They were ready to leave just before dawn the next morning. Lila had packed them enough food for a few days, ordering Hercules to make sure that Gabrielle ate during their journey.
"You're much too skinny," she insisted, poking her sister in the ribs.
Gabrielle smiled tolerantly, and then hugged her. "I love you, too, Lila."
"I know." Lila gave her a tight squeeze, and then stood back so Gabrielle could climb up onto Argo. "I hope you find a way to bring her back, Gabby."
"Me too." Sarah put her arm around her mother, smiling up at Gabrielle. "Be safe."
"We will." Refusing to actually say "goodbye", Gabrielle kneed Argo forward, turning toward the road that would take them back to Amphipolis.
She heard Hercules say something to her family before trotting his horse to catch up to her. "They're worried about you."
"I know. Lila has always worried about me. She was never really thrilled with the idea of me traveling the world, even though she knew it was what I was meant to do." She laughed. "I guess it's a sister thing."
Hercules contemplated that. "I guess I can understand that. Even though I only have one sister I would ever really worry about."
"Aphrodite?" she asked.
"Aw, that's so sweet." A very familiar voice joined their conversation. "I always knew I could count on you, Bro."
He laughed, looking over his left shoulder as his sister made her presence known. "Only for you, Aphrodite. Only for you."
"Yes, I know." She floated next to Hercules' horse, her sheer pink covering flowing in a slight breeze. She was dressed in her usual pink nightie, her blonde tresses perfectly coifed and cascading down her back. She lightly kissed Hercules on the cheek, then turned her attentions to the only mortal she cared about. "Gabby!"
"Hi Aphrodite." Gabrielle pulled Argo to a stop as the goddess of love floated before her.
Aphrodite embraced her, giving her a kiss on the cheek as well. "How are you doing? Are you able to write yet? I could take you to one of my temples and we could have another session..."
Gabrielle chuckled, waving her friend away. "No, no. That won't be necessary." She glanced sideways at Hercules. "As a matter of fact, I think I've finally broken my writer's block. Hercules and I are on our way "
"To get Xena's ashes, I know." Aphrodite slowly shook her head. "Little One, I want you to know that I'm here to help in any way I can."
Flashes of Aphrodite's spells gone awry went through Gabrielle's mind and she bit her lip to keep from laughing at one particular memory of Xena throwing fish at a band of thugs. "We don't know exactly what we're going to do yet, but I do appreciate your offer."
"No problem. Anything for my favorite mortal." Aphrodite turned an unusually serious expression toward Gabrielle. "I'm here for you, Little One. Okay?"
Her breath caught in her throat and Gabrielle was almost afraid to speak, not wanting to bring herself to tears again. "Okay," she said, still smiling when the goddess popped back to wherever it was she went.
Hercules nudged his horse forward, prompting Gabrielle to do the same. "C'mon. If we hurry, we can be there by tomorrow night."
Gabrielle urged Argo into a canter. "Wanna race?"
He found himself staring at the urn and feeling an odd sense of peace, despite the fact that none of it seemed real. Xena was the strongest warrior ever known. How could she possibly be dead? And how would Gabrielle be without her best friend?
Virgil sighed and stepped back from the mantle. "I have to find Gabrielle," he spoke to himself, his voice softly echoing in the crypt.
"Good idea, Son."
He froze at the sound of the voice of his childhood hero. It had to be his imagination.
"Virgil, its me." The voice was insistent. "Turn around."
Slowly, the young man turned around to face the apparition. When he saw the youthful face of the man standing before him, he broke down and cried. "Dad?"
"Yeah," Joxer shook his head. "Cmon boy, dont start crying. We dont have time for that."
"Sorry." Virgil swiped at the tears with the back of his hand and stepped toward his father. "I never thought Dad, I "
Joxer held up his hands to stop him. "Its okay. Just listen very carefully. Theres something you gotta do."
Virgil listened as the spirit of his father explained his mission. "You can count on me, Dad."
"I know I can, Son." Joxer smiled, his hand resting on Virgils shoulder. He gave it an affectionate squeeze.
"I miss you, Dad." Virgil reached out, letting his hand touch Joxers arm. The warmth there surprised him.
Joxer choked back sudden tears, determined not to cry in front of his son. "Yeah--I love you, too, boy. Now, get going. Times wasting."
"You got it." He turned back to the mantle, a renewed sense of purpose taking him forward. His fingers were around the urn when she walked in.
"Virgil?" Eve asked, taking deliberate steps toward him. "What are you--," she stopped when she saw the man standing behind Virgil. He looked familiar. "Who are you?"
Joxer held her gaze for a moment, reminding himself this was not the same woman. Livia had killed him, but it was Eve that stood before him now. He tried to bring up images of the babe he once held--the baby he would have died to protect.
"You know me, Eve," he said, waiting for her reaction.
"Joxer." Her breath caught in her throat as she looked from him to Virgil. "Im so sorry--what I did--,"
"It was my time, Eve. I know that now." Joxer surprised himself by forgiving her. "Look, Virgil has a mission--one that comes directly from " he glanced skyward, "Eli."
"Eli?" Eve looked to her friend, who shrugged. "What kind of mission?"
"If I only had thirty seconds to live, this is how Id want to live them--looking into your eyes."
I had never seen such intensity in Xenas eyes before that moment and it scared me more than I could ever describe.
"Always remember I love you."
"Why are you doing this?" I demanded to know, after making her release the pinch. "Why are you showing me this now?"
"I want you to know everything I know."
And with that we headed off to battle. My best friend--my soulmate--sending me in the wrong direction so that I would not die with her. For she knew she had to die in order to stop Yodoshi.
"You gave your life for them, Xena. Why wasnt that enough?" she sighed, wishing her friend were there and hoping that they would find a way to make it possible.
"Still talking to yourself, eh? Guess some things never change."
Gabrielle jumped to her feet at the sound of his voice, dropping her scroll and nearly spilling the ink. "Joxer!"
"The one and only." He proudly put his hands on his hips, puffing out his chest, making his tin armor rattle. "Hi, Gabby."
She laughed at his goofy grin, realizing just how much shed missed it. "Joxer? How why "
He sat on a log and motioned her to join him. "You know, I dont think I ever remember you being speechless." His youthful eyes twinkled with laughter.
Out of years of habit, Gabrielle reached over and tweaked his nose.
"Ow!" was his response, but his smile got bigger. "I miss that."
Gabrielle settled beside her dear friend, gazing into his soft brown eyes and seeing his love for her there. Some things never did change. "Its good to see you, Joxer."
"Yeah, Ive been watching you from ," he pointed up, "there. Eli says hello."
She nodded, remembering her brief time "up there." "Its nice, huh?"
"Yeah. Kinda lonely though. I mean, youre down here--,"
"Oh come on, Joxer. Of all our friends, none of them are there?" She asked. So many of them gone. Some had departed during the twenty-five years that she and Xena had slept.
"Well, uh, yeah. Some, I guess." He still would not look at her. "Perdicus is there, uh, Minya, your folks. Oh yeah, and Eli."
Gabrielle gently lifted his chin so he would meet her gaze. "Then why are you lonely? You should be happy there."
"Cant be happy. Not when youre so sad." Joxer sighed, then tried his best not to trip on his own words. "You should stop feeling guilty about my death." At her surprised reaction, he continued. "The dead hear your thoughts, you know."
"I know," she replied, feeling the tears on her face. "But it was my fault. If I hadnt gone to Livias camp youd "
"Have died in bed that night." Joxer reached a tentative hand toward her cheek, his gentle touch removing her tears. "Gabby, I died the way I wanted to. I died protecting my friend."
She grasped his hand and placed a soft kiss on his palm. "And I love you for it."
His smile was bittersweet. "I know." He had always known that she loved him as a dear friend-never more. He was okay with that. He knew that there was someone else she loved.
"So, whats the real reason for your visit?"
"Eli sent me to give a message to Virgil--I decided to visit you before I go back." He pulled her into a quick embrace, then held her back at arms length. "You look tired--you need to rest."
"I cant Joxer. Not until I bring her back."
He poked a finger at her ribs. "At least eat. Youre too skinny."
"So Ive heard."
Joxer stood then, pulling her to her feet as he did. "Look, I know how badly you miss Xena, but you need to take care of yourself. You cant do anyone any good if you dont."
"Ill try. I promise." She hugged him, sensing he was about to leave. "I really do miss you."
"Yeah." He closed his eyes, memorizing the feel of her in his arms. "Look, theres one last thing I want you to do for me."
"Anything," she said honestly.
"Tell Xena that she needs to accept her redemption. Its the only way."
Gabrielle looked at him, confused. "Only way for what?"
Joxers image started to fade, his hands slipping from hers. "Goodbye Gabrielle."
"No! Joxer, wait!" She reached for him, her hands moving through the air where he had been standing. "I wont say goodbye, Joxer. Well meet again one day."
"Count on it," he replied, his voice fading into the air around her.
Gabrielle smiled, then picked up her scroll and settled back on the log.
I found the bloodied chakram in the woods outside Higuchi . . .
Virgil ambled into their camp, proudly holding dinner in his hand. "Know how to make rabbit stew?"
"Nope. Im afraid I inherited my mothers cooking skills." Eve chuckled, taking the rabbit from him. "But I will clean it."
"Good thing I know how to cook." He gave her his knife, then set about gathering cooking items while Eve worked on the rabbit. "Do you think it will work?"
Eve looked up from her task, her sharp blue eyes landing on the leather pouch that contained her mothers urn. "The last time I saw her was in the Amazon Village. I really thought Id be seeing her again." She met his gaze and smiled sadly. "I want this to work, Virgil. I missed so many years with her. We didnt have enough time."
He gently touched the leather pouch. "I hope it works, then."
Eve reached over to cover his hand with hers. "If Eli says it will, it will. We must believe that."
"I do believe in Eli--I always have." He gently removed his hand. "Its hard knowing that our quest will bring back your mother."
"But not your father." Eve took his face in her hands, looking into his dark eyes. "Virgil, I will never forgive myself for taking him from you."
Tears clouded his vision of the beautiful woman before him, whose compassionate blue eyes were nothing like the cold eyes of the woman who had murdered his father. How was it that Eve and Livia were the same person? "That was Livia, not you."
"I was Livia." Eve pulled back, letting her hands fall to her lap.
Tentatively, Virgil reached out and took her hands in his. "Eli taught that love is forgiveness, Eve. I forgive you."
For a moment, Virgil kept hold of her hands, willing Eve to see into his heart. He had forgiven her a long time ago. "Friends?"
"Friends," she said, then let the moment pass, pulling her hands away. "How about getting some firewood so you can get that wonderful stew brewing?"
"You got it."
The clear water of the viewing pool shimmered slightly, distorting the image of the blonde woman sitting by the fire. Her shoulders were hunched forward, her hand gripping a quill as she wrote about some grand adventure.
A smile crept across Xenas face. It was good to see the bard back in action. Perhaps traveling with their friend Hercules had done her some good. Xenas slender fingers touched the water, making it ripple. Gabrielles image faded away.
"I dont know what Hercules intends to do with my ashes, but Im going to have to stop him."
"Why?" The unmistakable voice of Aphrodite floated from behind Xena. "Dont you want to return?"
"Its not about what I want, or dont want, Aphrodite." Xena wheeled around to face the goddess of love, swiping a tear from her cheek. "I stayed dead for the greater goodto let the souls of those killed at Higuchi find grace. Why is that so hard to understand?" She turned back to the now darkened pool. "Why cant Gabrielle just let go?"
"Could you?" Aphrodite countered, coming to stand at Xenas side. "You were once willing to go to the other side just to be with her, when you thought she was dead. Dont you think shed do the same for you?"
"Without hesitation." Gabrielles words rang in Xenas mind. "Thats not the point."
"Isnt it?" She touched the warriors shoulder. "If you want to stay here, you should at least tell her."
Confused, Xena jerked away from Aphrodite, her expression dark. "What do you mean? She knows Im dead and that I want to stay that way."
As if explaining why the sky is blue to a child for the first time, Aphrodite shook her head. "Half-god, half-mortals have a choice. Either stay immortal in Olympus, or stay dead and go to the underworldor wherever it is now."
It took Xena a few seconds to process what the goddess had just said. "So, Belleraphon,"
"Chose Hades. After you killed him, he wanted nothing more to do with this life."
"So, what youre saying "
Patiently, Aphrodite held up her hand, locking her gaze with those ice blue eyes. "Im saying you have a choice to make."
Hercules paused when he entered their camp. Gabrielle was sitting cross-legged on her bedroll, her quill moving across the parchment with a natural grace. It was good to see her writing again. "So, what fantastic adventure are you writing about this fine morning?" he asked.
She looked up as he placed more wood on the fire, his hair still wet from his morning swim. "I sing the song of Xena-bravest of all warriors-greatest of all friends."
"Thanks." Gabrielle placed the scroll in her bag. "Hercules, have you given any thought to where were going after Amphipolis?"
"Yeah." He straightened his shirt before meeting her gaze. "If we head to the base of Mt. Olympus..."
Gabrielle was on her feet instantly, her sais in her hands. "Behind you " she moved in the direction of the sound.
"How do you do that?" He wondered, remembering how Xena had always been able to do the same thing.
The man was running down the path as if he were being chased by demons. He chanced one more look behind himself and stumbled, landing at Gabrielles feet. She reached down to help him up, but he scrambled away from her. "Hey, its okay. I just "
"Dont touch me!"
Gabrielle put her sais in her boots; stepping back so the man could stand on his own. She motioned Hercules to stay back as well.
Using one arm, the man was able to push himself up from the ground, but could only get as far as his knees. His bloodied face, covered with fresh cuts from his recent fall, stared up at them. He carefully looked Gabrielle over, as if trying to decide if he had ever seen her before. "Are you the one they call the Battling Bard of Poteidaia?"
She nodded. "Some call me that. Why?"
There was an unmistakable gleam in his eyes. "Just making sure."
The dagger was in the air before Gabrielle realized he had one. Her hand shot up out of pure instinct, catching it by the hilt inches before it became imbedded in her chest. She turned it over in her hand, then tossed it to Hercules. "Recognize this?"
Hercules examined the dagger for a moment, unable to believe what he was seeing. "Where did you get this?"
The man got to his feet, defiant in his stance. The muscles of his jaw twitched, but he would not open his mouth. He was unprepared for the speed of the small woman, falling back to his knees in agony.
Gabrielle knelt beside him, her voice eerily calm. "Ive just shut off the flow of blood to your brain. Youve got 30 seconds to live, so I suggest you use it to answer the mans question. Whered you get the dagger?"
His eyes widened; the veins of his neck distended to the point of looking as if they would burst at any moment. His voice was strained when he spoke. "I I g got it from her." He looked into Gabrielles soft green eyes, surprised by her lack of compassion. She was waiting for him to continue. "S s she said that that if I killed you she would call off the demon--that was attacking our farm animals."
Satisfied, Gabrielle released the pinch, catching the man when he fell forward. "Who is she?"
"I, I dont know her name," he coughed, wiping the blood from his nose. "She said she knew how to stop the demon--that if I found the Battling Bard and killed her with that dagger, she would make the demon stop."
"That dagger is an Amazon dagger. Was the woman who sent you after me an Amazon?"
He shook his head, closing his eyes as if trying to remember the woman in question. "No. She wore all white--had long blonde hair--I dont remember much else."
"How far is your village from here?" Hercules asked, helping the man to his feet.
"Not more than half a day." He looked at the dagger and considered making one last attempt. "The demon has already destroyed so much of our farmland. I have to stop it from killing everyone."
"Well help you." Hercules tucked the dagger into his belt, letting his hand rest on the mans shoulder. "Whats your name?"
"Atropin. Youre Hercules, arent you?"
"Yep," answered the famous hero. "As soon as my friend and I pack up our camp, we are heading out to your village."
"They havent been gone very long." Eve stood up, wiping ash from her fingers. The fire ring was still warm and smoldering. "It looks like they headed west, and in a hurry."
"West?" Virgil asked. "Why west? Shouldnt they have been heading towards us? Towards Amphipolis?"
"Yes." Eve moved toward the path, stooping when she spotted a very familiar, dark stain on the grass beside it. "Blood fresh blood."
"Ive got a bad feeling about this," remarked Virgil.
"Me too." Eve stared down the path that would take them further west. "Lets go."
The village of Renwald reminded Gabrielle a lot of Poteidaia. It was thriving with street merchants, shops, a nice inn and a well-kept town square. There was a feeling, deep in Gabrielles gut, that kept telling her this was all a very bad idea. She and Hercules were delaying their journey to Amphipolis and with each passing moment, the feeling of dread grew. She followed Herules and Atropin to the hitching post, where she leapt off Argo and looped her reins around the post.
"Hercules?" She called to her friend, stopping just outside the inn.
"Yeah. I feel it too." Hercules grasped Atropin by the shoulder, turning the smaller man to face him. "Whats going on?"
"Wh-what do you mean?" he stammered, his shifty gray eyes looking behind the hero.
Hercules didnt have to look to know what was going on. At least a dozen men were lining up behind him. Most likely they were simple villagers or farmers, bent on killing Gabrielle to fulfill the promise Atropin had made. He took a deep breath and sighed. "They never learn."
"No matter how hard we try." Gabrielle drew her sais and stood beside Hercules, waiting for the crowd to make its move. "Atropin, call your friends off."
"Cant do that." Atropin ran to the group of men, taking a sword from one of them. "What Lillith wants, Lillith gets. Hercules, we dont want to hurt you. Let us have Gabrielle and you are free to go."
Hercules shook his head, shrugging his shoulders. "No deal."
The crowd, which had grown in size in just a few minutes, began to surround the two, pushing them back toward the inn.
"Any ideas?" Gabrielle asked.
"Im open for suggestions, as long as it doesnt involve killing anyone."
"Agreed. These people are just regular people. This Lillith must have quite a hold over them." She edged closer to Hercules, warily watching the crowd.
"Oh, quite a hold indeed." The sultry voice came from behind them--from the inn.
She wore a sheer, white dress that flowed behind her as she walked into the square. Flaxen hair cascaded down her chest, gently resting against her bosom. Her movements were fluid and deliberate, taking her to within a few feet of Hercules.
"Who are you?" he asked, unable to take is eyes off the beautiful woman before him.
"My name is Lillith," she purred, reaching out her long arm and letting her fingers brush against his chest, just below his neck. She twirled his dark chest hairs around, giving a little tug before pulling away. "Youre Hercules, son of Zeus."
"Yeah." He shook his head, as if warding off an unwelcome thought.
"Hmm, I had heard you were handsome." She moved closer, her hand now massaging his taut chest muscles. "I had no idea."
His thoughts were suddenly fuzzy. Hercules shook his head again, but he couldnt get rid of the strange echoing he was hearing. He glanced back at Gabrielle, saw her lips move, but couldnt make out what she was saying. He wanted to walk over to her, but his legs wouldnt respond to his minds commands to move.
"Dont fight it," Lillith said, even though her mouth was closed. "Dont fight me, Hercules. I can give you so much pleasure pleasure no mortal could ever experience."
"No," he wanted to say, but it came out more like, "nugh." Eyes closed, Lilliths words echoed around his mind like it was an empty canyon.
"Thats it, darling. Let me in." Lillith pressed her slight body against his, radiating her heat onto his skin. His response to her was slow, but she could definitely feel him respond. Her lips found his in a kiss that was close to violent. When Hercules released her, Lillith smiled. "Go now. You know what to do."
"What Lillith wants, Lillith gets." He turned toward Gabrielle, his movements almost in slow motion. He started for her, forcing her to move closer to the crowd of men. "Cmon, Gabrielle. It wont hurt. I promise."
"Hercules!" She looked over her shoulder nervously, looking for an escape route. "Hercules, you dont have to do this. Im your friend."
He shrugged. "Yeah, but what Lillith wants "
"Yeah. I get it." Gabrielle launched herself at him, her feet landing squarely in Hercules chest. It wasnt enough of a hit knock the half-god off his feet, but it was enough to help Gabrielle launch herself further into the air.
With the skill of an acrobat, Gabrielle flipped several times, gaining enough height to make it over the heads of the men around her, landing on her feet behind them. A shrill whistle brought Argo shoving her way through the crowd. Gabrielle ran alongside the mare, pulled herself into the saddle and urged her out of town at a full gallop.
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