Most of these characters belong to Studios USA and any other owners of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
A few ideas came from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, "When Irish Eyes Are Killing," episode written by Grant Rosenberg. No copyright infringements intended toward DC Comics, Warner Brothers, or December Third Productions. NO, this is NOT a Xena/Superman cross-over. This is classic alt Xena/Gabrielle
Kallerine is back. Once again, this is not a Buffy/Xena crossover. Kallerine is an Amazon bacchae slayer who just happens to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Violence: Take one warrior princess, blend thoroughly with a bardic Amazon queen, toss in the king of thieves, add one feisty red-headed druid, sprinkle in a few greedy villains, mix liberally with a handful of Amazons, and yeah, some swords are likely to cross.
Maintext: Rated R. Two women in love who sleep together as often as possible.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Setting: This story falls sequentially after "Divinity." For those new to the Xena/Gabrielle series, it is in order, "March the 16th," "A Solstice Treaty," "The Sixth Sense," Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and "Divinity." To read them, go to my website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard and click on the link for my stories.
Additional Background Info: My Xena/Gabrielle series parts ways with the show after the 4th season. The series begins after "The Ides of March" 4th season cliffhanger, and parts ways with the show at that point. No pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no dead Olympian gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Japan (ever). Their friends and family are still alive. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell. Xena's Norseland history is part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle with the ring.
Note on Tamara Gorski: For Herc fans, she was Morrigan, and appeared in half the 5th season episodes.
THE EYES OF EIRE
(a.k.a Amazons, Druids & Thieves, Oh My)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Okay. The warrior stood, her moment of self-perceived weakness passed. She looked around, eyeing the obvious exit, yet another tunnel. The room was a smaller antechamber, the ceiling much lower than the room where the bats had attacked them.
Logically she knew that the collapsed tunnel should have killed all three women, unless by some miracle any of them ended up in an air pocket and weren't crushed. She closed her eyes, slowly blocking out all sensation save one, the part of her that could feel Gabrielle's fear. Lao Ma, her thoughts were like a prayer. If ever I needed the power of your gift, it's now.
She released a long steady breath and forced her body to relax. And almost doubled over at the churning roiling sensation in her gut. With several swallows she straightened up, pushing down a very real wave of nausea. The bard, wherever she was, was terrified. And if she's terrified Xena opened her eyes she's alive.
She peered at the slab door that separated her from her soulmate and their friends. The hinges were metal and appeared to be melted into the stone facing. She spared a brief thought for her sword, which might have aided her in breaking the hinges. Although if it's locked on the other side, she mused, it might not make any difference if I could break them. The slab was much too thick to even think about breaking it up. It would take candle marks, even if I had the proper tools.
So she turned and faced the entrance to the third tunnel. I promised Gabrielle we were going to leave this place together, and by the gods, I'm not going to let a measly little rockslide cause me to break it. Hang on, Gabrielle. I'm gonna figure out a way to get to you, one way or another.
With a small determined nod, she entered the next tunnel. Alti she looked around, sensing the shamaness was nearby. The last time I lost Gabrielle, I was willing to cross over to the other side to get to her, even if it meant I couldn't come back. If you think you can separate us with that pathetic little demonstration, you'd best think again.
It was sweltering hot, and she wished yet again she'd donned her regular leathers before descending into the underworld. The long pants were unforgiving, the soft lining sticking to her skin, creating a sensation that could best be described as icky. The scent of brimstone grew stronger, and at the end of the long tunnel, the red glow morphed into flickering light and shadows, which danced against the rough angled walls. She heard a faint metallic sound and examined it. Chains. Was she already so close to Loki? Nah. Couldn't be that easy.
Tartarus was similar, in appearance, sight, sound, and smell. She briefly wondered if there were a more direct entrance to this underworld, something akin to Charron's dock. She spared a smile for the grumpy dock master. That's gotta be one of the most thankless jobs in all of Olympus. Wonder what kind of welcome committee the Norse gods have come up with?
As if in answer, a swirling wind entered the tunnel, and Alti's familiar low laughter surrounded her. Uh-oh. I had to ask. She spun around in a circle, trying to follow its source. "Come on, Alti," her voice echoed impatiently. "Enough of the dog and pony show. We've met. I know of your powers. Let's cut to the chase, shall we?"
"Oh no, Xena." The shamaness materialized before her, standing a body's length away. She wore black leather pants and long-sleeved black top. She threw her head back and laughed again, her hands on her hips and her hair whipping back. "My turf. My rules. We'll cut to the chase when I'm good and ready to." She stepped closer.
Nonplussed, the warrior stood her ground, crossing her arms over her chest in a defiant stance. "I know why I'm here," she growled. "Question is, I've got a feeling you want me here, and I wanna know why."
"All in good time." Alti circled her, the warrior following her movements, facing her. The shamaness closed her eyes, testing the warrior with her supernatural senses. "You've grown more powerful, Xena." An evil smile graced her lips. "Love becomes you. It's made you stronger." She reached out, grasping the front of her vest. "I'll enjoy draining that from you later."
Xena stepped back, dragging Alti with her. "You couldn't get close enough to that part of me to touch it." Blue eyes snapped in anger. "What have you done with them?"
"How do you know I have them, Xena?" She released her grip, resuming her idle circles.
"Gabrielle's alive." She briefly enjoyed the look of surprise on her nemesis' face. Yeah, that's right, bitch. I can feel her. "She couldn't have survived what was happening in that tunnel. And what happened there was unnatural, judging by the fact that this tunnel and the room I just came from are completely untouched." She traced the wall with one fingertip. "Not so much as a crack. I can only assume that it was your handiwork, and that you have some sick twisted purpose behind it."
"Very good." She lunged, pinning the warrior against the wall, wrapping her hand around Xena's neck and lifting her off her feet. "As for my purpose " Hot breath tickled the warrior's face. " have you forgotten this so soon?"
Xena gasped, the dream of Gabrielle bound to an altar re-playing itself in her mind's eye. She saw her hands poised over her head, a sword aimed for her soulmate's heart. Maddeningly, the sword's hilt was just out of her field of vision this time, and she couldn't identify it. "Your little head games don't scare me, Alti," she choked out. "You'd have to kill me before you could get me to do that."
"Don't be so sure." The shamaness released her, her gravely voice rumbling through the tunnel. "That last vision came true, didn't it?" She smirked, dropping the warrior.
Xena fell to her knees, gasping for breath. "What?" She looked up, her nostrils flaring. "You're not going to make me re-live Caesar shattering my legs this time? I'm almost disappointed." "You're a coward. Why don't you fight me on my own level instead of playing with my head?"
"What a hypocrite." Alti reached down, tilting Xena's chin up. "As if you fighting almost anyone is on their own level. We use what power we have available to us, don't we?" She knelt down. "You haven't changed. You and I are still fundamentally the same."
"No we're not." The warrior gritted her teeth, struggling to get up, feeling the firm hand hold her face in place. "I know what love is, Alti. And what it is to be loved. You aren't even capable of it."
"Love?" A strange smile played at the corners of her mouth. "Oh. That." She licked her lips. "Tell me, Xena. How did it feel while you were watching them nail your little blonde friend's hands and feet to that cross? That kind of pain and fear " She closed her eyes, savoring the pain and rage building on Xena's face. " I could have gained great power from her. How long did it take her to die?" The hazel eyes popped open, gleaming with glee.
"You bitch!" The warrior sprung, knocking her to the ground, landing on top of the slightly taller woman. Her fists began a general pummeling, repeatedly slugging a surprised Alti hard against both sides of her face. "Yes." More punches, her fist connecting with a strong jaw line. "Your vision came true. And if you weren't already dead, I'd hunt you down and kill you for it, you lowlife bacchae-breathed, bottom dwelling, scum sucking piece of dried up pig dung."
Her fist popped Alti's nose with a satisfying smack, sending a fine spray of blood over the warrior's torso. "Hey." She sat back, continuing to use her muscular bulk to pin her prey. "You're bleeding." She experimentally slugged the shamaness' lips, resulting in more blood. "Dead people don't bleed."
A swollen lip curled into a snarl, and the warrior felt a blast of something hot, as her body flew back, slamming against the wall behind her. Alti stood, moving with surprising swiftness, even for her. She cocked a booted foot, connecting with Xena's stomach. The warrior dropped to all-fours and felt a second kick, this time knocking the breath from her lungs. She hugged her torso with one arm, protecting it from another direct blow, feeling a heavy rounded leather boot toe hit her squarely on the elbow, sending a jolt of pain down to her fingertips. She cried out, unsure if it was merely her funny bone, or a bone breaking.
"Yes, Xena." Another boot landed directly in the middle of the warrior's back, and she fell on her stomach, her arms and legs splayed out. "I'm alive again. And human. With all my powers intact." A particularly nasty kick slammed into the warrior's skull, causing her to see stars. "Do you still believe you can kill me?"
A strange unseen force held her down, and she felt a tight sensation at her throat. Xena spat blood at Alti's feet, unable to speak.
Another direct kick to the warrior's temple blotted out the stars, replacing them with inky darkness.
Alti prodded the limp body, rolling Xena to her back. She laughed, then vanished with a snap of her fingers. She had other matters to tend to.
Gabrielle tried to move but couldn't, then opened her eyes and blinked. "Wha ?" She was in a large room, hotter than any other they had been in since entering the underworld. The walls were rough uneven stone, which she could feel pressing into her back and arms. Glad I wore the long pants. She looked down to find her arms, legs, and torso bound fast with thick iron bands. She tugged at them to no avail. To her left, Morrigan was also bound, out cold as far as she could tell. She turned to the right to find Kallerine's pensive profile, her eyes obviously lost in thought. "Psssttt."
"My queen." The slayer turned to her, her features drawn with worry. She had a large knot on her forehead, along with several bruises on her face. "What happened? Last thing I remember is being in a tunnel that was caving in on us."
"Yeah. Me too." She looked around, more slowly. "Any idea where we are?" Tall angled pillars from floor to ceiling cast eerie shadows, back lighted by reddish flames that shot from a pit way off to the left. She shuddered. It reminded her of the temple of the Deliverer. Her eyes narrowed, as she spied a very familiar altar to the right, near the far wall. No. Another uncontrollable shiver coursed through her body. It can't be.
"Gabrielle?" Kallerine's voice forced her to turn her head back to the right. "You look rather pale. Do you feel sick or something?"
Other than reliving a nightmare? The bard tested that question. Her throat was dry and her mouth tasted like rock dust. Her skin felt itchy, and a closer inspection revealed a fine layer of the same dust she tasted in her mouth. Her entire body ached, and she also had a sprinkling of bruises on the skin she could see. A strong pain to the back of her right shoulder indicated that perhaps she was injured. "I feel like a bunch of rocks fell on me," she chuckled listlessly. "Which, if I recall, they did."
"How'd we get here?" The slayer struggled against her own bonds, blowing out a frustrated breath that fluttered her light brown bangs.
"If I had to guess, Alti." Gabrielle continued to study their surroundings. Directly ahead of her, partially concealed by a wide pillar, she could make out a very large boulder that had several thick silver-gray chains crisscrossed over its reddish-brown surface. "Do you think that's Loki's boulder?" She lowered her voice to a whisper. "And if so, where'd he go?"
"I'm still here," a masculine voice answered from the other side of the huge rock. "And I "
"And you'll keep your mouth shut, if you know what's good for you." Alti entered the chamber through an arched doorway near the boulder, stopping to glower at the figure the others couldn't see.
He glared back at her, his shoulder-length white-blond hair falling over icy blue eyes. "It's not too late to join forces with me," the fallen god responded.
"I told you to be quiet, little man." The shamaness backhanded him with a slap that made Gabrielle wince. Guess that means they're not in cahoots. Unless they're trying to fool us with an act. She decided not to take anything she saw or heard from Alti at face value.
"I'll give you an act, Blondie." Alti moved swiftly in front of her, clasping her neck in a painful pinch, just below her jaw line. "A real live act."
The bard coughed, feeling her breathing cut off. Black spots danced in her vision, then she focused and released a frightened whimper. In her mind's eye she saw Xena, lying on the ground, her features bruised and bloodied, her eyes shut as if she were dead. "What did you do to her?" She gritted her teeth and forced the words past the vise at her throat.
"Oh no, I'm not done just yet." The shamaness' eyes shone coldly and Gabrielle had the presence of mind to wonder why she chose to paint her eyes so heavily. It reminded her of Cleopatra. A strong jerk to her jaw forced her gaze upward toward the ceiling. "Remember this?"
The bard flailed as best she could against her bonds, reliving her fall down a lava pit, her arms firmly wrapped around Hope. She screamed, right before the part where she had blacked out, and the vision changed again, as she saw Hope impaled by her monster offspring, and heard the monster's pitiful cries as he realized he had killed his own mother. "Wish I'd found you before Xena did." The low voice purred tauntingly. "I've got to respect a woman who could attempt to kill her own daughter three times. And succeed twice. And you want to have another one? What are your plans for it, hmmm? I'd like to see you top what you've done to your daughter."
Gabrielle's green eyes snapped, and a roar of rage surprised her, before she realized it came from her own gut.
Satisfied laughter mocked her, inches from her face. "Oh yes, give me that anger."
Before the bard thought about it, she mustered up what little moisture was left in her parched mouth, and spat in the shamaness' face.
Alti released her and stepped back, slowly wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. The laughter was gone. "You'll pay for that, little girl. Later." She moved to Morrigan, placing her hands on her hips and running her eyes over the diminutive woman. "Wake up." One long finger reached out, tracing the druid's chin.
Morrigan's head popped up, her eyes wide in confused fear. "Who are ya?"
"Alti." She turned the druid's head from side to side. "I don't believe you know me, but I know you very well." With the same grip she used on Gabrielle, she closed her fingers around Morrigan's throat. "Well enough to know what's closest to your heart."
"Bridgid." Tears squeezed from Morrigan's blue eyes. She saw her daughter, sitting on Kernunnos' lap. The girl was bouncing happily up and down, laughing with joy as she cuddled her favorite doll, blissfully unaware of a dagger at her back. Kernunnos twirled the knife in his fingers, drawing ever closer to the base of his daughter's neck. "No!" The druid screamed as Alti released her.
"Don't believe anything she shows you." Gabrielle advised. "Remember, she told you she had Bridgid. She's full of lies." A stinging slap to her face was her punishment.
"You'll speak when I tell you to, little girl." The shamaness paced in front of them, her movements graceful and cat-like. "For all you know, I do have her. Maybe I brought Kernunnos here. Maybe he's a god again. You don't know what's real, do you?" She stopped in front of Kallerine. "Do you?" She moved closer, nose-to-nose. "Slayer," she croaked with contempt.
Kallerine's eyes crossed and when she re-focused, she involuntarily tried to duck, as Alti disappeared in a flash, and a flock of Bacchae bats dove toward her, spinning and swirling. "Do do you see them?" Her voice trembled.
"Yes." Gabrielle was also shying away from the flock, as was Morrigan. "Doesn't mean they're real."
The slayer managed to retrieve a single silver arrowhead from her wrist gauntlet, one she'd tucked there for quick reach. With a flick of her wrist, she tossed it upward and outward with deadly precision, and watched it seemingly go through a bat, which looked translucent. It clattered to the floor. "They aren't real." As soon as she spoke, the bats vanished. "Damn." She turned to the bard. "Now I'm sorry I did that. I just wasted the only weapon I could get to."
"Don't worry about it." Gabrielle peered warily around. "I have a feeling one small arrowhead wouldn't do much good against Alti anyway."
"What has worked?" Morrigan's voice was tainted with anger.
"Ummm Xena ran her through with a thick spike once," the bard mused.
"Spikes." Kallerine began to sound like herself again. "I've really come to like spikes."
"And we blew her up with mehndi once." Gabrielle wished she had brought her mehndi kit with her, on the off chance it might work outside India.
"You destroyed her with a tattoo?" The druid's brows furrowed. "I don't understand."
"It was more than just a tattoo." Gabrielle turned her head toward Morrigan. "We met this powerful Indian woman. I think she was a mystic. She showed us how to use mehndi as a weapon. It's difficult to explain. It had partly to do with mine and Xena's combined karma. It was sort of like a magical fire shooting from the tattoos." She snorted. "Probably a one-time thing. I mean, who ever heard of flaming tattoos, huh?"
"Yeah." Kallerine agreed. "Pretty far-fetched. Tell me about the spike."
"I wasn't there at the time." The bard glanced briefly at the fire pit. "But Xena and Alti met in the spirit realm, and they fought. Although Xena said that Alti was human at the time. She " Gabrielle trailed off, remembering the moment with vivid clarity. "Naima -- she was the Indian woman -- she told us we would always defeat Alti."
"Fer all our sakes, Gabrielle, I certainly hope she was right," Morrigan pulled at her bonds.
"Yeah." The bard grew thoughtful. "So do I." Her vision clouded and she blinked hard, forcing back unexpected tears. Is this the worst spot we've been in? Well other than the few times where we died. She closed her eyes, remembering
A frightening dream passage, where she encountered her new best friend, receiving comfort and advice in the strangest of circumstances, in a meeting of spirits that were already soulmates, although they didn't know it just yet.
Hanging suspended in mid-air, watching Xena face off with Callisto for the first of many times, and finding herself rescued just in the nick of time, ye again.
The odd sensation when she transformed back into a human, after being a Bacchae, and finding a pair of relieved blue eyes looking back at her.
Facing off with an Amazon that wanted to kill her, and feeling the surge of power as she allowed Xena to take over her body, doing impossible things.
Facing off with the same Amazon, now a god, thinking surely, surely, this time there was no way out for her. And feeling strong hands grab her, saving her from a fiery death in a river of lava, watching as the Amazon god perished below her.
A leap through the air, followed by an unbelievable number of flips, which ended with Xena's feet planted firmly on the deck of a ship she thought she was destined to travel on for the rest of her life, alone. Feeling warm arms wrap around her, and a brush of lips against her hair, as she found herself utterly relieved, despite her circumstances.
Angry flames licking and probing at her body, and a fall that ended with her cradled in Xena's arms.
Lying in the loft of a barn, listening as Xena fought off the entire Persian army single-handedly. Drawing agonizing breaths as she felt her lungs filling with fluid. And waking up to find a trembling, battered, and tearful warrior, who had somehow found an antidote for the deadly poison.
Floating in the bowels of an overturned ship, deep under the water's surface, thinking that after all was said and done, drowning would be the method of her death. And waking up on a beach, searching for the one person that mattered, and feeling a surge of relief as Xena came stumbling out of the surf, hugging her in a salty wet embrace that had never felt so good.
A fall down a lava pit, and a heartbroken walk through the woods near Potadeia, and a tearful hug in strong arms she thought she'd never feel again. A gentle kiss to her knuckles and Xena's tear-filled eyes as her actions conveyed emotions too deep for words.
An evil Indian god, and Xena's transformation, becoming every bit as bad, long enough to defeat the god and save her and Eli from what was most certainly to be their deaths. Tossing her staff into a river, and hearing her soulmate offer to let her go. Watching a trembling smile as she told Xena she wasn't going anywhere unless they went there together.
Lying on a cross, realizing that they were going to die. And die together. And fervently hoping they went to the same place. Waking up in the Elysian Fields to find that hope realized, and sitting under a willow tree, overlooking a waterfall, and discovering that they were, in fact, in love. Waking up in an inn to discover they were alive, and most certainly in love, and the tentative joyful physical expression of that love, as their bodies gave in to something that could no longer be denied.
And we're still alive. And still in love. She opened her eyes, gazing toward the only obvious doorway, willing her soulmate to come walking through it. Xena, we've been though some really bad times. Times when I was sure one or both of us were going to die. Right now isn't looking so very good either. But I have to believe that we're here for a reason. It doesn't feel like it's time for it to be over again, just yet. I don't know if what Alti showed me is real or not. But wherever you are, know that I love you, and I'm counting on you to get us out of this, because we've got a joining ceremony to go to. And some babies to figure out how to make. So if that vision was real, you get up, and you find me, and let's do what we came here to do, and go home.
The pain was overwhelming. She stirred, and groaned, the slightest movement shooting through her like hot daggers. She opened her eyes and focused, looking around. She was still in the narrow tunnel. Her ears told her she was alone, the shamaness off to create trouble elsewhere. Okay. She flexed a fist and winced at the pain in her forearm. She carefully touched her left elbow, gritting her teeth against the agony, locating a small bone fragment that wasn't there before. Well, I guess that coulda been worse. It coulda been my right elbow.
She tried to sit up and gasped at a different pain. Tediously, she rose up on her good elbow, easing into a sitting position against the wall. She reached down and probed her right ribcage, counting one two three cracked ribs. Great. A deep breath indicated that her lungs had not been pierced. Good. Cracks. No full breaks. I can work with that.
She carefully lifted her leather vest, revealing the beginning of a large bruise, covering most of her stomach. Her lower back hurt, and she remembered Alti's boot pressing into her spine. Okay. Gotta stand up. Blocking out the pain, she pushed herself to her feet. A slight tingling down her left leg made her frown. Oh goody. Spine's out of whack. Another pain made its presence know and she tried to shrug. Uggh. Left shoulder's dislocated too. First things first. She eyed a smooth portion of rocky wall with some trepidation. This is gonna hurt. She held her breath and slammed the shoulder into the wall, hearing the grate of bone against bone as it popped back into place. "Ahhrrgg. Gods be damned!" Next.
She lay back down on the ground, stretching out flat on her back. She quickly threw one leg over and across the other, hearing her entire lower back crack as vertebrae realigned themselves. Her ribs screamed in protest at her actions. I am getting too damned old for this. She ruefully stood back up. The tingling sensation was gone.
Let's see chipped elbow, sore shoulder, aching lower back, three cracked ribs, bruised torso and she gingerly touched her scalp, feeling damp warmth on her fingertips nasty gash to my head. Just an average day, huh? She brought her hand down, studying the fresh blood. She stared at the end of the tunnel with murderous intent. Okay, Alti, I've had just about enough of this. This time, I'm coming to get ME some.
Despite her injuries, she broke into a purposeful lope.
The torches on the walls spluttered, drawing precious air from the oppressive chamber. It was difficult to judge the passage of time, and Gabrielle wished for her partner's innate ability to seemingly just know what time it was, regardless of sun, moon, or stars to assist her. It felt late, but she had no real way of knowing, especially with Alti involved. For all she knew, the shamaness had kept them out for days before allowing them to awaken.
The bard stretched as best she could, flexing each limb in turn and rolling her head from side to side. She was hungry, her stomach's low rumblings becoming more and more frequent. The pain in her shoulder had settled into a constant throbbing. She'd tested it, trying to roll it back and forth, but the bands holding her arms in place prevented much movement. She didn't think it was bleeding, and suspected a rock had more than likely hit her when the corridor started caving in, and she was merely bruised.
"Gabrielle," Morrigan's brogue rolled out the name, adding an extra syllable. "Did ya notice that Alti's lips were bleedin'?"
"Yeah." The bard grinned wickedly. "Xena gave her that. I'd bet fifty dinars."
"I'd pay fifty dinars to have seen it," Kallerine chimed in.
"Wish I could belt her one," Loki's voice sounded from beyond the boulder. "Who is she, anyway?"
"You don't know?" Gabrielle's voice hesitated. Loki was not someone to be trusted, and she knew no matter the outcome, unless his chains were broken, he wasn't walking away from their situation when it was all over.
"All I know is she's been hanging out in here quite a while." Chains scraped against stone as Loki shifted, to better project his voice toward his unseen audience. "Every now and then she chants and performs some strange rituals. Let's just say I'm glad I'm not a bat right now."
"Ewwww." Three female voices chimed in chorus.
"Yeah," the bound god continued. "Sometimes she'll disappear for a while. She's foiled my plans. She stole a mask that was going to get me out of here." His tone was bitter, and the bard wished she could see his face. "It belongs to me."
"Oh, I beg ta differ," Morrigan called out. "You'd best be thinkin' again, because the mask belongs ta me."
"And who might you be?" his condescending voice responded.
"Morrigan, the druid guardian of justice." She heard his snort of disbelief. "Dahak didna get ta all of us."
"Really?" Loki was intrigued. Kernunnos had told him about Morrigan and the mask. He had half-suspected the part about Morrigan was made up. "Tell me more."
"Ya know all ya need to know." She craned her neck, trying to see him. "Other than you've created a fine mess fer all of us, and gained nothin' fer yerself."
"I had nothing to lose." He snarled. "If I gain possession of the mask, the universe is mine. If someone cuts my chains, we all die permanently. Otherwise, I stay right here with this boulder forever."
"So you'd let everyone and everything known to man be destroyed, just so you could be free?" Gabrielle tried to wrap her brain around the concept. "Rather selfish."
"I'm a god, little girl." His voice thundered. "I belong in Valhalla, not chained to this pathetic rock. Yes, I'd have no problem with re-shaping the universe by my own hand. Who knows? If you're as pretty as you sound, maybe I'd let you live. Sit at my side, perhaps."
"No thank you." The bard shook her head sadly. "There's only one person I'm meant to sit beside for eternity, and it's not you."
"Xena." Loki grinned evilly. "Her name is less than dirt where I come from."
"Considering she's roaming free and you're chained up, what does that make you where you come from," Kallerine taunted, "the dust under Xena's feet?"
The bard privately smiled at the slayer's vigorous defense of her partner's honor. You've gained some loyal fans, love. "Where is the mask, anyway?" She cocked her head to one side, waiting expectantly.
"I haven't a clue." Loki shrugged, as if they could see him. "She showed it to me once and I haven't seen it since then. I have no idea why she doesn't just get on with whatever her plans are."
"Because we're part of her plans," Gabrielle murmured under her breath.
"Loki." Morrigan chose her words carefully. "What of Kernunnos? Ya made him human."
"What of him?" Loki laughed lightly. "Unless he comes back here, he stays human. Chances are I'll not be inclined to make him back into a dead god. He failed to bring me what I asked him to. I think living out life as a human might be a just punishment for him."
"Hmmmm," the druid mused thoughtfully. "It just might be, at that." Although the prospect of a living Kernunnos roaming the world didn't settle well with her. Especially the world she lived in with their daughter. Being a demigod would give her an advantage over him if he were to threaten her or Bridgid, but she sincerely hoped if he did remain human, he would leave Eire. As if he'd ever do that. She sighed, her thoughts briefly drifting toward another demigod.
"Gabrielle," Kallerine's eyes were wide and serious. "Any ideas about how to get out of here?" The smell of bat guano and the faintest hint of old dried blood assaulted her nostrils, setting her nerves on end.
Green eyes slowly scanned the chamber again. One door. One way out. Overhead appeared to be only craggy stalactites with no sign of any upward passages. She felt the sweat on her body, causing the skin on her back to stick to the wall, trickles of it running down her cleavage and neck. Her hair was matted and plastered to her head. She was tired, and her stomach chose that moment to remind her again of her hunger. "I'm working on it."
Doubtful brown eyes peered back at her from one side, blue from the other.
"Not very convincing, huh?" The bard dropped her head, gathering her thoughts before looking back up. "Hungry as I am, I'd give up a week of meals to have Xena's sword or chakram right about now. Not to mention Xena herself." Her mind raced ahead of her, trying to figure out what Xena would do if he were in their position. 'Course, she mused, Xena probably wouldn't end up in this position in the first place.
"I wish superior strength were one o' ma gifts," Morrigan smiled sadly. "Speed, runnin' on water, occasional visions 'tis all nice ta have, but I'm afraid they canna help us break through these thick iron bands. Even ma dagger would be o' no help."
"Let's put our heads together, and see what we can come up with." Gabrielle fixed her gaze steadily on the lone doorway. Waiting.
Cracked ribs shifted, taking her breath away at the intense jolt of pain. Damn. She stopped, considering the supplies she carried. With nimble fingers, she removed her vest, unlacing it with her right hand alone, the throbbing in her left elbow precluding much use of the arm. She surveyed her bruised and mottled torso with detached interest and began carefully winding one of the ropes around her ribcage, making several circles. Okay. She gritted her teeth and tightened the rope, in an attempt to hold the ribs in place.
Once again one-handed, she managed to tie off the rope, then re-donned her vest. She was forced to use both hands to tie the laces back up, noting a steady swelling in her left elbow and forearm in the process. "We were going to have a quiet winter," she muttered. "Sit by the fire every night and drink hot spiced wine. Finish planning our joining. Were gonna get our exercise sparring with each other. I was gonna sleep every night in my nice warm bed, dammit, curled up with the prettiest Amazon in Greece."
She eased her left arm out straight in front of her, delicately feeling the bone chip in her elbow, trying to figure out how to stabilize it. How in the Hades did I end up in the Celt underworld, beaten up, hotter than Tartarus, separated from Gabrielle, and facing off with an insane woman I thought I had killed? She scowled, feeling the chip slide against bone, sending an odd pain into her fingertips. "I think I'm gonna have to get someone to cut that out." If I ever get out of here.
Up ahead she saw a fork in the tunnel. Which way? Her ears perked up, the faint creak of leather coming toward her from the left passageway of the fork. She spied a pillar of sorts nearby and quickly ducked behind it, pressing her back against extremely warm stone, peering cautiously toward the source of the sound.
The shamaness appeared, stopping just outside the passage, looking around, as if she could hear or smell something. She looked directly at the pillar, and the warrior reached for her breast dagger in reflex. A faint smile played at Alti's full lips, then she ducked into the right passageway, and Xena heard her walking quickly away.
Follow her, or go where she just came from? Is she leaving Gabrielle or going toward her?
She closed her eyes, extending what she had come to consider a sixth sense, trying to touch her partner's fear. Come on Gabrielle. Help me find you, sweetheart. Be alive. She sighed. Something niggled at her from deep inside, but she couldn't place the source. Is that you, love?
She approached the fork and ran her eyes all along the arched doorways, taking in every tiny detail. Ahh. She stepped closer, finding a few strands of short blonde hair snagged on a small protrusion in the stone on the left wall. She pulled at them, wrapping them around her finger. Gabrielle. Left it is, then.
With a sudden surge of renewed energy, she entered the passage, feeling unfriendly eyes at her back.
The fire crackled low, sparks in odd shades of red, yellow, and occasionally green and blue flying up and swirling about the chamber, as various ingredients were tossed into its center. The tall woman moved around it, circling slowly, half-dancing, half slinking, her arms gesturing about as guttural chanting escaped her lips in a language known only to her kind. Or what once was her kind. An Amazon shamaness. That's what she was supposed to be. Would still be, if not for Cyane.
The Amazon queen had beaten her, and beaten her badly. Shamed and shunned, she had slunk away from the only home she had ever known, biding her time, practicing her craft in secret and waiting, knowing her power was growing with each passing day. She learned more, much more than her mother had taught her, and her grandmother before that. Yes, she had been down for a long while.
"But no one beats me in the end, do they?" Her lips curled into a snarling smile. "Do they, Cyane?" Her laughter echoed off the close walls around her. In the end, the proud queen had fallen, and it had taken a lot less than she had thought it would. Your first mistake was in seeing something in Xena that wasn't there, wasn't it Cyane? Your second mistake was in trusting her, hmmmm?
Ah, Xena. She closed her eyes. Do you think I'm going to let you have what I couldn't? Black-rimmed lids flew open, evil orbs gleaming in the flickering light. No.
She had introduced the warrior to the Amazons. Taught her the elementary ways of the shamaness. She had enticed the warrior into doing her dirty work for her, extracting revenge on the Amazon leaders, saving the best, Cyane, for last. Xena had killed them all, and done it admirably. The tribe had never regained its prominence or its strength.
All of that, and Alti's hands had not a single stain to show for it, at least not in the literal sense. In the end, she drank of Cyane's blood, a feast provided at Xena's own hands. The power had been intoxicating.
"They hated you after that, Xena." She moved closer to the fire, tossing in some dried henbane, inhaling the smoke as it rose up around her. More green sparks followed the smoke and she closed her eyes again. "They were supposed to hate you forever. That was going to be our common bond. And now you think you're going to become consort to an Amazon queen? Become one of them?"
She grasped a small wooden jug, uncorking it and extracting a wriggling furry creature. Small beady black eyes blinked at her, tiny fangs nipping at the air, claws scraping frantically at her palm. She paused and smiled, then flung it savagely into the flames, laughing wickedly as the bat shrieked several times before giving in to death.
"I don't think so!" Her rage consumed her. She allowed it for the briefest moment, then reined back in her emotions. She fed off the rage of others. Her own was kept firmly in check, carefully channeled in directions that would best serve her purposes, and only when she needed it.
A golden mask sat prominently on a leveled stalagmite, its wide round eye sockets empty. Two large sparkling emeralds rested next to it, the fire cutting through the carved gems, and bouncing off the walls, the bright green light mingling with the more muted red glow of the fire. The shamaness moved toward them, feeling the power. Even apart from the mask, the jewels beckoned her and she plucked one carefully between two fingers, holding it up and gliding around the fire. Ah, yes.
This was the key. It had all come together, more beautifully than she could have imagined. "And when I'm done with you, Xena, you will be by my side once again. I will destroy you." She danced full out now, savoring her eminent victory. "You'll do the right thing. And all that do-gooding will be your un-doing. You'll do the right thing, and it will crush you."
Another blonde Amazon queen is about to get a rude awakening. You'll see it in her eyes, Xena, just like you saw it in Cyane's. Belief destroyed. Trust shattered. Only this time it will mean something to you.
Love. She cackled. "Love?" After you're crushed, Xena, love is what will grind you into powder. Powder I'll sift through my fingers. "Yessssss," she hissed. "I'll mold you, just like I tried to before. And this time you'll stay with me. You'll have nowhere left to go. And no one left to care about."
Now she needed one more thing to make the plan complete. She leaned over the fire, blowing on it, watching wispy spirits rise, flying all around her, eager to do her biding. "Go," she commanded. "You know what I want. Don't disappoint me."
The spirits vaporized, dissolving into the minute cracks in the walls.
It had been well over a candle mark since she entered the passage. Aches and pains, both great and small, were pushed aside and down into a place where she would store them until she had time to properly deal with them. Now her focus was solely on reaching the end of the tunnel, where every fiber of her body told her she would find Gabrielle.
She felt something brush against her arm, but when she looked down, nothing was there. She looked around and closed her eyes, cocking her head and listening. A vague high-pitched whisper raced by and round her, then faded into nothing. Furies? She tried to place the sound. Banshee? "Alti." Her voice was low and exasperated. "What are you up to?"
Her footsteps seemed unnaturally loud, slapping against the worn stone floor, small clouds of rock dust occasionally flying up around her as the soles of her boots slipped through patches of sand-fine gravel. Her acute hearing picked up odd far-off shrieks, their location undetermined, but undoubtedly the cries of tortured souls. Her skin crawled, remembering her time in Tartarus with Marcus, and then again when she died the first time. She couldn't imagine spending eternity in such a place.
A tiny smile briefly graced her lips. If not for you, love, that's exactly what I'd have to look forward to.
She never in a hundred winters expected to wake up in the Elysian Fields after Caesar crucified them. She'd gone to Tartarus that first time, when the log knocked her out, and she had assumed from then on that she would go there again upon her final death. It was something she kept to herself, not wanting to worry Gabrielle.
Their lives were too dangerous and death too real a possibility on almost any given day. Thinking about it was pointless. She certainly deserved Tartarus, given her deeds as a warlord. She sometimes saw the horror in Gabrielle's eyes, when they came upon people who had been burned out of their homes, or tortured, or killed just because they were in the way of some petty hack fighter. It shamed her, knowing she had done the same and much worse.
The bard forgave her, and believed she had changed. Xena wanted to believe that too. Yet when she looked at her own hands, sometimes she could still see the blood there. Stains that no amount of repentance could ever cleanse. Gabrielle was convinced that because Xena was sorry for her past, and because she was trying to make restitution, that it was good enough to save her soul from eternal damnation.
What neither of them could have guessed, was that in reality, Gabrielle herself was the one who had saved Xena's soul. It had taken more than good deeds. Love was what had saved her. She and Gabrielle were eternal soulmates. Someone as good and loving as Gabrielle could go nowhere else but the Fields. And where Gabrielle goes, I go -- winner by association.
She rounded a bend in the tunnel and way down at the end, spied another arched doorway, yellow light flickering outward along the walls beside it. The warrior looked quickly behind her, then took off running, ignoring her battered body's protests. She stopped short of the door, hugging the wall and peering cautiously into a large chamber.
The first thing she saw was a boulder with a pale blond man chained to it, his eyes closed in apparent sleep. Loki. Her nape hairs prickled. Then she saw them, bound to the far wall, also asleep. Gabrielle. With no further thought, she entered the room, tiptoeing past Loki and dodging a wide pillar. Several long strides brought her in front of her soulmate.
Oh, Gabrielle. The bard's gently rising and falling chest told her she was alive, but her face bore a large bruise, the handprint of whoever put it there plainly obvious. Her arms and torso were covered in fine scratches and there were tear tracks dried on her cheeks. Xena reached out with a trembling hand, carefully cupping Gabrielle's uninjured cheek. "Gabrielle?"
Green eyes fluttered open and the bard gasped. Then she smiled. "Xena." She strained at her bonds. "You're alive."
"Yeah. So are you." The warrior looked around, trying to find something she could use to break the iron bands. "Need to get you all out of here. Let me look around a minute."
"I've got ma dagger." Morrigan had also woken up, and looked down at her weapon, so close, yet useless to her in her bound state. "Although I don't believe it will help ya much, Xena."
"Better than nothing." Long fingers closed around the hilt. "Do you mind?"
"No." The druid studied her, noting the dried blood in the dark hair. "What happened to ya? You're injured."
Xena grimaced, feeling Gabrielle's eyes on her. "It's nothing."
"Xena." The bard's voice took on a no-nonsense tone. "You're bruised all over and you're not using your left arm. And you're covered in blood. Was it Alti?"
"Yeah." She tucked the dagger into her boot. "No big deal, okay? Most of the blood isn't mine." She flashed a wicked grin.
"Not using your arm is a very big deal." Green eyes bore into her. "Is it broken or something?"
Xena sighed. "Chipped elbow."
"Yer head is bleedin' too," Morrigan offered helpfully.
"I'm well aware of that." Blue eyes rolled. "Nothing I can do about any of it until I get the lot of you free."
"You'll never escape that she-demon." Loki's voice sounded from the other side of the boulder. He had indeed been dozing. He didn't need sleep, but often took naps out of sheer boredom. "Xena." His sneer was almost audible. "At last we meet. I've heard so much about you." He chuckled. "From so very many people and gods."
The warrior ignored him, moving to the slayer. "Kallerine?" She touched the sleeping girl's arm. "Hey. Wake up."
"Huh?" The slayer jerked awake and she gazed around in confusion. "Oh. I must still be dreaming. I could swear I see Xena standing in front of me."
"Nope." The warrior shook her head in wry amusement. "I'm no dream. Believe me."
"I beg to differ," Gabrielle's voice softly contradicted her. The warrior turned, studying her partner. The bard's face radiated a belief she hadn't seen in a very long time. It felt odd, knowing that she could still invoke that in her soulmate.
After all this time. Xena's head dropped and she fiddled with her belt pouch. Last time I saw that expression, I was breaking her out of a Roman prison at the foot of Mt. Ymarro. That belief proved to be misplaced, didn't it love? She looked up sadly and moved closer to her soulmate, letting the look in the bard's eyes wash over her, reaching deep down inside and touching a part of her that had lain dormant.
Something snapped and Gabrielle saw a banked fire come to life in the blue eyes. Xena reached out, stroking her cheek again. "I'm not going to let you down this time, Gabrielle."
The bard blinked in confusion. What the Hades is she talking about? "You've never let me down."
Xena swallowed, her throat working in silence. She merely nodded. That was a merciful lie, my bard.
Okay. She turned, slowly taking in her surroundings. The fire pit hissed and sputtered, tiny flames shooting up and then falling back down out of sight. She considered that, wondering if there was some way to burn or melt the iron bands. Not without burning and melting the people attached to them, she acknowledged.
She looked further and her eyes fell on the altar. Her eyes grew wide and she turned back toward Gabrielle. The bard followed her gaze. "I know," Gabrielle whispered.
Just like Britannia. Xena walked slowly toward the stone structure. Just like Illusia. She felt a shiver run down her spine. Just like that damned dream, or vision, or whatever it was. She reached the altar and ran her hand along the warm rough surface. There were already spikes imbedded into the stone, with ropes attached, ready for whoever or whatever might be sacrificed there. No. She slammed her good hand into the stone, oblivious to the sting that ran up her arm.
"Xena." Gabrielle beckoned to her. "It's not going to happen."
"No." The warrior strode determinedly back to her. "It's not."
"Any ideas?" Kallerine peered at her earnestly. "To get us out of here, I mean."
"I'm thinking." Xena prodded the iron bands. They were bolted into the stone. She tugged at one that was wrapped around the bard's wrist. It didn't budge. "I didn't foresee this," she chided herself aloud. "I should've never left my sword behind."
"Sword?" Alti's voice sounded from behind her. "I can arrange for that."
Xena spun around, her eyes growing wide as the shamaness approached her, with the warrior's sword in hand. "How in Tartarus did you get that?" Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Assuming it really is mine."
"I have ways of finding what I want, Xena, and getting it." She twirled the leather wrapped pommel in her hand. "Don't you know that by now?" She held out the weapon, just close enough for the warrior to see it in detail, but not reach it. "It is yours. Forged by Hephestus, wasn't it?"
"Yes." The warrior's voice was low and even. This close, she could see that Alti did indeed have her sword. She lunged for the weapon and it was snatched from her reach. She stifled a groan of pain, unwilling to admit to her injuries in front of her nemesis.
"Oh, no." Alti backed off. "Not that easily." She turned slightly, and a flash of metal gleamed from beneath the edge of her leather shirt.
No. The warrior watched in disbelief as she moved again, and light glinted off another very familiar metal weapon.
"Yes." The shamaness smiled. "I have your chakram too." She briefly removed the round weapon, just long enough for Xena to see it, then replaced it back beneath her shirt.
Xena stood warily, her stance a shoulder's width apart, her hands loosely curled into fists. She studied her quarry and attacked again, only to be thrown backward by an unseen force. She slammed into the pillar and slid down it. "Ahhhhhh." She doubled over as she hit the ground, wrapping a protective arm around her injured ribcage.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out in sympathy. "Take me, you bitch!" She screamed at the shamaness. "She's hurt. You want to beat up on someone, let me go and I'll give you a challenge."
"Gabrielle." Xena smiled before grimacing, her chest heaving in pain. "Don't."
"You're brave, little girl." Alti moved, cat-like, sliding across the chamber. She used the tip end of the sword to tilt Gabrielle's chin up, enjoying the defiance in the bard's eyes. "Unfortunately, I need both of you."
"Then let them go." The bard nodded her head to each side, indicating her companions.
"I may need them as well." The low voice rasped. "I may need them to make sure you behave."
The warrior stood quietly, sneaking up behind her. She crouched down, creeping silently. With a yell, she leaped, tackling the shamaness and sending her to the floor. They rolled over several times, the metal of the sword clattering against the stone as the grappled for control of it. Xena cried out as Alti grabbed her wrist, slamming her chipped elbow into the ground.
"You bitch!" She slugged back with her good arm, catching the shamaness across her jaw line, watching her head snap back. She took her opening, finally getting her hand around the one wrapped around her sword. As she tried to pry Alti's fingers loose, she felt a knee shove into her ribcage and she screamed in rage at the pain.
"You can't win, Xena." Alti continued to struggle with her.
They were both dimly aware of the three women behind them, cheering Xena on, as well as Loki's suddenly interested voice chiming in with them. It was the most exciting day since he had been bound to the boulder. At last, they rolled over, stopping as they made contact with the boulder, landing at Loki's feet.
Xena got her hand on Morrigan's dagger, drawing it and preparing to stab her victim in the leg. She looked up and stopped in horror, her eyes on her sword, which Alti had aimed at Loki's chains.
"Drop the dagger, Xena."
The sound of metal clattering to the ground rang out, as the dagger skittered away, out of reach.
Alti grinned evilly, standing partway up and raising the sword a bit higher, holding it against a link in the chain. "One move, Xena." She made sure the warrior was watching her, using the toe of her boot, pressing it into Xena's gut as she lay on the floor looking up at her. "One move, and I do it." She stood carefully, never taking her eyes off the warrior. "A sword forged by Hephestus could sever these chains, now couldn't it? So could your chakram."
"Alti." Xena gritted her teeth, remaining otherwise motionless. "You don't want to do this."
"Oh, don't I." She cackled. "Sit up and scoot back."
The warrior slowly complied, watching her sword, wincing as the shamaness scraped the well-sharpened blade against a metal length of chain. "You do that, and you end it for all of us, yourself included."
"Yeah." Loki backed her up. "All of us."
"Shut up." Alti used her elbow to good effect, knocking the bound god in the temple. "As for you, Xena, I see only two options." She licked her lips gleefully. "You do what I want, or I unleash Ragnarok. Your choice."
"And what is it that you want?" The warrior hissed, rubbing her injured elbow gingerly.
"You're going to take your little blonde friend over there, and tie her to that altar." She heard the bard's sharp intake of breath and smiled evilly. "Then you're going to put on the mask. It's sitting behind the pillar. I put it there when I walked in. Then you're going to sacrifice your lover to your druid friend over there."
"Why do I need the mask?" Xena's stared at her murderously. "Isn't the threat of Ragnarok enough motivation?"
"It may be enough to get you to put the mask on, Xena." The shamaness slowly moved next to the boulder, away from Loki, still keeping the sword poised against the chain. "But it won't be enough to make you want to kill your lover. I want you to desire to kill her. To relish in it. I want that power. And then when you take the mask off and realize what you've done, I want to feel your pain."
"Then what?" The warrior eased up more fully, her back resting against the wall.
"Then I use the power of the mask to take over the world." She glanced at the burlap bag the mask was wrapped in. "With your dark side fully restored, and you by my side. The way it was meant to be, Xena."
"That's what this is all about?" The warrior's voice was incredulous. "You're still trying to make me the destroyer of nations? Old news, Alti. I became that without your help, thank you very much."
"I don't care." Thick black lashes blinked back at her. "I offered you a gift and you threw it back in my face. No one defies me and gets away with it."
"And you won't bring about Ragnarok if I do what you say?" Xena looked down at her hands, which rested loosely in her lap.
"No." Alti watched the warrior carefully, prepared for the slightest movement. "You do what I say, and I'd have no reason to."
The silence was deafening, save for the crackle of the fire pit. The warrior played with a brass armor bit on her vest. Finally, she looked up. "Alright."
"Really?" It was too easy. "No fight?"
"Fight?" Sad blue eyes met cold hazel. "I move to fight you, you're gonna break those chains. Ragnarok will obliterate everything, including Gabrielle's soul. I love her too much to let that happen to her. At least if I kill her she'll go to the afterlife. It's really the only choice I have."
"Good." Alti called out over her shoulder. "You hear that little girl? One bit of resistance from you, and I use this chakram to take your friend's heads off. Do you understand me?"
"Yes. I do." Gabrielle's voice was very soft.
"Go get her, Xena. Her bonds will release when you get to her." Alti nodded toward the bard. "This was your choice, don't forget that."
"So be it." The warrior stood, slowly sliding back up the wall, then took the first step of the longest walk of her life. Everything around her was magnified, the soft sputter of the torches becoming the hisses of snakes, the crackling fire in the pit a low dull roar to her sensitive ears. She felt the heat of the chamber, pressing in on her, the sweat beading on her forehead. She could hear her own heartbeat, sure and steady, belying her fear. And in her head, she heard Alti's laugh, taunting her, certain that after all this time, the shamaness would win, once and for all.
She had a lot of time to think, or so it seemed, treading a path that stretched on for an eternity. Slow measured steps were punctuated by memories
Gabrielle's face, and the pain in her eyes, as Xena drew back her own fist, horrified at what she had done in a blind fit of rage in a dungeon, in a place where Ares Daddy tried to tempt her back into a life she had so recently given up.
The confusion in the bard's eyes as Xena peered back at her, feeling like herself, but trapped in the body of Gabrielle's worst enemy. The further hurt that surfaced, as the warrior made the decision to use that same enemy in a battle against a new evil Amazon god, forcing the bard to work with someone who had hurt her so badly.
Disappointment and despair, as they holed up in a fort, fighting an enemy she called the Horde. Forcing her innocent and loving partner to decide who would live or die. And almost almost leaving the path of redemption to lead an army again, the taste of it intoxicating. Watching as Gabrielle took a stand, and forged the first link in a path of understanding the warrior had thought impossible.
The defeated slump of Gabrielle's shoulders as Xena left her in a temple with Krafstar, and the unspeakable things that happened to her there. And I wasn't there to stop it, was I, Gabrielle? I know you've forgiven me, but I don't think I'll ever forgive myself.
A dark glade outside the Amazon village, and one glance that lasted a lifetime, Gabrielle kneeling beside Hope's body, a vial of poison hanging limply from her fingers. I wouldn't have let you do it my bard, not even then. Her chakram had been poised, ready to knock the vial from Gabrielle's hand. But I'm so sorry I let you kill your daughter. Sorry I didn't follow after you immediately. And sorry I didn't try to find another way for us. All of us.
Watching sunlight glint off a metal ring and hearing the axe fall as a third of a triumvirate lost his head, another decision she had forced the bard to make, if not by actual demand, then by circumstance. A place you didn't belong, my love, and a weight your shoulders were never meant to bear.
Gabrielle, twice leading an army into battle, once with her staff in hand, and once with Ephiny's name on her lips, all because Xena needed her to, setting aside her own gentle nature for a dedication the warrior knew in her heart she didn't deserve.
Watching the bard take up a sword, slaying a host of Roman soldiers, more blood on Gabrielle's hands on her account.
You keep sacrificing yourself for me, over and over again. How many pieces of your soul are you going to lose because of me, huh? How many times am I going to see pain in your eyes, my bard, and know I'm the reason for it.
She drew closer, Gabrielle's gaze unwavering, complete faith shining from the depths of the bard's green eyes. Even now, the bard believed in her. Believed that somehow, some way, Xena was going to find a way out of what was admittedly, an impossible situation.
Can I? She let the memories fade to the edges, concentrating on the present.
She allowed the rest of the chamber to fade out, her focus solely on the only one in all of creation that mattered. She had no words, at least none that seemed adequate to speak to her partner, who after all, was the more eloquent one. She chose instead, for a moment of levity, stopping short and reaching out, touching the bard's arm. They both knew that Alti's request, if carried out, would sever their souls forever. "Guess I'm going to Tartarus after all." The hand moved higher, cupping Gabrielle's face. "Lot of folks there who will be glad to finally see me get what I deserve, that's for sure.
"Xena, stop." The bard's eyes filled with tears. "You have no choice here, I understand that." Gabrielle, more than anyone, knew what Alti's demands, if carried out, would do to her partner. We might as well both die now.
Just as Alti had said, the iron bands around her arms, legs, and torso fell to the ground, the hidden bolts that had held them clattering behind. She stepped forward, placing her hands on Xena's shoulders, their eyes meeting in silent understanding.
"I love you," Xena whispered. "You have to know that."
"My queen " Kallerine choked back a sob.
"It's okay." The bard turned toward the slayer. "You're going to go home. The Amazons need you. Chilapa is a good leader, but she needs the strength of a warrior. She'll need you, Kallerine. Be brave."
"No!" The slayer wailed, her head dropping in despair. "No." She looked up, brown eyes shooting daggers at Xena. "There has to be another way." The warrior looked at her, long and hard. Something passed between them, although Kallerine couldn't quite read it. An odd cross between resignation and determination shadowed Xena's face, and was gone as quickly as it came. Kallerine had made a promise to Xena, and now she might have to make good on it. "No." This time a whisper.
"Xena." Morrigan frowned. "I " She stopped, befuddled at the warrior's easy surrender. Something's going on behind that cool exterior. "Thank ya, Xena, I know ya tried."
The warrior merely nodded, the slightest movement of her head, and turned her attention back to her partner. She leaned in, kissing the bard on the cheek, her lips brushing past an ear and lingering there for a long moment. She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and squeezed it, and the bard frowned, feeling warm metal pressed into her palm. She glanced down quickly, seeing what she already recognized, the breast dagger. She looked back up, palming the weapon under her hand and sliding it under a leather bracer with an undetectable motion.
Xena made a pass at her other cheek, planting another kiss, nibbling up her neck to her other ear and pausing for another long bit.
"That's enough!" Alti's voice cried out with a loud rasp. "Do it!"
The warrior gave her one last crooked smile, then took her by the hand, leading her toward the pillar where the burlap bag rested. She dropped to one knee, lifting the bag with trembling hands and slowly retracting a gold gleaming mask from its rough casing, two large green emeralds shining back at her from its eye sockets. She shook like a leaf, studying it.
It was a beautiful piece, small Celtic etchings running around the edges. There was a hole cut out for breathing, and the bottom edge curved up in a arch, so that whoever wore it could speak, their mouth unobscured. The top curved up and around and the sides curved back, enough that the mask would stay secure, but leaving the very center of the back open. Won't pull at my hair, was her absurd thought. How thoughtful.
Just holding it, she felt something, a vague sense of power, but nothing more specific.
"Quit stalling!" Alti scraped the sword against a chain, reminding her of her threat. "Put it on, now or Loki gets released!"
Slowly she raised the mask, turning it in a surreal motion and carefully dropping it over her head. Hmmmm. The gems were flat and cut without many facets, and she realized that while they did give her surroundings a green tint, she could see through them quite clearly. The feeling of power surged and she stood. Along with the power came a pulse of desire, dark and lingering, almost as if a very quiet voice were boring into her brain, whispering the unthinkable. She wanted to sacrifice her partner. It would be so easy. Gabrielle trusted her to get them out of this, and she could do it so quickly. Her lover wouldn't even feel it. Yes. Her eyes gleamed from behind the green stones. She could taste the strength of it, the glory it would bring.
"Come here." She pulled Gabrielle to her, lifting her up in her arms and carrying her to the altar. "Ah, yes!" Her voice was strange, high pitched and wild. "This is for you, Morrigan! For all the slain druids."
Alti laughed, the sound filling the chamber and echoing off the high ceiling. "Doesn't it feel good, Xena? The dark side. It's who you are. It's what you were meant to be."
The rough voice cut through the odd thoughts, and the feeling of power rose above the rest of the confusion in her head. "What I was meant to be," a vacant voice parroted the shamaness. She reached her goal, standing over the flat stone, holding the bard just above it. She stopped and looked up. "What am I supposed to slay her with? I have no weapons."
"Here." Alti drew out the chakram. She held onto it and tossed Xena's sword to the ground, watching it slide halfway between them. "No tricks, Xena, or I'll use the chakram to cut the chains."
The warrior cocked her head to one side. "No tricks?" She slowly lowered Gabrielle to the stone, making a show of tying her wrists and ankles down. "There, that'll do." She glided to the sword and picked it up, holding it upward at eye level and scanning it as if seeing it for the first time. "This will do nicely." An evil laugh escaped her lips. She spun, facing the shamaness head on. "Don't you want to move closer and watch? It's my finest hour. The gods will honor me for this. It's my greatest sacrifice. The blood it'll be glorious powerful." She enunciated the last word carefully, watching the shamaness war with herself. "You can feel it already, can't you?"
Warily, Alti stepped away from the boulder, drawn by the warrior's energy, holding the chakram out, aimed at the chains.
"Follow me." Xena turned on her heels, striding purposefully back to the altar. "Come on, I don't have all day." She beckoned with the seductive crook of a finger, her white teeth gleaming from their gold frame.
The shamaness complied, walking with sidesteps, one eye constantly on the boulder and Loki. The bound god was watching with open and mute astonishment. Alti reached them, standing on the other side of the altar from the warrior. She continued to hold the chakram up, her arm dropped slightly from its former position, the chakram at waist level. She smiled broadly as Xena ran a single fingertip along the flat of the sword blade.
"Nice." The warrior held the sword in her left hand, crooking her elbow at a menacing angle, seemingly oblivious to her earlier injury. "Shall I behead her, or stab her through the heart?" She licked her lips in thought. "Which would please the druids more?"
"What does it feel like?" Alti leaned closer. "Tell me, Xena. I want to feel the power you're feeling."
The warrior licked her finger and ran it the length of the flat blade, then looked down, studying her partner's calm eyes, detecting the faintest twitch of the bard's right hand. "I've got a better idea." The warrior smiled wickedly. "Why don't you find out for yourself?"
All at once, severed ropes fell away and Gabrielle rolled to her side and up, grabbing hold of the hand that held the chakram, holding on tightly and squeezing with all her might, watching as blood began to seep from Alti's palm, the chakram digging into her skin.
The shamaness cried out, struggling with her unexpected captor, too distracted by her own bloodshed and the large body hurling at her from across the altar. Forgetting her own power, she continued to fight the bard's grip, dropping the chakram in the process. At the same time, Xena jumped up, flipping over the altar and twisting in midair, landing behind the shamaness. Fast as lightening, she whipped the mask off and slammed it down on Alti's head.
She bent down, snatching up the chakram and rolling back across the altar, taking Gabrielle with her, an arm wrapped firmly around the bard's waist, both women landing firmly on their feet, the altar between them and Alti.
"Now what?" Gabrielle whispered uncertainly.
"Watch." Xena brushed her lips across the blonde head, and with a kick of her boot, shoved her sword across the altar toward Alti.
A strangely silent shamaness grabbed the sword and spun around, stumbling toward Morrigan. She dropped to one knee and looked up through the sparkling emeralds. She hesitated, looking back at the warrior.
"Go on, Alti." Xena's voice was low and smooth. "It's your finest candle mark. Feel your power. It's your destiny. Do it."
"For the druids," the gravely voice rasped. With a firm grasp on the sword and a backward twirl of her wrist, she impaled herself, the metal blade slicing through her chest and protruding all the way through her back.
"Blessed mother." Morrigan's face was as white as a banshee. She watched the shamaness slowly slump to the floor, her body twisted at an awkward angle, as the mask popped of her head and rolled away. Lifeless vacant brown eyes stared back up at her, a trickle of blood seeping from Alti's slightly parted lips.
"Good show," Loki called out. "If I could clap, I would."
"You planned that," Kallerine stated firmly, her eyes worshipping the warrior anew.
"Yep." Xena winced, her various injuries suddenly making themselves known.
"And you knew?" The slayer questioned her queen, as the warrior guided her closer to their still-bound companions.
"The basics, yes, or as much as Xena could whisper to me without Alti catching on. Parts of it were improvised, but our main goal was to get the mask on Alti. Sorry we scared you. We had to put on a pretty good show so she wouldn't become suspicious." Gabrielle looked up at her partner, the adoration on her face outshining Kallerine's adolescent crush. "You were right. Alti didn't love you."
"I don't understand." Morrigan's voice was still astounded.
"It was our only point of contention," the bard stood back while Xena used the chakram to break the iron bands around the slayer's arms, then knelt to free her legs. "We kind of discussed 'what ifs' back in that last cave. I was convinced that if Alti were mortal, and wore the mask, she would want to sacrifice Xena to the druids. That proved to be untrue."
"Yes." Xena stood, moving to the druid and quickly breaking her bonds. She turned and braced a boot against the shamaness body, retrieving her sword. She then bent down, carefully feeling for a pulse, just in case. There was none. She pressed the evil eyelids closed. "I didn't want to risk trying to use my sword on Alti. She had become too powerful. I was afraid if Gabrielle couldn't distract her long enough, she might re-focus on me and turn the sword back on me, or on Gabrielle." She rose, shaking her head as she studied her nemesis. "I knew the mask would defuse her."
"But " Morrigan rubbed her wrists, which were red and raw from the iron's grip. "I still don't understand."
The warrior dropped her chakram onto the loop at her belt. "It's quite simple, really. The only person Alti loved enough to sacrifice to the druids was Alti."
"Very clever." Morrigan stepped carefully around the dead shamaness. "What shall we do with 'er now?"
For an answer Xena knelt back down, ignoring her screaming ribs, and the throbbing in her elbow, picking up the leaden weight of Alti's body and moving toward the blazing pit, gazing down into its fiery depths. "That'll do." Another wicked grin appeared, and she hefted the shamaness' body into the flames, watching as it fell into a mass of fire and molten liquid, disappearing from view.
Gabrielle appeared at her side, looking into the fire in silent disbelief. It brought back a brief memory of the lava pit, and she closed her eyes, pushing back the end of one nightmare, and the beginning of another.
Xena read her thoughts and hugged her to her side. She turned and eyed the arched doorway. "Let's get out of here, shall we?"
"Hold on just a minute, would ya, please?" Morrigan made her way to the craggy wall and stooped down, carefully picking up the mask from its resting place against the wall. She held it at arms' length, studying the shining polished gold, the ancient etchings, and the sparkling emeralds. The metal was warm in her hands and she unconsciously stroked it with her thumbs. "Such a thing of beauty to be so dangerous, don't ya think?"
"Yeah." The warrior kicked at the rocky floor. She had no desire to think too hard about the mask. Wearing it had been exhilarating. The effect on her had been much the same as the desire to conquer had been in her warlord days. It made her feel powerful, and alive. And invincible, as if she could do anything with no consequence. Dangerous, she reflected. Whatever power the mask held had called to her, dipping down into her soul and tickling at weak spots she normally did her best to keep a firm lid on. If I ever had any doubt that Ares' blood flows through my veins, that most definitely put those questions to rest.
It had called to another part of her as well, the part that was very much human, and very much in love with Gabrielle. She shivered slightly remembering a cold fist that had curled around her heart, trying its best to drive her to sacrifice her lover to the dead druids. Or maybe to Morrigan. It had lasted only a few seconds. What we have is too strong, my love. Her eyes fell on Gabrielle, who had moved away and was standing quietly next to Kallerine, peering curiously at the mask. When Kernunnos cursed that mask, he didn't count on us. No god, nor his petty little black magic, could ever separate us. She smiled, a brief trembling of her lips, and inched her way toward her soulmate, draping an arm across her shoulders, squeezing a bare shoulder.
"Hey." The bard's own arm wrapped around Xena's waist, loosely hugging her, mindful of injuries they had yet to discuss in detail. "She's really dead this time, huh?"
"We can only hope." A strange whispering wind whirled around them and what appeared to be a blond-haired cherub-faced boy materialized, standing between them and the fire pit. "What in Hades ?"
"Maven." Morrigan beamed. "I've missed ya so much."
"Thank you, Morrigan Xena." He nodded first at the druid, and then the warrior. "Because of your courage, and that of your friends " He smiled at the slayer and Gabrielle. "The souls of the druids have been released. Alti had cast a spell on us, keeping us from roaming freely in the afterlife. We were trapped in a curtain of haze, where we knew neither day nor night, nor the passage of time. I used the last of my telepathic power to reach you and warn you of the missing mask."
"I'm glad ye're all okay now." Morrigan smiled, as Maven, the former druid guardian of knowledge moved, closer, his white robes flowing behind him.
"We are fine, indeed, Morrigan. But this mask is still a danger to all humankind and every created thing." He reached out, touching the beckoning gold. "The time of the druids is passing. Our gifts are no longer held in a piece of hammered ore. The gifts of the druids knowledge justice faith mercy tolerance innocence all our gifts they are held in the hearts of good people everywhere. This mask is nothing more than a temptation to both god and man. It must be destroyed."
"But what about our powers?" Morrigan frowned in concern. "My powers."
"The mask is not the source of your powers, Morrigan, no more than the blood Kernunnos used to give you was." His expression gentled, and he touched her face. "Your power comes from within. From your soul. From the things Hercules taught you things that were inside you all along. You're strong, and you'll be a druid until your dying day. The last one. But all you need to help the people of Eire, you already hold inside yourself."
"I think I knew that already," the druid mused thoughtfully. "But what of this?" She held up the mask. "What do I do with it?"
"Throw it in the flames of the pit." Maven floated back, clearing the space between Morrigan and the flickering fire. "It will be consumed completely, even as Alti's body was."
"Just her body?" Gabrielle's worried voice piped in
"Aye." Maven looked directly into the green eyes, calming the bard's fear. "Alti's soul awaits the next incarnation, just as Naima said. You will meet her again, in another time and another life."
Gabrielle felt her partner's body relax, just the slightest release of breath, and a lessening of tension all along her muscular frame. She frowned, also feeling what she was certain was the beginnings of a fever, along with a few almost undetectable shivers. "It's too hot in here for you to be cold," she murmured quietly.
"Yeah." Xena sighed, feeling her body finally giving way to her extensive injuries. "I know. I can't do anything about it until we get out of here."
Kallerine made her way to Morrigan's side, wanting just one look at the mask they had traveled so far to reclaim. "Doesn't look like it holds any power, does it?"
"But it does," Morrigan interjected softly. "All that's left is Kernunnos' curse. It's no longer an icon fer the good of mankind." She stepped away, walking slowly toward the fire pit. She reached the edge, peering over into red-hot flames. With no further thought she flicked her wrist, tossing the mask into the center. The fire hissed and crackled, greedily consuming the soft metal and the bright gem stones. Within moments it was gone. The druid blinked, stepping back.
"Eire is in your hands, Morrigan." Maven's form was already starting to fade. "But know this you are never alone. The druids who have passed on before you are always nearby, guiding you when you need us. And there is another who is always there for you, if you'll allow it."
Hercules. "Goodbye, Maven." Morrigan watched, as her friend disappeared, a vapor in the heated air. "Now I'm ready to leave." She squared her shoulders, turning her back on the fire pit.
"What about me?" Loki piped up, as the women made their way to the arched doorway.
"What of you?" Xena got in his face, her lip curling into a snarl. "You can rot here for eternity for all I care. You would have let everyone and everything be destroyed. On the other hand " She fingered a heavy link of chain. "You're almost as dangerous as that mask was. There will be some other crazed man or god who will try to free you and harness that power. I need to have a word with Odin anyway. We may change your fate yet."
"Th thank you, Xena." Loki appeared genuinely surprised, all traces of arrogance gone.
"For what?" The warrior cocked her head to one side, her blue eyes gazing impassively at him, studying his high forehead, almost white longish hair, and beady dark blue eyes. His pale features held almost a sickly appearance, as one who hadn't seen the sun in many moons.
"For putting in a good word for me." He smiled encouragingly.
"I said I'd have a word with Odin." She grinned wickedly. "I didn't say it would be good." She spun on her heels, hearing his sharp exhale of disappointment. "Now." She moved purposefully toward the door. "Let's get out of here. I think our job is done."
To be continued in Chapter 9
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