The world was born out of darkness.
It was destined to end the same way.
Only this time it was the darkness present in every human soul. It was insurmountable, undeniable, and in the end it swept mercilessly across the globe. The human race was turned upon itself, allowing hatred and violence to run rampant. Those who would fight against it, were the first to be destroyed.
Even the gods were not immune.
Mount Olympus was engulfed in never-ending flames, and every temple on Earth was reduced to rubble. The immortals fought valiantly, day after day, month after month, but it wasn't enough. Those who were not caught and killed outright, were forced into hiding.
A cloaked figure danced around the smoldering remains of a temple, and slipped into the half-hidden opening of a mountain cave. It was long forgotten by most, it should have been safe, but the traveler was wary. When a shadow across the wall seemed to move the figure froze, waiting to see whether this would prove to be a haven or a trap. After a few moments though, nothing happened.
Drawing the cloak closer, the lithe figure took a chance and entered the cavern.
Some time later, when the cloaked figure was deep underground and well away from prying eyes, the seething aura of fear and despair about the traveler seemed to lessen slightly. With a gentle sigh, pale hands reached up and swept the hood from the woman's wearied face. She had dark rings around her eyes, and once silky auburn hair hung limp and dry upon her shoulders.
"I never thought it would end like this," she whispered.
"How did you think it would end?"
The woman leaped to her feet and spun around, her eyes widening in shock. Someone was watching her from the shadows across the cavern.
She put a hand to her forehead. "By the Styx, you scared me!"
"Let me see if I've got this straight." He approached her slowly. "As you said, our world is coming to an end, and yet..." Tall and muscular, the man's usually slick black hair was unkempt, and filthy. His black leathers were nearly worn through, and he was woefully unarmed. "...you are afraid of me?"
Her frown deepened. "What's with you, Ares? Everything we knew, everything we spent centuries creating is coming down around our ears, and still you make jokes?!"
The once proud god of war crossed his arms. "Can you think of a better excuse, Artemis? Chances are we are not going to survive much longer anyway, so what's the point?"
The wise moon goddess, the agile huntress, had no answer to give. Finally, she turned, sat back down on the rock and put her head in her hands.
"Zeus! How could this happen? How did everything go so wrong?"
After a moment Ares sat down Artemis, and lay a surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder. "I don't know. It's not supposed to be this way. He wasn't supposed to win!"
"But he did!" Artemis shrugged her brother's hand away. "It's all because of you, Ares!"
His eyes widened. "What are you talking about?"
"By Olympus, you helped him! You practically shoved the weapon he needed right into his hands!"
"NO!" Ares hands clenched so tightly his knuckles turned white. "No." Once he would have been able to generate a lightning bolt from the force of such rage, but no more. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the fury in his eyes faded, to be replaced by a deep sorrow and regret. "Artemis, you must know, I never intended for anything like this to happen." He lowered his hands. "She was supposed to be mine, to come work for me again. How could I have known she would be so easily corruptible to...Dahak?"
That last, he said in a fearful whisper.
It all started in Britannia.
Dahak had a plan to destroy the world as it was and to remake it in his own image. It was a good plan too, one that might well have worked if not for the intervention of that warrior woman from Greece. She had disrupted all of his efforts, defeated his Deliverer and stolen his sacrifice.
But the dark god would not be denied. Innocence had been lost that day, and he was able to use that to plant the seed of destruction for mankind.
A child was born to the Innocent soon thereafter.
The child of darkness.
Dahak's second plan was even more devious than the first.
With the Innocent and her protector out of Britannia, there was nothing and no one to stop the dark god from reclaiming his offspring. His minions, the Banshees, raised the child until she was old enough for her powers to start maturing. When she was ready, he sent her out into the world to begin his work.
The child's first act was to ally herself with one of the Greek immortals. A tenuous relationship at best, but the newborn goddess was dark-hearted enough to touch the evil in his daughter. Besides, she was an adversary of the intractable warrior woman who had thwarted him in Britannia, and that made her the perfect pawn. Together his offspring and her ally mercilessly tormented the warrior woman, pushing her past her breaking point, and in the end by killing her child they ultimately took her from the only person who might possibly have been able to help redeem the growing darkness in her soul.
His own offspring was sacrificed for the cause, but that wasn't important. She had served her purpose, and he was free to move on to the next step in his plan.
As Dahak expected, it wasn't long before the Greek immortals took notice of what was happening between the two mortals. One Olympian in particular fulfilled his role even better than the dark one intended, he approached the warrior woman at just the right time, and swept her back into his fold. He forced her to acknowledge the evil within herself, and then proved her loyalty by sending the warrior woman to kill the Innocent. She lay blame for the death of her son on the Innocent, and the fire of revenge in her heart burned out of control as she rode into the village where the Innocent was hiding.
No one of any consequence stood in her way. She dispatched the other warrior women with relative ease and the Innocent's would-be male protector was not even a consideration. Try as she might, the Innocent could not escape her former companion's wrath, and in the end the warrior woman succeeded. Hoisting the Innocent high over her head, she gave a last, throaty cry of "Vengeance!" and threw her onetime best friend off the cliff. Dark eyed and grinning, she watched as the Innocent's soon-to-be lifeless body plummeted head over heels into the swirling blue and gray nothingness of the waterfall.
With an old purpose surging through her heart and body and mind, the warrior woman returned to those who had dared to hide and protect the Innocent. They fought valiantly, but in the end they all fell, and even one she once called friend was tortured before she too was finally slain. Through it all the warrior woman did not utter a word, she merely laughed, and with each new kill she felt her connection to the Olympian growing stronger and stronger. Each drop of blood darkened another part of her soul.
Dahak knew this. He watched, and waited.
He knew it was just a matter of time. Soon, as the dark god was expecting, the Olympian returned. Praising the warrior woman's return, the Olympian rewarded her with the only gift he had left to give...ambrosia. The food of the gods transformed the warrior woman into a god herself.
Seeing his opportunity, Dahak struck.
His malevolent influence permeated every fiber of the warrior woman's being. At the moment of her ascension he was able to entwine his tendrils of darkness deep into her soul, not that it took much effort on the dark god's part. The once mortal's heart and spirit were already far more corrupted than any he had tasted before, and now she was able to revel in the unbridled freedom of chaos.
The immeasurable power and absolute evil that was Dahak, the dark god.
Turning on the Olympian, her would-be master, the warrior goddess attempted to destroy him. But he was not prepared to be taken so easily, and managed to escape her wrath at the last moment. He returned to Olympus to nurse his wounds, and to warn the others of her coming.
But the warrior goddess did not stop there.
With her ambrosial-spawned powers amplified by Dahak's might, she was virtually unbeatable. But thinking it and knowing it were two completely different things, and so she decided to test herself, against the one foe she had never previously been able to conquer.
Face to face with the demigod whose name and legend were truly larger than life, the warrior goddess showed neither hesitation, or fear. She attacked suddenly, mercilessly, unleashing all of her awesome power against him at once. The son of Zeus was off-guard and completely unprepared for an onslaught coming from someone he had once considered more than a friend. He fought bravely--and much longer than she was truly expecting--but in the end, even all his vaunted strength was not enough to save his life.
It didn't take long for word of this accomplishment to get around. Warrior's from all across the land, and many others, came to worship their new warrior goddess. Or else to fight for her. The largest army ever seen gathered in the boundaries of the city where she had first been born, as a mortal.
She had returned there for reasons known only to her.
To honor their warrior goddess the would-be legion razed the area; slaughtering every man, woman and child, and then rebuilt the city in her image. She looked down upon this offering, and was pleased. She accepted them into her fold that day, and presented them with the rest of the world as a reward the next. Chaos and bloodshed reigned supreme, as those who would not follow her...died.
On Mount Olympus, Zeus called an unprecedented council of the gods to discuss this shift in the balance of power on Earth. The King of the Greek Gods was also furious over the death of his beloved son, and he sought retribution for the one who had killed him. But, they advised against an all-out attack on the warrior goddess or her city-fortress, at least for the time being, as she wasn't acting entirely on her own. They all knew of Dahak, in fact many of them had dreaded the possibility of his arrival for quite some time, and were leery of the dark one's ever-expanding sphere of influence.
The warrior goddess was immediately on-edge when she realized the forces of Olympus were starting to align against her. Zeus and his kin had been in power for centuries, longer even than the Titans before them, and she knew without question that the immortals would not go down without a struggle. She also knew that she would never be able to conquer them on her own and, of course, the mortal warrior's under her command were useless against the power of the gods. To fight the gods she would need help from a god, and there was only one such entity in existence she might be able to trust.
Knowing time did not wait, even for an immortal, she released the fire goddess from the very stone prison she herself had buried her in not so long ago. They confronted one another, standing face to face, and glowing eye to glowing eye. As mortals they had been arch-enemies, until the loss of their loved ones and the onset of their immortality connected the two of them in a way neither had ever thought possible. Now the greatest of enemies had became the strongest of allies, and linked by destiny they set out to ruin the world in order to prepare it for the inevitable arrival of their dark lord.
By the time the Olympians had finally organized themselves enough to strike against the warrior goddess and her ally, it was far too late. They had bathed in the blood of a thousand, thousand warrior's and innocents alike, and those sacrifices enabled Dahak to finally, fully, enter the world. He provided his loyal followers with power, beyond anything the ambrosia would have ever achieved alone, and they set out to crush Mount Olympus and all the so-called Gods who dwelled there.
They made a specific effort to hunt down and kill Aphrodite, Cupid, the Muses and Athena first. Not because they offered any particular resistance to Dahak or the goddesses, but rather because love and wisdom were the only things the dark god truly feared. Such good emotion operated in direct opposition to the hatred he thrived on, and posed a significant threat to his new world order.
In fact, it was for that very threat he had taken notice of the warrior woman and the Innocent in the first place; long before they came to be part of his plans. Together, they had shared more love and wisdom than he'd felt in any mortals before or since, and that had greatly troubled the dark god.
Zeus and the rest of his kin, on the other hand, did not.
The King of the Gods demonstrated how he had earned that title, by unleashing every iota of awesome power at his disposal against the invaders. It wasn't enough.
Hephaestus the smith-god and Proteus, the shape-shifter, combined their unique talents and abilities to create a weapon they thought would be unstoppable. It wasn't.
Hades, lord of the underworld, Poseidon, god of the seas and Morpheus, god of dreams, believed themselves invincible in their own realms. They were all wrong.
Queen of the Gods, Hera, and Bacchus, god of wine, banded together. They approached the dark god with an offer of partnership, asking to join him in his quest against the other Olympians. Dahak led them to believe they had succeeded, only tear them both to shreds in the end.
Ares had managed to avoid most of the conflict. As soon as he realized Dahak was attacking, he left his home on Mount Olympus--knowing he was probably seeing it and his family for the last time--and fled to Earth. Long ago, the god of war had discovered certain hiding places, sanctuaries, once utilized by a group of Titans during their war with Zeus and the other gods. The caves successfully protected the giants, for as long as they stayed inside at least, and he was betting they would protect him from Dahak as well.
Artemis sighed. "Congratulations, Ares. You were right about the warrior princess. She really was destined to rule the world. Just not by your side."
"Shut up, Art!" Ares ran his fingers through his hair. "You always were too smart for you own good. So, how did you find me, anyway?"
"I didn't. I had no idea you, or anyone else, were still alive." Artemis stood up and crossed her arms. She took a deep breath. "Zeus and most of the others, they went down fighting. I wanted to stay but I was hurt, and dad ordered me to go. He said there was no reason all of us had to die for a lost cause, and that as long as even one of us survived there was always a chance." Tears rolled down her cheeks. "I went to the mortal world, and it's a good thing too. I barely made it before my powers gave out."
Ares shook his head. "And to think, all of this happened because I pushed Xena into killing her little friend. If I'd had even an inkling that Dahak was going to use me like that, I never would have had her throw Gabrielle off the Illusian Falls in the first place."
"What?" Artemis spun to face her brother. "What did you say? The Falls?"
"Yeah. It seemed perfect, being so close to that Amazon camp and all." Ares frowned. "What's the problem? I thought you knew..."
"...about the Falls location? Of course I..."
Ares sighed. "I meant the way Xena killed Gabrielle. She was your precious Amazon Queen after all, I thought for sure someone would have told you." Artemis shook her head. "Not that it really matters now, but what's the big deal? Dead is dead, right?"
"Not necessarily." She licked her lips. "Have you forgotten about the gateway?"
Ares frowned. "No. But Hades, the Muses, everyone who was ever involved in Illusia is long dead. For all we know, the place doesn't even exist anymore."
"But it might." Artemis gripped her brother's shoulder. "We know the underworld exists, without Hades there to watch over it. The same may also be true of Illusia."
He shrugged. "So? Art, if you're thinking about hiding there, forget it. Sooner or later, Xena, Callisto or Dahak will be able to find us. Even in the land of Illusia."
Artemis shook her head. "You're missing my point, Ares. We know that going over the Falls can take a mortal into Illusia under the right circumstances. She may still be alive, more or less."
Artemis sighed. "Who do you think? Gabrielle."
Ares was stunned.
In fact, he was almost speechless.
"Are you out of your mind?! Artemis, we are talking about the end of the world here! Our way of life, our very existence...and you're worried about some mortal?"
"Not just any mortal Ares!" Artemis got right in her brother's face. She didn't back down an inch; her jaw was just as clenched as his. "See, that's your problem. You don't give them enough credit. You always looked at the human race as toys, or tools, to be bent and twisted at your whim. But I know the truth. Mortals, and I'm talking about true mortals, not what we've become in disgrace, have more strength of will, more integrity and heart, and more determination than you or I would ever have seen in a thousand lifetimes." She sighed. "Gabrielle was like that, as much or more than anyone else I have seen. What's more, she helped Xena to find it within herself. She was Xena's source, her focus, her strength and support...and when you had the warrior try to kill her, you killed a part of her as well. And doomed the rest of the world in the process." She looked up with tired but determined eyes. "So if anyone can get through to Xena now, it's Gabrielle."
Ares shook his head. "I was right. You are out of your mind. Artemis, that Xena doesn't exist any more! Don't you get it? Xena, the Warrior Princess, the woman who shared a part of her soul with that pathetic little bard, is dead and buried. Even if we did somehow manage to find Gabrielle and bring her back up here, this Xena would kill her without a second thought! She did it before, remember?!"
Artemis roughly poked her brother in the chest and glared at him. "You have a better idea?!"
"I..." Ares' face fell. She was right.
Some time later, Ares stood on the cliff overlooking the Illusian Falls and peered down into the dark, churning waters below; his furrowed brow and tight jaw indicating he didn't like what he was seeing either. Not far away, Artemis was looking around, to make sure they hadn't been followed.
To get from the Titan's bunker to the Falls they had crossed into a disputed territory between two particularly blood-thirsty, warring human factions. Even without their powers, however, both were formidable warrior's, and in the end they emerged without so much as a scratch on them. Still, they were tired, thirsty and hungry--all the burdens of being 'mere mortals'.
"By the Styx. Are you sure about this?!"
Satisfied now that they were not being followed, Artemis joined her brother. "About what?"
"That." Ares crossed his arms and nodded toward the waterfall. "If we do this and the gateway isn't there, we are both dead. You know that, don't you?"
Artemis nodded. "But we're just as dead up here. You said yourself, they'll find us sooner or later. At least we stand a chance of making something good come out of this."
"I still think you're nuts." Ares took her hand, and squeezed it gently. "Still, truth be told you were always my favorite little sister. We had some great times together, didn't we?"
Artemis nodded. "Oh yeah. Boar hunting in Macedonia, that little griffin race around Olympus..." She seemed wistful for a moment. "The thing I'll miss the most about you Ares? Today, or whenever our time comes, is how you always challenged me. You stood up to me, for me, and with me, when no one else would. You even helped me turn the Amazons into an elite fighting force..."
"Hey now, that was an accident. Warrior's are supposed to be my department, remember?" Ares smiled. "But, you're welcome anyway."
Pleased, and a little surprised, Artemis was about to respond, but something stopped her--a strange whistling sound, which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. They glanced at each other, both of them knew exactly what it was, and had hoped never to hear it again.
"Oh no," Ares whispered. "Not now."
A discus of silver and golden energy sliced through the air, missing the two former gods by little mere inches, and forcing them both to leap out of the way. As they scrambled back to their feet they saw the discus arc back the way it had come, and then abruptly start hovering in place. Tendrils of lightning-like energy erupted from it, and began to quickly coalesce into a recognizable shape. At the same time, a nearby stone seemed to burst into flames, which shot up and formed into a tall, twisting pillar of fire.
Two unfortunately familiar figures appeared, each in their own unique style.
Lean and mean, the blond-tressed fire goddess Callisto threw back her head and let out a piercing scream that sent into a stab of fear deep into their hearts.
Meanwhile, the raven-haired warrior goddess Xena gestured toward the energy-disc; which suddenly lost it's mystical aura and reverted back to her chakram.
"Hello Ares, Artemis..." Xena purred. "Long time, no see."
Callisto's eyes flashed. "Not that we'll be seeing either of you for much longer."
Artemis glanced back, over her shoulder, and then sighed. "No. You're not going to get me!"
"Oh really?" Xena arched an eyebrow, while Callisto just laughed. "And why not?"
"Because..." Artemis flung herself off the cliff behind her. "I won't let you!"
Ares followed his sister's perfect dive with sad eyes, until she was finally swallowed up by the churning blue- green waters below, and only then did he turn back to the wild-eyed goddesses. They were both staring at him, glaring actually, in disbelief.
Xena finally chuckled. "She took the easy way out. What about you, Ares?"
"Yeah," said Callisto. "Are you a coward too?!"
Ares shook his head. "No. I was just blind. Back when our roles were reversed, Xena, I actually thought that I could control you. Manipulate you. But even as a mortal, you were more like a force of nature, and now?" After a moment, he shook his head. "You bent the world to your will Xena, just like I always said you would one day, and you know what? You're welcome to it!" He flung himself off the cliff, and was laughing all the way until the power of the Falls had seemingly claimed him as well.
Xena and Callisto were both surprised, and admittedly a little disappointed. They had been hoping for a fight, only now the Olympians had deprived them of one last victory.
Somewhere, the darkness that was Dahak...trembled.
Artemis opened her eyes slowly, almost hesitantly.
It took a few moments more for it to truly sink in that she had, in fact, opened her eyes. She sat up, gasping as she came to realize this could only mean one thing.
She shook her head and laughed.
She leaped to her feet which--upon further study--she was surprised to see had somehow been fitted with the tight, knee-high golden boots she had worn through so long ago. In fact, looking down at herself, she saw that the tattered rags she had been wearing for weeks were gone as well, replaced by her slick, golden leather armor, and gauntlets. She was still unarmed, but that didn't matter much to her; for her skin and face were clean for the first time in recent memory, and the same was true of her long auburn hair as well.
"By the Styx!"
Artemis was pleasantly stunned and surprised. She hadn't been expecting this, she didn't really understand it, but some small part of her said she didn't have to either--so she just went along with it. Taking a deep breath of the cool, clean air, she looked around.
She was standing near a small creek which bubbled slightly, in the middle of what appeared to be a virtual sea of colors. Lush green grasses which spanned as far as the eye could see, a wide variety of plants sporting what seemed to be an endless variety of flowers in every imaginable size and shape, and the sky was a brighter, more intense blue than she could ever remember seeing, even from Olympus.
Thinking of her long lost home, made Artemis suddenly realize that her brother was nowhere in sight, and the mere idea of anything happening to him was absolutely terrifying.
"Ares? Can you hear me?"
No response. She fought back the urge to cry. He couldn't be gone, he couldn't. He was the only thing she had left in this or any other world.
"Ares! Answer me, please!" A firm but gentle hand touched her shoulder, causing Artemis to nearly jump out of her skin. She turned around, and gasped.
Ares stood there, arms crossed and stone-faced. His black leathers were once again clean and crisp, while his hair and beard appeared to have been neatly trimmed.
"What would you like me to say?"
Artemis cried out, and unexpectedly--to Ares at least--leaped into her brother's arms. He returned the embrace after a few moments, rather awkwardly.
"Thank the Fates you're still alive! I was so afraid I'd lost you, big brother!"
Ares shook his head. "Art you should know by now...I don't die easy. I promise, it'll take more than a little dip to finish me off." He looked around. "This is Illusia, huh? Kind of a dreary place." He smiled wryly. "So, tell me, is it always this quiet around here?"
"Search me, I've never been. But as I recall, Aphrodite once called it a major league party."
"Guess the party's over." Ares shrugged his shoulders. "So, what's the plan?"
"It's simple Ares. Since you and I survived the Falls, there is a very good chance Gabrielle did too. We're here to try and find her, remember?"
He nodded. "Yeah, I remember. I just don't get why we're wasting so much time and effort, for one mere mortal who might not even be alive any more."
"Hey!" Artemis poked her brother in the chest once again. "Gabrielle may be a lot of things, but she's no mere mortal! She's smart, beautiful, a great warrior and an even better bard. In fact Ares, I would venture to say she's the epitome of the Amazon Nation; honor, courage, discipline." A wistful smile came and went. "Gabrielle's the key here, Ares. I can feel it in my heart."
"I'll take your word for that, Art." Ares took a deep breath. "One question. How are we supposed to find her anyway? This appears to be a pretty big place. So unless you just happen to have a map in that outfit of yours, I'd say we're out of luck."
"Not necessarily." Artemis looked around. "I've never actually been here before, but I once heard from one of the Muses that Illusia is made out of hopes and dreams and thoughts. Generally, whenever a mortal is tested or helped here, it's subconsciously altered to fit their understanding."
"What's your point?"
Artemis sighed. "Think about it for a minute Ares, and I mean that literally. If we concentrate hard enough, on finding Gabrielle, then maybe--just maybe--Illusia itself will lead us to her." It sounded ridiculous, and she knew it. From the look on his face, she knew Ares thought so too. "Please?"
Finally, Ares nodded. "Oh, all right. It's not like we have anything better to do anyway."
Arm in arm brother and sister walked away, neither of them noticing how the creek behind them started to boil and churn as if it was on fire.
They had been walking for just a few minutes, with Ares complaining about one thing or another all the while, when Artemis suddenly stopped and held her hand up, demanding silence. She cocked her head to one side, as if she was listening to something, while Ares frowned.
"What?" He looked around, but saw nothing. "What's wrong?"
"I'm not sure. For a second there, I thought I heard..." Artemis raised her head. "Yes, there it is again. It's very faint, and I wasn't certain at first, but now I know it's definitely..." She glanced at Ares, and saw the incredulous look on his face. "You don't hear that?"
Artemis sighed. "The music. Someone is singing. You really can't hear it?"
"I think you're losing it Art. Not only don't I hear anyone singing, but I'm beginning to think you and I are the only ones here anyway."
"Damn it Ares! If you'd just stop jabbering and listen for two seconds..." Artemis paused. "Wait, I can almost make out the words now."
"Okay." Ares crossed his arms. "Tell me."
Artemis was silent for a moment, concentrating, and then she too began to sing.
We'll overcome our damaged past.
And we'll grow stronger side by side.
To stand together through the storm.
We're safe 'cause love will be our guide!
Ares clapped lightly as she stopped to take a breath. "Beautiful. That was a wonderful performance Art. Now then..." His face grew serious again. "...what in Tartarus does it mean?!"
"I don't know," Artemis said quietly. "It's almost like the song's only half there. I can't hear the rest of it, and I need to hear the whole thing to be able to understand it."
Ares shrugged his shoulders. "Well then, what's the point?"
"I'm sure it's beyond you!"
Artemis and Ares turned at the sound of the familiar voice, to find they were being watched. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, she hadn't changed much. One noticeable difference, however, was in her clothes--for instead of the green and brown she usually wore she had on a long white robe. Also, her strawberry-blond hair was flowing loosely upon her shoulders, and held several white flowers.
"Gabrielle," Ares whispered. "Oh joy."
"It's been a long time." The bard approached them, hands on her hips. "Not long enough though. I know you are not dead, Ares, so what brings you down to the underworld?"
"You don't...?" He glanced over his shoulder. "What's going on? She doesn't know?"
Gabrielle frowned. "Know what?"
Artemis stepped out from behind her brother. "Hello, Gabrielle."
"Moon goddess." The bard seemed to be a little flustered. "Sorry, I-I didn't see you there."
"It's all right." Artemis smiled warmly. "We need to talk."
Gabrielle nodded. "Of course. About what?"
"You. Us. This place." Artemis looked around for a few moments, and then turned back to Gabrielle. "Tell me, where do you think you are?"
"Tartarus," Gabrielle replied. "At first I thought this was the Elysian Fields, but then I realized that couldn't be because I've been alone since I got here. If it was the Fields--all my family and friends, everyone I've ever loved who had crossed over would have been here waiting for me." She sighed. "I guess the good I did in life did not outweigh all the evil in the end, and now I'm destined to spend the rest of eternity here. All by myself. So this has to be my punishment in Tartarus, doesn't it?"
"Not necessarily," said Artemis.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked. "I'm dead, so this must be the underworld."
Ares ran his fingers through his hair. "You know, for a bard, you sure are slow. Haven't you figured this thing out by now? You're not dead, and this isn't the underworld!"
"I-I don't understand." Gabrielle turned to Artemis. "What is he talking about?"
Artemis lay a hand on her former Queen's shoulder, and smiled. "It's kind of a long story..."
"One you're not going to have time to finish!" They were all surprised to see Xena with her arms crossed, and Callisto's chin resting on her left shoulder, glaring at them from her place between two trees. "At least, not until you make it to the real underworld."
Gabrielle looked on in stunned silence, she couldn't get her mind to wrap around the impossibility of what she was seeing. "Xena and Callisto?" she whispered. "Working together?"
"That's right, sweet-cheeks. We're two of a kind now." Callisto giggled at the look on Gabrielle's face. "Forget about the good ol' godly hearing?"
Xena shook her head. "Enough of this nonsense. I don't know what you and Ares thought you were up to by coming to Illusia, Artemis, but it won't matter." She raised one hand. "And choosing her as your back-up was a major waste of time!"
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "What's going on?" Her last clear memory of the warrior, was seeing her with a whip in her hands. There were flashes of pain during which time she faded in and out of consciousness, uncertain of where she was or what had happened. Then she fell into darkness, ultimately waking up into what she thought, until recently, was her own personal Tartarus. The bard had finally resigned herself to the eternity of loneliness when Artemis and Ares showed up, bringing with them more questions than answers. She was more confused, now, than ever. "What are you doing?"
Nothing, it seemed. After a moment, Xena's face contorted with anger. "What in Tartarus is going on?! I can't do it! I've lost my powers!"
Gabrielle frowned. "Powers? What powers?"
"Oh, please." Callisto nudged Xena aside and raised her own hand. "Let me take care of this!" Flames erupted from her fingertips, and Gabrielle knew she was in trouble.
The bard staggered back, in a desperate effort to get away, and covered her face.
Gabrielle had fallen, and in that position she was defenseless against Callisto.
"By the Styx!"
She had not said anything to Ares, but ever since Olympus was destroyed she had dreamed off and on about Gabrielle's life and her death. The recurring nightmares left her with the distinct impression that if Gabrielle died, the fate of the entire world would die with her.
"I can't let it end this way! I can't!"
Artemis saw one last, desperate choice under the circumstances. She closed her eyes, and stepped in front of Gabrielle, putting herself between the bard and the oncoming fireball. She felt scared, moreso than she had ever felt in her entire life, but she stood fast--confident that when it was all over, she would once again be with Zeus and the rest of her family.
Ares gritted his teeth as the fireball engulfed Artemis.
He was astonished at how she never moved or cried out. He couldn't even begin to imagine sacrificing himself that way for anyone, especially a mortal, but his sister had done so without hesitation.
Perhaps there was more to the bard than he ever realized.
Gabrielle was wide-eyed.
She saw Artemis leap in front of her, and knew she had saved her, but at what cost?
Could even a god stand up to such a terrible onslaught?
Xena was still staring blankly at her hands.
She had tried to kill Gabrielle, which was no great task--she had done it before and would have been happy to do it again--so why had her powers failed?
"What is going on?!"
Callisto lowered her hand as she ceased the assault, and sighed. "Fool."
Moments later the flames died down, and they were all presented with a shocking sight.
Artemis was alive and--except for a few fading tendrils of steam rising from her armor as the only indication of the monstrous heat she had so recently been exposed to--seemingly none the worse for wear either. After a few moments of stunned silence, she opened her eyes.
They were briefly a dark silver, before turning green once again. She smiled.
"Not bad, Callisto. But not...as good...as THIS!"
Artemis unleashed twin bolts of blue-white lightning, both of which caught the wide-eyed Callisto completely by surprise. They rammed into the fire goddess's chest with incredible force, lifting her off her feet and sending her twisting and turning head over heels, back into the trees.
Xena watched her partner sink into the underbrush, and then reached for her chakram--a look of growing rage on her face. "I don't know how you pulled that off, but soon it won't matter!" She started to throw the discus at Artemis, then at the last moment changed her mind and turned on Ares. "You either!"
Ares raised his hands to ward off the approaching chakram, and he was as surprised as everyone else when a surge of rippling energy lashed out and deflected the weapon. It knocked the discus off-course, and sent it into the surface of a nearby tree.
"What in Tartarus?"
His eyes lit up, and he smiled.
"Oh yeah. I'm starting to feel like my old self again!"
Electricity crackled around Ares' hands as he turned them toward Xena.
"This is for Olympus, warrior princess!"
Gabrielle hadn't thought it possible, but she was becoming more confused with each passing second. Artemis and Ares were acting as if they didn't expect to have powers while Xena appeared to believe she was supposed to possess some, and then there was her teaming up with Callisto. The bard had assumed that the world above, and the people she had left behind, would have changed somewhat since her leaving--but she never dreamed it would be as insane as all this.
"What in Gaea's name is going on around here?"
Artemis had just blasted Callisto, and a little smile had just begun to form on the bard's face--until she realized Ares was turning his own ire on Xena. That sparked something deep within her. She had a vague memory of an incident involving a whip, and a horse, and a lot of pain, but it didn't matter, not when Xena was in trouble. The two of them had been through so much together, way too much for her to give up now, so even though she felt a long buried sense of resentment she really didn't understand toward her friend, she wasn't about to just stand by and let her be killed by the god who had once practically worshipped her.
Gabrielle threw herself against Ares with all the strength in her body. It felt like slamming against a stone wall, and he barely even flinched, but it was enough.
His aim ruined, the god of war's lightning blasts fell short of Xena herself. Instead they struck the earth under her feet, lifting the startled warrior off her feet and sending her flying back into a tree. She hit it face-first and let out a groan as she slid to the ground, unconscious.
"Xena!" the bard screamed.
Ares grabbed the front of Gabrielle's robe, and effortlessly lifted the young woman off her feet. "Why is Zeus' name did you do that?!"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Why do you think? She's my friend!"
"She..." Ares was stunned further. "Unbelievable. What does it take to get through to you, girlie? That is not, I repeat not, your Xena! That Xena died years ago, when she sent you on a one way trip over the waterfall! For Gaea's sake, she wanted to kill you!"
"No." Gabrielle clapped her hands over her ears. "I won't listen to your lies!"
"By the Styx!" Ares drew back his other hand, which crackled with electricity. "I'm going to..."
"Let her go, Ares!" Artemis came to her brother's side. "Please."
"Oh, for the love of..." Ares released Gabrielle and stepped back. "Fine. Take her."
Artemis came forward, and lay a hand on each of the bard's shoulders. "Gabrielle, you have to listen carefully, I may only get the chance to say this once." Nod. "Two years ago--after the deaths of your children, the two of you parted. Remember?" Nod. "Good. You came to the Amazons, and underwent a purification ritual. Xena, she isolated herself high on a mountain, where she thought no one could follow." The moon goddess glanced over at Ares, who had noticeable turned away, and shook her head. "Anyway, someone convinced her that revenge was the best way to go. She came after you." The bard was too involved in the story, the words, to react at that point. "In her vengeance, Xena threw you over a waterfall near the Amazon camp." Gabrielle eyes widened, she vaguely remembered falling, and water. "What she didn't realize, was the falls were also a gateway to a different world. Not the underworld though. This world. Illusia."
Ares felt a prickly sensation on the back of his neck--trouble. "Get on with it!"
"All right." Artemis took a deep breath. "Illusia is not like any world you've ever imagined, Gabrielle. It's made up, controlled if you will, by the thoughts and feelings of those who are...are..." Her words drifted as she finally recognized what had been in front of her face the whole time. "Of course!"
"Of course what?" asked Ares. He looked around, something was going on, he could sense it. He didn't know what, exactly, but he was sure he wasn't going to like it.
"I was right Ares, Gabrielle is the key!" Artemis could tell, by the look on his face, that her brother didn't have a clue what she was talking about. She sighed. "Like I said before, think about it. Gabrielle's been here all alone, for nearly two years now. Illusia is, by design, a very malleable place. But without Hades or the Muses to guide it in a particular direction, the magics here had to use Gabrielle's own imagination as a source. Illusia looks like a simplistic version of the Elysian Fields, because that's where she first thought she was. You and I have powers, simply because Gabrielle had no reason to think of us as anything but gods. The same thing goes for Callisto, I suppose. But Xena, the Xena she knew at least, is mortal. An exceptionally skilled mortal, I'll grant you, but just a plain old powerless mortal nonetheless."
Gabrielle listened to Artemis' explanation with a look of awe and disbelief on her face. It sounded ridiculous of course yet--at the same time, it made a certain amount of sense. It also went a long way toward explaining many strange occurrences she'd experienced since waking up in this world. Things appearing and disappearing out of the blue, faint, oddly familiar voices she couldn't quite make out, as if they were faded echoes of things past, or perhaps yet to come. Until now she had thought it was all in her imagination. Now, it seemed she was right, but for all of the wrong reasons. "I-I don't know if I can deal with this!"
Without warning, a pillar of flame erupted behind Artemis.
She couldn't even turn before Callisto had grabbed a handful of hair, and viciously yanked the other goddess' head back. "Well, you're going to hate this then!" Smiling with her usual wild stare, she brought a dagger up to Artemis' throat and sliced the blade across her exposed flesh. There was no blood, but the other goddess' body shuddered as she collapsed, and a dull glaze passed over her once bright eyes.
Ares was dumbstruck. "A-Art...?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, no, no, this can't be happening!"
"Sure it can," Callisto said with a giggle. She twirled the dagger in her hand. "A little Hind's blood goes a long way." She cocked her head. "Care to be try your luck, Ares?"
The god of war glanced at Gabrielle. "You! Get out of here, now!"
"I said go!" Lightning surged around his hands. "I promised Artemis we'd help you, and that's what I'm going to do!" His eyes flashed. "I'll keep her busy. Now go!"
After a moment, Gabrielle nodded. She turned to run, leaving Ares to go one on one with Callisto, and finding herself somewhat surprised she hoped he survived.
"No you don't!" Callisto raised her free hand, and flames surged around her fingertips.
Ares chose that moment to charged the fire goddess--releasing blasts of lightning from his hands and eyes at once. Callisto twisted and turned in an effort avoid all the attacks, at the same time throwing her dagger and her own huge, smoldering fireball.
Everything collided at once. Ares' lightning struck Callisto, Callisto's dagger struck Ares and Callisto's flames struck Gabrielle.
Illusia's reality rippled, as the first and last thing on the bard's mind...was Xena.
Everything was as it had always been, and would never be again.
An eternity of nothing, condensed into one terrible, agonizing instant.
The end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end.
She didn't want to go back.
It hurt to be there, to think and to act and to do.
But there was no real choice.
One way or the other, her destiny awaited.
Gabrielle slowly, almost hesitantly, opened her eyes.
"I-I made it. I'm alive! But...where...?"
She was in a clearing, surrounded by tress and grass unlike what she had grown accustomed to seeing in that Illusia place Artemis and Ares had told her about. Wherever she was, it looked like a spring, but it wasn't where she expected to be. At least, she didn't think it was. Her head was throbbing so much, and she felt so dizzy that she could barely think straight.
"Gods." She started to bring a hand to her forehead. "What's going..." She froze as she realized she could see right through the flesh and bone and muscles of her hand. "...on?!" Something was very, very wrong, her entire body was semi-transparent, as if she had become, "A ghost!" The bard shook her head. "That's it. I'm dead, for real this time, and now I'm a ghost. Doomed to wander the world for eternity."
Gabrielle was confused, and a little scared. She had never really stopped to imagine what it might be like to be a ghost, a literal shade of her former self, but now she was finding out first-hand. "Why is nothing in my life, or my death, ever simple? Can't I just die like everyone else?"
Deep down the bard knew she had to calm down, regain control of herself, or there was no telling what would happen. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
"I just have to think, for a minute. Spirit or not, I must be here--wherever here is--for a reason. There must be a part of my life I'm supposed to put right. But what? How?"
Gabrielle was rudely shaken out of her reverie by a loud, shrill scream. She spun around, her eyes widening as she saw a group of panicked villagers--women and girls mostly--racing toward her. Her initial thought was they were coming after her, but that was just as quickly abandoned when she saw they were being chased by men in black body armor. These poor villagers were clearly being herded into the clearing, and none of them seemed to even notice the bard standing in their path.
Gabrielle tried to get out of the way but it was too late, they were all coming too fast. But the collision she had feared, never came. Instead, the villagers actually passed through her, one by one, and they never even slowed down either. She opened her eyes, and gasped.
"By the gods!"
It was a curious sensation. Not painful, it just made her feel light-headed, and tingly inside.
"Well, son of a bacchae. I really am a ghost!"
As the armored men passed through her now, waving swords and shouting, Gabrielle noticed something--the identifying markings on their clothing. She recognized them.
"Draco! These men work for Draco!"
But that didn't seem possible, since their last encounter with Draco had left the warlord stating he would start to do good to win her. Of course, that was only because of one of Cupid's arrows, so if the love-god's spell had somehow worn off, Draco would certainly have gone back to his old ways.
Something about this whole situation didn't feel right, so Gabrielle decided to take a look around, to see if she could better understand what was going on. Before long, she knew why seeing Draco's men rounding up these villagers, and this place, seemed so familiar to her.
"Poteadia! I'm in the forests just outside of Poteadia! I'm home!"
It couldn't be, and yet it was. In the crowd now, Gabrielle recognized people she had grown up with, long-time friends she hadn't seen in several years. She saw her mother, Hecuba, standing between her two daughters and holding them close, trying to protect them both.
Poor Lila, looking so young and terrified, and..."Me?" A younger version of herself at least, wearing that blue top with matching vest and long skirt. Her mother had made the outfit for her, and back then she had believed it was the only way to dress.
"I've gone back in time?" Gabrielle shook her head. "But how? Why?"
The apparent leader of the raiders climbed off his horse, and approached the Poteadians. She remembered the man, his name was Hector. He was always trying to be brutal and intimidating, but he was nothing compared to his boss--the warlord Draco. Or, for that matter...her eyes widened.
If this really was the past, she had a second chance. To see her best friend, for the first time.
"We can do this one of two ways!" Hector said to the villagers. "You can let us have the girls, and go back to those hovels you call home. Or we can hack you all into little pieces and take the girls anyway!" He clapped his hands and laughed, as did the raiders around him.
Gabrielle saw her younger self pull away from her mother and sister, and go to Hector. She had tried, foolishly she realized later, to persuade him to take her in exchange for the others. He refused, of course, insisting he was going to have everyone he wanted, and when he tried to touch her the younger Gabrielle jerked back. Angered, he reached for a whip.
"It's never too early to start training a slave girl."
But Hector never got a chance to strike the first blow. A strong hand grabbed his whip, and he turned, just as surprised as everyone else in the clearing, to see a tall, raven-haired woman, clad in only a shift. She was stone-faced, and staring him right in the eye as she yanked the whip away.
"I got to admit, this village makes a tough woman."
Hector took a step back, and drew his dagger. He sneered.
"All right, time to take the gloves off. Start hacking!"
Even outnumbered and unarmed, Xena nonetheless smiled slightly. She felled Hector with a series of blinding kicks and then turned on his men, using fists and feet and occasionally their own weapons as well, to take them down one on one or in small groups. The warrior princess moved effortlessly from opponent to opponent until, finally, a raider managed to get in a lucky hit and stun her momentarily.
Gabrielle found herself thinking back to this day often in the years to follow and wondering--what could have possibly so distracted Xena. Now, she had her answer.
"Me? She was looking at...me?"
Her younger self at least. During a critical moment in the battle their eyes met briefly, a first look she would no doubt remember for the rest of her life, but while Gabrielle herself turned away, Xena's gaze lingered on the bard just a moment longer. That gave one of Draco's men the opportunity he needed, he snuck up her and struck the warrior princess in the back of the head.
"I-I never noticed. She was looking out for me, even back then?"
With that realization came an overwhelming sense of longing. It made her head hurt, her heart throb, and after a moment she closed her eyes. In that instant a sudden chill rippled up and down her spine. It was both intense and terrifying, but faded just as quickly as it had come.
"Gods." Gabrielle gasped, and started to open her eyes. "What is happening...to...me?"
Everything around her, had changed.
She wasn't in the woods outside Poteadia any longer.
She wasn't even outdoors.
Instead, Gabrielle found herself in a small structure, filled with boxes and barrels--most of them marked 'Water' or 'Corks'. At the same time a group of people, all quite sad, came toward her. They didn't see her of course, and several walked right through her, but the bard hardly seemed to notice.
Gabrielle had finally figured out where she was now.
"Of course! The seltzer factory!"
A portly, somewhat gray-haired man wearing lavish robes stood back, stroking his beard. He was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, so as not to disturb the leather and armor-clad figure crouching nearby. She was reaching for a blanket, laid over the lifeless figure on the cot.
Gabrielle tried to look away, but it was too late. "Xena." The once mighty warrior was so pale, and still now. It had been by far, the single darkest time in her life to that point, and it made the bard's heart ache to see her best friend in this condition...for the second time. "Oh gods, why this?"
It had been a real slap in the face for her back then.
Confronted with Xena's apparent death, that younger Gabrielle had suppressed her grief long enough to save Salmoneous and his workers from the warlord Talmadeus. She expressed her loss and sorrow through rage, and then single-handedly fought through a large number of warrior's before Talmadeus himself finally disarmed and captured her.
In the end, only Xena's timely return from the dead saved them from being sold into slavery, or killed. Despite her recent ordeal the warrior princess battled with incredible skill and determination. Side by side with Gabrielle, she defeated Talmadeus and his army.
But, of course, that would not be until tomorrow.
Tonight, Gabrielle watched as her younger self got up and confronted Salmoneous--who was convinced they could not win out against Talmadeus without Xena--then turned and stormed out of the factory. She knew that the younger bard would now go out into the woods and beat her frustrations, and her staff, against a tree, until she just couldn't scream or cry any more.
"Don't worry," Gabrielle whispered. "Xena will be there for you. For us. I promise." She smiled slightly. "Xena always saves the day in the end."
At that, she felt a sudden chill pass through her body.
Gabrielle closed her eyes.
"Here we go again."
Gabrielle lurched forward as the feeling passed. It took a few moments for her to regain her bearings and open her eyes. She warily glanced around.
This new structure was far larger and more ornate than the seltzer factory, and had been made of stone instead of wood. There were statues placed in key areas--all seemingly representations of the same figure. That meant it was probably a temple of some kind.
"But, to which god?" Gabrielle asked herself.
There were people sitting or laying all over the place she suddenly realized, and nearly every one of them was wearing a dressing or bandage of some kind. Scattered among the wounded she also saw what seemed to be an inordinate number of soldiers, in two noticeably different uniforms.
"Gods, it's like a war zone here. I..."
Gabrielle stopped, and took a more through look around. She knew those uniforms, this place.
"Of course. The Thesselian and Mitoan war. Which means..."
The bard turned to look at one of the nearby statues.
"This is the temple of Aesclepius."
Gabrielle heard a loud, jagged gasp for air, and then someone called her name. She turned--in an effort to find the source--and saw a group of people gathering around one of the beds.
"Oh no. Don't tell me..."
She slowly entered the crowd, half-heartedly apologizing to each person she passed through, until she found her way to the front. As she expected, from the stories she was later told, Xena was standing on one side of the bed and the Mitoan general, Marmax, on the other. Hippocrates and Galen also stood nearby, watching quietly, as the warrior bent over the seemingly lifeless body on the table.
Gabrielle felt like crying, but she couldn't.
"It's me. Gods above, I knew it."
She had been badly injured, after going out into the war zone alone, in an attempt to find a lost child. The boy was separated from his father during the fighting, and she had foolishly taken it upon herself to try and get him back alone. The soldiers she met were exhausted from battle, some were delirious, and one had mistaken her for an enemy; and attacked. Looking back, she remembered that she could have fought him easily enough, but she did not for fear of hurting him further, a mistake that would cost her dearly. She tried to go around but her came at her unexpectedly, and by the time she realized how much trouble she was in--it was too late. It was fortunate for her that a Thesselean mounted party was passing by at that moment, and brought her to the temple with the rest of their wounded.
It got fuzzy after that, because she was always fading in and out of consciousness.
One thing Gabrielle remembered clearly was seeing Xena by her side during these flashes. The warrior tended her wounds with a surprising gentleness. She also spoke rather openly, albeit away from prying ears, and even apologized for leading them through this region in the first place. The bard had neither the strength or the heart to explain to her friend it wasn't her fault, she had made the decision to go out into that war zone by herself and had paid the price as a result.
Xena always refused to tell her exactly what had happened next. It had apparently been very traumatic for the usually stoic warrior, and the bard knew better than to pry.
Gabrielle got part of the story from Hippocrates and Marmax later anyway. But to actually see these events as they unfolded, was...disconcerting, to say the least.
"She's dead..." Hippocrates said quietly. From the look on his face, the young healer wanted to comfort Xena, but he didn't know how.
"She is not dead! I wouldn't let her!"
Xena began to touch the lifeless bard, to shake her head from side to side.
"Come on Gabrielle, wake up! Come on, wake up! Come on, wake up!"
She seemed almost on the verge of tears.
"You're scaring me! Wake up!"
Xena grabbed Gabrielle, lifted her off the bed and cradled her head.
"Gabrielle, breath! Come on! Breath!"
She looked around, at Hippocrates, at Marmax, silently asking them for help. Neither of them could help her of course, and the healer even lowered his eyes.
"Maybe she just needs air."
Xena gently lowered Gabrielle back to the bed, and angled her head back.
"I need to get some air in her lungs!" The warrior clamped her mouth tight around Gabrielle's and blew several quick, strong breaths. "Come on, breath!" She tried again, and again, without success.
Xena's eyes were clearly misting. She shook her head.
"No." Her voice cracked, she was really getting scared now.
Hippocrates came forward. "Xena stop it." He put his arms comfortingly around the warrior. "She's dead now. She's in a much better place."
Xena erupted in anger as she shoved the healer nearly off his feet.
"Get out of my way! You don't know anything!"
She went right back to Gabrielle, and cradled the bard in her arms once again.
"Don't you listen to him. Come on, I know you're in there. Prove it!" She paused to catch her breath. "You can show them. Come on, wake up and breath!"
Of course, there was no response, but Xena was clearly not willing to accept that.
"You never ran from anything your whole life!"
She began to scream at the bard.
"Come on, fight!"
"Xena." Marmax tried to get through to the warrior, without success.
He was more forceful this time. "Xena!"
Gasping, Xena raised her head, her eyes dark.
"It's time to stop now. Let her cross over peacefully."
Xena's eyes narrowed at the Mitoan general.
"What do you know?" she hissed. "You've killed so many!"
Marmax nodded. "So have you. Let it go."
Xena opened her mouth as if to speak, but said nothing. For one moment, she actually seemed to consider his words. Then, that same old fire returned.
She lay Gabrielle back on the bed, and angled her head once again.
"Come on, Gabrielle!"
Two quick breaths, with no reaction.
Xena shook her friend before continuing.
Xena looked terrified, on the verge of blind panic even.
She pounded the bard's chest.
"Don't leave me."
It was a plead, her body wracked with sobs as she pounded the bard's chest again.
"Don't you leave me!"
It came out as more of a panicked demand this time.
"Don't leave me!"
She began pounding on the bard's chest in earnest now.
But she was openly crying now.
Xena threw her head back and sobbed loudly. She clenched her fists and brought them down one last, fearful time on Gabrielle's chest.
Without warning, without explanation...it worked.
Gabrielle arched her back suddenly, gasping, and after only a moment of surprise Xena gathered the bard into her arms and held her close.
The other Gabrielle, the spectral one, stumbled back and closed her eyes. "Gods, I-I never knew she was...this is too much. I've never seen Xena like that. And, over me?"
After a moment, Gabrielle composed herself and opened her eyes. By now, she was not at all surprised to find she was no longer in the Thesselean temple.
Instead, she found herself back outside.
It was night-time now, and the stars shone brightly overhead. At least, where she could see them through the tops of the trees. She was back in a forest apparently, but not the same one as before, she had never seen trees like this anywhere near Poteadia.
"Huh. I wonder where..."
Quite, slow; someone was approaching, and obviously didn't one anyone else to know about it.
For a moment, the bard considered hiding. But she just as quickly dismissed that idea, there was no reason--it wasn't like whoever it was could see or hear her anyway.
Gabrielle nonetheless stepped back, as another version of herself stepped out. From the clothes she wore, the green top and brown wraparound skirt, this was obviously some time after the healing temple. As the other was passing by the bard also noticed her eyes were swollen red, apparently from crying, and she had a look of quiet determination on her face.
"Now, where am I going, I wonder?"
It was a strange thought, but Gabrielle decided to follow herself. It didn't take long, because the other seemed to know right where she was going, and stopped at the edge of a clearing.
Gabrielle, the spectral one at least, gasped. Now she knew where, or when, she was.
The warrior was down on one knee--with the tip of her sword touching the ground, and her swirling blue eyes turned skyward.
She was also talking quietly and, like before, Gabrielle felt a little guilty.
After all, technically she was eavesdropping.
"If anyone's listening..." Xena began. "...you know I'm not much for praying, but I don't know what else to do. I was ready to give up once, and then Gabrielle came into my life. Please...don't let that light that shines out of her face go out. I couldn't stand the darkness that would follow."
Gabrielle turned her eyes from Xena in mid-prayer, and watched her other self watching the warrior. She could feel her 'twin's' pain and confusion at the sight, at felt it herself not so long ago. She remembered thinking at the time, that Xena must have been crazy to seek guidance from those very gods she despised--yet now she finally understood. It was so soon after Callisto killed Perdicas, and she herself was being consumed by that very dark vengeance she knew had once consumed Xena.
"You were trying to protect me," Gabrielle whispered. "I know that. Sacrificing your own morals in order to be certain nothing would happen to me." She shook her head. "But it's wasn't your place, Xena. Not that time. The decision was mine, and I made it."
It was the wrong one, of course--even though things did turn out all right in the end.
She left Xena, lieing to her about returning home to mourn, when in fact she was going to confront Callisto. It was a suicide mission, she had known that even if she succeeded in killing Callisto with Perdicas' sword, Theo-dorus and the others would no doubt kill her in return. At the time however, she hadn't cared, all she wanted to do was make sure that bloodthirsty murderess went with her.
It should have been the perfect setup.
Callisto and all of her warrior's were fast asleep.
Gabrielle managed to sneak in past them, and put the sword to Callisto's throat, but something stopped her. A flash of images, from Perdicas and from seeing Xena praying in the clearing. The more she thought about it, the more she realized this wasn't the way. She could kill Callisto easy enough, but what would her death mean? She had already lost Perdicas, taking a life and losing her blood innocence could cost her Xena's friendship and her respect as well.
She couldn't do it.
Gabrielle remembered resigning to her fate. She threw down the sword which, of course, woke Callisto and the others. She wasn't afraid, because she knew from experience that Callisto wouldn't kill her. Not yet anyway, she still had plans for Xena--and now bait. But the bard still didn't feel scared, or sorry for the fact that her failure to control her own dark side would lead to her best friend's walking into a trap.
"Xena will save me," she said to herself. "She always does."
The spectral Gabrielle shook her head, shaking herself out of the memory.
It was foolish, even dangerous, to think that way. It took her this long but she had finally come to understand that even the warrior princess couldn't be everywhere at once.
Xena was too late, in Britannia, to prevent Caesar from crucifying her, or Chraftstar and the other disciples of Dahak from using her. She wasn't around to save her from the burning tavern either, Gabrielle had to find a way out on her own. She had to devise a plan to prevent Cleopatra from being killed and how to use the magic scroll without causing even more trouble, mostly without Xena.
"I'm not entirely without blame myself though."
In the land of Chin, Gabrielle had been firmly convinced that she was doing the right thing by revealing Xena and her plans to Ming Tien. She thought if she stopped Xena from killing the Emperor, she would be allowed to take the warrior back home in peace.
"And then there's Hope."
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment.
Hope supposedly killed Gowin, one of the Knights of the Pierced Heart, and Xena became convinced she was merely Dahak's evil spawn.
Xena wanted to kill the child before she got even more dangerous.
Gabrielle, understandably, wanted to stop the warrior, and save her child's life.
"My beautiful, innocent daughter. How was I supposed to know?"
Gabrielle left her in Britannia, for her own good, but it seemed Dahak had other plans.
Somehow, Hope found her way to Greece. She freed Callisto, and the two of them went on a rampage that ult-imately led to a number of deaths. Among them Kaleipus, the Centaur leader who was an old enemy turned ally, and worst of all--Solan.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry Xena. Please, believe me."
Gabrielle was torn. The grief she felt for Xena and for her loss was almost overshadowed by anger.
Not just at Hope either, but at herself.
She had lied to Xena, had protected Hope, and because of that Solan was dead. His life was over, and yet she knew Hope would continue to grow, to get bigger and stronger.
In the end, the hardest decision of Gabrielle's young life came when she decided that Hope had to be stopped once and for all. Still the idea of killing her own daughter threatened to shatter her mind, and made her heart feel as if it would break in two.
Hope didn't question the waterskin offered by her mother. As she swallowed from it, could she have guessed it's contents had been laced with poison? If so, that realization came too late, as she eventually lay her head in Gabrielle's lap and closed her eyes one last time.
The bard shook her head.
Gabrielle turned and glanced at her other self, but she was gone.
In fact, so was the clearing, and Xena, and the forest.
Everything had changed around her once again, and she hadn't even noticed.
She was still outside, only now it was daytime, and the trees were gone.
Looking around the bard found herself standing on a hill which, from the sound of it, looked out over running water--possibly a waterfall. Somehow the area seemed vaguely familiar, yet she was fairly certain she had never been here before.
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't get it. What am I supposed to be doing? Nobody can see or hear me, I can't touch anyone, what's the points?" She looked up, wondering whether any of the Olympians were listening. "I just want answers? Why am I doing this? What's the point? Tell me!"
When she got no response, not that she really expected any, the anger and resentment within her grew. For a long time, in that place Artemis had called Illusia, she had been happy. She had known peace, albeit alone, only now it was all gone. Ripped from a place of comfort and quiet, she was being bounced around through time like a puppet on a string, for no foreseeable reason.
"Stop it!" she screamed. "Just stop it! Leave me alone! I don't want any part of this anymore! Either let me die or send me back, I don't care which!"
A sudden wave of nausea overcame Gabrielle, so intense it actually doubled her over. She fell to her knees as the pain struck, and she cried out, clutching at her stomach.
"What..." she gasped. "...is...happening...to me?"
Just as quickly as it had come, the pain and nausea seemed to fade. Gabrielle was able to think and see clearly again, and she started to raise a hand to her head. Her eyes widened, when she realized that her hand was even more transparent now than it had been before. Looking down, she found her entire body was that way, and she felt so weak and light-headed.
"I-Is this finally, the end?" she asked no one in particular. "Is it over?" Ignoring what sounded like approach-ing thunder, she stumbled to her feet and raised her arms to the sky. "I'm ready!"
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder, to see a huge brown horse charging toward her.
"What in Tartarus?"
She recognized it's rider instantly; the bronze and leather armor, the silky ebony hair.
It was strange to see the warrior on any mount but Argo.
Equally strange, if not moreso, was the wild and unfocused look in her icy blue eyes. She was whipping at the horse madly, and had a cruel smile on her face.
Horse and rider were already slowing as they barreled through her and, for the first time, Gabrielle actually felt something at the contact; pain. It made her whole body feel like it was on fire, but the worst was in her mind, as every bit of hate and bitterness and revenge she had ever known fluttered to the surface. Even so, that was not enough to prepare her for what she saw now.
A whip trailed out behind the horse, and on the end of it, was another version of herself. Snared by the ankle, she was bloody and battered, she had clearly been dragged along behind this horse for quite some time. On the plus side she was unconscious and would, no doubt, be blissfully unaware of whatever fate Xena had planned for her next.
Gabrielle stumbled back, clutching futily at her head. It was all coming back to her now, whether she wanted it or not. The Amazon village, Xena arriving and battling her friends, the whip, and then...being dragged along by her ankle. During that time she had drifted in and out of consciousness, no longer truly aware of where she was or what was happening to her.
"Xena, no!" Gabrielle watched as the warrior climbed off the horse and approached her other herself. "I-I can't believe you would do this! To me! I loved you Xena! What could have happened to bring you to this?" Xena's face was expressionless as she untied the whip from the other's ankle. "Why?" She knew the answer of course, it was Solan, and Hope. "I'm sorry, Xena! I truly am! But I had to save her, don't you see? You wanted to kill my daughter, I couldn't allow that! Dahak or not, I had to protect her!"
Gabrielle felt another wave of nausea and pain, but this one didn't pass.
"If I had it to do over again, if I'd know what was going to happen, maybe I would have done it differently, I-I don't know! But it doesn't have to come to this! Xena!" She wanted to cry, to scream, to lash out at the warrior, but she couldn't stop Xena from lifting the other Gabrielle into her arms, carrying her as if she weighed nothing. "I never meant for any of this to happen! Xena, listen, please! I never wanted Solan to die!" Xena couldn't hear her, of course, and started slowly toward the cliff. With Gabrielle's unconscious body in her arms, her intention was obvious. "Xena, no! Don't!"
Gabrielle followed the warrior as best she could, but it was slow going. Her legs were almost gone now, and it was nearly impossible for her to think straight any longer. It didn't take a prophet to realize that she didn't have much time left--maybe enough for one last act.
"I won't let you Xena!" She saw Xena lifting her other self high over her head. "By all the gods, I can't let you do this!"
With every iota of strength left in her rapidly fading frame, Gabrielle threw herself at the warrior. But her body had already begun to dissipate, even as what was left of her feet were leaving the ground, and she was so light at that point that she actually overshot her mark. Instead she passed right through the other Gabrielle, and with one last gasp--she vanished.
The other Gabrielle's eyes suddenly snapped open.
Xena threw her head back and screamed to the sky. "Vengeance!"
Gabrielle knew two things with absolute certainty; she was in an incredible amount of pain and she was about to be thrown off a cliff by her best friend. She could barely move, yet somehow she found the strength to bring down one of her feet and kick Xena in the side of the head. The warrior lost her footing and fell, dropping Gabr- ielle from over six feet in the air. They both landed hard and, for a heartbeat, neither moved. In the next moment, they both rose, at almost exactly the same time.
Gabrielle stared blankly at Xena, and Xena cocked her head and smiled back.
"I hate you!" the bard screamed.
She wasn't sure why, what she thought it would accomplish, but Gabrielle suddenly found herself charging at Xena. The warrior just stood, still and ready, she apparently wanted this just as much.
They collided with tremendous force, and both women were knocked backwards by the impact. Unfortunately they were also very close to the edge of the cliff.
Unable to regain their balance in time, they plunged over the cliff and down the waterfall.
Eventually, they were lost from sight in the churning waters below.
And so, Illusia gained two new subjects that day.
Through a series of musical torments it would return them to the path of love.
Where they would find their way back to one another...
...and be home.