The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
In her years as a refugee, Gabrielle had seen too many in this state. Closed to all outside sensations, shutting out the pain of their world and mind. She had almost envied them. But most never recovered. How was she to reach Xena? Knowing what a risk she was taking, she placed her arms warily on the shoulders of the woman, and focused her concentration. The irony that this woman, of all people, was essential to her, was deliberately pushed from her mind. "Xena. Xena, come back. We need you." Nothing; just the continuing awful blankness of blue eyes turned inwards. She moved her hand, and touched Xena's cheek gently with her fingertips. "You're the only one who can make this right, Xena." Still no reaction. She thought she might have seen the lips move, but it could have been her wishful imagination. "Xena." Louder. "Xena! Come on!"
She pulled her arm back, and after another moment of hesitation, struck the woman with the flat of her palm across the face. The slap resounded in the small cell, but Xena's head barely moved, and there was still no recognition in the glassy eyes. "Xena!" she shouted and struck again, and then again. Suddenly her arm was caught and held firmly by the wrist. She waited for it to be snapped, but it was simply arrested. They stayed, frozen like that, until Gabrielle spoke again. "Xena, you have to come out from inside there. You're needed."
The lips moved slightly and she heard the word breathed, "No."
"Yes," she countered. "You have greatness in you, you can't bury it now."
Again the lips parted, and the questioning voice whispered, "Lao Ma?"
"No. It's Gabrielle."
Her wrist was dropped. "Doesn't matter. I'll end up killing you too."
"Let me take that risk. Perdicus told me you read my scrolls. So I'm guessing from what Alti said you know about what I think about responsibility. Responsibility isn't hiding away, Xena, or wallowing in guilt. It's about caring, and acting. It's nothing to be afraid of."
"I'm not afraid."
"Yes, you are. You were afraid to feel things as Empress, and you're even more afraid now."
Gabrielle swallowed, worried that she had gone too far, when she heard a quiet voice, with nevertheless a tinge of irony say, "You know, most people would tell you that it wasn't a good idea to piss me off."
The eyes before her were still reddened and painfilled, but for the first time she saw that glint of intelligence, and it caused her to almost weep with relief. Her release was short lived though. Immediately the eyes closed, and she realised that Xena was like a drowning woman who had surfaced for but a moment. Her chuckle turned to a sigh.
"So this is how the great Xena ends? Alti's stooge? Who could have saved millions, but didn't..."
There was a barely heard whisper. "I hurt, inside. I'm so tired of what I've been, and done. And what I might do tomorrow."
Gabrielle remained silent for a moment as she studied the empty eyes of the woman before her. She reached out an arm, and carefully placed it on Xena's shoulder in a small gesture of comfort. The warrior tensed slightly, but made no other motion. "It's what she wants, you know."
The tired blue eyes flicked upwards again. "What makes your manipulation any different than Alti's? Or Lao Ma's?" she asked, wearily.
"Alti looks for ugliness and then feeds it. From what I've been told of Lao Ma, she wanted the best from you. We both think that you were meant to be a better person."
"I don't see that person."
Gabrielle gave a small smile. "Then I guess you'll need me around for a while to show you."
"I don't think I can let you take that risk."
"Who says you have a choice? It's my risk. And if I'm willing to risk losing my life, then you should be willing to risk living yours."
Xena's eyes hardened. "So I'm supposed to just push Solon and all this away, so that I can be a part of your plans? That's all I've ever done. Used people or been used by them. What makes you think I want to put myself through all this, just to help you?"
Gabrielle's hand dropped from her shoulders. "Then be selfish," she snapped in return, her own expression tightening. "Live knowing that others who were innocent will live because of you. Die and know that you'll be waiting for Charon, and meeting the thousands of souls who died because you were too afraid to face yourself each night."
"For a spirit of good, you're damned annoying, you know that?" Xena struggled to sit up, and stretched her cramped legs. No sounds escaped her, but Gabrielle knew that it was a painful movement.
"Are you alright?"
For the first time there was a broken smile through the tangled mass of hair. "In the head, you mean? About as close to alright as ever, I guess." Again the waves of memory began to rise up and threatened to suck her down again, but she looked to Gabrielle, and without saying anything the girl moved to her and held her tightly in her arms. Somehow the simple humanity of that action chased away the darkness for that moment, and brought the warrior a fleeting taste of comfort.
"So what now?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle shifted her grip to Xena's shoulders, taking the warrior's weight as she found her feet. "We finish this, once and for all. Solon is still alive, but he doesn't have a chance unless we get out of here. Ming Tien signed a treaty naming you as the Empire's ruler - all we're waiting for is your signature. Once Alti's generals discover that... once they hear you're alive, she's lost."
There was a cynical chuckle from the warrior. "Don't count her out. She always has one last card to play, and you're the only player left to surprise."
"As long as we stick together she can't touch us," shrugged Gabrielle as she turned them towards the cell door.
A figure blocked their way, black in the meagre light of the torches in the outside hall.
"Gabrielle, I'm so disappointed. I leave on my mission of mercy, and here you are trying to raise the dead while I'm gone." Seeing Gabrielle shift her grip to hold her staff awkwardly across both their bodies, Alti frowned. "I take it this means you've chosen your side?"
"There was never any real choice, Alti."
"There's always choice, Gabrielle. Don't hide behind fate - it can be manipulated."
"Like you manipulated Xena?"
Alti shook off the shot easily. "We all manipulate each other, Gabrielle. Xena's done it to you - otherwise, why would you be aligning yourself with the Destroyer of Nations? You know what she's done... what she's capable of." Alti held a hand up, to forestall the expected rebuttal. "Don't let her fool you with this contrite, redemptive act, Gabrielle. Xena hasn't changed. She'll always be an ambitious, violent killer. It's deep in her bones. And she can no more control that side of her than any animal can. It's one of the things I love about her," she finished with a smirk.
"Gabrielle knows who I am, and she knows the choice she has to make," came Xena's hoarse voice. The warrior was standing unaided now, and the glow was back in her eyes. "She knows the risks."
"Does she?" countered Alti. "Gabrielle, you told me that you wanted what was best for you and the Empire. Tell me this - which is better - peace and prosperity, or starvation and fear? How sure are you that you know your own mind?"
Gabrielle snorted in derision. "What would you know of peace? All you think about is hatred - you want the chaos."
"And you are bringing it to us," came Alti's response. Gabrielle shook her head. "Take a look outside, Gabrielle. You said yourself Corinth is falling apart. Do you really want to plunge these people into a deeper crisis? By aligning yourself with Xena, you're bringing war. Civil war. The suffering of all those people out there will be on your head, because you're making the wrong choice now, for all the wrong reasons."
"What do you know about reason?" countered Gabrielle furiously. "You killed Arminius for no good reason at all!"
"There's always a reason to kill someone, good or bad is only a perspective, Gabrielle. Here..." There was a flash of silver, and Gabrielle felt a knife hilt pressed against her chest. Reflexively, she gripped the hilt and felt its weight in her palm. It was thick, heavy steel with a strangely waved blade. "You don't want war. But you do want me defeated. That's a good reason to kill." Alti let go of the knife, and pushed Gabrielle's staff away. With a clatter, the forgotten stave dropped to the floor. "So do it."
Chains clattering, Xena grabbed the girl's shoulder quickly and tried to turn her around, away from the Empress and her mesmerising eyes. "Gabrielle, don't listen to her..."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena uncertainly. The warrior was staring at Alti, cold fury gleaming in her icy eyes. The girl flicked her own eyes back to Alti. The Empress raised her eyebrows, in a questioning challenge. Gabrielle shook her head, and remained dumb.
"Not even for the greater good, Gabrielle?" Alti moved closer, reached out her hand and gently raised the knife blade to her own throat. "Just think of all the lives you'll save. Or are you just not sure that killing me is the right thing to do?"
"Killing you won't achieve anything," countered Gabrielle, as Xena's fingers tightened their grip on her shoulder.
"Oh, you're wrong," replied Alti. She lightly ran her fingers along Gabrielle's knuckles, smiling as she felt the slight tremor in the girl's hand. "Ask Xena. It's death that brings results, Gabrielle. Death turns the future. Control it, and you control the world. Wouldn't you like that?" She circled Gabrielle's wrist, and caressed the soft skin on the underside of her wrist.
"I...I don't..." The girl dragged her unwilling eyes away from Alti's, and stared at where the Empress' fingers were tracing light paths up her arm. She flicked a glance back to Alti's face, and found herself captured by depthless dark eyes, in which she could see her reflection a thousand times, like tiny stars in a midnight sky. "I don't want to control..."
"Why not? You could make Corinth an Elysian Fields here on earth. Make it all those things you've ever wanted it to be. Isn't that what this was all about?" With her other hand, Alti drew Xena's hand away from Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Yes," was the uncertain response.
"Alti," came Xena's warning growl, "Leave her alone - don't do this to her."
The Empress ignored the shackled figure to her right, and focused her determined gaze on the small blonde who stood in front of her. The girl was wavering; she could smell the tangy scent coming off her in waves. "It's all yours, Gabrielle. All you have to do is tap this knife into my throat. Do it, and everything you want will be yours."
The Empress grabbed Gabrielle's wrist in a firm grasp, and held the dagger up to her own throat, its tip denting the sagging skin of her gullet. Xena grabbed for Alti's arm, but the weight of her shackles made her movements slow, and Alti knocked away Xena's arm with her free hand easily.
"No!" shouted Gabrielle, as she felt her own arm tugged. "I won't build the future on murder."
"The future will be made, Gabrielle. You may as well be the one to carve it."
"The Gods know, you deserve to die." Gabrielle's eyes hardened, and she unconsciously tightened her grip on the dagger hilt. "You and Xena both, for the things you've done. But if I kill you now, that makes me a killer. And I won't be like you."
"Me, Xena...what's the difference anyway? You'll be a killer soon enough, if you choose her. You're already a thief and a liar. It's only a small step..."
"I won't take that step, not for you," snarled Gabrielle.
Alti felt the pressure at her throat lessen, and laughed. "An Amazon who won't kill? How long do you think you'll last, out there? With Xena? You'll grow to be like her sooner than you know it. I can see it in you - it's hidden, but it's there. Anger, buried so deeply, it's like a glowing ember waiting to kindle. And what would it take to turn it into a naked flame, Gabrielle? This...?"
Alti grabbed the girl's wrist, and Gabrielle cried out as she was jolted by a vision of fire arcing high into the sky, fuelled by the wooden buildings and barns of her home village. She cried out as the full sensory experience hit her; her mouth turned as dry as the ash which lined the rough road to her home, and choking black smoke burned its way down into her chest, leaving her gasping and panicking.
Alti's grip tightened, even as Xena grabbed at the Empress and tried, unsuccessfully, to pull her off. The warrior was sent reeling across the floor with a mere flick of the shaman's wrist, the weight of her chains hampering her movements as she struggled to raise herself again. Alti turned again to the girl who was whimpering as the visions assailed her mind's eye. "Remember that, Gabrielle? All those pictures you've forced far to the back of your memories. Potadaia. Razed to the ground. How old were you?"
Gabrielle, hand reaching to her chest, steadied herself and took a few gulping breadths. She turned fiery eyes to the Empress, and raised the knife to Alti's chest. "I know what you're trying to do."
"It must've taken you years to get over the nightmares. If you ever did?"
"I didn't," the girl spat, the cold light in her eyes making them like emerald chips.
"It still festers, doesn't it Gabrielle? Especially now that you've been with Xena all this time. Trying not to think about what she did. The things that you saw that day...they made your blood rage, didn't they?" Alti's smile broadened in satisfaction as the girl remained mute. "Your anger and hatred is like a vicious snake, curled in your belly and waiting for the strike. Feel it stirring inside you. Who did you take it out on that day, Gabrielle?"
"Perdicus," was the mumbled reply. "He pulled me back from my house - or what was left of it. Wouldn't let me go in. Even though I bit him and kicked him, he... wouldn't let go!"
"And you hated him for that, didn't you? Hated him for his restraint...for not feeling the same as you did." Gabrielle nodded, her eyes glued to the Empress'. "Who did you hate most?"
"Xena," Gabrielle spat, not seeing the flinch from the warrior who had struggled to her knees. "And myself. I hated all of us, for surviving."
"Such delicious hatred. Didn't it give you a purpose through the following years, Gabrielle? It fills the heart, and whispers through the veins. Even when you think it's gone, it's just laid low in the place where the soul used to be... the smallest thing can wake it."
Gabrielle reared back with a cry as more visions assaulted her. Scorched earth, blackened bodies and crucified victims lined the fields around the pyre that was her hometown. And the feel of Perdicus' hands on her, his fingers gouging her shoulders as he fought to hold her back and control his own rising terror. The knife dropped from nerveless fingers, but Alti's grip on her wrist held her fast and upright.
"My family!" she screamed, as fat tears squeezed through her shut eyelids.
"The fire..." Xena broke her silence, unable to stand the pain distorting the girl's face. "It was an accident... my men... I don't know why..." The sight of Gabrielle's tear streaked cheeks brought her hesitant speech to a stop; there was nothing she could say, save a weak, "I'm sorry."
Alti laughed. "She's sorry, Gabrielle. Isn't that nice? And still denying it after all these years. Here, Gabrielle - have a look at what really happened at Potadaia. I'll let you share my memories of that day. Xena will never let you know the truth."
As she crested the brow of the small hill - she could catch the sharp scent of bonfire on the breeze. Then suddenly she was standing atop the summit, breathing in the pure, smoke-free air and looking down on the small village, soaring higher and higher on the wind currents until she could see the whole village laid out, ringed by Xena's forces. She could see the Destroyer of Nations, resplendent in her black leather battledress atop a majestic ebony mount and for the moment, the sight took her breath away.
The world stilled for a second, until the figure on horseback raised its sword and screamed, "Take the village!"
The thunder of hooves roared amidst terrified cries and valiant shouts, battle-cries and screams of agony and her own raging heartbeat thundering in her ears. And yet, over it all the single, blood curdling call to battle of the Warrior Princess pierced the cacophony as she moved through the battle like she was in a deadly, choreographed dance.
Alti retrieved the fallen knife, and wrapped Gabrielle's fingers around it. "See what she's like, Gabrielle? How much she enjoys it. It's sexual for her." She resumed her grip on the girl's wrist. "Every kill brings release."
...All slashes and thrusts and parries and feints, she watched as Xena slaughtered her people. One after another, remorseless and unhesitating and with every one, she could see the Destroyer's face harden in a death's head smile, the light in her frozen blue eyes slowly fading...
"There's no forgiveness there. No mercy. No understanding. Just the senseless and selfish desires that feed her. She's insatiable. Scratch that surface Gabrielle, and you'll see that monster is still there. She's driven by a blind, ruthless will. She can't help herself. But you can stop her..." Alti moved Gabrielle's unresisting hand towards Xena. The warrior remained motionless.
...And her parents... then she saw her parents...
"You killed my parents," came the low growl, and Gabrielle found herself holding the dagger at Xena's breast.
The warrior could only nod. "Gabrielle...." but there was nothing more. She dropped her arms. "There are some things that can never be forgiven or understood. Even by you. If killing me will end your pain, and free you from her and me, then do it."
"Don't tempt me. I'd forgotten how much I wanted to see your blood." Gabrielle snarled.
"If it brings you peace, Gabrielle, then kill me. I can't change the past, and I can't change who I am. But don't do it to become her pawn. Alti's hatred will consume you."
"Disregard her, Gabrielle. You know the truth now. I told you, she can't help herself," interrupted Alti. "You have to do what feels right. Someone once told you to follow your heart, didn't they? Then do it. And putting Xena down would be a mercy. It's the right thing to do, and you'll feel so much better for it..."
Xena ignored her, and focused on the girl in front of her; a girl whose face she barely recognised right now. "How long would you feel better, Gabrielle? Believe me, I know what you'd feel. I know how easy it is to be seduced by revenge." She reached out, and took the girl's free hand. "Don't become another pawn for Alti. Don't become like me. You're better than that - you're better than either of us."
"Stop your babbling, Xena - let her see the truth!" growled Alti, as she grabbed Gabrielle's arm again. The girl reeled as another vision hit her.
...Xena, in the ruins of the town's tavern, drinking with her men as they toasted her victory. Her face flushed, a sneer on her face as she soaked up the cheers...
Alti whispered insidiously, "All the hurt and pain you've repressed, you can finally be rid of it. Revenge those deaths. The innocents that cry out for justice will be at peace with one thrust," and again Gabrielle felt the hard steel pressed into her hand, "one thrust of this blade. Free yourself Gabrielle. Free yourself and all of them-"
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