No End of Beginnings
by Andrew Crossett
The characters Xena, Gabrielle, Aphrodite, Akemi, and Eve depicted herein are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. This story contains no scenes of graphic sex, though some openly erotic scenes are described. It depicts an unambiguous loving relationship between the two main characters.
This story assumes that the reader has seen "A Friend In Need", the two-part episode that concludes the Xena: Warrior Princess series, and has read "Forevermore: An Epilogue" (xena/forevermore.htm), a story of mine which provides a bridge from Season 6 to "Season 7".
Thanks to: Lucy Lawless; Renee O'Connor; Alexandra Tydings (all for their inspiration); H.P. Lovecraft (whose poetry I borrowed from, in the last two lines of Isis' riddle); and the following inspirational music: "The Heavenly Music Corporation" by Robert Fripp & Brian Eno; "Blue Pyramid" by Psychic TV; "Djed" by Tortoise; "Papua New Guinea" by Future Sound of London.
The bronze gates of the Eternal Temple of Isis clanged shut behind one last group of desperate pilgrims, and two three-foot-thick bars of iron slammed into place, sealing it against anything short of an angry, walking mountain. At least this was the last group of pilgrims that mattered now; any others that might have trailed behind them would be dead or praying for death, their screams lost in the shrieking howl of the ten thousand mad jackals that converged upon the building from every direction, out of the desert. Some of the dark-haired, dusky-skinned priestesses gathered the refugees as far away from the walls as possible, while others -- determined, white-clad women with sweat glistening on brown, bare legs and arms -- climbed the ladders up to the battlements, carrying with them the tools of their goddess' artifice. The dream-like, inexplicable horror bearing down upon them now clamored just outside the stone, sounding like a storm of insane souls who had been denied the comforts of hell and were compelled to spend eternity somewhere worse.
The priestesses swallowed back cries of horror as they gazed down at the sea of madness that surrounded them. Albino jackals covered the desert nearly to the horizon as far as their eyes could see. Each lupine face was a mask of gnashing teeth and red, demented eyes. Why such devils would be drawn to attack the gentle goddess' sanctuary was beyond guessing, but fear was pointless now. The priestesses put their tools to use.
One pointed a long bronze tube down at the milling throng of death, sighting through a crystal lens. At a word and a touch, flame exploded from the end and raged into the pack with a sound like a great thump. A dozen jackals exploded, their fur and blood and bones spraying so violently that some of the defenders twenty feet above found their white tunics spattered with gore. Further down the wall, two priestesses prepared an array of metal wires that looked rather like a spiderweb. Moments later lightning played along each strand, meeting in the center and blasting into the attackers with a titanic crack. The lightning struck and skeletonized one jackal, then shot out from it in all directions to take others down as well in a widening but slowing circle of death.
Where each jackal fell, three more appeared.
Soon, it didn't matter so much. Nightmare piled upon nightmare as hundreds of venomous serpents boiled from every drain, well and sewer-hole in the temple. The women on the walls looked back, nauseated with fear, to see the refugees and their chaperones dying by the dozens as green and orange snakes slithered over the dead and dying alike. Those still alive watched in numb, paralyzed horror, trying to grasp how such a thing could possibly be happening.
There was nothing to do now but to wait for the dream to end.
"Baza SET," screamed a voice from outside the gate, and the impregnable bulwark exploded inward in a shower of twisted and molten bronze and iron. Through it strode a thing that would have been a beautiful woman were it not ten feet tall, had it not possessed the wings of a giant bat sprouting from between its shoulders, and had its fingers not been tipped with steel-like talons, each capable of ripping a man from throat to crotch.
"Well, well," said the thing, as rabid jackals swarmed around her feet, through the gate, to battle the serpents for what remained. "This IS
shaping up to be a fine day after all."
By nightfall only red stones remained, and the wind.
DREAMING AND DEPARTING
No question remained in Xena's mind now; Gabrielle was not about to give her back her soul. "...Until you learn to take better care of it," said the bard sternly, without actually uttering a single word.
Morning had worn on into afternoon as Gabrielle gazed into Xena's eyes, never once wavering, ignoring all possible distractions. During that time Xena's soul, still tingling from its impossible journey back through the Elysian Gate, had been made love to, made to cry, made to laugh, and now just made to dream. When Xena's soul thought to ask where such power had come from, Gabrielle's soul had told her to be quiet just this once, and Xena had not thought to disobey.
It ended at last, as all things must. "What did you see?" whispered Xena, almost weeping at this sudden need for physical speech, until the sound of Gabrielle's voice rescued her.
"Everything," replied Gabrielle softly. "More love that I could ever dream of, and more pain than I could ever imagine."
"Which was greater?" asked the warrior.
Gabrielle raised her hands and placed her fingertips on either side of the warrior's neck, just behind the pulse points, to the place where Xena's life was hers for the taking. "Ask me later," murmured Gabrielle. "For now, just follow where I lead." Those fingertips pulled Xena's head gently forward until their lips touched.
After a while, Gabrielle turned to look at the crystal fountain that played in the courtyard of Aphrodite's beautiful temple, and saw the goddess herself sitting beside it, gazing at them with an unreadable expression.
"I need to go talk to Aphrodite before we leave," said Gabrielle.
"I know," replied Xena. "She and I already spoke. About a lot of things." The warrior stood up from the bench as though the action was somewhat new to her. "I'd better go see that all our things are packed. Everything two adventuresome girls could possibly need in the Land of
Xena disappeared into the shaded interior of the temple, leaving Aphrodite and Gabrielle alone by the fountain. Gabrielle noticed for the first time that the fountain's pipes were arranged so as to throw the water to different heights, at different rates, and into different depths of the fountain bowl so as to produce a sort of music, eerie in the absence of any other sound except the wind.
"You two are very beautiful together, do you know that?" said the goddess.
"You're going to leave soon, aren't you?"
Gabrielle nodded. "South to Aegyptus, the Land of Pharaohs, where adventure and sand fleas await. You'll have your temple back at last."
She had spoken lightly, but Aphrodite just gazed into the shimmering waters of the fountain. "I don't want you to go," she said softly. "I love you."
Gabrielle wasn't sure what to say to that. Aphrodite glanced over at her with a bit of a smile. "Okay, maybe not the same way Xena loves you," she said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. But...you're my only friend, Gabrielle. I'm so lonely when you're not around. You might have noticed that I'm not very good at relationships, by love goddess standards."
Gabrielle took Aphrodite by the hand. "Don't dwell on the past," she said. "Just improve. And how you've improved, Aphrodite."
"You think so?" smiled the goddess.
"You brought me back the only thing that matters to me," replied the bard. "That sounds like pretty good work for a love goddess to me."
"I hope you're right," said Aphrodite. She reached out to touch Gabrielle's hair. "But I need you to come back safe and sound. Aegyptus just crawls with scary metaphysical stuff, you know. They say the gods eat each other there."
"Well then, it's a good thing Xena and I aren't gods, isn't it?"
Gabrielle wasn't yet enough of an expert at soul-reading to interpret the look that Aphrodite gave her just then.
"We'll come back, Aphrodite. We almost always do."
* * * *
"So, what did you and Aphrodite have to say to each other during your little chat, if it's any of my business?" asked Xena later, as they rode toward Euboea.
"She's lonely," replied Gabrielle. "Very lonely. I'm going to try to help her."
Xena shook her head and smiled. "Another damsel in distress to rescue? Gabrielle, you are such an incurable romantic."
"I have good inspiration."
They rode down to the sea where their passage awaited them.
A beautiful full moon hung over the Middle Sea, but Gabrielle had better things to look at. Xena had just emerged from belowdecks, the nighttime chill having prompted her to put a robe on over the almost-nothing she had been wearing throughout the sun-drenched day.
"I loved watching you sunbathe," confessed Gabrielle. "Such a physical thing for you to do. Very comforting."
"Right. Ghosts don't tan, do they?" agreed Xena with a smile.
"They don't have bodies like that, either."
"Hmmm, I see this particular sea voyage hasn't affected your appetite."
Xena joined Gabrielle at the rail of the ship. "You can already see the glow from the lighthouse along the southern horizon, there. We'll be in Alexandria by midday tomorrow. I'm afraid to see what the Romans have done to it."
"Well, if we don't like it, we'll just fix it again, won't we?" smiled the bard. "A new Aegyptus."
Xena winced at the sound of the Latin name. "I think I like the old 'Egypt' better," she said.
"This reminds me," said Gabrielle. "I have something of yours."
Xena looked down wistfully at the chakram Gabrielle held. It was a beautiful and deadly weapon, a sharp-edged ring divided into a yin-and-yang shape by its central grip.
"That's yours now, Gabrielle," she said.
"But it was your favorite weapon."
"There was a reason I couldn't take it from you back in Japa," said Xena. "More than just the fact that I was a spirit. It's a symbol of balance for me; balance between the way of war and the way of love. In Japa, I lost that balance. And if only I'd realized why, we might both have been spared a lot of tears. But, as usual, I assumed my wisdom was greater than yours."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand, squeezing it.
"Maybe the time will come, after I've found my path, that I can take the chakram again. But now, I need you to be the one to hold it." Xena smiled and tapped her fingers experimentally on the rim of the weapon. "Hey, at least I can touch it now! See? Improvement already."
Gabrielle giggled and put her arm around Xena, nuzzling her head into the hollow of the warrior's neck. "You just took one of the most terrible moments of my life and made me laugh about it," she said. "When I make a list of all the reasons I love you, remind me to put that one near the top."
Xena sighed. "I'm so sorry I hurt you so badly, love. Would it make you feel better to know that I learned the four most important lessons of my life from all of that?"
"What were they?" asked the bard.
"First. Death and peace are not the same thing. There in the Elysian Fields, all I could think of was that you weren't there. I knew I could still speak to you in your heart, but...how could I ever be at peace knowing I'd put you in such pain?"
Xena gently brushed a tear away from Gabrielle's cheek. "Second. You can't redeem an act of vengeance with another act of vengeance. I started that fire as vengeance for the defiling of Akemi's ashes. Another act of vengeance, against myself, did nothing to balance the account.
It just dropped another heavy weight on the side of death. Aphrodite had a few things to say to me about that, I can tell you."
"Go 'Dite," whispered Gabrielle under her breath.
"What was that?" asked Xena.
"Nothing. Go on."
"Third. You have more love, Gabrielle, than I ever dreamed anyone could have for someone like me. It was the beacon that guided me back from the other place. I never could have found my way back without it." Xena gazed at the glowing southern sky. "The Lighthouse of Pharos is a
guttering candle by comparison."
"And fourth, I don't know everything. When we stood by the Fountain of Strength and I told you why I was doing what I was doing, you looked at me and told me it wasn't right. And I didn't listen. I even told you I was doing it because of what I learned from you. It breaks my heart
to think of the pain in your eyes when I said that. The only thing I can do to atone is to spend the rest of my life listening to you, my love. Please help me find my way, Gabrielle?"
The lovely bard couldn't speak at that moment, but she didn't have to. By the joy flowing into her from her soulmate's heart, Xena knew that a new journey had begun.
* * * *
Gabrielle's opinion was that anyone with any sense of romance at all just had to fall in love with Alexandria upon sailing into the harbor. The huge, blazing bulk of the Great Lighthouse -- the twin points of Cleopatra's Needles -- the domes of the Mouseion further in...within half an hour of disembarking, Gabrielle was quite dizzy from turning around and around as she walked, trying to take in every new wondrous sight. Xena just wanted to find some food.
"Souvlaki?" said Gabrielle doubtfully, pointing down at the wares on the nearest food-vendor's cart.
"Mystery meat," clarified Xena, wrinkling her nose down at it. "This stuff has colonic prolapse written all over it."
"I guess we'll have to get used to trying new things to eat," said the bard brightly, not sounding at all displeased at the prospect.
"Well, at least they don't put spinach in everything like they do back home."
"Xena, you don't like spinach?"
"I hate spinach."
"You exasperating warrior princess," scolded Gabrielle, hands on hips. "How many times have I made us spanakopita for dinner, and you just sat there and ate it as if..."
She was interrupted by a sudden commotion approaching up the Canopic Way. It would be hard to imagine anything causing the middle of such a crowded, busy street to clear out so quickly, but the vendors and bystanders parted like water before a ship's prow as several running figures appeared.
In the lead was a young and lovely girl, surely no more than eighteen, with dusky skin and glossy black hair braided into long rows like strings of beads. Her only clothes were the tattered remains of a once-white garment, now mainly missing and forced by sheer improvisation to safeguard the girl's modesty above and below. She ran like a gazelle.
Not far behind, and obviously in unfriendly pursuit of the girl, were five of the roughest looking characters either Xena or Gabrielle had yet seen in this cosmopolitan, but quite attractive city. Clad in black leathers, the thugs were all armed with long whips, which seemed in some strange way to writhe on the ends of their handles like living serpents.
"Five big nasty men chasing one little girl," observed Xena coolly. "That's not very nice."
"Those guys certainly aren't wearing any uniforms of the Legions," added Gabrielle. "And I don't think Legionnaires ever use whips, do they?"
"Only for private entertainment," replied Xena acidly. She cocked an eyebrow at her companion. "Damsel in distress?"
"You got it," said Gabrielle.
"Well all right, then."
Gabrielle blended in with the scattering crowd and scampered across to the other side of the broad street. As she did, the running girl put on an extra burst of speed which opened up a lead of several yards on her pursuers. She came to a sudden stop, turned to face her attackers, and produced a small object from the folds of her top. Xena got just a glimpse of it -- it looked like a small decorated tube made of brass, about as long and thick as her middle finger. With a cry of rage, the girl hurled the thing at the nearest thug like a tiny dagger. It took him in the shoulder -- a painful, but not really dangerous wound. The man stopped in his tracks and goggled down at his shoulder with a far more horrified look than such a small injury should have produced. He'd better get out of the thugging business, thought Xena, if he can't deal with a little scratch like that.
Just then, the man exploded.
His two nearest companions were less lucky. They didn't get to die so quickly. One of them lost the left side of his torso, the other the right. They fell to the ground squirming.
Of the two survivors, one paused to clear dust from his eyes, while the other sprang at the girl, who seemed to have no more of those potent missiles remaining. Obviously exhausted, the girl turned clumsily to begin running again, but ran straight into yet another whip-wielder, who had emerged from the crowd.
Xena tossed a pair of small coins at the vendor and seized one of the skewers of meat from the cart. With one flick of her wrist, she sent all the chunks of meat flying off into the dust of the street. With another, she hurled the skewer across twenty feet of air, straight through the
whip-hand of one of the two men who now beset the girl. He cried out in pain and dropped his weapon. By that time, Xena had her sword out and was halfway to the man who had stopped to clear his eyes. Without looking, she stabbed downward twice as she ran, putting the two
mortally wounded men out of their misery.
Xena's quarry saw her coming, and hauled his whip back to strike at her. As he did, Xena noticed the emblem sewn on to the shoulder of his leathers: a green serpent's head with red eyes, striking. The Cult of Set, she thought. Murderous bastards.
"Interesting weapon, the whip," said Xena conversationally to her foe. "It has good reach, and it can disarm an enemy. But if you miss with your first strike..."
The man cracked the whip at her legs, attempting to take her down. It would have worked, had Xena not happened to be three feet in the air at the time.
"...then there's nothing you can do to guard against this." As she came down, Xena brought her sword to bear on the whip-hand of her hopelessly off-balance opponent. Five fingers and one whip scattered onto the pavement, followed a second later by their erstwhile owner, howling in agony. Xena flicked her sword down and chopped the whip into two useless halves.
"Sorry if you needed that hand for personal reasons," she said drily, then turned to see what was happening with the others.
The two remaining whip-wielders had the girl helpless on the ground between them, beating her. With admiration, Xena saw that she was managing to avoid three blows for each one she took, wriggling back and forth like a furious, trapped wildcat. One of the men had poor aim, since he had to use his left hand rather than the right one Xena had skewered. But the girl was still taking a beating, and was weakening.
Xena had taken two steps toward them when she heard a familiar whirring sound. Out of a nearby alley came a flash of metal. The two men, whips upraised, suddenly stared dumbly at the sheared-off handles they now held. The tails of the two weapons flopped in the dirt.
Gabrielle trotted out of the alley and neatly caught the chakram as it spun back to her. "Nice one," called Xena, genuinely impressed. She then turned to face the three disarmed thugs, hoping to see them fleeing back in the direction they came.
The three stood with mouths agape, silent looks of terror on each face. As Xena and Gabrielle watched, the three simply...faded away.
"What happened?" asked a mystified Xena.
"The Whisperer tolerates no failure in her minions," replied a weak voice. Xena and Gabrielle knelt by the girl, who was lying in the street covered in dirt and blood.
"Are you hurt badly?" asked Xena, checking the girl's wounds. "We'll have to clean these right away."
"Badly, yes," huffed the girl, in obvious pain. "I am dying."
"You've taken some pretty bad lashes, but I don't think you're dying," Xena reassured her.
"The serpent-whips are envenomed." The girl's speech was slurred now. "Please...the House of Isis...in Street of the Soma. Bathe me in the Fountain of Mercy...only way to..."
The girl was barely conscious now, and the wounds were already festering alarmingly before Xena's eyes.
"House of Isis. Right, I know where that is. It's not very far. I'm going to carry her, Gabrielle. Let her hold on to your hand as we go...it might help keep her from convulsing."
The girl was light, and it was no more than five minutes' fast walk to the House of Isis -- she had probably been headed there when the men had caught up with her. But the girl's condition seemed to worsen with every step. By the time they came in sight of the temple, she had lost control of her bladder, and bloody bile was oozing from the corners of her mouth. But as they approached the building, a jolt of energy seemed to pass through her, and her eyes opened.
"Must both...be touching me...as we go through the door...important..." she croaked.
"Don't worry, we've got you," said Xena. "We're almost there."
Hurrying up the temple steps, Xena saw with relief that the door already stood open -- they wouldn't have to wait for someone to let them in. The girl was convulsing in Xena's arms now, clutching desperately at Gabrielle's hand. "She's terribly feverish, Xena," reported the bard.
As they passed through the open door, Xena and Gabrielle gasped at a strange sensation, as if ants were crawling over every inch of their bodies. A small silver talisman hanging around the girl's sweat-drenched neck seemed to flash with sudden light, then faded just as quickly, but
it may have simply caught the sun.
It was cooler inside the temple, and as empty as a tomb. Except for the marble columns and tiled floor, there was nothing in the main hall except a large stone basin in the center, filled to the brim with placid water.
"That had better be the Fountain of Mercy," grunted Xena, hurrying over to it with her charge.
"Magic fountains," muttered Gabrielle, but Xena didn't hear.
Xena gently lowered the stricken girl into the cool water, as Gabrielle stripped away the filthy remains of tattered clothing. Moaning with what seemed like relief as the water closed over her, the girl began to breathe more easily. As Xena held her patient's head safely above water, Gabrielle drizzled handfuls of the cool water over the girl's hair and face, and fed some between the cracked, bloody lips.
"I think her fever is breaking," said Xena a few minutes later. "And her pulse is getting better too."
Gabrielle ran gentle fingertips over the girl's submerged, lacerated belly and thighs. "Her wounds are healing already," she marvelled. "This water is some good stuff."
"Bless you both for your kindness," the girl murmured, looking up at them with liquid brown eyes. "I am Maryet, priestess of Isis."
"Rest," said Xena. "Where are all the other priestesses?"
Maryet cast her eyes down. "There are no others, though I hope some of them escaped and have hidden themselves well. I am the only one left."
Xena and Gabrielle stared at each other in shock.
"Maryet, are you saying someone's killed all the priestesses here?" asked Xena.
"Yes...the same ones that would have killed me, if you had not saved me."
"Was it...the Cult of Set? I noticed one of those thugs was wearing the symbol of Set."
"Set is dead," replied Maryet. "And...my poor goddess is chained, a prisoner, and I cannot find her." She was weeping now. "All my sisters are dead, and I am alone."
"Who? Who has done all this?"
"The Whisperer," said Maryet fearfully. "The Whisperer in Darkness."
DARKNESS IN AGHURMI
"The circles are perfectly safe," assured Maryet. "You saved my life. I would never do anything to put yours in danger; but they will be in danger if you remain here."
Xena and Gabrielle agreed that Maryet was a very sweet girl, and probably a sane one. The church of Isis was legendary for its knowledge of magical secrets and devices, and Xena had heard before about the magic circles that could transport people and objects hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye. For all that, the two adventurers still found themselves glancing at each other apprehensively rather than stepping onto one of the parquet circles set into the temple floor.
"Come on," Maryet urged, stepping into the circle. "You may hold my hand, if you like."
Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other again, but with wry expressions this time. Maryet was a very beautiful young woman, especially after she had cleaned herself up and found a new tunic to wear in the deserted priestesses' quarters.
"We're going to hold you to that, you know," remarked Gabrielle. She and Xena each took deep breaths and stepped into the circle. "Good," said Maryet, holding out her hands for her new friends to take. "Apel-Ut."
The world momentarily turned inside out, as did Xena and Gabrielle's stomachs. Still within the same circle, but now in an entirely different building, Xena sank dizzily to her hands and knees, thankful that she had not eaten lunch today and would therefore not ruin this pretty inlaid floor. Gabrielle just sat down, very hard and very suddenly, on the floor. "Wow," she remarked.
Maryet seemed to be not in the least disoriented. She stood there placidly, waiting for Xena and Gabrielle to recover their bearings.
"We are now in the town of Aghurmi, in the holy oasis of Siwa," she informed them. "It is thirty leagues from Alexandria. This is better than trying to fight our way through the two dozen warriors that were no doubt waiting hidden for us outside the temple, is it not?"
Neither Xena nor Gabrielle seemed inclined to want to answer that question. Xena seemed inclined only to roll over and stare up at the ceiling for a while.
"So who is this Whisperer in Darkness," she asked, "and what are you going to do about him?"
"Her," corrected Maryet. "At least in this incarnation. There is nothing that we can do about her. She commands all the jackals, serpents, and vermin of the earth, and has even dragons in her service. She can kill gods. You and your lover are great warriors, but there would be nothing you could do against her except to die."
"That's an option I'm getting pretty sick of," said Xena. "And how did you know Gabrielle and I..."
"Please," interrupted Maryet with an indulgent smile. "I could pick you out as lovers even if you were standing on opposite ends of a plaza."
"I guess we've got it bad, all right," admitted Gabrielle.
"I would say that you have got it good," responded Maryet.
She gracefully seated herself on a nearby bench. "The Whisperer," she said, "is a part of our oldest legends. When there is great doubt upon the earth and the world is at a crossroads, it comes down from the dark between the stars to destroy, to sow chaos, and to enslave the world
from one end to the other."
"Sounds like someone I used to know," sighed Xena. "So there's nothing you can do except let her run wild?"
"Only the gods can face her and hope to prevail," said Maryet, wringing her hands. "But of all the Ennead -- the nine great gods of Egypt -- only Set and my lady Isis remained in this world. The Whisperer slew Set as a way to herald her arrival in the world, and Isis has somehow been
imprisoned -- I know she still lives, because I can feel her power, but I can't find her and she can't find me. Even if we could free her, I doubt even she in all her might could stand alone against the Whisperer and live."
"You know," said Gabrielle wearily, "there are two possible ways to look at this. The first is that my wanting to come here was Fate rather than whim, and we're meant to face down the legions of evil and win an unwinnable battle and save the world. The second is that I should have chosen to go north to Wallachia, land of Sugar Beets and Muddy Roads, instead."
"Maryet, we'd really like to help you if there's any way we can," said Xena, standing up. "Why don't Gabrielle and I stick around for a few days, learn more about this and see if any ideas come up? Unfortunately we've got a lot of experience in this kind of thing."
"You are even more kind than I imagined," said Maryet with real gratitude. "But do not put your own lives in danger for this. It is not your fight, after all."
"That's never stopped us from getting in trouble before," said Xena, without smiling.
* * * *
They were both far too tired for passion that night, but Gabrielle had sworn a personal vow never to let either of them go to sleep without feeling safe and warm and loved. She kissed and snuggled with her sleepy soulmate until the even sounds of Xena's sleep-breathing rewarded
her, and then she nuzzled against her lover's neck to fall asleep to the gentle rhythm of her heartbeat.
* * * *
Xena found herself in a very dark place, alone. The only light seemed to glow from her own body, though she did not know how that could be. She was dimly aware that she was supposed to feel something...afraid, perhaps?
"Ahhhh," whispered a sibilant voice behind her. "At last I have enticed you to come and visit me. I feared that I would have to destroy half the world to gain your attention. That would spoil too much of the fun to come, wouldn't it?"
The speaker stood just outside the ring of Xena's inner light. It was tall, and it had grotesque wings of some sort. There was nothing else there but Xena and a million million miles of dark nothing.
Yes...most definitely afraid.
Gabrielle awoke in the middle of the night, because something was wrong. Just what was wrong wasn't immediately clear. Xena was still there, asleep in her arms, breathing peacefully. Certainly, she would be awake before Gabrielle if anything was wrong -- but being awake did nothing to alleviate her feeling that something just wasn't right.
Conquering her fear of looking silly (which had been getting easier to conquer lately), Gabrielle employed the method she found most effective for waking Xena without provoking a reflexive defensive response: a kiss on the lips and a gentle shake, while whispering her name.
Xena slept on.
Gabrielle's concern became palpable. Fifteen years of warrior's experience had trained Xena to wake from even a deep sleep in response to noises that Gabrielle couldn't hear even wide awake.
Attemping to shake Xena awake, calling her name, produced no result. It did eventually bring Maryet from her adjoining room. Clad in her night-dress, candlestick in hand, the young priestess examined Xena carefully, with a physician's expertise.
"She is not ill, as far as I can see," she said after a few minutes. "Apart from drugs, I can think of nothing that would produce such an effect. But we all ate and drank the same food and wine at dinner."
Seemingly as an afterthought, Maryet lifted one of Xena's eyelids. She gasped at what she saw. Coming to look, Gabrielle saw that the eye was not rolled upward as is normal in an unconscious person, nor was it moving from side to side as the eye of a dreaming person did. Xena's eye --
mostly pupil, with only a thin rim of blue iris around the outside -- stared straight ahead, motionless.
"It is the Staring Dream," said Maryet in a voice choked with fear. "Oh, Gabrielle, I am sorry..."
"What?" demanded Gabrielle, terror welling up within her. "What does that mean?"
"It means that the Whisperer has her. She will never wake."
Tears welled in Maryet's eyes at the look on Gabrielle's face. "You should have let me die in the dust, there in Alexandria," she sobbed.
Gabrielle fought back the urge to panic. No, she thought. My days as a silly sidekick are long behind me. Xena doesn't sit around and cry when something happens to me. She always finds a way to do something. Always.
"Have a seat," she said calmly to Maryet, motioning to the edge of the bed. "We have some thinking to do. This Whisperer of yours may be able to kill gods, but she's not going to take Xena from me. It's a mistake I'm going to make her regret, one way or another."
* * * *
Xena assumed a defensive stance, waiting for the whatever-it-was at the edge of the light to make a move. It remained in the shadows, though, circling around her.
"The problem, as always," purred the thing, "is that only one of us has a future in this lifetime. I humbly submit that I should be the one to go forward. After all, I have done so much more and lied so much less than you."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Xena replied.
"Don't you? Then perhaps you should ask someone. Here is one who can tell you where the account stands."
The darkness suddenly resolved itself into a tunnel of ever-increasing light. Instants later, Xena found herself standing in a small carpeted room -- a study, judging by the scrolls and writing implements stacked neatly about. Behind a desk sat a man in the garb of a Japanese scholar. The only sound was the clicking of an abacus the scholar was working figures upon, and the scratch of his pen upon a scroll as he recorded his results.
"Thirty-nine thousand, seven hundred and eighty-six," remarked the man without looking up at her. "That is the tally, if by some chance you are interested."
"The lives lost to your treachery in the great fire, of course," the man replied. "Infants in arms burned to death: three thousand and nine. Pregnant women burned alive with their unborn children: two thousand five hundred and sixteen. Honored elders whose wisdom is now lost
forever: five thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven. Number of future lives lost because you took their ancestors from them: incalculable."
"I...I atoned for those deaths," said Xena, doubt torturing her words. "I gave my life."
"Really?" said the man, glancing up at her with a smirk. "If you had done that, you wouldn't be here talking to me now, would you? You would be in whatever afterlife the gods of your people reserve for murderers who make at least some attempt to atone for their crimes. But it would
seem your life and your lover were more important to you."
"No," said Xena hopelessly, feeling close to tears. "Aphrodite told me that only through love can hate be redeemed. She said vengeance was meaningless, that my death would only add to the cycle of death for death for death, until there was no one left to die. There was nothing I
could accomplish in the afterworld, she told me, except to be absent when I was needed in the real world."
"How very convenient," said the scholar. "For you."
"We have spoken so far of only one of your accounts," he continued, riffling through a pile of scrolls on the side of his desk. "There is here also the case of one Callisto. A machine of death created, I believe, by you?"
"Callisto," groaned Xena, feeling as if her mind was turning to mud. "I gave her the light of my love, to atone for the lifetime of hurt I'd caused her. I damned myself so that she could find peace..."
"And yet you don't look much like any demon I have ever seen. Another 'sacrifice' that you managed to put a time limit to, it seems. And it gets better: in gratitude for your gift, this Callisto gave you a child."
"Eve," said Xena softly.
"Livia," corrected the scholar. "Who went on as Champion of Rome to slaughter thousands. Then, when called upon to atone for her crimes, she managed to run off to the land of Indus, life and health intact."
The man looked without a shred of compassion at Xena, who stood with her hands over her face, unable to hold back the tears. "Perhaps you know enough of arithmetic to recognize what we have here," he said. "We have an unpaid account. It is long past due."
* * * *
Gabrielle lay on the bed, her face only inches away from Xena's. She closed her eyes and let her lover's warm breath wash over her face. If it was true that a person's soul travelled in the breath, then this was where she needed to be. Maryet had gone off to warn the elders of Aghurmi that the Whisperer was among them.
"Please let me find a way to go to her," she whispered to any god that might still be alive and listening. "Let me find a way in. Xena's soul is too much a part of mine for me to be locked out like this." She opened her eyes and gazed at her soulmate's beautiful, sleeping face. "There's no such thing as hopelessness between us," she said. "There can't be."
Gabrielle's thoughts drifted to the first time she and Xena had made love, not so long ago, in a pretty little room in Aphrodite's temple. Thinking of sex at a time like this, Gabrielle thought angrily to herself. What the hell kind of a hero are you?
But the memories would not go away, and Gabrielle could do nothing but surrender to them.
Xena gazed up at her from the bed, wide-eyed and trembling as any virgin. Gabrielle's legs would no longer carry her, so she lay down on the bed next to the warrior princess. "From the first heartbeat after I saw you, I was yours," she whispered. "Let me show you what I've
dreamed of every night since."
Feeling as if she were in a different world, Gabrielle laid a trail of tickly tongue-kisses across Xena's chest, just above her breasts. She nibbled her way up the curve of her shoulder until she reached the soft skin of Xena's neck...
Busy moments passed. By the sounds and movements, Gabrielle could tell that the need for release was welling up very quickly within Xena's body and soul. As it did, Gabrielle felt a similar need arising rapidly within her, even though her lover had not yet even touched her
They burst at the same instant. The stupendous physical pleasure, however, faded from their consciousness as their innermost souls opened the most secret gates. Gabrielle saw Xena's love for her as Xena herself saw it, not filtered through the crude media of speech and touch.
Xena witnessed for herself what Gabrielle's heart truly held for her.
It couldn't have lasted more than thirty heartbeats. When it was over they couldn't speak, couldn't even weep with joy. They could only gaze into each other's eyes. Gabrielle realized that she would always be able to see into Xena's soul from that moment on, and that Xena would be able to see hers as well -- if she wasn't too frightened to look.
It was dark -- dark everywhere, and Gabrielle could hear someone crying bitter tears somewhere nearby. Turning, she saw a figure kneeling, hands over face, weeping as if joy would never again touch any part of the universe. The figure glowed with inner light, but the light was fading and nearly gone.
"Well again," whispered a feline voice from the darkness. "Too late this time, little love-bearer? We shall see."
Gabrielle cared nothing for that. She knelt down next to the weeping figure. "Xena, I'm here," she whispered. "I found you. I've come to take you home."
"Home?" said Xena through her tears. "Where? No home in life...no home in death." She looked up at Gabrielle with blank eyes. "Run from my love before I destroy you, too."
Gabrielle stared down at Xena's miserable form for a long moment, mouth agape. And then...she laughed. It wasn't a mad laugh or a laugh of scorn. It was a laugh of joy, pure and simple. It went on and on.
"Is that the best you can do?" she whooped to whatever it was that waited in the shadows. "Coward who hides in darkness? Can you hear me? Do you have any idea what you're facing?"
Gabrielle took her dazed, tormented companion in a love-filled embrace, and kissed her tear-streaked face. "Come on, Xena," she said. "See what I see. Know what I know."
Xena gasped as they found themselves in another place; a place of peace. Xena blinked in confusion. How could peace exist anywhere she stood?
Akemi was there. Behind her, indistinct, were the bright lights of thousands of souls. Akemi's face held love and compassion, and a little concern.
"Xena, your heart still weeps for us," she said. "Why?"
"I betrayed you, Akemi. I took back my life. The vengeance of those I destroyed has been lost, because I believed a goddess who told me that only love can redeem."
Akemi touched Xena's face. "She must be a very wise goddess," she said. "Xena, when you stopped Gabrielle from immersing your ashes in the Fountain of Strength, you made the greatest act of love I have ever witnessed. You were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so that the dead
could be at peace. The moment you made that noble decision, the souls were freed forever."
"You mean...my remaining dead..."
Akemi smiled. "You did what you did knowing that it would be the ultimate sacrifice. But it was the love you showed in choosing to accept death that redeemed, not the death itself. In this place, we know that physical bodies are only so much clay and water. They mean nothing, and
so death means nothing. But you among the living cannot understand this, and so only the greatest love can make you willingly cast away your bodies and what you call life."
The spirit of Akemi embraced Xena. "The way of vengeance is not for you anymore, Xena. Go with your soulmate, and be happy. When the time comes, many years from now, we shall all meet again here. Until then, beautiful soul, live long and love long."
Then Xena and Gabrielle were alone again. Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand. "Do you remember asking me whether I saw more pain or love in your soul?"
"Yes," breathed Xena.
"Do you know the answer now?"
Tears streamed down Xena's face as she took Gabrielle in her arms. "Yes. Oh, I do."
* * * *
"Are you ready to battle me now?" asked the Whisperer in Darkness, its voice dripping with sarcasm.
"The battle has already been fought," replied Xena, "and we have already won."
"Yes," said the Whisperer unconcernedly. "Isn't that always the way of it?"
The thing stepped at last out into the light. Gabrielle gasped at the sight of Xena's beautiful face, her deep blue eyes, peering from the head of such a monster.
"Lifetime after lifetime, you and your little champion of love defeat me," it said. "But we shall meet in a million lifetimes more. And you must win all of those million battles, while I must win only once. Someday, my sister, your lover shall not reach you in time. And then your future will become mine."
* * * *
In a place called Gandhara, Eve knelt beside a cot and comforted a laboring mother. It would be a difficult birth, but the chances were a thousand times better now with loving people to help. Eve wasn't aware that two more mothers watched her from a place that had once been darkness.
"I'm so proud of her," whispered Xena. "I love her so much."
"So do I," said Gabrielle. "Did you ever notice that she has Callisto's eyes?"
"Yes," smiled Xena. "I hope Callisto can look through them, and see where our path of hate came to an end."
"Daughters are wonderful things, are they not?" spoke a beautiful voice behind them. Xena and Gabrielle turned to behold a tall woman of dark beauty too sublime for any mortal body to hold. Her eyes were as green as emeralds.
"I shall soon see my own daughter again, because you have freed me. Again."
"You're Isis, aren't you?" asked Xena.
"Yes. And do you know who you are?"
Xena paused. "I'm...I'm not sure any more."
"There is an ancient riddle, older even than myself and my kind," said the goddess. "It is this:
They must be one, for one two souls may be
There is no end of beginnings they shall see
It is not light, if darkness puts it out
It is not dark, if light casts it in doubt
It is not dead, which can eternal lie
And in strange eons, even death may die."
"What does it mean?" asked Xena.
"I fear only you can answer that, in time," said Isis. "I am only a goddess."
* * * *
Two young and beautiful women -- one with hair of black and one with hair of gold -- found themselves in a small bedroom in the town of Aghurmi as the sun rose. A goddess was with them. The two young women saw fit to acknowledge this solemn occasion by launching an epic pillow fight, and chasing each other squealing over the beds as feathers filled the air. Isis watched the feathers fall around her and smiled.
A bewildered Maryet threw open the door, clearly expecting to find a pair of madwomen, laughing and playing as the world came to an end. It was obvious that Maryet had been crying, and had not slept in a long while. As she took in the scene in dull astonishment, her eyes came to
rest on the goddess.
"Mother!" she cried, and fell to her knees as tears of joy flooded onto the dusty floor.
SPIRITS NEVER PART
"Well, bearer of love," said Isis. "Do you still worry that you are seen as a 'silly little sidekick'?"
"No," replied Gabrielle. "And I'm not through bearing love yet, either."
"What do you mean?"
Gabrielle smiled at the goddess. "There's someone I'd like you to meet."
* * * *
Three women gathered in the Inner Sanctum of Aphrodite's temple.
"I love the candles," said Maryet. "And the clam shell. I am not so sure about the golden statues."
"You get used to them, believe it or not," assured Gabrielle. "You hardly even notice they're there. And that's a good thing."
Amid all the candles and clamshells and golden goddesses, a sudden light flashed, and a scantily-clad beauty with golden curls emerged from the ether amid a brief but spectacular glitter of light and color. An unsuppressable smile lit up her face.
"Oooooh," breathed Maryet. "How stylish!"
"I don't know who you are," said Aphrodite, "but I like you already. Xena and Gabrielle, back so soon? I guess there wasn't too much to do down there in the Land of the Pharaohs."
"Oh, it was alright," said Xena. "We did some shopping, saw some sights."
"How about you, little bard," said Aphrodite softly to Gabrielle. "Did you bring me any stories?"
"As a matter of fact," replied Gabrielle, "I did." She turned to Maryet and nodded.
The priestess took the purple crystal pendant that hung around her neck and kissed it. The air shimmered, and Isis stood among them.
"Isis, this is Aphrodite, goddess of love. Aphrodite, this is Isis, goddess of....ummm..."
"Love, magic, renewal, and family," supplied Isis.
"And ships!" added Maryet.
"Oh yes, and ships," smiled Isis. "I always forget about that one."
"So you are Aphrodite," she said. "I have heard about the help and guidance you gave to Xena and Gabrielle. And now I see that you are as beautiful as you are wise."
The two goddesses gazed into each other's eyes. "I...I...." said Aphrodite. "Oh.....wow," she concluded.
* * * *
Xena and Gabrielle watched from a distance as Isis and Aphrodite sat very close, near the crystal fountain. Aphrodite reached up and touched Isis' face, as if seeing beauty for the first time.
"How did you do that?" marvelled Xena.
"No big deal," shrugged Gabrielle. "I saw the same thing in Isis' eyes that I saw in Aphrodite's eyes. They're obviously soulmates."
"But they're nothing alike," said Xena.
"Like we are? Love is no fun without excitement."
Aphrodite glanced at them over her shoulder. She flashed a smile filled with so much joy it looked as though she'd burst. With a snap of her fingers, she and Isis vanished in a ray of light and a sprinkle of glittering dust. At the same instant, a perfect rose flickered into existence in Gabrielle's hand. She sniffed it, looking as pleased with herself as Xena had ever seen her.
"You know," said Xena, "I love being in love with you."
Gabrielle handed the rose to Xena wordlessly, as the last light of sunset washed over them.
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