A Xena Story by
DISCLAIMERS: Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Iolaus, Callisto, Aphrodite, Dahok, Hope, Meridian, Khrafstar, and Ares are owned by Renaissance Pictures and/or by MCA/Universal. Arella, who gets mentioned twice in this story, is, to the best of my knowledge, the property of Melissa Good. Arella appears in my story "The Toughest Thing," and is mentioned here for continuity purposes. No copyright infringements are intended or should be inferred. The story itself is created and owned by Larry Dudock. This story is a work of fan appreciation, and no material profit was derived from it.
VIOLENCE: While this story does not contain violence for the sake of violence, it does contain graphic depictions of violence, the result of violence, and death. It also contains some disturbing imagery, especially in the final chapter. Readers not wishing to read material of this sort may wish to read a story other than this one.
SEX: This story contains mild references to sexual conduct. Readers not wishing to read material of this sort may wish to read a story other than this one.
NOTE: This story was conceived and (mostly) created before the first airing of Sacrifice I and Sacrifice II on television. I had no advance knowledge of what would happen in those episodes. I wanted to see how good an ending I could make to the unresolved Hope/Dahok story line. Although there are similarities, the plot and execution of Death Wish were arrived at independently of what was televised.
MUCH THANKS to my beta readers, most especially: Wonder12, whose promptness, and whose attention to detail, has made this a better story than it otherwise would have been.
Comments are welcome. You can email them to me at:
Ready? Here we go...
The morning sun poked its strong beams through the clouds and glinted off the wet grass of the valley. The sound of Argos hooves hitting the soft ground mixed with the sound of leaves rustling through the gentle breeze. The muscular, dark-haired woman who rode her horse glanced down at her red-haired companion, two steps behind. It had been a glorious sunrise earlier, and the woman on horseback took a moment to appreciate the dazzling beauty of the reflection of sunlight on the hair of Gabrielle.
Something that was not sunlight flashed like lightning just ahead of them. Gabrielle felt the change in her companion a half-second before she saw the action. There was a blur of motion, and suddenly Xena was on her feet immediately in front of the horse, her sword drawn. One second later and Gabrielle was at her side, her staff hoisted into a defensive position.
What had appeared was not human, though she walked on two feet. The stringy golden hair fell casually about her face, framing soft brown eyes that looked back at the two women with an unreadable expression.
"Callisto," Gabrielle said.
"What do you want?!" said Xena through clenched teeth.
She, who had once been a woman, continued to gaze at them with a soft look. Her hands remained at her sides.
Xena took a step towards her. "I asked you a question," she said.
"Hello, Xena. Hello, Gabrielle."
Xena and Gabrielle took a half-second to exchange glances. Something was wrong. Callistos presence was never predictable, but this was not a Callisto that either had seen before. The blonde figure before them had neither the ferocious intensity of the monster they knew, nor the wicked smile she sometimes wore when in one of her playful moods. The fire that had animated her eyes on all her previous visits was gone. She stood there quietly, as though she were a little lost girl. "I need a favor, Xena." she said at last.
"Then I need a drink! I always knew you were crazy, Callisto, but I never thought itd get this bad. Even assuming youd need a favor from us, what makes you think Gabrielle or I -- of all people! -- would do you a favor?"
Callisto dropped her gaze. "Oh, somehow, I think youll indulge me on this one, Xena."
She raised her head and stared at the former warlord. "You see, I cant do... what I should... and I need you to help me."
Her voice dropped to a whisper, "...I need you to kill me."
This time, Xena took a step backwards. "What?"
"You heard me, Xena." It was Callistos voice, but it was a small girl who was speaking -- softly, almost pleading, without power, yielding control to others. "Its what I want, more than anything else... and we both know theres no one else who should do it but you."
"If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," said Xena, "Youve tried to kill me more times than I can count on two hands. When you couldnt do that, youve tried to torment me." She glanced at Gabrielle. "And youve done a pretty good job. You keep coming back after Ive defeated you --stronger, ...more powerful... you live to see me ground into dust. Why the sudden turnaround? And why expect me to believe it?"
"Oh, come on now, Xena," she said, "Is it really such a surprise? I meant what I said after Solon was killed." Callisto waited for the agony on Xenas face to fade, then continued. "I lived to see you experience the pain that I felt. ...And when I finally succeeded... I wasnt restored, wasnt healed... not even a little bit. Nothing can help me... not even being immortal." She smiled an empty smile, "The gods of Olympus cast me out... when I killed one of them. Oh yes, you didnt know about that, did you?" A shadow of her power returned at the memory, raising her shoulders, animating her head. "He was such a whiny little thing, that Strife. ...It was one of Zeus rules, no god killing another... and when I broke it..." Her eyes fell, "So you see, Im a failure even as a goddess. The burning, the dead bodies, the destruction, people being afraid of me... it doesnt do anything for me any longer."
Callisto raised her eyes and stared at Xena. "I dont want to be here any more, Xena. You were my reason for living. When I... you... when that was taken away... Ill never settle for the life of those smug toadstools on Olympus. They have no idea what living really means! I wont take a living death as a substitute -- not any more."
Xena thought about her words. It was almost too good to be true. The blonde creature of darkness, responsible for untold misery, for suffering and death on a massive scale, was surrendering -- and surrendering to her. A black monolith that drew its strength from despair, which seemed to only grow stronger year by year, had suddenly, against all prediction, totally collapsed into nothingness. Not for trickery or deceit, but for reasons of inexorable logic, a logic Xena knew to be true from her own long years down that same road, the logic of where the darkness ultimately had to lead: self-destruction.
Some things were so enormous, Xena knew that to think about their implications, to consider what life would be like without a Callisto, could not be done immediately. Instead, she said, "Theres only one thing I know of that can kill an immortal, Callisto. And I dont have it."
"I do," said Callisto.
She opened her right hand and revealed a tiny round clay pot. Blood red, the air seemed to shimmer and crackle around it. "Hinds Blood," said Callisto, "the only substance known to be fatal to the gods. And its yours. Right here." She tapped the top of the pot with her index finger, grinning. "At least Ive arranged that much."
"Callisto," said Gabrielle, "You dont make sense. If you had the Hinds Blood, why didnt you use it on yourself? Why come to us?"
Callisto put the clay pot gently down on the ground. "Oh, youre sharp, Babycakes... real sharp. I wanted to, Gabrielle. I really... really... wanted to. But its another one of those idiotic decrees from that puss-faced pimpstick Zeus. No immortal can unleash the force of ultimate destruction." She gestured down, indicating the pot. "Against another immortal, the punishment is..." Callisto paused, remembering the punishment shed received from Zeus for the death of Strife. She smiled "...excruciating." Her smile faded, "But using it against ones self is... impossible." She snorted, "Not hard to see why. They are so bored, the lot of them would probably use it on themselves in the first week if the rule wasnt there, just to give themselves something different to do. But a mortal? Who can die? They have all the luck. They have no restrictions. And now Im going to give it to you." She stepped away from the pot.
Xena turned and looked at Gabrielle, unsure of what she would find in those green eyes. The woman she had come to know as her better half, her conscience who had physically prevented her from killing, more than once, the woman who used her soul as her chief instrument of peace -- what would she have her do now? True, Gabrielle had deliberately caused her own share of death -- of Arella, of Crassus, but this was in a different league. Would she be able to live with it? With Xena?
When their eyes met, she saw in the green eyes a fiery stare, and an icy determination that would not be stopped by all the gods of Olympus. Gabrielle said, with conviction, "Do it, Xena. Quickly -- before she changes her mind. Shes killed so many, hurt so many, been the cause of so much evil. After what she helped do to Solon... If it was right for me to kill Crassus and Arella, its so much more right to kill her -- to see that she never kills anyone else. And because she deserves it."
Gabrielle didnt say one last line, but through their bond, Xena and Gabrielle both knew she meant it: If you dont kill her, I will.
So we agree on this. Xena nodded at Gabrielle. Once down, once up. She turned around and walked towards the clay pot. Never taking her eyes off Callisto, she crouched down to take it.
"Oh, wait!" said Callisto.
In the barest instant, Xena was erect again, in a combat stand. "Now what?"
"Theres something I need to give back to you," said Callisto, "Something Ive wrongfully taken from you. Xena... do you remember all the times I told you... how alike you and I are? How I implied you and I were equally good -- or equally monstrous?"
Xena paused before answering. "I remember."
"You both ought to know that its not true. You were right, what you said before, about my trying to torment you. And you were right that Im good at it. I told you those things because I hated you, and knew you would believe them. Even if you only believed them a little, Id gain an advantage."
Xena and Gabrielle both remained silent.
"I know you dont believe me. I didnt think you would. Thats why... theres something I want to show you... to share with you. Its a power given to all gods... though its rarely used, especially with mortals. There wouldnt be much mystique left if the gift were used much. ...Would you like to see the world... through my eyes?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. Where was Callisto going with this? Gabrielle raised her hand and said, "Callisto--!"
Before either woman could utter another sound, Callistos eyes glowed brightly, and the entire world vanished.
There was no sun, no sky, and no earth. There was only a furious battering of images, sounds smells, thoughts, pounding furiously at Xena. There was no Xena -- only the raging torrent. The feel of a sword in her hand, the smell of blood, of burning flesh, the screams of the dying, of laughter, the resistance the blade encountered as it carved through bodies, the swirling of colors, lights, mathematical equations, the taste of ale in her mouth, a desperate reaching as the earth smothered her...
The experiences continued, but began to take on more meaning, as they attached themselves to memories and emotions. She saw herself looking down upon the clouds from impossible heights, and knew it was Mount Olympus, and experienced Aphrodite and Ares near her in their essences, unhindered by their earthly forms. She saw two people, mother and father, the two people she loved most, sliced through by a bloodthirsty soldier during a raid on her village. She felt the shock of her mind closing down, her world coming to an end, and then the longer, harder permanence of the rage that came later, a blinding hatred consuming all else. Saw herself grown into a young woman with blonde hair and ferocious power, killing, hurting, burning, felt brief clashes with a tall woman with dark hair and blue eyes, the longer stretches of waiting that filled empty days between those clashes. Heard the scream of the dark-haired woman at the death of her son, felt the moments surge of victory and accomplishment, only to be swept away in the next moment by the same deep emptiness and hatred that were always present, like a second skin, going where she went, never leaving. Never. Not even for a moment. Prickles.
Pins and needles in her arm. Her hand was bone-white. She was clutching her sword so tightly that there was no blood flow. She was lying, half-sprawled, on the ground, her face inches from the dirt, her sword arm outstretched in front of her. Bright sunlight beamed down through the trees. The air was still. The grass was gentle. She felt her self breathing hard. Her hand stung with the pins and needles. She reached over with her left hand and slowly pried the fingers of her right hand open, off of her sword hilt. The buzzing of the pins and needles increased. She beat her hand on the ground to get the feeling and control back into it. Once, twice, three times, four times, opening and closing the hand. Come on, come on... move, damn you... She caught motion out of the corner of her eye, and looked. Gabrielle was sprawled on the ground nearby, looking at her, breathing hard. Sweat was running down her face. Xena didnt need to ask: She had been through it, too.
Xena whirled her head around. Callisto was standing in the same spot as before, and hadnt moved a muscle. As Xena stood up, she raced to piece together the raging torrent of visions and experience that had been force-fed into her mind.
It had been Callistos memories.
Callisto had been right. The two of them were different.
Through the dark years after Caesar, Xena had given in. She had hated everything and everyone. She hated to see any kind of strength opposing her, and killed at will to stop it. She had killed helpless prisoners who had surrendered, and had kidnapped the innocent boy, Ming Tien. It was all motivated by a hatred of defeat, of those who opposed her, of anything that got in her way. When she lashed out, it was to punish it, to beat it down, to smash that nameless force opposing her into the dirt. Whether a person, a nation, or a dumb animal that got in her way, when she lashed out, it was to destroy the destroyer, whatever it was. She wanted it beaten. She wanted to win.
Callisto didnt want to win anything.
It was only sometimes that Callisto killed for some specific reason -- and that went down only to a certain point. Callisto destroyed from a blinding hatred for all that lived, all that loved. From the flood of memories that Xena was only now able to assimilate, she saw that Callisto often killed or tortured randomly, when it served no conceivable objective -- except to serve a momentary urge to see a handsome mans face permanently scarred, a married woman made into a widow, to see the fear in a little boys eyes. If there was a value, it had to be wiped out. The rage that was her constant companion was insatiable; when Xena wasnt available, it had to have other targets: the proud, the beautiful, the strong - anything good; the good, as such.
Xena had despised the person she was before shed met Hercules, but she had never sunk to this; Xena had never, ever, killed women or children. Callisto had. Callisto didnt want to win; she wanted others to lose. She didnt want relief; she wanted others to suffer. She didnt want to live; she wanted them to die -- and had since shed let the hate take her, so long ago.
She looked at Callisto, who said simply, "I had to make you see that you and I... are not alike."
"Why... do you care? Why now?" said Xena.
"The deception was about power, about gaining control... about beating you. But Ive already done as much of that as Im going to do. Now that were at the end, theres no point in keeping it going. ...Im leaving it as I found it."
"...Thank you," stammered Xena. She knelt and picked up the clay pot, pulling the cork out of the opening with her free hand.
Xena whirled around at Gabrielles anguished cry, freezing when she saw the expression on her face. "What?!"
All color had drained from Gabrielles face; even her lips were pale. Her attention shifted to Xena from some unseen darkness, her expression going from white horror to puzzlement to disbelief. "It was right there in front of us, Xena...When she...forced those memories on..." Her expression changed as the truth dawned on her, "You really didnt see that part, did you?"
"See what, Gabrielle?" Xena watched as her friends green eyes return to their place of dread and sick disbelief.
"Xena -- it...its Hope! Shes still alive!!"
Gabrielle waited as a second passed, then another, not knowing what her partner would do with the news shed just uttered. Another second and she saw her expression change in comprehension. One second more and the larger woman was upon her, grabbing her, pulling her in, an arm wrapped around Gabrielles waist, another arm pulling her head firmly against her chest -- not in anger, but in firm, absolute, uncompromising love.
"Its okay... were okay... Shhh..." Xena said as she pulled the bard in tight, feeling Gabrielles head against her chest, feeling the trembling of Gabrielles white horror begin to soften, her breathing becoming more regular. "She wont hurt us anymore..." Felt both of them breathe together. "Well find a way to stop her... I promise you, Gabrielle." Felt the warmth of their bodies pressed together work to soften the ice in Gabrielles heart. And Xena gave a moments silent "Thank You" to whatever benevolent gods might be listening, that she, Xena, had had the ability, just this once, to take the look of white horror off of Gabrielles face, and replace it with the warmth that her green eyes normally held.
She continued to stroke the bards head gently. As Gabrielle began to come out of it, Xena groped to recall from Callistos forced memories, what Gabrielle might have... Ah. There.
The funeral pyre had only slowed her down. Shed ...reconstituted herself almost instantly, summoned Callisto to her. Then they had, together, conceived the most fantastically evil plan imaginable -- To rid the world of its greatest hero: Hercules. Not as if he could not exist any longer, but as if he had never existed. Gods! Only Iolaus stubborn determination, and Ares help, had barely acted to save Hercules mother from Callistos fiery oblivion. However, the creature called Hope apparently still remained.
Xena knotted her brow in concentration. Hmm... Howre we gonna get out of this one?
Two men worked, shirtless in the hot sun, repairing a large rock wall. The first, with curly blond hair, sucked in deep lungs full of air as sweat glistened off his back. He carried a pail of heavy mortar, which he set down and glanced at his companion. His friend, an impossibly broad-shouldered man, had long brown hair framing a kind face. He had his arms over his head, supporting a huge boulder, ten times his own weight. He breathed easily, showing no sign of strain.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a bright flash, turned and stared at what he saw.
"Callisto," said Hercules, "what do you want?"
"Ah, such clever repertoire from you Good People. Such originality. I should follow you around and take notes."
Hercules slammed the boulder down with an impact that caused the ground to shake. "Callisto, I dont like you. I dont like people who kill helpless women and children. And I dont like people who give my friends--" his eyes darted to Iolaus and back again "--a hard time. If you have something to say, say it. If not..." As he spoke he coiled his arms behind the boulder. If she wants to attack, I can maybe launch this at her before she can react.
"Oh, Hercules," She said, smiling, "Now is that any way to talk to someone whos doing you a favor?" She paused to take in the puzzled look on his face. "I have a message for you." She raised her right hand, which was holding a piece of rolled-up parchment, tied with twine. "But rest assured, sweetie, after the last time we danced, I havent been looking forward to seeing you again, either. So, here, this is for you..." She flipped her wrist, and the roll went arcing end-over-end until it was plucked out of the air by Hercules.
"And this..." she looked at Iolaus, "...is for you." She snapped the fingers of her left hand, and a huge ball of flame sped towards Iolaus so fast that he was barely able to leap out of its way as it passed, exploding into the rock wall with a deafening roar, pulverizing the rock, sending a torrent of sparks and fire showering over the surrounding grass, starting little secondary fires here and there.
"Good reflexes," said Callisto. "Mmmm. Have to do something about those one day. Well... till later, guys." --and she vanished.
When the grass fires were out, and both men were sure that no more would be started by any stray, smoldering ember, Hercules walked slowly over to the parchment roll, snapped the twine with his fingers, unrolled the parchment, and read.
His lips moved very slightly as he read. Then they stopped moving. He was finished reading but his eyes continued to stare down at the parchment, as though he had nowhere else to look.
"Well?!" said Iolaus.
"Here," said Hercules, as he handed him the message. Iolaus looked. It was a letter, written in a strong, firm hand. The letter said:
Sorry that I had to have Callisto bring this to you, but she was the fastest way to get to you, and time is not on our side. Tell Iolaus that, if there were another way, I would have used it.
Gabrielle and I need your help, and we need it now. Iolaus has probably told you about the scheme by Callisto, and a new, evil power, to wipe out your existence by destroying your mother before you were born. (If he hasnt, now would be a good time to ask him about it.) This new power, that allied itself with Callisto... It was Gabrielle and myself who are responsible for its being in this world. You know I am no stranger to the gods, and I tell you that this power is like nothing weve dealt with before.
I believe that the entire mortal world is now in danger from this force. If it is not defeated very soon, the darkness that will be unleashed will make all of Ares deeds look like a childish prank.
To defeat this force, you and I, and maybe some of the immortals, must combine our strength. To do this, we need to meet and come up with a plan. Four days journey south of Athens, by the path that leads down towards the ocean and the Great Falls, there is a small village. In that village is a tavern. It now goes by the name of Xenas Honor, (Yeah, I know. Yeeuck!) as I did the owner a favor about a year ago. Meet us there in two days, and well talk.
I know this is a surprise and a shock, and Im sorry to have to do this to you on such short notice. I also know that youre more than a good friend... that youre the kind of man who comes through when his friends need him. Theres nothing more I can say, except... please... and, thank you.
Iolaus put the parchment down. "Could this be a fake? ...Some kind of trick?"
"Not likely," said Hercules, "I recognize the handwriting. Also, its not Callistos style to do this kind of thing. She might lay a trap... but not like this. Even if I thought this might be a trick, Id still go; the consequences of being wrong would be too great. Okay. Well set out as soon as we get our gear. You in?"
Iolaus put his hand on his friends shoulder. "You bet, Herc."
Gabrielle looked across the campfire at Callisto. Xena had established a breakneck pace for the three women and Argo, in order to get to the village and rendezvous with Hercules. They still had more than a full days journey ahead of them. Gabrielle kneaded her calf muscles, trying to moderate their soreness. Cramped muscles and a hurried pace were a normal experience for her, now. But having Callisto along for the ride... that was not. The goddess had reluctantly agreed to travel with them, on their journey to the village where Xenas Tavern was located. She also seemed resigned to conforming to the guidelines Xena had laid out at the start of the trip, but... she wasnt an ally, and could never, ever be thought of as one, by either Gabrielle or Xena.
Gabrielle looked again at Callisto, on the other side of the fire. Creating the blaze had been the only concretely helpful thing shed done for them that day, other than delivering the message to Hercules. The goddess had been astonishingly quiet during their journey. In a way, that was more unnerving than if she'd been her usual taunting, manipulative, invective-throwing self. When Xena had decided that theyd gone far enough today and to set up camp, she had picked this spot. Shed dismounted Argo, and had started to remove the saddlebags.
Not taking her eyes off the goddess, she said to her, "Can you get a fire going?"
Callisto smiled a mirthless smile, and pointed to a spot on the ground. A ball of energy leapt from her fingers, igniting the grasses in front of her in an explosion of heat and light.
"Im delighted," said Xena, dryly.
That had been earlier. Now, the bedrolls had been unpacked, dinner had been cooked and eaten, and there was little to do but to stare at the fire and think. It still seemed preposterous that Callisto should be helping them, even if she had seemingly agreed to it. Callisto definitely had the means to take on both of them. It might have even made perfect sense for the goddess to do so, from her own point of view. If Callisto killed her -- Gabrielle pushed that thought out of her mind. She didn't want to even begin to think of what her own murder might do to Xena. At the least, it would cause her to attack, not stopping until Callisto was very, very dead. Perhaps the monstrous, revenge-seeking Callisto they knew would have made that choice, but not the one currently with them.
"Its going to be a long day tomorrow," said Xena. "Ill take the first watch"
"Against what?" said Callisto.
She smiled brilliantly. "You dont have to worry about me, Xena. I need you alive. Im not going to do anything to you. Not tonight."
"Im not having Gabrielle and I both sleeping -- not while youre around."
Callisto shrugged. "Suit yourself."
Gabrielle turned her head to hide her frown from the others. The change in her and Xenas usual nightly arrangement was not going to make it an easy night. Normally, the two women slept curled into one bedroll, both of them relying on Xena's razor-sharp senses to protect them from the usual night's dangers. Those senses functioned even when the warrior was sleeping and her sleep was always light. They had stumbled onto that manner of sleeping when they'd discovered that it seemed to be the only way to stop Gabrielle's series of nightmares, which she'd been having since Xena had died and come back from death. The lack of closeness tonight was going to make it more difficult for Gabrielle, and the reduced rest would make tomorrows journey more difficult for both women. But not for Callisto. She never tired, and needed neither food nor rest.
Still, Gabrielle couldnt blame Xena for taking precautions, not where Callisto was concerned. Gabrielle didnt want both of them with their guard down in the goddesss presence either. Neither could look at her without feeling the great anger which the blond goddess's presence aroused in them. When Xena broke the silence by asking her an occasional question about Hope or Dahok, Callisto had kept her answers to only a few words, providing little helpful information. It was not an alliance. It was an uneasy truce, more like a cease-fire.
As she started to get into her own bedroll, she noticed that Callisto had her sword out, and was playing with it. For the third time that night, the goddess selected a part of her anatomy, plunged the sword in, and then slowly pulled it out. This time, it was her abdomen.
"Doesnt that hurt?" asked Gabrielle, her curiosity finally overcoming her reluctance to speak.
Callisto looked up. "Yes, it does. Very much." She turned and looked down at the wound. Her powers had already caused the opening to half close. Within a few seconds more, it had vanished completely.
"Then why do you do it?"
"Watching it operate fascinates me," she said, "It reminds me of what powers I have. And, the pain is a relief from this boredom... it allows me to experience life in all its undiluted intensity."
"Dont do that around me," said Gabrielle. "It... its... I dont want to watch it."
Callisto smiled brilliantly, then deliberately took the sword... and plunged it into her shoulder.
Xena rose and walked over to Callisto as the grinning blonde withdrew the blade. She put her nose two inches from her nemesis.
"Callisto," said Xena, looking straight through her.
"Yes, Xena?" she answered with a smile.
"The next time you want to amuse yourself ?"
"Take up masturbating. Youll find it a more interesting game than the one youve been playing."
"Oh, sorry, Xena," she said with a smile, "But no can do. You see, all the girls in my village had that part of themselves...removed... before their first birthday. It was the custom. Women werent supposed to feel that kind of pleasure."
"I dont buy it," said Xena, continuing her stare. "Youve used your powers to restore the other destroyed parts of your body..."
Callisto didnt answer. She remained seated, staring off into space. As the seconds passed, her eyes grew wide and her mouth opened, but no sound emerged. She snapped her head around and looked at Xena with a strange expression, as though being confronted with an idea that had never occurred to her before. Without a word, she rose to her feet, and ran off headlong into the forest.
Xena watched her go, shook her head, and walked over to Gabrielle.
"What did you just do?"
"I dont know," said Xena. "I wasnt going to sit here and let her do that to you."
"You dont... really think... she...?"
Xena looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "I wouldnt think into it too much." She put her arm around Gabrielles shoulder and rubbed it gently. "Im just glad youre okay."
The two women sat quietly together for a long while, until they were interrupted by a scream, far in the distance, a scream that came startlingly out of the night, the scream of an animals sensation of the loss of control, of bounds exceeded, of entering a new world for the first time.
It was accompanied, in the same instant, by twin jets of flame, jets shooting up from a point on the ground two miles away, shooting into the sky, gyrating wildly in a crisscrossed pattern, lighting up the countryside -- like some grand fireworks display -- dying out, then erupting again, from the same spot on the ground, spewing forth across the night in short bursts, as though a great hole in the earth had opened and the fire below sought to speak directly to the sky in some strange code of pulses and silences.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another. The bard had her mouth open, but no sound came out.
They held that pose, frozen... and then burst out laughing.
It was a bubbling, erupting, uncontrollable series of snorts and guffaws, leaving them collapsed onto one another, falling over, unable to catch their breath. The volume of noise they made scared the nearby animals away, and left both women lying on the ground, clutching their stomachs, tears in their eyes, unable to speak, knowing no words were necessary.
The tavern that now went by the name of Xenas Honor held a main room with five circular tables, a fireplace at one end, a smaller room that served as a kitchen, and storage room for tankards of ale... and not much else. The owner had changed the name in gratitude to Xena, who had saved the village from a marauding band the previous year. Now, Gabrielle thought, he probably doesnt know whether to be grateful or not Poor man. The taverns current occupants had requested privacy, and that had been enough to send the owner, his wife, and all the staff and patrons, scurrying for the surrounding hills.
Gabrielle leaned forward and resumed eating the hot stew in front of her. She was glad of the warmth the food provided, and of the fact that they had a pleasant shelter to eat in. Normally, a meal like this would have been the highlight of the day. However, the last few days were not anything close to typical, even for her and Xena.
Spending more than two days traveling at top speed towards this village, pushing their stamina to the limit would have been taxing enough, even without Callisto tagging along. Xena had spelled it out plainly: Dahok and Hope were not to be played with. They were to be utterly destroyed. That meant getting help from wherever it could be found. So, either Callisto would aid them until Dahok was dispatched... or Callisto would have to find someone else to kill her. If Gabrielle hadn't been terrified of Callisto, she'd have gotten a childish thrill out of seeing the look in those eyes, when Callisto realized that Xena had neatly boxed her in. She'd seen the air crackle around the goddess, and for a moment, was afraid she was going to launch one of her fireballs at them. The attack never came. She'd just stood there, fuming silently... with rage in those pale eyes.
Then it faded.
And she'd uttered a very quiet "all right."
Xena and Gabrielle had decided, by unspoken agreement, not to let their guard down in front of Callisto. So, during the remainder of the trip, Xena and Gabrielle kept doing what theyd done the first night: they slept in shifts. Always one was awake, watching their companion.
Finally, they had arrived at the village only an hour behind Hercules and Iolaus. The first hour of that meeting had been a challenge. When the women weren't explaining to the men about their past involvement with Dahok, they had to busy themselves keeping a furious Iolaus from being roasted alive, which he would have been, had he been allowed to go after Callisto. Gabrielle had vividly remembered Iolaus' smile and good nature. She'd never seen him so angry.
Once the background explanations were completed, Hercules had pounded a few trees in the forest, calling insult after insult at his brother until Ares had appeared. Then, when they had calmed him down and reminded him about their mutual stake in stopping Dahok, Ares had, reluctantly, agreed to go and cajole other members down from Olympus for the planning session.
It was one time that Gabrielle was glad to have Xena around -- not as a soulmate, though she was that, but as the de facto military commander of the group. It was sometimes easy to forget that her traveling companion had been the leader of an army that had conquered half of Greece. She'd been all business about the task at hand from the beginning, cutting short the petty bickering from the immortals, attempting to get the haphazard group to work for what was clearly in their common interest: stopping Dahok. More than once, she did her patented 'stare,' the look that could usually stop a charging Centaur, while saying, in a low voice, what Dahok was likely to do to Olympus, once the realm of mortals had fallen. Whether it was true, she couldn't be certain... but the immortals must have sensed that it might be true, for it was usually enough to get the insults to stop.
Above all, Ares knew it. He'd known it the first time. This time, he'd been concerned enough to try to round up as many allies as he could at Olympus. None of the other immortals seemed interested. Only one could be persuaded to join him.
"I want to know everything you know about Dahok and Hope," Xena was saying. "You knew enough to warn us about Dahok that first time, so you must have some idea whats going on."
"What I know is probably not going to be of much help," said Ares. The god of war was tipped far back on two legs of his chair, his feet crossed lazily across one of the tabletops. He looked as though he should topple over backwards, but his power kept his chair rigidly stable.
"I know hes not from Olympus; I checked. He came from... outside. Hes bent on destruction of the mortal realm, but you know that already."
"What are his weaknesses?" asked Hercules.
"Argh!" Ares swatted an arm, knocking over his cup of ale. "Dear...brother... If I knew that, Id have dispensed with him and have been done with it by now. Do you take me for a fool?"
"Gabrielle," said Iolaus, before Hercules could respond, "If I understand right, it was your quality of innocence that Dahok used to bring Hope into the world, right?"
"And it was you that... that...um...got her to consume poison. And that killed her earthly form... at least for a while. ...She wasnt immune to the poison, or to the flames of the funeral pyre you described. That seems to imply that mortals can affect her... it... whatever... in a way that the gods cant."
"Dahoks gotten too strong for mortals alone," said Callisto. "Even if you pathetic wimps could have beaten it before, theres no chance of it now."
"Gods forbid I should ever agree with Callisto," said Xena, "but shes right. Thats the idea behind this little meeting, capish? Mortal and immortal together. Now. Ares. You said he was from outside Olympus, and that Dahok is not like the other immortals. In what way?"
"He cant be fought by conventional means," said Ares. "If you or my brother hits me, I feel it. You try that with Dahok, itll be like swinging at air. I dont think even Hinds blood would work against him."
"What about Hope? Would Hinds blood work on her?"
"Who knows. Hope is a wild card. Part mortal, part immortal. She and Dahok are linked, so if you do something to one, itll affect the other. Although I dont know exactly how."
There was a silence in the room as the occupants digested this.
"Wait a minute," said Hercules. "You said that Dahok couldnt be fought by conventional means. What about by...unconventional means?"
Ares turned his head. "What??"
"What about fighting him in a way you wouldnt normally fight a god."
"Where are you going with this, Hercules?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, he seemed to need you... to need your innocence, and the fact that you werent omnipotent, to get his child into this world. Then, Hope was weakened when you poisoned and burned her. She was weakened by your uncompromising resolve to do the right thing, when you chose not to give in to a weakness. So..."
"Yes," said Xena, "It would indicate he exists on the weaknesses in mortals, and is vulnerable when were at our best. He feeds on..."
"Fear," said a voice from across the room. The other six heads turned. The other occupant had been the most silent during the previous discussion; it was startling to hear her speak, not only because it was the first time tonight she had done so, but also because the mirth and playfulness that usually characterized her voice was gone. "Ive felt his presence in the realm of Olympus for some time now," said Aphrodite, "But it was on the fringes... I couldnt see it clearly until just now, when you described it. Yes. He feeds on fear... and thats his biggest weapon. Hes going to attack by whatever it is that youre most afraid of. His power to make fears into tangible things comes from the immortal realm. But his power to live ultimately comes from the mortal realm, because humans are where the true reservoir of fear lies."
"And so what do we do?" said Xena.
Aphrodite closed her eyes in concentration. "He... got his start in the mortal realm through lies, through deception..." she opened her eyes and looked at Gabrielle. "By misleading the innocent. So... I think the best weapon for the mortals... is the opposite. When he attacks, you must commit to seeing and believing the truth... all of the truth... and you must do it while you are still afraid. Because what hell hit you with is something youre afraid of; Something you dont want to see."
"So, if we evade whats in front of us when he attacks, hell win," said Hercules. "If we dont, maybe well win."
There was a loud crash as Ares reduced the table under his feet into dinar-sized splinters of wood. He hadn't moved a muscle doing it, but his face revealed a struggle to keep back a momentary flare of anger. "Brother... if I am EVER deluded enough to give you command of an army, I beg of you: find a way to kill me. You call that a strategy?!"
"I wouldn't take anything you'd give me, Ares, but, yes, I think you're deluded, you--"
Hercules was cut off by a loud whistle, as Xena's Chakram sliced through the air between him and Ares, bounced off a fire poker, ricocheted off of a roof beam, and flew back to Xena's hand. "ENOUGH! No, Hercules wasn't calling that a strategy. It was an observation... probably a useful one. We don't know much about our enemy. We need every scrap we can get." She turned to the god of war. "Ares. You're correct that we need a strategy. Fine. We leave tomorrow at dawn." Xena looked at Gabrielle's puzzled face. "You don't wait for the enemy to come to you," she continued, "...You go to him."
"Where are we going?" asked Iolaus.
"To Dahok's temple in Britannia. Unless anyone knows a surer way, the quickest route to tracking an immortal is through their temples."
"Aphrodite and I could go looking for him in the non-earthly realms..." said Ares. "Trouble is... it's risky. He's pretty strong as it is, and getting stronger. If he's in a remote corner of Olympus... or somewhere between the realms, and we run into him there, we're on equal footing. One immortal... or several of them... fighting between the realms would have no special advantage. He might even surprise us before we knew he was there, and end things right there. If you want better odds, Xena... that might not be the way to go."
"I want better odds," said Xena.
"By pooling their resources, Aphrodite and Ares could generate enough power to send us all to Britannia," said Hercules. "We'd just have to figure out what to do once we got there."
Xena remained silent as she considered the question. She looked at Ares. "Didn't you once tell me that one immortal could sense other immortals if they're flashing from one place on earth to another... even if the god who is..." She paused, searching for the right word. "...listening... isn't himself on earth?"
Ares grinned. "You've quite a memory, Xena. I don't remember saying it, but it's true enough."
"Then we don't go that way. He senses us coming and he'll be prepared for us. I want to have surprise working for us. ...We go the old fashioned way... by land and by sea."
"That'll take maybe a week," said Ares. "You think Dahok's going to spend that time relaxing?"
"No. He and Hope will spend that time getting stronger. But I think the delay is worth it. You forget how many times I've been the underdog, Ares. The side with surprise... and the will to win... has the edge over a stronger foe." She stood up and lazily stretched out her arms. "It's been a long day, and it'll be a longer one tomorrow, with the traveling. Herc, Gabrielle, Iolaus: you folks should get some sleep. Aphrodite... I'd... I want to talk to you. Privately."
Aphrodite looked up with an amused expression. She turned around, to make sure Xena wasnt addressing someone behind her. "Me?" She gestured at her chest with her thumb, "Youre talking to me?"
"Yes I am," said Xena.
"Tssssss," she rolled her eyes. "Whatsa matter?" she teased, "You... maybe want a little advice from the...Goddess of Love? Hmmm?"
"Yeah," said Xena. "...Something like that."
Three pairs of raised male eyebrows looked at her. "What in particular do you want from her?!" said Ares.
Xena stared at him. Ares took it for about thirty seconds. "Alright. Fine. Do your Girl Talk. See if I care."
"Good," said Xena. "You and Callisto can stay here and watch your leathers fade."
* * *
Gabrielle rose from the bed in the small room and padded over to the fire. The red glowing embers were fading. She watched them, making no move to coax more life from them. She walked quietly to the window and looked out of it. A waning half moon hung lazily over the trees, casting its dim light on the dirt of the village square below the tavern. Additional moonlight fell on the roof of the building, and on the small stables beyond, where Argo was being kept. The trees blocked the moonlight from filtering down to the ground, which was hugged by darkness.
She could see nothing: no movement, no sound, not even the slightest hint of a disturbance in the bond she shared with Xena. "Where are you?" she said, a little louder than shed meant to.
The warrior had a habit of doing things like this; sneaking off, without telling Gabrielle what the plan was; having had to endure it before made it not the slightest drop easier the next time. Shed been out there for hours. What in the world was there to do at night, anyway, let alone the night before both she and Xena would need their strength for the start of the journey towards Britannia.
She couldnt sleep; she didnt want to start writing on her scrolls; doing staff practice would probably wake Hercules and Iolaus. It was hard to keep her mind from wandering. It didnt seem possible that Xena would want to talk to Aphrodite for anywhere near this long a time; Xena could barely stand her... the goddess was certainly drop-dead gorgeous, but that was offset because she was like the rest of them... always so... full of herself. Anyway, she wasnt Xenas type.
She turned her back to the room and stared intently out the window. Could something have happened to her? Could the love goddess perhaps have cast another spell over her? Would their strange bond register a situation like that? Or--
The hand on her shoulder had her spinning around, legs apart, her heart in her mouth, ready to deliver a blow to whoever was foolish enough to...
She recognized the leather, the hair, the distinctive sideburns, the piercing look of the eyes, and she suddenly wished a whole lot harder that Xena was here with her right now.
"Ares?" she said.
He took his hand off her shoulder. "It is way past the time, little Gabrielle, that you and I had a talk."
* * *
The frown on the face of Ares grew deeper. The mortal was answering his questions, giving him information, but she wasnt telling him what he needed to know. Everything she described was the truth as she grasped it; his brief probings into her thoughts matched what she was saying. But that only caused the facts to make less sense.
Why did Callisto want Xenas help? The bitch had other enemies; if she wanted oblivion, there would be a stampede of mortals ready to oblige her. Could she be so demented that shed be willing to hang on for as long as it took to get her archenemy, Xena, to kill her? Moreover, if it came to that, why did she not do something obvious to motivate Xena into doing the job quickly, such as killing Gabrielle?
Something didnt add up, and with Dahok on one side, and Callisto on the other, he was going to have to get some answers, and soon. He had a few ideas on where to start.
"You will forget that we had this little conversation," he told Gabrielle. "Youre tired. Go to sleep." Within seconds, the girl was unconscious on her mattress. The god of war waved his hand and disappeared.
* * *
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Early morning sunlight filtered in through the small window. The empty spot next to her sent a chill up her spine: Xena wasnt back, hadnt come back all night.
She was on her feet in a second, racing over to the window, for she sensed... Ah!
A figure moved slowly across the village square towards the tavern entrance. The height, the steps, and the posture confirmed what she sensed through her bond. Xena was back. Finally. She was alone.
Gabrielle was about to tear herself from the window, race down and meet the warrior below, when something caused her to look into the distance. As she looked, she noticed Xena turning around, too.
Something was covering up the sun.
A colorless circle was sliding over the suns disk, turning the morning back into pre-dawn twilight. Gabrielle took the barest second to glance at the other part of the sky, and saw the waning half moon right where it should be.
She tore herself away from the window and raced down the hall. Flying down the stairs, she almost ran over Xena at the tavern entrance.
"Xena, what is that?"
"I... I think its Dahok. Damn. Hes not going to give us a chance to meet him on our terms. Hes come to us first."
"Whats he doing?! What are we going to..."
"Gabrielle, get the others up. Meet me in the square in one minute. And bring your staff."
In the two minutes it took to get Callisto, Hercules and Iolaus downstairs, the outside had grown considerably darker. Mortal and immortal looked at the strange circle, which seemed to be approaching from the eastern sky.
It seemed to be approaching because it had increased in size. A lot.
Without the slightest hint of illumination or reflection, it was now four times the diameter of the suns disk, growing visibly.
"Its Dahok... and I think...Hopes in there too," said Callisto. "I can sense it."
"Hes coming for us here... probably because he knows were a threat to him," said Xena. "Once he gets rid of us, theyll have no opposition. Theyll be free to do whatever they want."
As the disk grew closer, it grew larger. When it filled an arc of thirty degrees across, another fact became evident. It was not a disk: it was a sphere.
It had looked two-dimensional because of its blackness; the complete absence of light gave no clue to a third dimension. As the thing flew nearer in the sky, the telltale clues appeared: Clouds, then the tops of trees, disappeared into it. An occasional gull, unable to get out of its way, was briefly engulfed by the spheres edge before emerging at another point, weakened but able to land. The air seemed to shimmer around the visible edge, as off a road on a summer day.
A flash of light to one side, and Ares appeared. He looked menacingly at Callisto, and at the sphere with something that looked almost like... apprehension.
"Whats the plan?" said Hercules.
"No time for a detailed plan," said Xena. "We know what it is, and what its going to attack with. We know a little about how to fight it. No evasions. Were just gonna have to hit them hard, now, with everything we have, ...and hope..."
Xena sensed Callisto moving behind her. She turned and faced the goddess, whod taken on a strange look on her face.
"Sorry, Xena," said Callisto, "but I cant risk your being--"
Her sentence was abruptly cut off as a shimmering wall of energy formed around her, like an enormous bubble. Through the clear material, Xena could see that Callisto was as surprised as she was.
Xena turned around in time to see Ares lowering his arm. "Whatever were going to do, were going to have to do it without Callistos help," he said, "Shes not on your side, here, Xena."
Xena turned around to see Callisto pounding on the inner wall of the bubble. Her sound could not escape its confines, but her expression was one of panic and desperation.
"She needs you alive too badly to risk your getting killed in battle with Dahok," said Ares. "Shes prepared to do whatever it takes to stop you. That includes keeping you busy here with her, so you cant go after Dahok. I think you know that. Why else would she follow you around, like your little lapdog?"
Xena looked up at the sphere. Only twenty feet above them, its lower edge was descending into the village square. A hot wind blew around them, stirring up dust and leaves. The utter blackness, some fifty feet across, was opaque. It allowed no light to bounce off, or to penetrate it, though every living thing within miles could sense the malevolence that lurked within.
The warrior princess drew her sword. With her free hand, she turned and gently stroked Gabrielles cheek. "You ready?" she asked the bard.
Gabrielles green eyes locked with hers. "As Ill ever be!"
"Okay," said Xena, addressing the group. You know what to do, what were up against. This thing has to be fought, and has to go down. Lets go."
She looked at Hercules, and the two exchanged the slimmest of nods of mutual acknowledgment: Here, again, they were on the same side, fighting for the same things. They would stand, or fall, together.
Xena charged towards the ball of darkness, her sword held high, her trademark "Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi" battle cry echoing across the tree tops. Her yell was cut off as she disappeared into the wall of blackness.
Hercules, Iolaus, Gabrielle, and Ares followed. Callisto, trapped in the bubble, watched in horror.
In seconds, the dark sphere had swallowed them all, leaving no trace of them to the outside world.
Xena felt a sensation of tingling upon entering the sphere; a disorientation, as though she were on the verge of winking out of existence. She looked around. White. Everything on the inside was white. Exactly the same shade of perfect whiteness. No floor, walls or ceiling. No sense of being out of doors. No air movement. No horizon. Not even anything to differentiate the ground from the air above. She turned around and saw nothing behind her; no wall, no sense that she had just come through any kind of boundary. She reached out and the edge of the sphere was not there. Apparently, it was nowhere. She knelt down and felt under her. The surface was a perfect smoothness, neither hot nor cool. Hard, unyielding, but made no sound when she tapped it with her foot. Well, come on, Dahok; dont make me die of boredom.
The hairs on the back of her neck sprang upward, as they always did when her body sensed danger. She reached behind her and drew her sword. A figure approaching from out of the distance. Tall; dark hair, purposeful strides, coming straight for her. A long sword and clothes that -- Uh oh....
A Xena from eight years past stepped in front of her. A Xena from after Caesar, but from before Lao Ma. The sharpened spike on the helmet smeared with the blood of an unknown enemy, the body armor, as she remembered, dented and slashed from a dozen battles, the price paid as she fought her way to the top of the most feared army in Greece.
"Youre what Dahok would have me fight? Not too surprised, I guess. Always knew I was my own worst enemy."
The younger Xena let out a savage battle cry and lunged for her. The Warrior Princess was ready and sidestepped her, slashing with her own sword as the warlord passed. Her blow was barely registered by the warlord, who pivoted and came at her again.
The first few minutes of the fight were the same as any sword fight with a master that shed had before -- except that she was not used to seeing the murderous fury in her own eyes, nor feeling the savage power of the destructive urge behind each thrust. In speed and ferocity the younger warlord had the edge, which was compensated for by the additional experience and combat knowledge of the older Warrior Princess. Slowly, Xena found the tiny gaps in her opponents technique, mercilessly exploiting them, and found her warlord opponents moves shifted to the defensive. The warrior princess felt the tiny stirrings of victory inside. Then it was wiped out as the warlord put her final burst of energy into one massive final offensive, driving the warrior princess back, making her lose her balance, tripping over...!
A well-placed flip and shed regained her footing, but the battlefield was no longer empty. She had nearly tripped over a fallen soldier, Spartan from his armor, wounded, bleeding from the chest, crawling on his hands and knees, the drops of blood disappearing from view as they touched the white surface on which they all stood. Xenas flip had taken her several feet away from the warlord, who suddenly turned and kicked the Spartan savagely across the face, sending him sprawling. He had no time even to come to a stop; With a bloodthirsty yell, the warlord sliced clean through the flesh and bone of his neck, sending the head bouncing along the ground.
I remember that! That face -- he...the first innocent... oh, no...
The tiny village three days travel south of Sparta had been the first of what Xena thought of as her reputation builders. -- The killing of those defeated, unable to fight back, intended to enhance the dark legend of the fiercest warlord the land had ever seen -- a legend that would help her build an army, and that would make her into a feared tyrant that no one would dare oppose.
Two more soldiers appeared, by a horse; their armor and their eyes marked them as from Chin. They were beaten, defeated by the warlord and by Borias, who had appeared beside her. The soldiers were on their knees, disarmed. Their faces pleaded for help. The Xena warlord charged towards them, as the warrior princess, whod entered the sphere, charged the warlord.
"Hey, dungheap, pick on someone yer own size!"
The warlord turned and gazed at the charging woman approaching. Xena raised her sword and the warlord made no move to escape or to block.
It was like hitting a tree. The impact sent Xena sprawling across the ground. The warlord Xena showed no sign of having even been scratched. She continued her charge towards the Chin soldiers, stabbing one of them in the chest, his body, split almost in two, collapsing with a shudder beneath her sword.
So, this is what it is. My fear, that Dahok is using as a weapon. To be confronted with a past she could never escape. The murdering monster she was, the terror that killed many and drove fear into the lives of countless more. Despite all the good shed done, and could do, that she couldnt ever erase the evil she did, or mute it or block it. To know yourself is to know the way, Lao Ma had said to her. And here, now, Xena glimpsed what it had to mean: A never-ending struggle all the days of her life, between warrior and princess: the hostility, lust, violence... and the compassion, love, and tenderness. The harm done by the years as a warlord would never be erased, and would always haunt her, as the price of evil. The woman in her that loved would not bury, or undo the girl that yearned to swing a sword, or the creature that howled in rage. Ten thousand days of doing good would never eliminate her worse half, or its legacy. This was her punishment: royalty to be trapped with the warlord slithering permanently under her skin, battling to keep her contained and controlled, always in danger of seeping out, of hurting the one she cared for most: a young woman with red hair and green eyes. It was a struggle that could not be avoided or postponed, and which would only be ended... by her death.
Xena closed her eyes, saying softly, "I understand, I agree, and I accept. The struggle is mine to fight. Its Mine. IT IS MINE. Every day. I accept."
There was the sound of breaking glass...
The area inside the sphere was perfect whiteness. No sound no air movement. This was neither the Elysian fields, nor the burning fires of Tartarus. What is this place? Then Gabrielle could barely distinguish the silhouettes of two figures in the distance. She walked towards them, noting the complete absence of sound made by her boots against the surface, despite its hardness. Two women... and a larger object next to them that resolved itself into a tall oak tree. She recognized the taller woman by the posture alone. Xena. She was speaking to the smaller woman.
"Shed cut you to little pieces before you even got in your first swing."
"Thats because you never taught me how to use a sword. Thats going to change. Right now. I want a lesson."
Gods! Its, me, Gabrielle, that Xenas arguing with. I remember this. Our talk after Callisto killed Perdicus.
"Because I wont help you destroy all the ideals that you live by."
"My ideals were a lie. I thought love was the strongest power on earth." Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "What a fool. Love is helpless in the face of cruelty."
"Gabrielle, if youre taken over by hatred, Callisto wins."
"Listen to her, Gabrielle. Shes right."
Both women continued their discussion, unaware of her presence. "Ive got news for you, Xena: Shes already won. Now show me how to use a sword."
"Not a chance." Xena turned around and began to walk away.
"XENNAAA!!" The force of Gabrielles blow caused the tree to shake. The warrior princess turned around.
Gabrielle took the sword and poked Xena in the abdomen, ignoring the look of incredulity in the taller womans eyes. Another jab, same place, harder than the first.
"Teach me." Silence.
Gabrielle jabbed her again. No response. Jab. This time Xenas hand rose six inches in her direction before stopping.
Jab. If I hit her much harder Ill hurt her. That area isnt well armored. I didnt care.
"Teach Me!" Jab. A blur of motion and the sword went flying out of Gabrielles hand onto the ground.
"I wont do it."
"Xena, wake up and look around you. The little, innocent Gabrielle is dead and theres no getting her back. ...Just teach me how to use a sword so at least I stand a fighting chance. Please."
Gabrielle had lived through this discussion before, and knew where it would end. Nevertheless, watching the replay was like having a fingernail torn out. She looked and saw, as her earlier self had refused to recognize, the slight change in Xenas posture, and the change in her clear, blue eyes; a look that meant a defeat worse than losing a battle; it was a look of horror that she, Xena, was going to have to teach Gabrielle how to wage a battle which the girl should never have had to fight. Seeing herself and Xena, opposed under the tree, reminded Gabrielle of a chicken shed seen once, running around with its head cut off: not only aimless, but the most contemptible perversion of the natural way of things.
"Alright, said Xena, "Pick it up." Gabrielle did so. "First thing is that your sword --" *Clang*. Xena swatted Gabrielles blade with her own "-- is not a staff." *Clang*. "You have to learn how to parry so you can look for an opening. And keep eye contact, thats how you anticipate the next move."
"Okay." *Clang*. "Again," said Gabrielle. *Clang*. "Again. AGAIN!!" *Clang*. "Im gonna kill her. Again." *Clang*. "Teach me how to kill her, Xena." *Clang*. "Im gonna cut her open and watch her bleed. Im gonna kill her, Xena. Teach me how to kill her."
Then, she was watching as the younger Gabrielle picked her way carefully among the sleeping, disheveled marauders of Callistos army. With careful precision, she approached the sleeping figure in the central chair. The younger Gabrielles sword was extended, and the blade came within inches of Callistos throat.
Then, she watched her younger self pause, as that younger self remembered her friend Xena, kneeling quietly in the moonlight, praying -- of all things! -- to some unseen power... "Dont let that light that shines out of her face go out... I couldnt stand the darkness that would follow," Xena had said. Gabrielle watched as her younger self withdrew the sword away from Callistos neck, and calmly threw it on the ground. The impact had awakened Callisto and half of her followers, who had immediately taken her captive.
"I wont take a life. Even yours," Shed said to the surprised Callisto. "Id rather die."
Xena, thought Gabrielle as she watched the replay from the past, please... forgive me. Forgive me for coming to the wrong conclusion, at the wrong place, and at the wrong time. I had no right to get myself into something where you had to rescue me, where all I needed to do was to tiptoe out of that place... So differently would I have handled it if I had to do it all over again... I was such a fool. ...How could I have believed that Callistos life was a value, that taking the life of a murderer would make me the moral equal of a murderer? How could I equate the destruction of evil with the destruction of the innocent? I know now, what I did not then: that taking the life of Callisto would have been the right thing, done for the wrong reason. Right, because I would have ended a great evil. Wrong, because I would have become dominated by hatred -- the thing that Xena had knelt down and prayed to avoid. Had I to do it again, I would have killed her without hesitation -- but Id have realized what you had known, but which I had not: never to let my anger overwhelm my love.
The scene around Gabrielle melted and changed. Now, it was the temple in Britannia.
She saw the cold stone pillars, and the central raised platform. She saw the followers, with their grim faces, saw the ugly vision of herself as she went to rescue Khrafstar, and the blood as she stabbed Meridian... Above the action, she heard a strange replay of her own voice, from days later, when shed been talking to Xena:
"Xena, I thought that Khrafstar was leading me to the salvation of the world... the peace and light... and instead I discovered...the heart of darkness. ...I became a part of that! I think thats...maybe what the banshees were talking about... that maybe theres an evil...in me... and that they want to worship that?"
Now she glimpsed the truth that Dahok was using to gain power, and her face winced as she put the pieces together. My pacifism -- my conviction that it is always wrong to kill -- that part of me that Id held up as the most sacred, incorruptible thing -- thats what made Dahoks evil possible.
She felt herself crashing to her knees, a sick feeling in her stomach. Oh, Xena. Oh, gods. Anything but this.
Since shed been little, shed always felt that this was something that set her apart: a unique reverence for all life, and the revulsion of anything that would destroy life. For as long as she could remember, shed assumed that another idea was a natural relation: the unswerving belief that a person taking the life of another was the greatest intrinsic evil possible -- if only she, by the power of her words, and the force of her conviction, could make those poor unfortunates around her grasp the truth -- Aye! -- then the world would be theirs. It had been a source of secret pride -- even during her travels with Xena -- the refusal to take a life, the blood innocence that would, as long as she obeyed that code, make her the moral superior to any warrior, no matter how skillful the hand, or brave the deed.
It was the blood innocence that had formed the initial sense of kinship between her and Dahoks worshipers. It was the insidious manipulation of her, by them, getting her to stab Meridian, that had unleashed that terrible guilt in her, and Hope upon the world. But it wasnt her blood innocence that had led to Hopes birth. It never had been. It had been only her acceptance of blood innocence as a moral ideal.
Her refusal to take the life of a murderer had not meant that Gabrielle would not murder. It meant that Gabrielle could not be counted on to help in the destruction of murderers. That perversion of moral truth, which shed unwittingly carried with her as a moral ideal, had been what Dahoks followers had used, and what Dahok had exploited in her.
Rather than leading to a glorious new era for the world, her idea had unleashed an unspeakable evil upon it. How wrong she had been. How incredibly, unspeakably wrong!
All the evil that had been done by Hope, and those whom Hope had aided... it was Gabrielles worshipping of the false god of blood innocence that had made it possible.
Gabrielles ragged voice whispered from her throat, "Im sorry. Oh, gods. ...Im so sorry. Never. Never be trapped that way again. Please. Let me... work...to fix...this...
There was the sound of breaking glass...
The absolute whiteness inside the sphere vaguely reminded Hercules of the time hed been trapped with the Sovereign between worlds. The stillness was perfect. In fact...
Silence. So. No one else is going to be here, either. Looks like Im on my own... eh?
Two figures in the distance. One, an enormous muscular man, kneeling toward another figure reclined on a bed. Theres something about... Hercules walked towards the figures. As he approached, he heard a voice. His own voice.
"I love you so much,...mother."
He stopped his approach. "Mother?!"
"I know you do, Hercules," said his mothers voice. "It pains me so... to be leaving you, son, to see you so upset. ...Ive always tried to take care of you..."
"Ive been so proud... so very proud... and so fortunate... to be your son," said the Hercules kneeling in front of her."
"Mother, can you hear me??!" said Hercules, knowing, somehow, that there would be no answer as soon as hed spoken the question. This was not the world to come; Alcmene was not here; It was the events of less than a month ago... the worst day of his life... the day she died.
The Hercules before her took Alcmenes hand in his. "Youve made me so proud... so... very... happy..." she whispered.
"I love you, mother." he said.
"I have... no regrets...no ...regrets..."
Her eyes closed, and her hand slipped out of his. Then, she was gone.
"NO!" Hercules turned around and walked rapidly, forcefully away from the vision. His heart pounded and his fists were clenched. It all came back to him, as though it were a moment ago. How angry, how furiously angry hed been that day. Hed sought out an area with no people, to vent his frustration by smashing boulders and pulverizing trees in a nearby forest. Thats when Zeus had sought him out. Now he only focused on the rush of grief and anger that had claimed him until then. Theres no one to blame, here, hed thought as he cracked another rock in two with his fists, theres no one to hate... All the things I can do... all that power... I am the Son of Zeus... and I couldnt even save her...
The weeping had come openly to him then, and came again, now. It was the worst time hed ever felt it, but it was far from the first. The anger, the ferocious anger... the grief. And -- the helplessness...
He didnt know what made him think of Ruhn, that sad, blind boy of nineteen with blond hair and an ugly scar across both eyes from where the renegade Amazon had blinded him. But the thought caused a ripple in the air around him, and suddenly, through tear-filled eyes, he saw the boy in front of him, staring ahead at nothing, leaning against the wall of the village Hercules had taken it upon himself to defend against the Amazon band. He saw his earlier self walk up to the boy. Ruhn held a sword in one hand, and a sharpening stone in the other. He worked on the blade with grim, single-minded determination.
"I thought you handled yourself pretty well with that staff."
"Its not lethal enough," the boy answered.
Earlier that day, hed saved Ruhns life from an amazon who had turned out to be the sister Ruhn had been searching for. Hercules had seen the tattoo of a bird on her right hand, identical to Ruhns. And, she was the right age. Ruhn had repeatedly expressed the view that all Amazons deserved to die. He had told the boy, while repairing his wounds, that his sister, after thirteen years with Amazons, was most likely one of them. It hadnt affected the boys hatred of them. His reply, that if so shed be better off dead, had disgusted Hercules, to the point where he was determined to try to get through to the lad again. Ruhn was an orphan. His parents were killed by the same Amazon whod blinded him and who had kidnapped his sister. Also, he carried ugly scars on his back... he didnt deserve to go through life with a soul overwhelmed by anger, as well.
"Ruhn, defending yourself is one thing, but this... this hatred you carry hurts you the most. Killing all the Amazons in the world wont make that go away."
Ruhn stopped the sharpening, and turned to face him. "I dont want it to go away! Its what has kept me going the last thirteen years. That, and the hope that one day, Id find my sister and take care of her. Like I promised my father."
"Thats... a tall order for a six-year-old boy to fill," said Hercules quietly.
He waited a moment before answering. "Yeah, well... life doesnt always work out like we planned." He spread his hands apart. "We make promises and we try our best to keep them. But if they dont work out, you still have to go on."
Ruhn answered with the same icy reserve hed always used. "Well, I intend to keep mine. I am going to take care of my sister. One way... or another."
It had been a nasty affair. Hercules had managed to get the boy to his sister, and to defeat the tribes leader in the ritual of the Fire Stakes. The leader had been the same woman who had brutalized Ruhn. Hercules hadnt wanted the woman to die, but shed left him no choice. Then, hed stopped brother and sister from killing one another, and had accompanied them to the spot where the boy remembered his parents being killed. His sister had seemed to remember, when Ruhn described it to her. She had seemed to soften, and had been willing to work to renew the tie with her long lost brother. Theyd had a fighting chance at being a family again, thanks to him.
Still, he continued to be haunted by that icy determination in Ruhns eyes, eyes that would no longer see. Such pent-up hatred in them. It had been only the most fortunate of fates that hed been able to give the lost soul even this small chance at hope. He had done all he could, more than most men would seek to do, but... hed felt helpless for days after leaving the two of them.
Just one more person he couldnt save. Like his mother.
His was the power of great strength and courage, which he used, always, to try to do the right thing. Yet, how limiting it all was. When he accompanied Zeus to Olympus as the equal of the others there, hed believed hed be able to use his powers for the greater good of the people of the world. Now, he was back among people, living as one of them. He knew Olympus would never truly be for him, but... existing as a mortal tore at his heart in its own way. How frustrating: to know the taste of the gods, without enjoying the fullness of their power. He could defeat a giant, or an army, but now, how helpless he was ...impotent to restore a blind boys sight, or to make even one lame child able to walk.
Hed wanted to live in a world of peace and freedom, a sunlit world where people were decent to one another. Hed labored for years, with both hands and heart, to make it so. But everywhere, it was always the same. Armies, marauders, petty thieves. Such darkness. People dominated by hate, by killing... the few good people felled by sickness or accident... what was the use?
He lifted his head. No. No, this is Dahoks doing. This is something I struggle with all the time... but Ive never let it destroy me. The world is full of people I cant save. It always will be. Its also true that I am alive for a reason. To inspire, to help, and to do good -- even if I cant do it for everyone. Sorry, Dahok. Some other time, perhaps.
He heard the sound of breaking glass...
Iolaus blinked his eyes rapidly, to be sure his vision wasnt playing tricks on him. The area inside the sphere was a perfect whiteness, like being in a brilliantly-lit, incredibly dense fog. This is it?! Dahoks going to kill us by whitewashing us to death?
"Herc, do you see anything?"
"Herc? ...Xena? Gabrielle?"
Silence. "IS THERE ANYONE ELSE IN HERE?"
Silence. Okay. Maybe its not whitewashing. Maybe its Dahoks idea of death by solitary confinement. Wait... what is that?
Where there had been only silence before, there was now the excited chatter of voices, somewhere off to his left. He began moving cautiously towards them. The voices became louder as he grew near. Then, he saw them, dozens of them. Mostly villagers, a few warriors. Some women and their young children. Some were standing. A few were sitting or lying down. Many of them were wounded to varying degrees, the more serious ones being tended to by their uninjured neighbors. They walked by him, ignoring him. Most of the people were unkempt, some even covered with dirt. Iolaus knew these signs too well. These people had just emerged from a battle. But where is this place? What are they doing in here? Do they even see me? What does Dahok want with...?
"Oh, please, Hercules... Bless my baby!"
He whirled around. That voice! He saw Hercules, standing in the middle of a mob of villagers... accompanied by himself. The Iolaus with Hercules was smiling. Hercules was smiling. The villagers were smiling. Laughing.
Iolaus remembered the place. It was a medium-sized town, west of Sparta, where he and Hercules had helped the townspeople organize themselves against the neighboring warlord. Theyd convinced the reluctant people that the bully on their northern border had to be stood up to, and that, together, they could. It had been a long battle. Iolaus had taken down many of the warlords men himself. Finally, he, Hercules, and the villagers had carried the day; the surprised army had turned tail and fled.
"Please, Hercules!! We owe you so much! My baby!"
The woman was young, pretty, and determined. The men had crowded around Hercules, who had done the lions share of the fighting. The men were yelling, cheering, backslapping him, and pouring ale on top of his head. Theyd just been given the gift of a tomorrow -- and they were celebrating as though there wouldnt be one. The woman, though not a match for her menfolk, would not give up. She spoke his name louder and louder, shoved her way past the burly limbs of the others, fighting to get to the inside where Hercules was standing. All the while, one arm clutched an infant, hastily wrapped in a tattered blanket. It was hard to see through the movement of the limbs of the people between them, but the baby looked no older than six weeks. Iolaus remembered her. The high-pitched whine of her voice, her short golden locks, the veins that showed in the arm she used to shield and hold the infant as she fought her way into the center of the crowd.
Then Hercules noticed her, and noticed what she was carrying. The Iolaus that was standing with Hercules noticed her at almost the same instant. "Whoa, whoa! Easy! Let her through!" said Hercules.
His hair was shorter then. Mine too. And his face. This was years ago! What are we doing back here?
Hercules raised his arms over his head, and turned so that his voice would rise above the crowd, but would blast away from the direction of the infant. "LET HER THROUGH!"
The booming voice caused a lull in the crowds energy, a momentary stillness in the waving arms and legs. The woman used it to push through the last layer of villagers. "Hercules," she said. Her pale blue eyes glittered with the hero-worship that Iolaus had seen all too often.
"Oh, my, ...my goodness. I dont know how we can thank you! Youve saved us. You saved my children! Youre truly a gift from the gods!"
Hercules avoided her stare, looking sheepishly at the ground. "Thank you miss," he said quietly. "But this whole town deserves thanks. We all--"
"Oh, bless my baby, Hercules!" She unwrapped the babys head and thrust him towards the demi-god.
Hercules didnt know where to look. Embarrassed, he took a second to scan the eyes of the other villagers. He found adoring expressions on their faces, as though the young mother had embodied the emotion of the whole group, crystallizing it into a single moment, which was now.
"Oh, please," continued the woman, "Your blessing will ensure a happy, peaceful, long life to my baby, and to our village. Truly it must be so, coming from one such as you!" She shoved the infant under his chin.
"Um... well... uh..."
"Oh, my baby! Oh, bless my baby, please, Hercules!!"
Hercules smile, at having saved the village, was now replaced by a frown of discomfort. He glanced around at the other townsfolk. They all crowded in close, waiting for him to make the next move. Iolaus noticed, as his earlier self had, years ago, that his friend conspicuously avoided looking at him.
Then, Hercules changed his posture slightly, as he made a decision.
"Whats his name?" he asked the mother.
"Uh... OH! ...Its Beroneous," she said.
"Beroneous." He took the child gingerly, forced a smile onto his face, looked quickly at the mother, and then back to the baby. "You... You have my blessing... small one," he said quietly. "May your life, may all your lives, be long and peaceful. And may the gods smile on you." He kissed the baby lightly on the head, and handed him back to his mother.
As the townsfolk gleefully raised their hands and cheered his action, Iolaus felt a tangible wave of something dark settle over the area, though the others seemed totally unaware of it. He blinked his eyes and looked at his hands, closely. No, it was not a physical darkness. The quantity of light here was as it had been, but the something... that something... in the air.
Then he looked at his earlier self. He saw the expression on that Iolaus, remembering, vividly, how he, himself, felt at the time. That earlier Iolaus wore a deep frown across his face. He was rolling his eyes, his thumbs rubbing independently against the sides of clenched fists, the way they always did when he was angry.
The Iolaus who had entered the sphere turned pale, as he realized that the wave of darkness was coming from himself. A wave of intense emotion battered against him, nearly knocking him over. He felt a violent hatred; a hatred hed pushed down, fought to outrun, struggled to deny. But that woman... that baby... that man.
Why the injustice?? Theyd fought together, side by side. Countless times. Saved more people than either could remember. Why was Hercules always the one to get the honor, the cheers, and the adoration? The big lout didnt even want it! He didnt know what to do with it when they thrust it at him! Did they all have a maddening, self-blinding worship of brute strength? Was the accident of physical endowment meant to permanently seal his companion into a realm of legend and worship, while he, Iolaus, was to be equally sealed into anonymity and oblivion?
I am a GOOD warrior... I am a GOOD man! ...As good as you, Hercules! I do the hard things too... fight for the larger good... work tirelessly to aid people who cant help themselves. My reward is to be... as nothing? A faint ember next to the bonfire of Hercules??!
It was always somewhere, buried under the affection, friendship, and respect. In that moment it seemed so simple, so clear. It was -- no, is -- as clear as clear can be: Hercules existence would always be a permanent obstacle to Iolaus independent achievement. The worlds greatest hero would forever blot out an honor, recognition, and simple respect that would otherwise have belonged to him.
That filthy, thieving, miserable little bag of puke! How dare you take that away from me?? HOW DARE YOU?!? I.... I ought to BREAK YOUR NECK!
Suddenly, Iolaus was running. Running away from the crowd, from the baby, from Hercules. From that insane, filthy, violent hatred that could not, would not -- MUST NOT -- be there. The image that flashed through his brain -- a dead Hercules, strangled by Iolaus own hand -- that was not who he is, was not what Hercules deserved to have... It was nothing Iolaus would dare tolerate in himself. Not for an instant. He closed his eyes, and continued to run. Harder, faster, though for some reason his limbs seemed to be slowing down, as though he was caught in some huge jar of molasses. I didnt see it, didnt hear it, didnt feel it. I am not that obscene, ugly thing. Not that corrupt monster. It isnt me. Wasnt me. Isnt me. It is not there. Is Not. It is NOT.
Iolaus felt lightheaded, though he didnt know if that was from the maddening dash he was making away from the villagers, or from some effect of this strange place. As he felt himself slip to the ground, he thought he could make out small patches of the whiteness dissolving away.
It seemed that far away, someone was laughing...
When Ares penetrated the boundary of the sphere, he immediately knew he was alone. Somehow, Dahok had acquired the ability to shunt each of the attacking party off to separate dimensions. He thought, you poisonous snake... this is even worse than I feared.
He stopped his forward momentum and looked around. To mortal eyes, everything around him in this dimension was an undifferentiated white. But Ares looked considerably beyond the realm of the human senses. In the wavelengths of light inaccessible to humans, he could see a clear, pulsating disturbance, coming from one direction. As he grew closer, his Direct Energy sense began to register also. It was a nasty sensation, as though insects were crawling all over him.
"Come here, you coward," he said. "Face me!"
The disturbance of energy he was seeing flowed and bubbled, and solidified into two beings in front of him. One was Xena. The other was a re-creation of himself when he appeared to the humans as one of them.
"I dont busy myself with illusions," he said.
The flames erupted from his fingertips, passing harmlessly through the replicas as though they werent there. Well, thats one thing that wont work here. He looked at the replicas more closely. Their mouths moved, as though having a conversation with one another, yet no sound emerged.
He looked with his other senses. His replica was angry; he wanted something from Xena. His replica was snarling, smiling, talking at the Xena replica, which ignored him. When his replica tried to step into her line of sight, she turned away.
Finally, his replica shouted something at her, though again no sound emerged.
The Xena replica turned her head, looked casually, disapprovingly at the figure, mouthed two words, then walked away without looking back.
He knew what the two words were: "Goodbye, Ares."
He put the words together with their body language, and integrated what his Energy sense was telling him. Then he knew.
It was a replay of a conversation theyd had many times. Hed wanted her back. The fire within her, the rage, the bloodlust... they were jewels beyond price. Yet, what did she do with those gifts?
For ten years, she had been his Chosen: the most feared mortal in all of Greece! And then, after ten years, when the hatred, the anger, the urge to destroy should have been fixed and irrevocable...
Yes, one day, shed done the unthinkable. Shed left it behind. For its opposite.
His power, his will, and his strength: it was hers! She did not only refuse it, which would have been madness enough. The bitch had the unmitigated gall to turn it against himself, against all the things he valued, against his grand plans!
It infuriated him as nothing else could. It had for a long time.
Every day, she slipped further out of his grasp; every day she used more of his gifts in the opposite of his values: aid and comfort to sick and helpless mortals...stopping wars his lieutenants had carefully arranged...using her skill to extinguish disputes that hed worked to bring to a boil...
Then the energy of this place pierced him, and he saw further. He saw that Xena and her defiance were only part of a larger thing. A thing he knew and had savagely pushed out of his awareness. The thing he struggled to deny and bitterly hated.
The mortals never pleased the Olympians; they never could. However, they had pleased Ares least of all. True, they had the capacity for killing and war running just beneath the surface... even the women and children had it. And true that, with but slight provocation, their natural limitations and difficulties could be used to incite them against one another... and when that happened -- Ah! -- it was good, the way nothing else was!
Xena, in a way, was the embodiment of the whole cursed species! Xena, the one most like himself, the being hed savored for years, cultivating the savagery, the bloodlust, the eagerness for combat... in her heart, even she did not want it... and when she did, she did not want to want it.
And Xena, she was the best of them! The overwhelming majority of their stinking masses had no fire within them, no urge for destruction. Except for brief periods, they longed simply to live, to exist, to care for their pathetic families, and to practice their beliefs in peace. Though they saw no permanent solution, they stubbornly continued to view fighting as an unnatural hardship. To them, it was a dreadful duty to be painfully borne. They conceived brilliant solutions to avoid it, as often as to start it.
Worst of all, a new breed seemed to be emerging among the humans: a monstrosity that, although rare now, was growing. It dedicated itself to enhancing peace and goodwill: one who made it his lifes work... to oppose him!
In her own way, Xena was in the forefront of this trend.
As these thoughts pierced his awareness, he felt his power draining. Dahok was using these cursed facts against him, robbing him of his strength, adding Ares stolen power to his own.
Not only was Ares losing; in this place, he had no chance of winning! He was going to have to withdraw, to find another way... somehow.
He used his power to form a fire shield against his enemy, trying to block that cursed, pulsating light that was beyond humans ability to see. At the same time, he willed himself back, back away from the center, back in the direction hed come, where the pulsating was less, where the boundary of the sphere should be.
As he withdrew, he felt himself growing weaker still; the essence of the place was draining his strength; it took all his energy just to flee. Yet, he seemed to have the edge. Seemed to be able to keep one step ahead of...
A giant wave of the pulsating energy had broken through his fire shield, had rolled across the intervening space, and had engulfed him.
"NOOO! Damn you!"
He drew his sword and began swinging wildly, slicing through the energy, while fire erupted from every exposed surface on his body as a second means of counterattack. By repeated, maddening strokes, he sliced a hole through the wave, then used his fire to prevent the edges from closing over. He felt frighteningly weak, but leapt through the hole, willing himself at top speed towards the dimmest area of whiteness.
Dizzy and faltering, he felt the whiteness dissolving away around him. His mind dancing on the edge of awareness, he felt a final, savage blow launched at him from Dahok. As he raced out of the sphere, an image flooded his mind of what Dahok wanted: huge numbers of unburied corpses in all human habitations. Huge fires, burning across the land, out of control. Charred hulks of trees amidst starving birds and panthers. Disease ravaged wild horses collapsing into the dust... and people. The people... there would be no more wars on the earth; there would be no people left to fight them. With the realm of the mortals gone, a supremely powerful Dahok would irresistibly stride into Olympus, like a sword through unprotected flesh... and the gods would be helpless against him.
As the thought dissolved, and Ares crashed against the earth, he could hear the laughter...
Callisto pounded furiously on the sides of the bubble, as she had been doing for some minutes. As an immortal she did not grow tired, but the obstruction was as solid as ever. Her anger fed on itself, increasing the pace of her blows. If something happens to Xena because of your interference, Ares, I swear, by Hera, all the gods of Olympus wont be able to protect you!
Without any warning at all, the bubble disappeared. It happened while Callisto was swinging a blow with both fists, and the momentum carried her over and dumped her on the ground. She looked around. She was still in the large courtyard, in front of the tavern. The pulsating black sphere that was Dahok was still present, though it was reduced in size; it was now twenty feet in diameter. Sprawled on the ground at various points around the sphere, she could see Gabrielle, Ares, Hercules, Iolaus -- and Xena. Xena, like the rest, was moving, although slowly. Thank the gods!
As the combatants struggled to their feet, she heard a voice from inside the sphere. It had a deep scratching sound, as though a steel blade was being dragged across rock.
"Ssssome of you...have besssted...your fearssss...but ssssome of you...have not.
As the voice spoke, Callisto saw that Xena moved to protect Gabrielle, while Hercules moved closer to Iolaus. Ares seemed the groggiest of all; he moved too slowly to be of any help.
"Thossse of you...who have run...from your beasssts...have made me...sssstronger. Ssstrong Enough. ...It issss now time... to ssssay goodbye. Sssstarting with you... Gabrielle.
Callisto could sense a change in Dahoks sphere: A shift in the pattern of energy it put forth. Something told her a surge of power was building up from within. As she noticed this, Xena had sprung into action, moving directly between Dahok and Gabrielle. "Youre not getting to Gabrielle without going through me first," Xena said.
Dahok made no reply. The surge continued to build. Another few moments, and the focus would be complete. Then it would be released.
It would be released at Gabrielle. But it would impact Xena. At this stage, the attack would kill her... and with Xena dead...
There was no time. Callisto launched herself from where she stood, putting every ounce of energy into the run. The energy inside the sphere was red hot. Dahok was saying one final word, but that didnt matter, just the distance, just closing the distance, shorter, getting shorter, she felt the energy release -- almost there, almost there -- saw Xena brace herself for the attack, was close enough, put her foot into the jump for the last few feet, she was sailing through space, caught one instant of astonishment on Xenas face, turned her body to provide the widest target, then the raw energy hit her, hit her full out, like being pierced in a million places with white hot razor sharp blades, was blown back by the impact, lost awareness, didnt feel the punishment her body absorbed as it hit the ground hard, ten yards away and to the right of where Dahoks attack had smashed into her.
* * *
Gabrielle couldnt believe it? Callisto?! Never had she imagined that the goddess would ever, ever, perform a selfless act, let alone one of --
"Gabrielle, RUN!" said Xena.
She ran at top speed for the cover of the tavern, twenty yards away. She ducked behind the building and stuck her head back out, wondering what Xena would do, and what kind of a plan this was: Dahok could not be outrun; he could go anywhere. Callisto was down, unmoving. Ares was barely moving. Hercules and Iolaus were clear on the opposite side of the sphere, too far away to help.
"You...have interfered...long enough," said Dahok, addressing Xena. "Now... it issss time... for you... to die...and thissss time...there will be...no one...to help you..."
"Thats what YOU think," said Xena.
There was a bright flash off to Gabrielles right, from directly behind Xena. Gabrielle looked -- and her mouth dropped open.
Aphrodite was there in a combat stand, her feet well apart, holding the largest crossbow Gabrielle had ever seen. The stock extended nearly a full body length away from her in the direction of Xena and Dahok, the arms of the bow spreading an unbelievable twelve feet from side to side; the bolt, a shimmering object sparkling in the light, looked to be eight feet long. Its size and mass made it look like the goddess should topple over forward. She raised the weapon and aimed it, as though it weighed nothing.
"Hey, Dahok," Aphrodite said in a level voice, "Eat this."
The TWANG as the bowstring released hurt Gabrielles ears. In the briefest instant, the bolt was away, through Xenas back, out the other side, and penetrated the sphere at dead center. There was a terrible tearing, grinding, crunching sound, then a blinding flash as the sphere shattered, like a thin glass construct, into countless fragments all blown outward. There was a horrifying scream, and the barest instant of the image of a small girl with short blond hair, the right side of her face horribly burned and half melted, held in a gentle embrace from...someone... Then it was gone as the noise from a second blast reached Gabrielle, knocking her backward off her feet. She fell to the ground and rolled over onto her stomach, her eyes shut tight, her hands shoved hard over her ears, as the pressure wave passed over her, and the great rush of air pushed back in behind it.
Then the roar subsided, and was replaced by quiet. As soon as she dared, Gabrielle opened her eyes.
The sphere was gone. The ground under the center of the sphere was burned black. Tiny glass-like shards littered the village square, concentrated at the center, but extending outward in all directions for dozens of yards.
Smoke poured from an object at the spheres center: the remains of a humanoid/animal monstrosity. It had the skeleton of an enormous man, with torn off claws in place of hands. Its skull was that of some vicious predator, elongated with huge eye sockets -- neither human, nor animal. Next to Dahoks corpse lay the smoldering remains of a human body, the small area of the head that had not been burned away displaying the long golden hairs that were the tip off to its identity: Hope.
Suddenly, Gabrielle realized that she and Callisto were the only ones there. Hercules, Ares, Aphrodite, Iolaus, ...and...
"Xena? ...XENA?! XEEEENNAAAA!!"
Silence. Only silence.
"No. ...No. No no no no no nonononono..."
She felt desperate blackness close over her. Could she be... no one could have survived that... but where WAS she??! Where were the rest? Please, oh please...please dont leave me here. I have to know what happened to you!
She saw a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. Callisto. She was hurt. Badly. But she was moving. Very slowly, and without purpose. But one arm was moving.
Sobbing, Gabrielle crept closer. Callisto slowly opened and closed one fist. Gabrielle could see that most of her body had been burned. The flesh blasted off by Dahoks attack. Yet... incredibly, the regeneration was starting. She could see new bone and blood vessels forming to replace the old, and those were in turn covered over by muscle and skin. It was happening slowly, but the progress was visible. Callistos face was turned towards the earth, and Gabrielle could hear her moaning with pain.
Gabrielle looked around; The pouch where Callisto carried the clay pot of Hinds blood was ten feet away. Slowly, she walked over to it, picked it up, and opened it.
The pot within was undamaged.
It was cold and smooth. Gabrielle looked back at Callisto. Xena had wanted her dead. So had she. So much evil had come from Callisto. All this time, Gabrielle had been certain that Xena would be the one to... and now, who knew where Xena was... More, what would Callisto want, once shed regenerated? She couldnt be allowed to go on.
Gabrielle felt as though a rock had punched her in the stomach. She knew that if another opportunity to wipe out Callistos evil arose, that it had to be seized. But she didnt want to be the one to... She knew she had an obligation to Perdicus, to Xena, to her sister, to the uncounted numbers of innocent people that would be vulnerable to future darkness, if the goddess lived.
The wounds were continuing to close. Callisto was now moving her other hand.
It was no longer a question of betraying her soul; She knew it would not do that. It was not hate that would dominate her now, not anger that would take over her spirit. It would be simply the acceptance of a grim duty to rid the world of a... But a... knife?
She took out her dagger, opened the clay pot of Hinds blood. She felt the air crackle and shimmer around her hand, felt the coppery smell of the blood assault her nostrils, along with another odor she couldnt identify, something beyond the smell of ordinary blood. With shaking hands she poured the liquid onto the sharpened edge of the dagger. She put the pot down, and took a step towards Callisto. Then another.
Why?! Why Me? ...Because Im the only one here. Theres no one else who can do it but me. But a knife?! Thats so...
A club, a rope, even a staff or a bow; all could be used to kill at some distance. The people shed had to kill in the past... even thinking about those times now made her stomach churn into little knots... but they were nothing like this. A person using a knife couldnt kill at a distance; she had to get right in there...
Another step. Another.
She had to get right in, feel the blade penetrating flesh, feel the spurting of the blood as it poured out and soaked her hands, feel the sickening convulsions as the body entered its death throws.
Another step. Right next to Callisto.
Gods, I do not want to do this! Please...
She thought of Xenas smiling face, her tender hand against the bards cheek, thought of the times the warrior had moved to comfort her, to make her pain go away, thought of Xenas terrible scream as she realized what Hope had done to Solon, and that she, Gabrielle, couldnt help her. She thought of Perdicus, his gentle smile, and the terrible feeling of horror as she held his dying body in her arms, the life draining from him, the unimaginable terror she felt as his eyes took on the glazed-over look of the dead...
No. Not one more loss like that. Not one more person suffering, as I did, because of you. Not one more.
She gripped the dagger with one hand, took a handful of Callistos hair with the other, gave a sharp yank and pulled the goddesss head back, and in one fluid motion she swung and cut the carotid artery just under the left ear.
She looked into Callistos stunned eyes; the goddess was alert enough now to know what shed done.
"This is for the man you killed," she said.
She saw the blood pouring out of her neck, as though squeezed by some enormous bellows, smelled the coppery scent, saw Callistos leathers become soaked in the liquid, saw the look of astonishment in Callistos brown eyes.
"No," said Callisto, "Not you..." She collapsed backward onto the ground. "It...wasnt supposed to be... you... ohhh, nooooo!!" Her cry faded to a tiny noise and that was replaced by silence, as Callistos body shuddered for a moment, then lay still.
Gabrielle let the knife fall out of her hand. She saw that her palm and fingers were covered with blood. She looked up through tear-stained eyes and thought of Xena. She wasnt here, and that overwhelming fact made all else irrelevant. She looked down at the dagger, and thought for the briefest instant that maybe she ought to use it on herself, before pushing the thought violently away. Not till I find out what happened to her... somehow.
For some reason she remembered advice from her mother from long ago. It had been when her parents had told her of their wish that she marry Perdicus, before shed met Xena for the first time. Shed felt queasy and disconnected.
Her mother came to her and sat beside her on the bed. "Youre feeling kind of bewildered, honey?" she asked.
Gabrielle nodded her head yes.
"You know whats good for that?"
A long pause. "What?"
"Drawing water from the well."
Gabrielle looked at her.
Her mother smiled. "Sometimes, doing a normal thing helps you feel normal. Go ahead, go get us some water."
She couldnt stop crying, and couldnt wipe her face off, as long as the blood was on her hands. Suddenly, she was tired of smelling blood. Wearily, she got to her feet, put the dagger in its sheath, walked into the tavern, and found the water supply. She poured some carefully into a bowl, and began to wash her hands off. It took her longer than shed expected.
Shed almost finished when a voice behind her said, "Nice work."
She turned around. Ares. "What?"
"I mean, about Callisto," he said. "Couldnt have her around. Shed never been born a god... had no appreciation for the power... how to use it, how to control it. Shed have destroyed us eventually, or wed have been forced to destroy her. Oh, I checked up on her... found out why shed been acting so strangely. You see, it turns out shed made a deal with Hades. Appealed to his... ironic sense of humor. She got him to agree that if Xena used the Hinds blood on Callisto, then he would banish Callisto to simple oblivion: no continuation of any kind. But it had to be Xena... and only Xena. He would only do it if Callisto was voluntarily killed by the person shed hated most in life." He smiled. "So you see, you not only took care of her for me... you took away her special deal, too. Now she gets treated same as everybody else."
Gabrielle walked up to him. "Where is she?"
"XENA!" she shouted at him.
"Ah, her. Well. It turns out, with Callisto gone, theyve got me doing messenger duty this time." He looked at her, "I suppose I can do it this once... in gratitude for your help with Callisto. Come on."
He put his hand on her, and they both disappeared.
"I cant believe it. You actually had that all planned out?" asked Iolaus.
"Not all of it, but... we tried," said Xena.
He was standing next to her bed, a golden mattress floating in air, with no visible support. She was wrapped securely in silvery blankets that felt like goose feathers, only warmer and softer. The unearthly coverings were tailor made for her, exposing only the small area on her chest where the wound was. Inches to the left of dead center, below her shoulder blades, it slowly rose and fell with the rhythm of her breathing, a palm-sized red stain showing beneath the overlay of bandages and golden powdery stardust, which was the treatment of this place.
"I had... a feeling... Dite knew more... that might help us," she continued.
"Thats what your talk with her was for."
Xena nodded, shallowly.
"She says youre made of unbelievably tough stuff. She says youll be out of it for a few days, but that after that, youll be okay."
"Mmmm. I should hope so. Gabbyd never let me hear the end of it, if I..." she looked up, then right to left. "Where is she?"
"She was too far out of range to be affected when Aphrodite moved everyone here," he said. "And we were too busy getting you stable. But... its been less than an hour, as far as I can tell." "We have someone..." he paused, wondering how much he should tell her. The look on her face said: Dont keep it from me -- not now. "Ares has gone to get her and bring her here. He... he seemed very... uh... businesslike about, uh, going down there; I dont think hell be any trouble."
"He better not be," she said with as much menace as she could drag up into her voice.
Around Iolaus and Xena it was quiet with inactivity. The Healing Palace on Olympus was not used much; when gods fought, it was never to the death, the decrees of Zeus had seen to that. The residents could heal themselves of whatever wounds they had simply by concentrating. The reflection of the two mortals gleamed off the sparkling glass enclosures on both sides of the room. One side, lined with a perfectly smooth, mahogany-like counter top, contained drawers and cabinets. Inside them, Iolaus could see jar after jar of herbs, powders, liquids, occasional skulls and sets of bones, and item after item he did not recognize. On the opposite side of the room was a case containing scroll after scroll, each set perfectly in its place, rack upon rack, row upon row. All was perfectly lit, though no lighting source could be seen. Not a speck of dust touched any surface. Both cabinet and scroll case were about twenty feet high, designed for beings that could fly or hover in the air, and stretched off into the distance, both coming to a point on the horizon. Actually, room was not an apt description for the place... but neither was hallway, unless one envisioned an endless one. Some distance away, near one of the other few floating beds that punctuated the otherwise empty hallway, were two figures talking quietly: Hercules and Aphrodite.
"But how did you know what sort of weapon would be effective?" continued Iolaus. "I mean, I didnt even know Aphrodite could shoot like that, let alone something that size. And who was that? Uh, that girl with the burned face? I mean we only saw her for a flash when the sphere shattered, but... where did she come from? What does she have to do with Dahok?"
Xena lay there, without speaking. She was looking through Iolaus, not seeing him, but seeing something far away. Finally, she said, "As to the first... I have many skills. As for the second... I... well... Ill let um...Gabrielle tell you about it... if she wants."
The two continued to talk quietly for some minutes, until Xena felt a change in the air, and the bond she held told her that her soulmate was near. She heard Iolaus stop in mid-sentence. She looked up at him, saw where he was looking, and slowly turned her head, following the direction of his gaze, coming to rest on a young woman with long red hair and green eyes, looking at her. She noticed dimly that Iolaus had turned and had backed away, leaving them alone.
She did not know how long Gabrielle stood looking at her, because the next moment she grasped fully was when she saw her bent over the bed, her face pressed to the warriors stomach, her hands grabbing Xenas shoulders for dear life. She felt Gabrielles shaking, and her crying. She sensed the moment when a shudder ran through the bards body and left it still, and had run into Xenas and made her able to move.
She saw her hand moving gently over Gabrielles hair, smoothing it as she cried, feeling as if she had no right to do it, and feeling as if a current of life were flowing from her hand, covering them both, smoothing the past. Xena did not move, neither did she speak, knowing that the act of holding her said everything she had to say, or would ever have to say.
When Gabrielle looked up, Xena saw the tearstains around her eyes and on her cheeks. She saw the wet, bent look of the lashes, the dirt in the hair. But she noticed only that the face looking at her looked as though no pain had ever existed in the world. She was smiling.
"Im so sorry," said Xena.
"For what?! For saving my life? For destroying that..."
"No, Gabby, no. For leaving you there. For not having you come with us. I never thought youd be out of range when Aphrodite moved us here. I just knew their might be a big bang if the plan worked. And if it didnt work... I wanted you out of there anyway."
"And Im sorry you werent in on the plan from the beginning. I honestly didnt know if Id had something. Another few minutes, and Id have been able to tell you everything. ...there just wasnt time."
"Xena... when I saw that bolt go through you, I thought... and then when I opened my eyes and you were gone, with the others... and only Callisto and I left--"
"Callisto. ...Gabrielle... is..."
"Xena, shes dead. I killed her. I couldnt let her go on, doing what she does. Ares said shed made a deal with Hades for special treatment, on the condition that you killed her, but now, shes dead just the same, and shes not coming back. Xena, I--"
"Shhh. Ill hear about it later," she told Gabrielle softly. "Im... just so glad youre all right."
Gabrielle looked down at her, just drinking in the sight of her, savoring how wondrous it was to see her face, her incredible blue eyes, again. "I love you," she said.
Xena smiled a smile that looked as though the warmth from her heart was boiling over, like some violent geyser. "And I love you," she told her soulmate.
* * *
Far down the spotless hallway, Aphrodite sat on the bed. She didnt meet the eyes of Hercules; she simply looked down. She held a frilly white piece of cloth, not unlike the clothing she usually wore. With it, she dabbed at her eyes, occasionally. She was crying.
Hercules had his hand on her shoulder, rubbing it gently. He noticed that her dabbing at her eyes didnt seem to keep pace with the volume of tears. The bed was damp with them.
"Its gonna be all right, Sis," he said to her.
She shook her head. "No. No its not, Herc."
He continued to rub her shoulder, lifting his other hand and gently moved his fingers through her hair. "You didnt want them to see you like this... is that it?"
The crying intensified, seeming to feed on itself. He kept rubbing.
"You have noooooo idea... what its like," she said, after a few minutes. "Being in charge of... the most powerful... feeling... that there is. ...And Im so young... theyre all so much older... so..."
"Yeah," said Hercules. "I know, Sis. ...Theyre not a fun lot to be with."
She looked at him. Her eyes and cheeks were wet. "Bro, theyre jealous like you wouldnt believe! You werent there... in the beginning... you didnt see the way they hounded me... pestered me... made fun of me... always wanting... something..."
He brushed her cheek with his hand. "So... to get rid of them, you... decided to give them a smaller target."
She stifled a small sob, nodding. "It was working, too... it was working, Herc! ...for such a long time... they left me alone, forgot about me, went on with their stupid feuding. They knew they didnt... have to bother with some frilly bimbo... a little young air head, who only... poked around, getting humans into mischief..."
"But theyll notice a goddess who can demonstrate the kind of power you showed, down below," said Hercules, "A goddess whose power of love goes well beyond... the love of a man for a woman."
She dropped her head. "Herc, its too big. It covers so much... Love of truth, of justice... of family... of art... of the gods... Herc, I dont want it. Theyll know about me, and theyll never leave me alone now." She looked up at him, still crying. "You think Ares will leave me alone, knowing I can do what I did down there?" It was rhetorical.
He knelt down next to her, keeping eye contact. "They all should be grateful," he said. "Very grateful. You, and Xena... you saved the mortal realm, and all of Olympus... and all of their little behinds. Aphrodite, thats... thats a power that even Zeus doesnt display in a thousand years. Theyll respect what you did... at least a little. And if you just... lay it on the line... Theyll leave you alone. They wont... want to mess with the most powerful of the children of Zeus."
She looked at him long and hard, not saying anything.
"And, if thats not enough," he said, "I guess Ill have to come up here and knock em around a little. Teach em some manners."
She was still crying, but he saw that she was also smiling at him.
"And besides," he said, "I kind of like... knowing a side to my sister that Ive never seen before."
He didnt know whether shed made a laugh or a sob at that last remark; he only knew that shed buried her face in his chest, hugging him as tightly as she could.
It had been a long day of riding, on a narrow trail through the mountains, when Xena had stopped Argo, and raised her hand, signaling Gabrielle not to speak, allowing the warriors senses to concentrate.
"Smoke," she said to the bard after several seconds, "Smoke and fire. And screaming. Someones burning something. Over that ridge. Come on!"
The two women had sprinted to the top of the ridge, and down the other side, and to the top of the next hill where they paused, and raced down the other side. The screaming had stopped by then.
A ramshackle cart lay tipped over on its side in the middle of the road, Its wheels and its cloth covering were a solid sheet of flame. To one side, a man and a woman in peasant garb lay sprawled, blood under them and around them, seeping into the earth. Gabrielle had run to aid them, but they were beyond her help. The various contents of the cart, knocked randomly over the field, showed signs of having been rifled through, though the marauders had already gone.
"GABRIELLE!", yelled Xena from beside the overturned cart. She left the dead couple and ran over to join her friend, then stopped when she saw it. She didnt want to see it, didnt want to believe it.
Xena had pulled something out of the cart, a small bundle, which the warrior was hurriedly extinguishing, her hands an invisible blur as she moved, then they paused and Gabrielle saw the more precise, exotic hand movements: the ones Xena used only when she was activating pressure points on someone. Reluctantly, Gabrielle stepped closer.
It was a little girl.
She looked to be about five years old, and had short blond hair. The side of her face was covered under Xenas hand, but the small wisps of smoke curling around it told Gabrielle that what the warrior was covering were burns. Gabrielle saw that Xena had torn away the childs clothing to better view the injuries, which were massive. Additional burns, lacerations, blood, and what looked like a broken, splintered wooden wagon support sticking out where a healthy chest should have been.
Gabrielle locked eyes with Xena. The warriors tiny shake of the head said: no chance. The bard moved closer and saw that the girl was alive and conscious, struggling to move. Xena whispered to Gabrielles ear, "Ive blocked off most of the pain for her, but I... theres nothing else...Gabrielle, its going to be short... I think we should..." the bards eyes went to Xenas hands, saw that shed pulled a dagger, wanting to end the childs suffering, not wanting to postpone what they could not stop.
"Xena, wait," said Gabrielle, and turned to the child.
The girls one remaining good eye was filled with tears. Gabrielle wiped it off. "Hi," she said softly. "My friend and I wont hurt you. We heard the shouting... and we came to find out what had happened." She stroked the girls hair gently. "No ones going to hurt you. Youre gonna be okay. ...My names Gabrielle. ...My friend has... um...tried to make your pain go away. Shes very good at it. Dont be afraid. She wont hurt you."
"Mmmmmommy," said the girl. "...Want my moooommy..."
"Shhhh," said Gabrielle, "Your mothers... right over there. Shes, ...uh... shes hurt, and weve got to finish taking care of her, to make sure shes all right. And you too. Um... Youll be together... real soon. Dont worry. Whats your name?"
"...Nardya," said the girl. Her pale blue eye dazzled the light in a way even Xenas did not.
"Nardya," said Gabrielle. "Thats such a pretty name... Look, um...can... can I tell you a story, Nardya... while we wait for your mom and dad? My friends tell me Im very good at... telling stories. I promise to make it... a short and good one, cause we dont need to wait long."
Nardyas breathing seemed quieter, and her struggling had stopped. "Okay," she said, finally.
Gabrielle smiled, and wiped more tears out of the girls eye. "Okay... do you have a favorite story... a story you want me to tell?"
The girl was silent.
"Okay. ...Um... well...here... This is... a favorite of mine. I... think youll like it. This is the story about... a friend of mine... and what happened to him. His name was Perdic....uh... Perdi. Um..."
Nardya was looking at her with something that looked almost like interest.
"Well... one day, Perdi was walking down the street. Ba-bomp, Ba-bomp, Ba-bom-bomp, Ba-bomp..." Gabrielle moved her head up and down with the little sing-songy notes, her movements outlining a carefree figure, out on a joyous walk, on a sunlit day. Shed never used sound effects on a story before.
"...Ba-bom-bomp, Ba-bomp, ba-bom....ACK! Gasp!" She brought her hands to her face, resting her fingers on her cheeks, her eyes wide. "He looked down...and what did he see??!"
"Whaad...hesee?" said Nardya.
"YES! So, Perdi looked down, and he said, (making her voice high-pitched) Mister Froggy: ...WHAT are you doing standing in the middle of the STREET?!?. ...And what did the froggy SAY?"
Gabrielle paused for dramatic effect. "He said: (lowering her voice several octaves), Im waiting for drain!"
Gabrielle opened her mouth and eyes wide and drew a sharp intake of breath. "YOURE WAITING FOR THE RAIN?!?! AUGH!! You foolish Frog! It isnt going to rain...TODAY!! Here,... let me help you, Mister Frog. So he... picked up the frog..."
As the bard spoke, she gently picked up the girl, gave her a tender, soft kiss on the cheek, then another one on her forehead, gently smoothing her hair.
"...PICKED up the frog... and, very gently... carried him over... and set him down into... a big... giant mud puddle."
...and she set the girl down a few feet off to the side of the road, on her blanket, on top of some tall weeds, a place that would give her an extra tiny margin of comfort.
"And he SPLASHED, and he Splashed, and he splashed in the mud... and the Froggy was SOOOO Happy. And that is the story."
"Aaaaaaa.... again... story...Perdi," said Nardya. Her eye had an eager look to it, and she was, Gabrielle couldnt believe it, almost smiling.
"Again, the Perdi story?" she asked, gently.
"Well, ooookay. Now, Once Upon A Time... Perdi was walking down the street..."
She told it to the girl three more times, before the stillness took her.
It would be two full days before Gabrielle wanted to eat or to speak, again. Xena had noticed that her eyes had held the most painful look the warrior had ever seen, a look that told of being trapped forever in a gray wilderness, where only sadness was possible. The look had ended only when the warrior had hugged her as tightly as she was able, seemingly for the thousandth time.
* * *
"Xena," said Gabrielle, "Why Aphrodite? And why the crossbow?"
The warrior looked up at her from the floating bed, taking in her lips, the shine of the light on her hair. "A warriors got to know which weapon to use to be effective," she said. "And I thought this would be. Gabrielle, that was the Bow of Truth."
"It was?" said Gabrielle.
"Yes. And when Aphrodite used it, her own powers mingled with the special qualities of the bolt, which were to pierce through falsehood, to smash evasion, and to shine the Light of Truth... from within. Dahoks power, like Hopes... rested on a massive evasion. You, Gabrielle, had made the same mistake a while back, but for you, it was just... something you didnt realize. But for Dahok and Hope... for them, everything rested on it, so the bolt was fatal. The truth that I... that we... illuminated for them... they couldnt take it, as I was counting on."
"And... what truth was that?" asked Gabrielle.
"The same one you rejected... when I... gave you... your first... sword lesson."
Gabrielle stood frozen, saying nothing.
"They assumed what you did, then: that love... is helpless...when confronted by cruelty." Xena said, smiling. "Actually, it took me a while to learn about that too. And you... you were my best teacher. They couldnt see, couldnt grasp its power, or its strength... that cruelty is impotent when confronted by the most powerful emotion that there is. They didnt know love, didnt know its power...didnt know what... miracles... it is capable of... They didnt know how useless they are... with all their power... to do something that you, my bard, whom they thought of as weak -- weak! -- could do easily... because you had it in a way they never would.
"And my weapon was... to show them," said Xena. "Simply to show them. Their natures did the rest."
"And to show them... you..."
"...I used the most powerful example I could find... the most amazing thing Ive ever seen."
Gabrielle looked at her face for a long time. "You showed them... about Nardya."
Xena nodded, slightly. "Im sorry; Im so sorry. I know how you feel about her. If there had been any other way--"
"NO," said Gabrielle, "No, its over. Its... you did what you had to do. Im glad it worked. And Im glad it got us out of that place."
Xena continued to drink in the magnificent highlights of those green eyes. "Sure beat using a frying pan this time... dont you think?" She clutched the bard as hard as she could when Gabrielle came in for the hug.
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