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Chapter XX

‘No Holds Bard’

The handle turned unassisted in her hand and the door swept soundlessly back. In the glow of torches lit at intervals on the walls, Xena could see Hesperos standing before the dais, smugly expectant. "Welcome, Xena...Elkton."

Social pleasantries aside, Xena wanted nothing more than to fly across the room, vault over the dais and wipe that smug smile from Hesperos’ face.

Elkton had the same thought, but warrior and mystic, sharing the same discipline, the same focus, held themselves in exquisite check. "Hesperos," said Elkton, making a place for himself at Xena’s side. "You might at least have the decency to look surprised to see us..."

Hesperos loosed a single derisive note of laughter; in the confines of the crypt, there was an echoing, booming retort. "You were sent for and expected, and I should feign surprise? Please, come in...join us." He gestured broadly with the sweep of his arm. "Hurry in to your deaths."

"I wouldn’t make any plans for the future, either, if I was you, " Xena quipped. She eased into the room on the balls of her feet, scanning the interior as she did so. She could make out the suggestion of Manus’ body in repose behind Hesperos...but there was no Gabrielle.

"That’s far enough, Xena," Hesperos said, raising a hand. "And you, Elkton, come all the way in...where I can see you."

Even as he complied, Elkton felt Manus’ presence, that unwelcome second skin, slip from him, leaving him feeling curiously vacant and unnerved. As long as the two mystics had battled for control of his consciousness, Elkton felt some comfort in knowing where to find his enemy. He likened the experience to holding a lethal viper by the tail, but now he had the uncomfortable feeling Manus was beyond his reach, and therefore, beyond retribution.

"Retribution..." said Hesperos. Meeting Elkton’s gaze when the mystic’s head snapped up, he seemed to relax. "Divine...or otherwise...I hope you’re both prepared to die."

"Wouldn’t you care to stall for time?"

Conciliatory. "I thought, Elkton, in your last minutes on this earth, you might appreciate the honesty."

"Oh, yeah, very refreshing," retorted Xena drolly. Elkton leaned into her and whispered something, at the same time gesturing at the empty braces above the largest of the tapestries in the room. The Sword of Psyche was missing, but Xena seemed unconcerned, so single minded was her quest. "Where’s Gabrielle?"

"I like that, Xena, straight to the point." Hesperos was silent for a moment, his gray eyes vague. Presently, as if alerted by some internal signal, he smiled, but the gesture seemed more predatory than friendly. "As your time is short, I’ll spare you any further delay. You want to see your young friend?"

"You know we do," countered Elkton.

"Gabrielle!" Xena called, her eyes sweeping the room. Hesperos laughed. Xena snapped a dangerous gaze on the cook and twirled the short sword absently in her hand; it cut the air with an impressive whoosh. "What’ve you done with her, Hesperos?" He smiled vaguely but she thought she recognized the ghost of fear in his eyes. "Gabrielle!" Xena exclaimed, real frustration telling her in voice.

"Bellow all you like, Xena," said Hesperos, and then gentled his tone, "But it is the whisper she hears." He kept a steady gaze trained on the warrior while stepping to one side and elegantly extending his left arm towards the dais behind him. As expected, Manus lay, still and cold, on the dais; it was the appearance of Gabrielle which gave Xena pause. The bard lay sleeping beside her master, her knees drawn slightly into his hip, one arm draped across his chest, her head tucked beneath his strong chin. To the uninformed, the two might appear as lovers, wrapped in Morpheus’ arms, but Xena knew better. She opened her mouth, intent on rousing the girl, but raising a finger to his lips, Hesperos admonished, "Shh, now..." He wagged that same finger at her for emphasis. "You were about to wake her." He moved lazily behind the dais. "She presents the picture of innocence when asleep, wouldn’t you agree?" One of Hesperos’ hands fell lecherously upon Gabrielle’s shoulder.

The muscles in Xena’s jaw jumped. "Touch her die."

Without warning, Hesperos produced a fine-bladed dagger from within the folds of his robes. Laying the blade aside the sleeping girl’s throat he said, "I don’t respond well to threats, Xena."

"Funny," retorted Xena. "Neither do I."

Hesperos’ brow furrowed in genuine confusion. "Did I not deliver Gabrielle as promised? For here she lies..." He drew the blade feather-soft along the bard’s jawline, and with his free hand, tucked a strand of honey-gold hair behind her ear. "Whole...and yet fragmented...empty, yet full...yours...and yet...not yours."

From his place at the warrior’s side, Elkton could just see the muscles beneath Xena’s bronzed skin jumping, humming along the impressive frame that would, within microseconds, explode across the room in a breathtaking display of grace and fury...and death. Yes, thought the mystic. He knew without question that there would be death at the end of it all, and he knew, too, that Xena would be as surprised as those who claimed she could not be killed, to find herself mortally wounded at the hands of a cook. For all her bravery, wits and skills, Elkton knew that Xena did not know her enemy as well as she suspected. "Now, Xena," he began, using the lull in conversation to quell her fire if he could. "Surely Hesperos here is a man who can be reasoned with..."

Faith is your weapon, Manuswhisper found a receptive ear. Or is that just something you tell your students?

"I’m not here to harm you, Hesperos," said the mystic; to demonstrate the point, and his faith, Elkton let the heavy short sword slip from his fingers to the stone floor.

"Elkton, are you crazy?" Xena’s eyes glowed with anger, but Elkton’s steady, unflinching gaze was centered on Hesperos. When the mystic spoke again, Xena recognized that familiar, hypnotic note of calm that had so enraptured Gabrielle in the temple kitchens and at last she understood.

"I’m going to give you a piece of advice, Hesperos..." crooned Elkton. "...and you’re going to take it." Hesperos, his glazed eyes half closed, cocked his head, listening intently. "Walk out of here. Walk out of here and leave Manus to us."

"Leave Manus..." came the monotone echo.

Leave me? Dream on. You know you want to...

Elkton shook his head violently, a single jerk, an intent to dislodge his unwelcome tenant. "Leave Manus to us..." Elkton continued once he found his voice. He gave Xena a sideways glance and he could see that she was poised on the balls of her feet, waiting for an opening. "Put the blade down and walk out of here, Hesperos..."

Abruptly, Hesperos snorted and threw his head back in a soundless laugh. "Save your breath to cool your soup, old man, and save those meager psychic energies, as’re going to need them."

"I’ll make you this offer only once," Elkton continued, dropping his voice for effect. "Leave this temple while I still have some influence over --" The old mystic stole a meaningful glance at Xena and hoped Hesperos got the inference. "-- things. Leave now. Run as far and as fast as you can." He raised a bushy eyebrow at the younger man and tried to gauge the impact of his words; Hesperos was stone-faced. "If the end goes badly, I can guarantee you won’t live to see another day." Elkton let out a gasp of surprise when he felt the tip of a sword pressed firmly into the small of his back. Over his shoulder, Phyus glared at him with intent. "Phyus, what’re you doing?"

"I would have thought that would be abundantly clear, Elkton," interjected Hesperos, even as the second of the two sentries, Androcles, approached Xena to disarm her. "Your sword, Xena..."

Xena felt a hard knob bear down on her spine and she cursed herself she hadn’t seen the ambush coming. She recalled that the armed sentries, prostrate at the crypt entrance, had both appeared deeply comatose, like the villagers. She hadn’t considered them much of a threat, less so after she had put one of their weapons into Elkton’s hand, a weapon which he had discarded at the first opportunity. She set her jaw and groaned inwardly. Later, providing she was still alive to dally in reflection, she might attribute her lapse of attention to exhaustion, or anxiety. She looked at the discarded blade, cold and gleaming on the stone floor and was reluctant to surrender her own sword to gravity just yet.

"Your sword, Xena," Hesperos reiterated with all of the conviction he could muster.

She must relinquish the weapon, Hesperos. She must be made to prostrate herself before the dais.

One sword at Elkton’s back, the other on the the math, Xena! Logical thought rallied in her head. He wants your sword because he isn’t armed. "Careful with that finger," she drawled, stealing a glance over her shoulder. "You might hurt someone." Androcles looked down at his hand. Convinced there had been an immaculate blade clutched in his strong fingers only moments earlier, now he could see only his knuckle jammed painfully against the small of Xena’s back. He looked up at her, and almost before alarm had time to register on his face, she gave a small cry and head butted him, connecting solidly with the bridge of his nose. He fell to the floor in a crimson blossom of blood and bone, and did not move.

Hesperos’ hands came together twice, and when she turned to face him, he said, "I’m impressed, Xena." That was no lie. Hesperos admired her defiance, had indeed anticipated it with something akin to delight. >From his place at Manus’ altar, he gazed into the fathomless depths of her azure eyes, and beyond. He could read determination there, cunning, and a controlled rage; she cared for her own life only slightly more than she cared for his, and armed or unarmed, that made her immeasurably dangerous. "Now. I will ask one more time," he said at last, fixing the younger sentry, Phyus, in his sights. Elkton sucked a burst of air across his teeth as his robe was torn and the cold metal blade touched exposed skin. "Drop your sword."


"Don’t do it, Xena!" Elkton said.

Do it!

Phyus forced the old mystic to his knees. "It doesn’t matter what happens to me, Xena," Elkton cried. "Don’t submit."

"I can kill with a word, Xena," said Hesperos with a quirk on his lips.

"Big surprise. You’re boring me to death," quipped Xena, even as she unclenched her fingers from the sword hilt to hold it more loosely at her side. "Tell you what, Hesperos...Manus frees Gabrielle and the villagers, as we agreed, and you can have my sword..."

Elkton muttered a soft oath and then exclaimed, "No, Xena!"

Xena gave no sign that she’d heard him; her gaze on Hesperos never wavered. "My exchange for the others..." Hesperos licked his lips but said nothing. "That’s the deal."

"Xena, no! Look at me, Xena..." When the warrior turned to regard him, Elkton gave a small shrug and said, "I’ll surrender, you don’t have to." The old mystic slumped to the floor, putting space between his vulnerable back and Phyus’ sword.

Xena used the younger man’s momentary confusion at losing his hostage to her advantage; with a speed that belied her exhaustion, she employed a roundhouse kick, sweeping the sword from his grasp; before it hit the floor, Phyus collapsed to his knees, rendered uncon- scious by a blow he had never seen coming. Xena knelt at the old mystic’s side and put a finger to his throat; his pulse was slow and steady. He was alive, but she feared for him, as she feared for Gabrielle...mere minutes from the height of Solstice, the thought galvanized her. Sword in hand, she moved unhesitatingly towards the dais.

The blade in Hesperos’ hand dented the tender flesh of the sleeping girl’s throat. "Submit, Xena."

"You had your chance," she retorted.

"I’m warning you!" Hesperos whined. "I’ll do it!"

"You know, Hesperos," she began leisurely, as if she had all night, "there are necessary times of truce...this isn’t one of them." She stepped upon the dais and was close enough now to reach out and touch the sleeping girl’s boot, to see her eyes flicking wildly behind closed lids, and to hear her soft breathing. The bard was either totally at ease with her current predicament, or totally ignorant of it.

"Last warning, Xena..." Hesperos murmured, passing his tongue over his dry lips. Sweat had gathered at his brow...the little trembling movements he made rained salty droplets into his eyes. "Move and she dies."

From her vantage point at Manus’ feet, Xena could see a tiny crimson pearl form on the tip of Hesperos’ knife and then roll lazily down the length of the blade...a little more pressure, together with a clean, horizontal jerk would effectively end the standoff. "Do it."

Hesperos blinked and stared at her dumbfounded. "What did you say?"

Xena took one calculated step towards him, crossed her body with the short sword and settled the blade in the crook of her elbow. "I said ‘do it’...cut her throat...or are you all talk?"

Chapter XXI

‘The Madman, the Mystic, the Warrior and her Bard’

"Wh...what about your bargain with Manus?" Hesperos stammered, his control sliding from beneath him, drawn inexorably downstream in a fast-moving current of fear. "Does your friend’s life mean so little to you after all?"

"My friend’s life is everything to me," replied Xena pointedly.

You have the advantage, Hesperos! Press it! Nothing undermines our cause so much as failure to execute a threat!

Hesperos swallowed deeply and tightened his grip on the hilt of the dagger; his hand was beginning to cramp. But she knows, Lord...

She suspects. You see how she’s maneuvered herself to within arm’s reach of you. Don’t let her draw you in. It’s the same fascination that makes the cobra stare at the mongoose! Hesperos was silent, implying understanding and consent where there was neither. In the confines of his mind, tucked neatly between memory and conscience, beyond Manus’ reach, he bemoaned his lack of free will to deny or disagree, or more appropriately at this moment, to run and save himself. Standing there at the dais, less than ten paces from Xena, he knew he was the cobra...and he knew what fate awaited the cobra. He came to himself at last to find Xena looking at him intently; in the vague light of the room, Hesperos conceded how little their mutual contemplation of one another did to resolve matters. "How can you be so certain that this isn’t Gabrielle?"

Almost imperceptibly, Xena’s posture became a little straighter. "Because I know something you don’t know, Hesperos: Gabrielle snores."

Hesperos’ brow furrowed, and in the ensuing lull in conversation he didn’t fail to notice that his hostage slept as soundlessly as the dead. He lifted his blade and his gaze at once; Xena was smiling at him out of the corner of her mouth. He smiled back. "Very perceptive, Xena."

I have minutes, Hesperos, and you are stalling! Manus’ voice, formerly soft and sibilant, took on a strident, impatient tone. My energies and attentions are needed elsewhere. Know then that I expect you to act on your part as agreed!

Hesperos dug the tip of his little finger in his ear and addressed Xena civilly, as if they were conversing over a flagon of wine. "You do a lot of talking, Xena, for a warrior."

The observation took Xena off guard. "Does that unnerve you?"

"It surprises me," Hesperos replied, wiping the tip of the blade on his sleeve where it left a small crimson wedge, stark against the white fabric. "It’s been my experience that there are only two reasons why a warlord would engage his enemy in conversation."

Xena snorted and lifted an eyebrow, begging elaboration, while unchallenged, she situated herself alongside the dais, parallel to and directly in front of Hesperos.

"One is to negotiate treaties and terms of surrender." In the diffused light of the torches, Hesperos’ eyes held only menace; surrender was not on his personal agenda. "And the other..."

"The other..." interjected Xena, tracking Hesperos’ wavering gaze " to maneuver your enemy into a better position to strike." She was mere milliseconds away from sending Hesperos to Tartarus-- no countdown, no conscience. But even as her fingers trembled unseen, poised to deliver the killing blow, fate spared Hesperos an agonizing death at Xena’s hands.

The ex-priest cried out, screwing his face into a mask of pain. He lurched forward over Manus’ body, incapacitated by something only he could hear -- his master’s wounded, strangled howl of protest. Xena watched in confusion. Whatever possessed the cook had much the same effect as her lethal pinch, yet gave her none of the satisfaction. Momentarily, the psychic attack drove Hesperos to his knees beside the dais, where he lay curled in a fetal position, hands clasped firmly over his ears, his mouth opened in a soundless wail. Xena hoped it was as painful as it appeared; perhaps it was a holdover from her warlord days, but there was still some small part of her that would have been content to sip from the cook’s pain indefinitely. Had she not detected movement behind her, she might be staring at him still. Her keen ears had just perceived the faint rustle of fabric as a potentially lethal downswing rent the stale air. At the last possible moment, she turned at the waist, deflecting a blow that would have certainly split her skull. Her weapon connected with the sharp edge of her own broadsword, wielded by the animated twin of the sleeping girl on the dais. The shock of the blow resonated through Xena’s arms and she was more than a little surprised at the bard’s strength. The girl drew the heavy sword back with both hands, preparing for another blow; the sight of her own weapon in the hands of the gentle bard rocked Xena to her core. Driven by instinct, but tempered by compassion, the warrior pivoted at the hip, delivering a side kick which sent the second Gabrielle reeling back into the tapestry, the broadsword flying from her fingertips. Without pausing, Xena wheeled and, grasping fistfuls of the ancient tapestry, ripped it violently from its braces. The girl disappeared beneath a cloud of dust and heavy brocade. Xena barely had time to marvel at the ease of her opponent’s defeat when bright pain exploded at the small of her back, below her ribs, and she fell heavily to her knees. Taking advantage of Xena’s preoccupation, the sleeping girl had risen from the dais and struck an unexpected kidney blow with the butt end of her sword. Recovering quickly, Xena pulled her legs beneath her and performed a graceful spinning kick, her foot just grazing the girl’s chin, sending her flailing gracelessly over the dais. Xena scrambled, exchanging the clumsy short sword for the comfortable familiarity of her broadsword. From a standing position, she somersaulted over Manus’ prone body, loosing her warcry, and engaged the girl in combat.

Hesperos! Hesperos! On your feet, you craven, gutted coward!

Hesperos groaned, limp and barely conscious. His arms and legs felt leaden and it was an effort to move at all. The voice inside his mind swallowed him whole, headfirst, and ground and shredded him against unyielding molars until he prayed for oblivion to take him. He took his hands away from his ears and inspected them for blood, the pain had been that acute, but his palms held nothing but cold, clammy fear.

Get up I tell you! I need you!

Slow to respond, Hesperos opened his eyes to a painful slit. Master...what can I do?

Get up...take your...take the dagger...I need you to kill -- To kill. While the request did not surprise Hesperos, the wavering timber of his master’s voice, and the genuine fear behind it did. With the last reserves of his strength, he rose on shaky knees and scanned the immediate area for the errant dagger.

Even as Hesperos rose, fingers closed over the hilt of his dagger, the heavy tapestry behind him lurched and shifted, burbled and popped like a pot of stew left to boil over a roaring fire. Raging, inarticulate cries emanated from beneath the tapestry’s faded images, growing steadily more anxious until at last a form emerged gasping for breath. Pausing momentarily to gain her bearings and take in lungfuls of stale air, the girl’s first thought was to arm herself. She groped about on the floor for a weapon where her fingers grasped the hilt of the short sword earlier discarded by Xena. To the sounds of a pitched battle, she rose to her feet, peering across the dais to confirm her suspicions -- the enemy lived. In a vision she knew had been planted by her master, she saw herself engaged in a fierce duel with Xena, and she saw her enemy seconds away from death at her hands. It was her master’s gift to her; a prophecy of peace so long promised, so devoutly desired.

She would kill Xena. It was as certain as the sunrise. Testing the weight of the blade in her hands, she felt almost serene about her decision. She vaulted effortlessly over the dais and raced to dispatch her enemy and did not seem at all surprised to find herself rubbing elbows and sharing space with her doppleganger.

It wasn’t the first time Xena had found herself facing attack on two fronts, parrying thrusts and blows, delivering her own, but she sensed it might be her last. The three women circled one another warily, in a dance of sorts, their swords ringing out in concert, and as the two Gabrielles wheeled and shifted, it was all Xena could do to pull her punches and keep straight who was who. Both girls were quick and committed, ferocious in a way Xena hadn’t expected. In her head, she gave them separate identities. Gabrielle One wielded the heavy, ceremonial Sword of Psyche with ease, but with more imagination than skill. She appeared to be weighing her options, economizing her body movements, and saving her energies. In direct contrast, Gabrielle Two, armed with a short sword, cared nothing for finesse or style. Driven by raw emotions, she plunged headlong into the fray, her hateful eyes for that singular moving target at her sword point. It was the hate that gave her away. Moving gracefully about the room, trading blows with virtual twins, each a mirror image of the other, Xena made a conscious decision to kill one...while the other survived at all costs.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Hesperos on his hands and knees, moving sluggishly, but with murderous intent, dagger in hand, towards the unconscious form of Elkton, who lay sprawled vulnerably on the cold stone floor. In a battle that called for every skill and ounce of energy she possessed, Xena disarmed both Gabrielles with one powerful sweeping kick; even as their weapons were skittering across the stone floor, her powerful thighs and calves propelled her high into the air. In her trademark sizzorkick, her outstretched legs delivered a powerful blow to each of her opponents, sending them reeling back into the shadows while she reached simultaneously for her chakram. Hefting it, preparing to throw, she said, "Put the dagger down, Hesperos or lose an arm!"

Hesperos’ lips pulled back in a defiant snarl. "Not a chance, Xena. What do I care for arms or legs if the Master is not made flesh again?"

Xena assumed it was a rhetorical question. "Come on..." she moved her hands apart, in seeming supplication. "Face me." His face was bathed in perspiration, and she could hear him breathing hard, and though she suspected her offer appealed to him on some level, his will was not his own. "Think about it, Hesperos...would you rather be known as the murderer of a defenseless old priest...or as the man who killed Xena?"

"I can be both!" Hesperos rose to his knees, preparing to thrust the dagger into Elkton.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Xena hurled the chakram; a straight line being the shortest distance between life and death, it moved unerringly towards its target and nestled deeply between the cook’s fourth and fifth ribs. From across the crypt, Hesperos’ eyes locked on hers, conveying more disbelief than pain. His executioner, however, merely raised an indifferent eyebrow. Using his last energies to confirm what he suspected, he looked down at his body. Blood welled at the site of the injury, and he could taste it, salty and metallic in his mouth -- death had a flavor. As his fingers contacted the metal chakram, still warm from her grip, he said, "This is...unexpected..." With his master’s name soundless upon his lips, he fell dead across Elkton’s body. The old mystic stirred at the contact. Xena’s weary sigh of relief stuttered in her throat when she heard a heavy-footed approach; the girl burst from the shadows, without caution or subtlety, as if she knew that no amount of subterfuge could have given her the upper hand against a warrior of Xena’s skills. But she was brandishing the Sword of Psyche, which Xena knew she could use to good effect.

Loosing an incomprehensible stream of expletives, Gabrielle, her Gabrielle, attacked with abandon, charging with raw power and emotion. There was intense hatred in her eyes as she hammered the sharp edge of her sword against Xena’s own. Xena marveled at the strength in each of those blows; Gabrielle’s own natural skills had been augmented and amplified by Manus’ conditioning and so it was inevitable that the first articulate words from her mouth were not her own. "Die, bitch! Why won’t you die!?"

Xena blinked, unable to disguise her reaction. The ferocity of that statement, and the commitment that lay behind each of the potentially lethal blows raining down upon her awakened deep-seated feelings of apprehension. Mercifully, Gabrielle’s unflinching assault did not allow much time for introspection. The girl seemed relentless, inexhaustible, and Xena suspected it would take time to wear down Gabrielle’s physical reserves -- precious minutes she didn’t have to spare. Known to be creative under pressure, Xena: Warrior Princess, supreme battlefield technician, took on the role of peacemaker. She consciously slowed her responses, giving her blade a little more play with each of her opponent’s strikes, drawing the girl into her. When they were practically nose to nose, one face cool and calculating, the other a grimacing, hateful mask, she said, "Gabrielle...listen to me..." Gabrielle’s response was to push away and fire off a vicious downswing which Xena barely avoided; the blade gouged a pillar behind her and Xena used her close proximity to knee her opponent in her well-toned gut. The girl collapsed to her knees, fighting for breath. "Gabrielle," Xena appealed, but kept her weapon at the ready. "You don’t have to do this!"

Get up! You’re weak...a weak, pathetic fool. Manus was unmistakably disgusted and he had no qualms about using every tool at his disposal to wring the proper response from this instrument of retribution. You disappoint me.

"For Gaia’s sake, Gabrielle," crooned Xena, compassion coloring her delivery. "Put the sword down. I want to help you."

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the warrior, hearing the pity in her voice. Recognizing that a verbal strike could be at least as powerful as a physical blow when the victim is vulnerable, she made a cold, calculated decision. Raising her head slowly, she locked eyes with Xena, her hate an unquenchable fire and said, "Fuck you, Warrior Princess." Watching Xena’s face twitch, her lips quirk and then harden to a flat line, Gabrielle was encouraged to know her enemy could be so profoundly wounded by simple words. This minor victory stirred her into action. Using legs made strong and supple by hundreds of hours of walking, she launched herself at Xena, driving her elbow up under Xena’s throat, propelling her backwards into a sharp corner of the dais. How perfect that her enemy, and the Master’s nemesis should die at his feet, with her blood soaking his robes. Raising her sword arm, Gabrielle brought the blade back and across in a sweeping arc that would behead her enemy and free her master.

With her back jammed painfully into unyielding stone, and Gabrielle’s full weight behind the forearm crushed against her windpipe, Xena struggled for breath. Out of the corner of her half-closed eyes, she saw the polished steel blade moving towards her, but she was not alarmed. Even half-conscious she could see the trajectory was all wrong. All power and no direction, the blade whistled above her head and sliced a four inch gash into Manus’ thigh. Blood welled in a thick, dark line. Xena could see the girl was mesmerized by the sight, by the enormity of her error, and she used the distraction to her advantage, popping her opponent in the chin to give herself some room to maneuver.

Gabrielle yelped, having bitten her tongue, but she made no move to wipe the blood from her chin. Blood made hands slick -- at this stage, she couldn’t afford to be disarmed again by her enemy. This new weapon was heavier and more unwieldy than a short sword, and it took both hands for her to use it competently. She stepped back, breathing hard, and began a crab-like movement, circling her opponent, eyes casting about for the edge she knew would put Xena at her mercy. Inside a head that was whirling with emotions both foreign and familiar, she cast about for her master, for the cold comfort of his aura. At a time and in a place where Manus should have been an all-consuming presence, he was curiously absent. Had her wounding of him shaken whatever faith he had left in her? Had he abandoned her for a more capable servant?

The thought unnerved her, but only temporarily. Catching a glimpse of herself in the highly-polished blade in her hand, she saw a picture of ferocious commitment. She looked up and across the room at her enemy and saw that same commitment mirrored in Xena’s face.

At that very moment, Elkton was struggling to his feet, still reeling under the effects of his recent battle with Manus. He was censuring himself for retreating from the dreamscape, certain that his cowardice had cost them all dearly. As he took in the scene -- Hesperos dead at his feet, Xena and Gabrielle squared off in battle, the Sword of Psyche in the employ of evil -- he wondered briefly if he was yet fully awake. The Sword. Something nagged at him, some little detail, long ago committed to an imperfect memory. Now, seconds from the height of Solstice, amidst the din and clamor of combat, he struggled to remember. "Xena!" he called desperately, catching her eye. "What can I do?"

Her response, typically monosyllabic, was punctuated by the arrhythmic clash of steel against steel. "Elkton." CLANG. "Yeah." CLANG. CLANG. "I need you to do something."

"Anything!" He winced as she took an elbow to the chin.

"There’s a girl somewhere in those shadows..." CLANG. CLANG. "...sleeping off a headache...find her!" CLANG--SKEEEEEEEEEEL. The Sword of Psyche slid angrily down the length of Xena’s blade, casting off a shower of sparks until it came to a stop at the pommel above Xena’s hand. They were mere inches apart, warrior and bard, trading breaths, and for one precious moment, Xena stared into a pair of vivid blue-green eyes, prospecting for her friend. Before she could make any determinations one way or the other, Gabrielle grew uncomfortable with the scrutiny and pushed away from the clinch. From there, the battle pitched and moved around the dais, ranging over the entire room. Xena took a half dozen good strikes, little licks that nibbled at her confidence and self-control, and somewhere in the confines of that tiny room, she came to the realization that far from simply defending herself, she was battling to stay alive. She could feel her fighting instincts beginning to take control and although she was determined to win against her opponent, the last thing she wanted to do was injure the bard.

So single minded. The phrase just came to her, whispering at the edges of conscious thought. While this was Manus’ territory, it was not his voice. It was Elkton’s. I’ve never known anyone so single minded.

Get out of my head, Elkton, Xena warned. As she moved around the floor, alternately gaining and losing the upper hand, she could see him, eyes closed in deep concentration, poised just where the torchlight began to fall on the stone floor, the unconscious twin of Gabrielle slumped at his side.

I have a plan, Xena -- if you’ll trust me. As there wasn’t time for hesitancy, she agreed with a resounding ‘Yes!’ To avoid intervention from Manus, the details of Elkton’s plan were deliberately vague, calling for faith from a woman who knew only cold, hard facts. Elkton’s plan, such as it was, came in the form of an ambiguous statement -- two words he’d heard tumbling about in her subconscious -- one life.

Chapter XXII


One life. A promise extracted under extreme duress. The old man looked down at girl stirring beside him, waking from her enforced nap. One life. He looked back up at Xena and understood the meaning behind the phrase. One life. That doesn’t sound unreasonable to me.

Elkton! Xena protested vehemently, but she didn’t fail to notice that the psychic link between them had intensified. Anger had given it definition and focus.

Elkton shook himself from his reverie, aware that Xena’s patience was far from infinite.

As the girl beside him groaned and tried to get to her feet, he gripped her shoulder as tightly as his injured arm would permit and turned his focus again to the life and death struggle taking place on the crypt floor, a battle that unfolded in peaks and troughs. Gabrielle, winded, bruised and bloodied, was tiring from wielding the heavy blade. Periodically her sword point would dip, gouging the stone floor, only to be swept upwards or across violently with little warning. He suspected that it was only a combination of her youth and Manus’ conditioning which kept her on her feet. Xena’s size and natural skills and gifts as a warrior made the outcome of this battle a foregone conclusion. But he knew, too, that the battle was only the smaller picture. There was a war to be fought and won. Listen to me, Xena...The words flew out of his mind with passionate impatience. What I’m going to ask you to do will be against your nature, against the warrior’s code you follow. But bear with me and --

"Elkton!" CLANG. "Spit it out!" Xena growled.

"Surrender, Xena!" Elkton exclaimed; he’d said it aloud...anyone with ears to hear in the confines of the crypt had heard it. The girl whose arm he held stopped struggling and clapped a pair of particularly mesmerizing green eyes upon him in a gaze that was both surprised and familiar. Yes, he thought, without a doubt, he had seen that expression before on the face of another. Reluctantly, he moved his gaze to the duel still transpiring on the crypt floor; far from yielding the battle, Xena appeared to have her opponent on the defensive. Xena...Elkton reiterated forcefully when he saw her disarm Gabrielle. Do-You-Understand?

Surrender. I heard you, Elkton...Xena saw the Sword of Psyche skitter noisily across the floor. ....the WHOLE room heard you!

Gabrielle stared at her empty hands, dumbfounded. "Useless..." she muttered and looked up at Xena, every last ounce of defiance contained in her steady gaze, and the set of her jaw. Weaponless, defeated, she took the time to wipe her bloody mouth against the back of her hand.

Xena softened at the sight of the blood she had drawn. Her sword drifted slowly to her side, hanging parallel to her thigh. How many times had a beaten enemy begged for mercy at her feet? Her conscience was cluttered with such scenes -- warlords and slaves, villagers and soldiers whom had offered themselves before her similarly, prepared to meet death at her hand. She had rarely disappointed. And then Hercules put her on another path...and Gabrielle, her moral compass, kept her from straying. She was only here to defeat Manus because Gabrielle had made it possible, and as much as she owed the bard a quick, painless death, she owed her a long, fulfilling life, too.

Xena, whispered Elkton fiercely. Trust me...surrender.

Xena didn’t have the heart to tell him that both her fate and her faith rested in other hands. Looking down at the familiar blade in her hands, bloodied, pitted and nicked, she marveled at the ease with which she came to a difficult decision.

"What’re you waiting for?" Gabrielle asked, her chin jutting defiantly. "I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you."

"I’m counting on it," replied Xena evenly. Gods forgive me. She brought up her sword and presented it to Gabrielle, hilt first. It floated there, weightless and expectant and Xena could see the girl was considering the offer., this is too good, Manus crooned in disbelief. He had expected Xena to renege on her promise the same way a liar expects to be lied to. The Warrior Princess dies on her own sword, in her own the hands of her best friend...Morpheus be praised! It’s practically a suicide! He crowed with delight. It’s so poetically perfect, don’t you agree, child?

"It’s a trick," said Gabrielle, her fingertips poised inches from the weapon.

"No trick," said Xena, with tender exasperation. When she saw the girl’s fingers close over the hilt, taking the weight of the blade, Xena slowly fell to one knee.

Neglecting his charge, Elkton rose to his feet beside the girl and exclaimed, "Xena, no!"

Xena’s eyes locked on the hate-filled green orbs glaring down the length of the blade leveled just above the hollow of her throat. All it would take is a few pounds of pressure...she’d seen enough botched executions in her lifetime to know that a frontal strike, at the jugular, would bring a relatively quick and painless death. Sensing the girl’s hesitation, Xena leaned into the blade, drawing her own blood. "This is what you wanted...isn’t it?"

"By the gods, Xena," cried Elkton, leaving the passive ‘Gabrielle’ to her own devices while he moved cautiously forward. "You don’t know what you’re doing..."

Xena looked at him peripherally and said through clenched teeth, "Elkton, stay outta this."

Elkton watched the scene unfold in horror. He felt responsible and helpless. He’d argued for surrender, but it wasn’t supposed to end this way. In his arrogance, he had considered himself a player in Manus’ game, when he was nothing more than a pawn. The true architect lay supine and scheming, and all but triumphant on his dais.

Heedless of the conflict between mystic and warrior, Gabrielle stared transfixed at the crimson rivulet running down Xena’s throat, into her leather bodice; she found herself taking a step backward. With nothing to rest upon, the sword in her hand dipped, yielding to gravity.

"Thank the gods," whispered Elkton, turning his eyes to the ceiling.

What’re you doing? Manus inquired carefully because as much as he loathed her hesitation, he feared it, too. With Hesperos dead, he could not afford to alienate her. You’re so very close, child...he soothed, sounding very much like a proud father. Peace is a sword stroke away. Kill Xena. Set me free and I will grant you the peace you desire and deserve, but you must hurry!

"I don’t know if I can..." Gabrielle murmured.

Mercy? Indecision? Where had that come from? Manus fought down the natural urge to prod, to possess. Instead he wheedled, cajoled and coaxed -- a technique that had proven successful with this subject in the past. I know what you have suffered at the hands of this woman. Abuse. Betrayal. Your young husband dead by her hand. The sword in your hand is justice. You owe him that. So, take her head...strike her down!’s murder...

Conscience now? Inwardly, Manus groaned and adjusted his argument accordingly.

It’s suicide, child, he countered sweetly. Xena recognizes her culpability in the events that have transpired in the past. She offers you her sword because death by her own hand is cowardice and such a thing is unfathomable to a warrior of her caliber. More than’s justice. Death at your hand is justice...for Perdicas...and Cyrene...justice for Diana and Lila. You have an obligation to them.

Gabrielle drew in a deep breath, bringing the broad sword up and back until it rested on her right shoulder. She pursed her lips and set her jaw; if Xena was going to offer her head, then, by the gods, she was going to take it.

Xena’s thoughts were similarly philosophic. Beheading, she mused, when done by the inexperienced was messy and painful. More often than not, it took repeated blows to completely sever the head from the body. She watched her friend’s face harden, watched the sword bobble and waver as it hovered above Gabrielle’s shoulder. From somewhere to her left, she sensed Elkton’s nervous presence as he tried to maneuver into a better position. She could make out the nervous cadence of the other Gabrielle chanting ‘No no no no no...’ She tuned it all out and focused her attentions on the intent features of her friend and executioner.

Enough! Take her head and be done with it! Manus fumed impatiently. Seconds, I have seconds, child!

"Any last words?" Gabrielle asked, parodying Xena’s trademark eyebrow lift.

Last words. In the instant before the blade began its devastating arc, Xena fixed on Gabrielle’s face. In her arrogance, her innate desire to set right what had gone so terribly wrong, she had designated herself the girl’s first kill. It seemed wholly inappropriate...and yet anything else was unthinkable if Manus was to be stopped. She would die in the presence of someone whom she loved best. It was all she’d ever hoped for in life. Only in that millisecond before she took the bard’s blood innocence did she stop to consider how Gabrielle would feel, but by then, it was too late. Forgive me, Gabrielle. "Just do it."

Gabrielle’s ears registered the flat command in Xena’s voice, while her heart heard something altogether different. Forgive me. Two words that had the impact of a forceful blow; she expelled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Forgive me: a request, a command, a plea...however she chose to label it, the fact was that Xena had taken up residence in her head, and Gabrielle reflected that the fit was perfect.

Forgive me? What rot! Manus had heard Xena’s prayer as well and he recognized its potential, even if Gabrielle did not. Focus, my child. Kill! Manus’ voice cut incisively into the heavy, febrile atmosphere. Kill her!

Gabrielle flinched as if struck hard; it went without saying that, as an executioner, she was a disappointment. She tightened her two-fisted grip on the sword hilt and cringed as a new mantra made its way into her head. Killkillkill... Kill! A one-word assault on the last remnants of her self-control. She looked down at Xena’s face and felt a fresh resolve slide beneath her, like a good gravel bed in a fast moving stream. As the enormity of what she was about to do sunk in, the sword in her hand grew unbearably heavy and fell to rest on her shoulder. With her last ounce of strength, she threw open the doors and windows in the jumbled, confusing mass that had been Manus’ playground. Light...clarity...memory...too long absent from conscious thought flooded the rooms, illuminating even the darkest recesses until she looked down at Xena with the expression of a woman who had just been shaken awake. For the first time in twenty-four hours, the bard focused on Xena in undeniable recognition. "Xena?" The broad sword drifted down slowly until it hung loosely from Gabrielle’s fingertips. Meeting Xena’s gaze, she was suddenly exhausted, her legs watery. The limitless reserve of energy from which she had drawn repeatedly over the last hours was nowhere to be found. Gone, too, was the hatred and rage, replaced by a weary confusion. She rummaged through her head, took a groping inventory of her heart, and shone a candle into her soul. To her surprise, Manus had moved out, and taken his tools with him. Gabrielle was stricken by a relief so profound her knees buckled. "Xena...what just happened?"

But Xena was too enraptured by the bard’s familiar, perplexed expression to answer immediately. She got to her feet; she wanted to embrace the girl, but something in Gabrielle’s stance kept her at a carefully measured distance. "Nightmare," she said. Then, sotto voce, with a wry smile, "Wakey, wakey." She reached out to steady the bard with one hand while the other relieved the girl of the heavy broadsword.

Gabrielle felt a warm hand close over her wrist, and her eyes traveled up the leather- bedecked arm to the concerned face of her friend, where she averted her gaze as she had only guilt and shame to show the warrior. As she looked away, she saw the mystic, Elkton, gaping at her in frank anticipation, and the prone form of Manus, as yet undisturbed on his altar. It was his still benign physical form that stirred her to action. "It’s not over," she said, her face grave. "Manus hasn’t been beaten."

"What’re you talking about?" Xena followed Gabrielle’s steady gaze to the dais where Manus lay, the deceptive picture of benevolence.

"He expects it," Gabrielle elaborated, turning again to Xena. "One life." She said it in the quiet, unexcited way that people save for the worst kind of disasters.

Xena’s heart clenched in her chest and a wave of fierce protectiveness came over her. Narrowing her eyes and grinning, she said, "You just leave Manus to me." Taking the girl more firmly by the arm, she turned to the old mystic. "Elkton, take Gabrielle and --" She saw his eyes go wide as he focused on something, and then she heard the gasp -- a whistling intake of breath that stole her own as she turned. What she saw caused the blood to drain from her face. Six inches of polished steel protruded from Gabrielle’s chest, just below the hem of her top -- the Sword of Psyche, sheathed in flesh and blood -- and the look on the bard’s face was more one of surprise than pain and for that, Xena was grateful. One glance from eyes that had seen many fatal wounds was enough to wring a strangled cry of anguish from Xena’s throat; her sword slipped from nerveless fingers as she exchanged cold steel for warm flesh. And then, almost as quickly as the lethal blade had appeared, it was withdrawn from its victim with a slick, sickening hiss. As Xena bore her precious, lifeless burden to the floor, she caught her first glimpse of the murderer.

Chapter XXIII


Distilled to jelly, Xena's legs folded beneath her. She drew the bard's lifeless body over her thighs to rest in her arms and sat there, numb, staring up in unabashed surprise at the murderer of her best friend. It was a cruel twist: to hold one twin, dying...dead, while the other looked down haughtily upon the scene. In the midst of this dreamlike execution, there was real blood on her hands. The sight of it filled her eyes with hot tears, but she willed them back. Weeping was an admission of defeat. She was far from defeated. She could act. She could exact revenge. As Gabrielle's warm blood coursed over her legs and pooled beneath her, Xena began compiling a mental list, only to be startled out of her reverie by the presence of a strong hand upon her shoulder. Without looking up, she knew it was Elkton.

My fault...He shook his head as he observed Xena, desolate, devastated over he body of her friend. The warrior whom some had said could not be moved shivered like a reed in a cool breeze. He wanted desperately to console her, to offer some explanation, but when he touched her mind he found there was no room for him. Which, he conceded, was probably best considering all he had to offer at the moment was soothing rhetoric and self-serving excuses. He had always been a man of good intentions -- as High Priest, prizing his connection with Morpheus and his intuitive grasp of things above all else. These aspects had served him well. Until tonight. Now, as he gazed down at Gabrielle’s lifeless body, the greater implications of her death were lost to him.

The image of Xena wordlessly rocking the body of her friend would be forever embedded in his memory. There was inexplicable beauty in her display of raw grief so it was with some reluctance that he centered his gaze on the young woman standing over Xena, and hissed, "Have you any idea what you’ve done?"

The girl tilted her head and furrowed her brow, perplexed by his attitude. "Oh, Teacher," she crooned. "Of course I do. You always taught us to think before we act."

Elkton’s mouth worked convulsively for a second and a light passed behind his eyes. "Lysandra? Is that you? Or is this another of Manus’ deceptions?"

Almost before the name had time to register on Xena’s already ragged emotions, the much-loved features of her friend blurred and resolved themselves into the vaguely-familiar visage of Lysandra, a promising country bard and Elkton’s prize pupil...storyteller, dream weaver ... murderer. She was taller than Gabrielle, by a head; she was not physically imposing, certainly not intimidating, and yet there was an unmistakable air of arrogance and superiority in her expression.

A half-dozen gruesome and painful ways to wipe that smug smile from the girl’s face sprang instantly into Xena’s mind. With a care and patience that belied her inner turmoil, Xena lowered Gabrielle to the floor and stood, taking her time, looking at the blood that stained her, letting her anger flourish, replacing the incapacitating chill of grief.

Lysandra saw her own reflection mirrored in a cobalt blue gaze of pure, unadulterated hatred. She gripped and re-gripped the sword in her hand as she stared into those angry, accusing eyes, into the very face of pain and grief given physical form. Feeling compelled to speak, she gave voice to the first logical words to come to her. "It had to be done," she said, a look of studied insolence about her. "There is more at stake here than --"

With an inarticulate cry of rage, Xena was on her feet, propelling Lysandra mercilessly against one of the support columns; her body remained pinned there, suspended a full six inches above the floor by the indelicate placement of Xena’s hands around her throat.

"Xena!" Elkton’s hands gripped Xena’s left forearm and tugged. His efforts were countered by unyielding bone and muscle. Mount Olympus would be more easily moved. "Xena, let her down!"

Lysandra sputtered and choked and looked fearlessly into Xena’s toothy grimace. "You d...don’t under..stand..." she croaked. She let the Sword of Psyche fall from her fingers. Her own hands clamped down upon Xena’s and she forced a thumb between her throat and Xena’s left hand. It was just enough. "Ask me why."

Xena retorted between clenched teeth, "You little --!" She stumbled slightly. There was no word, no descriptive in her impressive vocabulary that would adequately suit the girl. Xena hurried to fill the void. Tightening her grip on the girl’s throat, she roared, "Who died and made you Zeus?!"

Lysandra gasped for breath and kicked out feebly with her legs. "I can...I can explain..."

Elkton watched the girl struggle and couldn’t help feeling that it was all for show, designed to solicit sympathy from him, but if it was genuine, he couldn’t let her die by Xena’s hands. In the end, he chose to intervene as much for Xena’s soul as Lysandra’s life. "Xena," he said, trying to insinuate his body between Xena and Lysandra. "You can’t kill her!"

"Watch me," Xena growled without taking her eyes from the girl’s face. She repositioned her hands, centering the heel of her right palm over a prominent knob in the girl’s throat; Lysandra loosed an involuntary squeak.

Failing brute force, Elkton tried negotiating. "She’s as much a victim of Manus’ schemes as Gabrielle!" Xena’s eyes narrowed, the corner of her mouth twitched and he knew he’d found a chink in the armor. "Was Gabrielle responsible for her actions? No. She was a pawn, a victim... Lysandra is no different. Manus is the real villain here. Save your venom for him."

Lysandra took advantage of Xena’s momentary indecision to inject a verbal wedge and she chose her words with care. "One life..." she croaked. "Ring any bells?"

Intrigued, Xena loosened her grip. "Talk fast. I bore easily."

"I was there, with you and Manus in the dreamscape. It was me beside you at the campfire. I heard Manus’ offer to you. The same offer was made to Gabrielle."

Visibly stunned, Xena dropped her left hand to her side and allowed the girl to slide down until her feet rested on the floor, but she kept her pinned tightly to the column at the end by a strong right arm.

"Who made this offer?" Elkton interjected. "Manus?"

Lysandra waved his inquiry away as negligible. "Photis had the prophecy right. It was the blood of an innocent, and Gabrielle was the logical choice." The girl felt Xena’s fingers constrict around her throat.

"You’re lying," replied Xena flatly.

"I’m not," gasped Lysandra in retort. "You know I’m not!" Again, she felt Xena’s grip slacken, and again she used logic to stay her execution. "Because you know it’s just the kind of thing your little bard would’ve done...sacrifice herself to spare others. That sort of thing is fine if you’ve more lives than a cat, but it’s rather reckless if you’re a mortal."

Elkton narrowed his eyes and considered the teenager a moment, and when he spoke again, his tone was almost playful. "And in what category precisely do you fall, Lysandra?"

Xena brought her other hand to bear on Lysandra’s throat. "Let’s find out."

Lysandra’s eyes smouldered behind dark lashes. "I’m aware, Xena, that you could snap my neck with very little effort, and no conscience."

Xena’s grimace would’ve passed for a smile under different circumstances. "I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it."

Lysandra lifted an eyebrow in a mocking gesture. "How interesting you should choose those words." She darted her eyes to the side, and past Xena’s shoulder. "Look behind you." Elkton complied with the command, and while Xena gave Lysandra her undivided attention, she was in no mood to indulge the arrogant teenager’s whim. "Gimme a break," she said humorlessly.

"Okay," Lysandra retorted lightly, "don’t look behind you."

Xena’s patience was understandably non-existent. However, Elkton’s expression , a combination of surprise and dread, compelled her to turn and regard the focus of such rapt attention. Until she witnessed Manus raise himself up, she had forgotten the larger implications of Gabrielle’s death. The prophecy was fulfilled...and Manus was free.

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