."

With that, she turned to the door, and without looking back walked away from the slightly sheepish looking god of war. In the doorway she suddenly halted and glanced at Joxer who laboriously was beginning to crawl to his feet. She tossed her head, and before he knew it, Joxer was flying through the air again, disappearing through the corridor with Hope walking after. Ares looked after them for some moments. Then he shrugged and vanished in blue flames. Deneus lied nearly unconscious of fear behind the pillar. He was alone in the room.

For how long time he lied there, he didn't know. It seemed like it had been forever. He didn't hear a sound except for his own hearts frantic beating. The room was still illuminated by the candles Hope had lit. It took him some time to get his breathing and pulse under control, and yet some more time before he dared too peek beside the pillar again. The room was empty. Deneus sighed in relief and sank back behind the pillar to cry.

That's it. They had failed. They hadn't manage to get the hinds blood dagger, Joxer was gone. Killed or something even worse. Tomorrow would the rest of the prisoners be killed too, and Hopes father would fell over the world. The knowledge that Xena the Warrior Princess was supposed to show up didn't seem any relieving any more. What could she do, more then learn that Joxer actually hadn't been able go get her the dagger. Ares words came floating back into Deneus mind, and it made him just as angry this time.

"It's all lies!" he said for himself, trying to hide his sobbing in anger. "He is not useless. Joxer is a hero. A real hero. What would a god know of such things anyway?"

Deneus silenced as the tears overwhelmed him again. Sure, he was a hero, and now he had died the death of one. Only the sidekick left. What on earth was he going to do? Walk back to the cell and wait for the red-robes to slit his throat? Hide in the temple and fool around until someone found him and killed him? Run for the hills and wait for Dahok to tear him apart along with the rest of the world? Deneus felt very small where he sat. It was right then he felt something move inside his chest.

"If the hero is busy fighting or something, it's the sidekick who sneaks away to steal the mystic thingie from the villain's... you have already proved to be a remarkable skilled sneaker, Deneus..."

Joxer's words came to him uninvited, suddenly just popped up in his head. Deep inside, Deneus had known all along what he had to do, even if it took him some time to realise it. He had to keep searching for the hinds blood dagger, and if possible deliver it to the warrior princess when she arrived. Joxer believed in him, the world depended on him. Deneus simply had to carry on with the mission, with or without Joxer.

It was just that he didn't know if he could do it. Outside the room, and in the corners where Hope's candles didn't reach with their light, it was as dark as in a sack. Who knew what kind of crawling, touching, gripping beings that could exist there? It was no longer fear of death or suffering that squeezed the lad's heart with an ice-cold hand. It was pure, irrational and intensive fear of darkness. He had been sneaking around by himself in the temple the night before, sure. But that was different. By then, he knew Joxer was around somewhere. Near. Now he didn't even now if Joxer was alive. Deneus forced himself to rise to his feet. His stomach was a knot of anxiety and his eyes were wide as plates of fear. But he bit his teeth together and, having to fight every moment not to yelling run away from the place continued to examine to room. He wouldn't let Joxer down.

Uncertain, he stopped in the middle of the room, much near the place where Joxer, Ares and Hope had had their little gathering. They had already been searching this room, so he knew he should move on. But there was something gnawing on his mind. He looked around. What was it Ares had said? It was here Callisto enjoyed herself beheading me... Was it the statue he had meant?

Deneus gave it a closer look. Sure it was a statue of Ares, complete with vest, tight pants, sword and so on. And in its right hand... he had to lean even closer to be able to see... In its right hand it held a dagger. Not a dagger of stone, but of metal, placed in the hand of the statue. Deneus heart started to beat faster again. The hinds blood dagger. At last, he had found it. Carefully he jerked it out of the statue's grip and examined it. It was skilfully made, and it felt heavy in his hands. He could se a shade of red on its blade. A wave of triumph flowed through Deneus mind. He had done it. He had actually found the hinds blood dagger. He had proved being a worthy sidekick of Joxer the Mighty.

One of the lights suddenly sent a bright flickering light over the room before burning out. Deneus turned and fled throughout the door with the dagger in a firm grip. Now he had to find Joxer.


Chapter 7
In which the heroes reunite, solve some logistic problems and Joxer proves what kind of hero he really is.
In which the heroes reunite, solve some logistic problems and Joxer proves what kind of hero he really is.

As fast as he could Joxer struggled with his chains. The iron bar he tried to use to brake them wasn't exactly the best tool he could have chosen, but for the moment his choices was quite limited. He was sitting in the main hall, not to far away from the lava pit that of some unfathomable reason gaped open in the backside of it. Hope hadn't bothered to take him down to the cells. She had simply chained him to the wall in the main hall. Joxer shivered at the thought of the chains, crawling like snakes towards him and wrapping themselves around him. He just could hope he would be able to break them and find Deneus before it was to late.

"JOXER!"

The lad bolted towards him as being shot from a catapult. Joxer only managed to rise his head to see what was going on before the sobbing lad was over him.

"I was so scared... I was scared to death. I thought she had killed you, I thought she would kill me too. Not to mention him. When I ran through the corridors, it was like Ares was standing behind every corner, just waiting for me to pass. Oh Joxer, I thought..."

The rest of the sentence was lost when the hero gently pressed his sidekick against his chest, as good as the chains allowed him to, and firmly hugged him. Deneus relieved cried at his shoulder. Joxer anxious looked around. There was still no one around, but the dawn was not far away, and some early red-robe could be strolling by anytime now.

"Deneus" he said gently, carefully lifting the crying child from his embrace. "Deneus, listen. We have to get away from here, before the red-robes detect us. We have to get me free."

Deneus nodded and bravely swallowed his tears. Joxer was right of course. Real heroes didn't start to cry in the middle of the action.

Furiously they attacked the chains with the bar, careful not to make too much noise. But it was a hard work, and it took time. They managed to free Joxer's left arm quite soon, but the right arm was harder. Joxer could only use his left hand to help, so Deneus had to do the lions share of the work. But with stubbornness and persistence they eventually managed to break the chains. By the light from the windows, they could tell it was already morning.

Joxer stretched and tried to get some feelings back to his numb limbs. He was deeply worried by the whole situation. The bloodletting ceremony was going to be today, and yet they had no dagger. They were running out of time fast.

"Now" he began. "I want you to return to the cell. It will be the safest place to be in right now. A couple of more hours anyway. I will have to go back for the dagger. If we don't find it tonight..." He stopped in the middle of the sentence when he saw what the proud looking boy hold in his hand.

"You are kidding me. Right?"

"No way. Don't you remember what you said? About the sidekick saving the day when the hero is busy elsewhere. I took it literally." With a smile he handed the dagger over to the stunned warrior. "This is what we came for, wasn't it?"

Finally, Joxer succeeded to answer him. "You really are serious. You found the hinds blood dagger. Deneus... You are the best sidekick anyone could ask for." He put the dagger in the special hidden scabbard he had behind his breastplate. "I am so proud of you."

Deneus couldn't but smile. The hero business wasn't that bad after all, not when you were out of danger anyway. Joxer put his and on the lads shoulder and started to walk against the stairs leading to the basement.

"All we have to do now is to return to the cells and... ooooops." For a moment he and the boy just stood still, unable to move, but after that they booth simultaneously threw themselves behind the nearest pillar. Two red-robes had emerged from the stairs and now stood talking at its top.

"Today is the bloodletting ceremony, they say."
"Yes... About time, huh?"

"Guess they wanted it all to be perfect."

"Sure, it's not everyday one welcome's a new god into the world."

Joxer and Deneus looked at each other. Joxer shook his head and pointed backwards, against the corridor from which they had come. Deneus nodded, and together they crawled that way. Deneus could hear the red-robes continue their conversation behind him. Fortunately, they didn't seem to be interested in looking around in the temple hall, because the reached the corridor without being spotted.

"Things have been far too easy" Joxer muttered as they rose to their feet and started to walk along the corridor. "Just talk about bad luck."

"What are we going to do now?"

"We simply have to find another way down to the cells. There are plenty of stairs in this weird building. The only problem is finding them without getting in the way of the red-robes."

That latest thing proved to be the hardest. The temple was definitely beginning to wake up, and time and again they had to change their direction or find a hiding place to avoid some sleepy red-robes. Joxer had started to sweat.

"This is not good. This is not good at all. We are so close to make this, and we will be caught in the last minute just because these sleepyheads don't have anything real to do but strolling around the temple and walking in the way for honest heroes. Hadesx§!"

They had taken refuge in one of the most populated parts of the temple - actually it was the safest part right now, because most of the red-robes had been walking away somewhere by now. The corridor was a long one, bordered with rooms. Fire-plates and thick tapestries made these parts of the temple warm and comfortable. The corridor had just chosen to split in two, and that would explain Joxer's curse. He took a deep breath before he decided what to do.

"Take the left one. I go right. If we can't pass that way I'll come back, otherwise you come after me. OK?" Deneus nodded and slipped away. Joxer started to sneak along the right corridor. They must have been walking in circles in some way, because he could hear the roars of fire again. They couldn't be far away from the main hall. The corridor was empty, but in the other end of it Joxer could see the thing he longed for more than anything else right now. A staircase. Anxious he looked around again to see if someone was there, but he was still alone. He decided to wait for Deneus where he was.

Suddenly, he heard a scream. Not laud, but laud enough to startle him. It was a woman's voice, and it came from one of the rooms. Cautiously he went to the door and peeked inside. He nearly jumped by surprise. The first thing he noticed was the red curtains of the massive bed. The second thing was figure lying in the bed. The curtains were half pulled back, and he could see her quite clearly. This was Hope's sleeping room. Hope herself stirred restless in her sleep, mumbling for herself. She gasped for air in short, intense sobs and Joxer could see tears trickle down her face. Joxer looked over his shoulder once more, but he was still alone in the corridor. He took a step closer to the bed to get a better look of the sleeping demigoddess. He wondered what dreams she might have that made her tears flow so. He tried to listen to her mumbling, but couldn't make it out.

"Sure looks like Gabrielle..." he said for himself, filled of compassion for her. "Especially when she cries. Just as pretty... To bad she is evil."

He stood there, pondering over the strange fate of Gabrielle and her daughter, when suddenly it struck him. The hinds blood dagger. The only thing that can kill a god. He had it with him. Right before him lied the wicked foe, defenceless and with no one around to help her. Hope stirred again, but she was sleeping deep and didn't seem to have the slightest idea of the danger. Joxer produced the dagger and took a step further. She would have no chance at all. It would all end here - Dahok, the red-robes, the bloodletting... And he would be the hero that defeated her. Once and for all. Bards would write songs about him, people would tell the story all over the world. Everyone would know the name of Joxer The Mighty. They would be proud over him, impressed by him. Gabrielle...

He halted. Gabrielle wouldn't be too proud over him slaying her daughter in bed, sleeping. She might forgive him, but she wouldn't be proud. Joxer stood still, two paces away from the bed. Uncertain what to do. On the other hand - she knows this must be done. To kill Hope is the only way to stop the massacre. Gabrielle will understand. He moved forward again. And halted. Yeah, Gabrielle will understand. The real question is - will you understand it yourself? The dagger in his hand felt heavy. He wondered how he would fell after he had stabbed her. Would he feel proud? Content? Sad? Miserable? Right now he felt miserable more than anything else. He remembered what Gabrielle had said about killing. "The first time you kill, everything change. Everything." He hadn't understood what she meant, but her words begun to make sense now. Hope screamed in sleep. She began to cry more intense, and he finely could make out the words she mumbled.

"No... Mother, no. Don't leave me alone... I need you. Please mother, don't..."

Joxer put the dagger back behind his breastplate and turned around, even he with tears in his eyes. He knew he couldn't kill her. Not now, not anytime. He felt way too much sorry for her.

Deneus stood in the doorway, quietly watching him. He didn't say anything when Joxer reached him, but his eyes were filled of comprehension and pity. He patted Joxer on the shoulder. Joxer smile grateful as an answer. Together they left the room and headed for the stairs. Behind them Hope still cried as if her heart would break.


Chapter 8
In which the bloodletting ceremony is about to take place, the kick-but warrior princess with her staff-swinging sidekick enters the stage and we witness a sacrifice.
In which the bloodletting ceremony is about to take place, the kick-but warrior princess with her staff-swinging sidekick enters the stage and we witness a sacrifice.

They reached the cells just in time before the red-robes showed up. Once again the prisoners were driven out in the corridor with beating and cursing. The Big One held another speech, much similar to the one he held the day before, once again pointing out how unworthy they were, being chosen to let Dahok into the world. In the meantime he amused himself repeating a handful of phrases in various combination, his companions went along the lines, binding the prisoners hands. Joxer carefully tested if he could reach the dagger when they were finished with him. To his great satisfaction, he could. Deneus stood almost next to him. His face was pale but he still smiled at Joxer. The hero nodded back. They were as prepared as they ever could be for what was to come.

"Price our great god Dahok!"

"Price him!" The red-robes were almost in ecstasy, worshipping their great god.

"Take them to the great hall. The goddess will oversee the bloodletting ceremony herself."

The red-robes cheered. Some of them had produced whips, and they started to beat the prisoners as they stumbled up the stairs as fast as they could. Joxer tried to keep eyes on Deneus, but he soon lost contact with the boy and had to concentrate just to keep running. A blood-thirsty looking red-robe gave him a beat with his fist, right in his face. Joxer stumbled and nearly fell. Somehow, he managed to keep on his feat. He got several lash-beat for slowing the line, and the prisoners behind him anxious pushed from behind. In some strange way he continued to run. He could just hope that Deneus was all right.

They ended up in the main hall. The red-robes forced them down on the floor, using their whips to get them on place and to silence the cries and protests. Joxer was breathing heavy to get air - one of the red-robes had beaten him in his stomach. The other sacrifices were sitting on the floor with their hands bound together and their faces filled of despair. The red-robes were spread among them with satisfied looks on their faces and nasty looking daggers in their hands. In the end of the great hall was the fire of Dahok burning. Hope, Ares and the high priest were standing there, overlooking the expected blood bath. Behind them Joxer could see the red glow from the lava pit. In front of the fire of Dahok the temple dancer's were performing, chanting and dancing. Joxer anxious let his gaze slide along the faces of the sacrifices. He couldn't see Deneus anywhere.

The chanting became even louder. It seemed to echo inside his head as well as in the ears. The roar of the fire was almost overwhelming. Hope was talking to her priest. She wore her red dress again, and her eyes glowed. Looking at her, Joxer could see nothing of the weakness he had seen just some hours ago. In every move she was radiating power and evil will. She turned from the priest and took a step forward. Ares immediately followed, his eyes all the timed darting between her and the other end of the hall where the entrance was. Joxer could understand why. The god of war knew the warrior princess as well as he did, if not better. They both knew she would show up before this was over. She always did. When Hope spoke, he could hear her clearly, despite of all the noise in the room.

"The ceremony will take place. The blood of the innocence will flow and my father will enter the world. Your sacrifice will make it possible."

Her words weren't new for the prisoners, but still their effect was overwhelming. Simultaneously, the prisoners jerked backwards, gasping, yelping as if being hit, but they all silenced immediately. A lot of them were crying, tears flowing down their faces, but they cried without a sound. They sat as lumps of coal, motionless. They reminded most of all of mice meeting a snake, hypnotised by the snakes gaze and unable to move as the danger slowly draw nearer. Hope smiled triumphantly and turned towards the priest again. Some of the prisoners started to move again - but many still were totally motionless.

"Prepare the sacrifice" she said. The flame behind her roared, as if pleased.

"JOXER! Help!" It was Deneus voice. It came from the other end of the hall, near the doors. Joxer tried to rice, but the red-robe behind him pushed him down again.

"Joxer! Ple..." his voiced was cut of. Finally, Joxer spotted the lad. He was dragged to his feat by one of the red-robes. He held his knife against Deneus throat.

Joxer felt a lump of ice forming in his stomach. He could feel the red-robe behind him holding a hand on his shoulder, prepared if he should try anything. Deneus looked begging at him. Joxer could do nothing but helpless look back. There was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it, and he knew it. He felt the despair overwhelming ver him. There had do be something. It couldn't end like this. They had achieved to much to stumble on the last step. Joxer closed his eyes. He didn't want to look.

"Ayayayayayayayayay!"

The red-robe holding Deneus dropped him to the ground and surprised looked against the door. So were all the other red-robes - and the prisoners. Hope's voice -filled with frenzy and bloodlust - brought them back to the things at hand.

"Slit their throats."

Immediately the red-robe behind Joxer laid his knife at his throat. Also Deneus red-robe let his attention return to the bloodletting ceremony. Joxer could see the fear in Deneus eyes as the knife came closer.

And then the red-robe was flying over the head of Deneus, much with help from the foot that landed on his head. Xena landed on the floor just behind the lad, turned around to slash another of Hopes worshipers with her sword and flipped up in the air, knocking down jet two red-robes when she landed. Gabrielle entered the door, delivering blows to right and left with her staff. Joxer felt like wanting to laugh of relief and pride. The two heroines were sweeping into the hall like a tornado, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. The red-robes totally forget about sacrifices, but gathered to meet this new threat instead. Joxer tried to rise, only to be knocked down by a red-robe behind him. He struggled to get up from the floor. Somewhere in the distance he could hear Xena yell at him.

"Joxer, did you get it?"

Struggling to remain conscious, Joxer fumbled behind his breastplate to find the dagger. He tried to ignore the fight around him, knowing he couldn't do anything about it anyway. He aimed carefully at the warrior princess.

"I got it!" he cried, throwing the dagger. He caught a glimpse of Ares in the corner of his eyes as he did. The god of war had been watching Xena and was now following her gaze to him. Joxer saw his eyes widen in surprise, as the god suddenly understood Xena's plans - and Joxer's part in them. Sure, it was fear in those eyes too. Despite everything, Joxer couldn't help feeling satisfied with this. Not a threat, huh?

He didn't have the time to think anything more about it before the red-robe smacked his head from behind again, making all the world turning black and fading away...

Joxer didn't know for how long time he was out. His head was hurting when he opened his eyes again, but at least he was alive. He still sat at the stone floor in the temple, he noticed. The fact that no one had taken the opportunity to slit his throat while he was passed out cheered him up.

The next thing he noticed was the silence. The fight seemed to have ceased entirely, even the roars of fire were fainter than it used to be. No one was saying a single word. Curiously he looked around - and froze. In the back of the hall a drama that froze his blood was taking place.

Hope stood right behind the altar of her father. She smiled that sweet smile of hers, but her entire expression was radiating evil and determination. In front of her was Xena. The warrior princess stood still like frozen into an ice statue, but her expression was as determined as ever Hope's. Her right arm was lifted and in it she hold the hinds blood dagger. The red glow from the lava pit gave it an even gloomier look. It took Joxer some moments to realise that the two combatants on the scene actually moved, but in slow motion. Hope was very slowly walking backwards in small, controlled steps. Xena moved forward in the same pace, the dagger in her hand slowly lowering, searching its final aim in Hope's chest.

Hope was still smiling as calmly as ever. Only her smile was filled with bloodlust and self-confidence. Actually, her expression was almost triumphantly. Joxer felt a chill striking along his spine. She wasn't worried. She expected herself to win. Xena on the other hand was struggling with herself to remain in control of her own limbs. Her face was twisted into a mask of concentration. Joxer, himself familiar with Hope's power, had no problems to imagine what she had to fight. He was more than surprised that she had made it this far.

All activity in the temple had ceased. Everyone was following the silent struggle with their eyes. Red-robes and prisoners stood side by side, having totally forgotten about each other. He could see Gabrielle stand at the wall. Her eyes were wide and she was very pale. She held her staff with a firm grip, making her knuckles whitening. Joxer's didn't envy her. Someone she loved was going to die before this was over.

The very air in the hall seemed to vibrate. The only thing that seemed real was the fight. Xena drew closer. Hope didn't halt, but her eyes narrowed as the distance between her and the lava pit shrunk. The tip of the small blade in Xena's hand turned and slowly moved towards her face. Summoning the last of her strength Xena tried to push it away, but the dagger resisted her best effort to turn it against her enemy again, and steady drew closer. Xena however kept moving forward, forcing Hope to retreat closer and closer to the edge of the pit. Hope's smile slowly - everything seemed to happen so very slowly - turned to a grin of pure hatred. Xena didn't retreat an inch. With what seemed to be an enormous effort she turned the hinds blood dagger back towards Hope, who now stood at the very edge of the pit and slowly, ever so slowly wielded it in a lethal - even if slow motional - thrust.

Joxer herd her before he saw her - just a sharp intake of breath and the sound of running feet. Then he saw her. Gabrielle bolted towards the combatants at the edge of the lava pit. She ran right into Hope, clutching the demigoddess to her, pushing her out of balance. Together they swayed on the edge for a single moment. Gabrielle held her daughter tight, her eyes filled of tears searching Xena's gaze. Hope held her mother in a firm grip too. Maybe it was just instinctive, maybe she took this last opportunity to share a tender embrace with her beloved mother. Later, when Joxer thought back, he wanted to remember it that way. The two women hung there just for a moment. And then they were gone.

"Gabrielle!"


Chapter 9
In which friends part and goodbyes are said.
In which friends part and goodbyes are said.

How many tears are there in a human? Is there - somewhere - a limit when she can stop the crying and move on? Joxer didn't think so. The tears still clouded his eyes, but for the moment they had stopped flowing. It simply had to wait. He would have all time in the world to mourn, but as a hero he had to see to his duties first. Joxer swallowed hard and looked around. The prisoners had freed themselves and overpowered the remaining red-robes. Now they were leaving and heading for home. Ares was gone. Callisto was dead. Hope was dead. Dahok still wasn't let into the world. Everything was done except for the last clean up. He forced himself to smile at Deneus who stood in front of him.

"We made it Deneus. We really made it. You can be proud of yourself."

The boy smiled at him, but his face was concerned.

"I'm so sorry Joxer. For Gabrielle."

He could feel the tears again. "Yes..." It wasn't really any more to say, and he didn't want to talk about it. Not yet. He changed the subject.

"Well... so you are going home now?"

"Yes I am."

"Good, you need to relax after all this, have someone to talk to and so on."

"Joxer" Deneus said, determine catching the warriors gaze, and holding it. "You need someone to talk to and to take care of you for a while. Come with me. You will be treated like a king back in my village when they hear what you have done."

"Gee... Deneus that's really nice." Joxer honestly answered. "I would really like to stay with you for a while... Heroes like us need a little vacation now and when, you know. If you don't think your parents will mind..."

"Settled then" the boy decided. Some of the other prisoners are on their way right now. Come on, let's join them. There is nothing left to do here anyway."
He eagerly started to walk towards the door, but halted when he saw the melancholic smile on Joxer's face.

"What is it?"

Joxer sighed and nodded towards Xena. The warrior princess still stood at the edge of the lavapit, tall, dark and grim. She stood there alone. No one had dared to disturb her in her grief. In anyone needed a reason why, Callisto's lifeless body provided it.

"She's having a hard time. Gabrielle meant very, very much for her. It wouldn't be god for her to be alone in times like this. She might not understand it, but I think she will need me."

The boy nodded, seriously. "I see..."

Joxer rose an eyebrow. "And she still has the hinds blood dagger for another thing. Whatever we think about the gods, it wouldn't be a good idea letting Xena loose with it in this state."

Deneus made big eyes. "But she couldn't kill the gods. Could she?"

"Oh yes she could. To tell you the truth, there are a very few things Xena actually can't do." Joxer fondly stroke the boys chin.

"I would better go to her now. And you would better go back to your village and your parents. It would be cruel to let them wait any longer than necessary." He caught the lad in a tender hug. "You have been the best sidekick one could ask for Deneus. Thanks."

"Thanks to you Joxer. If you hadn't been here, I would have died from pure fright."

Smiling they clasped each other's hands. Joxer ruffled the lad's hair. "Now go. Hurry. I will take care of everything here. When I'm ready I will come to visit you. That's a promise."

Deneus loosened the grip of Joxer's hand and sighed. "Well, that's goodbye then. See you soon Joxer and... thanks for everything." He turned and slowly walked towards the door. Joxer looked after him for a moment and then started to walk the opposite direction.

"Xena" he softly said. She didn't show any sign what so ever of having noticed him, not even when he stopped right in front of her. Her blue eyes were empty, staring out in nowhere. In her right hand, she still hold the hinds blood dagger in a loose grip.

"Xena!" he tried again a bit louder. "Please Xena, it's over. You won't need that dagger anymore. Please... " Gently he took her hand and removed the dagger. For a moment her limbs stiffened as if she was going to protest, but then she relaxed and allowed him to take it. The dagger fell to the ground with a sharp noise.

"She loves you, you know." Joxer's word filled here eyes with tears. He hesitated for a moment, but then he reached out and hugged her. He couldn't help feeling a bit uncomfortable doing so. He couldn't recall seeing the warrior princess hugging anyone - except for Gabrielle of course - ands she wasn't the touchy sort of person anyway. But this was not really normally circumstances. They both could use a hug. Xena was first surprised, but then she accepted the hug, clutching to the warrior like a child, and finally she cried, letting out all that grief and agony she had been trying to keep inside herself. Joxer didn't even try to keep his tears back any longer. Seeking comfort in each other's arms they cried together over the girl they both had loved so much.

Deneus halted for a moment in the door. Joxer stood in the other end of the temple, embracing the dangerous looking warrior princess. The boy, with a sad look on his face, turned and started to walk. He didn't want to disturb this moment. Outside the temple the sun was shining. The volcano in the distant mountains seemed to have stopped its eruptions, and the sky was not clouded anymore. Deneus whistled for himself. It would take a lot of time for him to fully understand what had happened in the temple, and even more time to sort it out. But somehow he was glad all this had happened - well, except for that girl Joxer was so fond of tripping into the lava of course. He had been into more adventures than he had been ever before in his life, and probably than he would ever be into again. He had played a not unimportant role in saving the world from Hope and her father. And he had met Joxer. Somehow he felt the hero really liked him, not only as a useful sidekick, but also as a friend. He hoped the hero would visit him soon. He really didn't long for another adventure or save-the-world mission. He just wanted to show Joxer his little corner of the world - the village, the riverbanks, the secret hut he was building... When they didn't have to hide from mortal danger every moment there would be so much fun they could do together. He was already looking forward to it.

The end!