She was standing in her old room, the small, straw pillow on her pallet still waiting for her sleeping head, the brushes she'd used still holding a stray hair or two, her chakram still hanging on its peg, dust-free and polished. Her mother had let the room remain as she'd left it -- had kept it clean and ready -- as if her missing daughter might come home any minute, wanting some lunch, brushing a quick kiss on her cheek then running outside to practice with her sword.
"Oh, mother, I'm so sorry," Xena whispered, knowing that the room was a bigger testament to grief and loss than anything Gabrielle might get her to say. Xena had never considered her life or death as selfish, but now she was struck by how it may have seemed to her mother. The woman's only daughter had formed and led an army against an oppressor instead of staying safely indoors, letting the men battle between themselves. And in this campaign, that daughter had been killed. Gone forever because she couldn't stand by and be an ordinary female -- she had to be hero; had to be the one to protect her village.
"Were you proud of me?" Xena asked the room and her mother's invisible spirit which clung to every corner. "Or were you ashamed that your only daughter was a warrior not a wife; a soldier not a siren; a master of men not a mother of little boys?" She reached up and carefully removed the chakram, placing it on her belt. It shimmered for a moment then disappeared, now within the influence of the invisible Helm. With a last glance around, she left the room to return to Gabrielle.
"Who are you?" Xena's mother asked the intruder, her face white with shock. "And why do you speak of my late daughter like that? Have you no compassion for a mother's grief?"
Hades shifted uncomfortably. He hated dealing with the living because they always made such a big deal about the loved ones he controlled -- as if their shadow existence wasn't far better than the squalor on this plane. "My apologies, madam. Let me see if I can phrase it differently. Your daughter, who has been in the Elysian Fields for some time, has sto--"
Suddenly his mouth was covered by something warm and smothering. He couldn't speak or escape as he was dragged bodily from the inn by something unseen.
Gabrielle watched, her mouth open. Collecting herself, she turned to Cyrene, a cheerful smile now plastered on her face. "You meet a lot of weirdos on the road. He was probably trying to sell you something. Or maybe he wanted a free drink to treat his mental affliction. Do you have any cheese? I'm very hungry and a nice hard cheese would hit the spot." She smiled, grabbed the older woman's arm, and led her toward the kitchen.
"How dare you bother my mother!" said Xena, visible now, but hiding behind the back of the tavern, away from seeing eyes.
"Give me the Helm, Xena," said Hades, reaching for the prize.
"No," she said, darkly.
"You dare say 'no' to a god? I can send you to Tartarus without blinking an eye. Now give me my Helm!"
Xena looked at his face, saw the beads of sweat popping out on his brow, his eyes frantic and ringed by fatigue. She held up the Helm and with the full intensity of her warrior spirit said, "Without this, you're mortal and that's made you desperate. Well, I'm desperate, too, Hades. There are things I have to do and I cannot give you your Helm until I've accomplished them."
The words of The Fates resounded in Hades' head. 'Xena must fulfill her destiny.' Much as he objected, he realized that he couldn't retrieve his Helm until the strong, beautiful woman who stood so resolutely before him had accomplished her mission on earth.
"What 'things' must you do?"
"My brother, Lyceus, is being held by Cortese. Before I willingly return to you, I must rescue him and reunite him with his wife, Gabrielle."
"The talky blonde?"
Xena nodded, frowning.
Hades was silent a moment. Then he looked her in the eyes for several seconds. "Okay. We'll rescue Lyceus. As soon as he is liberated, you will give me my Helm."
"We? You're going to help me free my brother?"
"It would be a lot easier if you handed me my property right now. You can still do so, you know. I'll emancipate him with no risk to any of us."
Xena looked at him for long moments, then, eyes narrowed, shook her head. "No. Once you retrieve your godhood, you'll forget about my problems and return to your realm."
"You can trust me. I'm a god."
"Which is the best reason I know not to. No, Hades. We do this my way. I keep the Helm until Lyceus is free."
"As you wish," he said, knowing that she wouldn't have taken his offer, but enjoying tempting her.
Gabrielle was telling Xena's mother about one of Lyceus' showdowns with a minor warlord when she felt something touch her arm. She shrieked, jumped back, hit something solid, though unseen, and crashed to the floor, her limbs tangled with it.
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" asked Cyrene.
"Yes, oh yes, just fine. Had a little muscle spasm there, nothing to worry about," she said then whispered, "You're on my leg."
"My arm is pinned behind you," said an answering whisper.
"No problem at all," Gabrielle said loudly, grunting and disentangling from the woman she couldn't see. "Ow!" she said, bumping her head on an invisible sword.
"Sorry," came another whisper. "We have to go. Meet me outside."
Suddenly, Gabrielle was sitting on the floor, alone. "All better now. I simply must remember to do my stretches before I start a new journey. Always forgetting that part." She hopped to her feet and smiled at the tavern keeper. "It's been great, but I have to go now."
"But you just got here! I thought you would stay for a couple of days at least!"
"Yes, well, I get so lonely without Lyceus and he's always so lost without me. Especially when he's fighting a Cyclops."
"I thought you said he was saving villagers and rescuing orphans?"
"...From a Cyclops. Did I forget that part? Sorry. Don't know where my head is-- gak!" Gabrielle sputtered as invisible fingers tickled her waist.
"Now, Gabrielle," said a voice next to her ear.
"Just another spasm!" said Gabrielle cheerfully. Then she smiled sadly at her mother-in-law and embraced her. "Good-bye, Cyrene," she said.
"Be safe, Gabrielle. And thank you for thinking of me. You're my only daughter now, and I'm proud to have you in my family."
Gabrielle disentangled and waved good-bye as she left the tavern.
Cyrene stood for a moment, a puzzled expression on her face. It was impossible, of course, but when Gabrielle had hugged her, it had felt like an extra pair of arms had embraced her as well. And although she would surely be locked up if anyone found out, she could swear a small kiss had been placed on her cheek by some force other than the flesh and blood woman she'd held.
Was she crazy? she wondered. For -- and this couldn't be real -- the scent of her beloved daughter seemed to surround her.
"Guess who?" said a voice as Gabrielle felt two invisible hands cover her eyes. She could, of course, see right through them.
"Well, that's a toughie. Give me a minute," she said.
The hands went away and she saw Xena shimmer into view next to her, holding the Helm.
"Let's get Argo and get out of here," said the former wraith.
"Wait a minute. I just want to get some things straight here. We're going to get Lyceus, right?"
"And that means 'us.' You and me. I'm going too, right?"
"I get to be in on the whole rescue thing?"
"Can we walk and talk? I want to get going," said Xena, striding ahead. Gabrielle beamed then hurried to catch up.
"So what happened to the guy from the bar? The one who knew about you?"
"Hades? He's coming with us," said Xena.
"That was Hades?" asked Gabrielle, shocked. "The actual Hades? Lord of the Underworld? Mr. Death himself?"
"Yeah. But he's not a god right now. I have his Helm, remember?"
Gabrielle took this in. "Soooo... does that make you Lord of the Underworld?"
"Yeah," Xena said, casually and whistled. A soft nicker sounded behind a line of trees and Argo trotted into view.
"How do you make her do that?"
"She just does it. We understand each other."
Xena jumped on Argo and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. They rode for awhile in silence.
"So where's Hades now?" Gabrielle asked.
"He went on ahead. To scout."
"Did you know all along that the Helm made you a god?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's not like I'm doing anything with the power. Except keeping Lyceus alive, of course."
Gabrielle started. "You mean he sort of died already?"
"No. But he was close a couple of times and I made sure he recovered."
"That's a lot of power. Life and death. What's it feel like?"
Xena's eyes flashed, though Gabrielle couldn't see her face. "It's intoxicating. Addictive. Glorious..." Xena could feel the godstrength surging through her and part of her wanted desperately to embrace the power; to become a true Lord; to watch the mortals quake as she passed. She fought the urge yet again, wondering where this darkness in her soul came from, and why the call of it was so powerful. Finally, when she had herself under control, she said softly, "It will be very difficult to give it up."
Gabrielle instantly understood the implications of that statement. "Give it up? You're going to give it back?"
"I have to. It's Hades' power, not mine. He's the god."
"But... but what happens to you when you give back the Helm?"
"I die, of course."
The campfire cast orange flickering shadows on the faces of the two women. Gabrielle was poking the fire with a stick while Xena toyed with the Helm. She put it on for a moment, checked on Lyceus' condition, finding him stronger than before, then removed it.
"How is he?" asked Gabrielle.
"He'll make it. We'll get to Cortese' encampment tomorrow morning. We should have him back in your arms by midday."
"Oh. Good," said Gabrielle without enthusiasm.
"Something wrong?" asked Xena, searching her friend's face.
"No... well, yes, but... no, forget it," she said and smiled.
Xena stood, took off her warrior garb and slipped into her shroud.
"Do you have to wear that thing?" asked Gabrielle testily.
"It's all I have. Unless I sleep in the leather, of course."
"It gives me the creeps. You're alive now, so why dress like the dead?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle for a long moment then removed the shroud. She picked up a blanket, wrapped her nude body in it, then sat next to her friend. "What's wrong, Gabrielle?"
"Nothing's wrong," she said testily.
"Uh-huh. You've been quiet and sullen since I told you I was giving back the Helm. Is that it? You don't want me to return it to Hades? You prefer me as a god?"
"I prefer you alive!" Gabrielle said angrily, tears in her eyes.
Xena gathered her into her strong arms and held her while she wept, rocking her gently. When Gabrielle's sobs had subsided a bit, Xena said softly, "I prefer life, too, Gabrielle. I was terribly unhappy in the Elysian Fields. Everyone around me was at peace, but I was restless. I didn't feel like I belonged there."
"Then why would you go back? Why won't you stay..." Gabrielle entreated, her eyes too vulnerable to disguise their love, "...with me?"
"You have Lyceus. There's no place for me with my brother and his wife."
Then let him die! Gabrielle wanted to shout. It would be so easy. While Xena slept, she could take the Helm and she'd be the god. She could ease Lyceus into a peaceful death and then she and Xena would be together for always and then... and then... and then she wouldn't be able to live with herself because of what she'd done.
"Oh, Xena, what will become of me? How am I supposed to live the rest of my life without you?"
Xena glanced down at the blonde head cradled in her arms. "Gabrielle?" she asked in a low, half-whisper. "What are you saying?"
"I don't even know how to put this," said Gabrielle, knowing that she shouldn't say anything. It was so wrong of her to lay this at Xena's feet, baring her own soul even though she knew it would hurt her friend to hear the truth about her beloved brother.
"Just say it."
"I... I wasn't happy with Lyceus," she said in a small voice. Then she rushed on, "He's a good man, Xena. He's heroic and handsome and never mistreated me but..."
"But I don't love him. I've been unhappy for years. The only thing that kept me going were the dreams."
"What dreams?" Xena asked, holding her closer, one hand gently tracing the muscles on Gabrielle's arm.
"The dreams of you. Of the Warrior Princess. You would come to me when I slept and we would have adventures and you'd hold me when I was sad and you'd protect me if I was frightened. ...I was in love with you." Xena's hands stilled. "I... I still am," said Gabrielle softly.
Xena was in torment. Gabrielle's words had rocketed her to an emotional high she'd never known yet in them was a trap of epic proportions. "But you're my brother's wife," she said, her voice breaking on the words.
"Yes, I'm your brother's wife. But only in name. My heart aches to be with you. My soul cries out for completion. You are my soul, Xena. I know that now. We found each other even through the barrier of death. How can you doubt that we were meant to be together? That we were two halves of the same whole? Without you my life is meaningless."
"Poor Lyceus," mumbled Xena, realizing how impossible it would be for him to accept losing his wife's love to his own sister. "Poor Gabrielle," she added, knowing that to do the noble thing -- to step away and leave the bard with her husband -- would destroy Gabrielle.
"You can't give back the Helm, Xena. I won't let you. I would rather die than lose you."
"Stop it. Don't say things like that. I'm already dead, Gabrielle. The Helm isn't mine to keep. But things are different in the Elysian Fields. Even if we were there together, it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be like it is here in the land of the living. All they feel there is peace. There's no sadness, no joy, no anger, no love. Just peace. We would be together but it wouldn't matter. Not like it does down here, anyway. There's no passion in the afterlife. And passion is..." She stopped. Unable to continue.
"So what do we do?" asked Gabrielle, her eyes beseeching. She searched the warrior's face for an answer but found nothing there but pain.
They fell asleep wrapped in each others arms, exhausted by the emotional whirlpool which had engulfed them. Gabrielle woke in the middle of the night, startled to find herself being held, then relaxing when she realized it was Xena and not Lyceus.
The fire had died to embers but the moon was bright and full, casting blue highlights on the planes of Xena's sleeping face. Gabrielle studied that face, drinking in every beautiful detail from the strong cheekbones, to the long black lashes, straight nose and full lips. Xena looked so young when asleep and Gabrielle realized that she *was* young, having not aged since her death. She kept thinking of her friend as being the older, wiser woman, yet in reality it was Gabrielle who had more years in the living world.
What would Xena's life have been like had she lived? Gabrielle wondered. She would have been a great hero, she decided. She would have dedicated her life to easing oppression like Lyceus, only her successes would've far outstripped his. Xena had greatness written on every feature. She would have been like Hercules: loved, revered, admired. Yes, it was easy for Gabrielle to see what the heroic woman's destiny should have been. She would have stopped Cortese, saved her village then moved on to even greater battles, always defending the innocent, crushing the warlords who lived to spread evil.
Gabrielle sighed and snuggled closer to Xena's warmth. The warrior had fallen asleep without redonning her shroud, the blanket her only covering. Gabrielle knew she shouldn't do it, but felt compelled to take small advantage of this fortunate oversight. Slowly, she slipped her hand beneath the folds of the blanket. A firmly muscled thigh stopped its progress. Gabrielle let her fingers drift along the strong, chorded muscle, and felt again the warmth between her own legs.
Her other hand reached out and carefully brushed a few stray hairs from Xena's face, the skin beneath her fingers soft and unblemished. So beautiful. Such an extraordinary face; an extraordinary woman.
Unable to stop, she leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on the full lips. Xena moaned, her eyes still shut. Gabrielle felt a firm hand grip her wrist, pulling it to one exposed breast. Gently, Gabrielle cupped Xena's breast in her hand, loving the weight of it and the velvet texture of the delicate skin. Without touching the hardening nipple, she stroked it teasingly, running butterfly patterns across its surface. Xena shifted, arching her chest toward Gabrielle, the warrior's eyes still closed. With a smile, Gabrielle let her tongue take over for her fingers -- tasting, touching, teasing -- until Xena's moans grew frequent. Finally, the giver of this exquisite torture took the nipple between her teeth and flicked her tongue in a dance of sensations.
Xena's eyes flew open.
"Gabrielle?" she asked, her breath coming in short gasps.
Gabrielle pulled away instantly. What have I done? Xena is probably so angry at me for doing this while she slept -- oh gods, what have I done?
"I'm sorry. Please forgive me, Xena, please I can't bear it if you hate me -- please forgi--"
Gabrielle's mouth was covered with soft, strong lips, the kiss deep and sensual and exploding with love and tenderness. Two tongues flicked and faded then intertwined, tasting the essence of the other. For long moments the world had become this single kiss. Then Xena moved sadly away, leaving Gabrielle's mouth exposed to the bite of the small breeze, empty once again.
"I can't. He's my brother. Though you are my every desire, I can't. Not now. We have to wait. Wait until this is resolved. When Lyceus is safe, we'll talk to him. Both of us together. If you aren't happy with him, he can't hold you. I won't let him. Remember, Gabrielle: I am your Warrior Princess. I will always protect you."
Xena turned away from Gabrielle and feigned sleep, every nerve screaming that she was a fool to have thrown away the only happiness she'd ever find in the short life left to her.
"I feel ridiculous," said Hades.
"I'm not all that happy myself," said Gabrielle who glanced at Hades then started laughing.
"One more giggle out of you and I swear on my brother Zeus that you will become the prime target of every ruffian in Tartarus for eternity," said the former Lord of the Underworld. Gabrielle stopped laughing but her eyes were sparkling. Hades scowled. She fought a smile. Then Hades laughed out loud. "Oh all right. It's not every day you see a god in drag, though you have to admit I have very nice legs," he said, smiling at Gabrielle.
"Keep it down, you two," said Xena, her concentration fully on Cortese' encampment. It was fortified, well-guarded and it was obvious how he had remained in power. The man was a good administrator and had a fetish about safety.
"Xena? Are you sure this is going to work?" asked Gabrielle, punching Hades lightly because he kept trying to steal her veils.
"No. I'm not sure at all. Especially with Mr. Grim'n'Pretty over there. But it's the best we could do with no funding, no time and no plan. Ready?"
"Ready," said Gabrielle.
"Ready!" said Hades in a falsetto.
"What does Persephone see in you?" mumbled Xena as she slipped on the Helm and disappeared.
"Do you think she was really angry?" asked Hades.
"Nah, she gets grumpy when she's serious. Which is mostly all the time, but it's a cute grumpy. A fun-loving grumpy."
"Uh-huh. Well? Shall we?"
"Give her another ten minutes or so. The timing has to be right."
"Want to rehearse again?" asked Hades. "I'm still a little rough on the transitions."
"You'll be fine," answered Gabrielle. Well, what do you know? Even gods can get stage fright.
Lyceus was lying on a hard pallet. He was still chained, but he was no longer suspended from the ceiling. They had given him water and small amounts of food and had tended to the worst of his wounds. He'd kept up the act of being near death to keep them from questioning him further, but Cortese had set a time limit on their largesse, having noticed Lyceus' improvement. Time had run out. Soon they would find out that he knew nothing about the 'force of nature' that had attacked Cortese' men and then they would execute him.
"Lift your arms," said a voice.
Lyceus looked around, trying to find the source. But no one was there.
"Lyceus, hurry. Lift your arms," it said urgently.
Slowly he complied. Suddenly, a chakram appeared in midair, flying straight for the chains that bound him, ripping through them, bouncing off the wall then returning in its arc only to stop then shiver into invisibility.
"Xena...?" Has the ghost of my long-dead sister come from the grave to rescue me? he wondered. He gasped for air, the shock tripping his heart into triple beats. Then, a few feet away, a woman shimmered into view. "Xena..." he whispered.
"Yes, Lyceus. It's me. C'mon, we have to go--"
"This is impossible. Xena, you're dead!"
"Worry about it later, Lyceus. They'll start any minute."
"Who? Who'll start what? And I won't--"
"Gabrielle and Hades. They're our diversion."
"Gabrielle? You brought my wife into the middle of Cortese' camp? Are you insane?" he said, his voice gaining strength.
"It's okay, Lyceus. She can handle herself."
"We'll talk about that later," he said. "But I'm not moving until you tell me how my dead sister can be standing in front of me. I've cracked, that's it. It finally got to me and I've lost my mind."
"C'mon! We... oh all right. I stole the Helm of Hades and escaped the Elysian Fields so that I could rescue you. Happy? Now hurry -- I'll give you a boost through the window."
"What's the Helm of-- whoa!!!" he said as she grabbed his foot, launched him skyward and sent him crashing for the open window several yards up the side of the cell. He flew through and landed on a pile of pallets that Xena had stacked outside, in anticipation. A moment later, his sister sailed through the window, flipped past the pallets and landed on her feet. "I hate that you can do that and I can't," he grumbled, brushing himself off.
Xena put her finger to her lips, slipped the Helm on his head and watched him turn invisible. "Now get out of here. Go to that clump of trees over there, past the gates and up the hill. Wait for us there."
"What about you?" he asked.
"There's something I have to do first. But you're too weak to help. Now go on! I don't want to have to worry about you, okay?"
"Okay. Be careful, Xena. I'd hate to lose you again just when I finally got you back."
"No one's losing anyone. Go! Go!" She ran toward Cortese' headquarters, ducking and weaving to stay out of sight.
"For your pleasure and amusement, a gift from the fine people of Poteidaia. In hopes that you won't butcher them again, we are yours to do with as you please. But first! My sister and I will perform the erotic dance of the purple veils!" announced Gabrielle in the center of the square. All eyes were on her and the 'woman' standing next to her.
"Some music?" said Hades in a falsetto.
Four of the soldiers grinned, ran into a building and returned with instruments. They began to play while Gabrielle and Hades undulated for the crowd. Seductively, they pulled veils from their costumes waving them in the air and tossing them at the gathering mass of soldiers. Hades leapt and twisted, bending and shaking, being mindful to keep the falsies in his blouse in their proper places. Gabrielle's enticing midsection quivered, mesmerizing the men. She would approach, then back away, never letting them touch but always promising so much more.
Xena slipped past the crowd easily, no one noticing her with the entertainment going on. She spied Cortese on an upper balcony, his attention on the activity in the main court. Quietly withdrawing her sword, she crept up the remaining steps until she was in his suite of rooms. Cautiously she searched until she spied him, his back to her.
"Cortese," she said.
He turned around quickly and stared at her.
"What is this nonsense?" he said, his fear replaced by contempt when he realized the intruder was a woman.
"I have a score to settle with you," said Xena, advancing carefully.
"So does most of Greece. Why do you people always think you're the only ones who have been hurt?"
"Oh, I know I'm not the only one who's been hurt. I'm just the only one who's been dead. But I don't let things like that stop me. My name is Xena. I was killed in the battle for Amphipolis."
"You make an attractive -- and very active -- corpse," said Cortese dryly. "Now be a good girl and put the sword down before you hurt yourself."
Xena continued to advance, not letting his words or attitude touch her. "My death is not the only family blood you've shed. My brother is Lyceus, your former prisoner."
"Former? Nice try, sweetheart. But the boy is all but dead."
"Another mistake, Cortese. But it'll be your last."
She leapt across the distance, her war cry screaming in her throat and slashed at the warlord. He ducked and grabbed a nearby sword. Xena smiled. They thrust and feinted, circling each other, trying to determine the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. Xena slashed, cutting his arm, a trickle of blood showing.
"Not bad," said Cortese, hiding his anger. "But you're not as good as you think you are," he said, slashing low. She jumped to avoid the blade but he'd anticipated it and caught her leg as she came down, marking her thigh.
It was going to be a long, gruesome fight, he thought. But though she truly was good, it didn't matter. He would win, as he always did, because he was going to cheat.
"Take it off already!" shouted one of the men. He was joined by others, all wanting more than the dancing. They wanted skin.
"Now what?" murmured Hades as he passed behind Gabrielle.
"Xena went upstairs but hasn't come back. We have to wait for her," answered Gabrielle, shimmying in a circle. Hurry Xena! she thought. I'm down to 3 veils!
Cortese slashed again but she was too quick. He maneuvered her into the corner and while she fought to escape, he tripped a lever with his foot. A heavy, bronze vase crashed down on her head. Xena wavered, trying to shake off the blow, but her rattled brain couldn't focus.
Cortese laughed. "Too bad, you lose," he said, snagging her sword with his and tossing it high and away from her.
Unarmed and barely able to see, Xena watched him ready for the kill. She fumbled for her chakram but her movements were slow and clumsy. Cortese easily hooked it on the end of his sword and tossed it behind him. It clattered uselessly onto the stone foyer. Xena prepared herself for death once again.
Cortese readied for the final thrust when suddenly his entire body froze. He looked down as the tip of a sword burst through his belly. Cortese turned around but no one was there. Knowing that he was moments from death, he slashed at the air, his sword biting deeply into something unseen. A strangled moan of pain echoed, followed by a loud thump. There was the sound of metal rolling across stone. Lyceus' body shimmered into view, as did the Helm as it came to rest against the wall, no longer on his head.
"No!" screamed Xena. She grabbed her fallen sword and with a cry of rage swung it in a deadly arc, decapitating Cortese. His body crumpled to the ground. She dropped the sword, tears already starting, fell to her knees and fumbled at Lyceus' wound.
"I did it, didn't I?" he said, his breathing weak. "I finally killed Cortese."
"You did. Now hush, save your strength."
"I did it for you, Xena. I was wrong. Had to make it right. Did it... for y..." His head lost its strength, his body slackened, he expelled his final breath and was still.
Xena stared at him a moment, her hands fluttering uselessly above his wound and his face. Her eyes refelected a parade of emotions -- despair, confusion, sorrow, anger -- her mind in such turmoil, she was incapable of coherent thought.
She looked away, unable to accept the reality of her brother's death and spied the Helm. Hope replacing despair, she grabbed it, kissed it with a grateful smile, and placed it on her head. Power surged through her and once again, she was a god. "Rise, Lyceus," she said, knowing that no one could die without her permission. But impossibly, Lyceus remained as he was, still and lifeless. "I said get up!" she shouted. There was no response.
Xena stood, her hands balled into fists, shaking with rage. She was a god! There was no power greater than she! She was the Infinte, the Eternal, the Lord of the Underworld! How dare this mortal defy her! "Lyceus!" she screamed, "I demand that you rise! Hear me or feel my wrath!" Lyceus remained as he was. No spark lit his unseeing eyes.
Xena quickly searched the Elysian Fields and Tartarus with her mind, seeking his shadow. He was nowhere to be found. How could he hide from me? she wondered. What power is greater than the Helm of Lord Hades; than godhood? No answer was forthcoming.
"I am the giver of life and death -- you must obey me!" she screamed, the words ripping her throat. Every cell in her body pulsed with infinite power. She could see all, feel all, hear all and sense all, yet Lyceus was beyond her. "What is the use of being a god?" she entreated the heavens, "if not to control the world around you? Well, I am power! I am the giver of life and death!" she repeated. "I am a god!" Lyceus' body remained as it had fallen.
She ripped the Helm from her head and threw it toward the door, sinking to her knees, a mortal once again. Mournfully, she looked at her brother's dear face. The last of her energy drained from her, tears falling unchallenged.
"Lyceus... I don't understand. How could you seek death so vigorously that even a god couldn't coax you back? Why? Why didn't you run to safety? Why did you return? Why did you throw yourself at Cortese' blade? Don't deny it," she said, stroking his cheek gently. "You could easily have avoided his blow. But you didn't, did you? Instead, you welcomed it." A sob broke through and she fought her grief, her mind desperately trying to come to terms with her brother's actions. "I am lost, sweet Lyceus -- why was death so cherished? You had it all. You had life, Lyceus." Then, her voice a broken whisper, she said, "You had Gabrielle. How could you throw away gifts as rare as those?"
Carefully, Xena closed his eyes, straightened his hair and lightly kissed him on the cheek. "Whatever your reasons, be at peace, my brother. Be at peace..."
A scream echoed through the courtyard. "Gabrielle," whispered Xena, grabbing her sword and chakram as she ran from the room. She stopped, looked around, then grabbed the Helm from where it had fallen, though its very touch now sickened her.
They were surrounded. Someone pinched Hades' ass and he spun in shock. A man grabbed for Gabrielle's breast but she dodged.
"Now, boys! One at a time here!" she said nervously. "You'll all get your turn! Somebody go find a whole bunch of straws..." From behind, a huge, burly guard grabbed her around the waist and lifted her onto his shoulder. She screamed, beating her fists on his back, but he only laughed.
"I'll take the small one first and save the big one for later," he said.
"Oh me," said Hades, as the odds grew worse in his struggle.
Without warning bodies flew into the air, tossed like leaves in the wind. The burly guard's legs collapsed under him and Gabrielle fell, but was caught by invisible arms.
"Run," said Xena's voice in her ear. It didn't take a second invitation.
Xena threw herself into the group around Hades, keeping one eye on Gabrielle's escape. When the girl disappeared outside the gates, the warrior put her full concentration on the soldiers. They couldn't fight what they couldn't see and in the confusion, Hades made his own dash to the gate, trailing purple veils as he ran. Within minutes there was no one standing. However, if one listened, the labored breathing of someone who'd taxed her limits could be heard.
Gabrielle and Hades were sitting near the tree, laughing about their dance and the frightening ardor of the soldiers.
"I haven't had so much fun in eons!" said Hades and he doubled over again. "When you kicked that brute -- the one with the earring -- in the groin I thought I'd soil my skirts!"
"Wasn't he an ugly one though? I should've kicked his face -- it'd have been an improvement!" said Gabrielle. The bushes parted and she saw Xena approaching. "Xena! Over here!" she waved, her smile bright. Then she noticed Xena's face. "What's wrong? Where's Lyceus?" she asked, looking around.
Hades stopped laughing and stood. "I'm sorry, Xena. Did he die well?"
"Die? Lyceus isn't dead," said Gabrielle. "Is he, Xena? Tell him Lyceus is okay. He's just invisible, right? Lyceus? C'mon, Lyceus, this isn't funny!" she entreated the empty air.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. He saved my life and paid for it with his own," said Xena, the pain of her brother's sacrifice almost too much bear. For the first time, she thought about his final words. What mistake had he made that had to be righted? Why had he died 'for her?' She was already dead. His passing wouldn't change that. Nothing about Lyceus' death made any sense to her but she continued to struggle with it, searching for something that would help to ease the pain of his loss.
Gabrielle was silent, forgetting for a moment the problems they'd had and remembering instead the man who had saved her from the slavers. His bright golden halo of hair, his warm laughter, his devotion to her, his wife. She would miss him. Miss those things about him which had first captured her attention. He hadn't been the right mate for her, true, but he didn't deserve to die.
Hades shuffled his feet, looking away from their grief. So this is how it feels, he thought. Regret at a mortal's passing. Interesting. He looked at Gabrielle and Xena and could read their thoughts on their expressive faces. Pain at the loss. Joy at the remembering of his life. Guilt that it was he not they.
"Let's get out of here," said Xena. "When they discover Cortese is dead, there'll be war parties everywhere." She gathered Argo's reins and leaped onto her back.
"I believe we have some business to transact before you go, Xena," said Hades.
"Here. Take it. It's served its purpose. It's caused its pain," Xena said, throwing the Helm at him.
Hades caught it and instantly began to glow. The two women watched as mortal was made god again. Hades smiled in fulfillment. "Thank you, Xena. You are indeed an honest woman. You shall still have the Elysian Fields when you return to me. And I will give you peace. My gift in return for the amusement you gave me today."
"Are you going to take her right away?" asked Gabrielle, fearfully.
"No. First, I have a promise to keep. About a day's journey to the east is the Temple of the Fates. You must go there, Xena, to finish your journey in the land of the living. Failure to do so means all promises are off. No Elysian Fields. No peace. I'll personally take your life-force and squash you for eternity in the deepest pits of Tartarus."
"No need for dramatics," said Xena. "I'll go."
Hades walked over to the warrior and pressed something into her hand, whispering a word or two in her ear. Then he backed away, saying, "Good-bye, ladies. It's been interesting," and disappeared.
"Hop up, Gabrielle. Don't want to keep The Fates waiting," said Xena.
Gabrielle let herself be lifted onto Argo's back, and pressed herself against Xena. Neither woman said a word as they began their last day together.
Gabrielle finished cleaning up after their sparse lunch. Xena was brushing Argo, speaking in soft, low tones, soothing the animal who nickered and whinnied as if carrying on a conversation with her new owner. Gabrielle watched them a moment, feeling a momentary spike of jealousy.
"What about Argo?" Gabrielle asked.
"Mmm?" mumbled Xena then turned around. "What about her?"
"When you die," she said harshly. "What happens to your horse?"
"You don't want to keep her?"
"No. I really don't do well with horses. Besides, you promised that man 120 dinars. How are you going to pay him from the grave?"
Xena reached into a pouch on the saddle, withdrew a heavy sack and dropped it at Gabrielle's feet. "Pay him out of this for me."
The bard opened the bag filled with dinars. "Where did you get this?" she asked angrily. "If you had all this money, why were we--"
"Hades. He gave it to us so that our last day wouldn't be spent in penury. And it'll help you live a little better until you find a place to settle. I'm sorry that I forgot to tell you about it."
"Oh," said Gabrielle, mollified but not wanting to let go of her anger.
"We'll find a nice Inn tonight and reach the temple of The Fates by late afternoon," said Xena. "When I'm gone, sell Argo to someone who'll love her and take care of her."
Who will love and take care of me? You care more about the damn horse than you do about me. How can you stand there so strong and brave and discuss mundane matters like selling Argo when my soul is shattering before your eyes? "Okay," she said aloud.
"Thanks, Gabrielle. I appreciate it," said Xena calmly.
It was the fanciest inn Gabrielle had ever seen. The rooms were clean and large, the pallets soft and the food first rate. After dinner they went up to their room and Xena spoke at length about Gabrielle's future. She suggested going either to Poteidaia or Amphipolis, spend some time coming to terms with Lyceus' death.
"You need to grieve, Gabrielle. He was a very big part of your life for a long time and I fear you've pushed the pain of his loss away."
Gabrielle frowned. Why couldn't she understand that it wasn't Lyceus for whom she was grieving? It was for Xena and yes, for herself. To have finally found her Warrior Princess -- alive and vibrant and the fulfillment of every dream -- only to lose her before their lives could begin was a loss so profound Gabrielle didn't know how she would survive it.
"Would you be angry with me if I joined you in the Elysian Fields?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice.
Xena rose to her full height and rage flickered across her face. "Yes! I told you -- I don't want to hear you saying things like that. You'll get there soon enough, believe me. Don't you dare try to hurry the process along. I know Lyceus would agree with me on this."
"Fornicate Lyceus!" Gabrielle shouted, the oath foreign to her tongue. "I told you before! I didn't love him! It's terrible that he died, but part of me is actually relieved!"
Xena stepped back, her own grief for her brother horrified at the words. Gabrielle saw this and her anger left her, replaced by guilt and sorrow that she'd hurt the woman she loved.
"I'm sorry, Xena. I know he was your brother and you loved him. And I probably only feel this way because I can't accept the fact that you're going to just walk into the Temple of the Fates and willingly die. It's your death that has me grieving. Your 'fate' that has turned me bitter."
"Well, what else am I supposed to do?" asked Xena, her voice small and almost frightened. "I don't have any choice," she added hopelessly.
Gabrielle ran to her side, taking her in her arms and holding her, appalled at having been so shrewish; so blind to Xena's pain. "Then... you don't want to die. You don't want to leave me," Gabrielle whispered.
"Of course I don't!" Xena said pulling away. "I spent an eternity in the Elysian Fields unable to talk to you, to touch you, and so crazy in love with you I stole the Helm of Hades just to be with you!"
"I thought you did that to save Lyceus."
"Gabrielle, when Atyminius turned the underworld upside down, I fought half a dozen beast-men to get back to the Fields. Once there, I was nearly raped by a gang of thugs while trying to get to the temple. When I finally made my way to the Portal, it wasn't Lyceus' image I evoked. It was yours. You were the only thing I thought about or cared about."
Gabrielle stared at her, imagining for the first time what it must have been like for Xena, a lonely spirit who loved a mortal.
"Then I saw you beset by Cortese' men and I flattened half of the population of Tartarus trying to find Atyminius and the Helm," continued the warrior. "The moment I had it, I came to you. I could have rescued Lyceus. From the Portal, I could've gone anywhere. But I didn't. My every thought was of you and your safety."
It all seemed so obvious now. Everything Xena had done was in an effort to help Gabrielle. Even the plan to save Lyceus was in part to get Gabrielle's husband back, mistaken though well-intentioned as it was. "I think I understand, Xena."
"Good. Someday, when you're a famous bard, you can tell the world of a love that started in the emptiness of the grave."
The two women sat silently for long moments, each lost in their own thoughts. "I suppose," said Xena, "that we should get some sleep. We have a long ride tomorrow."
The warrior arose, took off her leathers and slipped into her shroud. Gabrielle averted her eyes, hating the shapeless garment of the dead.
"It still bothers you?" asked Xena softly.
"Yes," said Gabrielle.
"All right. I'll take it off."
Xena began to remove the garment, but Gabrielle stopped her. "No, Xena. Let me." Xena stopped and looked at Gabrielle. Passion was flaring in the bard's eyes as she slowly reached for the garment and slipped it off one shoulder, replacing the filmy cloth with her lips in slow, circling kisses.
"I've never... that is..."
Gabrielle stopped and smiled. "I've never been with a woman either, Xena. But I don't anticipate a sudden lack of imagination."
"No, that's not it," said Xena, her face reddening. "I've never been with anyone. I died a virgin."
"What? I thought you were engaged to Maphias?"
"Yes, but we never... I was so intent on becoming a warrior and then I had to raise an army... I was so focused on Cortese that I didn't have time for, well... And besides, the marriage to Maphias had been arranged by our parents. I never loved him."
"What about the men in your army? None of them...?"
"No. I had decided to wait until Cortese was dead; until we'd won, before I... well..."
Gabrielle smiled. "Lucky for us, Cortese is dead now. So there's nothing to stop us."
Xena's eyes grew smoky with passion. "No, nothing to stop us at all," she said and putting a hand behind Gabrielle's neck, drew her close, opening her lips to her beautiful blonde friend. The kiss was slow and tantalizing. Both women kept their urgency in check, enjoying the anticipation and the wonder of discovery.
When it ended, Gabrielle gasped for air. "You had to have had some practice!" she said, amazed at the delicacy and the sensuality of the warrior.
"Not really," she murmured. "Just a few stolen kisses." Greedily, she reclaimed her friend's lips.
Gabrielle's hands slid the shroud further down Xena's shoulders, her fingers exploring the map of chorded muscles, strong bones and downy skin. She broke off the kiss to concentrate on those shoulders, nipping, licking and kissing them, taking care to explore every inch. Xena threw her head back, her long neck exposed, a groan of desire rumbling from deep in her throat.
Gabrielle's searching tongue and lips followed the line of her collarbone, pausing to delicately caress the hollow of her neck. Her hands eased the shroud down further until at last, Xena's breasts were exposed, their perfection thrilling the bard as she moved her sweet investigation to include their welcoming tumescence.
Xena's sharp intake of breath stopped Gabrielle's probing tongue. Looking up, she saw that Xena's eyes were wide with surprise, her expression disturbed. "Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly worried that she was moving too fast.
"Yes," said Xena, her eyes closing, face relaxing and her voice now low and sensuous. "It feels so... please keep doing that, Gabrielle. Your touch is... please..."
Gabrielle smiled. Carefully, she laid Xena down on the pallet, removing the shroud completely and flinging it into a corner. She stripped off her own clothes then held her nude body above her friend's, allowing only their nipples to touch in fleeting, teasing caresses. Xena's back arched, the anticipation and erotic contact driving her need.
Unable to stay apart any longer, Gabrielle lowered herself onto Xena's body. With tickling gentleness, she stroked Xena's waist, belly and ribcage causing shudders to wriggle through the warrior. "Gods," gasped Xena, her hips starting to rock in a rhythm older than time.
"Not yet, love," murmured Gabrielle, her attention fully on Xena's left breast. I am the first to touch you here. I am the first to make you feel this way, to light your eyes with fire, to open you to the mysteries of desire. And you are the first to make me feel; to make me love; to give me the exquisite torment of anticipation. What I wouldn't give to read your thoughts, my love. Is this as much a gift for you as it is for me?
Xena's body was aflame. Every contact Gabrielle made; every touch of her fingers or mouth; every murmured endearment threatened to explode whatever powder keg seemed to have taken residence inside her. Never had she known that she could feel this way, that deep in the center of her was a source of pleasure almost overwhelming in its power.
Gabrielle's mouth moved to explore her right breast and Xena felt another surge. Her hips were moving without her volition now, thrusting against Gabrielle's thigh, which rubbed in soft slow strokes against her. But the bard's torture didn't stop. Soft hands reached between Xena's legs and stroked her inner thighs, making the warrior open them to her touch.
With excruciating slowness, Gabrielle let her tongue and lips travel the length of Xena's stomach, inching her way toward the source of the raging fire which continued to build within the warrior. Every time it seemed she would explode, Gabrielle would stop her ministrations, lifting herself away for a moment, so that the passion could subside enough to continue.
"Gabrielle... I..." said Xena, not knowing quite what to say, but finding the pleasure/pain of waiting nearly unbearable.
"Almost there, my love," said Gabrielle, using her breath to tease the soft black hairs at the apex of her lover's legs. Xena wrapped her hands in the bard's hair, forcing her downward.
An electric shock coursed through Xena's body as Gabrielle's tongue finally found the wellspring of her desire. Xena's eyes flew open then closed on a groan as Gabrielle's flicking, eager tongue sent wave after wave of euphoria through every nerve in her body.
Gabrielle's left hand continued to explore, in whispering touches, her lover's breasts, ribs, and belly. Xena's breathing was shallow and fast, her hips thrusting into Gabrielle's eager mouth. The bard slipped two fingers inside Xena and instantly felt the pulsing, gripping strength of her. Then Xena's body went taut. Breathy moans of pleasure echoed. Nothing in the world existed except Gabrielle, Xena and the passionate climax brought by one to the other.
Then the waves subsided and the warrior went limp, falling back to the pallet in sweat-drenched repletion.
Gabrielle returned to Xena's mouth and kissed her deeply, the warrior barely able to move or breathe.
"Gods..." Xena whispered.
Gabrielle snuggled into her arms, her head cradled on her breast. They lay quietly for several minutes. Gabrielle wondered if Xena had fallen asleep and lifted her head only to see two sparkling blue eyes.
"Now let's test my imagination," she said with a slow smile.
Gabrielle was holding Xena as if her life would end should a photon of light separate them. She rested her cheek between Xena's shoulder blades, her arms circling her waist. Xena's left hand absently stroked Gabrielle's thigh, her right hand holding the reins.
"I think it's near," said Xena glancing around, getting her bearings. "Over that rise."
"Maybe we should take a few minutes to make wild, passionate, animal love before we get to the temple."
"No, Gabrielle. We've already done that so often today, I can barely sit this horse. Besides, we have to face it. The 24 hours are almost up."
"How do you suppose it's going to happen? Will the Fates themselves... kill you... or are you going to have to... you know..."
"I have no idea. I'm sure it will be merciful. There it is," said Xena pointing to the temple in the distance. She spurred Argo into a trot, ignoring Gabrielle's groan of protest at the increased speed. Truth is, Xena admitted to herself, my nerve is almost gone. I want to stay with Gabrielle so badly that if I delay any longer, I won't have the strength to do what I must.
"I love you, Xena," whispered Gabrielle next to the warrior's ear.
"And I love you, Gabrielle," she replied, urging Argo into a cantor, then a gallop.
"The Fates, Xena," said the three alternating voices.
Xena strode in, not willing to show her fear and regret. She held her head high, her back straight, shoulders square. She was a walking portrait of strength, pride and elegance. In every aspect, she had grown into the title, Warrior Princess.
"I'm here. Now what happens?" she asked, proud that her voice held no quaver.
"Hades was angry that you stole his Helm, but it was your fate to do so," said the maiden.
"Everyone has many fates, the choices deciding them made moment by moment," said the mother.
"But when two people are allowed to choose the same fate, the strands can separate. If such happens, chaos results," said the crone.
"I don't understand," said Xena. "Did I choose my fate? I remember nothing like that."
"You remember nothing."
"We remember everything."
"Now choose which fate to remember."
The ladies pointed to the altar on which four strands rested. Xena looked up puzzled, not sure what she was supposed to do.
"Each is of a different life."
"Touch but do not take and you will remember."
"When all is remembered, then a choice must be made."
Xena slowly approached the altar and touched the first strand.
Instantly, her mind filled with images, an entire lifetime being presented and assimilated. She saw herself fighting Cortese, dying, spending an eternity in the Elysian Fields, loving Gabrielle from a distance, stealing the Helm, being alive again, traveling with Gabrielle, freeing Lyceus then watching him die, making love for the first time. Her entire life was there in her conscious mind. The joy, the frustrations, the events, the emotions -- everything.
"It's my life," she said, awed.
Xena moved her hand over the second strand and touched it cautiously. Again, her mind was filled with an entire life lived, only this time, she and Lyceus had run from Cortese. They both lived on in Amphipolis, Xena engaged to Maphias but always postponing her wedding, warlords destroying the peace of the countryside, Gabrielle as a bitter slave -- hating her for giving her freedom, Lyceus in battle, Xena fighting her own warrior instincts -- all was revealed and lived in an instant with a touch of the strand.
"I remember..." whispered Xena. "Lyceus lived but was shamed at having run from Cortese. Mother was dead. But Gabrielle... Gabrielle was so unhappy. She killed without remorse, her soul damaged by slavery. She hated me..."
Xena glanced down at the third strand. She was suddenly afraid of what she'd find there. So many mistakes, so many tragedies. So many regrets already. How could she bear to know the errors of the third life?
"Go ahead, Xena," came a soft voice at her side. She turned to see Gabrielle, her eyes red from tears.
"Gabrielle? You shouldn't--"
"It's okay. The Fates called me here, to lend you strength. I've seen the lifetimes, too. They showed me as you touched them. So don't be afraid. We are, like these strands, intertwined in our destinies. Touch the third one, Xena."
Xena drew a deep breath and touched the third strand. Now she saw the battle with Cortese and her victory over him. She saw her own struggle for safety turn to a need for power. She became a warlord, sacking villages, murdering innocents, using people and tossing them aside, without morality or conscience. She saw the birth of her son, an affair with Marcus, the hatred of people throughout the land. Then Hercules saved her soul and she turned her goals to those of atonement. Gabrielle joined her on her quest and the two women faced the horrors and the fears of people everywhere, always trying to replace her dark past with a future of kindness and giving. She saw the hardness in her soul melting slowly because of the unstated love of her companion.
"Gods," Xena whispered. "Could that be me? Have I so much darkness in my heart?"
Gabrielle put her arm around her friend and lent her strength.
"And you, Gabrielle," Xena continued. "So pure, so giving. Untouched by the horror of slavery or a loveless marriage -- you were a beacon in my dark and lonely life."
Xena shook herself, trying to get her mind away from the terrors of this latest vision of herself. She reached for the fourth strand but was stopped by an invisible barrier.
"Do not touch"
"the fourth strand,"
"for it is the Unknown."
"But... how am I to choose if I don't know it?" asked Xena.
"The Unknown is everyone's fate. If you choose one of the three, the fourth will blend with them to form a future," said the maiden.
"But if you choose the Unknown, you will live a life yet to be woven," said the mother.
"Fate is risk. And risk is fated," said the Crone.
Xena hesitated. "So I can choose any of the four?" The Three nodded as one. "The life I have now -- will it end in my death today?"
"Lord Hades demands it."
"You must die today"
"if you choose the first strand."
"Take the second strand, Xena," said Gabrielle. "In the first you have to die and I can't live with that. Yet in the second life you were happy. Lyceus was alive. Your world was peaceful. But the third strand -- I can't bear seeing the pain you felt there. Please, take the second," she entreated, knowing that her own fate held no importance to her in light of the happiness of her beloved friend.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and gently stroked her face. "I know which fate is mine, dear one. It is the only one which rings true, painful as that seems. Good-bye, my love," she said, then kissed her one last time. And even as her lips pressed achingly against Gabrielle's she reached to the altar and picked up one of the strands.
"Xena! Behind you!" screamed Gabrielle. Xena turned and saw the onrushing warrior, whom she knew was only a boy. Xena disarmed the thrusting sword with a parry, tripped the boy then placed the tip of her sword at his neck. Without a helmet, a cherub's face was revealed.
"Get up," she said. "You've got a second chance. Swear you won't waste it by killing."
"I swear it!" said the boy.
"Get outta here."
The boy turned and ran.
Gabrielle approached Xena, the battle over as swiftly as it had begun. "He dropped something," she said, bending down to pick up the lost piece of jewelry. "It's a Virilis token. Huh," she said, looking at the unusual necklace.
Xena took the token from her and studied it; a small, knowing smile twisting her lips. She grabbed Gabrielle around the shoulders, pulling her to her affectionately.
"What's this for?" Gabrielle asked, delighted as always at Xena's touch.
"Just for being you," she answered.
"Uh-huh. You okay?"
"Mmmm," murmured Xena, her fingers absently playing with the token. A secretive smile pursed her lips, her eyes seeing images not found in the landscape around her.
"You don't seem yourself," said Gabrielle.
"No, you're wrong," she said, the smile finally winning. "I'm more myself than ever." Casually, she strode away from the temple.
"Hm." Gabrielle didn't understand her friend's cryptic statements, but her own smile showed that understanding wasn't necessary. She'd given up long ago trying to figure out every secret her friend held inside. "Xena. Aren't you gonna go back inside?"
"Do you think the Fates have our lives planned out?" Xena asked.
"If they do, I wish they'd tell us."
Xena, as she walked beside Gabrielle, knew that their lives would be changing from this point on. No more silence about how she felt, she decided. She and Gabrielle were fated to be together. And they were destined to be lovers. There was no longer any reason to wait. Tonight, she would show Gabrielle for the first time, how passionate a Warrior Princess could be.
Lyceus stared into the Portal of Life, watching Xena and Gabrielle walk away from the Temple of the Fates. I had it all. I had it all and for my selfishness, I paid the ultimate price. I should've known better than to bargain with the Fates.
He didn't dwell on the events which led to the Fates granting him his wish. He thought instead of his own desperate need and self-serving desires.
I wanted my sister's life. Only I was cocky enough to think I'd live it better than she. I wouldn't make her mistakes. I wouldn't become a murderous warlord. No, I'd devote myself to doing good; to being a hero. Not for the accolades or the gratitude, oh no, nothing like that for me. My motives were pure, I thought. I wanted the prize: the love of Gabrielle.
So I wished of the Fates that I would live instead of Xena during the battle with Cortese. And when this was granted, I tried to push away the guilt at having stolen what was by right's, my sister's. But how could a wish based on hubris ever turn out right? How could I find happiness knowing I stole her life. I stole her army. I stole her heroism. And I stole her Gabrielle.
I had no chance of succeeding. Gabrielle never loved me. She abhorred my touch, and the more this showed, the more possessive I became. I couldn't stand that she still loved Xena even without having met or known her. The Warrior Princess -- how many times had I heard her speak of this 'dream' of hers? And each time was a dagger in my heart, because I alone knew it was no dream. It was what was fated to be.
When Xena appeared in my cell, I knew that the Fates were laughing. And I knew that it was time to set things right. If Cortese hadn't killed me, I'd have done it myself. But luckily, I made sure he succeeded. It was a small enough gesture when placed beside my greater sin, but it was all I had left to give to my beloved sister. And thank the Fates, their power was great enough to hide my shadow from the Helm, and resist its call to life.
And now the threads of time and life and souls have been set right. Xena has resumed her walk among the living, Gabrielle at her side. I rest in the Elysian Fields, a shadow once again. But this time, I feel...
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