"I'll go on ahead Gabrielle, catch up with me when you can." Xena yelled back at her as she slapped Argo on the rump and began to run towards town.
"No Xena, wait...." Gabrielle yelled, but no one was there. Xena had disappeared from the path into town as though she was a ghost.
"I hate it when she does that." Gabrielle said to herself as she lashed her horse to a tree. It was a beautiful horse, pure black, no markings. Taking the saddle off, she thought she might just keep this particular horse long enough to give her a name.
The journey had been a trying one. Since leaving Japan there had been a tension between Xena and herself. But even with the tension, Gabrielle did not regret her decision to drop Xena's ashes into the fountain, not one bit. Xena felt betrayed, but Gabrielle could live with that. In time Xena would come to see things as she did. And everything would be right as rain again.
Seeing Eve was going to do Xena a world of good. Eve would help her to believe that it was not a sin for her to live, that her soul had been cleansed. If Livia could atone for her murderous life by spreading the word of peace and love as Eve, her mother could do the same.
Gabrielle shuddered as she recalled how close she had been to making this journey alone. How close she had been to carrying Xena's ashes to Eve and telling her that her mother was dead. Gabrielle wondered what that sort of news would do to Eve; if being orphaned would affect her the way it had Callisto. It was not an unreasonable fear, they were the same soul. The thought of it all only made Gabrielle all the more happy that she had defied Xena's wishes. She wouldn't have to test Eve's reaction any time soon if she could just keep Xena from her own self-destructive side.
Horse secured and saddle stashed, Gabrielle set off on foot to try and track Xena. Her prowess as a warrior had never been better; not even Xena could cover her tracks from Gabrielle anymore. She followed her trail off the road and into the woods, wary of what practical joke her friend might be contemplating springing on her. A month ago, being the butt of Xena's joke would have upset Gabrielle, now she was greatful for the opportunity.
The air smelled sweet as she pushed through the brush. It felt good to be back in Greece. Good to know the customs and the hearts of the people. It was just plain good to be home, and to be with Xena. There was a feeling of comfort over her that had been absent in the time between her finding Xena's body, and making the decision to resurrect her. Things felt right. It was as it should be.
Gabrielle became suddenly aware that she was standing still. Lost in thought, she had come to the end of Xena's tracks and her body had simply stopped, waiting for her mind to catch up. A smile crossed Gabrielle's face, she knew Xena all too well.
"I suppose you think you're clever, taking to the trees. You have to get up a lot earlier than that to...." the words died in her throat as she looked up to find a naked headless corpse hanging from a tree far overhead. She felt her stomach turn; she knew who it was.
Gabrielle came out of her nightmare just in time to scurry away from her blanket and unload the contents of her stomach. Tears streamed down her face as she heaved until it was painful. And when she finally managed to stand up, the air was no longer sweet, and it didn't feel so good to be back in Greece. She turned to go back to her bedroll and stopped dead, horrified by the scene.
The lonely firelight flickered across the blankets. Xena's was stretched out closest to the fire, a spacer to keep Gabrielle at her accustomed distance away from the fire. Her own blankets lay rumpled beside it, a testament to the nightmares that plagued her when she did manage to sleep. Her heart ached looking at the scene, knowing that the blanket beside the fire would always be empty. That she was doomed to spend her nights without her soulmate.
Her heart was seized into a hard lump in her chest and her breaths came in panicked gasps. She was so lonely, it felt like the ache would never go away. Xena had chosen this, chosen to stay gone, but her fate had ultimately been in Gabrielle's hands; it had been a responsibility she never wanted. It was constant hard work trying to convince herself that she'd done the right thing, she didn't know if she'd ever truly believe it.
She stood taking in the scene before her for awhile longer, she couldn't make herself move. The nights were the hardest, the quietest. She had no idea how very still things could be. Even Argo seemed more silent and subdued as of late. Gabrielle knew why, they both felt abandoned.
Xena's spirit was of little comfort in the day. If anything it only made Gabrielle more aware of her physical absence. It made it harder to grieve, harder to let go. And it made it harder to control her anger. Xena had no right to ask of her the sacrifice that she did.
Xena's spirit seemed to be growing less like Xena every day. Like she was fading, becoming something else, forgetting her humanity. It alarmed Gabrielle to see her that way. To watch her fade. The warrior princess was strong, but even she could not avoid her descent into the underworld. Gabrielle was losing even her shade bit by bit. The only hope she held for her friend was that her spirit was slowly being pulled into the Elysian Fields to be with Solan, and not into one of the many hells they'd discovered in their journeys.
Gabrielle shivered. Sunrise felt a long way off. The nights seemed so much longer now that she was unable to sleep. She moved back towards the fire and settled under her blanket to at least make an attempt at sleep. She rolled onto her side and buried her face in Xena's blanket; it still bore her smell. Tears streamed down Gabrielle's face as she realized that in time, even that would fade. That last remnant of Xena. Gabrielle didn't know if she could cope with that.
An hour later she found herself still laying there, staring into the fire, begging for sleep to come and save her from her grief, her self-hatred and her doubt. Xena's decision would have been easier to accept if Gabrielle had believed her guilty for those deaths. Xena's sacrifice seemed unnecessary, it was a difficult job for Gabrielle to convince herself that she had allowed Xena to make the right decision.
She squeezed her eyes shut against the firelight, her hands searched for and found the urn containing Xena's ashes and she pulled them to her chest. She was so tired. She repeated her new mantra out loud as she decided to try and sleep. "It was a valiant decision. It was a noble death. Xena did what was right. She served the greater good."
But no matter how many times she said it, she could not make herself believe it. And if she didn't believe it, how in the world was she going to get Eve to believe it?
As if in response to her grief, Gabrielle was suddenly aware of the warm metal of the chakram against her hip. Faintly she heard a soothing voice within her mind. "Sleep now old friend, it'll hurt less in the morning."
"Xena?" Gabrielle moaned, as her overtaxed body surrendered gratefully into sleep.
In her arms, the lid of the urn silently lifted, and the ashes within began to spiral upwards into the night sky. As the last of the ashes disappeared from the glow of the fire, Ares took one last look at the sleeping form of Gabrielle. His emotions were mixed. Some part of him that remembered mortal life wished to reach out and comfort her, but the rest of him wished vengeance for her allowing the death of his beloved. The warring sides of his psyche kept each other at bey, and he took one last look at her before departing to be with his beloved.
"Rest well Gabrielle. I have the feeling you're going to be needing your strength." he said as he disappeared.
The earth rumbled beneath Gabrielle and then was still again. Gabrielle did not stir. Ares's sleeping spell held firm over her until well after sunrise the next day.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes, Xena was there, sitting on the ground cross- legged in front of her, watching her sleep. If not for the calmness she exuded, Gabrielle might have sworn she was alive. It was that calmness that constantly reminded Gabrielle that Xena was dead. Her spirit was so different, it was almost like she was another person.
"Good morning." Gabrielle offered, and as the sun overhead stung her eyes, she rephrased her greeting. "Or should I say good afternoon."
Xena cocked her head sideways and looked at Gabrielle quizzically.
"What? Are you giving me the silent treatment for sleeping in?"
Xena continued to stare, as though she hadn't heard Gabrielle. It was then that Gabrielle realized that the expression on Xena's face was not calm, it was blank.
"Xena talk to me, you're scaring me." Gabrielle pleaded, getting to her knees. Xena's eyes remained fixed on the ground at a place slightly in front of Gabrielle. Gabrielle followed her gaze down, and her jaw dropped when her eyes found their mark. Xena's urn lay on its side, the lid was off, the urn was empty.
"Gods no!" Gabrielle exclaimed, tears were already welling in her eyes as her hands moved frantically around the urn searching for any trace of Xena's ashes. But there was nothing there. Not a trace of what had once been the warrior princess.
She looked up to Xena, pleading forgiveness with her eyes, to find Xena's blank visage staring back at her.
"I'm so sorry. It must have been the wind, or maybe I did it in my sleep." Gabrielle struggled to explain as this further loss began to sink in. "What will I tell Eve? I thought at the least I could take her your ashes."
But even as she looked to Xena for help she was realizing that no help would come. Something was wrong with Xena's ghost this morning. She acted like she didn't even recognize Gabrielle. Gabrielle's tears over the missing ashes dried as she was overcome with concern for Xena's spirit.
"Xena?" Gabrielle inquired, reaching out to touch her. A confused look crossed Xena's face and she backed away like a wary animal.
The earth suddenly began to tremor beneath them, Xena's ghost rippled as though it were a reflection on the water. Her expression softened for a minute, and then a look of recognition returned to her eyes.
"Gabrielle?" she asked as if from far away. The earth shook harder and then came to rest. When it did, Xena was gone.
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed into the empty air. "Xena come back! What is this? What's going on?"
But an answer to her cry never came. Something was amiss. The earth had not tremored so since the day Hercules killed Zeus. Gabrielle began to feel very small. Xena was gone, so were Hercules and Iolas. She was truly on her own. Whatever was happening, it was her job to discover its cause and its solution. She felt the weight of responsibility on her shoulders and was not sure she was ready to bear the load.
"By the gods Xena, what have you left me to?" Gabrielle asked, fear and uncertainty building in her heart. When the forest around her offered no answers, she got to her feet and packed all her gear into Argo's saddlebags. She picked up the empty urn last of all. The sight of the clean sides of the urn only deepened her sense of loss and loneliness. All that she possessed of Xena now was a memory.
She put the lid back on the urn and placed it gently into the saddlebag, as though the ashes were still within. For some reason she could not leave it behind. It was just a simple clay pot, but it was also a remnant of the past. It was going to take her a long time to let go. She felt like she was only half a person.
Hoisting the saddle up onto Argo, and then the saddlebags after it, she tried to take her mind off her grief for a moment. What was she supposed to do? What would Xena do?
As she took the chakram from her hip she was distracted by the warmth of the metal. It felt as though heat were emanating from its very core. Something strange was definitely going on. She had to find out what. That was what Xena would do. Discover the problem, then solve it, no matter what need be done. She tied the chakram to some leather straps on the side of the saddle, then climbed up onto Argo's back.
And so, it was on that very morning she set out on her first adventure alone. This time as the hero, not the sidekick. And with every stride Argo took, and every question Gabrielle pondered, her respect for Xena only grew, and she found herself missing her all the more.
"Gabrielle!" Eve yelled in pleasant surprise as she saw Gabrielle approaching on Argo.
Gabrielle could not hold back a smile, nor could she hold back her tears as she nearly leaped off the saddle and into Eve's arms. It felt good to be with someone who was not a stranger. It was comforting.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong? Where's my mother?" Eve asked, her voice cracking as she did.
Gabrielle pulled away so she could look Eve straight in the eyes when she delivered the news. Staring into the icy blue of Eve's eyes was like staring into Xena's. It was good to know that some part of Xena still lived.
"Eve, I don't know how to tell you this. I've thought it out so many times, but I just can't seem to think of the right words,"
"The rumors are true aren't they? She's not coming back this time." Tears were starting to spill from Eve's eyes. Her bottom lip had begun to quiver. Gabrielle pulled her close and hugged her, as much for her own comfort as for Eve's.
"I'm so sorry. I tried to talk her out of it. But she was right. It was the right thing to do. She was a hero to the end." Gabrielle said, hoping that it would ease Eve's grief.
"You don't sound like you really believe that." Eve observed, her voice incredibly smooth and clear for someone who was crying.
"No, but I will." Gabrielle admitted, pushing away from Eve.
Eve looked at her with a mix of confusion and grief. For a moment, Gabrielle could have sworn that something dark had passed across her eyes. But then it was gone, and Xena's eyes stared back at Gabrielle from Eve's face.
Gabrielle lifted her hand to wipe the tears from her face. She had thought she would have more time to decide what she was going to tell Eve, but this chance encounter had caught her unprepared. For the first time since discovering Eve, Gabrielle took note of her surroundings. They were in a small clearing within the forest, they were the only ones there.
"Eve, what are you doing out here all alone? Where are your followers?"
A look of confusion crossed Eve's face. Then she gathered herself from her grief and tried to explain.
"I was in a little town outside of Athens a short while ago, teaching the way of love to the villagers there. That was when the ground started to shake. The people began to panic, insisting that the gods were angry of my teachings, of the word of Eli. They banished me from the town. My followers started to desert me. And then I started waking up in places I couldn't remember walking to. That's how I got here."
"Oh Eve," Gabrielle said sympathetically. The look on Eve's face was that of a woman that's lost everything.
"Three days ago I heard a rumor that my mother had been decapitated on a journey to the far east. Since then, when I haven't been wandering in my sleep, I've been heading east, searching for you, and hoping the rumors weren't true."
"And today you find me, and your worst nightmares become truths." Gabrielle finished Eve's story, drawing her close to hug her again.
For awhile they just stood, holding each other. Accepting what had happened, and finding comfort in the fact that they were not alone in their grief. When their tears had slowed, they released their embrace. Taking Argo's reins, Gabrielle began to walk, leading them all out of the clearing and into the forest.
"Something is going on here Eve. Something very wrong. I don't know what it is yet, but we have to stop it."
"I know Gabrielle. And I'd be honored to help if you'll let me."
"It would be me who would be honored," Gabrielle admitted. "Every time I look at you I see your mother."
"I may look like her Gabrielle, but you hold something so much more important. You were the key to her heart. The best of her is in you. She learned it from you. Maybe between the two of us, we can keep her honor alive. Make sure the world doesn't feel her loss as we do."
"I think she'd like that." Gabrielle observed, wishing Xena's spirit was there to hear it. Her ghost had not appeared since that very morning. Gabrielle was worried, but decided it was better that she kept her concern from Eve. She hoped that wherever Xena was, she could hear Eve's thought, and would know how very worthwhile the sacrifices had been that had kept her daughter alive. She had truly become a beautiful soul.
"Where are we headed?" Eve asked as Gabrielle appeared to be moving with a purpose.
"The Temple of the Fates. I don't know who else to turn to to find out what's going on."
"Do you think they'll tell you?" Eve asked, mistrustful of all Olympian entities.
"They owe me."
They pushed forward through the forest, both grateful for the other's company. The earth trembled beneath them, as if marking the beginning of their journey. Behind them a single tree fell to the ground and disappeared from existence as though it had never been. Gabrielle's greatest test lie waiting before her. She was not the only soul that hoped she was up to the task.
The fire crackled as it fed on a piece of wood that was not entirely dry. The light reflected off Eve's face, she sat on a log nearly on the other side of the fire from Gabrielle, staring into the fire, not speaking. The sun had set hours earlier, they were closer to dawn than to dusk. Neither could manage to sleep.
"Maybe we should just keep traveling. Obviously waiting for sleep is a waste of time." Gabrielle suggested, breaking the silence. They had both been consumed in their own deep and sad thoughts for quite some time.
"No, I think with the strange things happening lately, we'd be smarter to wait for the light."
"I knew you'd say that. That's what Xena would have said." Gabrielle observed. The similarities between Xena and Eve were hard to miss. Both possessing a dark side that forever fought to consume them. Both trained by Ares himself in all arts that were lethal. Only the knowledge of the pinch separated the two. Gabrielle wondered if she should share the secret, bestow on Eve the last of the skills she did not possess.
Silence intruded for a moment, both their thoughts slipping back to memories of Xena. And then Eve found the courage to speak, to reveal what had been playing through her mind as she stared into the fire.
"I've been sitting here, staring into the fire trying to decide if I should ask you about it. How it happened, why my mother decided to do what she did. I'm not certain I want to know. I have the capability to be a horrible person Gabrielle, I don't know what the knowledge would do to me." Eve admitted, looking up, her eyes wide and blue, almost childlike.
"And you also have the capability to be a wonderful person. You've proven that by the path you've chosen to walk in life. If I could decide for you, I'd tell you that it only matters that your mother died a hero, for the greater good and on her own terms. She went down fighting, that was how she always wanted it. And I'd tell you that given the choice, I would want to know nothing more. The whole of the story is only confusing. What's important is, in the end, Xena felt she made the right decision." Gabrielle explained, wishing she had the choice to wipe the horrifying images from her own memory.
"How do you know she was certain of it? That she wouldn't take it back if she had the chance?"
"Because she had the chance, and she refused to take it." Gabrielle stated simply. Anger washed over her like a wave as she said it. She wished that was not the emotion Xena's decision inspired, but she couldn't help it. It was the first time in Xena's life that she had ever decided to quit. Gabrielle just couldn't respect the decision.
Eve's head dropped, she stared down at the ground between her feet. For a moment it seemed as though she might have fainted, just as Gabrielle was about to get to her feet to check, Eve spoke.
"I think I need to know how it happened. Tell me everything. I have to understand." her voice was lower somehow, sort of subdued. Gabrielle understood why. She was asking for something she needed but didn't really want.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I have to know, then maybe I can move on."
"All right. I understand. This is going to be hard, for both of us." Gabrielle warned one last time.
"I know. Take your time. We have all night."
There was something different about Eve at that moment. She was strangely calm, her voice no longer cracked with grief. She seemed sort of numb. She stared at the ground, stubbornly supressing tears that had been falling freely all day and all night. For a moment it gave Gabrielle pause, and then she dismissed it. It was Eve's way of steeling herself for the truth, that was all. And so she began her story as it had started, a bittersweet smile on her face as she recounted the conversation they'd been having before fate had sent them on their way to Japan. It was her last truly happy memory, she silently wondered if she'd ever have another.
Gabrielle recounted her tale from beginning to end. Trying hard to omit nothing. Finding along the way that retelling the tale of Xena's death seemed to unburden her somehow. She found herself hoping that Eve would feel the same way about Xena's sacrifice as she did. And if she could not empathize, Gabrielle hoped that perhaps Eve could understand Xena's decision better than she had, and could help her to understand. By the time her story was done, birds were beginning to chirp in anticipation of the dawn.
Eve was thoughtful for a while after the last of Gabrielle's words had disappeared from the air. Gabrielle laid down on her blanket, staring at the last of the stars, giving Eve as much space and time as she needed to sort through her thoughts. Gabrielle was somewhat startled when her voice finally did cut through the air.
"Do you know how many souls I've sent to the underworld in my life? How many more times over my army has crushed thousands at my command?"
Gabrielle rolled onto her side, propping herself up on one arm so she could look at Eve. She hadn't moved a muscle since she'd decided she needed to hear the story. "Eve, if you're thinking you need to atone for something...."
"Atone? Gabrielle where could I even begin? How could I ever be forgiven? My mother did nothing but good every day of her life since the day Hercules spared her, and still it was not enough. And for some reason, the gods are allowed to forgive me and not her? I haven't done half the good that she did. Why do I deserve to live when she does not?"
"Eve, I hope you're not thinking of sacrificing yourself in the name of some punishment you think you deserve. You have a purpose in life, a path, you have to follow it. Xena followed her own path. It is not for us to choose." Gabrielle pleaded, suddenly getting the impression that Eve was about to self-destruct.
"Why not? She chose to stay dead, to leave us, why can't I choose my own fate as well?"
"Eve...." Gabrielle got up and started towards Eve. Sensing her approach, Eve got to her feet, backing away from Gabrielle a bit, away from the light of the fire.
"What did I do to deserve this? Why is it my fate for my soul to wander the earth as an orphan, always at the hands of Xena?"
A chill ran up Gabrielle's spine as she recognized the inflection of Eve's voice. As the firelight flickered across Eve's face, Gabrielle was alarmed to see that her eyes had turned brown.
"Eve?" Gabrielle said uncertainly. She felt her hand stray down to her hip and the warm metal of the chakram as she wondered if her tired eyes were playing tricks on her.
"And she moves on to the next life, and is remembered as a hero and I am forever doomed to be the monster. Why? Why? Why?" she screamed towards the sky. Gabrielle was sure of it now, there was no mistaking that shriek. The chakram was nearly too hot to hold as she raised it up in front of her, readying herself to throw it.
As Eve's screams tapered off into sobs, she began to teeter on her feet. She appeared to start falling backwards, she took a step and caught herself at the last second, her gaze coming back down to meet Gabrielle's.
"What are you doing?" Eve's eyes were blue again, they were fixed on the chakram held menacingly in Gabrielle's hand.
"The chakram. You're not thinking of throwing that at me are you?"
"Oh, no. I uh, thought I heard something." Gabrielle covered. "I would never throw it at you."
"That's good to know. Not that it matters, I'd just catch it and throw it back anyway." Gabrielle shivered with a long forgotten feeling of familiarity. Eve was suddenly almost chipper. "Was I sleepwalking again? I don't remember getting to my feet."
"Yeah, you were.... acting strangely." Gabrielle admitted. Something a lot deeper than sleepwalking was going on. Gabrielle felt better keeping it to herself until she knew more about what was going on.
"What did I do?" Eve looked deeply curious.
"You just talked and walked. I thought you were awake." Gabrielle said, putting the chakram back on her hip. It didn't appear that Eve had heard any of the story of her mother's death. And if she had, she wasn't reacting to it at all.
"Any hints of what brought it on?"
"None that I noticed."
"Hmm. Weird. Maybe the fates will explain it to me tomorrow." Eve suggested.
"Maybe." Gabrielle agreed. Now she had even more questions for the fates than before.
"It's almost dawn. We should try to get some sleep. Clear our minds." Eve offered, noticing Gabrielle's sudden loss for words as well as the late hour.
"Yes. It's best to enter the Temple of the Fates with a clear head." Gabrielle agreed.
"Good-night then." Eve said, wrapping herself in a blanket across the fire from Gabrielle.
"Good-night." Gabrielle replied. But she did not close her eyes once she laid down, she kept them fixed on Eve, wary of what she might do in her sleep.
The hours before sunrise passed with painful slowness. As it turned out, the only sure way for Gabrielle to fall asleep was for her to find it necessary to be awake. Her eyes remained fixed on Eve, who had not so much as moved since laying down. A few times the rumbling of the earth had startled Gabrielle from a slumber she could not remember slipping into. She fought with all her might to stay awake, to keep her guard up. Sleep was a hard foe to defeat. And so it was when the sun broke over the horizon, that Gabrielle was unsure whether she was dreaming or not.
Xena appeared, just behind Eve, walking out of the forest as if she'd been there all night. Gabrielle sat up, waiting for Xena to get closer, so she could talk softly and not disturb Eve. She had a lot of questions for Xena this morning. She hoped she could answer them.
But Xena appeared not to notice Gabrielle or Eve. Walking through a tree, she appeared to be unaware of the world around her as well. Her head turned to one side, the to the other, she turned to look behind her a couple of times. Gabrielle knew the behavior, Xena was searching for something, hoping it would not find her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle questioned, not liking the looks of her friend.
Xena started at the sound of her voice, searching for its source as though it had only been a whisper. And then her head snapped to the side and her eyes widened in fear. The look sent chills through Gabrielle. And then Xena took off running in the opposite direction, disappearing into the forest, leaving no trace of her passage in her wake.
"Gabrielle? What's wrong?" Eve asked, roused from her sleep by the sound of Gabrielle's voice.
"Nothing. Just a nightmare. Woke me up, that's all." Gabrielle lied. For some reason she couldn't tell Eve the truth of her mother's ghost. It was selfish, but Gabrielle didn't want to share that last bit of Xena that she clung to.
"Just as well. It's light enough now. We should start moving." Eve said, getting to her feet.
"Yes." Gabrielle agreed, feeling a sense of urgency to find out what it was that was wreaking havoc in both the mortal world and the spirit world. "Let's pack up and go. I get the feeling that we don't have much time to waste."
"Are you sure you don't want me to come in with you?" Eve inquired. Gabrielle knew she really wanted to go, but she felt it might be better if she went in alone.
"Positive. I need to do this myself. I have to learn to do this alone."
"All right. If you need me, I'll be right here." Eve offered, trying not to look dejected.
Gabrielle offered her a smile and handed her Argo's reins. Then she turned and walked toward the temple alone. It felt just as it had the last time. The desperation and uncertainty were the same. The only difference this time was, there was nothing inside that she could burn that would return Xena to her. As she walked through the doors and the sun was no longer on her back, she was left with the feeling that she'd just walked into a crypt.
"We've been expecting you." came the harsh and yet kind voice of the Crone.
"I...." Gabrielle started.
"You've come to call in your favor, to ask questions of us we might otherwise not answer. What you do not know is that it is We who ask the favor." the Maiden said, cutting her off.
"What favor could I possibly offer you?"
"The loom is in jeopardy. The true loom. The fabric of life has started to come undone. Come Gabrielle, we shall show you what no other mortal has ever laid eyes on." the Mother invited, extending her hand to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle reached out and took her hand, in that moment, the ground beneath her feet disappeared, as did the temple around them. All was replaced by blackness and an absence of anything solid. And then in front of her an orb of light appeared, suspended in the nothingness.
"What is this place?" Gabrielle asked.
"This is everything and nothing. Existence before existence. It is not the beginning, but it is as close to the beginning as we can comprehend. Watch." the Maiden invited.
Gabrielle stared into the globe as she was told. It began to swirl before her eyes, its surface and center composed of a white-hot flame that moved as though it were alive. It was beautiful and horrific all at once.
"In the beginning there was only this. A mass of energy and heat, existing in an endless sea of nothing. And then, it began to change." the Crone explained.
"The fireball before them spun faster, tendrils of flame spinning off of it until it had spun itself into a small tight ball of energy. And then, without warning, it exploded outward, a mass of tiny sparks flying everywhere. Gabrielle flinched as they rushed towards her, but they seemed to pass through her, without effect.
"Born of this flame were the stars and the planets." the Mother continued. Gabrielle watched as one of the small points of light before her began to dim, and then to turn from a molten red to a brown, to a brilliant blue and green.
"It's so beautiful. What is it?" Gabrielle asked, mesmerized by the transformation.
"The earth." the Maiden answered.
"But it's round. How can it be round? We'd all fall off the bottom. Everything would be uphill or downhill. The water would fall off."
"Maybe it was a mistake to show her everything." the Crone said, an irritated look on her face.
"No, no I'm sorry. Continue with the story." Gabrielle interjected, realizing she had no right to question what she was being shown.
"When the earth cooled, we were here, before life first roamed the planet. Given the charge of warding life on this planet by the power that created everything, we were left to work the loom. To create the fabric of life." the Mother explained. She let go of Gabrielle's hand and the temple materialized back around them. The loom appeared in front of them, it was bare of fabric.
"Where are the life threads?" Gabrielle asked, alarmed.
"All that has been and all that ever will be has already been woven. The fabric had to be complete before life could begin." the Maiden explained.
"But I've seen the loom. I've held Xena's lifethread in my hands. I've even set fire to the loom before and changed fate. How could I have seen and touched the threads if they'd already been woven into the fabric?"
"That was never the true loom. There are things upon this earth that have been here since the beginning. The loom is one of those things. Another hangs at your hip. The gods have found and claimed other such items as their own, but these things do not belong to them. All are indestructible to anything but each other. The true loom, the one you see before you cannot be burned or destroyed by forces other than those that have existed since the beginning. The loom you burned and the thread you held were false. They were shown to you because the pattern of the fabric required it to be so. Not even the gods know of this loom." the Crone said. She waved her hand and two great bolts of fabric appeared. Woven of fine threads of black and white, the bolts were joined by the fabric that was shared between them. The Maiden walked over and placed her hand on the bolt that was smaller.
"This part of the fabric is all that has been." the Maiden explained. "The other roll is all that will be. What is stretched out in between is the recent past, the present, and that which is soon to come."
Gabrielle took a few steps closer to the fabric, her curiosity propelling her forward. From a distance the fabric appeared to be half white and half black, split evenly down the middle. As she got nearer she saw that each side was woven of many threads of many colors, their mixture giving off the illusion of black and white.
"I don't understand whey you're showing all this to me. Why are you revealling things to me not even the gods know?" Gabrielle asked, a look of bewilderment set on her face.
"We show you the secrets of creation Gabrielle, the secrets of the making of the world so you might come to understand how to stop its unmaking." the Mother said.
"Unmaking?" Gabrielle felt the gravity of the situation increase.
"The tremors of the earth, the wandering of soulless beings, the disappearance of vast pieces of matter, they are all the first signs of the unmaking. If it is not stopped it will spread until it consumes all existence." the Crone said grimly.
"And I'm supposed to be the one to stop it?"
"You are the only one who can stop it. The only one who possesses all that is needed to save creation. Come closer and we'll show you what must be done." the Maiden said, beckoning her to come nearer the fabric of life. Gabrielle drew nearer and found herself staring down at the fabric stretched between the great rolls.
"See here?" the Maiden inquired, pointing to a small tear in the fabric. "Something has snagged the fabric, caused it to stray from the pattern, and now it is unraveling."
"I still don't understand what this has to do with me." Gabrielle said, still looking down at the fabric, admiring its beauty. The tear was right in the center. A thick cord appeared to have snapped right on the bias that separated the dark fabric from the light. The smaller cords around it were starting to fray, while a few of the stronger cords strained to keep the fabric from tearing in two.
"Give me your hand." the Maiden ordered. Gabrielle did as she was told, and the Maiden took her hand, and placed one of Gabrielle's fingers on the larger cord, just before where it had broken.
Gabrielle found herself moving at a frightening speed, lights and sounds whizzed by her, too fast to comprehend. And then she slammed to a stop that knocked the wind out of her. She found herself in the middle of a battle, and as her bearings returned to her, she realized that she was back in Japan. She gasped as she saw Xena stagger before her, bleeding from multiple wounds, shafts of broken arrows protruding from everywhere.
Gabrielle tried to move, to speak, to rush to Xena's aid, but she found herself frozen, unable to do anything but watch. A group of soldiers surrounded her. As the lifeblood slowly drained from her body, Xena fought them off, killing them deftly with her sword as though it were them and not her that were at a disadvantage. As the last of her attackers fell, Xena staggered forward. Gabrielle could see that she was barely clinging to life. That was when the samurai approached, sword held in front of him, ready to strike. Gabrielle knew what would come next, she'd seen it in her nightmares every night since it had happened. Without knowing if it would work, she jerked her finger free of the thread, and the temple appeared back around her as though she'd never left. The shock and horror of what she'd just seen threatened to overtake her, Gabrielle fought against it with all her strength.
"Do you understand now?" the Crone asked.
Gabrielle looked back at her, face tear streaked and uttered the words her conscience had been insisting on since Xena's death. "This is all happening because Xena is dead. She wasn't supposed to die. I wasn't supposed to let her."
"Xena's lifethread is not like that of any others. It is not like a god's and it is not like a mortal's. It is made of a material as old as the loom and it is supposed to be unbreakable and eternal. Since the beginning of life it has been her lifethread that has borne the weight of the fabric, separated the light and the dark. Her spirit has kept it whole, even as she shed mortal forms. If it is not mended, the fabric will unravel, and all will be lost." the Crone said.
"You wove the fabric, can't you mend it? Can't you bring her back?" Gabrielle could not believe that such an awesome responsibility was being left to her.
"We haven't the power to mend it. The power to set things right, to mend the thread lie in objects as old as the loom. You already possess the chakram, the other objects you need are harder to obtain." the Mother gestured towards the chakram as she spoke.
"What can the chakram do?"
"It is made from the same metal as Xena's lifethread. It houses part of her soul." the Mother acknowledged.
"It's been so hot lately, is there something wrong with Xena's soul?"
"The 40,000 souls she blamed herself for killing, they are consuming her soul, gorging themselves on it. They feed on her guilt, but it is not she who is guilty for their deaths. So they feed on an innocent, and are further corrupted by it. They become more and more like Yodoshi every day. More like the one who sent the winds that turned a flame into a monster." the Crone said.
"But Xena started the fire, that doesn't make her guilty?"
"Without Yodoshi, it would have gone out. He took her flame, and he gave it horrible power. She was but a pawn in a much larger game. The curse he placed upon the town was not Xena's fault." the Crone finished. It was her duty to cut the lifethread, to dispense with death. Gabrielle was not about to argue with her over matters of final retribution.
"The heat you feel in the chakram is Xena's soul being destroyed. You must break the chakram and free Xena's soul before the chakram cools." the Maiden informed.
"If I break the chakram, will that bring her back to life?"
"No. She must have a body first." the Crone said.
"But I cremated her."
"Seek the flame of creation. It has the power to restore and sustain. Light Xena's ashes with the flame and her flesh will be remade." the Maiden offered. "Then seek the eye that does not see to break the chakram and restore Xena's soul."
"Go now Gabrielle, time grows short. You must restore Xena before her soul is devoured or all is lost." the Fates ordered, each speaking one part of the order.
"But I lost Xena's ashes. And I don't know where to find this flame, or what this eye thing is.... Please, you've told me so much, can't you tell me more?" Gabrielle pleaded.
"One last piece of information I will give you. Give me your hand." the Crone said. She placed Gabrielle's hand on the future side of the tear, at the very edge where the threads that had been cut were woven under. Gabrielle once again was thrown quickly through time. She found herself standing at the edge of a cliff. She recognized the place, she and Xena had saved a girl from sacrifice there a few weeks before they had gone to Japan. There was a red haired girl standing there. As Gabrielle watched, the girl bent her knees and jumped into the air and off the edge of the cliff, disappearing below the lip of the rock. Gabrielle felt the Crone pull her hand away and the scene disappeared. "Seek the flame. Light the ashes. The wind could not steal them away so easily. They are with one you know." the Crone finished.
"What am I supposed to do with that? What does the girl have to do with any of this?" Gabrielle begged, confused.
"We've told you all you need to know. The answers lie within Gabrielle. Trust your instincts. Remember what we've shown you." the Fates said in unison. Then, much to Gabrielle's horror, they disappeared.
"This isn't fair! You hear me! You reveal so much and then you speak in riddles! Why?" Gabrielle yelled. They did not answer. The fates did not answer to anyone if they chose not to.
Dejected and frightened, Gabrielle stepped out of the temple and back into the sunlight towards Eve.
"Weren't they there?" Eve asked, she was still standing with Argo's reins in her hand.
"Of course they were there. Why do you ask?"
"You just stepped into that temple and right back out again. They couldn't have told you much."
"They didn't have to, according to them, I already know everything I need to know." Gabrielle said bitterly, getting up onto Argo's back and offering a hand to Eve.
"Hop on. We have to go get you a horse and get going if we're going to do this."
"Bring back your mother."
"Do you know how to do that Gabrielle?" Eve asked, wide eyed, climbing up behind Gabrielle.
"I hope so."
"Did we reveal enough?" the Maiden asked.
"Maybe too much." the Crone said grimly.
"Shouldn't we have told her where to find the flame and how to break the chakram?" the Maiden asked.
"Some things are better left undiscovered until they are necessary. If she has time to think about what must be done, time to ponder the faith she must believe in without doubt, she is more likely to fail. More likely to try and find another way." the Crone explained.
"And then precious time is lost, and the threads will continue to break." the Mother said, finishing the Crone's thought.
"Do you think she can do it?" the Maiden asked.
"I hope so." the Crone stated, concern in her voice. All of creation was in jeopardy, even the fates were afraid.
"Where are we going?" Eve inquired as Gabrielle suddenly spurred Argo forward and Eve eased her own horse up alongside. Apparently Gabrielle had settled upon what needed to be done next.
"To the Halls of War, to find Ares. The fates said Xena's ashes were not lost, that they were with someone I know. He's the only one I can think of that would take interest in a trophy like that."
"What else did the fates tell you Gabrielle? You don't have to keep it to yourself you know. You can trust me. I can help you." Eve offered.
Gabrielle thought it over for a minute. She'd skirted the subject of what the fates had told her neatly up until that point. Eve had not been so bold as to ask her outright what she knew. And for Gabrielle, it was not a matter of trusting Eve, it was a matter of mistrusting the other that had passed through Eve's body the night before. But Gabrielle was not above admitting that she needed help. With all of creation at risk, she decided she could not afford the time it would take to play it safe. She needed help in solving the riddles, Eve had seen a lot, she might just hold the answers.
"They told me I needed to break the chakram to free Xena's soul."
"Break the chakram? Is that possible?" Eve questioned.
"Yes. It broke once before when Callisto threw it at Xena or I wouldn't believe it either. But since neither Xena or Callisto are here to reenact that little duel, we have to seek another thing forged of the same substance as the chakram. We have to seek the eye that cannot see." Gabrielle repeated, her eyes focusing on Eve every time she uttered the word Callisto. She didn't seem to react suspiciously.
"The eye that cannot see." Eve said thoughtfully. "I wonder what that would be."
"I think it might have something to do with a god. The
fates said the gods possess things that have existed as long as the chakram has. They don't understand or know their origins, but they lay claim to them anyway."
"Could they have meant the eye of Hephaestus?" Eve asked out of the blue.
"Maybe," Gabrielle replied. It made sense, but it seemed too easy an answer. The riddles of the fates were never so easily unlocked.
"Is that all we need to do to restore my mother? Get back her ashes and break the chakram?"
"We have to restore her body first. They told me to light her ashes from a flame that restores and sustains. Then they showed me a girl leaping off a cliff to her death and told me to seek the flame. I think the girl might know what the flame is. In the vision I saw the sun was just starting to rise. My gut tells me I have to be on that cliff tomorrow morning or else I'll have lost my one chance to discover the flame." Gabrielle was doing as the fates said, trusting her instincts, truth be known, she didn't have much else to go on.
"You know where the cliff is?"
"Xena and I were there a few months ago. The scenery is unmistakable. But it's a long ride off from the Halls of War. We'll be lucky to make it." Gabrielle admitted.
"We'll make it Gabrielle. My mother taught you everything you know, you'll find a way." in Eve's eyes, Gabrielle thought she detected a bit of jealousy towards the close relationship Gabrielle and Xena had shared. And then the look was gone, and Gabrielle was left questioning whether or not it had really been there.
Gabrielle eased Argo into a faster gait and Eve matched the speed, pulling her dappled grey mare up alongside. If they made good time they would be at the Hall of War before sunset, and if they were really lucky, Gabrielle's instincts would be right and Ares would be there with Xena's ashes. It crossed Gabrielle's mind that maybe she should just ride for the cliff, to make it to the girl and find out the secret of the flame before she had found Xena's ashes. Maybe try to call Ares to her, to have him bring the ashes himself. Surely he would cooperate if he knew he could help in bringing his greatest champion back from the dead. But Gabrielle knew better. She had learned well over the years that it was not good to put too much trust in a god, they were unpredictable at best. Gabrielle could not risk calling for him and having him not answer, there was no room for mistakes in her task.
"It's happening more often now, and it feels like it's getting worse." Eve said after they'd ridden in silence for some time, enduring the frequent shifting of the earth beneath them with a kind of terrified awe as they went. It felt like the earth was trying to shake them from it's surface, and it made them both feel insignificant and small. The horses who had first been spooked by the motion were fast growing accustomed to it. Still, whenever the earth rumbled, they slowed their horses to keep them from stumbling and falling and hurting themselves or their riders. Gabrielle couldn't help but notice that for the first time in awhile, the chakram hadn't grown any hotter, she didn't think it had started to cool yet, but she got the feeling that it wouldn't be long before it did. The discovery might have served to quicken her pace, but Gabrielle was already moving faster than was advised.
When the shaking tapered off, they sped their mounts forward again. Gabrielle was concerned that she might be pushing Argo too hard. The possibility of resting the horses passed fleetingly through her mind. There simply wasn't time for it. She hoped Argo had half the heart of her mother, even that would be enough to sustain her longer than any other horse could manage.
An evening chill had crept into the air by the time they reached the Halls of War. They led their grateful horses to a fountain adorning the front of the temple and the horses began to drink greedily.
"Go on inside Gabrielle, I'll tend to the horses." Eve offered.
"You don't want to come in?" Gabrielle asked, perplexed by Eve's sudden lack of enthusiasm to go where the action was.
"I thought I knew Ares once, I was wrong about him. You know more about him than me. I'd just be in the way." Eve seemed to have grown amazingly passive since abandoning her life as Livia to serve Eli. The transformation was so dramatic that Gabrielle couldn't help but be mistrustful of it at times. "Besides, we're in a hurry, we can't afford to lose the horses."
"All right. If I'm not out by sundown, come in after me, but be careful." Gabrielle warned as she removed the empty urn from the saddlebag.
"I'm not a child Gabrielle, I know how to be a warrior."
"Good to know. We might still have use for that part of you." Gabrielle offered her a smile before turning to step into the Halls of War. Truthfully she felt better going in alone. She and Ares shared many experiences, many memories of Xena. Their relationship was a confusing one, but they both agreed on the matter of Xena, and neither seemed to be too good at living without her. It was this that was Gabrielle's most valuable bargaining chip. Ares would agree to help her not because he felt any loyalty towards her, but because no matter how hard he tried to deny it, the loss of Xena hurt him grievously as well.
She hadn't been in the Halls of War since the day she had thrown herself into the pit, taking her evil daughter with her to what she had thought to be certain death. Ares had saved her then, for a price. The memory of that day came back to her with vivid clarity as she moved closer to the main hall. Here was where they had fought off Dahak's priests, throwing them aside as if they were rag dolls. Rounding the corner she could see her daughter's eyes, her eyes, commanding weapons from every wall to hurtle towards them. And she could see Xena, against all odds deflecting the missiles, making it through the storm towards the altar where she sought to kill Hope. She could remember the feeling that had come over her that day. She'd felt it in Japan when she'd set out on her boldest journey ever only to find that her efforts were all for naught. The look of pain in Xena's eyes as she made the decision not to live had been the same as the look she'd had, staring down into the pit as Gabrielle and Hope fell. The pain that could have been saved if only Gabrielle had known the truth of the loom sooner.
Looking forward to Ares's throne, Gabrielle could see something sitting there, shimmering like it were made of gold.
"Ares?" Gabrielle approached, her eyes not recognizing the form on the throne from a distance.
As she approached, Gabrielle realized it was not Ares on the throne, it was a woman, an apparition made of so little that you could see through her in places. It was not until she was at the base of the stairs leading to the throne that she realized the apparition was Xena.
"Xena?" Gabrielle was about to step up onto the first of the stairs, she was stopped when her foot encountered something solid in its path. Reaching her hand out towards Xena, it too was stopped in mid-air, on a plane level with the bottom step. Ares had erected an invisible barrier around his throne.
"Beautiful isn't it. Sitting there on the throne, as she was meant to be. My queen. The goddess of war." Ares's voice broke through the air behind Gabrielle. She might have been startled, but she knew Ares well enough to be able to anticipate his sense of timing.
"You know she would kill you for this if she could." Gabrielle replied, angry that Ares believed he could win Xena's affections with the life she had happily left behind long ago.
"And she'd have had the chance if you hadn't killed her." the statement hit Gabrielle like a ton of bricks.
"I didn't kill her...."
"Of course you did, as sure as if you'd swung the blade yourself. She wouldn't be dead if you'd followed your conscience. Xena is a warrior in the truest sense, she's hero enough to make Hercules jealous. Your job was to keep her from doing something like this. To keep her from senseless sacrifice. To protect her from acts of stubborn honor."
"I respected her decision." Gabrielle shot back, trying to suppress the hurt in her voice.
"You followed her orders. Tell me Gabrielle, why did you have to pick that particular day to start to listen to her? You knew what kind of decisions she made. You knew she had no regard for her own life. It was your job to protect her from herself, to defy her. And you chose that day to play the part of the perfect little puppet."
"I made a mistake."
"A mistake? No this was so much more than a mistake, this was murder." Ares was baiting her, trying to get her to retaliate.
"I won't play your games." Gabrielle said, fighting off her anger.
"You'll do what I tell you to do." Ares drew his sword and held it out in front of him, a challenge to Gabrielle. "Let's see if you're any better than the last time."
"I told you I won't play." Gabrielle turned her back on Ares to face Xena once more.
Her reaction set Ares aback for a moment. No one turned their back on the god of war, well no one except Xena. He considered he and Gabrielle's somewhat twisted relationship and wondered if he should allow her the same leeway as he had Xena. She was the closest thing left on earth to a warrior princess, he might do well to keep her around, to train her as his new champion. But a need for vengeance crept into his thoughts, and in an instant he was all impulse and little thought.
"Who's playing?" he asked, stepping forward, swinging his sword at Gabrielle's head.
Though her back was turned, Gabrielle ducked at the last moment, and the sword sliced the air over her head. She kept her back to Ares.
Ares screamed in anger at his attack being deflected as if it were nothing. He would not be made a fool by a bard. Before Gabrielle had even gotten to her feet, Ares swung his sword back around and stabbed towards the middle of her back. Gabrielle stepped to the side casually, as though there were no hurry, and the sword thrust missed completely.
Stunned by his failure, Ares leaped into the air, over Gabrielle to land in front of her, to face her. The look on her face was one of hatred and of pity.
"You will face me." he said thrusting his sword at her stomach. This time she did not move, instead, she caught the blade with her bare hand, stopped its motion, not even wincing as blood spilled from her closed palm.
"You don't deserve the honor." Gabrielle spat, grabbing the blade of the sword in her other hand and shoving it back so the handle caught Ares in the gut, sending him stumbling backwards into his own barrier. When his body hit the invisible wall, it vibrated with the impact. The apparition of Xena disappeared with the impact.
A look of relief crossed onto Gabrielle's face as she realized what had happened behind the invisible partition, what was now seated in Ares's throne. Ares noticed the look, and turned to look behind him to the throne.
"Great. Just great. Do you know how long it took me to put those back together?" Ares said in frustration, his embarrassment over Gabrielle besting him in battle fading as his attention shifted.
"You did take her ashes. Thank the gods, I thought they were lost. If you didn't have them I don't know what I'd have done or where I'd have looked." Gabrielle said, relieved that she had found one of the items on the scavenger hunt the fates had sent her on.
"Don't think you're getting them back." Ares threatened, getting to his feet, brandishing his sword. He came at her in a rush, Gabrielle side stepped him and he went right past her. By the time he turned to come back at her, the chakram was already in flight, and then the blade of his sword clattered to the ground.
Gabrielle caught the chakram as though she'd been doing it all her life. It had somehow become as natural a motion to her as walking. She replaced it at her hip, its heat reminding her of the urgency of the situation. "I don't have time for this Ares. I need Xena's ashes."
"You caught... how did you?" he stuttered for a second, forgetting his godly composure.
"Please, if you really love her, you'll give them to me." she pleaded, the hall began to shake as she did.
He looked at her for a second, appraising her. This was not the Gabrielle he had come to know. This Gabrielle was as fierce as Xena had ever been. And yet there was a desperation in her voice, always the opportunist, he wondered how he could use that to his advantage.
"What's in it for me? If I keep them, I'll have exactly what I want. I'll be happy. If I give them to you, I'll have nothing. What could you possibly offer in exchange?"
Gabrielle was speechless for a moment. It was something she had to consider. Should she tell him the truth or should she play his game, offer him something she could not afford to lose for the sake of keeping him out of more important matters. Boldly, she decided to tell him a piece of the truth, to try and appeal to that part of him that did have a heart, to see how rotten he really was.
"A warrior princess."
"Gabrielle, while you offering yourself to serve in my name is a tempting thought, it just isn't enough. I need more than your obedience"
"I wasn't talking about me."
"Who then? Please don't say Eve, I couldn't stand the constant whining."
"No, not Eve, Xena. I know how to bring her back, but she needs a body, and for that I need her ashes."
Ares laughed a deep guttural laugh at the suggestion. "Good try Gabrielle, but it won't work. Nothing can restore her now, her body is destroyed. To bring her back, she'd need a body. It just can't be done."
"It can. And I'm the only one who can do it."
"What makes you so sure of this?"
"The fates told me so."
"The fates? Don't make me laugh. The fates would never offer up information like that. " but even as he said it, Ares looked a little uncertain.
"They did. And I'll prove it to you if you give me the ashes. I'll bring her back, you'll see I'm telling you the truth."
"And if you're lying to me, or if you fail, what then? What are you offering for collateral against her ashes?"
Gabrielle thought for a second before answering, then it occurred to her that it didn't matter what she offered to give Ares if she failed because failing was not an option. "I offer myself to you. Body and soul, to do whatever you want with me. I'll cater to your every whim, lead your armies into battle, I'll even slit my own throat if you command it."
"Tempting, but what's the catch? Your total surrender seems far too easy."
"There is no catch. I'll put it in writing if you want, everything I just said." Gabrielle tried to look like she was making a grave sacrifice, in truth she was barely suppressing her laughter. Ares, the all powerful god of war, did not even realize that the world was about to end.
A wry smile appeared on Ares's face, and he snapped his fingers, a scroll materialized in his hand. "You would sign it in blood of course." he said, uncoiling the scroll so she could read it.
"Of course," Gabrielle said without hesitation. Ares handed her a quill tipped with a fierce looking black feather and she dipped it in the still wet blood that was dripping from the hand she'd caught the sword with. She made her mark at the bottom of the scroll without hesitation.
"Well then, I'll be seeing you soon. Try not to lose the ashes, I'll be wanting them back in the event that you fail." he said, with one snap of his fingers, the scroll disappeared and Xena's ashes began to swirl through the air towards Gabrielle. She took the lid of the urn and they settled inside. Putting the lid on the urn, Gabrielle was overcome by the feeling that a little piece of her heart had just returned to her.
"Oh you'll be seeing me soon all right, with Xena at my side. She's gonna kick your ass when she finds out you stole her ashes."
"Well Gabrielle, I have to say that's an ass kicking I'll be looking forward to." Ares said, laughing so hard that it sounded like it was coming all the way up from his toes.
Gabrielle turned to leave the Halls of War, Ares followed at her side, questioning her as she went.
"Out of curiosity Gabrielle, how exactly are you going to turn that pot full of ashes back into living human flesh?" he pressed.
"I don't know yet. I know where I'm supposed to go to find out though. And if you don't mind, I'm kind of in a hurry to get there." Gabrielle said, rounding the corner back out into the daylight. Eve and the horses were nowhere to be seen.
"Well I hope it's not too far, cause without a horse, it's going to be a long run." Ares cackled.
"Eve!" Gabrielle yelled, hoping that she had just taken the horses around the corner into the shade to rest and graze. No answer was forthcoming.
"Funny thing. While you were busy gawking awestruck at Xena's ashes, I was out here talking with Eve. Seems she wanted to know where the Eye of Hephaestus was kept. Ordinarily I might have asked for something in exchange for information like that, but knowing what kind of odds she'll run into trying to get that stone, well let's say I thought it would make for quite a show."
"No, she didn't." Gabrielle said, hoping her words would convince her.
"Yes she did. She took off east, to Hephaestus's forge, in the caverns at the base of Mount Olympus. That place has so many traps set out against intruders, it will be a real treat to see if she can make it through."
Gabrielle felt panic creep over her. Maybe she could stop Eve, if she rode fast enough, she could warn her of the peril, not to mention, see what her intentions were. If she wanted to split up to save time that was one thing, but to go off without a word to Gabrielle, that suggested that her motives were less than pure. She whistled for Argo, waiting for the sound of beating hooves to greet her at any second, none came.
"If you're whistling for Argo, don't bother, Eve took her along with her own horse. Seems she might not be on your side Gabrielle. Funny, the way she talked, the way she moved, she reminded me of someone I used to know, she reminded me of...."
"Callisto." Gabrielle said, finishing his sentence.
"Yes. I take it you've noticed it too."
"Unfortunately." Gabrielle admitted. "Too bad I didn't trust my own eyes. I'd still have a horse."
"Cheer up Gabby, there are worse fates in life than to be a slave to the god of war." Ares was sounding chipper again. She wanted to hit him, but she managed to contain her anger. He would be made a fool soon enough, whether she failed or succeeded.
"Yes, but not many."
As she was descending the stairs, wondering how she was going to get to the cliff by sunrise, she could hear the earth rumbling again. She braced herself for more shaking, but it never came. The sound got louder and still the earth did not move. And then she realized it was not the earth that was rumbling, it was hooves against the earth. Argo emerged from the forest in front of the temple a few seconds later.
Gabrielle ran to the horse and could not help but hug her around her sweaty smelly neck. "Your mother would be proud." she said simply, grateful for the physical sacrifice the young mare was making. She was pushing herself to the very limit for Gabrielle. And it was at that moment that Gabrielle became sure that the blood that ran in Argo's veins was so much more than mere horse blood. Her line was something else. Something special.
She hoisted herself into the saddle and stowed the now full urn back into the saddlebag, making sure that it could not bounce out on the journey. She turned Argo east, prepared to try to catch up to Eve, to find out what her motives were. And then logic stepped in, and she turned Argo west, heading off as fast as she dared push Argo. She didn't have time to chase after Eve. She had to go where she knew she had to be. She would have to chance that she could find Eve and the eye later, after Xena was whole again.
The sun started to dip below the horizon as she set off. The clock was ticking.
She was beginning to think she'd made a mistake. A very grave mistake. The sun had been up for well over two hours now, and no one had so much as passed by the cliff. Perhaps this wasn't the cliff the fates had alluded to, maybe she had been wrong. She fought the impulse to get back on her exhausted horse and search the span of the cliffs. The fates had told her to trust her instincts, and her first instinct had been that this was the right cliff. It was not a good idea to be second guessing herself.
Hiding in the bushes, just to the side of the cliff, she pondered what the fates had said, why they had sent her here. She was sure it had to do with the flame, but what did it have to do with the flame. There were no flames here, just a lot of water, air and cruel outcroppings of rock. The fates had said that everything is already woven, and it was gravely dangerous to interfere with the pattern of the fabric of life. But why send Gabrielle to this cliff, where this redheaded woman was supposed to die if she wasn't allowed to stop it. It seemed like cruel punishment, it would take every ounce of Gabrielle's strength not to interfere in what was supposed to be the destined death of this woman.
Exactly what was she supposed to do? Was she supposed to risk going out to talk to her to see if she knew the secret that the fates would not reveal to her? Would that not perhaps interfere with the woman's suicide attempt? She thought it might be a terrible thing to risk. What would happen to the fabric if another of it's threads went awry? Would it rip from the edge as well as from the middle? No she couldn't alter anything that was about to happen, but what could she learn from sitting idly by and watching?
She had to piece the riddle out. There was more to it than being here at a certain time. What had the fates said about the objects needed to bring Xena back? Hadn't it been that the gods have claimed some of them for their own, without knowing their origins or their secrets. What object would be revealed by this act?
She didn't know whether to be relived or terrified when she saw the redheaded woman coming from about a mile down the road. The instant was upon her, and she had no idea of what she was supposed to do, if she was supposed to do anything. She pushed her brain into overdrive, trying to make the connections.
What was the act the woman was committing at it's simplest explanation? Death. She was seeking death. What was Gabrielle seeking? A flame that restores. And suddenly it all hit her like a ton of bricks and she scrambled to the edge of the cliff and began to work her way down it's face, wondering if she had time to get to the bottom.
It seemed to Gabrielle that her descent could go no slower, that the rocks that jutted up from the beach below would never grow any closer. Her fingers were bloodied and raw before she was a quarter of the way down, but she scarcely felt it. Falling never crossed through her mind, she worked downwards like a spider, catching herself every time she slipped, terror the farthest thing from her mind. She had touched this instant on the fabric of life, she was not destined to die now, so there was very little fear in her heart. The bag around her neck was her only fear. Xena's ashes were in the urn inside, she had to take care not to smash it against the rock.
Gabrielle was ten feet from the ground when she heard the scream sound from above her head. She didn't take the time to look up or down, instead she pushed herself off the face of the rock, and landed hard on her feet on the rocks below. One of her feet slipped out from underneath her and she smashed her knee on a rock, leaving a trail of skin and blood as she did. But she was on her feet before the pain had registered, and the redhead landed two feet in front of her on the rocks just as she lifted her gaze.
The sight was a grisly one. The woman hit the rock with a meaty thud. Blood was bubbling up out of her mouth and her limbs were horribly contorted, some barely still attached. But the most horrifying part was that there was still a soul behind the woman's unblinking eyes, she was still alive. Gabrielle felt her pain, but was glad that the woman felt it as well. Without hesitation, she threw herself on top of the woman's body, pulling her arms and legs in, and covering the woman as completely as she could. She had one chance to get what she needed, there would be no other opportunities.
The air whistled beside them, and Gabrielle chanced to look up.
"What are you doing? Can't you see she's in pain? You have to move." Celesta ordered, a stern look on her face.
Gabrielle did not move. "I will, but first I need you to do something for me."
"Why would I do you a favor. You and your little friend killed my brother." Celesta looked hurt. It was a curious look for a god to display.
"Because if you don't, the world is doomed."
A strange look came over Celesta's face and then was gone. Gabrielle knew she had hit some sort of nerve.
"Move and let me free this woman and then maybe we'll talk." Celesta said, angered that Gabrielle would demand anything of her and obviously wanting to end the suffering of the redheaded woman beneath Gabrielle.
"Your word that you won't just disappear?" Gabrielle demanded.
"You have my word."
Gabrielle stood up and backed away from the redheaded woman. Her head was rocking from side to side in agony, it was the only part of her broken body that appeared to still be able to move.
Celesta glided over to the woman, a graceful vision moving oblivious to the world around her. Gabrielle's eyes were drawn to her candle. To the flame that never flickered. To the flame that sustained death herself. Celesta bent over the woman, and her free hand drifted down towards the woman's eyes. She touched the woman's brow and the look of agony disappeared from the woman's face, and then she was gone. Her suffering ended.
Celesta drifted back up to a standing position, although her feet never did touch the ground.
"Now what do you mean the world is doomed?" Celesta asked, Gabrielle sensed that she knew more than she was giving away.
"Xena is dead, and because of that, the fabric of life is unraveling and the earth is slowly being unmade." Gabrielle said, there was no need to lie to Celesta, she did not exist to deceive.
"She's not dead. I never came for her." Celesta argued.
Gabrielle reached into her bag and brought out the urn. "Her ashes are in here if you don't believe me."
"No one on this earth dies without me knowing about it." Celesta argued.
"She did. That's why the world is doomed. I have to bring her back or else the fabric will unravel, and nothing will be left."
"What does this have to do with me?" Celesta asked, she didn't particularly sound like she wanted to help.
"I need you to light Xena's ashes with the flame from your candle, the fates told me it will restore her body."
"It will?" Celesta looked at her flame questioningly, she had never heard of such a thing before.
"That's what I'm hoping." Gabrielle admitted, hoping that Celesta would agree to help. She could not force her to help, to touch her would mean death, and then Gabrielle's thread would be snapped and there would be no one left to save the world from destruction.
Celesta looked at Gabrielle as if trying to see what was really going on inside her head. "You and Xena have deceived me before. Why should I believe you now?"
"If you don't believe the world is being unmade, look around you. Has the earth shook this much ever before? The fates told me that soulless beings would wander the earth as their lifethreads snapped, I'm sure you must have noticed some of them?"
"Two nights ago." Celesta's eyes dropped, she let out a long sigh. "I was summoned by the pleading of an old woman who sat at the bedside of her husband. He was just laying there withering away. His body suffering but still functioning. His wife pleaded for me to take him and give him peace. I tried Gabrielle, but there was nothing to take."
Gabrielle looked relieved that something she had said had struck a cord with Celesta. She hadn't seen any soulless beings yet herself, but she was glad that the fates had known enough to tell her about it. She supposed she would probably see some of them as time passed and more threads snapped. For now it seemed that the fabric still must be holding against destruction as most people still possessed their souls.
"So you have seen it. Will you help me then? I don't have much time." Gabrielle emphasized, stretching her arms out in front of her, offering the urn to Celesta.
Celesta considered it, but only for a second. "I don't know that it will work, but I suppose it can't do any harm if it doesn't work." she said, drifting closer to Gabrielle, reaching towards the urn with the candle.
Gabrielle took the lid off the urn and tilted it. She prayed that the wind would not take the ashes out to sea. Celesta eased the flame into the urn, tipping it so it touched the ashes, being careful not to snuff it out. Upon contact with the ashes, purple smoke began to pour out of the mouth of the urn, Celesta withdrew the flame, and an instant later, white flames shot out of the urn and it suddenly became too hot to hold.
Gabrielle dropped the urn in shock, she had not paused to think what would happen if the ashes were lit, or for that matter, what would happen if she were to drop them. Her hands had been burned by the heat of the flame, and her body had jerked away without first asking for her approval.
The urn exploded upon hitting the rocks, white light flashed outward, and a searing wind rushed by Gabrielle and even seemed to set Celesta aback with its heat. A glowing white ball of flame much like the one the fates had shown Gabrielle throbbed upon the rock for a moment. It was blinding, and although she didn't want to, Gabrielle had to look away. And then the heat dissipated, and Gabrielle risked a look back in the direction of the flame. Xena lay upon the rocks, naked, whole and unblinking.
Gabrielle bent closer, tears in her eyes, and found she could not believe that it was really Xena, that her flesh had been restored. She noticed as she gawked, that Xena was breathing, but that was her only motion.
"She has no soul. Just like the old man." Celesta observed, as in awe as Gabrielle was.
"She will have. I just have to figure out how to get it back." Gabrielle explained. The first part of the riddle solved. Now all she had to do was get to Eve and the eye, and to break the chakram before it cooled. With trepidation in her heart, she admitted to herself that the chakram was starting to cool. It was not nearly as warm as it had been just six hours earlier. She had a long way to go with a soulless body in tow. For the first time since she'd met her, Xena had become a burden instead of a gift. But it was a burden she would not exchange for any price in the world. Gabrielle stood on the rocks looking up, and wondered how she was going to get her burden back up the face of the rocks, and on her way towards Mount Olympus.
"Hello? Is anyone here?" Gabrielle yelled into the doorway of the seemingly empty house. She'd spotted the house from the road, they had two fine looking horses in a pen, Gabrielle was wondering if she could make a deal. She pulled Xena along by the hand behind her, she would move if led, almost by reflex, but that was about all she could do. She had spent more time than she could afford that morning leading Xena like that, along the shoreline to more accommodating ground and then having to trace her way back to Argo. The loss of time was upsetting her greatly.
"Just me. And my ma and pa, but I'm not so sure they count anymore." a voice said, emerging from the shadows towards the back of the house. Stepping inside, it took Gabrielle's eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom, but when they did, she spotted a man and a woman, sitting motionless beside the kitchen table, and a boy of maybe thirteen, who was apparently the one doing the talking.
"What's wrong with them?" Gabrielle asked, knowing the answer but asking to try and form some sort of trust between her and the boy.
"I don't know. They've been like that since I got up yesterday morning. They're not dead, I keep checking but they just keep on breathing. They won't talk and they won't move." he explained, trying to sound strong, like he was a man, but not doing a very good job of it. His voice was quivering. His eyes moved up to Xena's unblinking visage. "Looks to me like your friend has whatever my folks have too."
"Yes. I think she does." Gabrielle agreed. Silence intruded for a moment, the boy thoughtful of his situation, and then he seemed to come back to reality for a second, remembering that he'd forgotten something.
"What did you want?" the boy asked.
"I saw your horses from the road. I'm trying to get my friend to a place where I can help her.... come back out of whatever this is she has. My horse is nearly spent carrying us both. I was wondering if I could leave my horse here and borrow yours." Gabrielle asked, thinking all the while that if they boy said no, she'd go and take the horses anyway. She didn't have the time to barter but still, she thought she might as well come in and ask to begin with, try and save the ugliness of being a horse thief if at all possible.
"The horses belong to my pa...." he said, his eyes drifting over to his unresponsive father. He seemed to be considering how much trouble he'd be in if he allowed Gabrielle to take the horses. "But I suppose if he doesn't get better he won't be needing them anymore. An if you leave your horse here, well at least we'll have the one." he thought out loud. "Tell ya what lady, if you promise to bring back the horses and some of the medicine you're going to get for your friend to my parents, I'll loan you the horses." he offered, thinking himself quite the grown up businessman.
"I think we have a deal." Gabrielle said, offering her hand. "Gabrielle." she introduced.
The boy took her hand. "Caeleb. Come on outside. We'll square your horse away and saddle up the others."
They went outside, back into the blistering heat of the sun and around the corner of the house to the corral. Inside was a brown and white paint and a black, both mares, the black without so much as a white marking.
"The paint's name is Beauty, she can be kinda temperamental. The black we just got, she's green broke but she's got tons of energy. She ain't got a name yet."
"Maybe she'll earn one today." Gabrielle suggested. She let go of Xena's hand for a moment, Xena just stood there, like she was made out of clay. Gabrielle walked back to the side of the road, where an exhausted Argo was grazing on some taller grass. She took the reins and led her back to Caleb. "This is Argo. She's Xena's horse."
"Xena?" the boy said, not quite believing it, obviously having heard the name before. "You know Xena?"
"Sure I do kid. She's standing right in front of you." Gabrielle said, pointing to Xena. "And I want you to take good care of Argo, cause once Xena's cured, we'll be back for her. All right?"
"No problem." the boy said eagerly, coming to take the reins from Gabrielle. As it turned out, a little name dropping was all it took to get a little service. Caleb, trying to impress a catatonic soulless body and Gabrielle, ran around, switching the saddle off of Argo and onto the black, and putting one of his own onto the paint. He then helped Gabrielle hoist Xena up onto the paint, and tie her feet in the stirrups and her hands to the saddle horn. Gabrielle found herself feeling relieved that she'd dressed Xena in a long gown that they had carried in the saddlebags from some far off place. She couldn't remember where it had come from, but at least it covered Xena's body well enough to keep the boy from getting a show.
"I hope that holds." Gabrielle said, checking the ropes. She tried to make sure they were not too tight so as not to cut off circulation, and yet tight enough to keep Xena's hands and feet from slipping free.
"Sure it will. I think she might hold on. She walks, maybe she rides too." Caleb observed. Gabrielle hadn't thought of that. Xena seemed to be able to do things that were reflexive, and things learned long ago by her body and as of yet, not forgotten. Perhaps riding would be one of those things. Gabrielle hadn't really given her the chance to find out. She'd gotten her up onto Argo's back and then hopped up into the saddle behind her so she could hold her on the horse. Caleb might have a point.
"You might be right." Gabrielle said, giving him the benefit of the doubt. He puffed up like a boy three times his size with pride that someone like Gabrielle would give his idea some consideration. Gabrielle smiled at him as she climbed up onto the black. Caleb handed her the rope tied to Beauty.
"Don't forget to come back." the boy reminded, suddenly growing a bit mistrustful seeing them up and ready to leave on his father's horses.
"We won't. You just take good care of Argo. Xena likes her better than me." Gabrielle winked at the boy.
He smiled back in return, and Gabrielle turned and spurred the black into a fast gait. She didn't want to risk going too fast till she knew if Xena was going to bounce off her horse or not. Looking back towards her, Gabrielle saw that Xena was flopping around on the horse more than usual, but it didn't look like she was about to fall off. As they disappeared into the trees, Gabrielle could hear Argo whinnying behind. Poor Argo thought she was being deserted. Gabrielle should have taken the time to explain it to her like Xena would have.
Gabrielle had always teased Xena for the way she talked to Argo, but as of the last few days, Gabrielle was starting to believe that Argo did understand. That it was not as silly as it seemed. She felt bad leaving the horse behind, and it was not the first time she had felt bad that day. Already her conscience was scolding her for letting that poor redheaded woman lay suffering on the rocks for as long as she did. She shook herself like an animal shaking off water, trying to rid herself of the guilt. There was not time for it right now. There was not time for mistakes or for conscience. She had to act. To think. To figure out how to succeed at what came next.
As they thundered toward Mount Olympus on borrowed horses, Gabrielle wondered what Eve was up to and if she was still at Mount Olympus. She wondered what would be waiting for them at the end of the trail.
There it was, right in front of her, framed by the full moon that was hiding behind it. Mount Olympus loomed, a thing of greatness once, now a house for the ghosts of dead gods. A shiver ran down Gabrielle's spine looking at it. A slaughter that didn't have to be. That the gods were so powerful and yet so unbending in their ways had made them formidable monsters. And formidable monsters left formidable traps, Ares had said as much. The thought of what she might be walking into frightened her, but not so much as the thought of what she had to go through to get to that walk.
It seemed the unmaking had been progressing in leaps and bounds at the base of Mount Olympus. In places, the ground was simply not there. With every quiver of the earth, a little more fell away. What remained looked like stepping stones across a stream, although, most streams, to their credit, were not filled with molten rock.
There were no other options, they had to cross. Gabrielle got down off her horse and went over to get Xena off of hers. As she walked, the chakram slapped against the flesh of her thigh, even in the night air, her thigh was warmer. Time was running out, and she began to wonder if the heat that still remained in the chakram was from Xena's soul, or simply heat that had been drawn from Gabrielle's leg. The lake of molten rock in their path did nothing to give Gabrielle any confidence that Xena's soul had not been fully devoured. It certainly looked as though the unmaking had progressed to catastrophic levels.
Gabrielle wrestled Xena down off the horse and over to her own. She thought of tying the paint to a tree, and then thought better of it as the earth quaked and she saw more of the surrounding trees topple over, and disappear into the pit that the earth was becoming. They'd have to come back and find the paint after they'd restored the earth to what it formerly was.
Gabrielle lifted Xena and flipped her over the horse's back like a really large bag of flour. Then she got on the horse behind her and fought to get her into the saddle in front of her, so she could hold on to her. She took the cord that still bound Xena's hands and tied it to the saddle horn as a safety. What she was about to attempt was not a ride in the park, if either she or Xena fell, there would be no getting back up.
Sucking in a few quick breaths of air, Gabrielle locked one arm around Xena's waist, and gripped the horse with her legs, as hard as she could.
"Yah!" she yelled, and the horse sprung forward, her young legs pushing off the ground with energy that was surprising considering the distance she'd traveled and the load she carried. As they reached the edge of the lava pit, Gabrielle found herself praying that the horse would not put on the brakes and send she and Xena flying over her head and into the lava. She needn't have worried, when they got to the very edge, the ground beneath them began to crumble, and the horse jumped forward to the next patch of ground instinctively.
As they landed, Gabrielle struggled to keep both she and Xena on the horse. The horse on the other hand, moved on its own, propelled forward by fear and survival instinct, it jumped for the next patch of earth as the patch it landed on began to crumble. This time it felt as though they might not make it across. It was a long jump, and Gabrielle was left with the sensation of sinking as the horse took off, she couldn't have gotten much leverage.
But her feet landed surely on the next piece of ground, this piece was bigger than the last, and she got three full galloping steps in on the disappearing earth before she had to lift off for the next. Gabrielle held on to Xena for dear life. She was using Xena's tie to the saddle horn for support as much as she was using her legs. The hand holding the reins had found a hold at the front of the saddle, and she had her fingers buried beneath it in a vicelike grip she was not soon to loosen. Holding on was all she could do, she had to trust the horse and let her do what she needed to to get to safety.
Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut and buried her face in Xena's back. The smell of Xena's hair filled her nostrils, and she felt her heart swell with recognition, and a bit of her fear melted away. It seemed that she stayed that way forever. Clinging to the hope that the horse would stay surefooted, that the woman in front of her would soon be whole again. That the whole world wouldn't disappear into a fiery pit of lava. And by the time she realized that the horse was now running instead of jumping, that meager hope had come to feel more like a real possibility.
Gabrielle's grip on Xena and the saddle loosened as her hand came free to work the reins. She pulled back on the horse, easing her slowly into a fast trot. The horse whinnied and snorted, sweat glistening on her in the moonlight, and slowly she started to calm, almost in unison with the rate that Gabrielle's heart slowed. She glanced back over her shoulder at the pit. There were no stepping stones left for them to cross back over, and the lava stretched out like a great moat around the base of the mountain. If Gabrielle didn't succeed, she'd die at Mount Olympus, for there was no other way across the lava.
It seemed to get darker as they approached the base of the mountain. Gabrielle hoped she would not get lost in the darkness. She'd been in Hephaestus's forge only once before, when they'd lured Celesta into the forge and captured her in chains. It had been so long ago, Gabrielle wondered if the landscape had changed.
She moved in the direction that she thought it was in. Hephaestus's forge had never been well guarded. It relied on the reputation of its god and the deadly gadgets he was capable of making for protection. That was what Ares had meant when he said that he wanted to watch Eve get past the traps Hephaestus had laid. Gabrielle was fearful of those traps. There had been no traps the last time she'd been to the forge, but that had been more than twenty five years ago. A lot of time for a god to create some terrible snares. Gabrielle knew the kinds of horrible things Hephaestus could build, it terrified her to think of what he would rig to protect himself. If Eve had made it through, and if she was now somehow being manipulated by the evil part of what had been Callisto, she likely would have reset all the traps, so they would be there to greet Gabrielle. Callisto had a thing for challenging her equals. If Gabrielle made it into the forge unscathed, she would be an equal and a suitable challenge for Callisto's blade. Alone, Gabrielle almost certainly could have passed through the traps, but dragging a helpless Xena along behind her caused Gabrielle to have some doubts.
Reaching the entrance to the forge, there was no mistaking that Gabrielle had remembered the way. The moon was high overhead and the entrance to the forge was clearly lit. A reddish glow emerged from within, otherworldly powers keeping the torches lit for all eternity. The image of the entrance had been forever burned into her brain like any number of horrible memories. The last time they had been here it was to save Eve, now, if she got in the way, Gabrielle might have to find a way to kill her.
She freed Xena's hands and lifted her down from the horse. Xena landed like a drunken cat, unsteady, but on her feet nevertheless. Gabrielle drew her close and put an arm around her back to guide her instead of just taking her hand. She needed to have a good grip on her, to be able to move her to safety if need be. She stepped into the cave cautiously, waiting for something to bite her.
Her eyes were sharp moving within the dimly lit cave. She scanned the walls, the ceiling and the floor, looking for anything out of place or suspicious. She'd gone no more than twenty paces before she encountered a trip wire, blatantly stung across her path. She paused for a moment to consider it.
A trip wire was an easy trap, an obvious trap, and that in itself made it suspicious. Surely Hephaestus would not use such a common trap to keep people out of his forge. There had to be something more to it, her gut insisted it was so. This place was built to keep out regular people and seasoned warriors alike, there was more to this trap than a single wire.
Gabrielle used logic to flesh out the danger. Xena had taught her well. Years before she would have thought herself smart and stepped right over the wire and into a world of trouble, now she knew better.
Gabrielle took the chakram off her hip. It was still a bit warm, it wasn't her imagination, and she hurled it towards the floor on the other side of the wire. Sparks flashed as it hit the stone and started back to her, slicing the wire on its way past. Gabrielle barely had time to notice the floor on the other side of the wire disappearing into a pit below before the stone walls on either side of the wire came slamming shut right in front of her like a giant set of hands squishing a bug. Startled by the sight, she almost didn't remember that she still had to catch the chakram on its return flight. When she saw it coming back at her, her hand shot up and caught it, just inches from her nose. She couldn't wait till she could give the chakram back to Xena, then she wouldn't have to worry about accidentally killing herself with it anymore.
The wire broken, the sides of the wall retracted, then shot back out, crashing together again, the deafening noise from their collision echoing through the forge. Gabrielle stood and observed, and she counted. The walls took to a count of five to retract and then to slam back shut. It took till a count of two for them to open wide enough to allow human passage, that left a count of three to get through and to get across the abyss that had opened up in the floor where the chakram had hit. Gabrielle looked to Xena and said a silent prayer that the reflexes of a warrior's body were a lot more sophisticated than those of anyone else.
And then, the instant the stone slammed together, Gabrielle took off, pulling Xena with her as fast as she could. Xena's legs moved, matching the speed of Gabrielle's. Gabrielle counted, by three they were moving between the path of the rocks, by four, they were standing at the edge of the fallen floor. By five, Gabrielle had no time for second thoughts, and she launched the both of them with all the strength she had in her legs across the opening in the floor. The walls crashed back together and she felt the wind from their motion on her back as she became airborne. Xena was like an anchor at her side, Gabrielle didn't get the height she'd wanted out of her jump. She could see the edge of the floor coming fast, could feel herself descending as gravity pulled her downwards. She didn't have to look down to see that something bad waited for them at the bottom of the pit. Knowing Hephaestus, it would be some mysteriously animated metal creature, and it would be hungry. She stretched out her free arm grabbing for the other side as it became evident they were not going to make it. They struck the side of the rock heavily, Gabrielle managed to grab hold of something with one hand, and it was enough to keep her and Xena from falling.
But Gabrielle was not as strong as Xena. She wished that she was. It was her only real flaw as a warrior, she simply hadn't the size for it. She could feel whatever she had in her hand wobbling precariously, like it was going to break. Something stung her hand, and she wondered what trap it was that lay just over the edge of the floor. She could feel her grip on Xena slipping. The fabric of her dress sliding slowly up as her body slipped down. Gabrielle had no options, she would have to pull them both up with the strength of one arm, or all would be lost.
She started to bend her arm, tensing every muscle to the point of pain. They moved upwards a bit. Gabrielle could feel the blood moving through her system with incredible speed, could feel that rush of energy that only intense panic can bring. She bent her knees and pressed her boots against the wall. Xena had slipped down far enough that Gabrielle's arm held her only by the flesh under her arms. She had to hurry, if Xena shifted her arms, there was no way Gabrielle could hold on to her.
With nothing but determination and pure fear, Gabrielle began to walk her feet up the side of the wall, the thing she was holding on to gave, it seemed to be some sort of cord. Something stung her wrist as her feet reached the edge of the floor and the pain nearly caused her to let go. Fighting the pain off, she yanked at the cord once more with all the strength she had and pulled them both onto the floor. Xena started to slip back into the pit, but Gabrielle was fast enough to grab her by the arms and heave her back over the side. It was as she was pulling her up that Gabrielle noticed the arrow that had gone clear through her arm. That was what had stung her wrist.
She looked around. It was another trap, the thing she had grabbed on to had been another trip cord. It looked like she might have spent the device's supply of arrows yanking herself back to safety.
Wincing at the act, Gabrielle snapped off the arrow head and pulled the shaft back out through her arm. Warm rivulets of blood ran up her arm, and dripped off her elbow to the floor. The pain was searing and unrelenting, made even worse by the fact that she could not quit. She could not rest and move again when she was well. The chakram was almost cooled, she hadn't the time to take care of herself.
She tore a stip of material from the bottom of Xena's dress and bound her wrist with it. The blood soaked through it quickly, but it couldn't be helped. She pulled Xena to her feet, and took care to place her feet, one after the other over the trip cord. This time the floor on the other side did not fall. It didn't have to, the floor ended only three feet away from that spot.
A giant chasm spread out before them. There was no way in Tartarus that they could jump across it. Gabrielle surveyed their surroundings. Three ropes anchored in the ceiling were tied to a metal ring at the wall. Another of the ropes dangled straight down from the middle of the ceiling, as though someone had already used it to swing across and had just let it go. Once again, Gabrielle thought it looked too easy.
Had Eve passed this way? Or was it just rigged to look that way. Gabrielle took a closer look, cruel black spikes hung down from the ceiling. What would the purpose of spikes on the ceiling be? Another trap an untrained eye would have missed. It became clear to Gabrielle that the way over the chasm was not to swing over it, but to walk over the ceiling.
She left Xena standing where she was and moved over to the three cords anchored at the wall. Surely she was right about this trap. Hephaestus would not leave ropes dangling to make crossing into his forge easier, but she wondered what else the ropes might trigger. There really was no way to tell. Steeling herself for anything, Gabrielle took one of the ropes and pulled down on it with all of her weight.
Something in the ceiling moved, Gabrielle let go of the tension on the rope. The sound of grinding metal echoed through the cave and then went silent. Gabrielle pulled down on the cord again, this time, she kept the rope taut and did not relent when the noise reemerged from overhead. And this time, the trap was sprung. Gabrielle let go of the rope and threw herself backwards to the floor as the ceiling came crashing down right in front of her nose. The wind rushed over her, whistling in her ears. The ceiling impacted with a deafening crash. Quickly she got to her feet and looked into the chasm. The top of the ceiling lay only five feet down and it was rising swiftly. Gabrielle grabbed Xena by the hand and drug her forward, the two of them stumbling onto the ceiling that was rapidly rising back up.
They were halfway across when the stone they were walking on was level with the floor on the other side. They were only a few steps further when the floor disappeared beneath the edge of the stone. Gabrielle pulled at Xena's hand with greater urgency. Xena picked up her pace, but still it felt to Gabrielle that she was dragging an anchor. She could feel the stone of the real ceiling fast approaching overhead, could see the edge of it closing in just above her. By the time they reached the edge there was no time to see what lay on the other side. There were three feet left between them and a crushing death when Gabrielle threw herself off the edge of the spiked ceiling, jerking Xena down behind her.
The floor met them at the same instant the ceiling slammed back into place. Gabrielle landed hard on her face. Her ribs smashed cruelly into the ground and all the air in her lungs abandoned her. Xena landed on her back, further impacting Gabrielle against the floor.
Gabrielle saw stars. The vacuum in her lungs caused unbearable pain. As she choked and struggled to breathe it felt like her whole body was throbbing in pain. Xena's weight didn't make breathing any easier. Fighting off the agony from countless scrapes and bruises and possibly a few broken ribs, Gabrielle pulled herself out from underneath Xena, and got to her knees, her forehead resting on the floor, she waited for her lungs to invite some air back in.
The first lurching and stunted breath entered her lungs as more of a curse than a blessing. She felt her ribs protest against the expansion of her chest, and the pain made her head swim. It was so painful to breathe, but there was no way around it. She'd have to face that pain, and she'd have to face Eve through that pain. She hoped she was warrior enough to handle it.
"My, that was graceful wasn't it?" a voice cut through the air. Gabrielle didn't have to look up to know that it was Eve, but had she not known that it was in fact Eve who would be there, she just might have mistaken the voice for Callisto's.
"Eve," Gabrielle gasped. "the eye, there isn't much time." On the off chance that Eve might yet control a piece of her body, Gabrielle risked the plea. When she looked up, she knew that she had wasted her time. Callisto's brown eyes stared back at her, a maniac's smile pasted on Eve's face.
"You mean this eye?" Eve responded in that voice that was not her own. In her hand she held the Eye of Hephaestus, brandishing it as if it were bait.
"Please, Eve, if you're still in there, I don't have time for this, the chakram's nearly cool." Gabrielle tried to appeal to Eve, but Eve was gone.
"Eve. Yes, I finally managed to get her under control. Horribly boring being the self sacrificing little goody two shoes every day. I'm not Eve anymore. But I don't suppose I have to introduce myself to you now do I?"
"Callisto. Why? They let you into heaven, I forgave you, Xena forgave you and you forgave Xena."
"No no no Gabrielle. You don't seem to understand. Evil, pure evil, it can never be destroyed, never goes away. When Michael and his blasted angels got their hands on me and dipped me into their purifying water, I did not die. I washed into that pool, into that fountain of pure liquid evil and I suffered there like I'd never suffered in any hell. I couldn't get out. I was without form, but not beyond feeling the suffering of my situation. I prayed for an end, I prayed for oblivion. And then the earth began to shake, and now it looks like I might get my wish." Callisto giggled, and then turned and ran deeper into the cave, taking the Eye of Hephaestus with her.
Gabrielle pulled herself to her feet, feeling every twinge of pain in her body protest all at once, but doing her best to move in spite of it. She pulled Xena to her feet, and they ran in pursuit of Callisto. They didn't move very fast, but they moved steadily, Gabrielle's sense of duty the only thing keeping her moving.
They ran down one last dimly lit cavern. Gabrielle ran unwary of obstacles and traps this time. She knew Callisto well enough to be certain that she liked to do her own dirty work and would not leave it to a gadget left behind by a god. Gabrielle's inference proved to be right as they rounded a corner into a brightly lit room unhindered. Recognition swept over Gabrielle like a wave. They had made it to the forge.
Callisto stood, a few steps away from the flaming hole in the earth where Hephaestus had forged his mighty weapons. Her smile still plastered obscenely across Eve's face.
"Don't think that I won't kill you just because you're in Eve's body." Gabrielle threatened. She was bluffing, she was in no shape to kill anyone, least of all a lunatic in a finely tuned warrior's body.
"Gabrielle, you couldn't kill a fly right now. And even if you tried, you'd still fail anyway." Callisto said, motioning with her eyes and head over to the pit. Gabrielle's eye's followed. The Eye of Hephaestus was suspended above the pit on a rope. Suddenly her senses came back to her and her brain began to really see the scene in front of her.
Callisto stood with the end of the rope in her hand, the eye dangling precariously over the pit. If Gabrielle tried to kill her, surely the eye would fall, and then all would be lost. She didn't have time to find another of the things that had existed since the beginning of time, what's more, she didn't know where to look.
"Callisto, don't." Gabrielle pleaded, knowing it would do no good.
"Don't what?" Callisto said innocently and she let go of the rope.
With horror Gabrielle watched as the Eye fell towards the pit. She just managed to get the chakram off her hip as the eye disappeared beneath the lip of the pit, and into the flames. The earth grumbled in response to the sacrifice. Gabrielle's heart sunk as she realized she had failed. The chakram felt cool in her hand. All was lost.
"Oops." Callisto said with a feigned cuteness that was sickening.
Gabrielle screamed in anger and frustration. She felt every ounce of energy flood into her arm giving it incredible strength, and she hurled the chakram at Callisto with more strength than she'd ever mustered before. Callisto's hand shot up and caught the chakram deftly. She looked at it in admiration.
"I always wanted one of these. Oh well, I suppose it won't do me any good now." she turned it in her hand, watching the light glint off of it. "Funny, the last time I threw this I broke Xena's spine with it. Silly thing crumbled to bits. What say we gamble and see if it'll break again? If it does, you get Xena back, in pieces. If it stays whole, I get my sweet oblivion."
Callisto's eyes were focused right past her, on the motionless form of Xena. "Callisto, don't." Gabrielle pleaded.
"Oh Gabrielle, that didn't work the last time now did it?" Her smile widened. "Let's see how good Xena's taught you." Gabrielle watched as Callisto cocked her arm, readying herself to throw the chakram.
Gabrielle moved with all the speed she could manage, stepping in front of Xena as the chakram left Callisto's hand. Even though Xena's body was nothing more than a soulless mass of flesh, Gabrielle could not bear to see it mutilated again. She saw the chakram spinning towards her, her instincts slowed its motion. She felt her hand move out to catch it, and then she drew it back as she was struck with a crazy idea. The sight of her approaching doom was washed over with a bittersweet memory. She was back on the boat with Xena's spirit, returning from Japan, trying to make herself feel better about the loss of her friend. She remembered her words. The words of the fates washed through her mind. A part of Xena's soul was housed in the chakram, but not all of it. Xena's soul was as old as the chakram, that's why the chakram had shattered that day that it broke Xena's back. In that second, she was certain that her idea was not crazy at all. In that second, it made perfect sense, and she believed in it without question. And then a searing pain struck her full out in the chest and she was propelled backwards once more, knocking Xena's body down as she fell.
The forge returned to her, her memory disappearing with a flash of light. She heard metal clattering against stone, and forced her gravely wounded body to prop itself up, to see what had happened.
Gabrielle watched the scene unfold, she did not breathe, could not breathe, but neither could she look away. If this was how the story ended, she wanted to know every last part.
She sensed motion behind her. The scraping of boots against stone. Xena's feet appeared right by her side, and then Xena stooped to pick something up. When she started to stand Gabrielle realized what Xena held in her hand: Half the chakram. Gabrielle looked up at her, desperately searching for some hint of a soul in her face, some indication that this was not some sort of reflex. Xena did not blink nor speak. She stood at her full height, chakram in hand, as still as she had been since her body had been remade upon the rocks.
Gabrielle's head snapped back around to Callisto. She was holding something shiny in her hand as well. Gabrielle's vision cleared for a second, and revealed that Callisto was holding the other half of the chakram. It hadn't broken, but it had split into its light and dark halves. Gabrielle wondered if that was enough to bring Xena back.
"So you do know a few tricks." Callisto cackled. Let's see how good you are. I've always wanted a duel." she flung the chakram towards Xena. This time Gabrielle could not get between them. As the metal of the chakram cut through the air away from Callisto, another piece of metal cut through the air towards her. Xena had hurled the other half.
Callisto's hand shot up and she caught the chakram, she was smiling with glee at the act. And then her smile turned to a grimace, and her half of the chakram glowed white hot in her grip. A wail of agony escaped her lips and steam rose from the flesh of her hand. The chakram shattered as though it were made of brittle glass, it's pieces clattering to the floor. Callisto grew quiet, and the body she had invaded collapsed.
"Gabrielle." Xena said with concern, when Gabrielle looked up, Xena was crouched over her, worried and fussing. Gabrielle felt some air sneak into her lungs, but it was not enough to speak with. Her head swam momentarily and blackness crept into her vision, and then a bit more air snuck in and she felt the world and her pain come rushing back to her.
"Xena?" she gasped. Tears came to her eyes. Xena's eyes were no longer blank, she stood over her as she had so many times before, searching for a way to help her survive.
"I think you're going to be okay." she said after her analysis of Gabrielle's wounds was finished.
"Eve?" Gabrielle inquired, wondering exactly what the extent of the chakram's destruction was.
Xena rushed over to the heap on the floor that was her daughter, and flipped her over so she was lying on her back.
"She's breathing." Xena confirmed. "Just unconscious I think."
"What color are her eyes?" Gabrielle coughed.
"Blue. Back to blue Gabrielle. Callisto's gone. The light half of the chakram must have destroyed her."
"Don't be so sure." Gabrielle choked. And then she felt the darkness start to close in on her, and she surrendered to it.
Gabrielle turned the glistening metal over in her hands, she couldn't believe that she had succeeded.
"I don't know why you insisted on keeping that." Xena said, moving over to where Gabrielle sat on a log by the fire. They'd been traveling slowly, out of respect for Gabrielle's injuries and Eve's general physical shape. She'd woken a few times since she'd collapsed in the forge, but her body was horribly worn down, she could not seem to stay awake.
"You never know when it might be of use." Gabrielle replied, putting the broken pieces of the chakram of light in her pack.
Xena sat staring at Gabrielle. There was a certain tension between them. They had not yet broached the subject of her resurrection.
"It's a shame, that'll probably leave a nasty scar." Xena observed, making idle conversation while she tried to think of how to present what was really on her mind.
Gabrielle looked down at the dark red scab between her breasts. "I don't know. It kind of looks like a quill. Maybe I was meant to wear it." A humbleness had come over Gabrielle. Her heart no longer ached for Xena's return, and the mysteries of life had lost some of their mystery. It was not altogether a bad feeling.
"We should get to the farm where I left Argo by tomorrow night, if we travel fairly steady. I'm sure the boy thinks I've run off with his horses never to return." Gabrielle said, taking her turn at filling the silence.
"Have you thought of a name for the black yet?" Xena inquired.
"I'm thinking it should have something to do with fire. She jumped over that lava pit like it was the most natural thing in the world to her. Firedancer maybe?"
"She looks more like what's left after a fire to me."
"Well then. I guess her name is Ash." Gabrielle decided.
"Careful there, that one could get you into trouble."
"It'll be fine." Gabrielle smiled, catching Xena's drift.
"Now go over there, tell her her name, and then you can kiss my Ash."
"Ha ha ha." Xena said smiling. Somehow the slight levity made the issues they were avoiding seem all the more grave.
"I know what you're thinking." Gabrielle finally said, brave enough to venture where Xena had yet to tread.
"You're thinking I betrayed you. That I second guessed your decision to stay dead on no more than the word of the fates."
Xena looked her in the eye for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "I haven't sorted that one out for myself yet Gabrielle." Xena admitted. "I thought I was doing the right thing. Letting those souls find peace. The gods know I felt the guilt fully for those deaths, the people of Japan thought the guilt rested on my shoulders. I don't know why it is that I'm supposed to live. I should have to pay for my crimes, just like everyone else."
"Xena, I don't know the answers any more than you do. I only know that the people keeping score thought it was an accident, no matter how you feel about it. It's not our job to commit ourselves to heaven or to hell, that's a task that's out of our hands." Gabrielle explained. She could find no rationale for it, no more than Xena could. The best Gabrielle could do was reason that Xena had a good soul, she knew it for certain, had felt it as it had rested within her heart. It had been that feeling that had sustained her, that had moved her forward through her impossible journey. Xena was some form of light and dark magic, a breathtaking combination, a balance that was vital for the survival of mankind. Gabrielle wished Xena could understand how very important she was.
"I guess maybe it'll take awhile for me to understand it." Xena admitted, digging a hole in the ground with the toe of her boot.
Gabrielle wondered if she should explain to Xena what the fates had told her about the fabric of life, and about Xena's lifethread. She wanted very badly to share her knowledge, maybe to prove once and for all how very vital Xena really was to the world. But her instincts warned against it. Some things were better left unknown, such knowledge about oneself would be a heavy burden to bear.
"Well you'll have plenty of time to think it over on the ship." Gabrielle chirped, a new sense of adventure coming over her.
"Yeah. You were complaining about the monotony of life before we went to Japan. I figured we'd get a ship and sail off into uncharted waters, see if we can discover new lands, new people to help, new things to do."
"Uncharted waters? Gabrielle are you off your nut? We'll sail right off the edge of the world." Xena scolded.
"No we won't. The earth is round."
"It is not round."
"Yes it is."
"No it's not. Gabrielle, think for a minute, if the earth was round the water would fall off, everything would be uphill or downhill. It just doesn't make any sense."
"I'll prove it to you."
"I'll get a boat, and if we don't fall off the edge of the earth, then I'm right."
"You're nuts." Xena said, getting to her feet and walking over to her bedroll. She laid down on it, her face to the fire her back to Gabrielle.
"I might be." Gabrielle replied after a minute. "But if I go, are you coming with me?"
Xena sighed audibly over by the fire. She answered in a whisper, "Of course."