Kinda different disclaimer:

Standard Legal Stuff: Xena and Xena: Warrior Princess are registered trademarks of MCA. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, etc. are the sole property of MCA. This story is not meant as an infringement of any copyright, and is not written with the intent of sale or profit. The rest of the story is copyright 1998 by Bracer, and may not be duplicated without credit to its author.

The rest: I’ve been working on another story for a while now, and shortly after Sacrifice II aired, I was a little stuck and started musing around about how Gabrielle would come back, and how her death would affect Xena. The idea I had fit so neatly with some themes and ideas I was developing in my other story (and I few wild thoughts I’d had about the voiceover monologue as X&G entered Illusia in The Bitter Suite) that I just took time out and finished this first. I know this is not the way it’ll happen on the show, but I decided to write it as if it were, so:

First, I would keep the length down (my other story is rapidly approaching novel size). The action and dialog had to fit within what could reasonably be accomplished in a single episode. I think I went over, but it looks like the season four opener is going to be a two-parter, so I gave myself some leeway.

Second, there would be no violence or sex above the level you’d expect from X:WP. True, there is a loving, emotionally close relationship between two women, but again, nothing beyond what’s been said or done in the show, or at least what would fly in prime time (repeated viewing of One Against an Army helped a lot here).

Third, I wouldn’t shy away from any the events of season three or try to pretend they didn’t happen, no matter how difficult. Putting my own spin on why they happened, what it meant, and wishful thinking for the future was fine, but I would try to keep it grounded in what actually took place in the course of forty-two minutes each week.

Last, I would, against my own personal feelings, try to be nice to Joxer. There’s no getting around the fact he was there in S2, and however rotten an episode King Con was, that ep made it clear that Xena cares about him. If I was going to do deal with everything else, I could handle him too (although I can’t help the way other characters react to him when they’re stressed).

I think I managed to accomplish everything to greater and lesser degrees. Let me know what you think. Avoid bending, exposure to magnetic fields, and immersion in benzene. Comments and constructive criticism can be sent to


Two Souls

By Bracer


Xena sank to her knees, staring down into the deep crevice at the back of the temple, staring at the glowing, coursing lava at the bottom. She could feel the tears streaming from her eyes, but her face was set in stone. A terrible, timeless moment passed, with no thoughts, no words, no emotions, just a numbness that filled her every pore.

Slowly, her senses began to fill in the world – the rock pressing into her legs, the dry, roiling heat of the lava against her skin, the acrid stench of sulfur. And finally, the pitiful wracking sobs from somewhere behind her.

"Joxer, shut up," she growled, voice as cold as she felt inside.

"Huh?" the pale, pitifully armored figure sniffled as Xena pulled herself up to her full height.

"I said shut up," she hissed, towering over him, angrily wiping at her face. "Tears aren’t going to help anyone now."

"Yeah … OK," he nodded, still blubbering. He managed to fall over his own feet twice, ineffectual armor making a terrible racket before he actually stood upright.

Xena just glared at him. "Get out of here," she said simply, although with as little malice as she could. "Go home. It’s over."

"Where, uh … where are you going?" he asked.

Xena resisted the sudden urge to slap him across his gawky face, realizing he didn’t deserve it – was just handy. "Don’t try to follow me," she warned, turning to leave.

"OK," he replied, walking after her. "You wanna be alone for a while – I can understand that…"

"Then do it!" she snarled over her shoulder.

"OK, OK," he whined helplessly, looking around. Callisto hadn’t been a god for long, and his eyes settled what remained of her mortal body. "But uh, what about Callisto? She helped us … I mean we can’t just leave her here! We should bury her … build a pyre or something…"

The warrior paused at the temple doors, again resisting the urge to pummel him. "Do what you want," she said evenly, "I’ve got more important things."

As she started to move again, Joxer cried out. "Xena!" For some reason, it stopped her in her tracks. His tone dropped lower, full of pain. "I loved her too…"

Xena shut her eyes. "You have no idea…" she breathed.

"Yeah, I do … and I’m … sorry … for everything…"

The warrior shut her eyes even tighter for a spare moment, then shook it off. "A pyre," she said, holding on to her anger.

"What?" Joxer replied, confused.

"Callisto," Xena said, not daring to turn around, putting all her effort into staying focused. "She would have wanted a pyre. Her mother and sister…" She swallowed hard. "Her family died in fire … take her ashes to Cirra. Scatter them there." With that she made her body move and purposefully strode out of the temple.

"OK," Joxer responded, looking again at the body of the insane goddess, not noticing the warrior leave. "Uh, Xena … where’s Cirra?"

* * *

Xena walked for days without stopping, her goal the only thing in her otherwise completely blank mind. When she reached the lake she didn’t even pause, simply strode in and kept her body moving at the same relentless pace. It was a journey she’d taken before, she and Marcus, the man who at one time had been her greatest love. She deliberately shunted aside thoughts of how Gabrielle had waited for her there, alone and trusting on the bleak shore. She purposefully sank into its boundless depths until she was high and dry on the other side. In Hades’ realm.

Emerging into the cavern, she wasted no time, letting her anger grow into the boiling storm she had carefully kept in check. The warrior tore a rock as big as her upper body from the cave floor and hurled it in the general direction of Charon’s boat, the huge splash upsetting the normally even currents of the River Styx, almost swamping the small ferry. "Hades!" she screamed. "Where are you! Show yourself! Now!"

"No need to shout," the voice replied calmly, just off to her side. The God of the Underworld stood with is helm tucked under his arm, his thin face composed.

"Cut the act Hades," Xena snarled. "You know why I’m here!"

"Yes I do," he said simply. "And I wish there was something…"

Xena didn’t wait for him to finish, growling as she advanced on him, menace oozing from her every pore. "I’m here for Gabrielle, Hades. You owe me!" she snarled. "Give her up, now, or I’ll batter down the gates of The Fields myself – and I won’t care who tries to stop me!"

"I believe you would," he replied, raising his hand in an all-too-obvious calming gesture, "which is why I’m not happy to tell you, it’d be wasted … she’s not in the Elysian Fields…"

Xena’s anger rose to full-blown fury. She closed the distance until her twisted, seething face was bare inches from the god’s. "If you’ve put her in Tartarus you miserable bastard I’ll…"

"She’s not there either Xena. Please…"

"Then she’s…" The warrior froze, puzzled, relieved, hopeful. "…alive?"

"Xena, I know you’re upset and confused," Hades said, slowly and carefully – the warrior had backed him up to where he was pressed hard against the rocky wall. "Please, listen to me."

Despite his well-honed, impassive, even stupid demeanor, the God of the Underworld was almost alone among the Olympians for his capacity to feel mortal emotions and physical pain. It was part of his job, to understand what they went through so he could judge them fairly. At times it left him all too vulnerable, and this was one of them.

Uncomfortably, but patiently, Hades started to explain. "Xena, my personal debts to you aside, all the gods owe you…" He paused. "We owe you and Gabrielle a great debt. Dahak would have destroyed every god on Olympus, and we were powerless to stop him, but you shut him out from the world … you and Gabrielle…"

"Then give her back to me!" Xena shouted, her rage building again.

Hades cringed. "That’s what I’m trying to tell you Xena," He replied desperately. "I can’t!"

"Can’t … or won’t?" the warrior snarled, pressing him back again.

"I mean can’t!" Hades shouted, with the authority of a god. "She’s not here! I felt her soul pass from her body but then I felt nothing – she’s not anywhere!"

"That … doesn’t make sense!" Xena shouted back in confusion, easing up on him.

"Tell me about it," Hades huffed, straightening his robes. "Xena, if I could give her back to you, I would … any god would. But I can’t. I’m telling you: Gabrielle is not on Earth, and she’s not within my realm."

He paused, letting his words sink in. "She’s gone, Xena … I don’t know where, and there’s nothing I can do to help you."

The warrior stared into his eyes, saw the truth in them, then turned and walked off into the dark recesses of the cave without another word.

* * *

For endless hours Xena had screamed. She screamed in rage, then, in anguish. Finally she collapsed into uncontrollable sobs. "She’s gone, she’s gone…" the raven haired woman repeated to herself, over and over, the pain sinking in, the last thing she would ever feel.

She’s gone…

Xena had believed with absolute certainty that she could persuade or threaten or bargain or beg or plead with Hades or some god until her bard was given back to her. She was ready to work through the whole pantheon if she had to until one of them gave in.

No cost would have been too great. Nothing would have stopped her. Not the Warrior Princess. Not the Destroyer of Nations. The world cowered to her will. She had stood against armies and unbeatable odds again and again and always she had prevailed. She could not be defeated.


But the look in Hades’ eyes left no room for doubt. By some unimaginably cruel trick of the Fates Gabrielle was lost to her. Forever. There wasn’t even a way to atone for her past and find the bard waiting for her on the other side.

No power known to gods or mortals could change anything. She was alone, again, and always would be. This agony would never end. Her world grew lifeless and gray … again. She was empty save for her pain, a cage of flesh without purpose. Again.


Slowly, mercifully, she descended into numbness, that welcoming void that tempered the darkness, that made existence without meaning possible.

Her emptiness returned as if it had never left.

* * *

A woman sat on the crest of a nameless hill in the middle of somewhere, staring with unseeing eyes over the forest below her. The deep blue of the sea was just in the distance as the sun reached its zenith in the sky. Anyone else would have considered it beautiful, even breathtaking.

Xena felt nothing.

Ares must have been talking for a long time before she even knew he was there.

"Go away," she croaked through her strained vocal chords, heedless of the pain.

"Aw, but Xena," he drawled. "You need me now. More than ever, in fact. You need a reason to keep going," Ares went on. "Hey, I can give you that."

"Go away."

"I know, I know." He almost managed to sound sincere. "You’ve suffered a great loss. I can see that." He shrugged, dramatically. "But I’ve decided I like this whole ‘doing good’ thing after all. I don’t even want a conqueror – just a warrior. You know, a force for … well, justice." He looked out over the hill and inhaled, unable to hide his smugness. "Yeah, this land needs someone to set it right. Someone like you. We’d make a great team again, you and me. We’ll just fight for the right things this time – with me behind you, we’d be unstoppable. We could do such great, good things Xena. They’d write … Well, epics about us."

Xena shut her eyes. Ares was grasping at straws and she knew it. His self-confident air didn’t fool her for a second. "Why did I ever follow him, let him use me?" she whispered. "Was I ever that young?

"Go away," she said aloud, her voice as flat as she felt – or didn’t feel – inside.

"Now, just think about what I’m offering you," he began.

Xena couldn’t stand him any longer. "You just want me, like you always have," she sighed. "Want me to fight, and kill … maybe somewhere along the line do something that’ll prove to the other gods you’re worth keeping around. I guess they’re all pretty angry at you for siding with Dahak."

Her head drooped slightly before she continued. "There’s no rage left in me Ares. I won’t feel it anymore. If I do, I won’t … I won’t stop until I murder the world, and I promised her I wouldn’t go back to being the monster I was."

Xena closed her eyes, unable to stop the memory of a pale, vulnerable body being ripped apart against the landscape, dragged behind a warlord’s horse like a trophy. She felt the pain again as her own, as she had a thousand times. She considered the god standing so near, knew how easy it would be to blame him for it, but knew how wrong, in spite of everything, that would be. She made herself speak. "I broke that promise once … I won’t do it again."

"Now, Xena, like I said, I’m not after a conqueror," Ares responded, his reassuring tone ringing as false as it always had – how had she ever thought otherwise?

"You don’t get it Ares," she cut him off, still flat. "I’m nothing anymore. Ever. I can’t feel rage, or anything else." She went on, slowly, her voice halting. "I can’t feel guilt, or sorrow, because I told her not to feel that about me, and … and she wouldn’t want me to feel it either. And I’ll never feel joy, or love again, because it died with the spark in her eyes … the magic in her voice. Any good I ever did was because of her. Without her, I’m nothing." She swallowed. "I’m less than nothing."

She let this simple fact hang for a moment. "I can’t be anything. I can’t do anything. Save your breath. Go away."

Ares seemed on the verge of saying something when he suddenly looked around. "Well," he frowned, all bluster, "since you feel that way I’ll, uh, leave you for now." He turned down the hill, shimmering as he disappeared. "But you really need to do something Xena. Later."

"Hate to admit it, but for once, I gotta agree with him," a voice spoke up from behind the warrior.

Xena slowly turned – barely curious – to see a young woman, clad in a short leather skirt and vest, standing on the hill and looking down at her. Xena took in the feathered headdress and the bow slung across her back. "Artemis," she grunted.

"Got it in one," the goddess responded evenly, no humor in her voice.

The warrior just sighed and turned back around, staring at the sea in the distance. "When are you Olympians just going to leave me alone?"

"That depends," Artemis answered. Her tone brooked no nonsense, but somehow didn’t sound cold or distant. "When are you going to snap out of this funk you’re in?"

"What do you care?" Xena replied.

"I don’t," the goddess said simply, "but Gabrielle would have, and her, I cared about a great deal … she was my chosen."

Xena snorted. "That didn’t help her much, did it?"

"Neither did you," Artemis shot back, evenly.

"I did everything I could," Xena growled. "I was supposed to die, not her."

"And dragging her over half of Greece, trying to throw her over a cliff, that was supposed to help?" the goddess shot back in return.

That stung the warrior into silence. A long moment passed. Finally, Artemis spoke, once again matter-of-fact without being cold. "I’ll tell you honestly Xena, I was ready to kill you for that, and I would have." She paused. "Except that like every time when Dahak was involved, I was powerless. Something just … gets in the way. I don’t know where the two of you disappeared to – you couldn’t have been gone more than a few minutes – but when I found you down the shore, both healed and laughing, she’d forgiven you. Don’t ask me how." She sighed.

Xena blinked back a tear, silently snarling at herself. "I am not going to lose it now…" Then the warrior admitted softly, "Yeah she … She could…" Xena inhaled slowly. "Forgiveness was … one of her gifts…"

"One of many," Artemis responded warmly. She looked at the sky. "I loved her too, Xena. I … respected her decision. In time, I guess I forgave you. At least, as best I could." The goddess bit back a sob, then she chuckled, sitting down next to the warrior, staring across at the sea. "You know, it was actually Athena who noticed Gabrielle first, when that impossibly young, budding bard taught herself to read. She ever tell you that? Her parents were practically illiterate – gave her all kinds of grief about it. But she did it anyway, taught her sister too. By the Fates, she was … she was stubborn." She chuckled again.

Xena stared straight ahead. If Artemis was trying to help, she wasn’t doing a very good job. Knowing there was nothing she could do to stop the goddess, Xena simply stared straight ahead, losing herself again in the familiar, numbing calm.

"How a girl in a backwater like Poteidaia could get her hands on so many scrolls, I don’t know," Artemis continued, "but she did. Taught herself history, philosophy, literature, the sciences – her appetite for knowledge was even worse than her appetite for food. She was so restless and curious, yet so open and … so simply good…" The goddess fixed her eyes on Xena. "You know, the day the two of you met, I actually rejoiced? Maybe it’s ironic now, but the day she decided to leave that stupid village and follow you, she became my chosen."

Artemis gave the warrior a wry smile. When that didn’t get any reaction, she nudged the solid shoulder absently. "I should mention I’d been watching you too for a while then."

Xena shot her a look. "I’d like to say I’m flattered."

"Don’t be," the goddess rolled her eyes. "I keep an eye on every female warrior, especially the ones who turn from Ares. Athena and I … That goddess does a lot, you know? War, wisdom, all the arts…" She shook her head, "Never mind. It’s … it’s complicated."

Artemis chuckled, then sighed. "We had no part in the two of you meeting," she assured the warrior, "but when you did, let’s just say that you and Gabrielle … well, you were good for each other, and kept on being good for each other for such a long time." The goddess blinked, shook her head. "I knew you’d run across the Amazons sooner or later, and Gabrielle had so much to learn. I could be patient … although Terreis getting killed, that wasn’t part of the plan."

She settled her dark brown eyes on the warrior’s blue ones. "See, the way I’d fixed it, Melosa was supposed to adopt Gabrielle. That was all. Terreis didn’t want to be Queen anyway … but then she was murdered … Things had gotten so out of hand by the time you got there…"

"Sorry about that," Xena said, simply, surprised by how genuinely affected Artemis was by the loss of an Amazon Princess.

"Doesn’t matter," the goddess responded. "Terreis is in The Fields now." She shook her head as if to clear it. "Which brings me back to Gabrielle, who isn’t." She took off her headdress and laid it aside. "We’ve both lost our beloved Gabrielle, Xena," she began. "She’s as lost to me now as she is to you." She paused. "And like you, I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. As a god it’s … difficult."

"About time the gods felt the way mortals feel," Xena said, without thinking.

Artemis just nodded. "My poor Amazons," she whispered, then looked at the sky again. "Queen Gabrielle," she said slowly, with obvious reverence. "I’m certain in time she would have accepted her place, led the Nation … her sense of duty was too strong for anything else. Could you just imagine that? A Queen who would tirelessly work for peace, but never run from a fight. All her knowledge tempered by worldly wisdom … which she got from you, I might add. And with her gift for words, she would’ve been the best negotiator on the Mediterranean … She would have led the Amazons to a Golden Age." Artemis clenched her fists, pride and loss fighting in her voice. "She would have been … superb!"

The goddess caught herself, then leaned back, looking at the sky. "But now she’s gone," she said, regretfully, "and all for the love of you." Artemis looked back over and regarded the warrior for a moment. "Well, because of that, and what all the gods owe you, I offer you a gift: A day’s ride to the east is a warlord named Cyrus. He’s been doing the usual, sacking towns, taking everything he can get his hands on … you know, the kind of guy you’re used to putting a stop to."

"A day east…" Xena thought for a moment. "That means he’s near Amazon territory. This is a gift?" Xena responded, suspicious.

"Yes, it is," Artemis answered, not bothering to look at the warrior. "I won’t hide my motives, Xena, any of them. First off, yes – my Amazons could use the help, and you’re handy. Second, as long as I keep an eye on you, Ares can’t take credit for your deeds. Someone has to bring him in, and I am goddess of the hunt. Frankly, you’re good bait, so until I track him, get used to me being around."

The warrior eyed her cooly and the goddess returned the stare, but when Artemis spoke, her voice held a surprising note of warmth. "But above it all Xena, Gabrielle sacrificed herself so you and the world could live on. It’s time we both honor her memory. Take a day, take two, get your head together. Then, get back out there and start working for the greater good."

The goddess waited until she was sure she had caught Xena’s eye. "Stop Cyrus. Do it for Gabrielle’s Amazons." She snorted, "Or just do it for me because I asked you so nicely. I really don’t care, but above all do something. Gabrielle wanted you among the living, so start acting like you are," Artemis said simply, standing and donning her headdress. "Take too long, stay here on this hill, and I swear I’ll come back and wipe you out myself."

Xena stood on her feet for the first time in she didn’t know how long, turning to face the strong wind the goddess called up. Then Artemis lowered her head and regarded the warrior. "One last thing," the huntress said slowly. "One other … gift." She took an obvious breath. "I’m not that good at ‘sensitive chats’ – that’s more Athena’s gig, Goddess of Wisdom and all … brutal honesty is more my style." She looked away, embarrassed, then looked back, catching the warrior’s eyes. "But for Gabrielle’s sake … Well, if you need someone to lean on … you call me. I’ll answer." She extended her hand. "Before the Fates and the river Styx, that’s a promise."

Xena looked at the hand, then at Artemis’ face, seeing the loss and pain and understanding there. Almost on its own, her hand reached out, and they clasped forearms.

Warrior and goddess regarded each other for a moment with barely a nod on either side. Then in a flash of wind and light, Artemis was gone.

Xena stared up at the sky. The sun would be setting before long, and the horizon was just beginning to turn … the color of her hair.

Xena shut her eyes, then shook her head. Finally, she turned to face east, away from the sun. "A day’s ride huh?" she mused out loud, if only to drown out her own thoughts. "Well, what else am I going to do?"

* * *

Dealing with Cyrus was easy, and to her credit, Artemis only intervened once.

Having found the warlord’s camp, Xena dismounted Argo, then slipped off the mare’s saddle and shooed her away. Drawing her sword, the warrior began heading towards the camp, only to be brought up short by the wind and light that heralded the goddess’ appearance.

"And what do you think you’re doing?" Artemis asked, crossing her arms.

"Stopping Cyrus," Xena replied cooly. "I thought that was the plan."

"Yes it is." The goddess gave a half grin. "But committing suicide isn’t." The warrior narrowed her eyes, and Artemis just shook her head. "Come on Xena, I’ve seen you do this before, when you fought the Persians – and yes, I was watching. Who do you think made sure they brought a few poisoned arrows into the barn with them, huh? I knew you’d find the antidote."

"Subtle," Xena sneered.

The goddess shrugged. "I try to be. We’re not all like Ares – I don’t butt in unless I have to, and even then I prefer mortals not even know I’m there." She fixed her gaze back on the warrior. "The point I was trying to make, though, is that back then if Gabrielle had died, you were ready to just wade into the Persians and keep killing until they killed you – and that’s what you’re doing now. Well, you can just forget it."

Xena set her jaw, rolled her head around, never taking her eyes off the huntress. "Why are you doing this?"

As if speaking to a small child, Artemis replied, "For Gabrielle."

Then the goddess sighed. Looking around, she grew serious. "Her final thought," Artemis began, with some difficulty, "was a prayer for you … that you would live long, and find peace. Gabrielle was my chosen. If I don’t do everything I can to answer that prayer, I’ve no right to call myself a goddess."

Xena closed her eyes, fought the pain back, then found something to say. "I thought you didn’t want mortals to know you were here."

"I don’t," Artemis sighed, "but you aren’t giving me much choice – you’re sure not looking for help from anyone else. Hey, listen," she shrugged, "if you want to do that ‘lone warrior’ thing, that’s fine by me, but at least be smarter about it." She grinned, "Don’t make my job any harder. I got my own problems, you know?"

Xena nodded, tight-lipped, realizing that she’d come very close to grinning back. "All right," the warrior relented. "I’ll … find another way."

"Good," Artemis breathed a sigh of relief, then gave a simple, sad smile. "The world goes on, Xena. We just have to find some way to do that too."

The warrior swallowed. "Yeah, yeah," she chided, hiding her pain away again. "Now get out of here before I tell Athena you’re being all wise."

Artemis rolled her eyes. "Mortals!" she huffed, and with a flash and a gust of wind, was gone.

Xena took a deep breath. "Stay away from me goddess," she muttered idly. "I’m starting to think you might not be so bad, and that’s always dangerous around anyone from Olympus."

Sheathing her sword, Xena circled Cyrus’ camp, noting the sentry points and waiting for the cover of darkness. The whole thing was, actually, very simple. The warrior easily evaded the clumsy patrols, and using her breast dagger, she cut her way into the raider’s tent through the unguarded rear wall.

Cyrus was dead drunk and asleep, and for a long, awful moment Xena stood over him, contemplating just how easy it would be to simply slit his throat, quick and quiet, and be done with it. Then she was held by a vision of Gabrielle, looking at the blood on the warrior’s hands with that expression of shock, hurt, and disappointment Xena knew only too well – the one that let the warrior know she had stepped over the line, or let loose some part of herself she should have kept in check.

Fighting down a sudden shiver, Xena opened her eyes and regarded the snoring warlord for a moment. "So … I guess it’s your lucky night," she mused out loud. Still, although Cyrus was already quite unconscious, the warrior couldn’t keep herself from bashing him in the head anyway for good measure, then slung him over her shoulder and quickly carried him off to where Argo waited patiently.

From there, it was a quick ride to Altus, the nearest sizeable town, where she rousted the local militia captain out of bed and turned over the prisoner. Within a few hours, the rest of the militia was up and ready, and she led the small army back to the warlord’s camp well before sunup.

"Aren’t we going to attack?" Captain Pentalus asked. "I mean, it is dawn – isn’t that when attacks usually happen?"

"Usually," Xena found herself actually smirking. "But not now. Give them time to wake up and discover Cyrus is gone. Pretty soon they’ll begin squabbling over who the new leader should be. While they’re arguing, we can hit them in the confusion."

"Ah," Pentalus grunted, as if it were obvious. "Of course … good plan."

The skirmish was over almost as soon as it began, with three lieutenants issuing contradictory orders and the rest of the raiders not knowing which way to turn. The few who had any real fight in them Xena dispatched easily. In fact, it seemed that Cyrus’ men were more bullies than soldiers – confronted with a real threat, most of them simply surrendered.

Xena found herself oddly frustrated by the lack of resistance, but she surprised herself and kept her iron will firmly in place, using just as much force as was necessary and no more. Less than half an hour later, the warlord’s "army" had been disarmed and were being led back to Altus, and justice.

"Thanks again, Xena," the head councilor beamed, a short, well-fed man who’s name she didn’t even bother to learn. "Cyrus has been causing no end of trouble around here. About time somebody put a stop to him."

Xena forced a smile back, shaking her head. "You could have done it without me – in fact you should have. Your militia is pretty well trained." Then she deliberately fixed him with her sternest warrior glare. "You’d better start learning to handle your own problems," she warned, "or I’ll come back here and clean house until I find a councilor who can."

A sheen of sweat broke out across the portly face, and the councilor gulped visibly. "Point … uh … Point taken," he babbled.

Pentalus grinned behind him. "Don’t worry, I’ll keep him honest," he assured her. "You sure you won’t stay, even for the night?"

"No," Xena shook her head, turning away. "I have to be going. I’m expected elsewhere."

"Well, if you’re sure," the captain replied, a note of regret in his voice as he extended his hand. "But you’ll always be welcome here, Xena."

They clasped forearms. "Good bye," the warrior said simply, then mounted Argo and rode off without looking back.

Hours later and miles away, camped in the forest, Xena set to sharpening her sword by her small fire. The warrior stared into the flames. Alone in the deafening silence, she was talking out loud before she even realized it.

"Well, I’ve done my good deed for the day, Gabrielle," she was saying. "Stopped a bad guy, saved a few villages. There weren’t even any serious casualties. You would have been proud of me, I think…"

That was when she realized what she was doing: Xena, Warrior Princess, talking to the empty air. She shut her eyes and went quiet.

In moments the silence was pressing in on her again.

She sighed, missing the fireside conversation, however one-sided, trying hard to forget the moment when she’d come to need it. Now even her own words were better than the awful quiet.

"So why do I feel like it just doesn’t mean anything?" She announced, laying her sword down slowly as she looked up at the stars, which began to blur as her eyes began to well up for the first time in days. "Where are you now Gabrielle? Am I just talking to empty air? Why…" her voice trailed off quietly.

A moment later she was snapped out of her reverie by the distinct impression of being watched. She swallowed hard, then leaned back with a practiced nonchalance. "Show yourself Artemis – I wanted to talk to you anyway."

With a flash, the goddess became visible, shaking her head. "There aren’t many mortals who can do that."

"It comes in handy," Xena shrugged.

Artemis just chuckled and sat down beside the fire. "Fair enough … Nice work today."

The warrior raised an eyebrow. "Cyrus was no threat to the Amazons," Xena said matter-of-factly. "On his best day his entire army couldn’t have taken down a single Amazon patrol. Dealing with him was easy – what’s going on?"

The goddess turned her head and regarded the warrior silently for a moment. "It was supposed to be easy," she said finally, looking back into the flames. "Honestly? I was worried that if you had to fight a real battle you might –"

"Lose it?" Xena broke in.

Artemis shrugged. "Basically."

The warrior stared into the fire. "I don’t think that’s … something you have to worry about," she began, slowly. The emptiness crept up on her again, but this time Xena was ready, holding tight to the vision of the small, strong woman like an anchor. "Gabrielle …" she paused. "I made her a promise." The warrior caught herself, then gave a rueful chuckle that didn’t work. "Actually … knowing the right thing to do is the easy part. Even doing the right thing isn’t so hard, it’s…" She faltered. "It’s doing it without her – dammit!"

The warrior cursed herself as she felt the tears fall, but couldn’t stop herself from going on. "It’s the … little things that hurt … Gods, I was doing drills this morning, and I kept glancing around, watching for her to try and sneak up on me…"

Artemis wrapped an arm around Xena’s shuddering shoulders. "Go ahead, let it out," the goddess said quietly. "It’s the price of letting yourself feel. I’m the only one here, and I won’t tell anyone … I miss her too."

"I mean," Xena continued, giving in to her battle with the tears, knowing she couldn’t win, "I can’t even look through the saddle bags! I came across one of her combs yesterday and I felt like screaming … She’s a part of me and I just can’t let her go!"

"Don’t," Artemis whispered softly, pulling the warrior into a tight embrace, "don’t ever let her go … keep her with you always. Wherever she is, she’d want to be with you, forever."

Choking back her sobs, Xena hugged the goddess tight. "The worst thing … the worst thing, is that the dead are supposed to hear our thoughts, but since I don’t know where she is, I don’t even know if she can hear me!"

"I wish…" Artemis swallowed around the knot in her throat. "I wish I knew she could, Xena. We just have to hope she’s in a better place…"

* * *

The voice that called to her was sweet and soothing, warmer than any she could remember hearing … and also, somehow, strangely familiar. It sounded a little like her mother’s voice, but she knew that wasn’t it.

"Gabrielle … Gabrielle…"

The bard felt a breeze across her skin, gentle, yet invigorating. Weird, was her first thought, I shouldn’t be feeling anything, right?

"The time has come, my dear one. There are things you must see, and choices to be made. In the infinite weave of the universe, the balance has come full circle, and what remains must be put right. We must begin."

"OK," Gabrielle said hesitantly. "So um, what should I do?"

A gentle, musical laugh filled her ears. "As with all things," the voice said, "the first step, is to open your eyes."

"Seems simple enough," Gabrielle told herself, and she did.

The bard lay on her back in a patch of green grass. Tree limbs stretched overhead, framing a sky that seemed to be colored by a brilliant sunrise. Gabrielle sat up, looking around. Beyond the trees was a river, and beyond that, a sparkling ocean that stretched on forever. Everything about the landscape was exquisitely beautiful, even perfect. "Too perfect," she whispered absently. More like a painting by a master than a real place.

"Where am I?" the bard asked.

"Nowhere," the voice replied, "and everywhere."

"Am I … dead?"

Again the musical, almost affectionate laughter. "Do you wish to be?"

Gabrielle folded her arms in frustration. "You’re not being very helpful…" she began, then as her forearms crossed her chest, she realized she was quite naked. She instantly flushed with embarrassment – but this too touched on a memory. "Who … who are you?"

The laughter came again. "I have been known by many names – Prthivi, Inanna, Atugan, Lur. In Greece you see my shadow as Gaia. Yet older still am I than any name given by mortals or gods. You may call me Aleph, for I am the first of everything, the beginning of all things. From my will the universe is created. In my boundless wisdom is found the pattern of all life."

Gabrielle rose shakily to her feet. "Illusia," she whispered. "I’m back in Illusia…"

"No illusions, Gabrielle," Aleph said softly. "There is no need of them now. You have been broken apart, and grown strong. In giving up all, you have saved what was lost. You are the promise, and the promise fulfilled, restoring to the World its soul. You are love, and wisdom, and compassion. You are my joy."

Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "Where’s Xena?" she asked, trying to take everything in. "I mean, she must be worried sick…"

"She is close," Aleph assured her, "and growing closer. Yet first, there is someone else you must speak with."

"Mother?" said another, far more hesitant voice, from somewhere off to Gabrielle’s side.

The bard turned slowly, her green eyes widening at the figure standing there, a mirror to herself. "Hope?"

* * *

Xena cut a terrifying swath through the nearly solid wall of soldiers who dared defy her. Armored men fell with dizzying speed as the warrior pushed forward, never even looking back at the fallen – none could suffer her onslaught and hope to live.

Xena laughed at anything they threw at her, tossing them aside or cutting them down. Who lived and who died wasn’t important to the deadly apparition who laid waste to anyone who stood between her and her goal. All that mattered was that they never dared raise an arm against her again.

King Gregor stood proudly, and she gave him some credit for that. Spattered with blood she approached him slowly, giving him time to draw his sword.

"I don’t know why you’re here Xena," he said coldly, "but whatever it is, you won’t get what you want."

The most dangerous mortal in the Known World cocked her head and flashed a feral smile. "I wish you knew," she growled, "and I’m sure I’ll get it." She shifted in her armor. "Nice knowing you Gregor…"

The duel with him lasted a disappointing minute. She toyed with him towards the end, more from curious disgust than from any lesson she could possibly learn. He was good – very good – but she was better.

Xena, Destroyer of Nations was the best there was, and she coldly ran him through and smirked down at his gasping body.

As always, she felt the god before she could turn and see him.

"Now, that’s the Xena I remember!" Ares chortled, as Xena stood over the field of battle. "Taking them on single-handed. That iron will that can’t be denied … ahhh, I swear … You saw. You conquered. You–"

"Baited and sprung the trap," Xena finished for him, watching with smug satisfaction as twin lightning bolts reached down out of the skies and captured Ares by the wrists. The shimmering power of his father, Zeus, held the God of War fast and drove him to his knees.

"What’s the matter Ares?" Xena taunted. "Justice not your thing after all?"

Ares howled in outrage as a half-dozen other gods shimmered into visibility around him. "You tricked me!" he screamed. "You lying deceitful bi–"

Xena cut him off with vicious kick to the jaw. Had Ares been mortal, it would have certainly broken it, and likely his neck as well. "Oh, I’m going to enjoy this," Xena snarled, pulling back a fist.

Only to have it caught and held fast. "That’s enough Xena," Artemis snapped. "It’s over. We have him."

Xena yanked out of the goddess’ grip. "It’s far from over," she hissed. "I want my piece of him – Gabrielle’s death is as much his fault as –"

"Yours?" Artemis broke in. "Gabrielle’s herself?" The goddess shook her head. "I can understand your anger Xena – in a way, I’m glad you’re letting yourself feel it again…"

"Like, wrong hunter-babe," Aphrodite chimed in, walking among the fallen soldiers along with the other gods, showering the bodies with pink sparks and healing them, one at a time. "It’s all I could do to hold these dudes together. If you ask me, she needs to get a grip!"

"Shut up!" Xena and Artemis shouted at her, almost simultaneously.

"OK, OK," the Goddess of Love muttered, waving her hands. "But we’re kinda done now sis – wiped these guys memories and whatever. This is like, your little deal. Daddy’s waiting."

"Then go," Artemis snapped. "I’ll be along … Go!"

Aphrodite huffed as she and the other gods disappeared – including Ares. "Well excuse me for shimmering…"

Artemis turned back to the warrior, focused and serious again. "Xena, anger isn’t always bad thing. It has its uses, but hate is something else, and you’re coming very close to losing yourself in it again. Ares will be judged for his crimes, but Gabrielle’s death isn’t one of them, and you know that."

"Like Tartarus it isn’t!" Xena shot back. "He was the one who took her to the Fates, told her that I’d die if I killed Hope…"

"And Gabrielle made her own choices – the first time by stopping you. You didn’t blame him, or her, for that, did you?" When the warrior just narrowed her eyes, the goddess pressed on. "No, you didn’t. You let it go and went on. I’m telling you Xena, do it again now. These snap judgements of yours, the need to always blame someone – to just act – it’s your biggest blind spot, you know?"

"What’s that supposed to mean?" The warrior crossed her arms indignantly.

"You know exactly what I mean," Artemis replied cooly. "Like Gabrielle after Solan’s death. Like Ming T’ien. Like Hope when she was a baby…"

"Oh no. Hope was pure evil!" Xena shot back. "She murdered within hours of being born!"

"This from someone with thousands of bodies behind her?" Artemis sneered. "I got news for you Xena – Hope didn’t murder … oh, she killed all right, but it wasn’t murder, not that first one anyway."

"What’s the difference?" Xena replied coldly.

"Just a little thing like intent," the goddess stated flatly. "Let me tell you a story, oh proud warrior. While you were off chasing Eochaid, Hope started to fret and cry – something all babies do." She shrugged. "Goewin tried to comfort her, probably so Gabrielle could sleep a little, but Hope wouldn’t have any of it. She wanted her mother I suppose, or maybe she just didn’t like his armor. Who knows? But again, it’s something all babies do. Trouble was, Hope wasn’t like other babies. She had powers, could lash out in frustration in ways other babies can’t. So yes, she killed him, but it was a long way from murder – something you know all about, and unlike knowing about babies. You did sort of give yours up, didn’t you?"

That stung, and it stung deep, but from the way Xena’s stomach began twisting, she couldn’t deny the truth in Artemis’ words. "Don’t tell me Hope would have turned out any different," the warrior hissed, weakly.

"That I don’t know," the goddess sighed. "Honestly, I don’t have a clue. What I do know is that Gabrielle could find the good in anyone … the Fates know, she found it in you. Maybe if Hope had been raised under the watchful eye of you both, she could have resisted the half of her that was Dahak. Then again, maybe not … Dahak was pure evil. But for Gabrielle’s sake, if no one else’s, you should have at least tried."

"No," the warrior said, staring away, "Gabrielle needed to be protected…"

"By killing her child? Chopping it in half right in front of her eyes?" Artemis asked, incredulous. "That would have pushed her right over the edge!" She shook her head. "In the name of Olympus and Earth, Xena, what were you thinking?" she asked. "Gabrielle had just had all her good impulses betrayed by Khrafstar, lost her blood innocence, been violated by Dahak, was set upon by murderous villagers and banshees, endured an unnatural, painful pregnancy and traumatic childbirth…"

"Don’t you think I knew that?" Xena shot back, the edge of a sob creeping into her voice. "I was there! Every time she woke up crying, every time she stared off with that empty, painful look in her eyes, don’t you think I felt it too? I failed her!" The warrior seemed like she was choking on her own bile. "My obsession with Caesar and hatred for Ares blinded me to the danger she was in, and even when I thought I’d managed to get there in time, I found out I still failed! And then, after hearing Gabrielle scream and bring that child into the world, I knew – there she was, the living embodiment of that evil, the living proof of … of…"

"Of your failure," Artemis said quietly. "And that’s what you were trying to destroy, wasn’t it?"

Shattering inside, Xena slumped to the ground on her hands and knees, her strength leaving her. In her ears, Artemis’ voice was harder than Ares’ ever could be.

Because it held only the brutal truth.

"I just…" Xena began, fighting back her sobs again. "It hurt to even look at her anymore. We left Britannia and I couldn’t understand why she’d ever stay with me. I’d betrayed her … betrayed her faith in me, to keep her safe. I knew she should leave, but I couldn’t bear the thought of sending her away … it was worse than when we started traveling together. When I got that message from Lao Ma, it was like a gift from the gods…"

Realizing what she’d just said, and with great pain, the warrior pulled herself back together. She turned her eyes up to Artemis and managed a wry smile, then exhaled slowly, chuckling humorlessly as she shook her head. "Guess I should have known better."

The goddess swallowed hard, then chuckled as well. She leaned forward, wiping the tears from Xena’s face in an oddly affectionate gesture. "Well," she smiled, "I guess you’re only human, after all."

* * *

Gabrielle backed away. "Don’t come near me," she warned.

Hope closed her eyes, as if in pain. "Mother, please," she began.

"Don’t you dare!" Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "You lied to me. I believed in you and you tricked me! You murdered Solan, and would’ve killed so many other innocents! Because of you, Xena and I were shattered, ripped apart! I won’t fall for it again!"

"Of course," Hope nodded, turning away. "I am the spawn of Dahak. The deceiver … I kill what I touch. There’s no…" She took a few steps, then straightened. "I’ve been shut out from the world, but I’ll lay waste here! Destruction is my birthright, and I’ll enjoy it! Enjoy it for eternity!"

Gabrielle walked towards the river, ignoring the shouting behind her. Reaching the banks, she hugged herself, then looked down, angry and frustrated. "Could I please get some clothes!"

A moment later, her usual outfit was hanging off a tree limb nearby, boots laid out neatly on the ground below. "Thank you," she huffed testily. In moments, she’d slipped on the leather and cloth, then sat and began lacing up the boots. When it was done, she closed her eyes and hugged her knees. "OK," she announced. "Now what?"

"Shall I tell you a story?" Aleph asked.

"Your world," Gabrielle replied matter-of-factly. "Your rules. Play it like you want."

"Gabrielle used to love stories," the voice implored.

"Just go ahead," the bard sighed, laying her head forward on her knees, exhausted.

"Very well." Aleph sighed. "For a long eternity there existed nothing, an emptiness without measure. In the next eternity was born creation and destruction, order and chaos, a breaking down and a defining. We exerted our will upon the void and claimed the whole of everything, which hung between us both, the boundaries inextricably linked. Thus for the next eternity are creation and destruction played out: Dahak reigned as I wrestled against Him, gathering strength until from within chaos was created form and structure. In this way Empty began Full, Time began Space, and Dark began Light … Do you see?"

As Aleph spoke, things broke down and rearranged themselves beneath Gabrielle, the universe unfolding itself in front of her eyes. She was both frightened and fascinated at the same time – not an unfamiliar sensation, after years together with Xena. "Yeah," she gasped, "go on."

"Yet I must acknowledge my weakness Gabrielle: that ultimately order still rests upon chaos, that the foundation of everything is simply unfathomable. And so I created the universe as a thing unto itself, running its own course. The chain of consequence is strong even between its links, binding together both the foreseen and the unforeseeable. In this way all things follow, the pattern and the random … Do you see?"

Falling but pushed upwards, Gabrielle tried to grasp the words. "Things always turn out, but it’s never the same?" she ventured.

Once again came the gentle laughter. "In a way…" Aleph became serious again. "I am nothing if not order, Gabrielle, yet I have created all things to acknowledge the chaos which is part of them. I have left myself open, for there is much I cannot see, things I cannot affect, yet the universe endures because of this, for Dahak does not understand that destruction needs something to destroy. Even within creation, form and disorder need one another, an endless circle in balance."

"Um," Gabrielle spoke up, self consciously, "Lao Ma wrote something like that, but shouldn’t good and evil count for something? I mean, people suffer and die…"

"And always there is rebirth and new life," Aleph finished, "Good and evil are within all things, and the balance, however weighted, is what makes them whole. A good life untested by conflict and darkness serves the greater good as little as an evil one without light at all. This is why Dahak saw Xena as a threat to Him – her equal grasp of Dark and Light, bounded by a will without measure. By shattering that careful balance, He sought to eliminate His only obstacle to re-entering the world and loosing His destruction upon it. What He did not foresee, was that His careful breaking down would have consequence, and that another with as equal a will would change and grow, and in so short a time become even more suited to oppose Him." There was a soft chuckle. "As a bard, you should appreciate the irony."

"And … who?" Gabrielle asked, a note of suspicion in her voice.

"You, Gabrielle. You."

* * *

Xena entered the tavern. Meg’s girls all looked up and waved, and Meg herself hustled around from behind the bar. "Xena old girl! How ya doin’?"

The warrior sighed, but smiled. "Getting by Meg, getting by."

"Well come on," Meg chortled, looping her arm through Xena’s and leading her across the room. "Ginger, get this girl an ale." She turned her twinkling blue eyes back to the warrior. "Anything else I can getcha while you’re here? You look kinda lonely."

Xena rolled her eyes. "No thanks Meg," she chuckled. "I won’t be here long. I’m looking for Joxer."

Meg snorted and rolled her eyes. "Well, you came to the right place. He’s here all right, in back … though I don’t know what good he’d do ya."

Joxer leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. On the table in front of him was a mug and a larger, sealed urn, surrounded by several empty pitchers. He was strumming a lute and singing in a low, thrumming baritone, and Xena noted that he still played very well – even though he was obviously quite drunk.

"Ohhh," he began, picking up the familiar tune.

"Joxer the useless.

Master of the clueless.

Couldn’t save his Gabrielle,

Lost her down a lava well.

If you need a mighty one,

Go find someone else’s son.

He can’t even pay the rent…

And topping it off he’s impotent!

I’m Joxer, Joxer the uuuuseless!"

He snatched up his mug and took a long draught. "Thank ya, thank ya very much," he rumbled. "An’ now, ladies and gennelmen, for my next number…"

"Gods," Xena shook her head.

"Oh, that wasn’t so bad," Meg huffed. "Hades, at least it rhymed, you know? By afternoon all he can manage is free verse." She leaned in closer to the warrior, whispering conspiratorially, "And he wasn’t kidding about the impotent part. Figure it’s all the ale, since…"

"Thank you, Meg," Xena cut her off with a wave. "I’ll take it from here."

"Sure thing," Meg replied, turning to leave. "Hope you get better luck than me. Call if ya need anything."

Xena settled into the chair next to the pale, drunken man. "Hello Joxer," she said gently.

His head snapped around. "Zeena! Good ta see ya!" He began picking up and shaking pitchers one at a time. "Lemme get ya a drink…"

She stilled him with a hand on his arm. "It’s all right Joxer," she said quietly. "I don’t need one. If you ask me, it’s a little early for that sort of thing."

"Nah," Joxer snorted, reaching for his mug, "never early enough…"

Trying to get his attention away from taking another swig, Xena pointed at the urn. "What’s that?" she asked, although she was certain she knew the answer.

"Oh that," Joxer beamed, leaning forward and patting the urn. "That’s Callisto … well, y’know, what’s left of her … Watta great little drinkin’ buddy she is…" His voice dropped a little. "She can still laugh at me pretty good by afternoon … never did figure out where Cirra was…"

Xena nodded. "I thought as much. That’s why I’m here."

"Well of course you did," he snorted, shaking his head, "Joxer never could get anything right, could ya, ol’ buddy?" He leaned his head a little to the left, and in a different tone of voice, assured himself, "Of course not ol’ pal – have another drink!" Leaning back to the right, he answered, "Don’t mind of I do!" and took another big swallow.

Xena sighed and stood, picking up the urn and tucking into the crook of her left arm. Joxer looked at her in bleary alarm. "Hey," he started, "where ya goin’ with that?"

"Cirra," Xena said calmly but firmly, then gripped Joxer by the collar and pulled him up to his unsteady feet. "And you’re coming with me."

He gulped. "I am?"

She nodded. "Uh-huh. You are." She took a few steps towards the door, half-dragging him behind her. "Come on, let’s say goodbye to Meg…"

The journey took a bit longer than it might have, since for most of the first day Joxer stumbled and fell much more often than usual, then as the sun’s heat began to rise, had to excuse himself to run off into the woods a few times to relieve his stomach of the burden of whatever it was carrying. He was also utterly resistant to waking up the following morning, and Xena eventually resorted to yanking his bedroll out from under him and spilling him out onto the ground.

All in all however, there was no particular reason to rush, and Xena found herself putting up with his quirks and odd comments with better grace than usual. As it was, they arrived at the ruins of Cirra by mid-afternoon the following day. Xena came to a halt as the two of them emerged from the woods into a large, open area, overgrown with wild grasses and a few saplings here and there.

Joxer looked around, puzzled. "Uh, Xena, is this it?"

"Yeah," the warrior replied quietly, "this is it … all that’s left of where Callisto was born."

Xena was silent for a moment. "See there?" She pointed to a low line of rocks, overrun with vines. "That’s where the main gate was … There were houses over there. I think that’s the inn…" She let her arm drop, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.

Joxer scanned the area. Now that he knew what to look for, the ruins were more plain to him. "Gee," he mused out loud, "looks like it was a big place."

Xena opened her eyes, shook her head. "No, not that big – a good-sized village maybe, but no larger. The land here is pretty fertile, but it’s out of the way. No one really bothered them, and it prospered. That’s why it was such a … tempting target. I never even gave it much thought. Left the raiding to my lieutenants while I…" She looked at the ground and chuckled dryly. "Well, I had other distractions. It wasn’t until they sent word the villagers were fighting back that I even bothered to ride in."

Xena clenched her jaw, making herself continue. "It was already in flames by then. It was my standing order – any village that fought back was put to the torch. I slaughtered the remaining resistance personally, then I finally looked around…" Xena swallowed hard. "There were bodies everywhere – men, women … children. Nothing was left alive, not even a dog, or a goat … nothing but screams coming from the burning buildings … in another minute, there wasn’t even that."

Xena stared at the sky for a moment, then gave another strained chuckle. She turned her head and fixed her gaze on Joxer. "You know the real irony? The destruction was so complete there wasn’t anything left worth plundering. We collected our wounded, and rode away. I had Darphus and Dagnine punished for letting things get out of hand, for destroying our loot," she spat coldly, "then I simply … forgot about it. What was one more village, anyway? Just another day for the Destroyer of Nations," she finished, without a hint of irony, or any other emotion.

Joxer looked at her for a moment, seemed on the verge of saying something, then changed his mind and just looked away in silence. The silence lengthened for a time, a light breeze whispering through the tall grass.

Finally, Xena shook her head and retrieved the urn from Argo’s pack. "Come on Joxer," she said quietly. "There’s a barn over there somewhere…"

The only evidence of the barn was a single corner, a few weathered planks about waist high, charred and covered with tangled vines. Setting the urn beside it, Xena wandered off to look for a suitable stone to leave as a marker, eventually finding a relatively flat slab of granite that was of a size she could carry. Returning to the site of the barn, she found Joxer sitting on the ground beside the remains of the wall. From his red-rimmed eyes, it seemed like he might have been crying, but now his face was grim.

"I…" he began, then looked away. "I don’t know if you should see this, but…" His voice trailed off as he simply indicated the planking with a nod of his head.

Setting the stone aside, Xena walked over and crouched down to look for herself. Joxer had cleared away some of the vines, revealing letters carved in the wood. They were rough and uneven, a child’s scrawl. They read, Here lies Arleia and Traciea of Cirra, my Mommy and sister. They were burned by the demon lady. Her vision blurring with tears, Xena could barely make out the remaining line.

I loved them very much.

Xena shut her eyes tight, collapsing forward onto her knees, gripping the top edge of the wood to keep from falling any further. For a long, long time she didn’t move – Joxer wasn’t even sure she was breathing.

Finally, he decided to risk placing a hand on her shoulder. "Xena, are you … OK?"

The warrior let out a slow breath, then turned her head and gave him a half grin beneath her shining, tearing eyes. "No," she said simply, "no I’m not." She looked down and shook her head slightly, then slowly stood. "Come on," she sighed.

Moving into the center of the long-ruined barn, Xena cracked the seal on the urn and removed the top. Holding it between her hands, she regarded the smooth, glazed surface for a moment. "I know I’ve said this before Callisto," she began quietly, "but I am truly sorry for the pain I caused you … You and so many others. There’s no forgiving the things I did, the person I was, but I will spend the rest of my days trying. I … promise that."

Xena thought for a moment, then gave a wry smile. "I don’t know if this hurts or helps Callisto, but I do forgive you for the pain you brought me – it’s selfish, I know, but it’s just something … something I have to do. I understand the way hate can devour a person’s soul, how revenge can burn inside you, never let you feel anything else. I wish you could have found…" Her voice faltered for a moment, then she continued. "I wish you could have let someone in, someone who could have shown you another way. Most of all, I’m sorry you never had the chance to find peace in life. I pray you’ve found it now. Goodbye Callisto … I bid you rest."

Xena upended the urn and with a few shakes of her hands, spread the ashes over the ground. And so one soul tortured by pain and hatred was laid to rest for eternity with the family that was once all she knew.

It was nearly sunset when Xena and Joxer finished their work and left the burned ruins to look for Argo and find a suitable place to camp. Behind them, they left the granite marker beneath the older, wooden one, the urn perched on top. The words carved in the rock read, And here lies Callisto of Cirra, their daughter and sister, reunited at last. Remember her always as the child she once was, because she loved them very much.

* * *

Gabrielle suddenly felt chilly. "Please don’t tell me that learning to kill makes me some kind of savior," she said sadly. "If that was true…"

"Ah, Gabrielle," Aleph soothed, "your blood innocence was a noble goal, but a flawed one. All things live in part through death, to survive, to defend themselves – even the trees, which seem so peaceful, drop poison in their leaves to ward off seeds that would fall too close and lay claim to the soil in which they live. The path you chose was filled with difficult choices, and running from them is often the worst choice of all."

"But killing only hardens hate," Gabrielle pleaded. "The cycle of violence has to be broken, and that means –"

"Love, and forgiveness," Aleph responded, simply. "So what, then, of Hope?"

Gabrielle shut her eyes. "Hope was … irredeemable," she stammered. "I tried to love her, but she … she just used that against me. She killed Solan, would’ve killed all the children of the world … demanded the sacrifice of hundreds…"

"And what then, of Crassus?"

"Crassus…" Gabrielle swallowed hard. "That was … He tried to use me too. He lied, would’ve killed who knows how many more if I’d let him live…" She looked up at the sky, tears spilling down her face. "There just wasn’t time!"

The small woman collapsed in a heap, weeping. "Please don’t tell me I’ll ever have to kill again," she sobbed. "It hurts too much…"

There was a long silence. "My dear one," Aleph began gently, "sorry I am for your lost innocence. This was the single greatest sacrifice you ever made, or ever will – mourn it, as you mourn the death of the child you were." Gabrielle could almost swear she felt a soothing hand stroking her hair. Aleph’s presence was all around her as the goddess continued. "Yet now your eyes are opened, and you have seen the truth. The hardest lesson of all is that the path of the greater good means nothing but difficult and painful decisions, and you must live with this pain, always. Indeed, welcome it my dear one, for it proves your essential humanity, and the underlying good in your intention. Lost indeed are they who take life, whatever the reason, and feel nothing."

Gabrielle sat up slowly, wiping her eyes, an awful feeling settling in the pit of her stomach. "Merciful gods," she breathed. "Is this how Xena feels, all the time? I never dreamed…"

The bard shut her eyes, thinking back over every instance when she had stood aside, let Xena do the dirty work. She had done so without a second thought, content to let the warrior stain her soul while she herself had remained tucked ever so safely behind her blood innocence. Get her! Gabrielle had once screamed after a fleeing Callisto, sending Xena in pursuit of the woman who had murdered Perdicas, knowing the inevitable result. Loosing the warrior like a wind-up killing machine … because Gabrielle hadn’t been able to do it herself.

Gabrielle hugged her knees tight. "After Crassus was executed," she said slowly, painfully, "Xena asked how many times will she hurt me. I should have asked how many times had I hurt her the same way. Gods…" Gabrielle swallowed hard. "How could I have been so selfish, left her to carry that all alone?"

A slow, soothing warmth began to seep into Gabrielle, calming her. "Gabrielle," Aleph said gently, "how is it you can forgive so much in others, but never in yourself?" The bard could almost feel the chiding affection behind Aleph’s voice. "It was a burden Xena herself chose to carry alone, doing everything she could to shield you from such harsh realities. This too was a noble goal, but no less flawed. When you chose your life together, blood innocence was an inevitable casualty – through accident, or in the heat of battle, or as a regrettable choice to avoid worse consequence. Its loss was as sure as the rising sun. Do not blame yourself for what she did not allow you to see."

"Yeah, well," Gabrielle chuckled, sniffling, "I think I’ll take the hit on that one, just a little anyway, if you don’t mind – it wasn’t like it was something I particularly wanted to see either. Trust me, I know how to get around that protective streak when I need to."

"Perhaps, dear one," Aleph chuckled in return. "Perhaps."

* * *

Perched on an outcropping of rock, Xena watched the rising dawn, warmed and limbered from her earlier drills. She’d been pushing herself hard lately, but her body had risen to the challenge. She was in as top form as she’d ever known.

It still didn’t mean anything, not really, but it was a kind of comfort all its own.

"We laid Callisto to rest yesterday, Gabrielle. It was … harder than I thought, but I’m glad I did it," she said quietly. "Hope had promised her oblivion, but she died from Hind’s blood … I don’t know where gods go when they die, but … Well, if she’s wherever you are now, I pray that doesn’t make things difficult for you, that somehow … you’re both all right."

An image flashed into Xena’s mind, and she suddenly, unaccountably chuckled. "Actually, if I know you, you’re probably trying to straighten her out right now. I know the way you never give up, and you’ve got all eternity…"

That thought sobered her a little. "You always did bring out the best in everyone Gabrielle. I don’t know if I told you that often enough … told you how much I loved you for that often enough…" She sighed. "Or just how much I love you."

She turned her eyes to the dawn again. "Well, I guess I should get Joxer up – oh yeah, he’s been with me the last couple of days. I couldn’t just leave him where he was. He was kind of a mess." She chuckled. "Haven’t figured out what to do with him yet, but I’ll work it out."

She smiled sadly. "We’ll talk again soon Gabrielle … until next time."

Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply, letting her hands rest lightly on her thighs as she began a meditation exercise, clearing her mind as best as she was able. The sun had just fully risen over the horizon when a yawning Joxer walked out of the campsite, scratching his head idly. "Mornin’…" he began, then stopped.

When Xena didn’t move or acknowledge his presence, he stared at her for a moment, then comprehension dawned on him. Nodding to himself, he sat cross-legged on the ground facing the sun and closed his eyes.

When the soft snoring began minutes later, Xena’s composed face broke into a half grin. "Guess it’s time to get moving," she muttered silently, hopping down lightly onto her feet. Standing for a moment in front of the snoozing, but somehow seated figure, she pursed her lips, then rapped her knuckles a few times on the top of his head. "Wake up Joxer," she prompted. "Meditation doesn’t mean losing consciousness."

"Erk!" His eyes snapped open. "Huhhh…" Looking up, he focused on the woman towering over him, saw the raised eyebrow. "Oh! Uh … guess I must’ve really just been, um, one with the universe, or something."

"Right," she said simply.

He looked at her for a moment more, then slowly lowered his eyes. "Sorry Xena," he mumbled quietly.

The warrior regarded him thoughtfully. "Joxer, are you going to be all right?" she asked.

He looked back up, saw the genuine concern in her eyes. He nodded. "Yeah," he replied, "I guess so. It still … you know, hurts, but I guess a lot of it is just because I knew I could never be that close to her. You were the only one who could do that," he gave a rueful chuckle. "Hey, I know I’m good, but how could I compete?"

She smiled warmly. "You were always a good friend to her, Joxer. I know she did care about you for that."

He blushed, somehow got to his feet. "Come on, let’s not get all mushy…"

She nodded, gave him a smile. "Deal."

As they began to break camp, Joxer remained oddly serious. Finally, he took a deep breath. "Hey, Xena…

"Yes," she replied, tucking a bowl into her saddlebag.

He looked around, seemed a bit embarrassed. "Well, uh, have you thought about…" He waved his hands around. "What next?"

Xena steeled herself a little. "No, not really." She said over her shoulder, closing the flap and tightening the buckle. "Guess I’ll head north – there’s trouble up that way. I’ll keep my ears open."

Turning back around, she regarded the gawky, yet invariably good-hearted man for a moment. "You know, Joxer," she began, thinking, "I couldn’t help notice the other day, you’re very skillful with a lute."

"Nah," he huffed.

"No, I mean it," she assured him.

"Well…" He seemed both proud and uncomfortable. "It’s always been … well, a lot of fun, but I don’t get much chance to practice."

Xena looked down, smiling, then turned her gaze back up, meeting his eyes. "Maybe you should," she offered. "Joxer," she said warmly, "the world doesn’t need another warrior, but it does have far too little music, especially played with heart and talent. There are all kinds of heroes … Think about it." She smiled again, watching him blush.

Then he nodded with a half shrug and a roll of his eyes. "Yeah…" Then, more seriously, "Yeah…"

Xena extended her hand. "See you around, Joxer – and stay away from taverns for a while?"

He grasped her forearm. "OK … See you, Xena."

She watched him walk off into the forest, heading for the road, until he disappeared from sight. With a spare shake of her head and a light chuckle, she picked up her bedroll and made short work of securing it behind Argo’s saddle.

With that accomplished, she turned and leaned back against the mare’s flank, then folded her arms. "All right Artemis," she called, "you can come out now."

With a gust of wind the goddess appeared. "Damn," she snorted. "I really thought I had it that time!" She rolled her eyes. "So," she pointed her thumb in the general direction Joxer had left, "was that your good deed for the day?"

Xena smirked. "I guess." She turned and started adjusting the buckles on the saddle. "I’ve got a lot of miles to go, Artemis, so what’s on your mind?"

"Seems to be the morning for goodbyes," Artemis explained. "Thought I’d drop in and offer you one."

"’Bout time," Xena snorted over her shoulder. "Getting tired of you checking up on me. You’re worse than my mother."

The goddess chuckled. "Thought you should know," she began conversationally, "Ares has been stripped of his godhood. Athena’s agreed to pull double duty, so I figure things will be a little quieter down here for a while, but you’ll find something to keep you occupied, I’m sure. He’s living among mortals, as one of you."

"Oh really?" Xena replied, also casual. "Where? For how long?"

"Someplace with a very harsh climate, and for as long as it takes," Artemis answered evenly. "Don’t go looking for him."

Xena stiffened for a moment, then relaxed. "I won’t," she assured the goddess. "Although if I happen to run across him by accident, he’d better be very, very polite." With a stern look from Artemis, the warrior shrugged and added, "Don’t worry, I wouldn’t break anything … vital."

The huntress regarded her for another moment, then laughed. "OK, I won’t hold you to anything else – I know better." She shifted the bow across her back. "Mildly curious why you’re headed north," Artemis mused. "Haven’t heard of any raging warlords up that way."

"Well, maybe I heard different."

The goddess noted quietly, "Poteidaia is that way … So are the Amazons."

Xena sighed, turned her head and met those soft brown eyes, seeing again the warm concern there. "Yeah," she agreed slowly, "been putting off both trips long enough. A few days there, open country…" She lowered her head slightly, then chuckled dryly. "Plenty of time to figure out what I’m going to say."

Artemis smiled slightly. She looked around for a moment, pursing her lips, then said, "Since you were nice enough to ask Joxer and all, I’ll ask you…" Then, more gently, "Are you going to be OK?"

Xena paused, then left the buckle alone. She brushed Argo’s flank briefly, then turned to the huntress with a thin smile. "I wouldn’t say OK," she began, slowly, "But I’m learning to cope. Just … cope." She looked at her hand. "It’s like … losing a limb, I guess. Maybe you’ll never be whole again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a purpose, or keep trying to … make a difference." The warrior straightened, settling her eyes on the eyes of the goddess. "Some days it’s easier, some days it’s harder, but I keep her in my heart…" The warrior clenched her jaw, looked away for a moment. "She’ll always be with me … and I can go on."

They gazed at each other for a long moment. At length, Artemis nodded almost imperceptibly. "You’ll remember my promise, right?"

"I will," Xena agreed. The next was difficult – the warrior had never had much luck with gods. "Thank you, Artemis, for everything," she said honestly. "I … owe you."

The huntress smiled. "You let Gabrielle love you, Xena, and let yourself love her back. That’s good enough for me." She held out her hand. "Goodbye, Xena."

The warrior gripped the goddess’ forearm warmly. "Goodbye, Artemis."

* * *

Gabrielle looked around. "Could I ask you something?" she began uncertainly.

"Of course," Aleph replied.

"Why am I here … with you, I mean?" She hugged herself. "Shouldn’t I be dead? Am I dead?"

Aleph chuckled. "For the first, I shall begin at the beginning: Dahak grew strong in this age. Many mortals, even some gods, gave themselves over to their own evils and gloried in their own power of destruction. As long as this was so, as long as it was their choice to do so, I was powerless…"

"Why?" Gabrielle broke in. "I mean, didn’t you create everything to start with?"

"Yes," Aleph replied simply, "yet the pattern must unfold on its own, and this is the price of holding order in the midst of chaos. Think of it as a rock in a stream – if water is allowed to flow around or even through, it will endure, yet if it blocks the flow it will soon be overrun or uprooted. Do you see?"

"Yeah … OK." The bard pondered this for a moment, not liking where she suddenly knew it was going. "Uh, go on."

"And so Dahak found the key in binding enough will to his own, to spreading pain, fear, and above all, deception, for careful manipulation to an evil end – to use order to serve chaos, to create a pattern that brings about destruction and death – this is the inversion of the principle which binds the universe."

"So I was tricked into losing my blood innocence…" Gabrielle shivered.

"Tricked yes," Aleph agreed simply, "yet it was a trap both you and Xena, each in their own way, willingly fell into."

The bard shut her eyes. "How could you be that cold? Sit there, let it happen…" she breathed.

"Gabrielle, please understand," Aleph soothed, "I hold only love towards everything in creation…"

"You’ve got a funny way of showing it," Gabrielle snapped back.

"Perhaps I do," Aleph agreed. "Yet I created all things with the ability to make their own choices, and as long as these choices are their own, I must abide by them. The universe must stand or fall by its merits if it is to have worth – I love all things Gabrielle, but I will not, indeed cannot coddle them. I must have faith in what I have set in motion, no matter how painful it is to me or to even the smallest of things. A mother must wean her child, allow her find her own path if her life is to have meaning. You know this, I think."

Gabrielle took a deep breath, wiped at her eyes. Aleph’s words struck a chord deep within her, one that had been there ever since the day she had left Poteidaia behind. "Yeah," she acknowledged slowly. "I see."

Again, the Goddess surrounded the woman with Her warmth. "I never left you Gabrielle, ever, even when things were at their darkest. Hope grew without your love into a thing of evil, turning from her human half and embracing the will of Dahak. Her plans became twisted things, designs of pure hate against you, and Xena, and the world. Yet I waited, and watched, until Dahak used her, not as a vessel for twisting the world to His own ends, but as a direct means to reach out Himself."

Gabrielle bitterly choked back a sob. "He killed Solan."

"Yes, dear one." Aleph gave a weary sigh. "Had He allowed Callisto to kill him as she wished, or even let Hope murder him herself, it would have been another choice I could not have stayed. He sought to drive you and Xena apart in a way that could not easily be healed, a way in which you would each see the other as the cause of your deepest wounds. It was a near thing. "

Gabrielle gasped in a mirthless chuckle. "If you ask me it worked."

"Yes," Aleph agreed sadly. "Yet Dahak was greedy, and gave in to the temptation to destroy something Himself. He used Hope as a means to reach out and end Solan’s life by His own power. And so, when Solan looked down from the Elysian Fields, saw his mother in pain and wished only to have her healed, to have her reconciled with the one she loved most in all the world … this, I could grant."

"Because it wasn’t his time?" Gabrielle asked.

"And because I felt your pain as my own, dear one," Aleph assured her, gently. "You and Xena had been Dahak’s pawns for too long, and at last I had the chance to bring you home, the home you found within each other."

"So you created Illusia," Gabrielle began, staring straight ahead without seeing.

"No, that was Solan’s doing," Aleph insisted quietly. "I gave him the power – indeed, I am sorry, for I made him wait until there was no other course – and he devised the means. He knew his mother loved to sing, knew how song had the power to set emotions free. He surrounded you with symbols to be your guide, and never shied from letting you see the harshness of any choice you made…" The Goddess chuckled. "He was very clever, and he loved you both."

Gabrielle sniffled, wiped her eyes again. "Where is he now?"

"He chose to return to the peace of The Fields," Aleph soothed. "He wished to be with Kaliepus, whom he loved, and with Borias, that he might know his father. Solan knew Xena loved him, yet in the end he felt that she had, and could, live without him until they could be reunited again. He let her find peace between them, and let her go."

"We owe him so much…" Gabrielle blinked back her tears, then leaned forward into her knees and cried silently.

Aleph let her continue until the woman’s sobbing subsided, then ceased. With the gentlest of whispers, the Goddess brought her back to awareness. "The time has come, my dear one," Aleph began. "And now I ask you – you defied the Fates and closed off Dahak from the world. Why?"

Gabrielle pulled her head up, staring at the endless sky. "Xena," she responded simply. "The world needed her. There’s so much good she could do. I couldn’t watch her die … not again." She bit her lip. "Is she OK?"

Once more, Gabrielle felt as though soothing hands were running through her hair, over her shoulders. "You sacrificed yourself in the name of love, my dear one, and so love is your legacy. Through this love, both shared with her and spread among others, Xena endures, and the world goes on."

Gabrielle nodded. "Good. I … I knew she would … prayed she would…" Gabrielle pulled herself together with visible effort. "So, what now?"

A glow began to spread around the bard as Aleph spoke. "As I said at the beginning dear one – what is left must be put right. So I have set you on the path as best I am able, that your spirit might know itself, and be healed in time. Xena has learned to seek guidance, and so to guide her own way. Now there are choices to be made, and these are yours alone. To remain here is to have a place beside me. To enter The Fields is to be with those you have loved who are gone. To return to what you were is to be left again with the same hard choices, the same chance of pain…"

"And love?" Gabrielle broke in.

"Yes," Aleph answered warmly. "And always love." A warm breeze began to caress Gabrielle as the Goddess continued. "You asked me twice if you were dead, and once again I ask you: Do you wish to be?"

Gabrielle felt the tears coming back, but for an entirely different reason. "I don’t think that’s much of a choice…" She smiled.

"For you, my dear one, no. I suppose it is not."

The woman thought for a moment. "Will I remember any of this?"

"You will remember the lessons, Gabrielle, and the peace you claimed. That must be enough." The breeze grew to a wind.

Gabrielle closed her eyes against the light, made a final decision. "Can I ask one last thing?"

"You may ask," Aleph chuckled.

"Hope," Gabrielle responded with difficulty. "Can she … can she be reborn? Just be human? Not … not to me, but to someone, who can care for her…" The woman opened her eyes, pleading softly against the growing light and the rising wind. "Just let her have the same chance as everyone else … Please?"

Gabrielle could have sworn she heard someone softly crying. "Oh dear one … You are my joy…"

* * *

"Well Gabrielle, I’ll be in Poteidaia tomorrow," Xena said quietly, seated almost cross-legged on a log at the edge of her spare camp, facing the setting sun. The warrior chuckled dryly. "I still haven’t figured out what to say – that means I’ll probably have to just tell them the truth…"

She brushed her hair back, noting how her bangs would need to be trimmed again soon – wondering almost painfully how she’d do it herself. "And what is the truth?" she sighed. "’Hecuba, Herotodus, your daughter who left home to follow me a few years ago it died when she sacrificed herself so I could live…’"

Xena gritted her teeth, then made herself relax. "No," she shook her head sadly, "that’s not it." With some effort, she shook it off. "Not even close." The warrior stared at the sky. "The truth is you spread joy and goodness wherever you went, Gabrielle. Gods, you were such a handful sometimes, but…" The warrior chuckled painfully. "But I’ve never known anyone with your strength. No matter what you did, it was always for someone else … hardly a thought for yourself … always ready to take the world on your shoulders, and by the gods, in the end you saved it, in spite of what it’d done to you … Saved me, in spite of everything I’d done to you."

Xena’s head sagged forward. "I miss you," she said, sadly but beyond tears, "so much. And I don’t know which is worse – that maybe I’ll feel this way forever…" She swallowed. "Or that some day I just won’t feel it anymore … There were so many things I should’ve said … so many things I still need to be forgiven for…"

Xena shook her head. "I wish you could talk to me Gabrielle … but of course you can’t." Slowly, as she stared at the ground, the warrior’s breathing began to return to normal. She could almost feel a soothing hand on her shoulder. Without even thinking, she reached up to caress it…

…and found her hand covering warm fingers.

Xena’s eyes flew open as a familiar voice asked softly over her shoulder, "Hey … scratch my nose will you?"

The warrior collapsed onto the ground, twisting and scrambling around, staring up at the vision that had appeared behind her, gasping, "You can’t be…" She shook her head in near desperation.

The bard sniffled, her bright green eyes shining with tears. "Actually," she chuckled and cried, looking down at herself, hands wavering as if she didn’t quite dare to touch her own body. "I … I think I am."

Xena stared into those eyes, even as her senses absorbed the grass pressing against her thighs, the cry of two birds in the air above her, the subtle perfume of nearby wildflowers. In a moment she was on her feet, never losing the sight of those windows into the soul that could only belong to one, yet couldn’t be there, with her, staring back at her … could they? "A vision?" The warrior’s voice trembled.

The small woman shook her head, laughing again. "No," she assured her companion, a fresh well of tears falling above her easy smile. "It’s me … I’m really … I’m here…"

For a long moment, Xena lost herself in the gaze they shared, filling herself with the gentle, wonderful, open soul she had stared into a thousand times. "Gabrielle?"

"Xena…" Her staff falling aside, the honey-haired woman raised her arms.

Blood pumped through the warrior’s legs as she instantly crossed the short space, the sight and the sound and the smell surrounding her as she held her precious bard close, so close. Time stood still while nothing existed except themselves, together again, holding each other against destiny and any barriers that fate could devise.

In that moment even the gods and the stars held still, waiting with a timeless breath.

And when they parted slightly, Xena pressed her head to Gabrielle’s. "Where have you been?" she chided through her sobs.

The bard chuckled, even as she cried from sheer joy. "I … I don’t know!" she admitted, laughing as she wept. "I just know I had to come home…" She looked up, running her slim fingers under the warrior’s blue eyes, tenderly brushing away the tears. "Gods … I love you Xena…"

The warrior just nodded slowly, gasping back her own sobs. "I love you Gabrielle…" She blinked, sniffling. "There’s … so much I want to say…"

"I know," the bard nodded back. "But let’s make this moment last … as long as we can…"

Two souls embraced each other tightly once more under the rising stars, and the world slowly moved on.


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