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Teresa M Shafer - For books that kindle thought and ignite the imagination!
The Steppes 

 The flight had been long and in its own way peaceful. But Gabrielle and Xena were happy to finally be stepping onto the shuttle platform in Athens. It had been a very long time since they had seen Athens and it had changed a great deal in that time. 

The city’s populace had not been expecting the Thracian heroes but when they debarked there were those that recognized them anyway. Xena and Gabrielle stopped for a short time to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans but soon they were on their way. They could have taken the shuttle directly to the steppes but they had something to do first and then they would take the shuttle back into orbit. 

They met with the city Mayor and arranged for the transportation of most of the Guardians that had traveled with them and then they left. They weren’t taking any chances. Their core group of friends would already be in place on the Steppes along with a couple of squads of Amazon Marines and an equal number of Marines. These Guardians would be joining the others but they would be arriving from a different direction. Once the arrangements were set Xena, Gabrielle and her two Shadows left in their shuttle. The two heroes had discussed this many times and ultimately they had decided that it was better to be safe than sorry. They would meet Alti on the Steppes but they would do it from orbit.

Alti would of course actually land and expect to fight Xena and Gabrielle physically but she would end up fighting their circle of eight, Nadia, Ediva, Rachael, Lacey, Patricia, Jana, Jillian and Sherry in her physical form while Xena and Gabrielle fought her in the spiritual realm. The heroes were hoping that they would be able to defeat her quickly so that none of their friends would be harmed. Things did happen quicker in the spiritual realm than in the physical. Ultimately all that they could do was their best and put their trust in their God… Xena wasn’t too sure about that last part but she did trust in Gabrielle. Gabrielle was making a lot of sense right now and she insisted upon that last part.

It had taken them quite a bit of time, years in fact to dissect the last few meetings with Alti and figure out what they had done wrong and how they could fix it. What they came up with was simple; they had to face her together, they had to face her in the spiritual realm and cut off her life line with Lucifer, once that was severed they figured that Alti could physically be killed by anyone at least for a short period of time. If their friends couldn’t kill Alti then they would simply have to take the fight to her before Lucifer was able or willing to reconnect with her soul. They really didn’t think that it would be necessary. Alti had been killed before in physical form. It was her godly connection in the spiritual realm that kept bringing her back.

There was one item in all of this that still boggled them… Alti was a Demon and only the righteous can fight Demons and win… at least that’s what Michael had told them. But Alti wasn’t an ordinary Demon, maybe the rules didn’t apply. What they did know for certain was that they had to fight her for the right reasons and with the right heart. They had to fight her selflessly or they would lose… again.

They had a plan, they had practiced the plan until it was second nature and they had alternate plans that accommodated all of the possibilities that they could think of and they were smart enough to think on their feet if Alti actually surprised them. Now they just needed to wait for the guest of honor.

As it turned out their wait was not long. Earth Force informed them of an incoming object that appeared to be no larger than a human being but was traveling at the speed of a comet. It was Alti; they knew it before they even got a bead on her. Xena asked Ares to let it come on in. They had already made arrangements with Ares the Commander of Earth Force to have many troops on the ground.  

While Alti made planet fall Xena and Gabrielle finished the ancient Amazon ceremony that would take them to the spirit realm. When they finally fell unconscious Gabrielle’s Shadow Guardians lowered them gently to the floor and made their bodies as comfortable as possible and they sat back and watched.

Alti landed in the center of what once had been the meeting place for the Amazon leaders. It was the sacred grounds where Cyane and her compatriots had lost their lives to Xena and given their blood to make Alti the powerful Shaman that she became. Alti was beyond any pathetic trickle of power that she could draw from this place but the symbolism made her smile.

“Xena where are you?” She yelled into the mist that floated through the sparse stand of trees. Not much had changed here except that the bodies had long since been removed. The trees were still thin and scraggly, how the Amazons had learned to run through these trees was still a bit of a mystery to Alti, not that she truly cared, but it was a mystery.

Something was moving out there in the mist and trees. She could hear them. They weren’t Xena or Gabrielle. They moved wrong. But they weren’t unskilled. To the contrary they were well trained, it’s just that it’s damn near impossible to be silent when twigs hide beneath leaf cover. It didn’t hurt that Alti’s Demon ears were extremely sensitive. But where was Xena? Where was that goodie two shoes Gabrielle?

Almost like magic the mist parted and she saw that she was surrounded. She didn’t know these women but if they wanted to die at her hand who was she to argue? They all drew swords and so did she. “Xena’s not hiding behind you… she’s never hidden behind anyone. So what is she doing? Where is she?”

The young woman that was directly in front of her looked a great deal like Gabrielle. She didn’t answer Alti; in fact none of them spoke with words. They merely raised their swords and began to advance.

Meanwhile Xena and Gabrielle had just arrived in the spirit realm and were approaching the sacred grounds. They crested the small hill that overlooked the meeting place and saw the winged and horned Demon that was Alti in the circle of stones below. She was concentrating on something that the heroes could not see. They assumed it was the battle that was either taking place or about to take place in the real world. They started down the hill. They were in no big hurry nor were they lagging.

Alti turned to look at them. She smiled. It might have been a pleasant smile had it not been on the face of a Demon. As they got closer they noticed a faint trail behind Alti’s form that was trailing into the mist. They looked at one another. Both had figured out that this trail must be cut somehow so that they could permanently kill Alti.

“So there you are Xena.” Alti said as she raised her sword here in the spirit world.

Gabrielle split off to one side to blade off against their foe. Xena continued to walk straight for Alti. “Here I am.” She said it with no mocking inflections or goading. It was a simple statement of fact.

Xena’s lack of emotion threw Alti. She was so accustomed to their angry hateful banter that this lack of interplay left her off balance. “You’re not yourself my dear, has the sanitary Gabrielle finally leached all of the color from your soul?”

Alti’s comment brought laughter from Xena. It was the laughter of someone who was truly amused. “Alti I doubt very seriously if you still have the capacity to even see colors of that sort. Your soul is black and corrupted beyond measure… I don’t think that even Calisto’s soul was so tainted.” Xena had squared up to her and Gabrielle had bladed off to Alti’s right. They would maintain these positions regardless of how or where Alti moved during the fight… if they could. But that was the general idea; they wanted to cause Alti to split her attention.

Alti saw the tactic and tried to back out of the pocket but Gabrielle moved well and Xena advanced quickly. She tried several other tactics to escape the trap to no avail. Finally she did the only thing that she could do; she chose the target closest to her and attacked. Alti flew at Xena and sparks flew when their swords crossed. That’s when Gabrielle launched herself at Alti and Alti instead of engaging both opponents leapt into the air and took wing.

Xena and Gabrielle followed her into the air using the trees. She would fly away from them and then turn and attack when they should not expect it. But they had trained for this too, so Alti was not gaining any ground but then again neither were they.

Gabrielle saw a chance to strike for the thread that trailed behind Alti but if she took it she would have to leap from the tree that she was in and take the chance that when she landed on the ground she would wake herself in the real world or worse. She didn’t even give it a second thought Gabrielle leaped from the tree and sliced through the tail behind Alti. On the way to the ground she sprouted wings and came to an immediate stop in midair. She looked down at her new outfit and recognized it as the warrior uniform of a Warrior Angel.

Just then Xena, who was not in a position to see Gabrielle, leapt from a branch to land on Alti. Her sword was deflected by Alti’s claws but it still found flesh. In a moment of pain Alti screamed and threw Xena back and had she not suddenly sprouted wings as well she would have been impaled on a broken tree limb a hundred feet from the ground. She was also garbed in the raiment of a Warrior Angel with the black and green wings that matched.

Now that they all had wings the battle was fully met. Xena and Gabrielle charged Alti and she was hard pressed to hold them at bay. Their blades slashed and cut and all of them bled.

In the physical world Alti took to the air immediately she couldn’t split her attention this way, Xena and Gabrielle were too good and she could feel her strength waning. Gabrielle had severed the link. Alti was confused she had thought that she would be fighting two mortal women but instead she was fighting eight mortal woman with dozens more waiting to take a stab at her and she was fighting two Angels in the spiritual realm. She couldn’t figure out how she had been so out maneuvered. 

She thought that she had easily escaped one mortal women when one of them jumped up and actually used a tree to launch herself into the air. The woman spread her arms out to her side and large leather flaps that extended from her wrists to her ankles caught the air and she glided. Alti was so stunned by the trick that the woman had slashed a long gash in her wing before she realized her situation. The air billowed through her cut wing and Alti lost altitude. Her attackers meanwhile were all bouncing off of trees and taking wing and the ground below was filling with more.

Just as Alti was realizing that her mortality was at hand if she didn’t find a way to run, Xena kicked her in the jaw and sent her flipping end over end into a thin but solid tree trunk. She was stunned and while she was trying to maintain her consciousness Gabrielle’s sword was coming down on her back. Alti was able to slither aside just far enough to keep the blow from being fatal but Gabrielle’s blade sliced through Alti’s left wing, nearly severing it from her back. Alti fell like a rock from the trees with Xena in close pursuit and Gabrielle a hairs breath behind her lover.

Alti landed with a sickening thud on the forest floor. She had no time to say or do anything before Xena’s sword came down onto her exposed neck for the last time. As Alti’s head rolled away from her body both parts burst into flame and were almost immediately consumed. They stood by and waited. They could feel and see Alti’s soul still hovering because her mortal body was still breathing. Unlike the last time that Xena had killed Alti in the spirit world Alti had gained a great deal of power and was able to separate the two parts of herself. It wouldn’t last long Xena knew, she need only wait until Alti’s body was dead. She couldn’t let Lucifer resurrect or claim Alti’s soul before her body expired or they would be back to do this again.

While their friends fought Alti in the real world Xena and Gabrielle waited for Lucifer to arrive to try and claim Alti’s soul. It hovered like a dark mist just above the ground where her spiritual body had been.

Alti didn’t stand a chance at this point; she was hopelessly out numbered and had no place to go. In a final attempt to at least take one of them with her she charged after one of the blonds and was impaled by five swords. She was a pin cushion when she hit the ground and one of the Guardians relieved her of her head. Scarcely a breath was taken before the first Guardian was joined by her compatriots and Alti’s body was hacked into a dozen or more pieces.

It was when her head was severed in the physical realm that Alti’s dark spirit seemed to writhe in discomfort. Xena reached down and grabbed the mist. How she knew that she could actually capture Alti’s soul like that she would never be able to say… but that’s what she did. When she had it in hand they were suddenly and inexplicably transported into the physical realm… wings and all. Their bodies on the shuttle disappeared and reappeared in the sacred place amongst the Guardians, Marines and their friends.

Xena still clutched Alti’s squirming soul in her hand.

“So you finally finished her and caught her soul?” A familiar voice said from just behind them. Everyone jumped but none were capable of striking the winged man that spoke.

Xena and Gabrielle turned around to see Michael the Archangel and a winged Ephiny standing about ten feet behind them. Gabrielle smiled and quickly closed the gap to hug Ephiny and greet Michael. Xena was a bit slower to approach. She held Alti’s soul out to the side and greeted Ephiny from a safe distance. “Seems so… yeah want her?” Xena held out the black gassy soul to Michael.

“I’ll take her.” He held up a manacle and quickly fastened it around the snake like form. The soul squirmed and writhed with renewed energy as if it knew that it had earned a horrible fate. Michael held the soul up and a light from heaven beamed down upon it and it was consumed. Gabrielle looked at him quizzically. “We have a special place for souls like hers. She’ll have company while she waits for the final judgment, but she will be shackled and bound until then so she can’t cause any more trouble.”

“Good” Gabrielle said sadly.

“Don’t pity her Gabrielle. Alti was a truly evil creature. There were no redeeming qualities about her.” Ephiny told her friend.

Xena put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “So what happens now Michael?”

Michael looked over at his companion. He seemed loath to answer Xena. “Well I only had one pair of manacles so I suppose you get to stay with Gabrielle.” His smile was condescending.

Xena made a move to go around Gabrielle but Gabrielle wouldn’t let it happen. “Why you rotten son of a…”

“Xena!” Gabrielle and Ephiny said in unison.

“What… I ask him an honest question and he pops off with that kind of crap! Can’t I defend myself?” Xena pled.

“She has a point Michael. You did start it.” Gabrielle defended her beloved.

“I did not start it she started it when she attacked me a couple of thousand years ago.” Michael sounded like a five year old.

“You attacked Gabrielle!” Xena shot back.

“I attacked Aphrodite!” Michael spread his wings.

“I was between you and Aphrodite Michael; it looked like you attacked me.” Gabrielle defended Xena again.

“Gabrielle, she doesn’t deserve your defense or your love.” Michael said softly.

“Regardless Michael, she has them both.” Gabrielle said just as quietly. He looked at her gently almost with pity and then threw a glare towards Xena.

“Careful Mikey you might get caught up with a little of that desiring of your neighbor’s stuff or even the big L word… and I don’t mean love.” Xena goaded.

“Xena stop it.” Gabrielle commanded and before Michael could gloat Ephiny advised him that he might want to shut his mouth as well.  She pointed out the audience that had been growing and coming closer.

“So back to the original question, what happens now?” Gabrielle asked of either Angel.

Ephiny decided that she should answer the question. “That’s up to you. You have earned a choice. You may return to your home in heaven and wait…”

“Wait for what?” Xena butt in.

“For whatever comes next. He could ask you to complete another task or not. I really don’t know.” Ephiny replied and waited to see if they had more questions. Gabrielle just indicated that she should continue. “Or you can stay here, in the mortal realm and live as mortals… until you die at which time if you haven’t completely screwed up you will be returned to your home in heaven… again to wait.”

“What do you mean if we haven’t totally screwed up?” Gabrielle had a suspicion but she wanted to hear it.

“That means that you can lose everything that you have worked for if you allow Xena to return to her… old ways.” Michael stop himself from trying to push Xena’s buttons.

“That was crude but essentially correct. You must continue to follow the rules while you are mortal or you will be denied your reward. You have already earned heaven but the added reward is a special accommodation for your service both physically and spiritually. That can be taken away if you break too many rules.” Ephiny responded.

Gabrielle looked at Xena and smiled when Xena tried to look innocent. “As long as my fate is the same as hers… I don’t care.” Gabrielle answered Ephiny.

“So what do you choose?” Michael needed a clear answer.

Xena and Gabrielle were still looking at each other. Gabrielle glanced at the wings on Xena’s back and then at their family and friends that surrounded them. Xena didn’t need her to speak. She knew exactly what Gabrielle wanted, and what Gabrielle wants Gabrielle gets. Xena turned to look at Ephiny. “I guess you’ll be hanging onto our wings for a while. We’re staying.” She smiled because she knew that it felt right.
“Gabrielle, are you sure that you want to gamble so much?” Michael asked.

“Oh Michael, how many times have I gambled my life on her? You should know by now that I would gamble it a million times… or once… every time, because I believe in her. I have since the moment that I set eyes upon her for the first time. Where Xena goes, I go and in this case… we stay.” She smiled at the Archangel. She knew that he meant well. He and Xena just didn’t see eye to eye on most anything except her. It was kind of like the way that she and Ares didn’t get along.   

“As you wish Gabrielle.” When Michael spoke Xena and Gabrielle were both changed back into their original clothing. Their wings were gone.

“Could you tell me please before you go… is Aphrodite still around?” Ephiny nodded but Gabrielle continued before she could speak. “How about Odin and Grinhelda and Hathor are any of them still around?” She was on a mission.

“Peace Gabrielle, yes they are all still around and unlike Ares they still retain some of their godlike abilities. If you call for them if they wish they can respond… except Grinhelda of course but you understand.” Ephiny knew that she simply wanted to say hello to old friends.

“What would happen if they left Earth?” It was an odd question.

“Odin would lose his immortality and his powers; Grinhelda’s immortality is bound to Odin’s. Aphrodite and Hathor may travel from Earth any time they wish.” Ephiny said without explanation and then told Gabrielle that she had another duty that she must tend to and after a quick kiss on the cheek for her friends she was gone.

Michael said good luck and left without another word.