A moment of faith before she perishes in RETURN OF CALLISTO ironically lets Xena’s most notorious victim exact posthumous revenge.
AN HONORABLE DEATH
"If you want Callisto to get what’s coming to her, you’ll do it my way." -- Xena to Gabrielle in RETURN OF CALLISTO.
"We’re both gonna die, Xena. How wonderful! We can spend the rest of eternity in Tartarus together. Hmmm?"
"Always the optimist."
Callisto appreciated the sarcasm, especially from a "hero" mired at last in muck they’d share until their final breath. Her acceptance of their situation turned to intrigue, however, when her ever-resourceful foe fumbled for her chakram as if they actually did have options. Managed to unhook it, fling it into a nearby log, flick her whip around the lodged metal disk, and begin extricating herself from the quicksand.
"Oh, you’re so good!"
Callisto did love watching her dark-haired nemesis work, in this case assuming Xena would also be good enough to pull her to safety next. The blond psychopath braced expectantly on the edge of her sinkhole relishing the irony. Mere days ago she’d valued life as little more than a means for destroying the woman who "made" her, after which she could’ve accidentally hung herself on a low-swinging vine for all she cared.
She’d come close to accomplishing her end a few times before – shooting Xena with a poison dart, rampaging in Xena’s name, nearly beating her in a fight to the death. The wily ex-warlord had prevailed as usual, but appeared perplexingly unenthused about wanting Callisto dead. Saved her first from an angry mob and fiery obliteration in the villagers’ jail, then from plunging to smithereens after their duel. Had her shipped off for a stupid trial and a prison with even stupider guards.
Why? Xena had said "justice." Another round of torment, in Callisto’s mind. She couldn’t decide which aggravated her more – Xena’s refusal to kill her, or that Xena herself wouldn’t die. Either way, Callisto figured she’d never have peace. She did get some of that justice though. Survival for a while longer whether she wanted it or not. The chance to break free and experience life’s true joys. Like exploiting Xena’s new weakness – a sentimental heart. "That gives me advantage over you," she warned a few days earlier, holding a sword at Xena’s back. "I’m not going to kill you now. First I’ll kill your soul like you killed mine. Goodbye, My Sweet!"
Oooo, the thrill of tracking down Xena’s chirpy tagalong, rudely interrupting the redhead’s spew of sappy garbage to the new hubby.
"Everything is united by love alone."
"Love, love, love. And hate divides. Let’s see which one’s stronger."
Whereupon Callisto prepared to prove her point with the end of a sword. The only thing missing was the right audience. Ah, leave it to the Warrior Princess to ride up on cue. Saved the brat, but for once that wasn’t good enough. Callisto skewered hubby instead. How she’d longed to see Xena wailing over her friend’s body, when perhaps even better was seeing Xena watching her friend wail. The helplessness in those arrogant blue eyes alone made life worth living. Driving Little Miss Lovey Dovey to take up the sword in revenge? An unexpected bonus. How deliciously fitting Xena’s "creation" be the one to rob the brat of her innocence – recreating a bit of Callisto to walk at the Destroyer’s side.
And now this. Princess Do Good forced again to salvage one of her throwaways. Maybe hate had its weaknesses after all. Callisto meant to test that again soon, exhilarated she still wanted to, stuck with the best person to make it possible. Her heart raced picturing another of their epic battles – two warriors matched in superiority, unequaled in their thirst for blood. Slashing, kicking, punching, tumbling. Climaxing in one final thrust that released them from each other. What use had she for intoxicants or, worse, love? When, thanks to Xena, all she needed to satisfy her was … well … Xena.
The woman sure was taking her sweet time, though. She’d crawled to solid ground, detached the whip as if completely forgetting unfinished work left hanging precariously a few feet away. Perhaps a reminder was in order?
"Xena, help me …. Xena, please …. "
Xena gazed at her, but the eyes …. The eyes were somehow … wrong.
"Xena, please …. Help me."
Where was the urgency, the fire? The guilt or compassion, the …. Callisto got a queasy feeling. She needed the new Xena! The ridiculously sentimental Xena. The Xena driven for no good reason to spare a mortal enemy.
"Xena, please! You can’t just let me die!"
How could Xena relax there, ignoring her pleas, calmly watching her slip away as if no more than the dirt sucking her under? No! Not now! Not again! Not when she wanted to live, like the first time Xena snuffed out her soul. Maybe an appeal to ….
"Xena …. Xena, I’m counting on you."
Strangely, it never crossed her mind to curse her unlikely savior. Instead she persisted clawing at Xena’s stony resolve, clutching her faith in the warrior’s mysterious heart, holding on to her confidence not even the Xena who’d condemned her all those winters ago would let her die this way.
"Help me! Help me, Xena! Xeenaaaa …!".
Callisto’s beseeching hands fluttered above the brink like soiled dove’s wings before they too disappeared. She screamed. Heard the smothered concession to this last betrayal ricochet off the walls of her dark tomb in mockery of the biggest and worst irony. She should’ve listened to herself before. She’d been right after all. Hate was stronger.
The muffled cry still echoed in Xena’s ears two nights later, piercing the warrior’s certainty, penetrating recesses she’d thought numb. How painfully ironic. The crazed she-demon had been wrong about the right things and right about the wrong. Now Xena – and Gabrielle – would have to live with the consequences.
Xena studied her slumbering companion. Gabrielle did seem surprisingly at peace with what had happened – losing Perdicus, her desire to kill Callisto, urging Xena to take care of that instead. Xena called it "justice." The culmination of a life sentence Callisto rejected in preference for death. What she deserved for escaping prison recommitted to hurting whomever – random or connected – stood between her and destroying the Warrior Princess. Xena let out a shaky sigh. But did she? Did anybody deserve such an end?
Closed tight places. Xena shuddered. She dreaded suffocation more than almost anything. The excruciating awareness of one’s own futile gasps. Watching your blood ooze away or dying of thirst wasn’t much better, but might be endured with a certain calmness. She could numb her body to its slow demise, escape in a trancelike state to where she’d rather be, accept a surrender difficult in the instinctive struggle for air. To a warrior, a particularly powerless, ignominious defeat. Callisto must’ve been in agony.
An involuntary grin tugged Xena’s lips. Nobody embraced death with more gusto than her nemesis. Every demonic laugh, the ecstasy at smelling blood. How she bounced and skipped into battle, her skinny limbs jerking as though attached by strings to Hades himself. Of all the emotions on Callisto’s deceptively playful face, Xena had never seen desperation. Never heard that slyly venomous mouth ask for help, for consideration, for mercy. Never imagined those deranged eyes wide with pure terror, with incredulity at the prospect of dying. Never expected to witness such vulnerability in front of the person Callisto least wanted to show weakness of any kind.
Xena’s mind drifted into the past, to a faraway place in the east. She’d encountered a culture where dying with honor meant everything, even to a young girl who’d never wielded a weapon. Xena’d given that girl an honorable death, though she herself couldn’t appreciate the subtleties at the time. Back then she thought nothing of killing a father in front of his child, slaughtering Amazons who befriended her, shooting retreating enemies in the back. Whacking off the head of a defeated man on his knees begging for mercy. Burning another young girl’s village to the ground. No, she’d been the Xena Callisto loved to hate.
If the Warrior Princess hadn’t changed, Callisto might’ve confined her targets to Xena’s person or reputation. If Callisto had been as manic as she seemed, she might not have recognized Xena now had a heart, a soul worth more than the sum of her warrior parts. Xena shook her head. Insight could be a bitch sometimes. Without hers and Callisto’s, Perdicus would still be alive. And so might Gabrielle’s innocence.
"Perdicus is the last one. From here on out, all I want is Callisto’s blood. I want to see her dead."
"I won’t help you destroy all the ideals you live by. If you’re taken over by hate, Callisto wins."
Xena shivered at other images, sounds, words frozen in her brain. Of Gabrielle’s hate-contorted face. The young woman viciously attacking a tree with sword strikes she literally prodded Xena into helping her perfect. That sweet voice snarling, "I’m gonna kill `er, Xena. Teach me! Teach me how to kill her!" Coldly proclaiming Callisto had already won. "My ideals were a lie! I thought love was the strongest power on earth. Love is helpless in the face of cruelty. That little innocent Gabrielle is dead, and there’s no getting her back."
The warrior flinched, startled to feel Gabrielle’s hand on her back. "Oh … hey." She’d been sitting on her bedroll with her knees drawn up, arms wrapped around them, staring in the direction of their campfire. "You cold?" she asked, quickly rising. "Sorry. Was gonna stoke that before I turned in."
Gabrielle sat up and rubbed her eyes. She watched Xena toss some wood on the low-burning fire. She wasn’t sure what woke her. She did have goose bumps on her arms, but doubted from the relatively warm night air.
"Okay, that oughtta do it for a while." Xena grabbed Argo’s bridle and retrieved one of her tools from a saddlebag. She dropped down on her furs. "Got a little bent piece," she explained. "Figured I could fix it now, with more light." She patted her companion’s shoulder. "No need for you to lose any beauty rest over it. G’won back to sleep."
"You okay?" Gabrielle noted the dark circles forming under the warrior’s eyes, realizing how long it had been since she’d seen that telltale sign of nightmares. "Trouble sleeping?"
"Pffft. You know me – night owl. This won’t take long."
Gabrielle had learned what Xena’s studied casualness meant – "Let sleeping dogs lie." She decided it was too late for that now.
"I told you to ‘get’ her."
"What?" Xena’s head jerked up.
"I had a hand in it too. Please, I want to know what really happened."
"Gabrielle, it’s over. Why dredge up …." Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek at that stubborn puckering of her young companion’s lips. "I told you. We took a spill off the chariots, tussled around for a bit and …." She shrugged. "Her body got sucked into quicksand. End of story."
Gabrielle pulled her knees up. "I don’t think so."
"What." Xena chuckled humorlessly. "You want more gory details? I’m not the bard in this duo, remember."
"Xena?" Gabrielle scooted closer and put her hand on the warrior’s arm. "I can tell when you believe it’s a ‘clean’ kill. This doesn’t feel like it."
Xena’s jaw dropped. The Gabrielle looking at her had indeed changed. The eyes still held warmth and love, but also the pained empathy of experience. Eyes she couldn’t hide from as easily anymore. Which deserved and could probably take in the truth.
Sighing, Xena looked down at her hands. "I didn’t kill her, so much as let her die."
"She was injured? You mean you … left her to die?"
"Both of us landed in the quicksand. I got out." Xena held Gabrielle’s eyes. "With my chakram and a whip."
"Was there time …. Could you really do anything to –."
"Gods. No wonder …."
"I watched her, Gabrielle. Watched her sink like the sand sucking her in. After she was gone …." Xena gazed out over their fire into the darkness. "It was like I’d been in a haze. I remember being a little surprised she wasn’t there anymore. Kept looking at the hole. Not sure why. Maybe thinking she’d pop up like usual? Maybe hoping she would?" She faced Gabrielle. "Maybe I’d made a mistake and it wasn’t too late to fix it?"
"Oh, Xena. You can’t punish yourself over this. She vowed she’d leave a trail of innocent victims, blame it on you for letting her live those other times. At least …." Gabrielle swallowed. "At least Perdicus was the last."
Xena’s head dropped. "And you," she murmured.
"No!" Gabrielle lifted Xena’s chin. "Don’t you dare put that on your shoulders too! Those were my decisions – to take revenge, to have you do it for me. I’m a grown woman, Xena. It’s time we both realized that. Let me bear my share of the weight."
"You didn’t tell me to kill her. I knew I would the moment she gutted Perdicus. Hate, Gabrielle. Cold rage. Not only justice for him or revenge for you." Xena’s lips quivered in grim remembrance. "For doing it in front of me."
"It doesn’t matter, Xena. Call it what you will. Rage, justice. You did what you had to. What you thought right."
"Yeah. Ironic, huh? You trusted me to kill her if needed. She trusted I wouldn’t let her die." Xena shook her head. "My least forgiving victim – usually cursing me to Tartarus and back – believed I’d changed. Counted on it. Begged me to save her, right to the end. And she was wrong."
"Not wrong about you changing. Only in believing you’re not human."
Xena let out a long breath. "At my worst, I never watched anyone die like that. Even then, I’d put them out of their misery. Now I’m supposed to be better, the one person I owed another chance – ."
"To kill again? You think she changed? Because you did?" Gabrielle snorted in disgust. "Xena, she chose to stay who she was. Gloried in it. Rejected who you’d become – except as a weapon against you."
"I know," Xena acknowledged softly. "But I caused it. Ruined the life she had before, the chance for a better one after. No way to change that, even if she’d let me."
"So she made herself an evil force, solely for the purpose of destroying you."
"Yes. A great warrior. In my image. If nothing else, she was good at that." Xena set aside the bridle and folded her hands in her lap. "Right or wrong, I was past risking her alive, Gabrielle. I meant, maybe granting her last request – spared her – long enough to fight me like a warrior should. At least given her the chance for a better death."
Sighing, Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist. What more could she say? Truth, like hate, could cut with a double edge. The important thing was not letting it divide them. From each other. From the best in themselves. She hugged Xena closer as they sat in silence, staring into the flames. Mourning that part of their souls smothered with Callisto in her dark tomb.
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