The Harrowing of Hades
Disclaimers- The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
Violence - Yeah, a little. Don't expect detailed descriptions of severed limbs, though, at least not in this story.
Subtext - No sex here, but for me, the show is about two women who are in love with each other. If that gives you the willies, you might try reading something else.
This is my first venture into the realm of fan fiction, so I welcome any feedback. If you like it, I might try something else. My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the story: This story begins at the ending of the episode Sacrifice, Part 2. In some cases, I have disregarded Xenaverse mythology and history, and go with my own versions. I was dissatisfied with the way the series went at this point, feeling they missed a glorious opportunity to include Xena in the archetypal heroic tradition of Hercules, Odysseus, Orpheus, and Theseus, all of whom journeyed to the Underworld (alive), for one reason or another, and escaped to tell the tale.
Xena turned away from Callisto's lifeless body, sick in mind and soul. The whole temple was shaking now, whether from Hope's death or Callisto's, she didn't know. She didn't care. She didn't care if the whole temple collapsed on top of her. Not even Joxer, still leaning over the pit, seemed to care.
Xena closed her eyes. Oh, Gods…. How could this have happened?! Gabrielle! She saw again the image of her dearest friend falling… her cry fading… the burst of flame as her body hit the fiery lava so far below. "Oh, Gabrielle!"
At least…at least it must have been quick. But the fall… oh, Gods, how long had it taken? Four heartbeats? Five? An eternity of terror.
Xena shuddered and fell to her knees. The knot in her throat threatened to choke her, but somehow she stopped herself from sobbing. But the tears, hot and wet… those she could not stop for all her strength. She started to shiver despite the heat rising from the pit. She had been prepared to die. It would have been a good death. A heroic death. It might even have been a death to atone for the sins of her bloody past. But Gabrielle… Gabrielle should not have died. So young, so beautiful, so full of life and goodness….
The image came again, and she covered her face with her hands. "Oh, Gabrielle!"
This could not, should not have happened. It couldn't! Something like a sob escaped Xena's throat, and she drove her fist into the stone floor. It couldn't happen -- but it had. And even worse, Gabrielle had done it to herself.
The anger hit unexpectedly. How could you do this to me!? How could you? Damn you! How could you do this?! Gabrielle!
The answer, of course, was simple. Xena knew it, but some part of her mind told her that if she were to examine it now, it would tear her apart. She couldn't bear it. Not yet.
Still, her anger gave her presence of mind. Large portions of the roof were starting to fall, even that bastard Ares had bugged out, and she forced herself to focus on the present. She rose to her feet and grabbed Joxer by the collar, dragging him away from the pit. "We have to get out of here, now!"
He stumbled to his feet and staggered after her. Together they dodged falling stones on the way to the temple entrance. Outside, the sunlight blinded Xena, and she felt betrayed. How could it be so light outside when she felt so black inside?
A small, dazed band of Dahok's followers were standing nearby. Xena closed the distance between them with two strides and punched the nearest hard in the face. She watched in satisfaction as he collapsed in a heap of black robes. Another caught Xena's eye and started running.
"That's right!" she yelled after him. "Run! Run until you fall off the face of the earth!" She punched a few others who were too slow to get out of her way and kicked two more for good measure. She was getting ready to hit yet another when Joxer grabbed her arm.
"Xena, they're no longer under Dahok's will!"
"I don't care! They deserve to be punished!"
"Gabrielle wouldn't want you to do this."
"Gabrielle is dead!"
"All the more reason to honor her memory."
It was uncharacteristic for Joxer to be so serious… and to so clearly speak the truth. It brought Xena up short. The bitterness and pain of loss was etched clearly in his face, mirroring the feelings in her own heart. He had loved Gabrielle too. She felt something snap inside…some element of her anger, perhaps, or force of will. Her shoulders slumped. "Oh, Joxer, what am I to do?"
His mouth dropped briefly in startled surprise, then snapped shut. He grimaced. "I don't know."
The memory of incredible pain, intense and searing, was sharp in Gabrielle's mind, but little else was. Pain, such pain… but soon that memory, too, slipped away, replaced by an endless dark emptiness.
Eventually, another thought arose from the nothingness: Where am I? It was a loud thought, a bold thought, and one that could not be ignored. I am…. She found herself aware of darkness -- at least, it seemed to be dark. She wasn't sure her eyes were open. She couldn't feel them. She tried to lift her hands and felt nothing there, either. She thought at first that this should alarm her, but it didn't.
Where am I? The thought came again, persistent.
Falling, she was falling. No, she corrected herself, she *had* fallen. With Hope. To save Xena. That name should mean something, but it seemed… vague. Distant.
I'm dead. This was a clear thought, very clear, and Gabrielle knew that it should upset her. But there was nothing. Nothing at all, just emptiness. No emotion. No fear. No pain. No sensation. Nothing. It was… curious, perhaps. But the novelty of that, too, soon passed.
Eventually, shapes began to form in the darkness around her. A twisted landscape of rocks and boulders began to shape itself from shadow as if revealed by a slow, gloomy dawn. Tendrils of mist clung undisturbed to spike-shaped rocks hanging from an oppressively low ceiling. Mist crept around her ankles.
Mist crept through her ankles.
Shouldn't that disturb me, too?
She was standing in front of a black river, black as tar, but swiftly moving. A flat-bottomed boat with a lantern was approaching slowly through the mist rising off the water, poled by a figure wrapped in black. This is the river Styx, the boatman, Charon.
The boat pulled up in front of her, seemingly undisturbed by the fast current. The shrouded figure stepped forward, revealing a pale, sour face with deep-set, coal red eyes. Three long strands of white hair hung down in front of one ear, from which dangled a gold earring.
Interesting. I don't remember any of the stories mentioning he was bald.
Charon pursed his lips and held out a clawed hand towards her. "Payment, please."
Gabrielle was confused. "What payment?" she tried to ask, despite no feeling in her mouth or tongue.
Charon seemed to understand, despite her difficulty. He scowled and shook a finger at her irritably. "Payment! Payment! You have to pay me to ferry you across the river, stupid! What are they teaching you idiots up there these days? You're the tenth this week!"
Gabrielle remembered that the dead were usually buried with coins to pay for the crossing. "I was not buried," she said slowly.
Charon made a face and snorted. "Not my problem!" he snapped, and turned away.
"Wait! Maybe there's something else I can do!"
He waved a hand in dismissal without turning around. "I've been offered it a thousand times before, whatever it is. Hades demands coins. Only coins." He pushed the boat off from the bank.
"I'm a bard… I can tell you stories!"
Charon leaned on his pole, stopping the boat. "All right, go ahead and try."
Gabrielle started, then stopped. She couldn't remember. Bits, pieces. Images. All slipped through her mind like silk.
"I thought so," Charon grumbled, and spat into the black water. "Shades!" He pushed off his pole, and soon the glow of the lantern was lost in the mist and darkness.
"I'm stuck on the near side of the river Styx," Gabrielle thought, vaguely remembering that this was considered to be the worst fate the dead could suffer, worse even than enduring the torments of the punishment fields. Perhaps it's good that I don't care.…
It was her last thought, duly noted and accepted, before she drifted off amongst the boulders, a shade among shadows, purposeless, one of thousands doomed to wander the near side of the river for eternity, denied entry to Hades and their proper place in Death.
Exhaustion and grief forced Xena and Joxer to camp early. Neither of them ate anything, and Xena slept fitfully, painfully aware of the empty space beside her where Gabrielle should have been.
It was nearly morning when she awoke with a start, a nightmare slipping away with relief. Her relief was short-lived, however, as memory took place of dream. Gabrielle! Gods, she hadn't received a proper funeral, not for an Amazon Queen, not even for an ordinary citizen. If the stories were true, her soul would be trapped on the near side of the river Styx. She wouldn't be able to get to Elysium.
Xena drew a shuddering breath, trying to imagine her dear friend trapped eternally in dismal shadows. She couldn't do it.
But then…perhaps she didn't have to. She rose quickly and saddled Argo. When she was finished, she shook Joxer awake.
"Huh?" he asked sleepily, opening one eye.
"I'm leaving. Now. Don't try to follow me."
"Where are you going?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.
"To get Gabrielle."
"But Xena, she's dead, remember? The pit? With lava? Nobody could survive that!"
"I don't believe she did. But I'm going to get her anyway."
Joxer stared at her, blinking as if trying to decide if he were really awake or not. He pinched his arm. "Ow!"
"You're not asleep. I'm going get Gabrielle back. If Orpheus could persuade Hades to let Eurydice leave, I can persuade him to let Gabrielle go."
"Um, Xena, I know you like to sing and all, and, um, you're even pretty good, but…."
Xena smiled wickedly, "…but I'm no Orpheus. I know." She patted the hilt of the hind's blood dagger sticking out the top of one leather boot. "I believe I have something that may persuade him anyway."
It was six days since she'd said good-bye to Joxer, and her head was clear, no longer clouded by grief and guilt. She was on a mission, and she would be ruthless in its execution.
There were four ways to get to the Underworld. The first (and simplest), Gabrielle had taken, but dying was not an option for Xena yet, so she'd have to use one of the other three. Orpheus had entered via Taenarum in Laconia, but there was also the route via Aornum in Thesprotia. Then, of course, there was the bottomless Alcyonian Lake. Xena didn't fancy the idea of swimming to the bottom of a bottomless lake, and Laconia was closer than Thesprotia, so Taenarum it would be.
The journey to Laconia went by in a blur, and she planned her course of action as she rode. From speaking to Hercules, she knew that she had three hurdles to overcome before she reached Hades' palace: first, she had to find her way to the Underworld; second, she had to get across the river Styx; third, she had to get past Cerberus. None would be easy.
The Styx might be a problem, but Herc had persuaded Charon to ferry him across simply by staring him down. Xena figured that she had Herc beat hands down in the intimidating stare category, so she wasn't too worried about that.
The biggest problem, she thought, would be getting past Cerberus. Hercules had been badly wounded in his battle with the beast, and only his Nemean lionskin cloak had saved him from the guardian's razor sharp claws and poisoned tail. If Herc had had trouble doing it, she would too. Not even the hind's blood dagger would help her, because Cerberus wasn't a god.
When the local villagers showed her to the dank cave that supposedly led to the Underworld, she still hadn't decided how to handle Cerberus. But she was anxious to see Gabrielle again, and she wasn't willing to wait. Besides, her best ideas often came suddenly, in the heat of battle, when necessity forced a solution. She would come up with something. After turning Argo loose, she lit a torch, took a deep breath, and entered the cave.
It took a brave soul to walk the path of the dead, and had Xena been afraid of death, she knew she would not have had the courage to keep moving down the dank, dark passageway. But she was not afraid, and so the chill whispers of ghosts and long dead-souls were little more than a distraction. The flickering shadows that had nothing to do with her torch were more irritating than frightening. Not even the frequent piles of moldy human bones along the way made her reconsider her mission.
She was all too familiar with the horrors of death. How many souls had she sent down this awful path in years past? Gabrielle was just one of many. Bones, bodies, blood. Ghosts and shades. They haunted her daily. She was far more bothered by the increasing heaviness of mile after mile of dark earth and stone separating her from the world above, from sky and sun. The damp, stale air seemed to suck the life from her lungs, so she focused on the one thing that kept her warm and breathing.
"Gabrielle, they say that the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. I hope you can hear me now. I'm coming for you. I'm coming for you! Nothing will stop me from reaching you!"
There was emptiness, then longing. A thought, not her own. I"'m coming for you." A promise, and with it…awareness. Who am I? Who is coming for me?
"I know you died to save me, but Gabrielle, you shouldn't have. I know you felt responsible for Hope; it was so in character for you to…. I should have expected it. I should have prevented it. I'm the one who should have died, you know. Not you."
The stirring of emotion…memory. Xena, Hope. Death, sacrifice. Hope was my daughter, my problem. I'm the one who brought her into this world; it was my duty to remove her from it. It's better this way. Cold, detached truth.
"I know you won't agree with me--"
"--but you had your whole life ahead of you. You're such a gift of goodness to the world."
From the emptiness: laughter, dark, hollow, bitter. What kind of goodness gives birth to evil incarnate? More memory came floating to the surface. Pain. Anguish at how the world had betrayed her.
Naïve innocence, easily perverted by the will of evil. Dahok knew I could never kill my baby. He knew that because of what I am, because of my naivete and weakness, Hope would be loosed upon the earth. Ironic how that sounds, isn't it, like a twisted version of Pandora's box? But I am neither good nor innocent, Xena. There is too much blood staining my soul, now. More anguish. More pain. Guilt.
"Hope was Dahok's creation, Gabrielle. Not yours. She wasn't your fault, not your responsibility."
That's not true. I had the chance to kill her when you first told me she was evil. You knew, Xena, and I ignored you. I didn't trust you. How else could I make up for that? How else could I make up for all the terrible things that Hope did and threatened to do? How could I stand by and let you die when it was all my fault? More emotion welled up from the darkness like a fountain.
"I know that I wanted to kill her when she was just an infant, Gabrielle. I guess…I guess the evil in me sensed the evil in her. It takes one to know one, you know. But it was so wrong of me to expect you to let me do it. That's just not in your nature. How could you? How could you possibly do anything but love your daughter? I was blind, so blind, and now you've been forced to pay a price you should never have had to pay."
I was the one who was blind.
"Oh Gabrielle, it's been such an awful road that led us here; we both made mistakes. We both made choices we regret, but we came through it. We'd worked it out. We were together again. And I'm not going to give that up without a fight. Remember when you were dying from that poisoned arrow? I promised you then that we would always be together, even in death. I love you, Gabrielle, and I meant it."
The fountain of emotion became a river, and the river became a torrent, and Gabrielle was drowning. I love you Xena! She understood then why shades in the Underworld so easily forgot their past lives, why forgetfulness was bliss. Why emptiness was not a curse, but a blessing, a gift from Hades for the unjudged dead. For without a body to shed her tears, without a heart to beat with the anguished pulse of unforgotten love, without a vessel to contain the emotions now ripping her spirit apart, she felt on the brink of utter madness. So this is why ghosts will haunt the living. Xeeeeennnnaaaaaaaa!!!!!!
Xena felt a wrenching in her heart that had nothing to do with the exhaustion weighing down her limbs and body. She staggered to a stop, bent nearly double, gasping for breath. A wild longing overwhelmed her, tinged with disoriented panic. She fought to regain her concentration, to calm her raging emotions. She focused on her panting breaths, in, out, in, out, in, out. One, two, three. Again. Gradually, by degrees, she was able to distance herself from the confusion, to separate her rational mind from the raw, uncontained grief and longing that was virtually suffocating her.
These emotions were not her own, she realized. But if not hers, whose? Her breath froze. Gabrielle. She was feeling Gabrielle. Somehow, by talking to her, she had connected with her. And worse, she realized with horrified clarity, if she didn't do something quickly, she might lose her bard forever. There was chaos in the emotions pouring into her, chaos -- and insanity.
She looked around quickly. The road widened here, and black yew lined the sides. She plunged the handle of her torch into the soft ground at the edge and sat down on the hard gravel, crossing her legs. She took a deep breath and tried to find her peaceful center.
"Gabrielle," she whispered to the chaos, "I'm here. Everything is going to be all right." She tried to send a sense of calmness outwards, of stillness and peace. Calm. Warmth. Joy. She failed miserably at the latter and faltered as another wave of grief and guilt consumed her. She fought her own rising anger. She was used to matching emotion with emotion, answering passion with rage; Inner peace was something only Gabrielle had helped her find again. Now she had to give it back. Peace, stillness. Calm. Contentment. They would be together again. They would be happy again. Peace, stillness, calm. They would be reunited. "Gabrielle, everything will be all right."
How long she sat there battling emotion with inner peace, she did not know. She only knew that, as always, she eventually won the war. The stillness settling over her like a blanket made her uneasy, but it was certainly better than the preceding assault.
She opened her eyes. The torch was sputtering, and she rose quickly to light another before it could go out.
I love you, Xena.
The warrior froze in place. She might have heard those words, but she was certain there was no one there to have spoken. She lit another torch and held it high. Shadows fled before the light. All, that is, except one. At the edge of darkness on the road before her was an unmistakable silhouette. She knew every shapely curve of the figure before her, every beloved detail lost in shadow.
"Gabrielle," she whispered.
You shouldn't have come here, Xena. The Underworld is for the dead.
"How can I live without you?"
You will find a way. You have so much good to do. So many wrongs to right. You understand evil, and so you can defeat it. You are wise and powerful, Xena. You have no right to throw such gifts away.
"I have no intention of throwing them away, my love. I've come to bring you back to the living."
That's not possible!
"Hades let Eurydice go. If Orpheus had not looked back, she would have been free."
The shade before her was still and silent.
"Gabrielle, I promise. I will get you out of here, alive and well. I felt what you were going through… I can't leave you here! Especially not now!"
I will forget again, Xena; even now I feel how easy it would be to let it slip.
Xena stepped forward. "No! Don't let go, Gabrielle, stay with me! We will get out of this together!" She wanted to shake her, to grab her by the shoulders and force the sense back into her, but her hands passed through cold darkness. She shuddered as a chill ran up her spine. She stepped back and fell to her knees. "Gabrielle, promise me. Promise you'll stay with me while I try this. I beg you, please!"
Xena could sense the reluctance behind the words, but it was good enough for her. She smiled and didn't fight the flash of joy that ran through her heart. She hoped Gabrielle could feel it, too. She stood up. "Let's go find Hades."
Charon is coming.
"About time." Standing on the edge of the river with Gabrielle dark and silent beside her, Xena saw the dim glow of an approaching lantern. Soon the flat-bottomed boat came into view, moving eerily across the current.
It pulled up silently to the shore in front of her, and the boatman stepped forward, glaring at her with red eyes. "You're not dead," Charon spat. "What are you doing here?"
Xena returned his glare with all her might. "You're going to take me and Gabrielle across the river. I have business with Hades."
"Only the dead have business with Hades, and she doesn't have payment to cross." He didn't bother looking at Gabrielle when he said this, and Xena's anger rose at his dismissive attitude.
She flipped a coin at him, and with reflexes that belied his aged appearance, Charon snaked out a hand to catch it mid-air. He bit it with two of his remaining teeth. He snorted with satisfaction, and the coin disappeared into his black robes. "Very well, I will take her across."
"And me," Xena said, tossing him another coin.
It fell untouched to the planks of the boat. Charon glowered at her. "I do not take the living across the river Styx. Last time I did it, Hades put me in chains for a week in Tartarus."
So much for glaring at him like Hercules, Xena thought.
There was a flutter of movement beside her, and Xena turned quickly to see a quick flash of …what? Winged feet…. Hermes? And then there was another shade standing beside Gabrielle on the edge of the river.
Charon sighed and extended his hand. "Payment, please," he said in a bored voice.
The shade flickered a bit, but Xena couldn't tell if it spoke.
Charon, however, reacted violently. "No payment, no crossing! What *are* they teaching you up there these days?" He turned on Xena. "You should do the living a favor and go teach them how to properly bury their dead!" He turned back to the new shade. "No, there's nothing else you can offer me. Trust me, I've been offered it a thousand times before. No, a million times before. Hades wants gold. Gold, gold, gold! Now go away!" He looked at Xena. "That goes for you, too. Begone!" He waved his hand at her like she was an irritating fly.
"All right," she said slowly, "after I get my coin back." She stepped forward onto the boat and quickly bent to pick up the coin. Before Charon could shuffle back, Xena grabbed him by the ear and twisted painfully.
"And now, you will take me and Gabrielle across the river," she said with a smile.
Xena frowned and twisted harder.
Charon made a whining sound, but gritted his teeth. "The loss of an ear is nothing compared to a week's torment at the hands of the Furies!" "I could toss you into the River!"
"Ha! And then how would you get across? You don't know the way. This isn't any ordinary river, you know, and the boat won't go without me. What would you do then, eh? Jump?"
Xeeennnaaa, Gabrielle whispered in her ear, offer him something only the living can provide.
Xena smiled. Sensible Gabrielle. She loosened her grip on Charon's ear. "Okay, I won't toss you into the river. But perhaps I can offer you something that the dead can't."
Charon considered this for a moment. "Go on."
"I could bring you some fresh food, maybe some apples and grapes. It doesn't look like you eat too well down here…."
"No deal. Hades feeds me well enough."
"How about some new robes?"
He grabbed the front of his filthy garment protectively. "My robes have pockets! Nothing you could bring me would have pockets."
Xena wondered what pockets were, but decided not to ask. "Okay, how about some scrolls to read?"
"I don't know how to read."
Xena rolled her eyes. "I could teach you how to read!"
"No deal! Fat lot of good reading will do me when the Furies are poking my eyes out!"
"Okay, Okay! How long have you been doing this job? Decades? Centuries? Must get pretty boring, huh?"
Charon growled deep in his throat. "You have *no* idea…"
"Uh-huh. Pretty boring. 'Payment, please,' hundreds of times a week. Week after week after week. Month after month after month, year after year after year…."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Get on with it!"
"You're pretty impatient considering this is probably the most entertaining conversation you've had since Orpheus came this way!"
"Orpheus didn't blabber at me like a harpy!"
Xena gave his ear a good twist. "Don't piss me off, Charon," she warned. "I bet I could inflict some pain on you that would make even the Furies proud." She casually plucked one of his three remaining hairs and tossed it over the side of the boat.
"Ouch!" Charon protested, rubbing his mostly bald head.
Xena yanked his earring.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
"That's better," Xena purred. "Now on to business. I'm prepared to make an offer. In exchange for ferrying Gabrielle and me across, once Hades agrees to give Gabrielle her life back, we will provide you with a two week vacation."
"We will ferry the dead across the Styx for you…for two weeks." "You've got to be joking."
"No, just think about it, Charon. You could go to the beach… get a suntan…"
Get a haircut, Gabrielle whispered.
"I heard that!" Charon snapped, stroking his two remaining hairs protectively.
"You could stay at an inn and hear all the songs and stories you could stand. Feast to your heart's content. Spend the night with a living, warm, breathing woman!" Xena continued.
"Hades would never agree to it."
"Listen, if I can persuade him to let Gabrielle go, don't you think I can persuade him to do this? After all, it wouldn't exactly be fun for us. It might even appeal to his grim sense of humor."
"And what if you fail to persuade him to do anything?" Xena's eyes narrowed. "I won't fail."
Charon cringed for a moment under the intensity of her frown. "How will you get past Cerberus?"
"You just leave that to me. Besides, if I don't, you hardly need to worry about Hades' anger, now, do you?"
Charon snorted. "It would serve you right to wind up as dog food." Xena plucked another hair from his head.
"Ouch! Stop that!"
"Do we have a deal, Charon? Or does the last hair go next?"
"What assurance do I have that you'll actually ask Hades to let me go?"
"That means nothing to me!"
"Very well, how about if I refrain from breaking every bone in your body?"
Charon swallowed. "All aboard," he finally grumbled, and pushed off from the bank.
Apparently, the Underworld was better lit on the far side of the river. While Xena couldn't see any specific light source, the whole area seemed to glow with a grayish-green light. The low ceiling disappeared as they approached the far bank, giving it the feeling of having a sky, and they could see the silhouette of trees and structures in the distance through the looming arch of the Underworld gate.
Their immediate concern, however, was a large hulking figure on the approaching bank whose outline was unmistakable. Cerberus had razor sharp teeth, three heads, a venomous snake for a tail, and just for good measure, a swarm of snakes growing out of his back. And he was apparently waiting for them to arrive.
Xena and Gabrielle watched with trepidation as Charon slowly pushed the boat forward with his pole.
Xena… Gabrielle whispered.
"Don't worry," Xena replied with far more confidence than she felt. What was she going to do? Time to think fast!
Two of Cerberus' heads were sniffing the air. The other head was panting in anticipation, a puddle of drool forming beside one extended and extremely sharp talon.
"He can already smell you," Charon gloated. "He'll tear you apart the moment you step on shore."
Xena smiled smugly. Charon had given her the answer. She pulled her chakram from her belt and let it fly. "I won't step on shore, then," she said.
Whump! Whump! Whump!… the chakram hit one, two, three of Cerberus's heads before whistling back to the boat, through Gabrielle's neck, and into Xena's hand.
Good thing I'm already dead… Gabrielle sighed.
"Sorry about that!"
Cerberus collapsed on the bank, snakes hissing angrily, dog tongues lolling in the dirt.
"That was far too easy," Charon said acidly. "Really, Hades should have foreseen someone would do something like that eventually."
No one can prepare for someone like Xena.
Xena looked at her friend fondly, absurdly pleased by the compliment.
"No, I don't suppose so," Charon scowled and pushed the boat to the bank.
The snake that was Cerberus's tail struck without warning as Xena stepped off the boat. Reflexively she punched it in the head with her bare fist. First one, then two fangs fell to the ground. The head followed close behind.
"Ooo! Venomous snake teeth!" Charon said, and stepped forward gingerly to pick them up. They disappeared into his robes as he quickly returned to the boat. "Don't forget, Xena! I expect two weeks of vacation!" He waggled a finger at her.
"I don't forget my promises, Charon."
"We'll see," he said and pushed off from the shore.
Xena smiled and glanced at Gabrielle. "I don't forget my promises," she repeated.
Xena, I'm still afraid for you. Hades will find some way of punishing you… us. Remember what he did to Odysseus!
"I'm not Odysseus."
Hades is a God, and this is his world!
"And since when have I ever been afraid of gods?"
At that moment, one of Cerberus's heads decided to wake up with a snort. "Run, Gabrielle! Float! Whatever it is you're doing!"
The shade rolled her ghostly eyes. I think you're the one who needs to run, Xena.
"You're right," she grinned, then followed her own advice.
An unnaturally loud and horrible howling followed them as they jogged up the road toward Hade's Palace, but apparently Cerberus couldn't give chase with only one head and a back full of hissing snakes. The landscape surrounding them was mostly barren and drab, periodically dotted with black poplars and asphodels, but in the distance Xena could see willows and pomegranates. The air smelled vaguely of mint, a refreshing change from the stale air of the passageway.
Xena slowed as they approached a fork in the road. Hade's Palace loomed to the right; on the left, in the distance, was a tall black wall. Xena felt the hairs on her arm stand up straight. Behind the wall was Tartarus. Directly ahead in the center of the fork were three men seated in thrones awkwardly arranged behind a tiny, rickety table.
"Gin!" the man in the center said, solemnly laying something that looked like a fan on the table.
"Damn!" the man on the left said, looking sadly at the fan in his own hand.
"What is that awful racket going on down by the gate?" the man on the right asked, looking up in annoyance. He saw Xena and Gabrielle, and cleared his throat. "Rhadamanthys, Aeacus, we have guests approaching." His fan disappeared gracefully up the sleeve of his long velvet red robe.
The table was quickly removed behind the thrones, and the men arranged themselves with dignity, straightening their robes and smoothing their beards.
"These two belong to me," the man on the left announced.
The man on the right grimaced and shook his head. "Aeacus…"
"No, no, they are not of Asian descent, that is clear. You!" He pointed at Gabrielle. "Hmmmmm, yes, hmmmmmm, unusual, most unusual, hmmmmm. We don't often get Amazons here, but you weren't born one and didn't receive their burial rights, did you? No. Hmmmm, but you have a good soul and died a heroic death. Yes, yes, you may go to Elysium. That way!" He pointed grandly towards Hade's Palace. "And you," he stared at Xena fiercely, "Hmmmmm, hmmmmm, hmmmmm." He stroked his beard. "Hmmmmmmm."
Xena started tapping her foot. "Yes?"
"Mmmmmmmmm," he glanced sheepishly at the man in the center. "Rhadamanthys, perhaps she is Asian after all…."
The man on the right cleared his throat again. "Aeacus, you can't read her soul because she's not dead."
"She's alive, you idiot!"
"Oh! Oh, my goodness, why yes, she is!"
The man on the right frowned at Xena. "I am Minos, head judge of the Underworld. I do not need to tell you that you do not belong here."
"No, you don't. But here I am. I've got business with Hades; don't try to stop me."
Minos shrugged. "Stopping you is not our job." He pointed at the palace with his thumb. "The Lord of the Underworld is that way."
"Thanks," Xena said. "Like I didn't know," she added under her breath. "Come on, Gabrielle."
"And unless he's completely deaf," Minos smiled as they turned away, "I believe he's probably expecting you."
"That didn't stop me from dealing with his watch dog," Xena growled. "It won't stop me from dealing with him."
The doors to Hades' Palace were always open. Xena scorned his arrogance. He did not believe he had anything to fear from mortals, alive or dead, and she would take advantage of that. She pulled the hind's blood dagger from her boot.
Xena, is that…?
Hades was widely acknowledged to be the wealthiest of all the Olympians, and it showed. The Palace was richly decorated in gold, silver, and precious jewels. The floor of the main entry hall appeared to be paved in decorative patterns of jade and onyx, and bizarre tapestries hung on the walls. As Gabrielle looked at them, she thought she saw the figures move; it was as if the entire lives of heroes were being played out before her eyes. "So when the Fates finish spinning the tapestries of our lives, someone hangs them on the walls of Hades' Palace," she thought to herself.
"Gabrielle, come on, what are you looking at?"
"What about them? They're ugly! Hades should get Aphrodite down here to help him with his decorating! Who made these things, anyway? Some demented two-year-old?"
Gabrielle reached out her hand to touch one, but her fingers passed through it. She thought she saw Achilles chasing after Hector in his chariot. They're beautiful. She wondered where the tapestry of Xena's life would be hung. Surely it would earn a place here in the main hallway with the other great heroes.
"Gabrielle!" Xena gestured down the hallway with the dagger impatiently. "We have things to do!"
Reluctantly, Gabrielle turned from the tapestry and followed her.
The doors to the throne room were open, too, and Xena strode boldly forward. She stopped in the center of the room.
Hades was seated on a throne of gold on a raised dais at the other end. A vacant throne of silver was beside his own, and a single red rose rested on the white pillow of its seat. Another rose was in his hand. "Xena," he said conversationally, "I've been expecting you."
"Yeah, yeah, Hades. Let's skip the chatter. You know why I'm here."
"You want me to give Gabrielle's life back."
"You know I can't do that."
"Oh, come. You know that's not the way things work. Besides, if I let you have Gabrielle back, she'd no doubt write a silly story about it, and the next thing you know, I'd have heroes down here every day demanding I return somebody or another. The Underworld is not a circus, Xena, and Death is no laughing matter." He crushed the rose blossom in his hand and scattered the petals on the cold stone floor. He tossed the stem at Xena, and she caught it reflexively.
"Ouch!" One of the thorns had pricked her finger.
"For each drop of blood, Xena," Hades smiled, "you're mine for a month."
Xena licked her finger. "Just one, Hades." Damn, looks like Charon might get an extended vacation. She walked forward. "I was hoping you would grant my request without putting up a fuss," she began.
Hades laughed. "You can't do anything to me, Xena. I'm a god, remember? You have nothing to offer me, and Persephone isn't here for you to try to manipulate to get me to acquiesce to your demands. There's nothing you can do, Xena. In fact, why don't you have a seat." A stone bench suddenly appeared in front of the warrior, almost tripping her.
Don't sit, Xena. That's how he captured Odysseus, Gabrielle whispered by her side.
"No, thank you," Xena replied. She gave her famous battle cry and did a flip over the bench, landing on the dais beside Hades, dagger to his throat.
Hades laughed. "Didn't anyone tell you that mortals can't harm gods with their weapons, Xena?"
"They can if they have hind's blood on them, Hades," Xena smiled. "I guess you're a little behind on the news from above, huh? And when immortals like Callisto die, they don't come to the Underworld, do they?"
"Hind's blood?" Hades repeated, trying to pull back from the dagger, the first vestiges of uncertainty appearing in his face. "Yup. I don't really want to kill you, but if you don't give Gabrielle her life back, I will."
"Do it now, Hades, or Zeus will be finding someone to replace you!" The dagger pressed against his neck.
If Gabrielle had been able to breathe, she wouldn't have in the seconds it took Hades to decide what to do.
Finally, he sighed. "Very well!"
"I'm not finished yet."
"Damn you, Xena!"
" I'll grant you that drop of blood, so you've got me for a month, But I want you to swear upon the River Styx that you will give Gabrielle her life back, and then let Charon take a vacation while we ferry the dead across for him for a month."
Hades looked confused. "You want me to do what?!"
He shrugged. "I swear upon the river Styx that I will give Gabrielle her life back, and then let Charon take a vacation while you ferry the dead across for him for a month."
"Now swear that you will let Gabrielle and me leave the Underworld alive and unharmed when Charon returns in thirty days."
Xena, no! What if Charon never returns?!
Xena ignored the bard's protest. "Swear it, Hades!"
"I swear I will let you and Gabrielle leave the Underworld alive and unharmed when Charon returns in thirty days."
"Swear it upon the Styx!"
"You are very tiresome, Xena. Very well, I swear upon the Styx that I will let you and Gabrielle leave the Underworld alive and unharmed when Charon returns in thirty days."
"Thank you." She withdrew the dagger.
Hades rubbed his neck thoughtfully. "You're very good, Xena. I understand now why Ares is so infatuated with you. I can't say that I mind letting you go, really. After all, with every soul that enters my realm, the more my power grows. And you have sent so many to me. So very many." He smiled, knowing full well how much his words would haunt her.
Xena bit her tongue. It was best to give the god a shallow victory. Despite the dagger, Hades was very, very dangerous, and she didn't want to anger him any more than she needed.
Hades flicked his fingers at Gabrielle, and sensation returned in a blinding, painful flash. She fell to her knees with a gasp, totally disoriented.
"Gabrielle!" Xena ran to her side, touching her, holding her, almost unable to believe she was there again, whole and alive.
"Xena!" Gabrielle was in tears, clinging to the warrior for support. "Oh, Xena!"
"What a disgusting display of affection," Hades grumbled from the throne. "Do you two mind taking your show elsewhere?"
Xena grinned and nodded towards the red rose on Persephone's chair. "Oh, come on, Hades. You're a bit of a romantic yourself."
He sighed, and suddenly Gabrielle felt sorry for him. With shaky legs, she stood up. "It must be hard to be without her half the year," she said, pulling Xena up beside her.
"It is," he said quietly. He made a face. "Now take it outside," he growled. "Or the bedroom," he muttered.
Xena blushed and looked at Gabrielle. "I think that's our cue to leave."
The bard grinned. "Yeah. I'm sure Charon will be glad to see us."
Together, arm in arm, they headed for the hallway.
"Oh, and Xena," Hades called after them, "Please refrain from killing Cerberus. I'm rather fond of my puppy."
"Keep him away from me and Gabrielle, then."
"I've already sent Hecate to tend to his injuries. He won't bother you right now. As long as you stay on the boat, he'll leave you alone. I want you to provide him with the same courtesy."
"We will, Hades, we will."
"Xena," Gabrielle said when they got outside the palace. "What is going to stop Charon from abandoning us here? I mean, we have no way of forcing him to come back!"
Xena grinned. "Oh, I don't think we need to worry about that. As soon as Hades figures out we're ferrying all the unpaid souls across, he'll have Charon back to work in no time!"
Gabrielle laughed in delight. "All the unpaid souls?! And we won't charge for the new souls, either, will we?"
"Of course not! I'm not worried about getting trapped here, Gabrielle. Anyway, I don't think Hades would want to replace Charon with anyone else. Charon's too loyal; besides, if he hasn't done it in all this time, he's not likely to do so in the future. Things aren't supposed to change in the Underworld. And don't forget that I've still got the dagger. No, Hades will want us out of here as fast as he can, Gabrielle."
"Xena, you're a genius!"
Xena laughed, and squeezed the bard's shoulders. "Well, you provide my inspiration!"
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