Harmonia slithered through the loose soil, detouring around huge stones. She flexed the supple strength of this new body of hers. If only the earth wasn't so lifeless around her, she'd be able to enjoy this journey more. The bright dot at her throat pulled a little to her right and she altered course towards the vibrational tug.
Tremors in the earth reminded her of the battle above and she speeded up her undulations. Grimly, she parted the earth ahead of her and kept going, intent on her mission to find Hestia. The buzz of Hestia's fire kept her moving down ... down ... down through the soil.
Then she was falling and she twisted in the air into her proper shape and hit the ground with a thud. Panting in the fetid air of the underground chamber, she pulled out the crystal and let it's radiance light the cave. Moving it slowly, she looked for Hestia. A slight movement above her head brought her horrified eyes up to the iron barred cage and it's inhabitant.
Ares fought savagely to disperse the harpies that were keeping him from his father. Xena moved behind him and shouted in his ear.
"I killed one with fire."
He nodded grimly and conjured up a fireball, lobbing it right in front of a swooping harpy. She flew through it with a scream of hatred and exploded into flaming debris. Zephyrus appeared to their right and sent another harpy spinning off into tornado oblivion. Which left one for Hercules to skewer with his sword while Ares cooked her into ashes.
Ares grabbed a hold of Hercules and Xena. "Keep to the rim and look for warriors to appear suddenly. Watch your backs. Tethys, we're going to need you in the water to counteract any move she makes there."
The silver haired goddess nodded once and disappeared. Joxer moved closer to the dark god. Ares spared a brief thought to his lover. //Stay close but for Hades sake, duck when you need to. I love you.//
//Love you, too. I'll watch your back.// The thought was like a warm caress on a cold night.
Ares moved forward, tabulating who was fighting on their side and who was fighting for Ate. Mediums weights, mostly. Gyges was at her right hand and Kratos on her left. Ino and Ogyges fought side by side. Lamia was pretty hard to miss with her snake lower half. For a moment, he thought briefly of Harmonia and her mission. Sending a quick plea to Gaea to keep her safe, he waded into the battle.
Joxer kept as close to Ares as he could without interfering with his sword arm. This battle had gone straight to terrifying. The harpies had died horribly but he could only feel a fierce exhilaration at their death after their sudden attack.
He saw Zeus trading fireballs with Ate while a giant fought Athena and a dark haired woman. He thought a question to Ares.
//Mimas is the giant.//
//Who's fighting with Athena?//
Ares made the earth move beneath the feet of King Ogyges, throwing him off balance and stabbing him while he went down. //Her mother, Metis. Hold the sword while I take care of this one.//
Joxer held the king pinned to the earth with his left hand while he kept off the others with a slowly swinging blade. In the back of his mind, he felt the gathering power in his lover's body. Almost, he could see the connection to Ares' power source but there was also a link to ...
King Ogyges screamed once before he exploded into nothingness. Ares sighed once and leaned on Joxer for a brief moment. An old sadness filled their bond and the familiar headache that seemed to come with the death of a god. The dark warrior wanted to hold on to his lover and never let him go. Soothe away all the pain and make everything right again.
A cry from their left brought both their heads around in time to see Metis dissolve while Athena fought to save her. The resulting pain sent Joxer reeling and the goddess of wisdom crashing to her knees while Ares fought to her side and provided the shelter she needed to come back to herself.
Joxer staggered across suddenly shifting earth to where Ares was trading blows with the giant. To make matters worse, it began to rain. But this rain was hot, burning everything it touched and Joxer flinched at the pain. He was almost to his lover when thunder filled the air with a loud boom and lightning arched down from the sky and fried Mimas just as he was about to skewer Ares, who'd thrown himself in front of a sobbing Athena.
Harmonia looked around for something, anything that might unlock the cage. Hestia was unconscious and the air was getting steadily more stagnant. Taking a deep breath, she held it and emptied the cave of all its air. A moment later, she transported in a fresh batch. The smell of ozone filled her nostrils. "Ick. Grandfather must have resorted to a lightning bolt or two."
Now, back to the iron bars. No door or lock. Just metal.
"Wait a second. Iron is just really hard earth, Daddy Hep says. So, I should be able to part the metal just like I parted the soil to get here." She reasoned it out slowly then took a deep breath and concentrated on the bottom rods, willing them apart.
Long moments passed as she concentrated on the iron bars. But nothing happened. When dizziness overtook her, she sat down hurriedly.
"Okay, Harmonia, think. What else did Daddy Hep say about metal and its properties? It's strong but it can be heated and shaped and bent and ... linked. What was it he said about links?" She was up and pacing now, the vibrations in the earth around her finally getting her attention. "Oh, oh. I wonder what's happening up there?"
The first death hit her hard and she held her head against the pain. But that one was too quickly followed by another and yet another. Fighting through the nausea, she straightened. "I can't afford to get sick. Aunt Hestia needs me to get her out of here. Ignore it and it can't affect you." She told herself and hoped it was true.
Weak link, that's what he'd said. Iron was only as strong as its weakest link. Hurrying back to the cage about her head, her eyes traced the joints where the bottom met the sides. The weld seams were visible and she smiled to herself.
Concentrating yet again, she focused all her young will on the welds and watched them slowly split and separate. "Two more and Aunt Hestia is free." Again, she focused and was rewarded with more separations. Reaching up, she bent the bars down and barely had time to catch the small plump form of her great-aunt when she fell through the bars into her arms.
Iolaus swung at another black clad warrior who'd appeared before them. He counted seven in all, four dead and three still trying to get to the gods. Xena and Gabrielle were fighting one of them while he and Herc took care of the other two. Concentrating on his opponent, he took advantage of an inadvertent arm swing to slip his dagger between the ribs and skewer the warrior's heart.
His expression never changed, dying with a blank look and a slight sigh. What in Tartarus did she do to them to get them to fight?
The four of them fell back in a tight grouping to survey the damage. The air was hot and humid, the pressure making his ears hurt. In several places, he noticed steam rising from cracks in the sun baked soil. He spotted Joxer carrying a slim shape towards them, ducking whirlwinds and moving haphazardly across the quaking earth. Hercules darted out to him and took the limp body.
"It's Athena. Metis just died and Ares said he wants you to take her to the ship. Tell the captain to get away now." He moved back, his eyes straying towards his lover who was trading blows with a half-woman, half-snake.
"We can't just leave you." Gabrielle frowned.
Joxer gazed down at her and smiled gently, touching her cheek. "We'll be as safe as we can be. Ares says ..." he looked back again, "no matter what happens, Ate is not leaving here alive. Even if it means, destroying the entire island. We need you guys to be gone and safe. Besides, the ship needs to be warned. Please?"
Iolaus sighed and looked at Hercules. The slender dark haired goddess cradled in his arms was bloody and bruised. Their eyes met and the golden warrior nodded regretfully. Xena frowned and opened her mouth to say something.
"Not to mention, when Harmonia gets back, we'll need to send her to safety. And that's where her big sister is." Joxer finished off neatly.
"Now, that sounds like Ares." Xena said through gritted teeth. "Tell him to stay alive. We have some unfinished business."
Joxer grinned and waved them over the rim. Iolaus looked back just before following his friends. *This feels all wrong.*
The ground began to tremble beneath his feet and several of the gods wavered. A feminine voice rang out over the battle.
"What in Hades does it take to kill you, little man?"
Before his disbelieving eyes, the ground split open under Joxer's feet and swallowed the warrior up. He saw the horrified look on Ares' face just as Xena tugged him away, pulling him from the sound of maniacal laughter.
Harmonia wet her handkerchief with her water bottle and wiped Hestia's face clean of smudges. "Aunt Hestia, it's me, Harmonia. You're out of the cage now. C'mon, wake up ... Please."
She brushed the dry lips with the wet cloth, once ... twice ... three times. Finally, she was rewarded by a faint movement of the pale lips. This time she poured a little into the slack mouth and watched Hestia swallow. Triumphant, she settled down to coax her to a response.
"Aunt Hestia, please come back to me." Her voice shook just a little when the ground under them shook and a fine shower of earth hit them from the ceiling. Looking up at the swinging cage, she decided to drag Hestia out from under.
Settling her against one of the walls, Harmonia tested the air before deciding to change it out again. Taking another deep breath, she let it out and emptied the cave of all air before whooshing in a new supply. How could she get her aunt to respond to her? Testing her own strength, she knew she didn't have enough to get them both out of the cave and up to the surface.
But if she called her father, would Ate hear her instead? Harmonia shivered at the thought. If she never saw the mad goddess again, that would be fine with her.
"Harmonia." Hestia sighed.
"I'm here, Aunt Hestia." Harmonia grinned and hugged her closer. "How are you feeling? Do you want some more water?"
A faint nod was her only answer. She dribbled the water slowly so Hestia wasn't overwhelmed. The swallow sounded loud in the silent cave. The fire goddess opened her eyes slowly but didn't seem able to focus.
"Where..." She whispered.
"We're in a cave on Thira. The gods are fighting above us. Do you have any fire left?"
"No." Hestia's eyes closed and a single tear seeped from the corner of one eye. "Ate ... linked ... still."
Harmonia gulped. It's up to me then to get us out of here. Oh, Daddy, what should I do?
The earth trembled around them and Harmonia held her own body over Hestia to keep the falling soil from her face. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the ground split and a shape begin to rise. Terrified, she closed her eyes so she wouldn't see Ate find them.
Ares watched in horror as his dream from months before came true. Several of his family were laying on the ground and Joxer had just disappeared in a fault in the earth. A silver shape darted after him before the god of war could react further. Moving over the heaving earth as quickly as he could, he reached the edge of the split just as a hand clawed for the edge.
Reaching down, he heaved his lover onto semi-solid ground and watched Bax push him the rest of the way up to the surface. //Oh, love, don't do that to me.//
//Sorry, she caught me by surprise.// Joxer panted and gripped his hand fervently. "Thanks, Bax. You saved my life."
"Good, good. Go, go?" The small whirlwind managed to sound complacent and apprehensive at the same time.
Zephyrus fought his way to their side. "Good work, son. Now, please get back to the ship before your mother sees you. The mortals may need your help with the winds to get them away from here."
"Blow, blow." Bax said decisively and disappeared.
Ares pulled Joxer to his feet and took a quick look around. Several of the family were down and others had disappeared to heal their wounds. On the plus side, Ate was down to four gods and a handful of warriors. But he had the feeling that she was working up to something. Hera and Zeus were fighting side by side when suddenly the goddess disappeared. Apollo took her place and Ares headed back to Lamia with Joxer close behind.
//Where did your mother go?// Joxer traded blows with a black clad warrior who was fighting at Lamia's side.
//Don't know. Maybe she's gone to help Harmonia. I had a strange feeling a while back. Hopefully, she's found Hestia.//
Ares watched his opponent carefully. He'd seen her fight before and she always twitched her tail before she ... ah-h-h, there it went. He ducked and brought up his sword with both hands, sinking it into her stomach with all his strength. Her slitted yellow eyes looked in dismay into his while she writhed on his blade. Gathering his strength, he mind called to Apollo and his father for their help in blasting her.
Their power was routed to him and burned into a channel straight into her power center, overwhelming her natural defenses and destroying her in one long burst of energy. He was barely able to stay upright when she disappeared in a shower of sparks. All his reserves were momentarily depleted and he drew in a deep breath to center himself.
But the air was foul about them and he began to cough, his eyes watering in the sudden release of toxic gases. Taking a quick look around, he noticed the multiplying steam vents that broke the ground. //Or is it steam? Where have I seen geysers like this before? Yellow tinged gases?//
Joxer finished off the warrior before him and turned to Ares, his own eyes watering. //What is this stuff? It stinks.//
//Of course! The sulfur springs.// Ares smiled wolfishly and pulled Joxer to one side, laying open another warrior from stomach to throat. He was dead before he hit the ground.
//Thanks.// Joxer coughed and drew a ragged breath.
Ares began a thought only to have another voice echo in his head.
//Ares, be ready to take on Ate when we say go. Remember how she 'killed' Joxer.//
Harmonia shook slightly at the sound of the goddess rising from the earth.
"Well, Hestia, you've managed to get yourself in quite a mess." The dry tones were not the ones the young goddess expected and her eyes flew open in disbelief.
"Hello, dear. I don't see how anyone expects me to sleep with all this energy zinging around. I take it, Ate has made her move?" The sturdy goddess knelt by their sides and gently touched Hestia's temple.
"Everyone's fighting. Several have died already." Harmonia realized with a blush that Gaea would have felt their deaths. "Hestia's fire is all gone and she's still linked to Ate."
"Daughter, attend to me." Gaea spoke softly into the deteriorating air.
"Yes, Mother." With a whoosh, Tethys appeared in the cave, bringing with her the fresh smells of sea and wind. "Oh good, you have Hestia. The water about the island are beginning to boil."
"Hestia is linked to Ate." Gaea said calmly. "We will need one other to complete the pattern."
Tethys nodded and closed her eyes. Harmonia could feel the energies shift from one to the other in the cave. A shimmering in the air brought her grandmother to join them.
"Hera, we need to join if we're to defeat this one. She has enough power stored here to destroy all of us. All she needs to do is focus."
"Oh, Hestia." Hera knelt beside her sister, her hands grasping the nearest limp hand.
Hestia seemed to gather strength from her touch. "Can't ... be helped. The link is our only hope."
"We'll need a conduit. Ares is fighting above us. If he can get metal into her, she's as good as dead." Tethys smiled softly.
Harmonia shivered. She'd always thought of these women as sweet, gentle nourishers. But right now, they resembled a pack of wolves intent on the hunt. Focused, ruthless and determined.
"Harmonia, you need to get to the ship. I can see you don't have enough energy to get back to Olympus." Hera eyed her appraisingly. "Join Bax and help the mortals to get away. Focus on Xena."
Tethys interrupted her. "They're moving. You need to leave now."
Hestia raised her hand to touch her cheek. "Go, Harmonia. Because of you, we have a chance. Be safe for me."
Harmonia could hardly see through her tears. She had the horrible feeling that she'd never see her beloved aunt again. "Love you, Aunt Hestia."
"Love you." Her voice faded out and her eyes closed.
Hera moved quickly and dragged Harmonia to her feet. "Focus on your big sister. Concentrate and I'll give you a boost."
Harmonia took a deep breath and drew up the memory of the dark haired warrior who reminded her so much of her father. She felt Hera's strength augmenting her own and she winked out, appearing on the deck of the familiar ship by Xena's side.
Hestia could feel herself fading away, piece by piece. The only thing that kept her in the world was the touch of her sister goddesses. The sound of Gaea's voice, the smell of Tethys' sea and the warmth of Hera's hand.
"There's a blocked vent right under this cave about a mile down." Gaea said gently.
Tethys continued. "There is a narrow but extremely deep submarine trough that passes under the island. The seabed is very thin above it. It will be easily punctured."
"There's a pocket of Chaos Energy directly above us." Hera sighed. "It's a wonder no one's triggered it yet. It should provide the trigger we need."
Hestia nodded just forming the word took all her strength. "Timing?"
"Soon. She's gathering strength." Hera's voice turned to steel as the death of another god washed through them. "Priapus."
And yet another, following quickly in painful rendering of a blood tie. Tethys groaned, "Halie."
Hestia gathered her remaining energy and opened her eyes. "Now, no more deaths. Let mine be the last."
Gaea nodded, her mind touch gentle. //We will be with you.//
The three goddesses carried her gently to the middle of the cave and joined their hands around her prone body. //Odd. I can't feel myself anymore, as if I've already become spirit.// The familiar meshing of power rose about her as her sisters gathered their elements to join with the single spark that remained of hers.
Earth, air, fire and water became as one. Unity.
And Hestia began the long fall towards her destiny.
End part 23