Disclaimer: See Part 1
One year earlier…
Dressed in tattered leathers, the God of War was sprawled on Zeus' old throne and barely registered the newcomer in his presence. The place was a mess. There were cracks in the once-pristine marble walls. The floors were dull and dingy. There was leaf litter and debris scattered everywhere. The halls of Olympus were no longer alive with gods and activity. They were deserted. Barren. Lifeless.
Ares glanced up through hooded lids and it took several moments for his face to register anything but deep depression. Then his dark eyes narrowed.
“What are you doing here?” His voice was low and flat, devoid of emotion.
Xena sauntered over to the throne and leaned against the back with her arms crossed over her chest. She looked around curiously.
“I think the real question is what have you been doing, lately. This place is a dump.” She waved a negligent hand. “By the way, where is everyone? They all finally get sick of you and leave?”
“Gone. Thanks to you, your goody-goody offspring and your girlfriend,” he growled. “What do you care, anyway?” He glanced up at her. “You're dead. Shouldn't you be basking in the glow of some heroic afterlife or something?”
“Shouldn't you be basking in the glow of Zeus' demise?” She shot back wryly as she straightened and came around to the front of the throne.
“Touché.” He rolled his eyes with a tired sigh.
She leaned in close. “What's going on, Ares? Why are you living in squalor?”
He glared at her. “You know why.”
“No,” she straightened up again and moved a few steps away. “I don't.”
His anger flared. “You!” Jumping to his feet, he pointed an accusing finger in her face. “You gave birth to that…that…” A ball of white flame suddenly appeared in his hand. He looked at it in surprise. But it just as quickly fizzled out with an anticlimactic pop. His fit of temper fizzled out, too. “Eve. Your precious Messenger of Peace and follower of that…that…” He slumped back onto the throne in defeat. “Eli.” The name was uttered as a low growl.
“What do they have to do with any of this?”
He met her gaze. “Eli's stinkin' one-god laid waste to everything. Michael and his minions came through and shut it all down. Took everything worth taking. Said our time was finished and we were obsolete. Most of our worshippers jumped ship and…” He snapped his fingers. “That's all she wrote. The gods of Olympus are officially a footnote in history. You got your wish, Xena. The Twilight came and the sheep fled like rats from a sinking ship. Eli's god is now ruler over the whole shebang. Greece. Rome. Brittania. I wouldn't be surprised if the message spreads to all corners of the earth and beyond. There seems to be no stopping it.” And then his eyes narrowed. “Wait. How are you here?” He sat up straighter. “You shouldn't be here. It's not possible.” He pointed an accusing finger at her again. “So help me. If you made a deal with that scruffy, no good, winged minion who…”
“Relax, Ares,” she cut him off as she leaned against a pillar. “Michael had nothing to do with it. And it's a long story.”
He raised his hands and then let them drop. “I have all the time in the world, Xena. Not going anywhere anytime soon.”
She studied him for a moment. “Okay, fine,” she sat down on one of the ivy-draped divans and leaned against her knees. “Do you know anything about a far-away land called Japa?”
“Land of the Rising Sun. Yeah, I've heard of it. Place has some weird beliefs. They do like war, though. Revere honor and duty above everything. I might just give the place a little look-see some day, now that I have nothing better to do. It certainly has possibilities.”
“They don't worship gods.”
“They revere their ancestors,” she gave him a pointed look. “Their dead ancestors.”
“That's where I died, Ares.”
He frowned. “I don't get it.”
“I don't have any relatives in Japa,” she stated flatly. “Everyone I know lives here. Or died here.”
“You're still not making any…” And then it dawned on him. “Ohhhh. I get it. No relatives to keep you there, so you made a break for it and took off.” He snorted in derision. “Figures you would find a way to do something like that. You always were pretty resourceful when it came to doing the impossible.”
She nodded. “The only one who tried to stop me was the one I went there to help—Akemi. She kept me there for as long as she possibly could. Fed me a cock and bull story about having to stay there in order to save the 40,000 souls I helped free. But it was all crap. Complete lies. And I didn't realize that she was using my guilt against me until it was too late. I should have let Gabrielle…” She swallowed the last of her words.
He frowned. “Wait. I have no idea what you're talking about. Other than you died. That I get.”
“In Japa,” Xena added. “Akemi told me I had to stay dead in order to…” She stopped and realized she hadn't told him the whole story. And then it hit her that she wasn't the one who usually told the stories. “Gods, I wish Gabrielle was here.”
She said it so softly that Ares almost didn't hear her.
“Speaking of, where is Blondie, anyway? She didn't join you in the afterlife?” He laughed outright. “That's rich. I thought the two of you were inseparable. Even in death and all that crap.”
Abject misery washed over her features. “She's still very much alive.”
His brow shot up and then he laughed outright. “Priceless! Guess she didn't love you as much as you thought, eh? She chicken out on ya, Xena? Bwahahahahaha!!!!”
Her expression darkened. “Watch it, Ares.”
“Or what?” He sobered instantly. “What are you going to do to me, Xena? You're dead. Remember? You're not really here in the flesh.” He looked her up and down. “Although, you really don't look much different than when you were alive. Same leather. Same armor. Same pissy attitude.” He chuckled. “Only thing missing is the chakram. You leave it with Blondie? She keeping it safe in the hope that you'll return to her and reclaim it someday?”
Her eyes narrowed at him. “Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Okay, fine,” he held up his hands in mock surrender. “Finish your little story. I am all ears.”
“I returned to Japa and died to save 40,000 souls from an evil soul-eater,” she continued.
“Sounds like something you would do,” he scoffed and earned another glare. “Yeah, yeah. Go on.”
“And Akemi said I had to stay dead in order to allow those souls to be released into a state of grace,” Xena added. “Except that I eventually found out she was lying the whole time. Unfortunately, by the time I figured it out it was too late for me to go back. Gabrielle had already left Japa and headed to Egypt with my ashes. When I tried to follow her, I couldn't. There was some kind of power—some kind of invisible barrier—keeping me prisoner there.”
He leaned forward, suddenly intrigued. “Power? What kind of power?”
She thought for a moment. “I don't know. Every time I tried to leave, I just bounced right back to where I started.”
“So how are you here now?”
“I can't explain it,” Xena shrugged. “Akemi apologized for lying to me and said I was free to go. But I still wasn't able to leave, at least not at that point. It took a little while longer before I just…did. I passed through the barrier and never looked back.”
“Just like that?”
He looked doubtful. “Who helped you?”
“Michael found me wandering around in a wasteland, sometime later,” she gave him a lopsided grin. “And you're right. That god of his has some pretty good pull, even as far away as Japa. Something changed while I was wandering around out there. Michael said it had to do with the birth of a savior or something.”
“Yeah, yeah. That crappy story has been circulating for years now. Whatever,” Ares rolled his eyes. “So, why are you here on Olympus? Come to gloat? I've got my own problems to deal with, Xena. Just do your gloating and scram.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I came to settle things between us, once and for all, Ares.”
“I'm not buying it.”
“Somehow I knew you would say that,” she gave him a lopsided grin. “Things haven't always worked out between us. You were always trying to win me back. And when Gabrielle came along, well,” she shrugged, “let's just say I was never yours once she came into my life. Gabrielle and I were meant to be together.”
“So, what does any of this crap have to do with you and me?”
“I want to give you a chance to do the right thing.”
His expression hardened as her words sank in.
She leaned forward and clasped her hands together, then looked him directly in the eye. “She's going to meet someone. I need you to make sure she does what needs to be done and doesn't screw things up by getting romantically involved. Can you do that?”
“You want me to play Cupid?” He snorted. “I don't think so. I'm the God of War, not some namby-pamby love guru. You're better off talking to my sister about…”
“Are you even listening, Ares?” She interrupted. “I don't want Gabrielle falling in love at all. That's not what this is about. All I'm asking is that you deliver a message to make sure she goes with the person she's going to meet. That's it. Give the message to an oracle if you want. I don't care. Just make sure she goes on that journey when the time comes.”
“Wait a minute,” he held up a finger. “Let me get this straight. You want me to deliver a message? Do I look like Hermes? I'm not a messenger boy, Xena. And I don't do favors. You of all people should know that.”
“Are you done?” She waited for his reluctant nod. “This isn't a favor, Ares. You owe me.”
“Oh, please. I don't owe…”
“How many times did I save your sorry ass when you lost your sword, became mortal, and had to hide out from hunters? And who gave you a golden apple to return your godhood to you?”
“Water under the bridge, Xena,” he eyed her suspiciously. “I gave you the chakram. That alone cancels out any debt I owe you, past, present or future.”
“Okay, fine. Then what if I told you there's something else in it for you—something even you can't pass up.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a doubtful look. “Do you seriously think I'm going to tell you before you carry out your promise? I don't think so.”
He rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. “Okay, fine. I'll deliver your stupid message to the brat. Just don't blame me if…”
“Just make sure she gets the message,” she then frowned. “But you can't tell her outright. It has to be her choice, her decision. Maybe you should get Aphrodite involved. Michael says she's been down there somewhere for a while now. Keeping an eye on…things. Making sure…” She swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat.
He caught the look of grief in her eyes and his own expression softened a little. “'Dite's still got a little more pull in the mortal realm than I do. I'll see if she's willing to help.” His expression then hardened. “But that's it. I deliver a message and nothing more.”
Xena studied him for several moments. “There might be a war.”
He perked up instantly. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” she gave him a small smile. “Place just northeast of Thrace. In the hinterlands. On one of the main trade routes. Michael alluded to turning a blind eye if you were to, say, get things riled up a bit. Eli's message hasn't quite taken hold in that part of the world, yet. And Michael also let it slip that some of the gods have taken up residence elsewhere.”
Now he was all ears as he sat forward leaning his arms on his thighs. But then a hint of suspicion clouded his expression. “Where?”
Xena shrugged. “Michael didn't say. There's a lot going on down there in the mortal realm. Things are changing fast. The Savior is supposed to be the ultimate game-changer for everyone. But it's not going to be all sunshine, rainbows and butterflies. There will be war. Lots of war. And my daughter…” She swallowed over another sudden lump. “Michael says I can't interfere with her in any way. She's fulfilling her purpose and will be rewarded, once her work is complete.”
“Everything is already different!” Ares' anger flared. He raised his arms to show off the dilapidated room. “Just look at this place! Ever since you gave birth to that…that…” The wind left his sails in an instant again. “Ever since Zeus and the others tried to destroy…”
“My family?” She shot back testily. “You were warned, Ares! You were all warned to stay away and not interfere. But did any of you listen? No!”
They both shot to their feet and stood toe-to-toe. But neither one made a move other than to glare daggers at each other.
“You killed them!”
“Yes, I did!”
There was a deafening rumble of thunder overhead as the room suddenly darkened with storm clouds brewing outside. Lightning flashed and a whirlwind picked up inside the throne room. Ares looked around as the wind whipped wildly around them. Dry leaves and debris flew everywhere as the wind intensified.
“What are you doing?” He looked accusingly at her.
“It's not me!” Xena shouted as she looked around in confusion.
“No! It's me!”
A winged figure suddenly landed in a doorway. The wind instantly died and the storm disappeared as the figure stepped fully inside the throne room. His dark wings contracted and disappeared as Michael stood there with his muscular arms folded across his armored chest. Dark eyes regarded both Xena and Ares, in turn. His expression was unreadable.
“Michael,” Xena nodded and moved away from the God of War.
“What are you doing here?” Ares sat back down on the throne while keeping a wary eye on the archangel. “Thought we told you this place is off limits to the likes of you.”
Michael chuckled mirthlessly. “You have no authority anymore, Ares. He,” he glanced up, “is fully in charge now. Both in Heaven and on earth and beyond. He always was and always will be.” He moved to stand at Xena's side and laid a hand on her shoulder. “It's time.”
“I know,” she nodded. “I was just…”
Michael glared pointedly at Ares. “Deliver the message, War God. Do it or suffer like the rest of your sorry kind.”
“Why can't she just do it herself?” Ares shot back with his temper flaring. “Or why don't you do it? What's in it for me?”
“Nothing,” Michael's eyes narrowed. “But I can't deliver it and neither can she. You, on the other hand, can. You still have a minimal connection to the mortal realm. It's why we keep you around, Ares.”
“Oh, so I'm still useful?” Ares defiantly crossed his own arms over his chest and regarded Michael with interest. “Is that the deal? You keep us around because we can still provide you with some small measure of entertainment? Amusement?”
Michael moved to the throne and leaned on the arms so his face was inches from Ares'. His voice was low and full of menace. “You still exist because the world of mortals has not yet completely given up on you. You still have a few straggling worshippers down there. Unfortunately for you, that will soon change and then all of you will be gone for good. In the meantime, you are still of some use. Understood? You abused the gifts you were given. All of you did. And that is why the gods of Olympus are no more and will soon be forgotten.” He moved back, but kept a watchful eye on Ares. “Your reign is over.” He turned his back on Ares and walked away.
“So, what about her?” Ares glared accusingly at Xena. “Is that it? She gets off scott-free?”
Michael half turned and glanced at Xena. “Xena is also useful to us.” He let a small smile show.
“She's dead,” Ares stood up with his hands on his hips. “Isn't there some unwritten rule that the dead can't be roaming around the heavens?”
Michael returned to Xena's side and placed his hand on her shoulder as he addressed Ares. “Xena gave birth to the Bringer of the Twilight, the Messenger of Peace. She has special dispensation as far as He is concerned.”
Ares crossed his arms over his chest. “So, she just gets to do whatever she wants, then?”
“No,” Michael replied. “She made a request. I granted her request.”
Ares frowned in confusion. “This is just stupid. All she did was ask me to deliver a message to her…er…Blondie.”
“Her name is Gabrielle,” Michael supplied. “And she is the key to certain things that will happen from here on out, Ares.”
“Oh, please,” Ares rolled his eyes. “Not again. When isn't that…that…”
“Gabrielle,” Xena added with a sly grin.
“Yeah,” Ares acknowledged with an eye roll. “When isn't Gabrielle right smack dab in the middle of something involving Xena?”
“And Eve,” Michael added.
“That…” Ares bit his tongue to keep from letting his temper get the best of him again. “What does she have to do with any of this?”
Xena and Michael exchanged silent glances. Something passed between them without any words being said. And then Xena nodded ever so slightly.
“Suffice it to say, you don't need to know everything, War God,” Michael said. “All I will say to you is there is a battle coming. It is a battle in a war that began the day the Savior was born. Many bloody battles will be fought in his name, and you will be given the chance to be involved, if you choose to stand on the side of right.”
“I don't take sides—unless I have a stake in the outcome.”
“Oh, but you will,” Michael gave him a self-satisfied smirk. “And the choices you make now will impact the future. That's what He is counting on. Right here. Right now. Which side will you choose, Ares? Will you follow the path of the greater good? Or will you continue with the selfish, self-serving choices your kind has always made—the choices that will eventually lead to your complete demise?”
“So, why even bother with those of us who are still left, then?” Ares shot back hotly. “If that's all you and your god think of us, then why even keep us around? What's stopping you from obliterating us altogether?”
Michael chuckled mirthlessly. “Do you really think we haven't discussed this a million times already? I've been asking this same question for millennia.”
“And,” he shrugged, “there is always a need for balance. The Olympian immortals once provided that balance, albeit in your own selfish and self-serving ways, especially at the cost of mortal lives. When that balance shifted, it was time for a change. You really cannot hope to understand this, but He holds a special place in His heart for humankind. He loves them unconditionally. Cherishes them. Will do whatever it takes to save them from eternal damnation. He will even sacrifice Himself for them. And that is something your kind has never been able to fully comprehend.”
“He would do that for those ungrateful…”
“He loves mortals that much, yes.”
Ares burst out laughing. “Sacrifice? That's rich…”
“Hold your tongue, Ares,” Michael cut him off with a loud crack of thunder.
Xena didn't say a word. It wasn't necessary. The two of them were doing a pretty good job of ruffling each other's proverbial feathers and posturing like a couple of cocks in a fight. Besides, she didn't want to call attention to herself.
Glancing outside, she noticed a tiny break in the tumultuous storm clouds. A small ray of sunlight streamed down and shone on a speck of grungy gray marble. She marveled at the beauty of it. It wasn't often that she could experience something so simple, so beautiful, now that she was dead. There was no sunlight or warmth or beauty in the places she had roamed since dying. Only gray. Emptiness. Solitude. Loneliness. An aching longing to reconnect with the other half of her soul.
Until Michael finally showed up and swept her away with him. But, even so, she still missed her mortal life. And she regretted most of all her choice to leave Gabrielle behind to live out the rest of her life alone. That hurt the most. Hurt like crazy. And sometimes actually made Xena a little crazy.
That was one of the reasons she had asked to be allowed to travel to Olympus. She really didn't want help from Ares. But she also knew he, as well as the handful of Olympians who still existed out there somewhere, were able to interact with the mortal realm without repercussions.
There were times when Xena wanted nothing more than to return to Japa and wipe Akemi from existence. Completely erase her from their version of the afterlife. She even mentioned it to Michael, who merely shook his head and asked her what purpose it would serve to do so. No, there was no going back. Xena was resigned to her fate. It was time to move forward.
And moving forward meant that it was almost time for Xena to move on. She had a new destiny to fulfill. But first she wanted to make sure certain things were in place. She didn't want to leave anything to chance. That was where Ares came in.
Xena's attention returned to the two. Their discussion seemed to be winding down a bit.
“So, Xena,” Michael suddenly turned to her expectantly. “Are you ready?”
Xena looked past him to Ares. “Will you deliver the message?”
“Do I have a choice?” Ares responded rather flippantly. “I said I would, didn't I?”
Michael's brow shot up. “Do you really trust him?”
Xena shrugged. “What other choice do I have?”
“There's always the other one,” Michael said. “It is my understanding that she is more reliable.”
“Hello, I'm right here,” Ares growled.
“You told me she's not here,” Xena ignored Ares. “You said she's living among them.”
“She is,” Michael nodded. He then looked right at Ares. “You can contact her. Ask her to deliver the message.”
“Oh, so now you trust me again?” Ares gave them an incredulous look. “Besides, I don't have the slightest idea where my sister is. For all I know, she could be shacked up with a harem full of muscular eye-candy on some beach in the middle of nowhere.”
Michael stepped toward Ares and pressed a finger into his chest. “Deliver the message. Understood?”
Ares glared. “And what if I don't?”
Michael's expression hardened as he looked around. “You really want me to come back here with a legion of archangels?” He took a step back. “This place wouldn't survive.” He gave Ares a pointed look. “And neither would you.”
Ares considered that for a moment. “Okay, fine. I'll take care of it.” He turned his gaze to Xena. “Happy?”
She just grinned back.
“Okay, then,” Michael returned to her side and let his wings unfold to their full span. “Time to go.” He then took Xena's hand in his. “All set?” She nodded. “Remember, Ares, we'll be watching to make sure you keep your word.”
His wings started flapping and the wind picked up. Thunder rumbled overhead and several flashes of lightning pierced the darkness. A moment later the wind died down and the clouds dispersed. Sunlight streamed into the throne room where Ares stood. Xena and Michael were gone.
Ares slumped onto the throne and just sat there brooding.
Present – Athens
Gabrielle and Eve ducked inside the inn's crowded dining room. The place was packed wall-to-wall with people. Loud. Raucous. A fire blazed in the stone fireplace. Several servers moved between tables with trays full of steaming bowls and mugs. Ale flowed freely. Laughter rang out from all corners. There seemed to be a jovial air to the place that hadn't been there earlier.
“Do you see them?” Eve kept the hood of her cloak low to hide her features from curious eyes.
Gabrielle stood on tiptoe and slowly surveyed the room's occupants. She spotted several Roman centurions and tried to hide her disdain. It wasn't easy. Nearly every encounter she and Xena ever had with the Romans ended in disaster. And the fact that they were responsible for her trip to Hell and back didn't help matters. Nor could she ever forget being hung on a cross. She still had nightmares about that.
“Maybe they're in the kitchen,” she pushed her way toward the back of the room with Eve in tow.
Gabrielle felt curious eyes on them as they passed the Romans. She ignored them and pushed through the door to the kitchen. The place was complete chaos.
“They aren't here,” Eve looked around.
Gabrielle grabbed the arm of a passing cook. “Excuse me,” the man glared at her. “Do you know where…” He yanked free of her and continued on with a grunt.
“This is crazy,” Eve said. “Didn't you say Aryana got a room in the back for the two of you?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle snaked through the kitchen toward another door. She pushed through it to the quiet hallway beyond. “Okay, I think the room is down there.”
They walked the length of the hallway in silence. Neither woman felt the need to speak. They had already said what needed to be said. When they reached the door, Gabrielle knocked. No answer. She knocked again, just to be sure.
“No one's in there,” Eve stated when the door remained closed. “Uh, Gabrielle?”
The tone of Eve's voice made Gabrielle turn around. Two men were there with one of the kitchen maids pinned between them. Their intent was clear.
“Hey!” Gabrielle called, as the dragon tattoo on her back began to tingle uncomfortably. “What are you doing?” Words, Gabrielle , she reminded herself. Use your words.
Both men glanced her way, but then they both returned their attention to the whimpering woman between them. As Gabrielle and Eve approached the trio they could smell the distinctive odors of woodsmoke and ale, sweat and grime. The last was pungent. Gabrielle felt her anger flare.
“I asked you a question,” Gabrielle insisted as she reached out and grabbed the taller man's sleeve and almost recoiled at the coarseness of the fabric.
He turned with a growl. “Get lost,” his disheveled reddish-brown hair and beard were greasy and unkempt. He also had a dagger in one hand that gleamed in the light of a taper. “Ain't no concern of your'n, woman. Get lost.”
Gabrielle instinctively reached for her sais and realized they weren't there. “Crap.” She would have pulled the katana from the sheath at her back, but there just wasn't enough room to use the finely-honed blade. Her sais would have been ideal for the limited space, but she didn't have them.
“What?” Eve whispered just behind her right shoulder.
“Nothing,” Gabrielle moved her cloak aside and put a hand on the chakram. She then cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “Let her go.”
The other man caught a glimpse of the weapon at her hip and his eyes widened slightly. “You didn't say nothin' ‘bout no warriors here, Gregarious. I don't want no trouble.” He pulled the young woman in front of him and used her as a shield while he started a slow retreat, but the bearded man caught him by the collar and held him in place.
“Only one of ‘em's got a weapon, Phileas,” Gregarious yanked the young woman to him and held his dagger to her throat. “Drop it and she lives.” He addressed Gabrielle directly. She unhooked the chakram from her belt and twirled it loosely in her hand. “Nice.” He licked his lips and practically drooled. “I could find a use for a weapon like that. Would look good hangin' from my belt, if nothin' else.”
She felt rage burning deep as the dragon within awakened fully. She could almost feel it come to life as the chakram in her hand gleamed in the flickering light. The rage was building to a fevered pitch.
“You seriously don't get it, do you?” She ground out between clenched teeth. “This isn't a game.”
And then Eve placed a hand on her shoulder and the rage vanished instantly. It was as if someone poured a bucket of ice water over Gabrielle's head. She shook herself and looked at the chakram in disbelief.
Then Eve spoke.
“Let the girl go, gentlemen.” Eve lowered the scarf from her head and struck a saucy pose. “You don't want someone so young when you can have the two of us. Besides, we're waiting for some friends to show up. Maybe you've seen them?”
“Friends?” Phileas glanced around. “Ain't nobody here but us.” He then lowered his voice. “This don't look good, Gregarious. I ain't fightin' a bunch of warriors.” He looked right at Gabrielle and swallowed audibly. “No virgin's worth my life.”
Gregarious rounded on Phileas, grabbed his vest and slammed him against the wall. “You will do what I say, ya little rat. No arguin'.” He shoved away from Phileas and yanked the woman back against him. “Now, hand over that round thing and I won't slit her scrawny throat. I'm done talkin'.” He pricked the girl's throat and she whimpered.
Eve's hand dropped from her shoulder and Gabrielle felt the rage ignite instantly. She gritted her teeth against the sudden surge and felt cold sweat roll down her cheeks. She swallowed down bile that rose in her throat and shook her head to clear her vision. It didn't help. Everything around her was blood-red and pulsed in time with the rapid beat of her heart.
“I'm done talking, too,” Gabrielle growled, as she forced herself to turn her back on him while keeping an eye on Eve's expression. “Have your way with her. See if we care.”
Eve's eyes widened as she caught the look in Gabrielle's eyes. She placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder again and watched the fire leave the green eyes. Eve frowned in concern.
Gregarious chuckled, oblivious to the exchange between the two women. “Maybe I'll have my way with all three of ya.” He glanced at his partner. “We're man enough to handle three women. Ain't we, Phileas?”
He fondled the young woman's breasts and pressed his stubbly cheek against her hair with a wicked grin. The young woman whimpered again.
With the rage extinguished by Eve's hand on her shoulder, Gabrielle waited for a signal to strike. She saw the frown of concern on Eve's features and shook her head slightly. A quick glance over her shoulder and she raised her brow in a silent request. Gabrielle knew she had one chance to save them. But she also knew the cost. The dragon was awake. The rage was only tempered by Eve's touch. Memories of Egypt flashed through her mind. And then Eve nodded imperceptibly, glanced at the two men and dropped her hand.
Gabrielle spun around as the rage exploded within.
She yelled at the top of her lungs and lunged toward Gregarious. Eyes wide, he wasn't prepared for the sudden attack. Dropping the dagger from the girl's throat and pushing her away in order to give himself room, Gregarious acted predictably.
Gabrielle merely saw red.
Eve grabbed the girl and yanked her out of the man's reach as Gabrielle charged past them both.
Gabrielle raised the chakram and swiped the dagger away, sending it clattering across the floor. Ducking her head to dodge his fist, she then delivered an upper cut to his bearded jaw. The blow carried all of her pent-up rage with it and his head slammed against the wall behind him. Gabrielle then slashed the chakram across his chest, drawing first blood.
The instant the chakram drew blood the world around Gabrielle suddenly narrowed to a pinprick. A roaring filled her ears as the blinding rage pushed her over the edge. The chakram in her hand demanded more blood while the dragon roared to life. Gabrielle's eyes blazed with madness as she slashed again and again.
“No!” Gregarious raised his arms in a feeble attempt to ward off her blows. “Arrr! Stop!” He tried to grab for the weapon and lost a hand for his efforts. “Phileas! Stop this bitch!”
“Gabrielle, please!” Eve pleaded as she watched in horror. “Stop! This isn't the way…”
Eve's words were lost in the bloody chaos that ensued.
Phileas dove for the dagger, grabbed it and surged toward Gabrielle. Gregarious punched wildly with his good hand. A blow connected with the side of Gabrielle's head and stars exploded in her vision. Phileas then slashed with the dagger, but Gabrielle deflected the blade as another wave of rage exploded from within. Phileas body-slammed her into the wall and pinned her there. Gregarious then slammed his uninjured arm hard against her throat, effectively cutting off her air.
The world spun wildly as she gasped for air. White-hot pain shot through her healing ribs and darkness threatened. Her arm was still free, but she couldn't raise it. Panic replaced rage.
“Think you're so smart, do ya?” Gregarious' rancid breath was hot on her cheek. “It ain't nice to interrupt a man when he's conductin' business, wench.”
Gabrielle suddenly longed to cry out a name that had saved her in the past. Her lungs screamed for air. Her vision tunneled. Everything was going dark. A hand grazed her breast. The dragon suddenly roared deafeningly within. She brought a knee up with all her might and felt it connect. The arm released her throat and she gasped for air. The rage returned fully and blinded her to everything.
She shoved away from the wall and slammed Phileas into the opposite wall. He grunted. She brought the chakram up and slashed blindly. A cry of pain echoed in her ears as hot blood spattered her face. The dragon roared. The rage burst into a full-fledged conflagration. Pain vanished as she lost herself in a red haze of death.
The voice stopped her dead. She gasped for air. There was blood and viscera everywhere. On the walls. On the floor. The entire hallway was bathed in red. Two bodies lay unmoving at her feet. Dark-red blood pooled beneath her boots. She raised the chakram and just stared at it for a long moment as she gasped for air. She blinked several times to clear her vision. The chakram was covered in blood and gore. Blood ran down her hand, her wrist and her arm. The stench was overwhelming. It made her gag.
Gabrielle glanced down. Gregarious' eyes were staring in shock. His throat was slit wide open and blood pooled beneath him. Phileas lay face down next to him with his throat slashed.
Both men were dead.
Nothing moved for a timeless moment. The only sound in the hallway was Gabrielle's gasps for breath as she returned her eyes to the chakram.
Eve held the sobbing young woman tight to her chest, the woman's face buried against her shoulder. Eve just stared at the bloody carnage. It took another moment for her to shake herself out of her stunned silence. She was certainly no stranger to bloody carnage. Her days as Livia, Champion of Rome, had yielded plenty of carnage and horror. But those days were long behind her. She was not that person anymore.
“You killed them,” Eve whispered.
Gabrielle tried to fight against the rage that was not quite extinguished. The surge of adrenaline was gone and waves of dizzying nausea replaced it. Her heart thudded wildly in her chest and her head throbbed painfully. Her entire being was on fire. And the dragon was still awake and craving more blood.
“Gabrielle? Are you okay?” Eve's soft and caring voice barely penetrated the rage.
“What?” Gabrielle tore her gaze from the bloody chakram.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Eve was standing right next to her, but not touching her.
“I…” Gabrielle felt another wave of intense nausea washed over her and the urge to flee was overwhelming.
Stumbling up the hallway, she shoved through the door and disappeared.
Eve stood there for a moment longer. Her mind was awhirl with all that had just happened. Her sandled feet were mired in gore. She looked down at the two bodies and then at the door where Gabrielle had just fled. She then remembered she wasn't alone.
“Go find the innkeeper,” she barked at the young woman. “Find him and bring him here. Now!”
The young woman fled toward the kitchen. Eve knelt next to Gregarious and closed his eyes. She then did the same for Phileas. She mumbled a prayer for their souls, despite the fact that they had been unrepentant while they still lived. It didn't matter. Her heart clenched painfully in her chest as she stood up and put a hand to her mouth.
“Eve?” Virgil plowed through the door and stopped dead. “Are you all right? What the…”
“Fine,” she pushed her own discomfort aside. “You need to clean this up before the Romans show up, Virgil.”
He glanced from the two bodies to Eve in alarm. “What happened? How…”
“Please,” Eve calmly walked up to him and grabbed his arms. “There's no time for questions right now. Clean this up and get rid of the bodies before the Romans show up. Trust me.” She placed a hand on his arm. “I have to go find Gabrielle.”
He was still bewildered, but nodded absently. “Okay. Go. I'll take care of this mess. Just…go.”
Eve pushed through the kitchen door and crossed the crowded room as quickly as she could. She didn't know where Gabrielle was, but she had her suspicions.
Gabrielle burst outside and stumbled as far away from the inn as her shaky legs would carry her. The night air hit her full in the face and she breathed in deeply. Her ribs protested, but she ignored the throbbing ache. She took several more steps until the nausea was too much. Then she doubled over and wretched violently onto the hard-packed ground. When her stomach was empty, she waited for the dry heaves to subside. She then straightened and glanced around.
Stumbling over to a water trough, she unceremoniously plunged her head into the icy water for several heartbeats. When her lungs screamed for air, she lifted her head and gasped. The nausea was still there. She wasn't even aware that the bloody chakram was still gripped tightly in her hand. She didn't care. Nothing mattered but the turbulent emotions washing through her.
Heaving desperate lungfuls of air, Gabrielle leaned heavily against the trough and stared down at her reflection in the rippling water. And then she lifted her hand and the chakram gleamed from the faint moonlight overhead. It was still covered in blood and gore. So was her hand and arm. And she could feel the cold steel pulsing against her skin. It was alive. And her back itched unmercifully. Her entire body was reacting to the recent fight—the spilling of all that blood.
She knew it well. Having experienced it in Egypt, she was all too aware of what that blind rage could do. She was also aware that it had saved her life more often than not. She had used it to defeat a great enemy, but almost lost her very soul in the process. That was why she had returned to Greece. She needed to find herself again.
It was only after leaving the chakram, her katana , and Xena's ashes at the Academy for safekeeping that Gabrielle slowly returned to her true self. The chakram somehow ignited that rage-inducing blood lust and awakened the dragon within. The two seemed to feed off one another, and she was powerless against the raw animal force that welled up inside her.
As soon as she realized what she'd done, she dropped the chakram into the icy water with an anticlimactic plop . The steel weapon quickly sank to the bottom of the trough and only then did her equilibrium slowly return. The nausea subsided. Her heartbeat slowed. The dragon returned to its deep slumber. Exhaustion creeped in and replaced everything else. She slumped against the trough with a sigh of relief.
Turning her head, she saw Eve standing several paces away. Xena's daughter was backlit by the light from the doorway of the inn. A look of…what? Worry? Horror? Gabrielle wasn't quite sure what it was.
“Oh, gods!” Gabrielle choked out. “What have I done?”
Eve was suddenly there holding her tightly in her arms. Hot tears sprang to Gabrielle's eyes and then she was sobbing in earnest against Eve's shoulder. Her entire body ached unmercifully and the exhaustion nearly took her to her knees. Only Eve's strong arms kept her upright.
“It's okay,” Eve stroked the blonde head pressed against her shoulder until the tears subsided. “I've got you.” Gabrielle cried herself out. Eve waited. Questions whirled in her head, but still she waited for the right moment. “What happened in there, Gabrielle?” She finally asked the question that was foremost in her mind.
Gabrielle pulled back slightly and gave her a watery smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. “Something that hasn't happened in years.” She glanced over her shoulder at the water trough. She knew the chakram was still submerged in its depths. “Damn. I completely forgot what that was like.”
“What?” Eve held Gabrielle's face between her hands and locked gazes with her. “Tell me, Gabrielle. Please.”
“The chakram,” Gabrielle gently grasped Eve's hands and lowered them. “It…” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It belonged to Ares—or at least one of them did. Xena managed to neutralize the darkness when she combined the two.” She looked away. “I don't know what happened or why. I found it on the battlefield where she died. Wore it hooked to my belt during the entire voyage from Japa to Egypt. Nothing happened. I didn't feel a thing during the entire voyage.” She walked over to the trough and stared down into the inky depths. “It wasn't until I was in Egypt that I used it as a weapon again. I hadn't used it since Japa. Pharoah sent a patrol into the desert beyond the city walls, and I went with them. We were attacked by a ruthless band of beduin raiders. We were outnumbered five to one and losing badly. I grabbed the chakram in the middle of the fight and…” She closed her eyes as memories flooded her mind. “The men who survived said I went completely berserk. The chakram was like lightning in my hand. Before I knew it, not a single raider was left standing.” She bowed her head and slapped a hand over her eyes. “Gods, what was I thinking? How could I be so stupid?”
Eve just pulled her close again. “It's okay, Gabrielle. It's not your fault.”
Gabrielle pulled back. “Unfortunately, it is, Eve. I'm responsible for their deaths—all of them. Those two men in there didn't need to die. I just...” She felt more waves of guilt mixed with shame wash over her as tears spilled down her cheeks. “I should have remembered. I can't believe I completely forgot about the price that comes with using that…that thing.” She sighed heavily and then turned to lean against the trough and stare down at the weapon at the bottom of it. “Xena knew. She always knew. It's why she refused to teach me everything. She didn't want…” A mirthless chuckle escaped her as she shook her head. “Always looking out for me.” A sad smile graced her lips as she tried not to wince in pain. “Ugh. Gods, I hurt.”
Eve placed an arm around her shoulders and rested her head against Gabrielle's. “Her love for you overcame the darkness inside her and made her a better person, Gabrielle. Always remember that.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle chuckled mirthlessly. “Except our love wasn't enough to keep her here with me. Not enough to make her find a way back.” She straightened. “I thought I loved her enough for the both of us.” She snorted. “I was wrong.”
A lone tear trickled down her cheek and dropped into the water. A few ripples slowly spread across the still surface and blurred their reflections. Then Gabrielle reached down and pulled the chakram out of the water. She held it up and just stared at it as the light from a nearby torch and the moon above gleamed off the shiny surface.
“It doesn't matter, anymore,” she shoved the weapon back onto the hook on her belt. “She's gone and she's never coming back.” She turned to face Eve with a new determination in her eyes. “So, we need to find your daughter. It's time to tell her the truth.” She stopped. “No, first we have to take care of those men. They…”
“Virgil is taking care of the bodies and cleaning up in there,” Eve cut in.
Gabrielle nodded. “Thank you.”
Gabrielle then walked out into the night. Eve stood there a moment longer and then looked up at the clear night sky.
“I hope you're happy, Mother,” she muttered as she turned on her heel and followed Gabrielle.
“No,” a dark head shook slowly as blue eyes swam with unshed tears. “Not happy at all, sweetheart.”
A slim finger lightly touched the surface of the swirling liquid in the basin and sent ripples across the silvery surface. The images blurred and vanished as the figure took a reluctant step back. She just stood there staring at the glowing basin.
“You shouldn't be here, you know.”
“I know,” she said without turning around. She knew who was there. “But I had to come. I needed to see. I felt…”
A sigh. “We have work to do.”
The dark head lowered slightly and nodded. “I know.”
“You know the stakes, Xena,” Michael waited for her to turn around to face him. When she did, his steely eyes locked with hers. “We went over this. There's nothing you can do for her now. She must figure it out on her own. You gave your word that you wouldn't interfere.”
She refused to meet his gaze. “I'm well aware of my commitment, Michael,” she ground out between clenched teeth as she finally looked up at him. “I gave my word and I always keep my word, even when it brings abject misery to those I love.” Her eyes blazed in challenge. “And Gabrielle is suffering.” She pressed a fist to her heart. “I can feel her misery like an iron fist squeezing my own heart.”
“She isn't alone.”
“No, she's not,” Xena turned away. “But…” She closed her eyes and blew out an exasperated breath. “Why?”
He knew it was a rhetorical question. He had heard her utter it often of late. But there was work to do. He needed her to focus.
“Come,” he beckoned. “There will be time enough later to ask your questions.”
She rounded on him with anger blazing in her eyes. “And what about Gabrielle?”
“What about her?”
“Are you deaf? She's suffering because of me.”
He studied her for a moment. “Do you really hold yourself in such high regard, Xena? Gabrielle is perfectly capable of making her own choices—her very mortal choices.” He held her gaze for several moments as he watched very human emotions play across her features. She still wasn't ready to let go of her mortality. He could see it in the clear blue depths staring back at him. He sighed as he placed his hands on his hips in resignation. “What would you do for her? You're dead.”
Her brow furrowed. “Send me back.”
He laughed outright. “You can't be serious! That's out of the question and you know it.”
“I'm dead serious,” she didn't falter. “Send me back. I'll…”
“No!” His expression hardened. “There's no going back, Xena. It's impossible. You've been told…”
“Nothing is impossible,” she countered. “You said so yourself. Anything is possible if you believe with all your heart and your entire being.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “And do you? Do you truly believe, Xena?”
“In my love for Gabrielle? Yes,” she was adamant. “Always and forever.”
He shook his head. “That's not what I'm asking and you know it.”
She looked away. “There is nothing else for me…”
“Wrong answer,” he interrupted. His expression hardened. “It's time. We need to go.”
His eyes narrowed as he studied her features. “This is not open for debate, Xena. You gave your word.”
“And I've changed my mind,” she stood her ground. “This isn't my fight, Michael. My place is with Gabrielle. I'm going back. And there is nothing you can say or do to stop me. I will figure out a way. I've done it before and I'll do it again.”
“Well, how do you propose to accomplish this miracle of yours, then?” He glared at her. “You're dead. Your body is long gone. You're nothing but a wandering spirit with no link to the mortal realm. Your only option is to sit here for all eternity. Stare into that basin and watch your loved ones age until they, too, pass on. But you will never join them if you stay here. Your only viable option is to come with me now and fulfill your promise. Keep your word, Xena. Keep your word and you will see them again. Break your word and you will all suffer the consequences.”
He watched her struggle with the truth of his words. He could see a stubborn determination in those blue eyes of hers, but there was also doubt. She knew she really had no choice in the matter. The determination he knew well and was willing to cultivate for the battle ahead was far stronger than he cared to admit. But he could also sense a fire that hadn't been there before.
And that fire—that incomprehensibly determined will of hers that he knew all too well—gave him pause. Was she reconsidering her role in the coming battle? Would she truly keep her word and do what needed to be done? Or would she allow her feelings—her love—for Gabrielle to cloud her judgement and change her mind?
He knew Xena was capable of doing things even she couldn't fully comprehend. He knew it better than most. It was one reason he had recruited her in the first place. She was unpredictable. A variable in the war between good and evil that could tip the scales in ways no other could. But her unpredictability was also a factor that could tear everything apart in an instant.
Michael felt his confidence in their agreement falter for the first time since he had rescued her soul from the wasteland. They needed her on their side in order for the Savior to make his mark in the mortal realm. Xena was their best hope for a swift and decisive victory. The world depended on it. Like it or not, her skills were crucial. Michael had known it that last time she had crossed over, just as he knew it now.
Gabrielle's presence that last time had been an unexpected complication that he hadn't foreseen. But now…well, she wasn't dead. Gabrielle was very much alive. She was still mortal. And Xena was dead.
Then again, Michael reasoned, Gabrielle could still be a useful pawn if he could just keep Xena focused on the task at hand. Gabrielle was in possession of a powerful weapon that could easily tip the scales even further in their favor. He glanced up, closed his eyes and sent a silent request to the heavens. He was reassured that the time had come to gain the upper hand. He had his answer in a heartbeat.
The Savior's life, ultimate death and resurrection in the mortal realm depended on one final victory over the powers of Hell.
Xena's brow furrowed. “Fine?”
He shrugged. “You win.”
“Exactly what does that mean?” Xena was wary of his quick acquiescence.
“It means you'll have your chance, Xena,” he said. “Don't push this any further, though. You still have a job to do, a promise to keep, and I'm holding you to it.”
As soon as Eve stepped back inside the crowded kitchen, she knew something was wrong. The place was as quiet as a tomb and the hustle and bustle had ceased entirely. Three Roman centurions were gathered in the center of the kitchen with someone in their midst.
She recognized Virgil immediately.
Eve pushed her way through several of the kitchen staff standing frozen in place. “What's going on here? Let him go. He didn't do anything wrong.”
“Who are you?” A blue-clad centurion moved to block her path. He was obviously the leader. A lieutenant, if memory served.
“Lieutenant,” Eve lowered the scarf from her head, “I'm…”
“The Messenger!” Several people gasped.
The entire kitchen emptied out in a matter of heartbeats, leaving only Eve, the kitchen maid, Virgil and the three Romans.
“Oh, great,” the lieutenant's expression hardened. “What business do you have here, Messenger? Why aren't you out preaching your incessant message of peace and love to the masses? It's what you do, isn't it?”
Eve looked past his shoulder and caught Virgil's pleading gaze. “Why are you holding him? He's one of my chief advisors. What is it you think he's done?”
The lieutenant glanced over his shoulder. “He murdered two men. We caught him trying to dispose of their bodies.”
“He didn't murder anyone,” Eve countered. “He wouldn't. Besides, those men attacked a kitchen maid.” She then looked pointedly at the young woman. “You were there. Tell him what happened.”
“It wasn't him,” the young woman shyly stepped forward. “He wasn't the one. And she's telling the truth. Those men tried to rape me. Someone else killed them.”
“I told you I didn't do it!” Virgil broke away from the centurions and walked over to stand beside Eve. “Do you mind? I have an inn to run here! I think you should leave. Now.”
“This is a matter for the Procter to decide,” said lieutenant, who motioned to his soldiers. “Bring him. We don't have time for arguments.”
“I didn't murder anyone!” The centurions grabbed him again and he struggled to free himself. This time they didn't let go. “Come on! I'm innocent. Let me go!”
Eve blocked their exit. “Do you question my word, centurion?” Her eyes flashed with open challenge reminiscent of Livia. “He is most definitely not your murderer. Besides, those men were going to rape an innocent woman. Does it matter who killed them? Justice was served. Your work here is finished. There's no need to involve the Procter in this matter.”
The centurion glanced from Virgil to Eve. “Why was he disposing of the bodies?”
“I'm an innkeeper,” Virgil quickly explained. “A scene like that in my back hallway is bad for business.”
“See?” Eve glared at the Roman. “Let him go. He didn't do anything wrong.”
The man silently deliberated for a few moments and then gave the other two a quick nod. They released Virgil, who quickly returned to Eve's side.
“Mark my words, we will find the murderer,” the centurion glared pointedly at Eve. “I will clear this matter up, once and for all. Why don't you make this easy on everyone and just tell me who killed those men. Hm?” He glanced at the kitchen maid. “You know who your savior is. Speak up, girl.” The maid silently shook her head. “Well, we will find him. Someone will pay dearly for what happened. Justice will prevail. Roman justice always prevails.”
He then turned on his heel and left with the other two centurions close on his heels. The atmosphere in the room instantly relaxed as soon as they were gone. Virgil breathed a sigh of relief.
“I'm sorry, Virgil,” Eve ushered him toward the back hallway. “I had no idea they would show up so quickly.”
They ducked through the door and stopped. The hallway was clean of the blood and gore. The bodies were gone. Nothing looked amiss. It was as if the horrible scene had never happened at all.
“What did you do with them?” Eve raised a questioning brow.
“Loaded them into a cart out back,” he crossed his arms over his chest. “Those three idiots just happened to pass by and saw me. There wasn't much I could do. They were ready to drag me over to the stockade and leave me there to rot. Thanks for showing up when you did. Saved me having to bribe one of the guards to release me. It would have cost me more money than I make here in a month.” He then glanced over at the place where the bodies had been. “And Gabrielle?”
Eve placed a hand on his arm and shook her head. “I don't know, Virgil,” she sighed. “I've never seen her like this before. That was…” She looked the hallway over and swallowed. “It was horrible. So violent. It's not like her at all.”
He quirked a brow at her. “Gabrielle did that to those men?” He glanced around and ran a hand through his hair. “Whoa.”
“I know,” Eve shook herself. “I still can't believe it, and I was right here with her the entire time. It's like something came over her the instant she…” She frowned in thought and then looked right at him. “It happened as soon as she touch the chakram—mother's chakram.”
He looked doubtful. “Xena's chakram? That's not possible. It doesn't possess any powers that I know of.”
“It did,” Eve was still thoughtful. “Mother once said it belonged to Ares. And there was another one. A twin.” Her frown deepened. “Mother combined the two. Neutralized them.” She shook her head. “I read that in one of the last scrolls written by Gabrielle. It happened after they were crucified and came back from the dead. Before I was born. When Eli still walked the earth.” She looked at him again. “Maybe something happened to awaken the dark power?”
Virgil shrugged. “Or maybe Gabrielle is just really pissed off. Your mother did abandon her, after all.”
Eve sighed. “Yeah. Maybe.” She glanced around one last time. “Whatever the case, I don't think we should leave her to her own devices.”
“What are you saying?” He eyed her suspiciously.
“Would you like to go on a little trip, Virgil?”
Both of his brows shot up. “You're not serious.”
“I never joke about things like this,” she started walking back toward the kitchen, then stopped and looked over her shoulder at him. “Maybe we can take a detour across Northern Africa on our way back. Possibly meet up with the Savior?”
He watched her leave and then shook his head. “This is definitely going to be trouble,” he muttered as he turned to follow her.
Gabrielle sat in the shadows just outside the inn. Everything was so confusing and jumbled. She couldn't sort through any of it logically. The chakram was safely hooked to her belt, its dark power eerily gone. She had no idea what happened—or why, for that matter. The last thing she remembered was confronting the two men.
Memories of her time in Egypt surfaced and made her shudder. Looking back, she shook her head at her naiveté. Xena's suggestion had seemed so simple—go to Egypt and volunteer her services to Pharoah. It couldn't hurt, right?
But it had hurt. The hurt—the pain of her grief—had been far greater than anything she had ever experienced before in her entire life. That final separation from the other half of her soul had ravaged her, broken her, and opened a wound so deep that nothing in the world could dampen the pain. And as the pain grew, so did the rage. Dark, mindless rage.
Absently running a finger along the edge of the chakram, Gabrielle felt the subtle shift of the dragon deep within. She had no idea how it all fit together. It just did. Her anger and that soul-deep pain. The protection the dragon tattoo provided. The darkness within the chakram. The anger and pain, the dragon and the chakram all seemed to be linked in some way. She just didn't know how.
Sighing deeply, she removed her hand from the weapon and let her head rest against the wall behind her. The noises of the festival far off in the distance drifted to her ears, but she wasn't really listening. It was just noise. Music. Laughter. Revelry. Nothing penetrated the depression that settled over her like a heavy blanket.
It would be so easy to return the chakram to its hiding place and never look upon it again. Pretend it didn't exist. She almost snorted in derision. Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen. She actually wondered why she had been so adamant about detouring to Athens to retrieve it in the first place. Except that she knew the answer: Xena would never shy away from a challenge and neither could she.
“You're not her,” she muttered softly. “You never were. You never will be.”
Glancing down at the round weapon at her hip, she watched as torchlight flickered off the cold steel surface. So deceptive. So beautifully radiant. The curved golden handle in the center looked merely decorative. But Gabrielle knew how to unlock the two pieces and use them separately. They were just as deadly as halves of the whole as she was. Two halves that fit perfectly together to create one. Just as she and Xena…
She closed her eyes as images of their final moments together washed over her. It had been years, but those moments seemed to stay with her as vividly as if they had happened only yesterday. Standing together and watching the fire extinguish itself. Xena teaching her the pinch in the dojo . Sunlight gleaming off those familiar tanned features. Xena in the red kimono . Her spirit even more radiant and beautiful in death than when she still lived.
Gabrielle choked back tears as she remembered finding Xena's mutilated body. The headless corpse hanging spread-eagle in the darkness and pouring rain. Naked. Alone. The feeling of helplessness as she cut the ropes. Bile rose hot and acrid in her throat, but she managed to swallow it down as she shut her eyes tight against those horrid images.
A hand on her shoulder instantly brought her back to the present and made her jump.
She looked up to find Aryana staring down at her in concern.
“Hey,” Gabrielle cleared her throat.
“Hey,” the young woman frowned. “You okay? You seemed a little…” She shrugged and glanced around. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”
“Thinking,” Gabrielle shook herself free of the morbid memories. “Just needed some time alone.”
Aryana sat down next to her. “Must have been some pretty serious thoughts.” She then studied Gabrielle more closely. “Are those tears?”
Gabrielle swiped the moisture from her cheeks. “Yeah.”
“Festival's in full swing again tonight. These people really know how to party, huh?” She let a small smile play at the corners of her lips.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle chuckled. “Welcome to Athens. They will find any excuse to celebrate. There are more festivals and celebrations here than anywhere else in Greece.”
“Probably to escape from the reality of living in such close proximity to their neighbors all the time,” she shuddered. “I don't know how people do it. Virgil took me on a tour earlier. I'm not impressed. Most of the city is a total dump. Nothing like Arendahl. The sprawl here goes on for leagues in every direction. It's endless. Crowded. Filthy.” She shuddered again. “Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.”
Gabrielle laughed in earnest. “It's a city, Aryana. You have everything you could possibly ever need or want all in one place. Walk down the street and there are twenty vendors selling anything from fresh-baked bread to the finest weapons money can buy. Theatres within walking distance. Museums. This place has it all.”
“Crime. Brothels. Taverns galore,” Aryana scoffed. “Yeah. It's a real fool's paradise.”
“I didn't say it doesn't have its seedier side,” Gabrielle added with a smirk. “It's a city. Pack this many people in one place and you're bound to experience the darker side of humanity.”
“Yeah,” Aryana shrugged. “But Virgil did take me to a play. That was kinda cool. If you like that sort of thing. Which I don't. Really.”
“Yeah,” Aryana nodded. “Bunch of people dressed in funky costumes, talking about gods and monsters and such. Some guy even came on stage with a big, ugly bull's head on. Surprised he didn't gore somebody with those horns of his. I almost laughed out loud when he turned his head and nearly took some sprite's head off.”
Aryana shrugged. “Maybe. No idea what that is.”
“Half man, half bull,” Gabrielle explained. “Xena…” She shook her head. “Never mind.”
“No, let me guess. Xena took on one of those, too,” Aryana snorted. “Figures.”
“She was special.”
They turned to find Eve and Virgil walking casually towards them. The two were walking arm-in-arm, just like old friends. The night air was heavy with the promise of rain, although the ground was still dry as a bone.
“Where have the two of you been?” Gabrielle eyed them suspiciously. She then looked pointedly at Virgil. “Did you take care of…um, you know.”
He nodded. “And Eve took care of the Romans that came sniffing around.”
Gabrielle's brow rose. “Oh?”
“Yeah,” Eve cocked her head at Gabrielle. “I just hope they are as stupid as they usually are. I'm not real sure about that leader of theirs, though. He might be a problem. It's a good thing we plan to set sail in the morning.”
“Yeah,” Virgil agreed. “But you were fairly convincing. Maybe they won't give it a second thought. And Romans don't usually suspect women of doing such,” he cleared his throat, “violent things.”
“What things? What are you all talking about?” Aryana asked curiously. “Did I miss something?”
Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder. “No, you didn't miss anything. We just had a little…”
Virgil coughed. “Misunderstanding.”
Eve snorted. “Yeah, some misunderstanding . That's certainly putting it mildly.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I killed two men. Call it what it is.”
Aryana's eyes widened. “What?”
“In your defense, Gabrielle, they were…”
Gabrielle held up a staying hand. “Don't, Virgil. I'm not ashamed of what I did. They were going to rape one of your kitchen maids. I did what I had to do.”
“You killed them in cold blood,” Eve's eyes snapped to the chakram at Gabrielle's waist. “I was there.”
“Can we just…”
“NO!” Both women interrupted Virgil before he could continue.
“Okay, okay,” he held up his hands in surrender. “I just think, in this case, the end justified the means.”
“No, it didn't,” Gabrielle looked pointedly at Eve. “But your mother would have done the same thing if she were here.”
“You're not her,” Eve's eyes flashed with reproach just before she abruptly turned around and strode away.
“Eve! Eve!” Gabrielle called and then fell silent when the woman didn't return.
“Well, that went well,” said Virgil after several moments of silence stretched between the remaining members of the group. “Maybe I should…” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “I need to get back inside and take care of my guests.”
Gabrielle was left with Aryana. She shifted uncomfortably.
“Want to talk about it?” Aryana asked tentatively.
“Not really,” Gabrielle stood up to leave. “I need to go have a little chat with Eve. Why don't you go inside and get something to eat. I'll meet you in there later.”
Aryana slapped her hands onto her knees. “Okay, fine. Don't tell me anything. See if I…” She looked up to find herself alone. Gabrielle was gone. “For cryin' out loud. These people are all nuts.”
“Eve, wait!” Gabrielle called to the woman just before Eve entered her tent. “Come on!”
Eve halted and just stood there with her back to Gabrielle. She waited for her mother's soulmate to join her and then they both ducked inside the tent. Tapers glowed in sconces throughout the main room. Pillows and chairs occupied most of the space, as well as a table in one corner. The table held a pitcher, cups and a tray of bread, cheese and fruit. One of her followers had obviously been there earlier.
“I'm sorry,” Gabrielle stood hesitantly in the doorway.
Eve sat down in one of the chairs. “I know. Me, too.”
“I thought you would tell Aryana,” Gabrielle stepped inside. “I left her at the inn, if you're of a mind to talk to her.”
“I will,” Eve rested her head against her hand. “I'm still trying to process what happened earlier, though. I just need some time, Gabrielle.”
“You're angry,” Gabrielle walked over to the table and poured herself a cup from the contents of the pitcher. She sipped and winced. “Wine?”
“Mm,” Eve nodded absently. “Helps me relax. And the water here in the city is vile. Better to drink wine than become ill.”
Gabrielle downed the contents of her cup and poured herself another. “I'm sorry you're angry, Eve. Your mother…”
“Is dead, Gabrielle,” Eve sighed heavily. “I know that. I've known for quite some time. Remember?”
“Then what was that all about back there?” Gabrielle looked pointedly at her.
“You,” Eve stood up, walked over and poured herself a cup of wine. She drank it as she glanced sidelong at Gabrielle. “Why are you carrying Mother's chakram?”
Gabrielle glanced down at the weapon and then met Eve's steady gaze. “Why not? She would have given it to me if she could. Other than the tattoo, it's the last link I have to her.”
Eve turned to fully face her. “Because it obviously is affecting your behavior. Don't you see that?”
Gabrielle looked down at the contents of her cup, instead. “You don't understand.”
“Then help me to understand,” Eve said. “Tell me why you came here to Athens to retrieve a weapon that you know makes you do things that you wouldn't otherwise do. Killing goes against your nature. It always has.”
Gabrielle pulled the katana from the sheath at her back and held it up to the torchlight. She gazed at the flickering flames dancing on the blade. “I'm a warrior, Eve. You of all people should understand what that means. A warrior needs weapons.”
“You're not a warrior, Gabrielle,” Eve stated flatly. “Mother was the warrior in the family. Not you.”
Gabrielle re-sheathed the katana . “Maybe so. But she's gone. Someone has to step up and take her place. There is no one else.”
“And you really think that someone is you?” Eve gazed pointedly into her eyes. “You're not her.”
“I know!” Gabrielle covered her face with her hands and turned away. “Why do you keep saying that?”
“Because,” Eve reached out and put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. “You obviously need to accept the truth in the words, not just hear the words themselves. Eli taught me that. We can't go against our nature. Doing so destroys the very core of who we are.”
Gabrielle shook her head and took a step away. “I died the day she did. I have no nature to go against anymore. It's all gone.”
Eve heard the defeat in the tone. She knew what her mother's death had cost Gabrielle. The very fact that the woman was able to get up every morning and continue on with life, however, was a testament to how much of her true self was still there. Despite the loss. Despite the bone-deep pain Eve knew Gabrielle carried. She just needed to convince Gabrielle of that fact.
“The day that I became the Messenger,” Eve said quietly, “was one of the lowest points in my life. I didn't think there was any hope for me. I'd done so many terrible things. I just couldn't understand how I could possibly be redeemed. The darkness was overwhelming. It permeated every part of me.” She smiled sadly. “Eli showed me everything. He made me see how much love there was in my life.” She moved closer to Gabrielle and wrapped her arms around her. “He showed me how much you and Mother loved each other. Please don't turn that love into something twisted and dark. Please. Don't let the darkness win.”
A tear slipped from Gabrielle's eye and rolled down her cheek. She closed her eyes and leaned back into the embrace of the woman she thought of as a daughter. Xena's daughter. The last real link to her soul's mate. Placing a hand on Eve's arm, she squeezed. Then she remembered that Eve wasn't the last link.
“You need to tell her, Eve,” Gabrielle said quietly. “Aryana deserves to know the truth.”
“I know,” Eve continued to hug her. “I plan on telling her. Don't worry.”
Gabrielle snickered. “Okay.”
“So,” Eve rested her head against Gabrielle's, “I was talking with Virgil and…”
“How would you and Aryana like some company on your journey?”
Gabrielle turned with a confused look. “What exactly does that mean?”
Eve smiled. “To Arendahl? What if Virgil and I join you?”
“Wha—” Gabrielle shook her head in confusion. “Why?”
Eve shrugged. “It's been a while since I've been out there preaching the message on the road. This just seems like a good opportunity to get back to what I do best. Do some good. Besides, I need to get away from the city for a while. Share the message with people who haven't yet heard it. It'll be just like old times.”
Gabrielle moved away a few paces and then turned back with a skeptical frown. “You want to go to Arendahl? You do know the place has been taken over by a tyrant, right?”
Eve put her hands on her hips and her eyes flashed in open challenge. “And what, exactly, are you planning on doing when you get there? Are you going to single-handedly defeat his entire army and rescue the queen? Come on, Gabrielle. You aren't…”
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, but her voice remained deceptively calm. “Don't say it. I know I'm not Xena, Eve. But I traveled with her. Give me some credit, will you?”
Eve's brow rose. “So? What exactly is your plan for getting inside the castle? You can't storm the gate on your own. At least if I'm with you then you'll have a cover story you can use to infiltrate the place. After we're inside, you and Aryana can figure out a way to deal with the tyrant and rescue the queen. But the Messenger and her close advisors will have a better chance of getting inside than some lone warrior and her sidekick.”
Gabrielle seriously considered Eve's proposal for a moment. “Okay, so you might have a point. I guess I hadn't really thought that far ahead.”
“I have more than a point,” Eve added with a wry grin as she took Gabrielle's arm in hers. “I have the perfect cover story to get you and Aryana into the castle. So, when do we leave?”
Eve and Gabrielle entered the inn and found Aryana sitting at a corner table in the crowded main room. A fire blazed in the fireplace. The noise level was practically deafening. There was a festive atmosphere to the place. And there wasn't a single Roman centurion in sight.
Aryana had an empty trencher in front of her and was nursing a tankard of ale. She glanced up at them as they approached the table. “Everything okay, now?”
Gabrielle looked at Eve. “You want me to stay? Or would you rather…”
“No,” Eve kept a firm hold of Gabrielle. “This concerns you, too. We're family. Please stay.”
“Fine,” Gabrielle shrugged and sat down.
“Okay, you two are kinda freakin' me out, here,” Aryana eyed them suspiciously. “What's going on now? Did I grow a second head or something?”
Eve sat down opposite Aryana. A barmaid immediately approached the table with two tankards and a pitcher.
“Virgil says these are on the house,” the woman gave them a smile and a wink. “Enjoy, ladies!” And then she was gone.
Gabrielle lifted her tankard and drank deeply. She remained silent as Eve sipped her drink.
“Aryana,” Eve began hesitantly, as she folded her hands on the table in front of her. “I don't know how much your parents told you about…um…well…” She looked up to find Aryana watching her expectantly. “Did they say anything about where you came from?”
“Where I came from?” Aryana frowned in confusion and then her expression turned suspicious. “Exactly where is this going?”
Eve fidgeted until a comforting hand rested on her own. She glanced up to find Gabrielle smiling encouragingly at her. She smiled back and then returned her attention to the young woman across the table. Eve then straightened and girded herself.
“I'm your mother,” Eve blurted and then held her breath.
A number of odd expressions crossed Aryana's features before her mouth dropped open and she stared in wide-eyed shock. Her jaw moved several times, but nothing came out. And then she looked at Gabrielle in confusion.
“She's telling the truth,” Gabrielle confirmed with a serious nod. “She's your mother, Aryana.”
“Uh…buh…” Aryana was stunned. “What?”
Eve stood up and closed the distance between them. She then took Aryana's ice-cold hands in hers and held them. “I know it's a pretty big shock. I'm guessing your parents didn't say anything about me before you left home to become a warrior?” Aryana merely nodded mutely. “Then this wasn't at all what you were expecting.”
“Uh, yeah, um, no, um…” Aryana breathed out a heavy sigh. “You could say that.” She downed the rest of her ale and poured herself another. “You're my mother? And no one bothered to tell me? Not even my parents? Why are you telling me this now?” She then looked accusingly at Gabrielle. “Did you know about this all along?”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “Eve just told me the truth a little while ago. I had no idea before today. And, if it's any consolation, I was just as shocked to hear the news as you are, Aryana. I honestly didn't know.” She finished off the ale in her tankard and poured another. “Although,” she lifted her tankard to her lips and took a drink, “it sure explains a lot.”
Aryana ran a hand through her dark hair as a thousand questions raced through her mind. She looked around the crowded room, half expecting all eyes to be on her. They weren't. No one seemed to be paying them the least bit of attention. They were all engrossed in their own lives, their own merriment.
“I honestly don't know what to say,” Aryana finally looked at each of the women across the table. “This is…this is…I don't know what it is.” Her gaze settled on Eve accusingly. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because you have a right to know.”
“But why now?” Aryana's expression darkened. “I know you've been to Arendahl. I was on crowd control duty the last time you were there.”
“Wait,” Aryana shook her head. “How do you know?”
“Why do you think I was there, Aryana?”
“Oh, I don't know, to spread your message of love and peace, maybe?” Aryana shot back. The ale was affecting her more than she cared to admit. “Why else would the Messenger of Eli show up in Arendahl?”
“I went there to see my daughter,” Eve said. “I stopped in Arendahl on several occasions after I received my calling as the Messenger. I needed to make sure you were okay.”
“Hold on a second,” Gabrielle looked incredulously at Eve. “You said you didn't know she was a warrior. How is that possible if you went there to see her more than once?”
“You were there more than once?” Aryana interrupted.
“I was there three times, actually.” Eve then looked pointedly at Gabrielle. “And I didn't know she was a warrior. I never got the chance to actually set eyes on her while I was there.” She returned her gaze to Aryana. “I asked your parents where you were and they said you were living at the castle. They didn't tell me what you were actually doing there, and they never mentioned that you were training to be a warrior. I think they were wary of revealing too much. I don't think they were convinced that I wasn't going to steal you away and wisk you back to Rome with me.”
“Why would they think that?” Aryana asked expectantly.
“Because of Livia,” Eve said matter-of-factly.
Gabrielle saw that Aryana was still confused. “Eve was Livia, Champion of Rome.”
Aryana's frown deepened. “The murderer?”
Eve dipped her head. “I'm not proud of who I was back then.”
“Wait,” Aryana shook her head to try to clear it, “let me get this straight. You're Livia? The woman who marched an army into Arendahl, conscripted a bunch of our men, gathered up a bunch of women and children as slaves, marched them all away, never to be seen again, all in the name of Rome?” She looked up to find both women gazing at her with a mix of expressions. Eve looked regretful and sad, while Gabrielle looked ready to step in and defend Eve. “You knew?” Aryana looked accusingly at Gabrielle.
“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded once. “So did Xena. We…”
“You're here to defend her actions? Is that it?” Aryana was obviously angry. “She murdered innocents in the name of…”
“Don't, Aryana,” Gabrielle cut her off. “Eve isn't that person anymore.”
“No, I'm not,” Eve put in quickly. “Eli helped me see who I truly am.”
“Eve ushered in the Twilight,” Gabrielle added with a small smile. “And Xena…”
“Enough about her!” Aryana slammed her palms onto the table in a fit of pique. “She's dead! I don't want to hear about her anymore!”
Gabrielle got up and went over to Aryana. She stood next to her, put her hand beneath Aryana's chin and lifted it until their eyes met. Gabrielle just stared at Aryana for a timeless moment. Neither one spoke. They just looked at each other.
“You look so much like her, Aryana,” Gabrielle finally said quietly with a small smile.
“Xena?” Aryana glanced from Gabrielle to Eve. “Your mother.”
“Yes,” Eve smiled sadly. “Xena is my mother.” She then frowned at the look in Gabrielle's eyes. “Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle glanced at Eve. “Hm?”
Eve then glanced from one to the other as her expression darkened. “Tell me you two didn't…”
“No!” They both answered in unison.
Eve's eyes narrowed at Gabrielle. “Then how does she know about Mother?”
“Stories,” Aryana replied quickly. “I heard stories when I was a child. And when I was serving in the queen's guard.”
“I guess word got around,” Gabrielle shrugged. “Don't give me that look, Eve. I haven't told a story in years.”
“Arendahl is on a main trade route beyond Northern Thrace,” Aryana said. “Bards come through there all the time. Many of them know the stories of Xena, the Warrior Princess. Being in the queen's guard has certain perks.”
“Your parents promised me they wouldn't let you become a warrior,” Eve's tone was tinged with anger.
“They didn't really have a choice,” Aryana said. “I won a contest. The captain of the guard was desperate for recruits after you…” Her expression softened at the flash of guilt in Eve's eyes. “…after Livia conscripted all of our young men and sent them off to fight for Rome. I met Queen Shari and was put into one of the advanced training groups. They pegged me for the queen's guard once they saw how good I was with a sword.”
Gabrielle chuckled and looked at Eve. “Apple sure didn't fall far from the proverbial tree, did it?”
“That is totally weird,” Aryana commented. “Finding out I'm the daughter of the infamous Bitch of Rome.” She caught the look Eve gave her. “Sorry. But you have to admit your reputation was pretty badass. Not to mention I'm also the granddaughter of the famous Warrior Princess. Yesterday, I was a complete nobody. Today I'm suddenly related to royalty.”
Gabrielle returned to her seat next to Eve and took her hand. “Not to mention Callisto. You definitely have some pretty incredible female bloodlines.”
Eve looked at Gabrielle. “Do you want to weave this particular tale? Or should I?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Once upon a time,” she began with a lopsided grin, “the Warrior Princess had a rather…er…mysterious encounter with…oh, how shall I put this?” She looked at Eve. “She's never going to believe me, you know.”
“Believe what?” Aryana looked from one to the other.
“I wasn't conceived through your typical male-and-female sexual encounter,” Eve replied flatly. “Xena wasn't…” She looked to Gabrielle for help. “How would you put it?”
“We died,” Gabrielle stated flatly. “And ended up fighting against the demons of Hell, which included a former adversary of your grandmother's. Her name was Callisto. And, needless to say, she never was one of the good guys. She killed my fiancé, ravaged entire villages, wreaked havoc whenever she could. Matter of fact, she was pretty much instigating things in Hell when we crossed over.” She then smiled fondly. “Xena felt responsible for the way things turned out for Callisto. They ended up trading places. Xena went to Hell and basically took over. Well, as much as any mortal can do that when they become a demon of Hell, anyway.”
Gabrielle paused as the memories washed over her.
“So what does that have to do with…” Aryana looked pointedly at Eve.
“We came back,” Gabrielle shook off the memories. “Surprised a few people, including Eli.” She saw surprise register in Aryana's expression. “Yes, that Eli. I don't think even he knew what he did. No one expected what happened after that. Xena was just…pregnant. We finally put two-and-two together.”
“Eli?” A skeptical look. “Nuh uh,” Aryana looked to Eve for confirmation and received a curt nod. “Seriously? You actually knew him?”
“We were friends,” Gabrielle continued. “Anyway, Callisto broke Xena's back with the chakram before we died.” She reached down and fingered the chakram at her hip. “Xena couldn't fight and we were crucified by the Romans.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When we came back, the Archangel Michael granted Callisto one last request. She was allowed to be reborn.” She squeezed Eve's shoulders. “Your grandmother gave birth to your mother nine moons later and ushered in the Twilight of the gods of Olympus.”
“And Gabrielle was there every step of the way,” Eve put her head against Gabrielle's. “Even when Zeus nearly killed all three of us while Mother was giving birth.”
“Ares was there, too,” Gabrielle added with wry grin. “But I'm pretty sure his motives were as self-serving as they always were and are. He wanted Zeus out of the way so he could take over Olympus and become king of the Olympian gods.” Her expression sobered. “Not sure why he came and took Xena and I to that cave, though. That one still has my head spinning every time I think about it.”
“The lost twenty-some years?” Aryana glanced at them both for confirmation and wasn't disappointed.
“Yes,” Eve replied. “They disappeared and a friend of theirs, Octavius, whisked me away with him. I was raised in the countryside near Rome, while Octavius became Augustus Caesar. He gave me the Roman name Livia to hide my true identity and allow me to grow up without fearing for my life. When I was finally old enough to become a true Roman citizen, Augustus saw my potential as a warrior and cultivated it. I was tutored by the best, until I was given a commission of my own. I led an army and headed north to conquer lands in his name. I was still quite young when you were conceived.” She smiled fondly and kept her head against Gabrielle's. “I wasn't exactly the motherly type in those days. Or, rather, Livia wasn't. I was ruthless. Ambitious. Full of fire and rage. I couldn't believe my mother had abandoned me. And Caesar Augustus wasn't about to tell me what really happened to my mother and her partner. He didn't want to ruin a good thing. Or maybe he didn't really know.” She lifted her head and looked at Gabrielle. “No one really ever knew what happened to the two of you, until you suddenly reappeared all those years later.”
“Being on ice wasn't exactly a walk in the park, either,” Gabrielle flexed her hands. “The cold seeps way down deep and never really goes away. I still have issues with my joints when the weather turns and the snow falls. Pretty much whenever it rains, too.”
“So, let me get this straight,” Aryana finally spoke up, “you and my grandmother were…”
“Lovers,” Gabrielle stated. “It's okay. I'm not ashamed to admit it. Xena was my soulmate, my lover, my best friend in the whole world. She was my world. We meant everything to each other.”
“And the two of you died?”
“A few of times, yes,” Gabrielle replied with a shrug. “We lived a very dangerous life together. Traveled to some very distant lands. Encountered all kinds of people. Fought for the greater good. Callisto was an enemy of Xena's from way back in her ruthless warlord days. Except that Xena finally found a way to turn things around for Callisto.” She glanced at Eve and smiled. Then returned her attention Aryana. “It was what we did—working for the greater good. We made it work, even when things looked bleak or hopeless. We even managed to keep the Olympian gods on their toes a time or two, including when they lost their immortality and had to rely on us to keep them safe.”
“You actually knew the gods?” Aryana's tone was skeptical.
“They actually do exist, then?” She was still trying to wrap her head around it all. “I mean, we've heard stories about them, of course, but no one actually believes in them anymore. I just thought the stories were told to frighten us and keep us in line.”
“The Twilight,” Gabrielle nodded and then looked at Eve. “It's why you were born.” She then returned her attention to Aryana. “And almost cost all of us our lives, like your mother said. More than once, too.”
“Mm,” Gabrielle looked off into the distance for a moment as the memories came rushing back in a tidal wave again. “Our return and Eve's conversion created a ripple effect on Olympus.” She shuddered slightly as the memories practically slammed into her. “They were all terrified of the Twilight. Terrified of losing everything they had. Ares putting Xena and I on ice only delayed the inevitable.” She felt Eve's arm tighten slightly. “Once we returned and found Eve, the gods came after us with everything they had, including a few tricks we weren't quite prepared for.” She kissed the side of Eve's head. “I almost succeeded in killing you. I'm still truly sorry about that.”
“You didn't,” Eve hugged her tighter. “And none of that was your fault.”
“Yeah, okay, doesn't really explain things,” Aryana leaned forward. “I'm dying to know, here.”
“The Furies intervened,” Gabrielle said. “They convinced me Eve needed to die. They got into my head and forced me to betray her. I stabbed her with one of my sais—those daggers I keep in my boots—and Xena showed up at exactly the same instant. She split my skull open with her chakram when she saw what I did. The Furies escaped. Ares was there, too. For whatever reason, he sided with us—against his own siblings and the rest of the gods. Aphrodite, too.” A fond smile flashed on her features, before her expression turned serious again. “Xena finally killed Hades and Athena. I don't really remember more than a few bits and pieces. I was pretty much a vegetable, by then.” She swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat.
“We lived,” Eve added when Gabrielle couldn't continue. “Ares sacrificed his godhood to save both of us. And lost it in the process.”
“The God of War? No way.”
“Yes, way,” Gabrielle smiled wryly. “He ended up paying a very dear price. Had to live as a mortal for quite a while, until Xena found a way to give him back his powers. And she did. She always found a way to make things right, even when there didn't seem to be an easy way to do so.” Her smile turned wistful. “Except for that last time.”
It was Eve's turn to kiss Gabrielle on the side of the head. “She would have found a way back to you if she could, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I know.”
“So, why didn't she?” Aryana suddenly piped in. “I mean, it sounds like the gods, especially Ares, owe you something for all you did for them. Why didn't they bring Xena back from the dead that one last time?”
“Because she didn't die here,” Gabrielle's eyes flashed with repressed anger. “Believe me. I asked. Once I returned to Greece, I hounded Ares and Aphrodite until they refused to speak to me anymore. And neither one could tell me what happened to Xena after she died. They had no idea where she was or what happened to her soul. She was gone. Just…gone.” A lone tear slipped down her cheek and she impatiently swiped it away.
Eve noticed. “Maybe it was finally her time, Gabrielle.”
“Maybe,” Gabrielle conceded. “Or maybe she just got fed up with everything. Maybe she decided it wasn't worth coming back for—I wasn't worth coming back for.”
“That isn't true and you know it,” Eve turned, grabbed Gabrielle's upper arms and looked intently into her eyes. “Mother loved you, Gabrielle. She loved you deeply. If there was a way for her to come back to you, I know she would have. Neither Heaven nor Hell could have kept her from being with you again. You have to believe that.”
Gabrielle smiled wistfully. “I wish I could, Eve. But I just can't. I'm sorry.” She got up and walked out of the inn without a backward glance.
Eve and Aryana watched her go. She and Aryana sat there in silence for a time. Neither spoke. Aryana's mind was in a whirlwind as she tried to absorb everything. She was the daughter of Eve, the Messenger of Eli. And Xena, the Warrior Princess, was her grandmother? It was inconceivable. None of it made any sense.
How did she get sucked into such an unbelievable situation? She was just an ordinary person. The daughter of a farmer. She had three siblings. And parents who raised her to…Her mind tried to wrap itself around what she knew and what she had just been told. So many things suddenly made more sense. Her natural fighting abilities. The fact that she could weild a sword better than anyone in her family ever could. The fact that she looked nothing like any of her siblings. Or her parents, for that matter. She always felt like the black sheep of her family. Now she knew why. But that didn't mean she could just accept everything she'd been told.
“I know none of this makes any sense, right now, Aryana,” Eve said quietly. “My head is spinning just thinking about it all. I can't imagine what you must be going through.”
Aryana chuckled. “Ya think?”
Eve glanced at her daughter's profile and noted how much she really did resemble Xena, except for those eyes of hers. The eyes were completely different. And then she remembered… him . Having blocked any memory of him from her mind for so long, it actually took some effort to see his face in her mind's eye. But Aryana's eyes. Those were definitely his eyes.
“You have his eyes,” Eve added with a wistful smile. “Same color and shape. I was always entranced when he looked at me—into my very soul.”
“My father?” She watched Eve nod once. “Was he a decent warrior?”
Eve smiled again. “Yes, he was. We often sparred together. He was excellent with a sword. Not as good as your grandmother, mind you. He was captain of my personal guard. My protector.”
“Among other things,” Aryana added with a wry smirk.
Eve sat back in her chair. “Yes, among other things.”
“So, what happens now?” Aryana lifted her tankard to her lips and noticed it was empty. She sighed.
“We all go to Arendahl and help you free your queen from the tyrant,” Eve stated as she slid her own full tankard over to Aryana. “It's the least we can do, now that we're all one, big, happy family.”
Aryana took a drink. “And after that? Am I just supposed to pretend like none of this ever happened?”
“No,” Eve shook her head. “You'll definitely have some decisions to make.” She smiled. “Good thing it will take some time for all of us to get there. You can do your thinking along the way.”
It still hurt. Even after all the years that had gone by. Knowing Xena wasn't coming back still hurt more than anything, even her aching ribs. Every breath sent pain shooting through her side, but she ignored the discomfort. Ignoring physical pain was relatively easy. Ignoring emotional pain was far more difficult. Gabrielle knew she should return to the inn and rest. Just stretch out on a comfortable bed for a while and lie still. Not move. It was something Xena would have insisted she do. But she couldn't do that with her thoughts whirling around in her head like so many bees buzzing. There was no lying still for that.
She aimlessly wandered the streets of Athens and made note that things were winding down. She had no idea what time it was. She knew it was late. Not quite dawn, but no longer midnight, either. Just somewhere in between.
Like she was. Somewhere in between. Not dead. Not really alive. No longer able to live fully now that half her soul was gone. Just…
Her cloak hid the chakram that hung at her hip. She carefully caressed the metal surface and absently traced its cool lines. The blood lust was gone. That pounding rush of dark energy that came when the weapon drew blood in anger had vanished. Or was it merely sleeping? She didn't really know. Didn't want to know.
Passing the smith's establishment, Gabrielle noticed a warm glow inside and a distinctive clang of a hammer hitting metal on an anvil. She ducked through the open door and stopped just inside the stifling space. The gruff smith looked up in surprise to find her standing there at that late hour.
“'lo,” he nodded a greeting. “'T'ain't open til the morrow.”
“I know,” Gabrielle leaned against the doorframe. “I was just…”
He eyed her and then a small smile creased his filthy, sweaty features. “Them dagger-like things. I ‘member ya.” He walked over to a sidewall and retrieved a wrapped package, then unwrapped it as he walked over to her. “Did ma best, I did.” He held it out to her. “Yah?”
Gabrielle lifted the twin sais by their hilts and gazed in wonder at the workmanship. “Absolutely amazing,” she beamed. “You matched it perfectly.” Twirling both weapons in her hands with expert skill, she was impressed that he had managed to balance the new one with its twin. “I can't believe you were able to make an identical copy. Thank you.”
He gave her a gap-toothed grin. “T'weren't easy, I tell ya. Took me ta better part of t'day. But t'was worth it, I'm thinkin'. Yah?”
She ran through some quick drills in the limited space. Some quick thrusts. A few feignts. She then spun each in turn on her palm to gauge the balance.
“Perfect,” she looked up at him with a grin. “Absolutely perfect. Well done.”
“Gonna cost ya,” his dark eyes gazed intently at her.
She reached inside her cloak and pulled out her coin purse. Removing several gold medallions, she handed them over to him.
“Is that enough?” She watched as he turned one of the coins over in his hand, studied it and then bit down on it.
“Yah,” he nodded and then stuffed the coins into a pocket of his apron. “If ever ya be needin' anythin' else, just let me know. I always take care of my best customers.”
“I will,” Gabrielle tucked the sais into her boots, turned on her heel and strode away. A small smile tugged at her lips as she spotted a tavern just up the street. She veered toward it and ducked inside.
Aryana sat alone under a tree on a hill that overlooked the docks. Dawn was just breaking over the city. The first rays of sunlight sparkled off the water out in the bay. The squawk of a lone seagull high overhead pierced the silence. Its mournful cry echoed across the dark water.
Her thoughts were in a whirlwind. So much had happened in such a short time that she didn't know what to make of any of it. Her mother. Eve, the Messenger of Eli, was her mother? And Xena, the infamous Warrior Princess, was her grandmother? How could that be? How could her parents keep the origins of her heritage from her? Why didn't they tell her who her mother really was? Was it shame? Spite? Or did they just not care?
Aryana could no longer delude herself into believing that the people who had raised her were her birth parents. She looked and acted nothing like them. She looked nothing like any of her siblings, either. She was just…different. She sometimes wondered about that when her mind was free to wander during the lulls in her training. She had meant to ask her mother—her adopted mother—about it, but she never did.
She absently picked a dandelion and twirled it between her fingers as she stared sightlessly out to sea. And then there was Gabrielle. Xena's partner. Her traveling companion and lover. So many of the pieces to the woman's puzzle were quickly falling into place for Aryana. Gabrielle had been there when Eve was conceived. Was Gabrielle Eve's father?
Aryana frowned. No. That wasn't possible. Or was it? Gabrielle had talked about the gods of Olympus like they were old friends of hers. Like they were people. But Aryana knew from the bards' stories that the gods of Olympus were not people at all. They were gods. Powerful immortal beings…
Aryana scratched her head in confusion. She knew there was more to the story than either Eve or Gabrielle had let on. There was definitely something missing. She just didn't know what it was.
Sighing heavily, Aryana leaned back against the trunk of the tree and tried not to let the exhaustion win. She had been too restless to sleep. Talking to Eve had left her with more questions than answers.
Eli's messenger was strange. Full of some weird inner peace that Aryana had never experienced in another human being before. Eve was focused and intense—righteous, even. Aryana was totally uncomfortable in her presence. How could Eve be her mother? How was that even possible? The woman had once been a murderer sent by Rome to destroy everything good in Arendahl. Well, not everything. Her family had somehow managed to escape the destruction. Now Aryana knew why. Livia had spared them because of her. But that still didn't explain everything.
There were still too many questions.
Letting her eyelids drift closed, Aryana listened to the sounds around her until the world faded out and she fell asleep.
“I know the feeling.”
She looked over to find a dark-haired woman in brown leather sitting with her long legs stretched out in front of her.
Perfect white teeth gleamed in a brilliant smile that reached sky-blue eyes in chiseled features framed by dark-brown hair.
“Why am I not surprised?”
A husky chuckle. “You're such a cynic, Aryana.”
“And you're dead.”
A nod of the dark head. “Touch é , kid.”
“Why are you here?”
“I don't know. Why don't you tell me? It's your dream.”
Hazel eyes stared sightlessly toward the far horizon. “Because I'm your granddaughter?”
“You want to fill in all the blanks? I'm still totally confused. There are too many missing pieces to this convoluted puzzle. It's making me a little crazy.”
The dark head shook. “Talk to Gabrielle. She's the storyteller in the family.”
“She doesn't like to talk much.”
The confusion in the tone made Aryana's head snap around. “Not what you were expecting?”
Xena frowned. “Gabrielle was always the talkative one.”
“Well, not anymore,” Aryana shrugged. “She's not very personable, either. Good in a fight, though.”
The frown deepened. “She still fights?”
“When she has to,” Aryana shrugged. “I found her living in a hospice outside of Amphipolis. Not much fighting there. Lots of flowers, though. It was a beautiful place. Peaceful. I think she was living there so she didn't have to…” She shrugged. “She says it kept her busy.”
Xena sighed. “Building a hospice was once a dream of hers. I guess she was finally able to make at least one of her dreams come true without me there.”
“She still misses you—really misses you.”
Aryana nodded. “And she's pissed that you left her the way you did.”
Xena sighed again and shook her head. “I didn't have a choice.”
“Seriously?” Aryana's expression was doubtful. “You defied death how many times and you couldn't figure out a way to beat it one last time?” She looked away. “I find that really hard to believe.” She sobered. “And there is a heck of a lot about all this that I'm finding really hard to believe. How in the world was my mother conceived? You and Gabrielle…”
“I told you. Ask Gabrielle.”
Anger flared. “She won't talk to me! She just relates stories, like she's trying to be a bard again or something.”
Xena chuckled. “Then figure out a way to get her to open up to you, kid.” She studied Aryana for a moment. “Use your winning personality.”
Aryana snorted derisively. “You sure don't know me at all, if that's what you're suggesting.”
Xena's gaze met hers. “You'll figure it out.” A smile. “You're pretty smart.”
The world around her went out of focus and she realized she was waking up. She tried to fight against it, but couldn't. Something suddenly pulled her awake.
“Here you are.”
Eyelids fluttering open, Aryana glanced around. Eve sat down next to her. The annoying seagull squawked overhead. The water sparkled in the distance.
“Here I am.”
“I've been looking for you,” Eve scanned the harbor. “Nice place. Quiet.”
“Did you enjoy your nap?”
Aryana shrugged. “Didn't mean to fall asleep. I couldn't sleep last night. And yesterday was pretty long. Not to mention I was ill just the other day. I guess it's all catching up to me, now.”
“Hm,” Eve stifled a yawn. “I was awake all night, too.”
They sat there in silence for several moments. The seagull squawked loudly and then moved farther out over the harbor to join its friends.
“I had a weird dream,” Aryana said quietly. “Your mom was in it.” A soft grunt. “She's…Do I really look like her?”
Eve studied Aryana's features for a time. “Yes, you do. Except for your eyes. Like I said, they're a lot like your father's.”
“What was he like?”
A shrug of a scarf-draped shoulder. “Ambitious. Brave. Handsome. Ruthless. Augustus assigned him to my personal guard as my protector. I was very young—just a girl, really. He was experienced and used his charm on me. I thought I loved him.” A frown marred her features. “My innocent naiveté was something he cherished and then used against me. He paid dearly for his mistake.”
“You killed him.”
“Livia killed him,” Eve corrected. “That all happened a very long time ago. I'm not that person anymore.”
“That is just so weird,” Aryana looked out over the water. “I don't think I'll ever get used to any of this.” She shook her head in confusion. “How in the world did I end up right in the middle of my own personal bardic tale? I just wanted to find the Warrior Princess and convince her to help me save Arendahl. Now I'm the daughter of Livia, Bitch of Rome, who is also Eve, Messenger of Eli. And I'm also the granddaughter of Xena?” She blew out an exasperated breath. “Gods! This is totally nuts.”
Eve chuckled mirthlessly. “Welcome to the family, Aryana.”
“Thanks,” there was no amusement in the tone. “And what about Gabrielle? Is she your father?”
Eve snickered. “No, she's not.”
“Then who is?”
“Gabrielle explained it the best she could,” Eve said. “Callisto was granted the opportunity to be reborn. I guess you could say I'm a product of emmaculate conception.”
“Reincarnation,” Eve said. “Callisto is a part of me.” She raised her hands in a shrug. “Livia was the embodiment of Callisto's spirit reincarnated.”
Aryana frowned. “Wasn't Livia a ruthless…”
“Exactly,” Eve nodded. “She was ruthless, driven and enjoyed killing just a little too much.” She frowned. “Gabrielle is better at telling it than I am. I'm glad she's trying to tell stories again.”
“Yeah, she doesn't talk much, otherwise,” Aryana said. “Xena…” She frowned again. “That was weird, too.”
“In my dream,” Aryana shook her head, “Xena seemed to think Gabrielle would explain everything to me. I'm pretty sure your mom was a little freaked out because I told her Gabrielle doesn't talk much. And she fights like a warrior.”
“That's because Gabrielle is a bard.”
Aryana's eyes widened in surprise. “What?”
“Yeah,” Eve nodded. “She's actually a pretty big deal in these parts. Has a whole section of scrolls stored in the Royal Academy, right here in Athens. I've read most of her scrolls. She's really good. The best, actually.”
“Wait,” Aryana was having a hard time making this particular piece fit, “you're saying Gabrielle is a storyteller? Like one of the travelling bards who used to visit the palace in Arendahl?”
“Yes,” Eve nodded. “Most of the stories about Xena came from Gabrielle's own lips and experiences. She created them and told them while they travelled together. And she wrote them down and sent them to the Academy for safekeeping.”
“But she never mentions herself in any of them,” Aryana was still trying to wrap her head around this latest revelation. “What's up with that?”
Eve took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I really don't know, Aryana. Gabrielle is…” She shook her head. “I could never fully understand why she was so comfortable living in Mother's shadow. She just was. They had an incredible bond that defied all logic.”
“She said they were lovers.”
Eve nodded. “Deeply in love. Inseparable, even in death.”
“Except they weren't.” Aryana frowned. “Not in the end. She told me about Japa. One of the few moments she actually opened up to me.”
Eve thought hard about that. “Yes, I know. Gabrielle said Mother was resigned to her fate. She chose to stay dead in order to save all those people. But…”
“You don't buy it, either, do you?” Aryana shot her a raised-browed look. “I certainly don't. Not after hearing all of these amazing stories about Xena defying gods, saving people and traveling to the ends of the earth and back.”
Eve shrugged. “Guilt can be a powerful motivator. I know I almost succumbed to it when Eli showed me all the horrible things I'd done in my past as Livia. It nearly killed me.”
“Why didn't it?”
“Forgiveness,” Eve said softly. “I needed to forgive myself before I could move on. I did.”
“And Xena couldn't?” Aryana was skeptical. “I don't buy it. And why did Gabrielle just give up on her like that? Doesn't sound like either of them were as committed to the other as everyone keeps insisting.”
Eve frowned. “No, I suppose it doesn't, now that you mention it.” She got up and dusted herself off. “I need to get back. There's a revival in a few candlemarks, if you'd like to come. I'll be leading a discussion on the coming of the Savior.”
“The Savior?” Aryana got to her feet, too.
“Come on, Aryana,” Eve turned and started walking away. “Or don't. It's up to you.”
Aryana stood there indecisively for several moments. She wasn't a big fan of religion of any kind. And all the recent talk about gods and Eli didn't help. She believed in making her own choices and forging her own way in the world. She didn't rely on some mystical power—imagined or otherwise—to guide her through the tough choices. And she certainly wasn't one to wait for some mysterious savior to swoop down from the heavens and rescue her immortal soul from eternal damnation.
Checking the sword at her hip, Aryana turned to look out over the vast sea stretched out beyond. A few puffy white clouds hung in the clear-blue sky. She smiled to herself when it occurred to her that Xena's eyes were the same color as the sky above. Or maybe she had only imagined they were that color in her dream.
Aryana shook her head as she turn to follow Eve back toward the meeting tent on the other side of the hill.
She awoke with a painful throbbing in her head that made her believe death was preferable to her present agony. Raising her head from the table where she had passed out the night before, she glanced around. The place was deserted. The smell of stale ale and unwashed bodies still lingered. Her nose scrunched involuntarily.
“Aha! She lives!”
Bloodshot green eyes narrowed as she grabbed her head in both hands. “Ugh! Lower your voice, you idiot.”
Virgil plopped down next to Gabrielle and crossed his arms on the table. “Good morning, sunshine.” He grinned. “How was the nap?”
“How long was I out?” She stretched her aching muscles and winced. She was nauseous after drinking too much ale. “How did I get back here?”
He chuckled. “I found you in that tavern across from the smith's place. You were...” He feigned a cough into his hand. “Dancing on a table.”
Gabrielle groaned and let her head drop onto her arms. “Kill me now.”
“Brought you back and you had another tankard,” Virgil added. “You insisted, actually.”
She peeked up at him through one bloodshot eye. “Insisted?”
He glanced down at her hip. “That chakram is pretty deadly,” he lifted a hand wrapped in a bandage. “Thanks for the fresh war wound, by the way. Makes me look tough.” His grin widened.
She groaned again and her head dropped back down. “Just kill me. Seriously.”
He poured water into a pitcher and set it in front of her. “Drink. It will help with the hangover.”
She lifted her head enough to peek at the cup and shook her head. “No, thank you.” Her head dropped back down again.
He moved the cup closer. “I insist, Gabrielle. You need to put something in your stomach besides ale. Water will help.”
“No,” came the mumbled response. “Leave me alone.”
He ruffled her hair. “Come on, Gabby.” Her head snapped up and she glared daggers at him. He held his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. Don't kill me. I was just teasing.”
A young boy bounded down the stairs and headed right for them. He wore simple peasant garb and had an unruly shock of blond hair on his head. His youthful features looked vaguely familiar.
They both watched the boy approach the table. Virgil smiled proudly, while Gabrielle's eyes widened. The boy wrapped his arms around Virgil's neck and hugged him. Then the boy grinned at Gabrielle.
“Hi,” Gabrielle looked at Virgil in confusion. “Who's this?”
Virgil wrapped an arm around the boy's waist. “This is my son, Gabriel.” Her eyes widened even more, and Virgil grinned from ear-to-ear. “Gabriel, meet Gabrielle.”
The boy smiled a sheepish, boyish smile. “Nice to meet you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle held out a hand and he shook it. “My pleasure, Gabriel.” She then looked pointedly at Virgil. “You have a son?”
“You've been away a long time,” he shrugged as he picked Gabriel up and set him on his lap. “My wife, Amelia, passed away a year after Gabriel was born.” He tickled the boy, who giggled. “He's been staying with my sister and her family during the festival.” He then sobered as he addressed Gabriel, “What are you doing here, Gabe? I thought I told you not to come into the city all by yourself. It's too dangerous.”
“You did,” Gabriel hugged him again. “Auntie needed supplies, so she sent Uncle into town. I said I wanted to come and see you. So, here I am!”
“Yes, here you are,” Virgil shot a glance toward Gabrielle and saw the smile she was trying to hide. “He's a looker, isn't he?”
“Just like his father,” Gabrielle snorted.
“There you are!” A gruff, stout man in plain peasant garb entered the inn and trudged over to them. “I've been looking all over for you, ya little scamp.” The hint of a smile touched his stubbled features. “Virgil.” He nodded brusquely.
“Hello, Amaleus,” Virgil stood up, clasped arms and then pulled the man in for a quick hug. “Good to see you, brother.” He then turned to Gabrielle. “I'd like you to meet a very special guest of mine. This is Gabrielle, the famous Bard of Potidaea.”
The man's gray eyes widened as he reached an arm out to her. He glanced at Virgil and then studied Gabrielle. “The famous Bard of Potidaea? As in, the woman who traveled with Xena, the famous Warrior Princess?”
Gabrielle stood up and took his arm in a firm grip. “I see Virgil's been telling tall tales about me, again.”
Amaleus chuckled. “Virgil is forever entertaining us with tales about his encounters with you and your companion.” He glanced around the room. “Speaking of…”
“Dead,” Gabrielle sat back down.
“Oh,” he shifted uncomfortably. “I'm sorry to hear it. Sorry for your loss.”
“Can I stay here with you, Papa?” Gabriel broke the uncomfortable silence that stretched between them. “Please? I won't get in the way. I promise. Please? Please?”
“Come here, Gabe,” Amaleus easily picked the boy up and held him. “You know the festival is still in full swing. Your father doesn't have time to be chasing after you, young man. Besides, your cousins are expecting you to play with them when we get home. You don't want to disappoint them, do you?”
“No, sir,” Gabriel's lip jutted out in a pout as he shook his blond head. “But I want to stay with Papa.”
Virgil got up and took the boy into his arms. He hugged him tight and then set him on his feet. He then crouched down to the boy's level. “I have some business to take care of, so you're just going to have to stay with your aunt and uncle for a while longer. Promise me you won't give them any trouble. Okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Gabriel nodded. “I promise.”
Virgil touched a finger to his nose. “Good boy.” He then hugged Gabriel again and released him. “Now, get on with you. Your Uncle Amaleus needs to get going before things get too crazy around here.” He straightened and addressed Amaleus. “I'm going on a voyage. Please let my sister know. All the sibs will need to pitch in and help out around here. Keep an eye on things while I'm gone.”
“You're leaving?” Gabriel looked up with sad eyes. “Where are you going, Papa? I want to come with you. Please?”
Virgil knelt down again. “No, you can't come with us, Gabe. It's too dangerous.”
“Nope,” Virgil cut off the protest before it got out of hand. “I need you to help your aunts and uncle keep an eye on the inn while I'm gone. Okay? Can I count on you to do that for me?”
The boy thought about that for a moment. “Okay. Fine.”
“Good,” Virgil noted the sullen pout. “And no pouting. I want to come back and hear all about how well you behaved while I was gone. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy nodded, but refused to lift his head to look at Virgil.
“The Messenger going with ya?” Amaleus asked as he grasped Gabriel's hand in his.
“Yes,” Virgil then looked at Gabrielle. “We're all going north to a place called Arendahl. I don't know how long I'll be gone.”
“No worries,” Amaleus squeezed the smaller hand in his. “Gabriel will be just fine. Won't you, ya little scamp?”
Gabriel shrugged. “I guess so.” He then gave Virgil a pleading look. “But I really wanna go with you, Papa. I'll be good. I promise.”
Virgil ruffled his hair. “I know, son. But, like I said, it's too dangerous.”
“Then why are you going?” Gabriel asked.
Virgil sighed. “Because Eve asked me to.”
“Yep,” Virgil nodded.
“So, are you gonna finally make her my new mama?”
The question caught Virgil completely by surprise. Amaleus just laughed. Gabrielle hid a snicker of her own behind a hand.
“Um, no, son,” Virgil blushed to his roots. “Eve is just a really good friend of mine.”
“What about her?” Gabriel looked right at Gabrielle. “She's really pretty, Papa.”
More laughter from Amaleus and another blush from Virgil.
“Uh, no,” Virgil glanced over his shoulder at Gabrielle and noted the small twinkle in her eyes. He knew instantly she was going to tease him about it later. “Gabrielle and I are just really good friends, too.”
“I knew your grandpa,” Gabrielle added with a wink. “Joxer the Mighty.”
The boy scampered over to her. “You knew my grandpa? Wow! That's really awesome! Papa says he was a great warrior. Is that true?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Yes, he certainly was. And he was one of my dearest friends.”
The boy frowned. “But you're too young to know Grandpa. He died before I was borned. You and Papa look the same age.”
Gabrielle cocked her head as she studied him. “I know,” she touched his nose. “But trust me. Your grandpa was a lot like your papa. Both of them are very brave men.”
“Are you going with them, too?” Gabriel asked.
“Yes,” she nodded. “But don't worry about your papa. I'll take really good care of him and send him right back here to you, once we take care of business. Okay?”
Gabriel looked skeptical. “Okay. I guess.” He then saw the weapons she carried. “Are you a warrior, too? Are you and Papa going to protect the Messenger?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Gabrielle glanced up to find Virgil mouthing a thank you to her. “And I promise to watch your papa's back.”
Gabriel looked a little more reassured. “Okay.”
“And you're going to make sure things run smoothly here while I'm gone. Right?” Virgil ruffled Gabriel's hair one last time.
“Yessir,” the boy nodded more firmly.
Virgil ushered Gabriel back over to Amaleus. The two then walked toward the entrance, but Gabriel broke away at the last minute and returned to give his father one final hug. Then he raced back to his uncle and they left the inn.
Virgil sat back down next to Gabrielle with a heavy sigh.
“I can't believe you have a son. And he's so adorable.” Gabrielle was first to break the silence.
Virgil smiled sadly. “Yes. And I'm gonna miss him like crazy.”
She shook her head in bewilderment. “Why didn't you tell me?”
He shrugged. “I guess it just never came up. He's all I have left. After Amelia passed, I put everything I had into raising him and keeping the inn running. When Mom passed, too, I almost lost everything. Started drinking pretty heavily. It's a good thing my sister and her husband came to the rescue. Gabriel is used to staying out at their place. They live about a league away from the city. It's quiet and peaceful out there in the country. There's not a lot of trouble for him to get into. Not like there is here in the city.”
“You named him after me?” Gabrielle looked sheepish.
He nodded with a gentle smile. “I never quite got over you, Gabrielle.” He chuckled. “Like father like son, I guess.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, please. Not you, too.”
His expression sobered. “Why not? You're beautiful. Smart. Sexy.” He reached out and brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. “No wonder Xena was so deeply in love with you. You have a timeless beauty that defies nature, Gabrielle. It isn't just your looks. It's deep down in your very soul.”
She blushed to her roots, sat up straighter and then slouched with her cheek against an upraised fist. “Oh, boy.”
He chuckled again. “Sorry. Got a little too intense, there, for a second.” He went to the bar and tapped a keg, then brought a pitcher and two tankards back to the table. After pouring the pale liquid into each tankard, he slid one over to Gabrielle. “Here. Take the edge off that hangover.”
“Thanks,” she ducked her head and then looked up at him with a crooked smile. “I mean it. It's been a really long time since anyone's complimented me like that. Way too long.” She grinned. “Ugh. I can't believe I drank that much last night.” She slowly sipped from the tankard and smiled. “Cider? You remembered.”
“Yep.” He studied her for a moment. “Something bothering you, Gabrielle? Besides the hangover, I mean.” He chuckled. “Hopefully the cider will help with that.”
She looked at him blearily. “That's right. You don't know.”
“Know?” He sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “What's there to know?”
She smiled tiredly. “Aryana is Eve's daughter.”
He nearly choked on own his cider. “What?”
She chuckled. “Happened when she was Livia. She had a fling with a member of her personal guard.”
“Huh,” he took a long drink of his cider. “That's a surprising twist I didn't see coming.”
She chuckled again. “You and me both.”
“So, that makes her Xena's…”
“Granddaughter, yes. We're all just one, big, happy, dysfunctional family.”
“Yeah,” she downed the rest of the cider and poured herself another. “I can't help seeing the resemblance. It's pretty much freaking me out right now.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Now that you mention it. I didn't notice it when she showed up here, but she does look a lot like Xena. How did I miss that?”
“The same way I did, apparently,” Gabrielle scowled into her drink. “I guess I just didn't want to acknowledge the resemblance. Until Eve blurted it out to me. I nearly passed out right there on the spot.”
He studied her closely. “Is that why you went on a bender last night?”
She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against them. “Maybe.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “You still miss her.”
Gabrielle raised her tankard to her lips. “Every damned day, Virgil,” she drank the rest and set the tankard on the table. “Every damned day.”
He pulled her into a hug. At first she resisted, but then she welcomed the familiarity of the embrace. He was nothing like his father, all fumbling awkward idiot. Virgil was strong, yet gentle. His tender embrace was enough to bring comfort and solace to her wounded heart. And, for once, she let him.
“That's it, Michael!” Xena rounded on the archangel with an angry snarl. “I'm done. Either send me into the fight or let me go to Gabrielle. I'm tired of playing games around here. This is ridiculous.”
He stood there with his muscular arms crossed over his chest and glared at her. “You have no idea what's at stake, Xena. This isn't just some skirmish between warring mortal factions. This particular war will decide the fate of millions—maybe even billions. This is a turning point in human history—in the history of the entire universe.”
“I don't care!” She shouted and then she calmed down as best she could. She turned her back on him and stared off into the swirling gray mist that surrounded them. “I don't care about any of this, Michael. My heart just isn't in it. You said you would send me back. Just do it, already.”
He stood his ground. “You gave your word, Xena.”
She turned enough that she could see him over her armored shoulder. “What do you really want from me? I've been fighting this damned battle for a while now. Those demons just keep coming. There's no end in sight. At least down there I can make a difference again. Just let me go. Let me be with my family again. I know you have the ability to send me back. Don't tell me you don't. You sent Gabrielle and I back the last time.”
He sighed heavily and glanced up. “No, I didn't. And, besides, your bodies were still there when you went back. You don't have a body anymore, Xena. There's no going back. The most you can do is visit your loved ones as a ghost—an ethereal spirit. And once you're down there, you can't come back to us. Is that what you really want? Your only other option is to finish what you started here and then move on. He has given you a free pass to be reborn.”
“Except that I won't remember any of them,” Xena leaned heavily against the basin. “You told me that yourself. I won't know who they are or remember anything from my life. I'll just start all over. No memory of Gabrielle or Eve. Nothing.”
“That's right,” he nodded. “And no guarantee that you and Gabrielle will even cross paths again.”
She shook her head and then looked at him through fresh tears. “I can't do that to her.”
“Because,” she looked away. “She thinks I abandoned her. If I move on to my next life, then where does that leave Gabrielle?”
“She will finish the life she's living now and then move on, just like you,” he shrugged. “It's the way of things, Xena. There are no guarantees in the mortal realm. And if she happens to find a measure of faith in this life, then she'll move on to Paradise, instead. She'll be free from any future mortal existence. But, first, she has to stop putting all her faith in the love the two of you shared. She has to choose. And in order to do that, you have to let go. It's what I've been trying to tell you all along.”
“Our destinies are intertwined, Michael. You know I can't just let her go.”
“Why?” He studied her closely. “Aren't you being selfish, Xena? She has an opportunity to move on to Paradise. No more pain. No more darkness. Just light. Love. An eternity without suffering. Don't you want what's best for her?”
“Don't you?” She shot back with a hiss. “I love her, Michael. I love her with all my being—with all that I am. Why can't you understand and accept that? She is the other half of my soul. Without her…” She looked away. “I believe in our love.”
“Then why did you leave her?”
Anger flashed in her eyes. “Because, I…” The anger died instantly and confusion replaced it. “Because…”
“You gave up,” Michael said matter-of-factly. “Isn't that right?”
“Yes, you did,” he insisted. “You chose to let go of the love the two of you shared and believe in a lie because you were tired. Tired of the darkness within yourself. Tired of living with the guilt. Tired of carrying the weight of the world and all your past deeds on your shoulders. So, you gave up. You turned your back on your love for Gabrielle. You made a choice to die and stay dead.”
“I…” She shook her head. “That's not…”
“Isn't it?” He added. “Did you truly believe in that lie, Xena? Did you really think you had to stay dead in order to free others? Do you really hold yourself in such high esteeme? Or was it just a convenient excuse to allow you to escape from all of your pain and guilt? Leave all of the darkness behind and move on. After all, Gabrielle was strong enough to pick up the pieces and move on with her life. Wasn't she? Isn't that what you were hoping? That, without you, she would go on living as if the two of you had never met? Isn't that right?”
She stared at him in stunned silence as the words hit her like so many physical blows. Was that really it? Did she just give up? Was she tired of the guilt that seemed to follow both of them around wherever they went? Did she just want to stop trying to redeem herself for all the sins she had committed in those early years? And what about Gabrielle? Did she deserve to be left behind to live life without her?
“I love her,” she said simply.
“Do you love her enough to let her go?”
She met his gaze. “No. Yes,” she answered quickly and then paused to consider. “I don't know. All I know is I'm nothing without her.”
“Nothing? Really?” He looked skeptical. “You're a great warrior, Xena. You conquered entire lands, leveled whole villages, devasted kingdoms and killed thousands. You turned it all around and worked tirelessly for the greater good. That has to count for something.”
“It meant nothing,” she admitted. “None of it mattered until Gabrielle.”
“And yet you squandered your time together by following some imagined quest for redemption.”
“I…” She turned her back to him. “We were good together. I taught her things and she taught me how to love unconditionally.”
“You turned her into a warrior, like you,” he added. “And just when the two of you were actually on even footing, you chose to leave her.”
“I…” She choked back a sob. “I didn't want to leave her. I had no choice…”
“You had a choice,” Michael insisted. “You chose to believe in a lie rather than put your faith, your trust, in your love for Gabrielle.”
Xena leaned over the basin and let the tears fall into the swirling gray liquid. “By the gods, what have I done?”
He moved up behind her and clasped her upper arms to steady her. “Believe in love, Xena. He knows how much pain you're in. He knows everything. He even knows how much you still love Gabrielle. He knows your love because He is love. All you have to do is believe.”
She swiped the tears away. “So?”
“He's willing to compromise,” Michael turned her to face him. “But only on one condition.”
“Wait, what? I thought you said…”
He held up a staying hand, “I know what I said. Listen to what I have to say now before you pass judgement.” He watched her for a moment to be sure she was truly listening. “Are you willing to…”
There was a loud rumble and the ground beneath their feet shook violently. Michael looked around as the gray mist parted. Dozens of winged, hideous creatures suddenly stepped into view. Their grotesque visages revealed pointed teeth and beady eyes. They hissed and gnashed their teeth as they drew closer.
“Go! Run!” Michael yanked his sword from the sheath at his hip and swung it in a wide circle.
“We're surrounded, Michael!” Xena yanked her own sword from the scabbard at her back. “There's too many of them!”
“They shouldn't be here!” He hacked at several demons that came within reach of his sword. “Something's happened! Something isn't right!”
Xena threw herself wholeheartedly into the fight. Every time a demon came within rang, she took it down. Her sword moved like lightning as she swung this way and that. She didn't stop to catch her breath. To do so would give the hoarde a decisive edge and they would pounce all at once. She hacked her way through a dozen of them. Swinging left and right without pause. Lopping off wings, arms and heads that came too close.
One demon slammed into her from behind and nearly took her to the ground. She whirled around and took its head off. Green viscous slime sprayed everywhere as the headless body toppled to the ground. Xena didn't even give the beast a second glance. She merely continued slashing and hacking her way through the writhing hoarde. They were everywhere. Their hideous cries filled the air.
A trumpet blast heralded the arrival of reinforcements. Archangels dropped from above and quickly joined the fight. They drove the hoarde back into the gray mist with their superior numbers and quickly disappeared.
Michael and Xena were suddenly the only ones left.
“Where…did…they…” Xena glanced around to make sure there were no more of the demons in sight. She had her hands on her knees and her sword still in one hand as she caught her breath. “They're multiplying.”
“I'm being summoned,” Michael glanced up. A ray of sunlight peeked through the mist illuminated the bowl of silvery liquid. “The battle is escalating. Those were minions of the Dark One himself. He's obviously raising the stakes to the next level.”
“But what about…”
He rolled his eyes and resheathed his sword. “You'll have your chance, Xena. Patience.” He turned and strode away.
“And the condition?” She called to him. “Exactly what is the condition?”
He stopped just as his wings unfolded. He then turned around to look at her. “I think you already know the answer to that.”
He then spread his wings fully and ascended toward the heavens. The mist parted and a golden ray of sunlight spilled down over everything, wiping away the gray mist and revealing a beautiful garden full of flowers and greenery.
Xena watched him fly away until he was gone. She resheathed her own sword and stood there with her hands on her hips. She stared up at the blue sky above. “No, Michael, I don't know the answer. You never told me,” she muttered the words as she turned a circle and threw her hands up in frustration.
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