Gabrielle waited patiently for her partner to answer. They had remained stationary on this particular hill looking over the surrounding valley for quite a few minutes now. Xena was looking out atop Argo II apparently unaware of what was going on around her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked for the third time.
"Hmmm?" Xena said absently. While she had acknowledged Gabrielle her mind was still elsewhere.
"Is everything all right?" Gabrielle asked with concern.
"Sure. Why shouldn't it be?" Xena turned her attention to her riding companion and smiled.
"Because I called your name three times and you didn't answer."
"Sorry," Xena turned her attention back to the valley. "Don't you feel it?" she asked.
"Feel what?" Gabrielle looked where Xena was looking but she couldn't see, or feel, anything. "What's going on?"
"I think it's time to visit Amphipolis again," Xena suggested. She nudged Argo to turn and find the path down to the valley floor.
"I didn't think you'd want to return there again. There's nothing there now but a big hole in the ground." Gabrielle said as she brought her mount up along side Argo.
"It's about time I visited mother again."
"It's been, what, almost a year now?" Gabrielle asked rhetorically. They both knew it was one year ago when Xena almost became the queen of the underworld, one year ago when Gabrielle had tasted the dark side and all its sins. It was a time when avarice, greed, revenge and most of all jealousy visited her at Amphipolis. And now they were heading back there. "What did you mean by feel something?"
"I don't know exactly. It's something like uneasiness and an urge to do something bad."
"Bad, Xena? You?" Gabrielle laughed. Saying Xena was bad was like saying Caesar was a mere soldier. It was an understatement in the extreme.
"I've only had this feeling once before," Xena said knowingly, "and that was about a year ago."
"You don't mean?"
"I don't know what I mean, Gabrielle. I'm just saying it's a feeling that I don't think I can ignore."
"Is he back?" Gabrielle said nervously. She had been so close to losing Xena forever and she didn't want to lose her again. If they had any sense at all they'd be riding in the opposite direction.
"Maybe," Xena said cryptically.
"This could be a legacy of Mephistopheles," Gabrielle offered.
"Then it's a legacy I don't want," Xena said flatly. "Once should be good enough. I kicked Lucifer's butt fair and square last time."
"Maybe he wants a re-match." Gabrielle answered.
"Why don't you go visit Lila and I'll handle this on my own?" Xena suggested.
"Why are you trying to get rid of me?" she retorted.
"Because this evil takes a greater toll on you than it does me, Gabrielle. I've lived with this sort of feeling most of my life."
"And who's going to watch your back?" Gabrielle pleaded.
"I'll stand against a wall," Xena shot back. "It's not up for debate."
"I'm not a kid anymore, Xena. I thought we had been through all that." Gabrielle shifted her horse closer to the warrior and leaned across to lay her hand on the armored knee. "Where you go, I go." Things were getting too somber so Gabrielle appealed to Xena's baser instincts. "Besides, if my memory is right, after you dispatched Lucifer to his new home we had a nice time that night? alone."
"Nice time?" Xena chuckled. Gabrielle had indulged in her darker side that night. "I still have a scar or two from that you know."
"You wish it never happened?" Gabrielle prodded.
"Hades, no!" Xena laughed. "And as much as I'd like to repeat the night I don't want you to go down that path again. Gurkhan and Korah both left their mark on you, Gabrielle."
"But it won't happen again," she pleaded. Gabrielle could feel the walls go up around Xena. "Send me wherever you want but you know I'll follow you," she said with devastating logic. "Besides, do you really want to eat your own cooking for the next few days?"
"I'll live." But Xena knew that Gabrielle had already made up her mind. She glanced across at her partner atop her horse? proud, confident and very capable to look after herself. Gabrielle was no longer the innocent girl who had defended her against her neighbors and family. She was a woman who had the right to make her own decisions, and obviously Gabrielle had already made up her mind about this trip. "Let's go," Xena said.
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked in confusion.
By now Gabrielle could feel the rising darkness as well, slowly building her darker emotions until the urge to indulge them was nearly too much to handle. On the final night on the road the urge took her over. When they were in their bedroll, Gabrielle nudged even closer to Xena, insistently grinding herself against the warrior until they were making love under the covers. But Gabrielle could feel herself slowly losing control as the darkness oozed into her subconscious, whispering lascivious suggestions that she couldn't ignore.
The love play turned to something more, something that would never be spoken of in the light of day. Some part of Gabrielle wanted to stop but she was not strong enough to overcome the shadows consuming her heart, so long into the night cries of passion, lust and pain echoed in the air.
Gabrielle woke in Xena's arms the next morning tired and sore. Afraid to move she lay there, mortified at what had taken place last night. Their loving had always been amorous and adventurous, but she hadn't realized that she had ever harbored such perverse thoughts. She knew that the wish for what they did last night must have already existed somewhere within her, and that was what had scared her.
"Stop it," Xena murmured in her ear.
"Stop what?" Gabrielle tried to sound like nothing was worrying her.
"What happened last night wasn't really us. I think we both know that."
"But?" before Gabrielle could say more Xena rolled her over onto her back. Those piercing blue eyes looked down at her in understanding.
"I don't think any less of you, Gabrielle. It's Lucifer's fault."
"I know that I must have had those thoughts for it to happen, Xena. It scares me."
"Shhh." Xena placed a finger over Gabrielle's lips. "Now you listen to me. What we both did last night is nothing to be ashamed of." Xena leaned down and placed an almost chaste kiss on Gabrielle's lips. "Besides, you're talking to the queen of lust here. I still have a few tricks up my sleeve you haven't seen yet, and probably never will." Xena smiled and waited patiently while her lover mulled over what she had said. She never let go, instead holding onto her to reinforce her love. "Hey! I'm still here after last year, aren't I?"
"Well yes, but Lucifer was in hell by then. It was? ummm?," Gabrielle tried to think of a suitable word "?residual lust."
"Residual? You mean it's going to get worse?" Xena looked horrified for a moment then relented. "I'm joking, Gabrielle. Stop worrying, will you?" But Gabrielle's face didn't change. "Do you want to visit Lila while I take care of this?"
"I'm not leaving you to him, Xena. You're mine." Gabrielle said firmly.
"And you're mine. Nothing will change that." Xena told her with conviction, but she could feel the darkness hovering at the edge of her senses. Was Lucifer back to finally claim her? Xena looked into Gabrielle's pale eyes and saw the love there. No, he couldn't have her, not if she could help it. "How about some breakfast?" she asked brightly, pleased to see a smile once more on Gabrielle's face.
Xena encouraged Gabrielle to talk while they had breakfast. Too much lately she had become introspective and it worried the warrior. The young Amazon queen was carrying a lot of burdens now and Xena had wished that she could share the load, but Gabrielle was no longer the young farmer's daughter who could spin a tale. She now wore many cloaks of power as the partner of Xena, The Battling Bard of Potadeia, and not least of all an Amazon queen. She had killed and had tasted revenge. Her innocence was gone. Now they were both going back to a place where innocence was as precious as gold. She needed Gabrielle to be there, although she would never tell her that, because the bard kept her grounded, reminded her of what was really important and kept her on the road to redemption.
When they reached the outskirts of Amphipolis the uneasiness was nearly a palpable thing. The air felt hot and heavy, casting a gloomy malaise over the town. There were some outlying huts around where Amphipolis used to stand, but nothing existed near the crack in the earth. It was as if hell had claimed it and nothing else would prevail.
Once again there was an eerie green glow emanating from the hole and Xena could feel its heavy pulse in time with her heartbeat. Argo began to prance restlessly as she sensed the evil in the air. "Whoa, girl!" Xena patted Argo's shoulder, trying to calm her mount down. "Let's get out of here." Gabrielle didn't argue but followed Xena out of town and to the relative safety of the meadow.
They dismounted and tied the horses near a small babbling brook. Grass was aplenty and there was water, and Xena felt that Argo had calmed down enough to be left for a while. "This time we'll try on foot," she stated.
Gabrielle looked at the sky. "There isn't much light left."
"Good. By the time we reach Amphipolis it should be good and dark."
to go when it's dark?" Gabrielle thought it was creepy enough in the daylight.
"It's the best way to see what's actually going on," Xena replied. She removed Argo's saddle and gave her a rub down before turning her attention to the saddlebags. After removing a couple of items she hoisted the bags into the tree for later retrieval. Xena sidled up to her horse. "Now you stay put, and don't let anyone steal you, all right?"
"You keep saying that," Gabrielle said as they began the walk back to Amphipolis.
"I've still got her, haven't I?" Xena retorted. Gabrielle couldn't argue with that.
The sun dipped below the horizon and they completed their trek in the twilight. They passed the outlying homes and noticed something strange. "What in Hades is that for?" Gabrielle pointed at the assembled bone structure of a cow sitting on the front porch of one building.
Xena didn't reply but she gave special attention to the homes they passed, noting that each of them had something bizarre or grotesque sitting outside the house. Some had skeletons of animals, one even had a human skull, while other abodes had mutilated vegetables sitting on their doorsteps. The one thing they had in common was that they were illuminated by one or more candles sitting close by.
"Is this some new ritual?" Gabrielle whispered into the darkness.
"I don't remember anything like it before."
"You've been away from Amphipolis for a number of years, Xena."
"True," Xena acceded, "but this is strange even for here." She felt the air temperature drop, sending a shiver through her body.
"What was that?" Gabrielle suddenly had a flashback to when she was pulled down into the green ooze under Cyrene's inn. She fought to keep a lid on her panic as the cool air began to swirl around them. The leaves rustled and the wind faintly howled, carrying with it the stench of death. "I don't like it here," she said rhetorically.
"We must be getting close," Xena stated.
"No kidding?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes in the dark, knowing very well Xena couldn't see her.
"I saw that," she whispered.
"How do you do that?" Gabrielle held up her hand in front of her face. "I can't see a bacchae thing!" While Xena said nothing Gabrielle just knew there was a smile on her face.
A streak of green flew by them, circling the home they had just passed. It hovered in front of the door, giving Xena a good look at what it was. It was a ghost but not a ghost she had seen before. It was decomposing, its hollow eye sockets staring blankly at them before flying away.
"Sweet Aphrodite!" Gabrielle squeaked. "What in Hades was that??!!!"
"I don't know," Xena said resolutely, "but we're going to find out."
"I was afraid you'd say that." Gabrielle's hands went to her boots and she took out her sais.
"They won't do you any good," Xena muttered.
Gabrielle didn't even bother questioning the statement, instead putting down Xena's ability to know everything happening around her as an extra sense no one else had. "Maybe, but I feel safer with them in my hands."
"Come on," Xena said before starting the trek toward the center of Amphipolis. She didn't bother to check if Gabrielle was behind her because she knew even without her heightened senses that the bard would always be there.
The full moon cast an eerie silver hue over the countryside, sending some of the lesser shadows into the light. But the deeper shadows, the ones that resided in the depths of the forest, remained dark and foreboding. The gentle breeze seemed to bring the trees to life, moving the leaves as if the forest was inhaling and exhaling.
Gabrielle had been to heaven and hell, had faced death many times and met Lucifer himself, but she still couldn't settle the uneasiness sitting in the pit of her stomach. She knew it was the fear of the unknown and tried valiantly to put that fear back in a compartment in her head. Xena was with her and she wouldn't allow anything to happen to her, if she could help it.
The darkness gave way to shades of gray as they approached the deserted outskirts of Amphipolis.
"Where is everyone?" Gabrielle asked.
"Hades if I know," Xena replied. "This town is not usually this quiet at night. Let's check out the inn." Each of the huts they passed had the same bizarre ritualistic offering outside the front door, decorated with either a skeleton or an eerily grinning vegetable.
The temperature dropped suddenly again, accompanied by a shift of air that sent a tingle down Gabrielle's spine. Another glowing green specter drifted by them, stopping for a moment then approaching the nearest hut. It seemed to inspect the offering outside the door then with a mighty howl it pounded the door. It was hard to see but the squeak of the hinges was clearly audible and a small loaf of bread was thrown out onto the dusty ground. A load thud broke the silence of the night as the door was firmly shut.
Xena and Gabrielle watched the exchange with interest, curious as to why a ghost would want bread. "Maybe it's all a game," Gabrielle offered. But her words proved wrong when the apparition picked up the gift and floated back toward Amphipolis. "Then again, maybe not."
Xena tried to follow the ghost, breaking into a slow trot in an effort to keep it in sight. She heard Gabrielle trip and fall in the darkness. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Keep going and I'll catch up," Gabrielle called back. She had hoped that Xena would wait but the warrior took off after the floating green gas. "Don't worry about me," she mumbled to herself. There was no damage to her foot and she stood a moment later and dusted herself off. She secured the sais in her boots before continuing the journey alone. While she was not as familiar with the countryside around Amphipolis as Xena was Gabrielle could still navigate her way there in the semi-darkness.
She continued along the dusty road by herself, wishing at that moment that Xena hadn't left her. The silence was unnerving. There were no sounds of the night. No frogs. No owls. Nothing. Another chill hit her near naked body and it was a chill she felt to the bone.
Gabrielle had little time to react to the entities enveloping her, leaving her to gaze at the outside world through a green veil. Her attempts to break out were to no avail, her fist hitting the barrier and dissipating in ripples across the film like water. "What do you want?" Her muffled voice carried very little volume.
"Yyooouuuu," came the ghostly reply.
She wasn't sure what happened next but her next coherent thought was her arrival at the gate to hell. The ghosts didn't release her, instead holding her captive within their opaque prison.
"Finally!" The voice was gruff and gravelly and it didn't take much for Gabrielle to guess who the owner of that voice was. If it was who she thought it was it was a voice that had been exposed to extreme heat, a voice hardened in the forge of hell itself. The creature came into her peripheral vision and regarded her smugly.
"Hello Lucifer," Gabrielle said with more calm than she felt. The evil welling up in her was filling her in a way that made her feel like she would vomit the stench onto the dusty ground. She valiantly tried to rein in her rampaging emotions. She closed her eyes and focused all her energy on the one person who meant everything to her.
Lucifer closed his eyes and smiled. "She won't help you, bitch!"
Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at the demon. "You lost. Why can't you leave it at that?"
"I don't have to play by the rules, remember?" His scaly, pointy teeth appeared as his thin lips parted in a grotesque smile. "With you out of the way, Xena will be easy pickings."
"If you say so." Gabrielle tried to sound unconcerned but in reality she knew her partner walked a fine line on the best of days. Under Lucifer's influence Xena's resolve would be sorely tested. Gabrielle crossed her arms across her chest and showed her best Xena impersonation. "So now what?"
"Now?" The word came out harsh and guttural and cut her like a knife. "Now you pay for your sins."
Gabrielle felt the filmy prison lift her up and carry her toward the abyss, moving her into the bright green stream of light that emanated from it. In desperation she yelled, "This is only going to make Xena mad!" Her last word came out as a scream as she descended into the depths of hell.
* * *
Xena jogged along at a healthy pace despite the near darkness. This was a time where she didn't rely only on her eyesight but on her otherworldly senses as well. She had the benefit of knowing that the ghost would probably return to the hole so her chase wasn't that frenetic. She slowed up as she approached her mother's inn. It was a little more weathered and a little more tilted, suffering the ravages of inattention for another year. Her hand brushed the damaged wood, and she allowed her memories to rebuild it to its former glory, at least in her eyes. Of course, nothing had changed but at least to Xena it was the home she had left all those years ago.
Her keen hearing heard Gabrielle's voice as her words ended with a yell. Xena ran to the corner of the building and witnessed Gabrielle's banishment to hell. She took a step back and observed Lucifer, her mind racing to come up with a plan.
"You can come out now!" Lucifer called across the expanse of dead ground.
Xena emerged from behind the inn and sauntered toward him. "I see time hasn't improved your looks," she said calmly.
His smile was as grotesque as the macabre vegetables outside the villagers' homes. "What took you so long?"
"I didn't know you were expecting me," Xena replied,
"I sent you a signal," Lucifer's voice grated like harsh stone.
Xena knew. That feeling she had was him calling to her. "What do you want Lucifer?" She had no time to play word games with Gabrielle in hell.
"I want you," he said simply.
"Me?" Xena pointed her finger at her chest. "What did I do?"
"The list is too long to discuss right now, but at the top of that list are two very important sins. You tricked me, Xena. You weaved your little web of seduction to entrap me and now it's time to pay."
"You're not enjoying your new position in life? Or maybe I should say death?"
"It has its advantages," Lucifer stopped to cough, his voice raspy and deep. "Now you will join me in hell as my queen."
"And what makes you think I'm going to do that?"
"Because that little blond bedmate of yours will find an eternity of torment if you don't." His stained pointy teeth appeared as his black lips parted.
Xena stopped and thought. "What guarantee do I have that you will let her go if I agree?"
"You have my word," he said solemnly.
"Your word is not worth a thing," she taunted. "You're going to have to do better than that."
"And what guarantee do I have that you won't trick me again?" he retaliated.
"You don't." Xena smiled enigmatically. Even as she said the words Lucifer grabbed her and transported them both to hell. "So it' going to be like that, is it?"
"Positive action was needed," he replied smugly.
"All right, you've got me here. Now, where's Gabrielle?" Xena glanced around quickly to get her bearings.
"I think its better you not know for now." Lucifer turned his back on her. "And I wouldn't try anything stupid if I were you."
"Me? Stupid?" Xena tried to sound innocent but they both knew it was a lie. "I see you've re-decorated the place since I was here last."
"I thought this more suits my mood? hot and infernal." He glared pointedly at the warrior princess.
"Uh, must make living here uncomfortable." Xena brushed the dirt off a rock and rubbed her fingers together distastefully. "You could use a maid or two around here."
"It's supposed to be uncomfortable!" Lucifer snapped.
"So," Xena said as she took the few steps to place her in front of Lucifer. She allowed her darker side to emerge, her sexuality oozing from every pore of her skin. "Let's talk business?"
* * *
Gabrielle immediately felt the heat and clutched her neck as it dried up her throat. She felt like she was in an Amazon sweat hut. There were corpses and spirits around her but they paid her no mind as each attended to whatever their punishment was for the rest of eternity. She felt no urge to do the same so there was hope that she was still alive. In fact, knowing what Lucifer wanted she was sure that she was still alive. Having her dead wouldn't help his cause.
When she could stand it no longer Gabrielle began to shed her clothes, tearing off what she deemed as unnecessary in an effort to combat the oppressive heat. "oh boy," she muttered as she looked down at herself. This was extreme even for her own flamboyant dress sense but at least she wasn't chafing from tight clothing either.
"Hello?" Gabrielle tried to attract the attention of one of her fellow detainees without success. "Can you help me? I'm not supposed to be here." She moved from one to another until finally one glanced at her. "How do I get out of here?"
"You don't," the tormented soul replied. He swatted away the circling black birds that were pecking at him. "This is your fate." His voice cried out as the birds attacked once more and he fell to his knees defeated. His hands grabbed his face and he bowed to the dirt. "Pleeaasssee no more!" But he knew his plea would go unanswered, as it had countless times before.
"But I'm not dead." Gabrielle interrupted the dead man's prayers. "I need to find Lucifer."
"No one needs to find Lucifer. He will just increase your suffering."
"It's his fault I'm here in the first place!" Gabrielle argued.
"We all curse him when we first arrive. Of course it's his fault." He went back to swatting away the birds with little effect, his broken skin serving as sustenance to the starving carrion eaters. "Follow the signs," he said before he ran off, the birds following in his wake.
"The signs," Gabrielle muttered. "Great?"
* * *
"You're leaving me no choice, Lucifer."
"Exactly, Xena. You're in my domain now." He chuckled evilly as Xena leaned back on his throne.
"However, I make a demand of my own. Gabrielle stays with me," she said calmly
"Here? That wasn't part of the deal." Lucifer's skin darkened as his bristled.
"No, but I don't trust you to keep your part of the bargain. I'll only know she's safe if she's with me." Xena stared him right in the eye.
"What's the trick?" he asked.
"There is no trick," Xena answered. "I just want to make sure that you don't double cross me. Take it or leave it."
"And what makes you think that you can bargain with me at all? After all, you're in hell now and I may just decide not to let you go." Lucifer tried to gain control.
"Do you think you can stop me from leaving this place?" Xena's eyebrow rose as a smile crossed her lips.
"Not without Gabrielle you won't," he promised.
"Is that a threat?" Xena's demeanor hardened.
Lucifer stroked his chin as he considered his options. "All right." He waved his hand and Gabrielle appeared before them.
"What the??" Gabrielle swiveled around to face Xena. "Xena! Am I ever glad to see you. What kept you?"
"I had a few details to sort out." Xena said, smiling at her companion. Suddenly her gaze took in what Gabrielle wasn't wearing. She let out a low whistle as she looked the bard up and down. The darkness within her roiled at the sight of a near-naked woman and she allowed her darker sins free reign to fill her.
Lucifer stood helplessly by as Xena indulged her dark side. He watched as she stood and stalked her prey, a low growl emanating from deep within her chest.
Xena was oblivious to everything else. Gabrielle was a goddess, standing there in a few pieces of cloth that barely covered anything. Sweat made the bard's body glisten and accentuated every taut muscle and sinew she owned. The dark fantasies in her head became more desperate, filled with frantic lust and uninhibited sex. Just as she reached for her Gabrielle disappeared. Xena howled in frustration as her lust remained unfed, and she turned another sin, her wrath, on her tormentor.
"Bring her back or I'll tear this place apart." Xena's voice was low and feral and Lucifer could see that she would carry out the threat if he denied her.
* * *
Gabrielle was disorientated. One second she was facing an enamored Xena and the next she was back in the labyrinth that was hell. If Lucifer was trying to confuse her then he was succeeding.
"It's all right, Gabrielle."
She knew that voice better than her own. Xena stood there leaning against the rock wall, her head tilted to one side and that half-smile she found so endearing crossing Xena's full lips. The warrior seemed comfortable in her surroundings as she approached Gabrielle, unconcerned about their predicament.
"What is going on?" Gabrielle asked. "How are we going to get out of this?"
"Does it matter right now?" Xena asked in a low voice.
"Of course it matters!" But Gabrielle could see that while Xena looked her straight in the eye her mind was elsewhere. In fact, her mind was about two feet down from where her eyes were looking. "Oh."
Xena grabbed the clothing Gabrielle had in her hands and dropped them to the ground. "Now where were we?" Xena demanded impatiently.
"I don't know," Gabrielle answered in confusion. "You tell me." Before she had a chance to finish speaking Xena was on her, her teeth tugging at the soft skin at the base of her neck. "What's the hurry?"
"None, but you set my blood on fire," Xena whispered. Her teeth took a bite and Gabrielle jumped.
"Hey! Gently!" Gabrielle complained but Xena seemed o ignore her wishes. "Xena!"
"Hmmm?" Xena continued to squeeze, fondle, grab and nip whatever she could reach. Her hands slid down the bard's sweat-slicked body until she found two naked butt cheeks to squeeze. "You should wear this more often," she breathed.
"I'd freeze to death," Gabrielle replied. Despite Xena's rough treatment she couldn't help but respond to her advances.
"A small price to pay." The words tumbled out of Xena's mouth unheeded. She wrestled Gabrielle to the ground and lay over the top of her.
"What are you doing?" If this was what hell did to Xena then maybe the bard was on her own with an escape plan.
"Stop whining and enjoy."
That was the first indication to Gabrielle that something wasn't right. The warrior pressed her advantage and had Gabrielle naked in the blink of an eye. The sex was rough and demanding, not that it bothered her, but there was a hint of coldness about her partner.
Xena insinuated herself between Gabrielle's legs and it was then that she felt it. "What in Hades is that?"
"The legacy of Mephistopheles," Xena growled and she shifted her hips in one powerful thrust.
"Oh Gods!" Gabrielle cried. "Stop it! You're hurting me!" But Xena didn't hear her, continuing to pound into her mercilessly.
How had hell so totally corrupted her lover? Xena would never ever
do something so vile as what she was doing now. Gabrielle knew that in her heart. Her answer came in Xena's crescendo as she morphed into a demon. A demon she knew only too well. A demon that she had fought in another lifetime. A demon that sacrificed her soul to save Callisto. Now that demon was back and consuming her lover.
"Ahhh?," Xena's movements slowed to a lazily writhing grind and moments later ending in her withdrawal.
"Why?" Gabrielle looked up through a veil of tears.
"Not everything is good, Gabrielle. When will you learn that I belong here? This is who I am." Xena's voice had become harsh and throaty.
"I refuse to believe that!" Gabrielle sat up and winced. "It's him, isn't it? Lucifer has appealed to your guilt and now you're paying."
"Go home, little girl." Xena stood up and spread her wings, stretching them out stiffly. "But wait?" A clawed finger pointed at Gabrielle's rapidly expanding belly.
"Oh no! Not again!" Memories of Britannia flooded back and the terror of the sudden birth of Hope filled her mind. The pain exploded through her and she was barely cognizant of the creature tearing through her stomach wall to seek the outside world. The tiny thing sat crouched in the torn opening, testing out its untried wings.
"Come here, my poor baby," Xena cooed as she held out her arm for the child to fly to her.
But there was no relief for Gabrielle, left for dead on the ground as her life blood slowly seeped from the traumatic birth. "Oh Gooddddssssss?," she moaned.
* * *
Gabrielle woke up in a sweat, which was no mean feat as she was already sweaty. Her hands immediately clutched her stomach and she breathed a sigh of relief to find bare skin. She sat up and rested her arms on her knees, while her head hung low and her heart pounded heavily in her chest. It was her worst nightmare. Was this her torment to endure for the rest of eternity in hell?
"It's all right, Gabrielle."
The sound of Xena's voice sent a shiver down her spine and she reacted. While the demon Xena had disappeared, hell had not. When the warrior moved towards her, Gabrielle jumped up and backed away. "It's fine, Xena." She held up one hand to ward off the warrior as she tried to put some space between them.
"What's wrong?" Xena stepped closer.
"Stay where you are!" Gabrielle said shakily.
"I don't know what he's up to but I've managed to convince him to let you stay with me," Xena whispered.
"I don't think I can do this right now." Gabrielle felt unsteady on her feet.
"You want to stay here? Just what is going on?" Xena asked.
"Can we talk about this later?" the bard pleaded.
"No, we talk about this now!" Xena demanded. "What is going on, Gabrielle?" Xena kept her distance as Gabrielle nervously prowled around.
"I had a dream," she started.
"And you were in it." Gabrielle could feel the tension building in her chest.
"Not for the better by your reaction," Xena replied guardedly.
"Yeah. We were? you know? and? and? something happened? and you turned into a demon. The demon that you became after we died on the cross. You remember?"
"Yeah, I remember," Xena said. "What happened?"
"I? I? can't? say." Gabrielle couldn't look her in the eye.
"You know that wasn't me. I would never do anything to hurt you. You know that? right?" Xena's voice quivered.
"But it was so real. I? I had a demon child? your
demon child," Gabrielle said nervously.
"And that brought back Hope, didn't it?"
"Yeah, it did. I can't face it again. I just can't." Gabrielle valiantly tried to hold back the tears.
"I'm going to get you out of here. Now." Xena said quietly.
"But what about Lucifer?" Gabrielle finally focused her attention on her lover.
"To hell with Lucifer!" Xena barked. "You are the most important person in my life and I will not lose you because he's playing mind games! I want you to go to Lila's and I'll meet up with you there when it's all over."
"But that means leaving you here? alone." Gabrielle feared the last word more than Xena did.
"But you'll be here in my heart." Xena's hand rested on her breastplate above her heart.
"Is that enough?" Gabrielle looked deep into Xena's eyes to find the truth.
"It will have to be," she barely whispered. "Lucifer!" Xena cried out. "You get your deal!" Xena had barely spoken the words when they were transported to the throne of Lucifer.
"It was only a matter of time," he rasped smugly as he lounged on the huge stone chair.
"I will stay with you for as long as Gabrielle walks on the earth. So it's to your benefit to make sure that nothing happens to her. You got me?" Xena said forcefully. "She is to remain untouched by your or your minions in any way, shape or form."
"Agreed," Lucifer said quickly before Xena could change her mind. He raised his hand but Xena interceded.
"Give me a moment."
He nodded and drew his attention elsewhere.
"I can't do this to you, Xena." Gabrielle's eyes filled with tears but she refused to let them fall.
"Look after Argo for me, will you? She'll fret being left alone." Xena's hand came up and cupped Gabrielle's face.
"Xena? please! I've changed my mind. I want to stay with you." Gabrielle whispered urgently.
"It's too late, Gabrielle. I will not let you suffer because of me. Goodbye."
"No! Not goodbye-" Gabrielle was frantic.
"Then see you later. Until then, my love," Xena spoke, closing her eyes as she touched her lips to the bard's. She felt the loss of contact and opened her eyes. Gabrielle was gone and she was alone in hell.
* * *
The cool night air hit Gabrielle's skin, but it was nothing to the coldness in her heart. The unthinkable had happened. Xena said goodbye. Numbly she dressed, putting on the clothes she had discarded so readily in the heat. But the slight warmth of her scant clothing did little to warm her soul.
She walked over to the glowing pit and looked in, barely acknowledging the evil aura surrounding it. The one person who owned her body and soul was out of reach and she was lost. The green glow sputtered and pulsed as she stood there, not even responding to her presence. Hell had dismissed her.
Gabrielle wandered out of town, ambling along with little thought of the dangers of the road or the darkness surrounding her.
The sky slowly lightened as she approached the meadow, a sliver of gold touching the earth as Apollo delivered the sun for a new day. The cold slowly gave way to warmer air but it took considerably longer for Gabrielle's bones to thaw.
"Hey there boy!" Gabrielle called to her horse.
"Ho, Argo!" The golden mare raised her head and looked at the approaching bard. Argo bobbed her head and stomped the ground. "Yeah, Xena's not here." When Gabrielle arrived the mare butted her. "I can't do anything about it, girl." Argo took a step forward and nudged Gabrielle again, as if pushing the bard back toward Amphipolis.
"Steady," Gabrielle murmured, her hands finding the noses of the two horses. She rubbed her hand up and down the bridge of the noses and scratched them underneath their jaws. As she scratched them, Gabrielle looked around then up into the tree. The saddlebags were still there and there didn't seem to be anything disturbed around the horses.
"She sent me away, Argo." Gabrielle buried her head in Argo's neck as a lone tear trickled down her cheek. "She's in hell alone." Even as Gabrielle said it she knew it was a death knell to Xena's redemption. "Alone."
* * *
Xena stood silently as her mind absorbed what had just happened. "Now that's done, what do you want?"
"You will become my wife and remain here with me for eternity.," Lucifer announced.
"Let's see how becoming your wife goes before we commit to a forever after," Xena said thoughtfully. "If it doesn't work out then at least we don't have to argue over the eternity part."
"Need I remind you that Gabrielle is still within my reach?" Lucifer pointed out.
"And need I remind you that you gave your oath to leave her alone for me to stay here?" Xena countered. She sauntered over to his throne and sat down, slinging one long leg over an armrest. "Do I get to check this place out?"
"If you want to but it's all the same." It was obvious to Xena that Lucifer didn't want to bother.
"The same as this?" Xena looked around the boulder-littered cavern. "No wonder they call it hell." Xena sat there waiting for him to make a move but he refused to budge. She stood up and walked toward a door in the rock wall. "I'll be back soon."
"Where are you going?"
"To find a bush, nosey!" Xena prodded. "Don't worry, I'll be back soon."
"Or else?" Lucifer left the threat hanging.
"Are you going to remind me of this for the rest of eternity?" she complained.
"If I have to," Lucifer replied.
"This is not a good way to start a marriage," Xena muttered as she passed through the door and disappeared from his sight.
"Hear me, residents of hell!" Xena spoke loudly and clearly. "Hear my decree! I am Xena of Amphipolis and successor to Mephistopheles. From this day forward the gates of hell will open from sunset to midnight for one night a year. In a year from this very day, the dead may roam the earth for one evening. But heed this warning. There will be no killing, maiming or damage of any kind. Any one of you who breaks this vow will close the gates of hell permanently for everyone. It is to be a time of joyous release not of petty revenge."
Xena thought she could hear cheering but, then again, it could have been wishful thinking. "In exchange for this gift the gates of hell will close. There will be no escape for anyone, including Lucifer. The crack in the earth above will heal itself and you all will be bound to this domain."
Xena glanced at the immobile Lucifer. "Lucifer, or any of his minions, is not allowed to interfere with this decree in any way, shape or form. Do you hear me Lucifer?" She saw his eyes blink but that did nothing to answer her question. "You cannot influence others to do your dirty work and you cannot threaten, coerce or promise any of your prisoners to do your bidding."
"I, Xena of Amphipolis and Queen of the Underworld, decree that this holiday be called 'The Legacy of Mephistopheles.'" Xena smiled. Gabrielle would be proud of her, maybe not about letting the dead roam the earth part but certainly for using the name.
"Be warned one and all that this decree is irrevocable." Xena glared at Lucifer to make sure he understood. When his eyes closed slowly and then re-opened Xena let him free with a swipe of her hand.
"How? how did you do that?" Lucifer croaked as he bent over to catch his breath.
"I realized that I had been in charge of this place at one time, even though it was short lived, so I should have had the same influence as you." She smiled at her own cunning.
"So this was your plan all along," Lucifer said rhetorically. "But you forget one thing. I have your oath to stay here with me." He smiled.
"Do you really want me here for the rest of eternity?" Xena asked.
"If it means that you suffer, then yes," he growled.
"But her oath is not valid."
Xena turned at the sound of the voice who spoke. "Gabrielle!" Somehow she was not surprised.
"How did you get here?" Lucifer's face turned more hideous as he scowled.
"You really need to put in stairs from Amphipolis," Gabrielle said absently. She had already dismissed him because was too busy looking at Xena. "You look really great," she said relieved.
"You too," Xena grinned. "What took you so long?"
"You knew?" Lucifer looked from Xena to Gabrielle.
"No, but I know human nature and, in particular, Gabrielle's nature," Xena remarked.
"There's nothing you can say that will break Xena's oath to me," Lucifer said confidently.
"Are you so sure?" Gabrielle countered.
"Of course," he replied.
"Xena, do you remember the oath you made to me when the Persian army attacked?"
"You were dying from a poisoned arrow," Xena whispered. "I remember." Xena's gaze met Gabrielle's. "I said 'Even in death I will never leave you.'" Xena's voice faltered as she said the words, their meaning filling her with renewed commitment. "That has never changed, Gabrielle."
"I know," the bard murmured. "Forgive me for doubting you."
"There's nothing to forgive," Xena answered.
"Oh, please! Stop all this lovey-dovey talk!" Lucifer strode to his throne and sat down. "Now get out of my sight!"
Xena and Gabrielle stood there side by side waiting for Lucifer to send them on their way, but nothing happened. "Well?" Xena inquired.
"Get yourselves out of here!" Lucifer warned. "But you better hurry before the gates close."
"Oh Hades!" Xena waved her hand in one final act as Queen of the Underworld. They had barely reached solid ground when the earth began to rumble and the pit to hell slowly closed. The evil aura that had surrounded the piece of ground slowly faded away, leaving Amphipolis as it had been before hell came to town.
"What did you do?" Gabrielle asked as she set about straightening her clothes.
"I made a deal. In exchange for freedom for one night a year, hell would remain closed for the rest of the year." Xena watched amusingly as her partner tried to pull her clothes over what was glaringly on show.
"That doesn't seem much of a deal to me." Gabrielle uttered. "Besides, what's to stop Lucifer changing the rules once were gone?"
"I made a decree. Lucifer can't touch it," Xena responded.
"A decree? Who put you in charge?" Gabrielle challenged.
"As Mephistopheles' successor I could," Xena explained as they walked out of town and back toward the meadow. "I called it 'The Legacy of Mephistopheles'. Aren't you proud of me?" she said impishly.
"You stole that from me!" Gabrielle declared.
"And now you'll be remembered in hell!" Xena announced.
"Oh great! What a legacy!"
Xena slung her arm over the bard and pulled her close as they walked along the dusty road back to Argo and freedom.