(c) December 1997
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"The world needs you. I need you." Gabrielle's voice broke.
Xena sighed. "I have to go back," she whispered, while Gabrielle's sobs filled every crevice in her body... and soul.
Floating over her shoulder, M'Lila nodded.
Xena looked up over her shoulder a moment later and found M'Lila had gone. "M'Lila," she called out to the emptiness. "Where are you?" But the Gaelic slave who had taught her so much did not reappear.
"Find your way home, Xena," came a whispered voice. It floated to Xena tied there on her crucifixion pole in the center of a sea of lava. Xena closed her eyes and concentrated on breaking her bonds.
In her mind's eye she pictured Gabrielle, her friend, her bard. When she pulled against her bonds she suddenly fell forward. She shut her eyes tightly bracing herself for the heat of the ... rock floor?
Xena opened her eyes and realized she was on the rock floor of a cavernous tunnel. As she pushed to her feet, looking both ways down the seemingly endless corridor, Xena dusted off... her shift. Her leathers had vanished; she no longer had even her boots. Below the soles of her feet Xena felt the damp rock and on her shoulders she felt the chill of the wind as it whispered past her body.
Sensing its direction, Xena headed into the breeze, knowing wherever it entered the tunnel she would find a way out. Rubbing her arms to ward off the chill, she started walking. All the while, she turned over several thoughts in her mind. She wondered where the tunnel would take her. She wondered where she was headed. Was she in Tartarus and this would emerge into the Cavern of Terrors? Or was she headed for the Elysian Fields? Or some other place, perhaps back to the overworld, she thought as the path angled up sharply.
Xena began to wish M'Lila had stayed around. She had so many questions, and she had trusted the girl's words as truth. As she did Gabrielle's. Or had.With that brief thought of the bard, Xena was overcome with a powerful sensation, like a fist connecting with her stomach, and fighting for breath she found herself dropping to one knee against the rock floor. Involuntarily, as rocks cut her knee and palms, Xena cried out. "Ah!"
In pain, she closed her eyes and her ears picked up the sound of crashing waves coming nearer. Bracing herself, she looked ahead, expecting a deluge of water to rush upon her. The roaring grew louder until Xena was certain she should be drowning any second, but no water appeared.
The roaring sound began to fade, as if it had passed beyond her. Yet still not a drop of water appeared on the path ahead, or behind, she realized as she glanced over her shoulder. She shook her head and heard: "You always hated getting an earful." But then the cheerful voice broke. "No... Xena... Why?"
Oh gods, Xena sighed. Gabrielle is washing my body for burial. The warrior pushed back to her feet, shaking her head as if to clear the water Gabrielle had accidentally gotten in her body's ears. She stumbled forward.
The warrior in Xena found it awful that she was still linked to her body. Death was supposed to break the soul from the body. Another part of Xena, the part that ached when she'd seen Gabrielle's fierce determination to take on Callisto after Perdicas was killed, was glad she'd be able to feel the touch of life for a while longer. There was no pain, just the brush of a warm breeze on her body, the damp air of being surrounded by Gabrielle's grief. Though it pained her that Gabrielle grieved, every moment she heard the bard's voice refreshed Xena's hope that she would make it back to the overworld.
Though at the moment she had no idea how she was going to do that. The tunnel seemed to go on forever. Xena kept walking but she was beginning to tire. She 'felt' the bard fall asleep while crying over her again. In response she too wanted to just sit down and close her eyes, just for a moment.
Xena slid down to a cross-legged position on the floor of the rock tunnel, leaning her head back against the wall. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. Just a moment's rest, she told herself while listening to the calming beat of her heart as it echoed in her head.
The bard had cried herself out while thinking about a time that she'd accidentally tickled the warrior while they were bathing. Xena now drifted through her own recollection of the moment they had shared.
She had asked Gabrielle to wash her back. She didn't remember why in particular, but seemed to recall it had to do with a wound she'd received earlier that day.Gabrielle examined her back and said, "It looks better already."
"My fabled 'remarkable healing powers'," she told the bard with a chuckle.
"What is the story there?" Gabrielle asked while applying the lathered cloth.
Xena shrugged. "Not sure," she replied casually. "As long as I can remember, I think."
Gabrielle laughed and scrubbed gently around the wound. That was when it happened.
"Stop," gasped Xena, grabbing the bard's hand as it traced over toward her left side.
Xena swallowed and met Gabrielle's eyes. The curiosity the warrior found made her admit sheepishly, "I'm ticklish."
"Oh, okay. You want to finish up?" The bard started to pass the cloth.
Xena shook her head. "Just be careful."
So Gabrielle, had, for the moment switched to Xena's right side. "It's okay over here, right?"
"Yes." She'd been about to thank Gabrielle when the bard returned to her earlier train of thought.
"So you have no idea at all how it is you heal ten times faster than any person I've ever met?" Gabrielle's scrubbing of Xena's back continued as she waited for Xena's response.
"No, I don't." She looked over her shoulder again at the younger woman. "Why does it matter?"
"Not even an idea? Hmm..." Gabrielle pondered something a moment. "See, if I were writing your story-"
"You are," interjected Xena with a smile.
Gabrielle smiled back. "Okay. I mean if I was going to make up your story, I'd say that a goddess, probably Athena, gifted you with it. She'd know, see, because the Fates would have told her what a wonderful person you'd become." Gabrielle's voice had taken on an impassioned quality. Then just as suddenly she stopped, hurried back to her washing. Xena didn't have time to think about the bard's words before she felt Gabrielle's hand and the cloth directly on her tickle spot.
Her knees buckled and she collapsed, sputtering in the small spring where they had chosen to bathe.
"Oh gods, I'm sorry, Xena!" Gabrielle struggled to pull Xena to her feet.
Xena laughed. She laughed for being caught off guard. She laughed because it felt so good. But Gabrielle had been horror-struck. So the warrior tried to soothe. Still chuckling, she said, "No problem, Gabrielle. Just do better." Then she chucked the bard under the chin and splashed her in the face.
There was a pressure on her side as Xena opened her eyes. I have to get out of here, she thought.
As she pushed to her feet to continue, she heard Gabrielle's voice again. This time it was calm; her inquisitor's voice.
"I would love to know the story behind him, Xena. Nicklio, I mean. How'd you meet him? Did he teach you any of your healing skills? Some of the ones you taught me?" Gabrielle's voice softened. "Did he save your life once before? Back when you were a warlord, I mean. Or did you come here for instruction once upon a more peaceful time?"
As Gabrielle's voice grew silent again, Xena sighed. "If I get out of this Gabrielle, I promise you I will tell you about anything you want."
Then pain hit Xena. Gabrielle had gone from calm to tense and was still growing sadder. Xena paused in her walk and tried to reach out, to find Gabrielle's thoughts.
It wasn't hard. The warrior drew back a bit at the sharp renewal of pain. "Oh, Gabrielle, please. Please don't go there. We don't need this," Xena murmured as she finally saw where the bard's mind had gone: back to the forests surrounding Cirra, to Xena's battle, her last battle with the Children of the Sun.
Xena found herself in a forest glade, fighting her battle with the Children of the Sun again. She heard her own voice call out, saw Gabrielle run, saw the other villagers run after her. She remembered wishing them away to safety then turning back to her opponent.
She flashed ahead to meeting Gabrielle and the others on the path, and then the final fight with the leader of the kidnappers. But now she saw it happening to her.
She flashed Gabrielle her cockiest smile, the one that told the bard 'I took care of everything.' But she hadn't. Suddenly the leader reappeared, leaping out of nowhere, and engaged the warrior in a fierce hand-to-hand fight. He feinted, she dodged; she leapt over him and he struck out with his serrated sword. She met the challenge until she saw the girl dash from the foliage.
The girl. So like M'Lila, Xena thought. Was that why I stood transfixed? She watched herself through her final moments. Saw the log come falling toward her and the girl on the path. She watched herself shove the girl out of the way and suddenly yelled to herself to jump clear. But it wasn't her voice.
It was Gabrielle's. "Xena, look out!" She watched herself fly through the air and land with a sickening thud against the tree. She dashed across the distance and felt a terrible pain in her thigh as she dropped to her knees to see herself up close.
Xena, in her underworld tunnel began to worry. Had Gabrielle tended her wounded leg yet? Nicklio would have seen to it, Xena hoped. Still the bard had struggled all the way to Mount Nestos on that leg. The warrior shook her head. Stubborn woman. She filled with pride. Then she heard Gabrielle's voice again.
"What am I going to do now, Xena? Where do I go from here?"
Courage, Gabrielle, Xena thought. You'll find a way. You always do. And maybe soon I'll find a way to come back to you. She felt a rush of anger, and soon frustration. I hope you saw to that wound, Gabrielle. If I meet you down here, I'm going to give you a few strong words about not taking care of yourself. Understand?
The bard must have fallen asleep again because her thoughts and words ceased for a long time. Xena turned her mind to the task of getting out of this endless tunnel. She pushed against the wall of the cave, looking up and down in both directions. Still looked damned endless.
Frustration riding her hard, Xena kicked out at the wall...
Her leg went right through. Slowly, she passed through the wall, emerging in a slightly brighter cavern. When she looked down, she found herself in her leathers again. In her palm she found a coin.
When she looked around she saw a vast river before her and a boat pulling slowly toward the near shore. Charon, Xena sighed. She remembered the Underworld's cheeky ferryman from her trip down to meet up with Marcus. But she didn't remember the tunnel. Different entrance for the dead, Xena guessed as she walked slowly toward the docking ferry.
"Hello, Xena," Charon said, stepping one bony leg and foot out onto the dock to steady the boat. "You spent a long time in the tunnel, kiddo. So, you're finally ready to take your trip, eh?"
"I have to go back," Xena replied.
"Don't know anything 'bout that," he replied, his eyes studying her from beneath his cowl. "Just give me yer coin and I'll ferry y'over t'other side." He pointed over his shoulder then held out his hand.
"No." Xena gripped the coin tightly in her fist and shook her head.
"Now, listen. There ain't no way back. The Underworld's
exactly as it should this time around. And you ain't alive, Xena. You're dead. You can't do nothin' about it standin' here." Charon pinned her with his sunken gaze and Xena tried to stare him down. But nothing happened. He didn't budge and she began to squirm.
"If you wanna wait there'll be more passengers soon I'm sure and you can go over as part of a group." He shrugged. "Some'r funny that way. Never want to do anything alone. But wouldn't have expected it of you, Xena. Not the woman I met who charged down here looking for Marcus on a mission to save the very Underworld itself."
Xena bristled. "You saying I'm afraid to face my judgement, Charon?"
Charon shrugged. "I ain't sayin' nothing."
Xena sat down on the dock, studying the murky depths of the Styx. She was silent for a long time. Then she heard Gabrielle's voice again.
"I know I never told you. But did you know anyway? Did you know I came back, not because I'd regained my confidence, but because I knew I didn't fit in at home anymore?" There was a pause. Then quietly, "In only a few short moons, Xena, you had become my home. Nothing else seemed to make any sense any more."
The bard jumped and Xena realized that the bard was on the road. She chuckled and murmured as she heard the forest sounds surrounding her friend, "It's just an owl, Gabrielle."
Charon studied her. "Problem?"
Xena nodded. "I keep hearing my friend."
"She misses you? You, a beat up old warlord?" He continued his steady stirring of the water, pushing them across the wide expanse.
Xena bristled again. "Ex-warlord. Though I suppose you're right. I probably changed too late for the distinction to make a difference." She sighed and stood. "I'm ready to go." She pressed her coin into Charon's bony hand and stepped onto the ferry.
"You never know, Xena," was all Charon said as he pushed the boat away from the dock. The oar slurped a bit as it pulled through the swirling waters. Xena felt a bit of a pull as the boat was caught in a small eddy.
"Is the ride always this bumpy?" she asked the ferryman as she sat down in the front, giving herself a clear view of the bank they'd left. She pondered her situation and asked, "Will I get to see Hades?"
Charon shrugged. "Dunno. Depends on how in-between your case is. I know a lot about you, but he knows everything." Xena nodded and fell to contemplation again. "If I was a bettin' man -- and believe me I was -- I'd say you're gonna be one of Hades' personally troublesome cases."
"You think I was that bad?" Xena snorted. "Well I know I was that bad, Charon. Nothing new there. I wonder though. What weights the scale on the other side?" She shook her head. "Gabrielle always figured I'd make the Elysian Fields someday, I think."
"She going there?" Charon asked.
Xena stood in the boat and challenged the ferryman. "She'd never go anywhere else, Charon. She's the purest soul I've ever met."
Unconcerned with her taking exception to his implications, Charon shrugged. "She's been traveling with you for what? Two cycles?"
"You don't think some of you rubbed off on her?"
"Gabrielle could never be evil. I tell you Hades won't even need to think twice. She's bound for paradise. Funny though, I never concerned myself about where I'd end up -- till I met her."
"She made you think, hmm?"
"She was the best friend I ever had, Charon."
"Better than Marcus?"
Xena nodded. "Marcus was different. Gabrielle is... Gabrielle is... everything."
"Sounds like it's not so different, Xena. You love Gabrielle too."
Xena nodded. "It's easy to say that, but is it really true?"
"You've heard her voice all the way to the Styx, Xena. That's unusual. Her feelings for you are strong. Part of why you were so reluctant to cross was because she's reluctant to let you cross."
Xena closed her eyes. Was it true? "Last spring, I took Gabrielle through a war zone, Charon. I... She got wounded rescuing a little boy. Did you ferry her across then?"
"Nope," came the quick reply. "I remember that one. She cried forever. Wouldn't come anywhere near the water. Kept yelling that it hurt, but she couldn't ignore it and suddenly..." Charon got this faraway look and a smile cracked his bony visage. "Suddenly she just vanished. Right off the bank of the Styx. Most amazing thing I've ever seen. Care to fill in what happened up top?"
Xena frowned. Gabrielle had lied about seeing her family? Why? And immediately she knew the answer. To make Xena stop blaming herself for bringing Gabrielle through the war zone. Xena had, for the most part, forgiven herself, because as the bard related her stories of her family in her short visit to the Elysian Fields, she kept telling the warrior it was good memories.
"I called her back I guess. I got... a little carried away," Xena finally answered the ferryman's question. "She came back to life gasping in my arms in a temple in Thessaly."
Charon harrumphed. "Sounds to me like you've both got a pretty tight hold on each other. That's a good thing, in most cases."
"When one of you ends up one place and one ends up in the other, both are a torment. Hades only had one case, that I can recollect, where he sent an Elysian resident to be with someone being punished in Tartarus."
"Who was it?" Xena combed her knowledge of the myths suddenly wishing for Gabrielle's expertise in that area.
"Callisto's mother wouldn't stay in the Fields when her daughter came to Tartarus. She was causing such an uproar trying to get over to see her daughter that Hades just gave in and sent her there to soothe the warrior woman who was going just as crazy, but deservedly so."
Xena sighed. "Callisto... Oh Hades! I almost forgot about her."
"You won't see her, I'm pretty sure," Charon said. The boat rocked slightly and then bumped something. Xena looked around and saw that they were at the other shore. "Everybody off," Charon commented quietly, stepping up to secure the boat.
Xena stepped onto the bank and looked around. "Which way, Charon?"
"Straight ahead, down that corridor." He pointed to a opening hewn in the rock.
Xena sighed. "Another tunnel." She looked back over her shoulder as Charon was shoving off. "This one isn't endless... Is it?"
Charon chuckled and then let go with a full laugh.
"I'll have to take that as a 'yes'," Xena said under her breath. "Gods, why me?"
She looked around at where she really was, and saw a
small glow at the far end. Curiosity, stronger in her than several cats she'd
kept as a little girl, drove her forward to seek its source.
Xena found a circular well of granite bricks and saw several people standing near. She stepped close and a wave of the people parted, allowing her to look down, hands braced on the edge. She pulled back, her face covered in wetness.
"Gabrielle?" she whispered, looking back at the water's surface. Gabrielle was red-cheeked from rubbing at tears, and her nose a soft shade of pink, rippled in the water's surface, her green eyes shifting as she murmured.
"Can you believe that, Xena? I've got enough to worry about just traveling alone. But I worry about some imagined wacko trying to steal you." Gabrielle laughed emptily and Xena noticed that the bard was standing chest deep in a river fishing with her hands.
Xena got to watch the bard using the skills she'd taught her and the sight made her proud. In a trice Gabrielle had snared a perch. Then, surprise, she found an eel squirming in her grip. She couldn't keep holding on to the slippery writhing creature and it escaped, but the moment had happened.
"I almost had him, Xena!" She exclaimed, wading to the bank. "Bet even you'd have trouble hanging on to that!" Then suddenly the bard began crying again. Xena watched Gabrielle bring herself under control enough to strip the fish and lay the pieces over Argo's saddle to dry.
The bard bit her lower lip, and Xena bit her own in unconscious sympathy. Without really thinking about it, she reached out and touched the water's surface, rippling the image just as she touched Gabrielle's cheek. Xena closed her eyes and backed away from the pool. She bumped into someone and turned, looking into the face of a very sad man.
"Excuse me," he said, his voice breaking. "I'd like to see my wife and son." He backed up as Xena straightened.
Xena consciously removed her fierce look from being bumped, and gestured to the pool. "What is that?"
"It's the vision pool," he said, stepping quickly past her. "Everyone gets one look in it before they enter for Hades' judgement."
Xena bit her lip. Well, I had my one shot. Come on, warrior. What'd you think? She was going to be able to save you? You're down here, getting what you deserve. She's up there. She'll survive this, and go on. She shouldn't have met you in the first place. What *were* you doing in that glade outside Poteidaia that day anyway? You've been waiting for this too long. Just take your lumps and...
"Are you Xena, the Warrior Princess?" A young voice interrupted Xena's reverie.
The warrior turned and saw a small girl, probably about nine or ten years of age, tugging at her skirt. "Yes, I am." She braced herself. Her torment was obviously going to start before she'd even been judged.
"Thank you for saving my mommy and daddy," the girl said.
Xena felt all the air escape from her lungs. "What?"
"You saved my mommy and daddy from those kidnappers. Thank you."
"But I didn't save you, did I?"
"I was already dead," said the girl in calm reply. "One of them killed me in the first moments of the raid."
"Was this outside Cirra? Just a quarter moon ago?" The girl nodded, and Xena shook her head. "I don't know what to say."
The girl took her hand. "You can have my turn at the well if you want it." She tugged Xena toward the well.
Xena protested, "No, I couldn't. You need to see your family." She hefted the girl up and held her over the water. "Go on, you should see them."
As the girl touched the water, Xena saw the vision too. It was a man and a woman she vaguely remembered running away from the Children of the Sun that day not so long ago. The girl touched their cheeks. Each one smiled momentarily before they turned back to whatever they had been doing.
Gabrielle didn't smile when I touched her, Xena thought. I can't even comfort her right, the warrior lamented. She remembered when she tried to soothe Gabrielle after Perdicas died. The bard hadn't cracked a single smile even then. I really was no good for her, Xena thought.
"You can put me down now." The girl calm voice brought the warrior back to the present.
"All right," Xena replied absently, putting the girl down after wending her way back away from the well. "What do we do next?"
"We get in line for judgement," came the succinct reply. A weather-beaten old man smiled at her with a grin in bad need of cleaning his few remaining teeth. "It'll be days, but if we don't get in line now it'll be even longer a wait."
Xena nodded and stepped in behind the old man. Her eye drifted back to the well. I'm sorry Gabrielle, I don't know what else to do, Xena thought, dropping her head and moving into the line with the old man.
But then a strange thing happened. The line vanished, and Xena found herself standing in front of Hades. He looked no better and no worse than the last time she had seen him, when relinquishing Marcus to him.
"Hello, Xena," he said.
"How'd I end up here?"
"You got bumped to the head of the line. Your advocate is ready to speak."
Xena shook her head. "I haven't spoken with anyone since I got here except Charon and a little girl I met near the well."
Hades shook his head. "No, your advocate is from the overworld."
Xena thought a moment. Hades nodded. "Gabrielle," the warrior sighed. "What's she doing now?"
"She's talking about you in a stable at a village not far from Amphipolis."
Really? Thought Xena. This ought to be interesting. "How does that make her my advocate?"
"She's making the choice to clear up the boy's misunderstandings. What else would you define as an advocate? Now hush." Hades waved a massive hand and a small globe, not unlike those "Fortune" globes Salmoneus tried to sell last moon, floated between Hades and Xena, about chest high for the God who was seated on his raised dais throne.
Gabrielle was seated on a bale of hay. Nearby Xena saw Argo munching her dinner and a youth sat opposite the bard, fingering a pair of dinars.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"My best friend," Gabrielle replied.
"Does the warrior have a name?"
"How'd you know she was a warrior?"
"Who else would have a shield welded to their burial box?" He ran a hand over the selfsame scrollwork. "Well? Does she have a name?"
Gabrielle paused, then said, "Xena."
The boy nodded. "Okay. An Amazon, huh? Cool."
"No, Xena wasn't an Amazon."
"A woman warrior who wasn't an Amazon? Now that's wild."
Gabrielle sat forward on the bale of hay where she sat. "She was Xena, the Warrior Princess."
"That's the Warrior Princess? Destroyer of Nations?"
Gabrielle hung her head. "She wasn't like that. Not anymore."
"So who got the point?"
"Huh?" She became stiff-backed and stood, determination shining clearly in her green eyes. Xena chuckled. She'd seen it often enough to recognize the look.
"Who killed the Warrior Princess?"
"She was hit by a tree while saving a little girl."
"Wow, I'm sorry."
"No warrior should go out like that. It's a letdown."
Gabrielle sighed, loudly. She then shook her head. Xena reached up to touch the globe.
"I'll watch her," the boy said. "You don't worry about anything."
The globe faded to shadows and swirls. The image of Gabrielle and the stable and the conversation with the boy imprinted themselves on Xena's mind. She looked up at Hades, who smiled.
"So you got hit by a tree, hmm? Interesting."
"What's so interesting about that?"
"Well, it wasn't in battle. Like the boy said. Kind of a wimpy way to go out."
"Why? I was doing a good thing -- at least I thought so -- saving that girl from the tree."
"Oh, it was a good thing. But there's a little something you have to know, Xena, because of who you are. You're not allowed to come until you die in battle. Getting hit by a tree doesn't count."
"What?" Xena shook her head. "I'm dead, Hades. What else is there to be done? I have to die in battle? That's ridiculous."
"Nope, I'm sorry it isn't. I can't explain it to you now. My hands are tied about the story behind all this, but, um, suffice it to say the God of War will have my head."
"Ares? Ares is making you send me back up there? That's crazy. He knows I'll never serve him again. Dead or alive." Xena turned and yelled at the ceiling, ignoring Hades' involuntary cringe at the sheer volume she put into her scream. "Ares! You bastard, get down here right now!"
"Hey, hey, watch the name calling. I'm not a bastard. Mom and Dad are duly married," came the throaty chuckle-laden reply as Ares materialized about six paces from Xena.
She balled her hands into fists and resisted the urge to hit him. He'd gone too far this time. Interfering in her death, just to get her back. "How much lower can you go?"
Ares laughed. "Not much," he replied honestly, giving Hades a glance. "Hi, Uncle." He turned back to Xena. "We're at the bottom of the world here, Xena. And you're supposed to be on top of it."
"Not by your hand I won't. Whatever deal you've made with Hades, you undo it. Now."
Ares shook his head, cocked an eyebrow at Hades, then back at Xena. "It's a lot tougher up there than you think, Xena. Gabrielle's all alone."
Xena narrowed her eyes. What in Hades' name... She glanced in sudden amusement at the subject of her almost epithet. "What are you scheming now, Ares? My answer will always be no."
Ares shook his head. "You're really quite stubborn Xena. I've always been fascinated by that. I've never had anyone refuse me as often as you do."
"Then find a more biddable warlord, Ares. I'm no longer walking that path."
"Oh, Xena, you will always walk that path," Ares replied. "Just for now, you've taken a bit of a fork off the road."
Xena huffed and turned her back on the God of War. "Hades?"
"Like I said, Xena. It isn't your time yet. He's allowed to take you out of here."
Xena turned back to Ares. "Why?"
Ares studied her for a moment, then realized that she couldn't hear what he did. She didn't hear the bard's stories in the tavern. She didn't hear the people cheering her. She thought this was only about her. Well, even Ares had suddenly discovered, through the bard's passionate words, nothing was ever only about one person. It was about entire worlds. As much as it pained him to do this without his usual sarcasm, he said earnestly, "You have to go back, Xena. Not for me, but for Gabrielle." It helped, he realized, that if she did go back, he might get some small benefit out of it... somewhere along the line.
"What do you care about Gabrielle?"
"Listen, I'm not particularly fond of the brat, but until she lets you go, I can't have you back. So I'd much rather you spend a little more time together, learn to hate each other, and then," he twisted with a crafty laugh, "then I have you."
He pulled Hades' globe toward him and touched it, subjecting Xena's faltering resolve to another vision of her bard friend. This time Gabrielle stood in front of a tavern crowd, telling the story of Xena and Hercules' fight with Prometheus. The bard talked of trees in the forest -- Xena remembered her original conversation with Gabrielle on that concept. Then the blonde's hands, face and body became wrapped up in the description of Xena flying with the Roc overhead.
Xena saw herself as a hero. For the first time she really saw herself as heroic as a Hercules, or a Jason, or an Agamemnon, men who risked their lives for everything and everyone else. It was an incredible moment. M'Lila's words rushed back upon her, crashing with her senses as she felt awash in the bard's gaze seeming to pierce the globe and grab her throat, choking off her heartbeat. You knew evil, Xena. You were evil. Now you can fight evil. "I do have to go back," she whispered. She turned to Hades. "I won't go back owing him anything, Hades. Find me another way."
Hades looked from Ares to Xena and back to Ares. "Can I talk to you for a minute? Alone?"
Ares nodded, and he and Hades vanished, to confer privately. Xena reached up and grasped the globe out of the air, holding onto Gabrielle as she walked to the stable with Darius at her side.
Darius asked for the story of how she died. In the Underworld chamber waiting for Ares and Hades' return, Xena wept while Gabrielle struggled to tell of her death, concluding only with a choked, "It shouldn't have happened."
Xena wiped her own face and wished she could tell Gabrielle she would be coming back. It seemed odd that Ares would fight so adamantly for her return to the overworld, even knowing that she would oppose him, and his plans, until her dying breath. She had thought when she breathed her last that he would be happy about it. She'd been nothing but trouble.
Someday she'd have to find out what Ares' real agenda was concerning her. Until then, she thought, studying Gabrielle's face as the bard cried herself to sleep, I can spend my life making it up to Gabrielle and the rest of the world.
Xena couldn't tell Ares how happy she was. He'd probably find a reason despite his hidden agenda to deny her the chance to return above. But he'd renewed her faith in herself to accomplish her personal goal: redemption. She tamped down on the smile. It wouldn't do to have him thinking she was even the slightest bit grateful to him.
When Ares and Hades reappeared, Xena released the globe and it floated back to Hades' hand. "Xena, I'm going to tell you of a way you can return to the overworld. You'll need some help. No dead can touch things in the overworld directly."
"What do I have to do?"
"You need to get the ambrosia."
"And if I fail?"
Ares smiled deviously. "Then you don't return to the overworld any other way except with my help. And I know just how much you want that."
Hades nodded. "You want out of here without his help, Xena. That's the only way to do it."
Xena considered that. "What's involved?" She turned to Hades.
Ares nodded satisfied that Xena would be in the overworld again in only a short time. Then he walked into the mists and disappeared, returning, no doubt, to his Olympian home.
Hades explained in detail the whereabouts of the Dagger of Helios, key to the ambrosia, pointing out though that a map found up there was the only way she could get a living person to the ambrosia cavern. He explained that she could pick anybody who thought about her, and enter the world again through their body. Until the ambrosia was given to her corpse, she could not enter her own body.
Thinking it would be Gabrielle, and she could comfort
the bard at the same time they sought the ambrosia, Xena suggested that she
jump into the first person that spoke her name in the next five minutes...
In a tavern about a day from Amazon territory, Autolycus spread a set of plans out on the table. He wanted that dragon stone. Its price would pay for very nice lodgings for the next cycle, maybe two. Then he remembered Hercules telling him the stone wasn't go to pay for a burial box if he got caught.
At the conversation next to him, his ears perked up. "I heard she's dead. The Warrior Princess."
His companion growled and spit. "Good. We'll go after the body. What a price we'll make!"
"Excuse me," asked Autolycus. "Is that Xena you're talking about?"
At that moment, Autolycus got a really bad stomachache as the two men nodded at him.
Inside Autolycus, Xena groaned. "Not you," she thought. "I had to jump into the biggest womanizer in five provinces." Then she thought... Wonder how much control I can get out of him?
Autolycus looked over his food and studied it. "This stuff stinks. Let's go get some good wine."
Xena chuckled. Okay, so I can plant ideas in his head. That's a start.
She spent the rest of the day pushing him through some of his routine. He'd have a thought and she'd alter it slightly. Eventually she pushed him away from his idea to go after the dragon stone, convincing him that the Dagger of Helios was a much bigger prize worthy of the talents of the King of Thieves.
By the end of that week, however, as Autolycus made his plans for getting into the Helosian temple, Xena was beginning to discover that Autolycus had a reasonable heart covered by a lot of bluster. Also he was quite confident when it came to assessing his abilities for a job.
Additionally he was seldom wrong about himself. She watched him talk his way past several guards when she would have resorted to hitting them instead. She watched him work his magic on the priestess at the temple gate. Xena slipped quietly into his subconscious while he made his way into the temple's primary altar room.
Then she had a problem. She could still hear Gabrielle at times. Finally she heard something that made her task more urgent: Gabrielle was going to commit Xena's body to the Amazon funeral fire. Without her body to return to, Xena would never get back. So she pushed Autolycus a little faster through his job. That almost cost them. He fell and tried to leave without the leather book. She picked him up bodily and forced him to grab the book.
"Oh, okay, I think I get the idea," he groaned, thrusting the book inside his shirt. With another throw, Autolycus threw up his claw and his heart was racing (as was Xena's) as he threw himself up the rope, barely missing losing a foot to a scimitar swipe.
Xena prayed she could get Autolycus to listen to her. She stopped him from drinking himself silly, and finally, she talked to him. The confident King of Thieves nearly jumped out of his skin. But she had to get through to him and begin her quest in earnest. Now. "Autolycus, calm down. It's me, Xena."
"It can't be. Xena's... dead." He groaned. "What would a dead woman want with me?"
"I need a favor from the King of Thieves."
Autolycus thought, Yeah, right.
She dragged him toward a water barrel. Autolycus had a brief thought she was going to dunk him. She didn't. When he caught her face in the reflective surface, he gasped, and the bargaining could now begin.