For disclaimers and stuff, see Part 1
“Up!” Virgil held his hands clasped together in front of him. He glanced up at the nearest overhang and then shot her a pointed look. “Come on, Gabrielle. Go first and then pull me up.”
“Seriously?” She stood with her hands on her hips. “I'm no spring chicken, Virgil.”
“No time to argue, Gabrielle,” he motioned with his clasped hands. “Come on! Up!”
Their pursuers were nearly upon them. Shouts rang out at the end of the alley. It was only a matter of seconds before someone spotted them. The alley was littered with broken crates and other debris. There was even a pile of pungent garbage in the corner. Chances were they could hide behind something and avoid detection. But Gabrielle knew better.
She grabbed Virgil's shoulders and put her foot into his hands. “This is never going to…”
“On three,” he cut her off. “One. Two…”
He lifted. Gabrielle awkwardly pushed upward. All she could think of was Virgil wasn't Xena. It wouldn't work. And that was all it took.
Gabrielle reached for the overhang and missed completely. Virgil grunted as he tried unsuccessfully to lift her into the air. She fell against him. He suddenly had a faceful of Gabrielle's stomach and they both hit the ground in a heap. Gabrielle's face was inches from a rotten something-or-other that smelled worse than pig poop. She winced and tried not to breathe through her nose.
“You didn't try hard enough,” Virgil muttered as he rolled over and reached a hand out to her. “What?” He stood up and glared down at her as she glared up at him. “Those guys are coming, Gabrielle. We need to get out of here before they figure out where we are.”
She glanced back up the alley as he helped her to her feet. She then looked up at the overhang with a frown. It was higher than she'd originally calculated. “I don't think…”
“Maybe you just need a running start. Try again.”
She rolled her eyes in exasperation and strode away several paces, then turned around and studied the overhang. “I really hope you're laughing it up over this, Xena,” she muttered. “Because you know, good and well, that I was never very good at anything remotely acrobatic. The only reason I was ever able to do stunts like this was because you were there to make sure I didn't fall flat on my face.”
“What did you say?” Virgil was hunched with his hands clasped in front of him again.
In a much louder voice, “Nothing!” Gabrielle adjusted the satchel strap across her chest and checked the katana one last time. “Let's do this.”
“Better make it count this time!” He called. “They're just around the bend.”
There was no more time to think. It was all or nothing. Now or never.
She ran toward him and blocked out everything around except those hands of his. When she was just about to collide with him, she drove her foot into his hands and felt herself jettisoned skyward. The overhang was right there within reach. And then she went higher than expected and landed hard on the wooden shingles of the roof with a grunt.
But there was no time to celebrate her accomplishment. The sounds of soldiers rounding the corner of the alley below spurred her into motion. She quickly moved to the edge of the roof and thrust a hand down toward Virgil.
“Come on, Virgil! Up!”
He reached up, jumped, grabbed her hand and pulled himself up onto the rooftop next to her, just in time.
“Over there,” Virgil grabbed Gabrielle's arm, rolled to his feet and started across the roof with her in tow. “I think the roof of that building is close enough to the wall that we can jump across and shimmy down the other side.”
Gabrielle's mind was reeling, as they raced across the roof and jumped to the next. She didn't allow herself time to think about what she was doing. The sun was dipping toward the west and smoke still billowed up into the clear sky in front of and behind them. The smoke was actually a plus. She and Virgil headed straight into a dense cloud of it and disappeared from view. She could still hear soldiers running around on the ground below. There were also shouts on the rooftops behind her. She knew they were quickly were running out of time. But with the smoke screen, at least they wouldn't be easily spotted.
Gabrielle tried not to inhale too deeply. It wasn't easy. She was out of breath as they raced from one rooftop to the next. Her lungs were burning by the time they reached the building that Virgil had indicated.
“Stuff's pretty thick up here,” Virgil coughed. “My eyes are watering so much that it's hard to see.”
“Mine, too,” she coughed and rubbed her eyes. “Are you sure this is the right building?”
He moved to the far edge and stopped. “Well, it sure looked a lot closer from the ground.”
Gabrielle joined him and they both stared at the wide gap between the edge of the roof they were on and the wall beyond. Gabrielle's stomach lurched and then plummeted. The gap was too wide for her to make it all the way to the wall.
“This would be a piece of cake for…” Gabrielle the words hanging.
Virgil frowned. “We're not Xena.”
“No, we're not,” Gabrielle started back toward the far edge of the roof. She waited for Virgil to join her.
They both froze and turned to find soldiers scurrying up onto the rooftop behind them.
“Okay, it's now or never!” Gabrielle bolted.
Gabrielle just ran as fast as her legs could carry her. She didn't bother to check to see if Virgil was with her. She didn't hesitate when a soldier reached out to grab her foot and just missed. She kept going. Eyes on the wall in front of her, she reached the edge of the roof and literally took a leap of faith.
And as she sailed through the air toward the wall on the other side of the gap, she glanced down and saw armed soldiers watching her from the ground below. Dozens of helmeted heads with eyes staring wide in awe followed her progress through the air.
The impact with the unforgiving wall jarred every bone in Gabrielle's body. She slammed into the stone barrier so hard that she nearly lost her grip on it. But she somehow managed to pull herself up and on top of the wall.
Then she stopped. The view from up there was picturesque. She could see all the way to the homes of all the wealthier citizens high up on the hill in the distance. Those homes were surrounded by high walls, much like the one she was perched on. She shook her head and then dropped to the ground on the other side. Virgil dropped down next to her and smiled that charming smile of his.
“See? No problem,” he brushed himself off and looked around. Then he glanced up with a frown. “Huh. Higher than it looked from up there, that's for sure.”
Gabrielle groaned. “I'm definitely going to feel this, later.” She checked to make sure the chakram was still hooked to her belt, made sure the hilt of her katana was still within easy reach and then resettled the satchel across her chest. “We need horses, Virgil. We can't remain in the city any longer. Word will spread and the Romans won't stop until they have us clapped in irons.” She noticed thick, black smoke billowing up on the other side of the wall.
“This way,” Virgil grabbed her arm and started weaving his way through the crowded streets. “Might as well grab the ones you and Aryana rode in on.”
“Might as well,” Gabrielle followed him as he quickly made his way through the crowded streets toward his family's inn.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw several Roman soldiers standing atop the wall, searching the crowd. They soon gave up the chase and returned their attention to the fires within the garrison. Gabrielle didn't dare breathe a sigh of relief. She knew better. Returning her attention to the crowded street ahead, she hoped she and Virgil could get to the horses and leave the city behind without further incident. She wasn't holding her breath, though. But there was no time to worry, she realized. Not if they wanted to catch up to Eve and Aryana anytime soon.
Twitchy. That's how she felt—if “felt” was actually the right word. Twitchy and restless. She was ready to crawl out of her proverbial skin. But she was dead, so skin wasn't really the operative word anymore. That she knew. Her body was long gone. Burned to ash by her soulmate all those years ago. She still missed it. The feel of leather hugging every curve. The brass breastplate. Her boots. Her sword and chakram in her hand. The reassurance of cold metal against her skin.
Staring into the silvery depths of the basin in front of her, Xena frowned.
She had no idea how she was able to “see” her soulmate in the mortal realm. She just could. Maybe it was Michael's sick and twisted way of keeping her tethered to this particular afterlife existence. Or maybe there was another explanation. She really didn't care.
Watching Gabrielle fleeing from the Roman garrison in Athens was certainly enough to make her twitchy. But then the unthinkable happened. Gabrielle and Virgil stood at the edge of a rooftop for a moment. Xena remembered how much Gabrielle hated heights. Her soulmate hated heights with a passion, almost as much as she hated the stench of raw squid. But Gabrielle was there. Standing at the edge of a rooftop. Xena knew exactly what the two of them were contemplating. However, from her vantage point high up in the heavens—or wherever she was—Xena could easily see that the gap was far too wide for a simple leap.
And then Gabrielle ran back to the other end of the rooftop, where an entire squad of Romans was quickly scrambling up onto the rooftop. Gabrielle didn't seem to be paying attention to the Romans. Her eyes were on the gap. Sweat beaded her brow. Xena could see the droplets standing out prominently on her soulmate's forehead. Virgil was there, too. But Xena only had eyes for Gabrielle.
When Gabrielle started running toward the gap, Xena held her breath. As Gabrielle's foot hit the edge of the rooftop and she sailed through the air, Xena instinctively shut her eyes and then dared to venture a peek. As Gabrielle collided with the unforgiving wall on the other side, Xena let out of the breath she's been holding. Well, not really. She wasn't really breathing anymore. No body. No lungs. But her soul seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, especially when Gabrielle pulled herself up onto the wall and then dropped down the other side.
That's when the silvery liquid in the basin swirled and clouded. Gabrielle disappeared from view. Xena heard a noise and looked up. Michael was standing across the room with his hands on his hips and a look of disappointment on his rugged features.
“It's over, Xena,” he said with finality. “Join us, now. This is pointless. You are no longer part of the mortal realm. It is time for you to move on. You can't stay here any longer.”
“Send me back, then,” she glared in challenge. “Give me a chance to be with Gabrielle again. I'll…” She looked away from him and her expression turned thoughtful. “I'll make it worth your while.”
His eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms over his chest. “How, exactly?”
“By…” she frowned. “I have no idea. But there has to be something I can do down there to further your plans. What about this Savior of yours?”
“What about him?”
“Maybe I can protect him while he does his…um, his work?” She said with less confidence than she felt. She knew she was grasping at straws, but she didn't care.
“The Savior's work does not require a warrior's protection,” Michael countered. “Besides, Gabrielle isn't headed anywhere near the Savior's lands. She's headed north.” He eyed her. “But you already know that.”
Xena sighed as she leaned agains the basin with her head bowed. “Send me back, Michael. I need to be with her.” Her last words came out as a pleading whisper. “I need her.” Defeated. Wounded.
With her head down, she didn't see the light in his eyes or the twitch of a smile on his lips. “So, you've finally admitted it.”
Her head came up and she glared at him. “Yes.”
“She no longer needs you, you know,” he said matter-of-factly. “Although she hasn't moved on, she has matured in the time that you've been gone. She isn't that idealistic youth who once followed you around like a lost puppy.”
She eyed him with suspicion. “You've been spying on her?”
He cocked his head as he smiled wryly. “Gabrielle is intriguing. I like to keep my eye on the intriguing ones. And, since you were no longer around…” He shrugged. “Let's face it, Xena, the two of you have been on my mind since our last encounter.”
Her gaze narrowed. “Send me back, Michael. I can keep you entertained for as long as Gabrielle and I live out our lives together. I promise.”
He snorted in derision. “No.”
“What do you want from me?”
He moved to the other side of the basin and leaned in close. “I want you to stop this pining for what cannot be and join the fight that truly matters. You gave me your word.”
She straightened and defiance flashed in her blue eyes. “And if I refuse?”
Anger flashed in his gray eyes as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Do not try my patience, Xena. This is your last warning.”
“I'm dead, Michael. I've been to hell. We both know how well that worked out.” Open challenge sparked in her ice-blue gaze. “Your threats don't work with me.”
“And Gabrielle?” He narrowed his gaze and watched for a reaction. He wasn't disappointed. “She will eventually die, Xena. And I have the power to influence where she spends her eternity.”
“You wouldn't dare,” she gritted out between clenched teeth.
“Wouldn't I?” He chuckled mirthlessly. “Go ahead. Try me.”
They stared at each other for a timeless moment, until Xena finally relented with a heavy sigh.
“Fine,” her shoulders slumped in resignation. “You win. I'll do whatever you want. Just leave Gabrielle alone.”
A triumphant smile split his features. “I knew you would see things my way.”
“We should get off at the next port and go find them,” Aryana was standing at the rail, looking toward the distant shore. “They could be in trouble.”
“Gabrielle can take care of herself,” Eve sat with her back to the rail. A light scarf was draped over her hair, but a few wisps of the auburn tresses were blowing in the stiff breeze. “Besides, we can't be sure they aren't already headed this way.”
Aryana's gaze was fixed on the distant shoreline. “But they might be in trouble.”
Eve chuckled. “Oh, that's definitely a distinct possibility, especially where Gabrielle is concerned.”
Aryana's gaze shot to Eve. “Why do you say that?”
Eve met her gaze. “Because Gabrielle tends to get herself into trouble wherever she goes. Haven't you figured that out, yet?”
Aryana returned her attention to the shoreline. “All the more reason to go back. We shouldn't have left her there all by herself.”
“She'll be fine, Aryana.”
“You don't know that,” Aryana couldn't keep the irritation out of her tone. “I traveled with her. Things happened. We almost died…”
“But you didn't,” Eve glanced up at her daughter. “Like I said, Gabrielle can take care of herself. She traveled for years with my mother, after all. Those two were always getting themselves into and out of difficult situations. You just need to have faith.”
Aryana winced. “Faith? Really?” She rolled her eyes. “Please.”
Eve cocked her head. “Really.” She then closed her eyes in meditation. “A little prayer couldn't hurt, either. You should try it. Or do some meditation.” She shrugged. “It's up to you. We won't reach the next port until tomorrow, so there's no use worrying over something you can't control.”
Aryana slapped her palm against the railing. “This is ridiculous! We should do something!”
“We're on a ship in the middle of the Aegean, Aryana,” Eve said calmly with her eyes still closed. “There isn't anything we can do until we reach dry land. And, even then, there's really nothing to do but continue on our journey.”
Aryana frowned. “Are you always this…practical?”
Eve flashed a smile. “Yes. As a matter of fact I am. Practical. Faithful. I'm the Messenger. It comes with the territory.”
Aryana rolled her eyes. “I can't believe you gave birth to me. I'm a person of action, not words. All this sitting around is completely useless.”
“Not useless. Prayer is never useless,” Eve said with her eyes still closed. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then opened her eyes. “And Livia was definitely a woman of action, not words.” She smiled faintly. “I've just learned to channel all my restlessness into something more…”
“Useless?” Aryana cut in with a wry smirk.
Eve sighed. “Spiritual. You really should really try it, Aryana. A little introspective meditation might actually do you some good. It couldn't hurt.”
The captain of the ship chose that moment to approach. He was a stout man with stubby legs and a full, dark beard. He wore a floppy hat with a black feather in it. He stopped next to the rail and cleared his throat.
“There's a storm brewin', Messenger. Best be headin' below, where ‘tis safe.”
Eve stood up and wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders. “Thank you, Captain. I'll let the others know.”
“Aye,” he nodded and strode purposely away.
“Great,” Aryana didn't bother to hide the scowl on her face. “Just what we need on this lousy trip. A storm.”
Eve placed a hand on Aryana's arm. “We'll be fine.”
“Wasn't saying we wouldn't be.” Aryana glanced around at the hopeful faces watching them, leaned closer to Eve and lowered her voice so only Eve could hear her. “I think…”
“The captain wants us all to go below, now,” Eve said loudly for all to hear. “There's a storm coming, so we'll all be safer out of harm's way. Let the crew move freely up here on deck without us underfoot.”
“Won't it be awfully crowded down there, Messenger?” One man stood up to address Eve. He glanced around and several others nodded and murmured their agreement. “Maybe we should just remain on deck and move out of the crew's way. I, for one, don't wish to be stuck down there, ‘specially if the ship should happen to sink.” There were more murmurs of agreement.
Eve reached out and took the hands of two children. “Come on, everyone. Let's go below and I'll share a story of hope with you.” She didn't wait for the rest to follow. She merely led the way belowdeck with the two children on either side of her. “You have nothing to fear as long as I'm with you.”
Aryana stood there watching the people follow Eve down into the hold like a bunch of sheep, she thought. She wasn't about to go down to the cramped hold and wait for Poseidon—or whoever was in charge of the seas these days—to determine her fate for her. She was determined to ride out the storm right there on deck, where she could face its fury head-on.
She turned her gaze toward the horizon and noted the dark-gray clouds swirling ominously in the distance. She could tell the clouds were headed right for them. A shiver of dread ran through her as she realized she was powerless to do anything.
“Aryana?” Eve poked her head up through the open hatch and beckoned to her. “Come down with us, won't you?”
Aryana considered her options for a moment. The sky was growing more ominous by the moment and the crew was busy making preparations for the impending storm. Men ran across the deck as the wind picked up and waves crashed against the railing. One wave, in particular, hit the side of the ship and sent an icy spray that drenched Aryana from head to toe. She decided she'd had enough and carefully made her way toward the open hatch without further ado.
“I can't believe we made it out of Athens without anything else happening,” Virgil turned in the saddle and looked anxiously behind them. “Do you think those guys will figure out where we are and come after us? The guards at the gate didn't seem all that concerned when we rode out of there at a full gallop.”
Gabrielle yanked the hood of her cloak off her head and shook out her hair. “They were too busy running toward the fire to pay much attention to a couple of riders headed out of the city, I'm afraid.”
A dark plume of smoke rose high in the sky over the city. The fire had spread faster than Gabrielle could have ever imagined. Several buildings and one entire section of the marketplace were now engulfed in flames. Black smoke billowed up into the sky behind them. Gabrielle couldn't help but feel guilty for what she'd done. She shook off the thought, though, and returned her attention to the road ahead. She could allow herself to feel guilty once they had put more distance between them and the city. She shifted into a more comfortable position in the saddle, as Star tossed his head and she patted his neck to calm him.
Both horses were more than a bit jumpy after their mad flight through the streets of Athens. Gabrielle was still a little uneasy herself. She didn't want to consider the consequences of her actions if Athens should burn completely to the ground. Then again, maybe the Romans would reconsider their presence there, if there was nothing for them to hang around for.
She tossed that thought away, too. Romans were conquerors. They didn't just up and leave because things got tough. No. They would stay and probably help rebuild in the name of whichever emperor was on the throne this time around.
“Well, that worked out better than I thought it would,” Virgil shrugged. “I thought that fire would be contained within the walls of the garrison.”
“Please, Virgil,” Gabrielle swallowed down a taste of bile on the back of her tongue. “Can we talk about something else?”
He looked at her. “Are you okay? You look a little green around the gills.”
“I'm fine,” she said. “Just not interested in rehashing that whole escape.”
“Okay,” he kicked his mount into a trot. “How about we put some more distance between us and the city?”
Gabrielle prodded Star into a canter. A stiff breeze blew her hair back away from her face as the horse beneath her ate up the leagues. They rode in companionable silence for over a candlemark. There was no need for words. Gabrielle managed to keep the distant shoreline to her right for as long as possible, but eventually the road they were on turned inland. They continued on through dense woods and passed the occasional crofter's hut. Gabrielle tried to steer clear of any structures that were occupied, just in case the Romans actually figured out which way they had gone and picked up their trail.
“Stop,” Virgil gasped as he slowed his lathered horse to a walk and then halted. “Gabrielle…” Sweat plastered his hair to his head and glistened off his chest. “Gabrielle!”
Slowing her own mount to a walk, Gabrielle looked back to find Virgil dismounting. “What?”
He grabbed his water skin and drank deeply, then offered some water in his hand to his lathered mount. “We need to take a break, Gabrielle.” He glanced around. “Find a stream. If we keep running the horses at full speed, they'll eventually collapse. And I will, too.”
She reluctantly steered her own lathered mount back to him and dismounted. “Fine. Any suggestions?” She patted Star's lathered neck and glanced around as Virgil continued to share some water from the skin with the horse. “I don't hear any running water around here.”
He led his mount into the woods. “This way. There's a brook not far from here.”
The farther they walked into the woods, the denser the growth became. They picked their way as best they could until they finally reached a tiny, trickling brook. The clear water ran over small rocks and disappeared into a thick tangle of thorny vines.
Gabrielle knelt by the water and filled her water skin as Star drank her fill. Virgil held firmly to his mount's reins, as the horse nibbled the tender grass at the water's edge.
“How far away from Athens do you think we are now?” Gabrielle asked, as she proceeded to wash some of the dirt, grime and sweat from her face and neck. The water was cold and sweet. She drank a few more handfuls before standing up and looking up at the sky peeking through the branches overhead. “The sun is going down. We should make camp soon.”
“We can still travel for another candlemark or so,” Virgil hooked his water skin to his saddle. “I thought you were concerned about Roman pursuit.”
“I am,” she peered through the thick growth toward the road beyond. She couldn't see the road, but knew it was there. Then her shoulders slumped noticeably and she rubbed the back of her neck. “I'm also a little tired and sore. That last leap to the wall did me in.”
Virgil's brow rose in surprise. He knew Gabrielle enough to realize how significant that admission was. She wasn't one to show weakness, any weakness. For her to openly admit that she was tired and sore was actually saying something.
“We could probably make camp right here,” he glanced around the limited space. “Not the ideal place for it, but we could make it work.”
“No,” she took Star's reins and trudged back toward the road. “We'll push on, for now. I don't want to run the risk of anyone stumbling upon us unawares.”
He shrugged and led his own horse back toward the road. “Suit yourself. I wouldn't mind being able to stretch out without having to be wary of the horses accidentally stepping on me in the middle of the night.”
Once they were back on the road, they both mounted and resumed their journey at a much more subdued pace. Gabrielle sighed loudly, which didn't go unnoticed by her companion.
“You okay, Gab?” He asked as he pulled up next to her. “You seem a little,” he shrugged. “I don't know. Out of it, maybe?”
“I'm fine, Virgil,” she gave him a wan smile. “Just been a long couple of days.”
“We've only been on the road for a few candlemarks.”
“No,” she shook her head. “This entire trip. Starting with Amphipolis.”
“Oh,” he nodded. “I suppose.”
She glanced at him. “Would you like to hear about our adventures? Aryana's and mine, I mean.”
He turned a brilliant smile on her. “Sure. I'd love to hear all about what the two of you did before you reached Athens.”
“Don't get too excited, Virgil,” she chuckled mirthlessly. “It wasn't like traveling with…” She stopped herself and swallowed down the last word. Xena. Her heart clenched at the thought, but she pushed those feelings down and locked them away, again. Instead, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back, reveling in the feel of the sun on her face. “Anyway, it all started at the hospice I built in Amphipolis.”
“You built a hospice?”
“Yeah,” she smiled wistfully. “A while ago. It's situated on the outskirts of the newer parts of town that have built up since the old section burned.”
“I remember hearing about that,” Virgil frowned. “My dad passed through there not long after. He wouldn't talk about it, though. Said it was just too painful to talk about.”
“Yeah, he knew. He had nightmares about it for a while after he came home. But he never said why. He just said it was too horrible for him.”
“Xena's mom died right before the town caught fire.”
He looked at her in surprise. “What?”
“Yeah,” she nodded sadly. “She was accused of witchcraft by the townsfolk and burned at the stake. That was after Mephistopheles opened a portal to the Underworld behind her inn. But that's a whole different tale than the one I was about to tell. Which one would you rather hear first?”
Virgil considered the question for a moment. “Go ahead and tell me about your adventures with Aryana. You can tell me about Mephistopheles and Amphipolis, later, once we make camp.”
“Fine,” she said and then launched into full bard mode as she related a detailed account of her travels from Amphipolis to Athens.
They made camp much later than either of them had expected. It took them far longer to find a suitable campsite far enough away from the road for their tastes. Gabrielle had spent the better part of the journey regaling Virgil with all the details of her misadventures with Aryana. The storytelling had actually done wonders to lift her spirits and dispel some of her fatigue. It did nothing to ease the ache in her bones, however.
After hobbling the horses, Gabrielle managed to snare several plump rabbits and forage for some greens and wild onions to make a decent stew. The aromatic concoction was bubbling nicely as Gabrielle and Virgil stretched out on their bedrolls.
“So,” Virgil looked up from the piece of bridle he was tinkering with. “You said, earlier, that you would tell me what happened to Xena's mom in Amphipolis.”
Gabrielle set the sai she had been sharpening aside and sat up to stir the stew. “I did say that, didn't I?”
“If you don't want to, I totally understand, Gabrielle…”
“No, it's fine,” she tasted the stew and then set the wooden spoon aside. “The stew needs to cook for a bit longer, anyway.” She took a deep breath and settled on her back on the bedroll, staring up at the stars overhead. “It happened a very long time ago. I'm not exactly sure when, though. We never did find out when Mephistopheles breached the world of the living. We did, however, learn that he purposely targeted Amphipolis. He wanted to get Xena's attention, which he did.” She smiled wanly. “Xena's mother, Cyrene, was living in Amphipolis at the time. She ran the only inn in town—had run it for many years. Cyrene wasn't one to back down from a fight. Like mother like daughter, I suppose.” She chuckled mirthlessly. “Anyway, from what little we could discover from those who survived the fire, Cyrene was basically caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mephistopheles was after Xena, but the townsfolk blamed Cyrene for all the crappy stuff that happened when a portal to the Underworld opened up behind her inn. They accused her of being a witch and burned her for it. No one really knows how the fire spread, nor why the inn was spared. Most of the survivors fled and didn't return to build the newer sections of town, until much later. That all happened long after Xena and I showed up, and Xena defeated Mephistopheles.”
“She killed him? Really?”
“Yeah, but it cost her—cost both of us.” She closed her eyes as those painful memories washed over her. “We didn't know it at the time, but that led to some pretty dark times for us. Xena nearly lost her soul to the darkness and we…” She breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly. “Defeating Mephistopheles introduced a new and much more devious ruler to the Underworld. His name is Lucifer, and he eventually took over, raised an army of demons the likes of which none of us could have ever imagined. Those fateful moments in Amphipolis changed everything and we had absolutely no idea how far-reaching the consequences would be.”
“Lucifer,” Virgil nodded his understanding. “After the Twilight of the Gods?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle sighed. “Eli and an archangel named Michael were involved. It didn't start or end there, but it was a catalyst for a lot of what happened afterwards. Xena killed Mephistopheles and unleashed darkness into the world of the living. Eve sensed the darkness spreading through all our hearts. Then the arrogant archangel, Lucifer, entered the picture. Xena knew he was the perfect receptacle for the power that she had gained from Mephestopheles. Once Xena had Lucifer hooked, it was only a matter of turning him completely over to the darkness. Michael was furious with us for what we did, but there was no help for it. The die was cast and events were already set in motion. Eli's Message was spreading like wildfire. Things moved rather quickly, after that.”
Virgil shook his head. “It's hard to believe that you guys were right in the thick of all of that.”
“It's just…” he shrugged as he stared into the fire. “You, Xena and Eve—even my father—you all experienced so much. You met and interacted with gods and archangels. Battled monsters and demons. I mean, you brought about the Twilight of the gods of Olympus, Gabrielle. You have to admit that's pretty incredible.”
“And I died or almost died too many times to count,” Gabrielle looked away. “Maybe dying would have been easier than this. I had no idea losing Xena would be so hard. Some days it's nearly impossible to get out of bed and face another day without her.”
“You really miss her that much?”
She smiled sadly. “You would think the pain would go away or subside, at least. It hasn't. I miss her more today than I did on the day she died.” She sighed heavily. “Those years that we were together were the best years of my life. Even the twenty-five years in Ares' ice cave. At least we were together. Not…” She finished with a shake of her head.
He gave her a knowing smile. “Yeah, that's how it was with...” He swallowed over a sudden lump in his throat. “I miss my wife, too.”
She swiped at a tear on her cheek and then checked the stew. “Ready to eat?”
She dished them each up a bowl of the aromatic stew and they ate their meal in silence, with only the sounds of the crackling fire and crickets around them. Millions of stars twinkled and winked down on them from the sky above. A slight breeze whispered through the trees surrounding them. It was peaceful.
The hold of the ship was eerily dark and smelled strongly of more than just seawater. Icy water seeped through the slats of the deck overhead and sloshed around the feet of everyone crammed below. Aryana was miserable. The smell was horrible—unwashed bodies, wet fur, pitch and rot. The ship pitched and rolled with each wave as the storm raged on around them with no apparent end in sight. She had managed to wedge herself between two large crates, but that wasn't helping much. She could feel bruises all over her body from being tossed around like a ragdoll.
“You still okay, Eve?” Aryana said loud enough to be heard above the roaring wind.
“Fine,” came the quick response. “You?”
“Peachy,” Aryana wrapped her arms around herself in an effort to find some small measure of warmth. “A little cold, though.”
“Yes, me, too,” Eve added and Aryana heard the chatter of her teeth. “I'm praying that this storm lets up soon.”
“Good luck with that,” Aryana muttered.
“I said, me, too,” Aryana said louder.
Another wave slammed against the side of the ship, sending a deluge down on their heads through the slats of the deck above. Aryana quickly grabbed the nearest handhold and held on for dear life. The ship pitched violtently sideways. Aryana shut her eyes tight and willed her stomach not to rebel. It was getting harder and harder to keep…
The acrid taste of bile lingered long after the ship finally righted itself. Luckily, there hadn't been much in her stomach. Aryana hoped no one had noticed. It was hard to tell in the darkness. She wiped her mouth and kept a firm grip on the rope with her other hand. Water splashed against her legs, effectively washing away any trace of her queasy stomach. She shivered again, not so much from the damp cold, but from a sense of hysteria that was slowly creeping up on her. She didn't want to drown in the hold.
“I'm going back up on deck,” she suddenly stood up and felt the world tilt again. “I can't stand this anymore.”
Aryana didn't stop to listen to Eve's protest. She headed for the hatch like a drunken sailor. The pitch and roll of the ship tossed her every which way and into every obstacle in her path. She finally reached the ladder to the hatch and held on for dear life as the ship nearly flipped over, then suddenly righted itself again. Icy water poured down from the open hatch and threatened to send her flying, but she managed to hang on to the slimy rope of the ladder.
“If you're going topside, then so am I,” Eve said right next to Aryana. “I'm not losing you again, Aryana.”
“Fine,” Aryana started up the ladder and only slipped once on a slick rung.
She emerged onto the deck and was greeted with utter chaos. Men were running along the deck and a couple were dangling from the rigging above. Shouts from the captain were lost in the roar of the waves and the howling wind.
Aryana squinted as the rain pelted her face and nearly blinded her. The captain was shouting something at her and waving his arms frantically. He didn't look happy. She didn't care. The wind and rain on her face was helping to dispel her nausea. She reached down and pulled Eve from the hatch, then they both quickly moved out of the way of the crew. They found a relatively isolated spot near the stern and sat hunched together against the railing. It wasn't the ideal place to ride out the storm, but it was better than drowning.
“I'm glad you decided to come back up here,” Eve spoke loudly enough to be heard above the roaring wind.
“Yeah,” Aryana kept her teeth clenched in an effort to keep them from chattering. “Not a fan of enclosed spaces, especially when the water is rising. Totally gives me the creeps. I feel like I'm slowly drowning.” Eve's head was resting against Aryana's and she turned to look at her. Aryana noticed. “What?”
“Nothing,” Eve turned away. “It's just that my mother once told me something similar. You sounded like her, just then.”
Aryana chuckled. “Thanks. I think.”
All further conversation ended abruptly as a huge wave crashed over the rail and it was all they could do to hang on for dear life. The ship pitched dangerously and one crewman was caught unawares. He slid toward the railing on a collision course with the two women.
Panic seized Aryana as she saw the man coming right at them. The ship rolled onto its side so that they were lying on their backs against the railing. Aryana moved to block Eve and caught the crewman full in the chest, knocking the wind out of her. His momentum sent him careening over the railing and Aryana felt herself going with him. Another wave of panic seized her, as she suddenly realized she was going overboard and would plunge to her death in seconds.
But a strong arm around her waist miraculously stopped her and the ship pitched again and righted itself. She slammed face-first onto the deck with Eve on top of her. A deluge of saltwater hit her square in the face.
“I've got ya,” Eve said in her ear.
Aryana was momentarily blinded by saltwater and she inhaled a lungful of the stinging liquid. She choked and coughed until she was able to breathe again. Eve's weight on top of her wasn't helping matters. Another wave crashed onto the deck and hit her in the face. Then she was yanked upright and held tightly.
“Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, after all!” Eve shouted above the din.
“Ya…think?” Aryana coughed and spluttered in an effort to clear her lungs of the stinging saltwater.
They held onto each other as the ship pitched and rolled in the storm's fury. The wind was howling so loudly that speech was impossible. The crewmen were still going about their duties with grim and hurried determination. Aryana thought briefly of the lost crewman. She wondered if his fellow crewmembers even knew that he was gone or if they even cared. There were still quite a number of them running to and fro on deck and high up in the rigging. The captain still stood like a statue, issuing orders with single-minded purpose at the helm. It occurred to her, in that moment, that the captain had hired more crewmen than needed, probably because it was quite possible some would be lost during the voyage. The thought sent a shiver down her spine.
“Are you okay, Aryana?” Eve asked above the howling of the wind.
“I'll live!” Aryana replied.
“I think the storm is finally subsiding.”
Aryana lifted her head from Eve's shoulder and looked around. It did appear that the worst of the storm was passed. The wind was still howling, but not as loudly as before. And, although waves still crashed onto the deck, they didn't seem to be doing so as violently. The ship still pitched and rolled with the churning of the sea beneath them. Aryana still felt a little queasy from the constant motion, but the wind in her face seemed to help.
And then, just as suddenly as the storm had begun, it stopped. Just like that. The wind subsided to a steady breeze. The rain turned to a gentle mist and no more waves crashed onto the deck. The crew quickly slowed their comings and goings, subsiding into a less-hurried, yet still purposeful, frenzy.
“Unfurl the mainsail!”
The shout was nearly too loud in the sudden quiet that descended over the ship. Even the crew sensed the sudden calm and kept their voices low.
“That was totally nuts,” Aryana commented, as she straightened up and released her strangle-hold on Eve.
“Welcome to life at sea,” Eve chuckled, as she tried to arrange her clothing back into some semblance of order. “Ever unpredictable and unmerciful. That's probably why the men of a ship's crew become as hard as stone and as immovable as a mountain. They are the most difficult and challenging to convert to the Way of Truth and Light. Many adamantly refuse to believe in Eli's message of peace and love, instead clinging stubbornly to their belief in an angry god of retribution.”
Aryana snorted as she watched the men on deck. She then glanced up at the black sky overhead and noticed a few stars peeking through the clouds. “Or maybe they are just too practical to believe in fairy tales. Life is unpredictable enough without throwing a mysterious god and his notions of peace and love into the mix. These men face death on a daily basis. There is no guarantee that they will ever make it back to land and to their families.” She looked at the water beyond and then back at Eve. “Thanks for saving my life, by the way. I almost went overboard with that crewman.”
Eve reached up and cupped Aryana's cheek with her palm. “It wasn't your time, Aryana.”
A dark brow rose on Aryana's features. “Really? That's…” She shook her head and swallowed down a sarcastic retort. She didn't have the energy to begin another religious argument. Besides, she could see that odd, fanatical glow of belief in Eve's eyes and knew there was no arguing with someone who was that firmly entrenched in their own convictions. “Never mind.”
Eve wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “I'm glad you're still here with me, Aryana.”
“Me, too,” Aryana smiled.
The storm hit them in the middle of the night. Wind howled through the trees and rain pelted them in their sleeping furs. Their banked fire went out with a hiss of billowing steam and the acrid smell of smoke, as the ground beneath them became a quagmire in seconds.
“Damn!” Virgil quickly gathered up his sleeping roll and bundled it together. He then grabbed his saddle and headed toward the two horses. “I really hate this!”
Gabrielle was right there with him. She saddled Star and mounted with little fanfare. She then waited for him to finish, pulling the hood of her cloak down and shrugging her cloak into place against the driving rain.
“What is it you hate most, Virgil?” She shouted to be heard above the howling wind. “The storm or camping outdoors?”
He snorted in derision as he mounted his restless gelding. “Both!”
The horse seemed to settle under him, finally, as they set off toward the road, leaving their campsite far behind them. A flash of brilliant lightning was followed immediately by a loud crack of thunder that made both horses jump and rear. Gabrielle managed to stay in the saddle and calm her mount. Virgil wasn't so lucky. He slid from the saddle and landed hard on his butt.
“Dammit!” He splashed a fist into a puddle next to him. Then he looked up to find Gabrielle staring down at him in all seriousness. “If you laugh, so help me, Gabrielle.”
“I'm not laughing,” she said as she grabbed for his gelding's reins and held firm. “Now, get back up in the saddle so we can find shelter. The storm will only get worse at this rate.”
He stood up with some effort, gingerly rubbing his sore backside. He then mounted and winced as his backside came in contact with the hard saddle.
“Ugh!” He caught the reins that Gabrielle tossed to him, as they both kicked their mounts into fast trots. “Tell me you weren't this hard on my father when he rode with you and Xena.”
Gabrielle snorted. “We didn't often ride when Joxer was with us. As a matter of fact, I don't think he even owned a horse when we first met him.”
“He didn't much like them,” Virgil added. “Now I understand why. Unpredictable. You never know what they'll do next.” He patted the gelding's neck affectionately. “Then again, I can't say that I blame them for being scared of this storm. It kinda came out of nowhere.” He glanced up at the canopy overhead.
Another flash of lightning was immediately followed by an even louder crash of thunder almost directly overhead. The horses both shied, but their riders were prepared, this time around, and managed to keep the upper hand. Neither horse reared.
“Do you know how far away from the foothills we are, Virgil?” Gabrielle shouted to be heard above the howling wind and driving rain.
The rain was coming down so hard that it felt like icy needles driving into their exposed flesh. The horses were none too happy with being pelted and were becoming increasingly agitated. And the canopy above them wasn't really doing much to protect them from the worst of the downpour.
“I'm not really sure,” he pressed his calves firmly into the gelding's sides and kept a firm grip on the slippery reins in his hands. “I think there might be some caves up ahead. But I don't really come this way very often. I could be completely wrong about that.”
Gabrielle nudged Star into a canter, despite the dangerous pitfalls on the road ahead. They had encountered ruts and potholes all day long. The mud and standing water, not to mention the darkness, would make their mad flight a treacherous one, especially for the horses. All they needed was for one of their mounts to step wrong and break a leg. She really didn't care, though. She knew what Xena would do if she were there and decided to make the best of the situation. She didn't even look back to see if Virgil was keeping pace. She just kept right on going.
A flash of lightning illuminated the road ahead long enough for Gabrielle to get a brief glimpse of what she hoped was a cave in the near distance. She nudged Star off the road and into the trees, then gave the horse his head and let him pick his way. She leaned low against his mane in the hopes that she could avoid hitting her head on any low-hanging branches. It worked, for the most part.
“Did you see a cave?” Virgil asked just behind and to her right. “I can't see anything out here. It's pitch black.”
“I thought I saw something during that last flash of lightning,” she confirmed. “Not sure if it was a cave or just wishful thinking.”
“Let's hope it's a cave. I'm really tired of being soaking wet.”
They continued on in silence, letting the horses pick their way through the dense foliage of the woods they were in. The rain continued pouring down through the canopy above, while lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled all around them.
Gabrielle couldn't help remembering all the times she and Xena had been caught out in storms just like this one. Camping on the road was always unpredictable and risky. Not only did they run into their fair share of bandits, highwaymen and thieves, but you never knew when you would go to bed dry and warm, only to wake up wet and shivering.
The only times they could be assured of staying dry was when they found a nice cave or stayed at an inn. Caves were a rarity in Greece, so they seldom found one that wasn't harboring another occupant. And staying at an inn cost money that neither she nor Xena seemed to have, especially in the early days. It wasn't until she started offering her services as a bard that they could actually afford to share a single room together. And many of the inns where they stayed were not of the highest quality.
They did find what they were looking for. The cave was small and shallow, but the overhang jutted out just enough that they would be comfortably dry—at least once they had a decent fire going. Gabrielle managed to find enough wood and tinder for a fire, while Virgil unsaddled and hobbled the horses. They got their gear stowed and spread their damp bedrolls out in the cramped space.
Gabrielle got the fire going. While she waited for her bedroll to dry out a bit, she changed out of her wet clothing into something dry. The green top and brown skirt reminded her of her early travels with Xena. A faint smile touched her lips as she thought of those early days together. She couldn't help but remember all the times that Xena had to rescue her from one scrape or another.
“What's that smile for?” Virgil was studying her across the fire. “Haven't seen a look like that from you since you came to Athens.”
“Just remembering,” she shook her head and went about spreading out her soaked clothing to dry.
He was absently whittling a piece of wood with a knife and returned his attention to it, but then spared a covert glance at her again. “Remembering the good ol' days?”
The smile left her face as she arched a brow at him, then noticed he was being sincere. “Maybe.”
“You and Xena,” he stated, matter-of-factly. “I get it.”
She sat back with a tolerant sigh. “Yes.”
“The two of you must have had some great adventures, back in the good ol' days,” he prodded without looking up from his whittling. “I've read most of the stories in the Academy. They're really good. But…”
“But?” She met his gaze over the fire.
“You wrote them all about Xena,” he shrugged. “It's like…” He frowned and looked away.
She nodded her understanding. “I wrote them from the perspective of an impartial observer—a narrator.”
“Yeah,” he tossed the whittled stick into the fire and watched sparks shoot up from it. “I always wanted to ask why you did that. You were right there when all of those amazing things happened. I'm guessing you weren't the casual observer your stories make you out to be. Am I right?”
She smiled wryly. “Yes, you're absolutely right. Xena and I…” She left off with a shake of her head and returned her attention to the fire. “I don't really want to talk about it, Virgil.”
“Just tell me why you didn't put yourself into the stories, Gabrielle,” he said. “I just want to know, mostly from a writer's curiousity more than anything else.”
She continued staring at the fire for several moments, until he thought she wasn't going to answer. Then she sat back and wrapped her arms around her upraised knees and met his gaze.
“At first, I was embarrassed,” she said quietly. “I was idealistic, young and naive in those early days. I kept getting into trouble and Xena kept coming to my rescue. She bailed me out of one fiasco after another. It was ridiculous. I was also a real clutz. I still don't know why she let me tag along with her. I was always in her way and did things that seemed to make sense at the time, but went totally against reason and logic in hindsight. Writing about those adventures and leaving myself out of the stories just seemed to make more sense than telling the world how inept I really was. And making Xena the hero was the only thing that made sense. I needed the world to know how truly bigger than life she was.”
“And later?” He gave her a bemused look. “I know you weren't always a bumbling clutz. My dad was amazed at how much you learned in such a short time. He said you were pretty good with that stick of yours by the time he met you. He said you were actually pretty amazing.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I initially learned to fight with a staff that was given to me by the Amazons when I became their princess. And Xena continued to teach me more and more as time went on. She figured it was one way to keep me out of trouble. We did a lot of sparring while we were on the road.” She chuckled. “I had bruises all the time, until I was finally good enough not to get thunked or smack myself with my own staff. I managed to hold my own, for the most part, especially against people I didn't know. Xena taught me a lot of moves that saved my skin. And I picked up a thing or two along the way, too.”
“But you still didn't include yourself in your written stories,” he added. “Even later, after you learned to fight really well.”
“No,” she set her chin on her knees. “I suppose I just got so used to telling stories about Xena that I really didn't feel the need to be a part of those stories, myself.”
“And, yet, you were very much a part of them,” he said. “You were right there in the thick of things a lot of the time.”
“I was,” she agreed. “And I kept a journal. I wrote my personal thoughts and feelings down in it.”
“What happened to it?”
Gabrielle looked away and a distant sadness crept into her gaze. “It's gone.”
“Gone. Destroyed. I lost it a long time ago.” She waved a dismissive hand. She gingerly laid down on her bedroll and grabbed a wrapped package from her satchel. “I have trail rations to go with the stew.”
“The stew smells delicious,” he pulled two wooden bowls and spoons out of his pack and held them out for her.
Gabrielle ladeled out two portions and was relieved to sit back and enjoy the meal in silence. Virgil seemed to sense her reticence in continuing their conversation and ate his stew in silence, as well. He helped himself to two more portions after that. Gabrielle was pleased to see that his appetite certainly wasn't affected by their run-in with the Romans or the weather.
Virgil finished his third bowl of stew and patted his full stomach. “That was delicious, Gabrielle. Thanks.” He reached for Gabrielle's empty bowl and the empty pot. “I'll do the cleaning up, since you did the cooking this time around. We can switch off next time.” He then headed for the stream with all the dishes.
Gabrielle lay down on her bedroll and stared up at the stars twinkling brightly overhead. She watched a shooting star streak across the sky until it disappeared from view.
“Xena,” she said quietly, “I hope you're up there somewhere, looking down and having a good laugh over all of this. I wasn't going to leave, you know. I didn't think I still had it in me. Not after all this time.” She sighed in contentment and folded her hands over her stomach. “I wish you were here to see this. I really do.”
She closed her eyes and listened to the night sounds all around. She could hear the faint splash of water in the direction that Virgil had gone. Several crickets were chirping loudly in the bushes at the edge of the clearing. And the fire snapped and crackled cozily near her head. It was so peaceful.
A rustling in the bushes a little ways away let her know she and Virgil were not quite alone. She listened intently and waited for her senses to detect any signs of danger. The rustling continued for a bit and then whatever creature it was suddenly retreated into the woods. She figured it was probably a rabbit. Although, from the sounds of it, she thought it might have been bigger than a rabbit. A fox, perhaps? Or maybe a stray dog?
An owl hooted nearby. The owl hooted again, right before she heard the flapping of wings in the slight breeze. Then the owl's hoot came from the other direction and was followed by silence from the cricket choir. Virgil's distinctive shuffle through the tall grass announced his return.
“There,” Virgil was certainly not quiet as he approached. She listened to him put away the dishes and then settle onto his bedroll without bothering to open her eyes. “All done.” More rustling and shifting. “Did you see that huge owl swoop down, catch a field mouse and then return to the trees? It was pretty cool.”
“No, didn't see it,” Gabrielle replied. “I heard it, though.”
“Something else was out there, too,” he added with a slight note of caution in his voice. “I don't know what it was. Bigger than a rabbit. I saw its shadow as it jumped the stream and disappeared into the woods. It came from somewhere over there.”
She turned her head and looked at where he was pointing, then closed her head again. “Probably just a fox or a deer.”
“It was panting like a dog,” Virgil said. “Are there wolves around here? Do you think it might have been a wolf?” He looked skeptical. “I wouldn't think they would come this close to the city.”
“Not a wolf,” Gabrielle replied. “Probably just a stray farm dog that got loose from its owner and is out hunting.”
They lay in silence for a time. The crickets resumed their nocturnal chorus and the owl hooted several more times. Nothing else seemed amiss.
“I can't believe how many stars you can see out here,” Virgil commented. “The sky is so full of them. I guess it's been a while since I've been outside the city.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared up into the vastness overhead. “Kinda puts things in perspective.”
She chuckled. “Makes you realize just how small and insignificant you really are. I'm pretty sure all those stars are kinda like our sun. They all have planets and moons, too. Means there are probably a lot of others out there, maybe even some like us.”
He turned over so he was able to look at her over the fire. “Do you really believe that? I mean, that there might be others like us?”
She glanced up and caught the skepticism in his gaze. “Don't you, Virgil?” She waved at the sky. “With all those stars out there, do you really think we're the only sentient beings in the universe?”
“Um, no, but…” His expression turned thoughtful as he resumed his place and stared up at the sky again. “What about the gods? And, more importantly, the god of Eli?”
“What about them?”
“How do they fit into all this?” He paused a moment. “I mean, if there are other places out there with people like us, then where do the gods come in? Are they all flitting from one place to another? Or are they somehow only tied to this place?”
“Or maybe they aren't tied to any one place, in particular,” Gabrielle supplied helpfully.
“Except the gods of Olympus pretty much stay here in Greece,” Virgil said. “Maybe those other places have gods of their own.”
“Maybe,” Gabrielle yawned and let her eyes drift shut. “Good night, Virgil.”
“'Night, Gabrielle,” he pulled his blanket up to his chin and turned onto his side.
Gabrielle's eyelids fluttered open and she stared up at the sky again. “Someone once told me that the stars are actually the souls of those who have died, watching over us from above.” She chuckled mirthlessly. “The funny thing about that is I've seen Elysia.”
“Yes,” she said wistfully. “We saw it when we were in the Underworld. Solon, Xena's son, was there.”
“Xena has a son, too? I thought…” He turned to find Gabrielle glaring at him. “Never mind.”
“Solon died long before Eve came along,” Gabrielle hesitantly explained. “Anyway, we both saw him on the other side of a portal in Hades' realm. Xena even briefly spoke to him.” She stared at the stars overhead. “Elysia isn't up there in the sky where the stars are. It isn't anywhere close to where they are, so I don't know how anyone could be looking down on us from way up there.”
“Maybe we all have different ways of believing in the afterlife.” Virgil speculated. “Didn't you say Xena isn't in the Underworld?” He glanced up. “Maybe she's up there, instead.”
She looked skeptical. “You think Xena is one of those stars?”
“Well,” he shrugged. “Anything's possible.”
She snorted. “I don't think so, Virgil. No offense, but I don't think Xena could sit still long enough to become a pinpoint of light in the vastness of space.”
“You never know.”
“Oh, I know, all right. If anything, she's stirring up trouble for everyone in the afterlife. She's probably found a way to escape from wherever it is that she ended up in after Japa and is, right now, trying to figure out a way to come back to this life.”
“You think so?”
Gabrielle let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “I know so.”
She refused to move.
The annoying noise was louder, but she still refused to acknowledge the intruder. She didn't care.
She knew the voice, despite the fact her name was uttered in a loud whisper. She still refused to turn and look.
“Come on, Xena,” Ares was peeking around a corner at her. “What do I have to do…”
She turned her head sharply and glared. “Go away, Ares. I don't want whatever it is you're peddling this time around.”
He gave her a wounded look. “Really? Is that how it is, now? I do you a favor and…”
“I said, get lost!” She returned her attention to the swirling bowl in front of her.
“You can stand there in front of that thing forever if you want, or…” He glanced around to make sure they were alone and then stepped fully into the room. “Pathetic, Xena. You're wasting your time.” He frowned. “Or eternity. Whatever.”
“I don't care, Ares,” she hissed. “Leave me alone.”
He walked up next to her and peered into the basin. “Still looks pretty much the same as she did the last time I saw the two of you together. A little older. Hair's a little longer, too. What? She didn't like the butch look?”
“What do you want, Ares?” She didn't bother looking at him. “Did you just come here to torment me? Is that it? Did Michael send you here just to piss me off enough to join his heavenly crusade?”
“No,” he went to the other side of the basin and waved a hand over it. The image dissolved and disappeared into a gray mist. “Come on, Xena. You're better than this. You know there's more to this war than…”
Her head snapped up and her gaze narrowed on him. “What's your game this time, Ares?”
“No game, Xena,” he chuckled and then glanced warily around. “Michael…um…doesn't know I'm here. And keep it down, will ya? I really don't want a visit from his goon squad. ‘Kay? There's no telling what they might do if they found me here.”
“Really?” She crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a look that said she wasn't buying anything he was saying. “Spill it, Ares. What gives? Why are you here?”
“I…” he ran a hand behind his neck, as if to relieve some tension. “I came to tell you there's a way, all right?”
“Right,” she scoffed. “You're telling me you risked your neck to come here to tell me…”
“I can send you back.”
She stopped dead. “What?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Come with me and I'll show you.”
She narrowed her gaze. “How?”
“You gotta trust me, Xena. I can't explain it here and now. Just…” He glanced around again and motioned with his outstretched hand. “Come on. We don't have much time. Take my hand. I'll explain when we get out of here.”
She hesitated. It was Ares, after all. No good could ever come of trusting him implicitly. He had betrayed her too many times when she was mortal. Now that she was…well, she didn't exactly know what she was anymore. She just knew that she couldn't stay there staring into a basin and hoping to be reunited with Gabrielle. Michael wouldn't help her. No one else seemed inclined to do so, either.
She narrowed her gaze at him. “What's in it for you, Ares?”
He lifted the outstretched hand to his dark hair and ran it through the shorn locks. “Nice. Really, Xena? You want to do this here? Now? Michael…”
“Could show up at any second, yeah, yeah,” she finished for him. “I don't care. Tell me why you're doing this or I stay put.” She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him defiantly. “There has to be a reason. You never do anything without an ulterior motive.”
“Okay, fine,” he stood with his hands on his hips and narrowed his gaze at her. “You want a reason? I'll give you a reason, Xena. I owe you more than just a measley message. You saved my bacon more than once while you were mortal. You managed to get my godhood back. And you helped my sister when no one else would. I owe you, okay? Is that sufficient to get you to move your…”
She put her hand out to him and he didn't hesitate. He merely took her hand and together they vanished into the mist.
“This is ridiculous! Where is he?”
Pacing wasn't helping, but that didn't stop her from doing it. It seemed to be the only thing she could do. Otherwise, the waiting was driving her crazy. She reached the far wall and whirled around in a cloud of pink, then started back in the other direction. She had no idea how many times she had done it. All she knew was it wasn't helping.
She threw her hands in the air and yelled in frustration. That felt good, but it didn't do much to ease her impatience. She let out another yell, this one louder, and flung an arm out as she passed the alter. Swiping her arm in anger, she managed to send a full tray of assorted fruit flying into the far wall. That felt…
“Nice, sis. Really nice. Since when do you have a temper?”
She spun around. “Ares! You're back!” She launched herself into his arms and hugged him. “It's so good to see you!”
He stepped back and held his arms out to his side with that Cheshire grin of his. “In the flesh, sis!”
Aphrodite launched herself into his arms again. She hugged him tight for several moments, until she glanced over to find that he wasn't alone.
“Xena?” A grin split Aphrodite's features as she stared in disbelief. “How…Where…” And then her expression turned angry. “You!” She lifted an accusatory finger at Xena. “How could you?” She then rounded on her brother. “What in the name of all of us is going on, Ares?”
“Now, ‘Dite,” he put his hands up to ward her off. “Let me explain…”
“Oh, you bet your ass you're gonna explain, Ares,” Aphrodite actually shoved him in the chest unexpectedly. She then rounded on Xena. “And you. You…you…Do you know what it's been like down here since you…you…UGH!!!” She grabbed her head in her hands for a moment, then realization hit her. “You're dead!”
Xena watched the scene unfold and tried not to react in any way. She was still reeling from Ares' unexpected appearance and their rather chaotic trip. She was dizzy and more than a little disoriented. In all the time that she had spent with him, he had never once taken her on one of his little…she didn't even know what to call it. Excursions through…Where? What? One minute she's standing in that odd white room with the bowl that let her see bits and pieces of the mortal realm and the next… Poof! She was spiraling through some foggy, black, windy whirlpool until she was standing in the room they were in. Just like that.
“What did you do to her, Ares?”
“Me? Why do you think I did anything…”
“Yes, you,” Aphrodite was standing with her arms crossed over her ample bosom. “Who else do you think I'm talking to?”
“She's just…” He waved a hand in front of Xena's face. “I used what little powers I had left to bring her here. It isn't like it used to be. Nothing is, anymore.” He snapped his fingers and a spark fizzled. “That was all I had, sis. I hope you have more juice than I do. ‘Cause I don't even think I can get back to Olympus.”
“She's dead, Ares,” Aphrodite put a hand out to Xena. The hand passed right through her, much to Xena's astonishment. “See?”
“I know,” he gave her a droll look. Then he swept a hand around to indicate the place they were in. “But you now have followers aplenty, sis. I like what you've done with the place, by the way.” He gave her one of his charming smiles and a wink. “And you're lookin' good, too. I see you managed to ditch the musty old lady get-up.”
She gave him a raised-browed glare. “Seriously? That's what you're going with, bro?” She snapped her fingers in front of his face a few times and he reeled back. “Hello! Focus, Ares!”
“Hey, I'm not working with a full deck, here, ‘Dite,” he shrugged. “Cut me some slack. Michael and his goon squad are keeping me on a short leash. I can't even recharge without setting off their alarms and having a bunch of his winged jerks show up.” He glanced around and snapped his fingers. Nothing happened. “See? Nothing. How did you manage to get the morts to get a temple back up and running for you?”
“Gabrielle did it,” she said. “She saved a tavern maid from a couple thugs and set the girl up as my new priestess. My girl took care of the rest.”
“Gabrielle is here?” Xena finally spoke.
“Not anymore,” said Aphrodite sadly. “She left. At least, I think she left. I'm not really sure. There was a big fire and a lot of craziness. I haven't seen her since. A bunch of Romans came snooping around. I think they were looking for someone, but they didn't say who, and I didn't stick around long enough to get the 4-1-1.”
“Romans?” Ares perked up.
“Yeah,” Aphrodite gave him a wary look. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing,” he waved her off. “Just curious.”
She gave him a doubtful look. “It's never nothing with you, Ares.”
He shrugged. “I like the Romans. They're a warring people. Conquerors. You know.” He smirked. “Can't help it. I am who I am.”
“Figures,” Xena rolled her eyes.
“Don't go getting any ideas, Ares,” Aphrodited admonished.
“Ideas?” He looked blankly back at her and pointing a finger at his chest. “Me?”
Aphrodite actually snorted. “Yeah, you. Who else would be devious enough to try to weasel his way into the good graces of that pack of foreign scum?”
He cocked his head and gave her a wry look. “Really, sis? You think so little of me that…”
“I think you'd do anything to get a war going so you can build an army of devoted followers and get your powers back, brother-o'-mine. You don't fool me for one measly sec.”
He pouted. “Not fair.”
“Can we get back to why we're all here?” Xena interrupted. “Why are we here, anyway?” She turned a pointed glare on Ares.
“Okay, fine,” Ares held his hands up in mock surrender. “Here's the deal, sis, we need your help.”
“Yeah, yeah, you said that already. What kind of help? I'm not starting a war in the name of love for you, brother dearest.”
“No,” he leaned back against her alter with his arms crossed over his chest and a twinkle in his eye. “But you could come up with a diversion. Something that would keep Michael and his goon squad busy long enough for me to take care of…well, stuff. Wha'dya say?”
Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at him. “You can't be serious.”
“Oh, I'm serious, alright,” his expression sobered. “Will you do it, sis? For old time's sake?”
She considered for a moment. “For old time's sake, huh?”
“Yeah,” he smiled his charming, lopsided smile at her.
“How much time do you need?”
His smile widened. “Give us a few mortal hours.” He then turned and put a hand out to Xena. “Shall we?”
Xena took his hand. He lifted his other hand, raised his chin confidently and snapped his fingers.
“Um, ‘Dite?” He gave her an expectant and impatient look. “Please?”
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine.” She waved her hand in their direction and they disappeared in a shower of sparkling hearts.
Aphrodite sighed as she thoughtfully tapped a fingertip against her lower lip. “A diversion. A diversion. Hm. What…” Her expression suddenly brightened and she straightened up. “I have it!” She then looked around guiltily, as if expecting Michael to suddenly appear in front of her. She relaxed noticeably when he didn't, then she raised her hand and disappeared in her own shower of sparkling hearts.
“That was close.”
Virgil and Gabrielle crawled out of the bushes where they were hiding and stood up at the edge of the road. Gabrielle left Virgil to check that the coast was clear and then returned with their horses in tow.
“We need to get off this road and make our way back to the coast,” Gabrielle handed Virgil the reins to his mount. “Those guys aren't going to give up until they have us in custody and take us back to Athens to their Procter. They're like sharks on a blood trail. They won't give up.”
“You really think they're still after us? It's been three days, Gabrielle.”
“You don't?” She gave him a pointed look. “We set the city on fire, Virgil. You heard what that crofter said back there. The Roman garrison is a pile of ashes and a third of the city is still smoldering.”
He ran a hand through his hair in agitation. “Yeah, I heard him. Made me feel this big, too.” He held up a hand with his index finger and thumb an inch apart. “You're the one who thought it was a good idea to distract those guys by starting that fire. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“How was I supposed to know that it would burn out of control like it did?” She mounted and refused to look at him as he did the same. “Besides, there was no way to know the wind would shift so suddenly and those embers would take out the whole marketplace. All those stalls are just dry wood and cloth. Not to mention they're all pretty much right next to each other. It was a fire hazard just waiting for a spark. I'm surprised there haven't been more fires ripping through there before this.”
He shook his head sadly as he adjusted his seat. “There was one just last year. Burned all the way down to the wharf and nearly took out Eve's meeting tent. She turned the tent into a hospice to care for the injured. We didn't have regular meetings for weeks.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle nudged her mount into a slow walk and let the horse pick its way through the dense brush as they left the road behind them. “I'm sorry, Virgil. I know how much Athens means to you. Especially since it's where your home is and all.”
He moved his mount next to hers. “It's okay. I guess it's just been a long time since I've been on an adventure and had a bunch of bloodthirsty goons chasing after me. It's just going to take a little getting used to.” He glanced at her. “Besides, Athens will rebuild. It always does. They'll figure it out, eventually.”
She glanced over and noticed the slight smile on his lips and gave him one of her own. “Okay.”
They rode in silence for a time, allowing their mounts to pick a path through the low scrub and dense underbrush as they headed in a westerly direction.
“How far do you think it is to the coast?”
Gabrielle considered for a moment. “Less than a day's ride, maybe? We didn't stray that far off course when those guys were chasing us.”
They both suddenly sat a little straighter.
“Do you hear…”
“Yeah, YAAAH! ” Gabrielle gathered the reins tighter and kicked her mount into a full gallop.
Virgil did the same as the sounds of pursuit grew louder behind them. Neither of them looked back to see who was after them. They knew. The jangle of Roman tack and the shouts of men were enough to spur them on. Twenty mounted soldiers crashed through the dense underbrush in hot pursuit. They wore the typical leather armor and helmets of Roman cavalry. Their leader wore shiny gold armor over a blue tunic. He had his sword raised high as he spurred his white stallion forward.
“They're gaining, Gabrielle! What do we do now?”
Gabrielle risked a quick glance over her shoulder and saw that Virgil was right. The Romans were closing in fast. She quickly looked around.
“This way!” She made a hard right and headed toward a thick stand of trees. “We'll lose them in there!”
Virgil kept pace, but frowned. “Do you really think…”
“No thinking, Virgil! Just move!”
They made it to the treeline several horse lengths before their pursuers. Gabrielle didn't slow her mount as they plowed into the woods. She merely gave the animal its head and let its instincts guide them. She could only hope Virgil was doing the same.
Sweat poured into her eyes and ran down her face as she continued to lean forward. She could feel the animal's labored breathing as she continued to urge the beast to move faster. Low branches slashed her hands, arms and face. She ignored the pain and discomfort as she continued to push her mount to keep going.
She almost smiled when she heard the sounds of pursuit getting fainter and dropping farther behind. She didn't want to claim victory, just yet, however. They still weren't out of the woods or out of danger. Yanking hard on the left rein, Gabrielle turned her mount unexpectedly and plunged them deeper into a much more dense and much more rugged part of the woods. Her horse labored to climb a rocky hillside as she ducked even lower over its neck.
“Where are we going?” Virgil whispered loud enough for her to hear.
“Shh,” she pulled her mount to a sudden halt on the other side of the hill and then dismounted.
Leaving her horse tied to a low branch, Gabrielle stealthily climbed back over the hill and hid amidst a bunch of boulders. Virgil joined her a moment later. He had managed to grab a water skin and was drinking in between gasps for air.
“What…” he managed between gulps of air and water, as he handed the water skin to Gabrielle.
“Thanks,” she gulped down a good portion and handed the skin back. “The horses couldn't go much further. Thought this would be a good spot to get a bearing on our friends out there,” she said quietly.
They both ducked down at the same time as a Roman passed fairly close to where they were hiding. The Roman had slowed his mount and was letting the animal pick its way through the trees, much the same as they had done. He didn't seem to know they were there.
Gabrielle slowly and cautiously peeked over the boulder. She motioned to Virgil to remain quiet as she watched the Roman move away from them. There was a shout farther away and the Roman turned his mount and headed in the direction the shout came from.
Gabrielle slid back down to sit next to Virgil. She took the water skin from him and drank deeply again.
“Looks like they're chasing after something else,” she said quietly. “He just took off in the other direction.”
“Works for me,” Virgil took a sip of the water skin and set it down next to him. “Give us a chance to catch our breath, anyway.”
Gabrielle got up and headed back over the rise with Virgil on her heels. “Let's just walk the horses for a while. Let them cool down while we regroup and figure out our next move.”
“Sounds good to me,” Virgil grabbed his mount's reins and let her take the lead.
There was a stream at the bottom of the hill. They paused long enough to let the horses drink their fill, while Virgil refilled his water skin. Gabrielle listened to the sounds around them and sniffed the air. Mixed with the normal smells of the woods—vegetation, pine, and decay—was the lingering odor of men and horses. Although she could no longer hear them, she knew the Romans were still closeby.
“Those guys are still way too close for comfort,” she said in a hushed voice as she gathered the reins and mounted. “Let's put some more distance between us before nightfall.”
“Fine with me,” Virgil mounted his own gelding and followed at a steady clip.
They rode in silence for more than a league through much of the same terrain, until Gabrielle was sure they were no longer being followed. She reined her mount in and turned onto a barely-visible deer track that wound its way through a thicket. They finally emerged from the thicket into a small clearing surrounded by tall cedars.
“There's a stream just beyond those saplings,” Gabrielle dismounted and started unsaddling her horse. “This should be a decent place to make camp for the night.” She stopped long enough to survey their surroundings. “This place is pretty secluded. I don't think those guys will find us. We'll get moving before first light, just in case they pick up our trail.”
Virgil dismounted and stretched. “Ugh! I thought you were going to keep going all night long. Thanks for stopping. My saddle sores have saddle sores, now.”
“Gather some wood for a small fire, while I take care of the horses and catch something for dinner,” Gabrielle removed the other saddle and tossed it next to hers. “Maybe we'll get lucky and I can snare a couple of rabbits for a stew.”
“Or a stag? We haven't eaten since breakfast and I'm starving.” He gave her a playful wink. “I could eat a whole side of deer all by myself.”
“We don't have the time or resources to butcher something that big,” Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “A couple of rabbits will make a hearty stew. I saw some mushrooms and greens on the way that I can add to it. And there's probably some wild onions around here, too. Don't worry, Virgil, you won't starve to death.” With that, she trotted off into the trees.
“Says you,” he muttered as he walked the perimeter of the clearing and gathered up as much kindling as he could find. “You did this to yourself, you know,” he continued muttering to himself. “You really should just stand up to her and stop letting her push you around. It's not like you're incapable of taking care of yourself out here.” He dumped an armload of kindling in front of the two saddles and their gear, then went to find a log or two. “You're a grown man with a family. She's…” He stopped when he heard a twig snap nearby. “Gabrielle?” He waited, but there was no answer. “Gabrielle?” He called a little louder. “Is that you?” Still no answer, so he resumed his search of the ground as dusk settled over the clearing. “I can't believe I let myself get sucked into this mess in the first place,” he muttered as he bent over to pick up a good-sized log and heard another noise. He straightened up and looked around. “Okay, Gabrielle, game's over. Go ahead and show yourself. I know you heard me. And I'm not complaining. I'm just…” He narrowed his gaze as he searched the trees. “Gabrielle?”
The bushes in front of him suddenly exploded as a dark shape charged straight for him. He turned and bolted in the other direction as fast as he could run.
“ Aaaaaaaa ! Gaaaaaaabrielle!!!”
The boar was headed straight for him, grungy white tusks gleaming menacingly in the dying light.
Three snares and a makeshift fishing line. Gabrielle straightened up, arched her back and felt a couple of pops as her spine realigned itself. Too much riding, she mused. She wasn't used to being in the saddle for hours on end and it showed. She tossed some dry leaves on top of the last snare to hide it, then moved stealthily through the woods toward the creek to check the fishing line. After finding the line empty, she re-baited the hook and tossed it back into the meandering current. She then sat down on the bank to wait.
Daylight was quickly fading and night sounds were slowly emerging. A cricket chirped happily nearby, while an owl hooted in a tree somewhere across the creek. A welcome peace hung in the air around her as she let the rhythm of nature calm her. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the pungent, woodsy aroma, letting a breath out slowly. The air smelled like decaying foliage, water and mud. It was nice.
Her thoughts turned inward as she closed her eyes. Listening. Being. So many things had happened recently that she was having trouble taking it all in. She needed the peace and quiet to center her mind and recover some sense of balance.
Virgil's frantic scream brought her instantly alert. She bolted in the direction the scream had come from. There was no time to think or even consider what she would do when she found him. She merely raced headlong into the unknown, frantically hoping she wasn't too late.
The woods around her were quickly plunging into shadow as the sun disappeared. Her eyes quickly adjusted to the lack of daylight, but she still had to slow her pace in order to stay on her feet. She vaulted a fallen log and barely caught herself as the ground dropped toward the creek below. She managed to grab hold of a sapling and right herself, then stopped.
“Virgil?” She called loudly. “Virgil! Where are you?”
His answering shout was to her left and she bolted in that direction, careful not to plunge into the creek to her right. His shout had come from fairly close by and sounded frantic.
She slowed her pace as she approached the spot where she thought the shout had come from.
“Watch out, Gabrielle! It's a b-boar!”
Panic seized her instantly and she stopped dead. A boar. Not good. Those beasts were known to be vicious and relentless. She felt her back tingle as she forced the panic back down.
“Where is it, Virgil?”
“The boar, Virgil! Where is it?”
She listened while he formed his answer. There was snuffling and snorting several paces in front of her. And then she spotted Virgil. He was perched in a tree like a long-legged squirrel. Legs bunched beneath him on a sturdy branch. Head tilted forward and eyes intent on something below. The whole tree shuddered as something big and angry rammed the thick trunk.
Gabrielle let out the breath she had been holding. She was downwind from the tree and the boar hadn't yet sensed her. Slowly reaching behind her, she soundlessly pulled her sword from the scabbard at her back. The boar rammed the tree again and the branches shook. Virgil held firm, but glanced her way. She grabbed the chakram and held it in her other hand.
“Gab-brielle!” He squawked as he grabbed the branch with both hands. “H-hurry! Th-this thing's…” His response was cut short by yet another violent jarring of the tree.
Virgil lost his grip on the tree and fell forward. Luckily there was another branch within reach and he grabbed for it. Unfortunately, his hand slipped at the same time that the boar made another headlong charge into the trunk.
Her back suddenly ignited and the uncontrollable rage exploded inside her. She saw only red as she suddenly sprang into motion. She screamed in blind fury as she charged. The beast turned in surprise, snorted once and squealed with its own rage.
Gabrielle was on the beast in less than two heartbeats. Her sword plunged deeply into the tough carcass with all the power of her white-hot rage behind it. Prickly hide, muscle and unyielding bone. She felt the impact all the way up her arms and into her shoulders. The beast screamed. Reaching forward, she slit its throat. Blood sprayed everywhere. The hot, salty tang of it overwhelmed her senses.
Images flashed before her eyes. The alley. Screams echoed in her mind. Men dying by her hand. Ruthless butchery. Laughing.
The laughter continued as a wave of nausea washed over her. The laughter grew louder. The beast pitched sideways and she barely managed to jump clear before it fell on its side. She stumbled. Bile rose in her throat, hot and acrid. The laughter continued.
She looked around in confusion. Her vision was blurred and her stomach roiled. The world was suddenly spinning out of control. Her stomach rebelled and she vomited. And then everything changed.
She suddenly found herself in a white room. Stark white marble walls. An endless white floor. Bright sunlight streamed in from seemingly nowhere. The blood was gone, but the salty tang of it lingered in her nostrils.
She was on her feet in an instant, fully alert and ready for a fight. The chakram and sword were still in her hands, but there was no trace of blood on either weapon. Her heart was racing frantically, as if she had just run a marathon.
And then she realized she didn't feel it. The red haze was completely gone and her back was no longer on fire. The rage was gone, too.
“Michael,” she said in a calm voice as she turned around to face him. She reseated her weapons and stood with her arms crossed over her chest. “What's going on?” She glanced around. “Where are we?”
He held his hands out to his sides. “Does it really matter?”
Her eyes narrowed as she stood her ground. “Answer me.”
His expression hardened. “Watch yourself, Gabrielle.”
He was taken aback. Surprise clearly registered on his face as his brows rose. But his mask of indifference quickly fell back into place.
“Send me back, Michael,” she continued without flinching at the glare he was giving her. “I'm not playing any game you've concocted. I'm not dead, so send me back to the mortal realm. You have no claim on me.”
He paced a slow circle around her like a predator stalking its prey. “Oh, really? What about…”
“No,” she lifted a finger between them and he stopped. “Nothing you can do or say will make me join you in whatever twisted quest you've hatched this time around.”
He turned to face her. “And Xena?” He watched as her façade cracked slightly at the mention of her soulmate. “Yes,” he continued with a knowing look. “She was here, you know. Right over there.” He pointed to a pedestal that held a shallow basin. “Watching.” His eyes met hers. “Watching you, Gabrielle.”
“What? When?” She didn't bother hiding her curiosity. What was the point? “Is she…”
“Dead,” he said flatly. “She was here for a time, but now she's gone.” He watched her expression fall. “You've become quite the warrior since her death, you know. I've kept my eye on you through the years, Gabrielle, and I have to say that I'm impressed. I didn't think anyone could live up to Xena's reputation. You have a gift.”
“I'm not a warrior anymore, Michael,” she countered. “Like I said, don't even think about trying to get me to join your twisted scheme. Whatever it might be.”
He looked away and his expression turned thoughtful. “Not even if the fate of Greece hangs in the balance?” He cautiously glanced her way, gauging her reaction.
“Not even if all of humanity itself hung in the balance,” she shot him a glare. “I vividly remember what happened to Xena and I the last time you interfered in our afterlife together. We both ended up experiencing the not-so-pleasant side of being a demon in hell. I won't go through that again. Not even if Xena is down there, right now, sitting on the throne of the Prince of Darkness himself.” She watched his reaction this time and wasn't disappointed. “She's not, is she?”
“No,” he shook his head slightly.
“Then where is she?”
He ran a hand down his face. “Honestly? I have no idea.”
She narrowed her gaze. “Oh, come on, Michael. You can't expect me to believe you don't have any idea where she is. You said she was here.”
“And now she's not.”
“Just like that?” Skepticism dripped from every word.
“I'm not lying, Gabrielle,” his expression hardened. “She was here, like I said. But she disappeared several of your mortal hours ago.”
Gabrielle felt her stomach clench as she realized Xena had been there only a short time ago. She stared hard at Michael, who seemed to sense her sudden excitement.
“So, again I ask you, what am I doing here?” She asked after a couple of calming breaths.
He shrugged. “I offered Xena a deal which she accepted, but then she renigged and disappeared. So, I brought you up here to offer you the same deal.”
“And what makes you think I won't renig on the deal, too?”
He chuckled. “Because you still love her, Gabrielle.”
This time her heart clenched and turned icy with his words. “What deal did you offer Xena, Michael?”
He smiled that charming smile of his.
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