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Lifetimes

by The Visitor
visitor@cyberus.ca

The VISITOR Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part I: OLD STORIES

One day, in a village called Potodaia, a young dreamer named Gabrielle met a crusading former warlord named Xena. One was seeking adventure; the other, redemption. On that day, an historic partnership was forged that would soon grow into a friendship like no other.
Their journeys were legendary.
They changed the world.

17 YEARS LATER...

A ramshackle inn just outside the village of Cirra. A place of ghosts. Some say it should have stayed dead, but still the people returned. From the ashes it was rebuilt, from death came a small sense of hope. Stories abound, though, and many travellers stay away from Cirra, birthplace of an evil that is seldom spoken aloud. Some, however, brave the legends, for whatever reasons...curiosity, hunger, desperation...no matter. On this night, as a cold wind blows outside, the few farmers and merchants gathered around the small fire of the inn listen halfheartedly to the tale being spun by the woman near the bar. In her ragged clothes, with that face prematurely aged by sorrow and despair, she attracts little attention. Still, those few who truly listen find themselves captivated by her words...her one remaining gift, she thinks to herself. A little something the Gods have spared me over the years. At least I can still spin a good yarn.

"Thus the stage was set for the fourth Olympic games, and the mighty Hercules once more presided over the events. With his wife Nemesis by his side, Hercules introduced the many competitors...among others, his lifelong companion and fellow Argonaut Iolaus, Atalanta, herself a former Olympic champion, and... Xena, the famed warrior princess!"

Some of the crowd bristle at the name now mentioned. The scars are old indeed, but some still remember...

"But the torch had barely been lit, when terror struck from on high, from the heights of fabled Mount Olympus! Great Hera, all-powerful Queen of the Gods, in her incessant hatred of Hercules, dispatched a trio of her deadly enforcers against the son of Zeus and his games of peace! The battle was joined by all the noble warriors there assembled! It shook the heavens, and the Earth. It was in this terrible struggle that noble Iolaus lost his life, after a lifetime of cheating death! And before the day was done, the enforcers claimed the life of Hercules' beautiful wife Nemesis as well, herself once having held the position of divine enforcer! But finally, with the aid of his remaining compatriots, Hercules managed to destroy Hera's assassins...but at what cost? His spirit was broken after that, some say. And soon, with no further reason to remain, Hercules called upon his father, the Great Zeus, and took his place on Olympus high, as a true immortal. His final promise to we mortals whom he loved so dearly was to protect us forever from the whims of his fellow Gods. Now his star shines forever in the skies above, and we all owe our thanks to the man who sacrificed what he loved most...his mortality...to keep watch forever over us. ...Thank you."

A small spattering of applause greets the bard. I used to be able to do better than this, she chastises herself! In the old days, I would have had this whole room...but the old days are gone, she reminds herself. A lone farmer, old and infirm, hobbles over and palms her a dinar, with thanks for granting him some small measure of joy on this miserable night. She thanks the fellow, and pockets the coin...one of few in her purse. She starts to wonder where she will sleep tonight, when a figure at the very back of the tavern stands up, tall and proud, and starts clapping! Who is this dotard, she wonders? She peers closely, examining this ancient fool, with long white beard and wild eyes. The surrounding patrons jeer for him to be silent, but nothing will dull his enthusiasm.

"Wonderful, wonderful! But I think I prefer you as a warrior, my little bard! HA HA HAH!"

Gabrielle stares more closely now, and listens to the old fool's voice...and she remembers. It's been seven years...but she remembers. And for the first time in six weeks, a smile crosses her troubled face.

"...Meleager?"

"Still remember me, little bard? Oh, I'm glad! Come, sit with an old friend! We can tell each OTHER stories, eh?"

Shoving her way through the small crowd, Gabrielle hurries her way towards Meleager's small table at the back. She leans her battered staff against the wall, and dumps her satchel at her feet. Now the happy drunk he had so long dreamed of being, Meleager orders up a fistful of ale from the bar.

"Meleager...it's been...FOREVER! What are you doing here?"

Meleager, no longer the MIGHTY, to be sure, takes a hearty slosh of his ale before answering. "My little bard. I can never adjust to that thought, you know. I can only recall you as a warrior. You had a fighting spirit, you did..."

"You're still an old fool. What brings you to these parts?"

"Meleager the mighty goes where he pleases, girl! And besides, I do so Love to hear your beautiful voice..."

Gabrielle lets out a little laugh.

"You don't do that much anymore, do you? Laugh? Or smile, I can see it in your face. You used to smile all the time, little bard. I fell in love with that smile."

Gabrielle gives Meleager a loving slap on the wrist. "Don't embarrass yourself, old man."

Meleager waves her off. "AAaaaahhh, I'm too old to worry about how I look. I've always loved you, little warrior. Always will. But I AM an old man now. I'm content to just be ALIVE, to love from afar. But I worry about you, Gabrielle. I've been to your home."

Gabrielle recoils a bit at the mention of home. Potodaia. How long has it been since she's been back? Four, five years?

"They all miss you there, you know. There's rumours that Lorius and his gang are hitting towns in that area."

Concern covers Gabby's face for a moment, then she slumps back down. "Joxer can deal with it. He's handled worse."

"He and Lila would like to see you again. Little Joran just had his tenth. Scrappy little bugger! Almost beat his uncle Meleager in an arm wrestle!"

"I'll get back...sometime. I'm not ready."

"I see. So tell me, little bard. This story you just told...it true? Were you there?"

"Naw, I had to miss it. Family business. Xena...told me about it afterwards. Really wanted to go, too. Heh. She and Atalanta had been scrapping for YEARS. Too bad they didn't get to square off there."

"When was the last time you saw her?"

Gabrielle's face grows old once more. A sadness falls over her, one she's carried around for a long time. "I don't remember...six years? What's the difference?"

"So go see her! You're still young, Gabrielle, take it from me. It's never too late."

"Xena made her choice. I have to respect that."

"Your life, little warrior. I just want to see your beautiful smile return before I die."

Gabrielle flashes a warm look at the old warrior. "You'll never die, Meleager. You're too stubborn."

"To Tartarus with that. I don't want to live forever, Gabrielle. I've found my peace, after a lifetime of looking. Now, all I want is to get you to find YOUR peace. If it be without Xena, then fine. Just don't let that bitch-whore whose spirit still chokes this place stand in the way..."

Gabrielle's face erupts into rage, and she almost leaps across the table into Meleager's face. "Don't you mention her name! Don't even say it, I mean it!"

Meleager's face turns timid, and he eases back in his chair. "Sorry, little warrior. Just trying to help..."

Gabrielle slowly lets the rage ease out of her heart, and flops back into her chair. She starts fumbling with the mug of ale in front of her, her thoughts elsewhere...a place long ago, a LIFETIME ago...and a single name, that she had tried so desperately to forget, now echoes in her tired ears like thunder...

Callisto...


The VISITOR Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part II: BAD DREAMS


Meleager always WAS a sly old fox. He had enough coin on him to rent a room for the two of us for the night. Always a gentleman, he even let me have the bed...how long has it been since I slept on anything but hard ground? Of course, I could almost FEEL that old lech's eyes on my bottom until he finally nodded off. Heh. Dirty old man.

As usual, Gabrielle took a long time to drift off. Sometimes she'd toss and turn for hours, wrestling with this demon or that. Seven years without a good night's sleep...long time. She tried to think of the good times, tried to remember all the victories, the friends, the loves...but those thoughts inevitably turned on the "little bard", and had to be chased out along with all the other ghosts. After a couple of hours, however, fatigue wins out, and Gabrielle drifts into the waiting arms of Morpheus. She no longer relishes the embrace of her one-time fiance, though.

"Damn it all," she berated herself as she had done many times before, "I used to love to dream."

In her dreams, Gabrielle sees herself as she when it all began. Happy. Full of life. Feasting away on her favourite meal; adventure. And she and Xena, as always, dined at the head of the table. Behold Gabrielle, bard and Amazon Princess, spinning great stories of heroism and legend, even as she and Xena felled the mightiest of Warlords with ease. Draco, Talmadeus, Cortes, not even Ares himself could stand before them. She sees Xena, the Warrior Princess, besting foes that would have made Hercules himself cringe. Always in control, always ready to stand and fight, always there for her, no matter what. And there are others, as well. She sees herself talking and laughing with old friends. Meleager, when he was still a warrior to be feared; Joxer, when he was most definitely NOT; Sly Autolycus, dashing and arrogant; Salmoneus, hiding a noble heart beneath a thick layer of cowardice; Perdicus...

Gabrielle sees herself now as she was seven years ago. Perdicus had been travelling with her and Xena for the better part of a year now, and their relationship had grown. As had Gabrielle's tummy, for she was heavy with child now, and it was ready to emerge. She remembered being so proud of Perdicus, that dull little boy from home who had changed into a fine and strong man. She could smell the wood of the peasant home they stopped in when her pains started. She could hear the nervous whinneys of Tympani and Marta, tethered outside and upset by Gabrielle's screams. She remembered feeling so safe, knowing her baby was being brought into the world by the one person she trusted more than any. And she was right to trust...her baby was born beautiful and healthy. She could see it as clearly now as if it happened today. Xena held the new life high up for her and Perdicus to see, and her enchanting smile lit up the room as she said the words, "It's a girl, Gabrielle. You have a daughter!"

They named her Sarina, after hers and Perdicus' childhood friend, lost long ago to a silly game. Gabrielle cried at the thought, her old friend living again through her new daughter. She was happy. They were all happy, as never before. And never again.

The next thing Gabrielle's dream shows her is a face...dark, in shadows, but still as familiar as her own. A face she sees in her dreams every night. She can feel the cold touch of her hands. Smell the putrid stench of death she seemed to drag around with her. She could even hear her sick, crazy laugh...

Gabrielle's eyes pop open. Seventeen years of instinct crash into her consciousness, and she immediately knows she and Meleager are not alone in the room. She leaps from her bed, snatching her staff up on the way. Gabby never fought much anymore, but she always practised. She didn't live this long being sloppy. Her eyes, trained by years of night-fighting, sneak attacks, and ambush, scanned the dark room quickly. It took little time for her to spot the figure in the doorway. Even with the dim light from the torch in the hall, she could make it...HER out. The flickering glow shimmered off the golden hair on the intruder's head. Gabrielle swung her staff around, ready for any attack, but the figure made no move. Silent and still as the grave, it was as if she wasn't even there. A ghost...

"Who are you?" she called out, but she already knew the answer. It was impossible, of course, but that had never stopped HER before. As Gabrielle's keen eyes adjusted to the darkness more and more, she could make out the battered leather armour, the bloodthirsty eyes, and worst of all...that smile. A sadistic grin worn by a madwoman. A decade of pain and anger welled up inside, as Gabrielle fought to keep control. Focus, remember, focus! Still, she couldn't stop the tears flowing, and the emotions burst forth in a wave. Gabrielle screamed at the silent spectre before her, hate and anguish leaping out through gritted teeth.

"You're dead. A HUNDRED TIMES OVER, you're dead! I killed you MYSELF the last time!! LEAVE ME ALONE!!"

Her tormentor made no move. No sound. Just stood there, eerie and evil, mocking and vicious.

"HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO KILL YOU?!?"

Gabrielle's shrill taunt still rang in her own ears, when she heard it...a whisper, almost imperceptible. But she heard it! That voice, the same one that stabbed her soul every day, every night. Gabrielle reeled for a moment...this was no dream. This is REAL. She waited a moment, and then, it came again. The same whisper, the same message. Gabrielle ran it through her mind again and again, then looked her demon in the eyes...and saw death. She exploded with almost a decade of fury, and charged wildly at the figure in the doorway. She screamed furiously, and swung her staff with more strength than she thought she had left in her. The force of the blow almost shattered the tired old weapon as it hammered into the frame of the door. Gabrielle glared wildly at the now empty space where her demon had been only moments before. Her breath came quick and ragged, and tears flowed freely down her face. Why? She asked herself. Why, after all this time? She barely even noticed when a troubled Meleager, roused from his inebriated slumber by Gabby's anger, placed a caring hand on her shoulder.

"...Why couldn't she have stayed dead this time?"

"What's happened, Gabrielle? Who was here?"

"It was her...it was her, she's come back."

Meleager paused a moment, hesitant to ask. "WHO's back?"

Gabrielle's head sagged like an old woman's. The fight flew out of her on tired wings, and she leaned against her battered staff wearily. When the answer came, her voice was scarcely more than a whisper itself. "Callisto. She's back."

Meleager leaned in tenderly. "Come, little bard. That witch has been dead for a long time. It's just...this place. It plays tricks on the mind. The spirits have this village cursed. Try and sleep."

Gabrielle snaps back to life, and shoves Meleager away with a force driven by a decade of hate. "I SAW her! She was RIGHT HERE! She SPOKE to me, damn her to Tartarus!!"

Drunk and tired, Meleager rights himself nonetheless, and looks back at his distraught companion with sadness. "All right, all right. WHAT did she say to you, then? What message does Callisto bring you, from beyond the veil?"

"She said she was coming back. For HER. She was coming for Xena." Gabrielle spends several moments pondering the implications of that, eyes wide and alert. "I've got to go to her. I've got to WARN her!"

"How...how will you find her?"

"I know where she is..The same place she's been hiding for more than half a decade. I have to go...now. Thank you for everything, Meleager." Gabrielle leans in and kisses the old warrior tenderly on the cheek, then gathers her few belongings up and starts to head out. Meleager tries to compose a response.

"Wait...WAIT! Are you SURE you aren't just, you know..."

Gabrielle stops and cocks her head at Meleager. "Crazy? Yes, I'm sure. It was HER, Meleager. And I promise you, I will not let her take away ONE MORE person I care about. I don't care what I have to do. Goodbye."

The tired bard walks off into the hall, then exits the tavern into the cold Cirran night. She pulls her ragged clothes tight around her to fight off the chill, and starts heading into the darkness, to find an old friend she hasn't laid eyes upon in years. Once, they shared a life. Now, as Gabrielle thinks about seeing Xena again, she wonders if they will even be FRIENDS when they meet. So much pain...

Worry about it when you get there, Gabrielle. Always remember, she reminded herself...focus.

But one thought kept repeating itself in Gabrielle's mind as she walked her lonely trail; I won't let her hurt me again. I won't.

Extra special thanks to BECKY, aka deanlu, whose "Celebrations of Life" (A dandy tale ALL Xenites should consider MUST reading) I incorporated into this chapter.

The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part III: A GOOD HORSE

It was after two days of walking, and not being any closer to her destination as far as she was concerned, that Gabrielle finally decided it was time to call on an old friend. Only in this case SHE was the old one. Normally she would never have risked it...It wouldn't do at ALL For his neighbours to learn that Gabrielle was still alive and kicking... but this was an emergency. Time was of the essence, and she couldn't afford a horse. Not that she wasn't used to walking. She still had vivid memories of her days walking alongside Xena, as she rode proudly along on dear Argo. So magnificent they looked. Gabby eventually got a horse of her own, naming her after her childhood pony, and after a while Argo was replaced as well. But Xena never was quite the same with Marta. After Argo was killed, it seemed like a part of Xena went with her. Maybe that's where it started, Gabrielle thought. As she sat in the small tavern, playing with her food, awaiting word of her former nephew's arrival, Gabrielle pondered the reasons behind hers and Xena's mutual departure...and stopped, as soon as she realized she was doing it. Ancient history, she told herself, nothing worth thinking about. Concentrate on the here and now. Just find her, and warn her. No matter what we have between us, I won't let Callisto sink her claws...

"Who let one of HIS kind in here?"

Gabrielle woke out of her reverie to hear the small commotion being raised by a group of locals seated at the bar. Half past noon and already soused. No respect for themselves, she thought, shaking her head. Then she looked at the source of their displeasure, and her eyes widened with recognition. That didn't take long! He's gotten fast...and big! Look how big he is now! Gabrielle's admiration for her newly arrived nephew...FORMER nephew...was tempered, though, by the bigoted comments of the lowbrows surrounding her in the bar. Does that kind of limited thinking STILL take place in this day and age, she wondered? The more things change...

He stood unwavering, despite the insults being thrown his way. He was a good, strong boy, this one. His mother wouldn't have it any other way. Gabrielle rose from her seat and ran over to him, giving the handsome centaurian youth a big hug.

"Phantius, thank you so much for coming. This means a lot to me."

Phantius returned her greeting with traditional centaur humility. "Anything for you, Aunt Gabrielle, you know that. Mother says hello, by the way."

Gabrielle led Phantius quickly out of the tavern, not wishing to cause a further scene. "How is Ephiny, Phantius?"

"As well as always. You know the old saying, 'uneasy is the head that wears the crown'. She does pretty well , though. My opinion, anyway."

"Better her than me!" Gabrielle laughed, recalling her brief stint in Ephiny's current shoes.

"I was wondering about that whole story," Phantius prodded. "Tell me about it."

"Don't tell me your mother never told you that story?!?"

"Oh, she told me. Several times, actually. But I remember all your visits, when I was young. And the stories you would tell. And no one could tell a story like you could, Aunt Gabrielle. I was hoping..."

I'm not your Aunt anymore, Gabrielle was thinking. "Well, I'm not quite the storyteller I used to be, but I'll give it a shot, just for you. Now, you know how, over fifteen years ago, I tried to save the life of an Amazon princess, Toreis, from your mother's tribe. As a result, she gave me her right of caste, making ME the new princess! Anyways, Xena and I stuck around for a while, straightened a few things out..."

"And saved my father's life." Phantius added.

"...and helped Phantes out of a jam. After that, we left the tribe, and continued on our way. It was several years later when Melosa, the queen of the tribe, was killed. Since I was technically the Princess, I was automatically named the new queen! How they tracked me down, I'll never know. But after a few weeks, I realized, I didn't want to be any Amazon queen! And by that time, your mother had relocated to the tribe, and you were being raised in the village with her and your fellow centaurs. So, with Xena's help, and a little luck, we managed to fake my death, and with my 'dying breath', I gave my right of caste to Ephiny. Not the first time I'd done that very thing, to be honest. Xena thankfully removed my 'body' for burial, even though several Amazons demanded it be burned in accordance with tradition."

Phantius chuckled. "Amazons ARE sticklers for tradition."

"You know it. Ephiny makes a fine ruler, though. Better than I ever could."

"Aunt, your message was a touch vague. I have been wondering what sort of assistance it is you want me to provide." Centaurs. They can change topics of conversation on a dinar.

"Phantius, I have to get to Salaya. It's a small village to the east of Sparta. It's very important, and I don't have much time. I..."

A quick smile crosses Phantius' face. "You need a ride?"

Gabrielle hangs her head. "I wouldn't ask, but...it's SO bad, Phantius, as bad as it could be..."

"What is it? Maybe I can help."

"No one can help. Not with her."

"Her? Someone giving you trouble, Aunt? You know I would never let anyone harm you, not if I could..."

"Phantius, it's Callisto! Please, I haven't much time!"

Phantius reared back a bit, involuntarily. "Callisto? You mean...she's REAL? I always thought she was just a...a story, to frighten children."

Gabrielle's head sank low again, and her voice almost cracked when she said, "I wish that was all she did to children."

After a moment of shock, Phantius cleared the cobwebs and snapped to attention. "I have to be back in four days...it's unavoidable. But I can take you most of the way. Are...you going to see Xena?"

"I'm going to warn a former associate about a threat to her life. That's all." Gabrielle's face betrayed the emotions behind her words. It didn't go unnoticed by Phantius.

"Hop on, Aunt. I swear I'll get you there in time."

Gabrielle allowed herself a moment of sentiment, and delivered Phantius a warm kiss on the cheek. "Thank you so much for this, Phantius. I don't know how to thank you."

"Aunt Gabrielle, you and Xena saved my father's life, my MOTHER's life, and then brought me safely into this world! I would brave the fires of Tartarus for either of you. Now come, we're wasting daylight!"

Slinging her handbag over her shoulder, Gabrielle eases herself onto Phantius' back and settles in for the journey ahead. "Try and take it easy on the bumps, Phantius. I haven't exactly ridden much lately."

"As smooth as the wind, Aunt, and twice as fast!" With that, Phantius set himself onto a speedy trot. Gabrielle was struggling to hold on at first, but soon settled into the ride, memories of her and Tympani returning as if they had happened yesterday. She tried to keep such thoughts in her head, instead of the creeping fears that had hammered at her for two days straight. Visions of death and pain that had haunted her for seven years, and a maniac who brought her happy world to a crashing halt in the twinkling of an eye. And now, she threatened what little she had left, laughing off the supposedly unbreakable hold of the underworld with characteristic venom.

Yes, Gabrielle tried very hard to keep those thoughts far from her mind as she and Phantius made their way towards the village of Salaya. Instead, she closed her eyes, and remembered the day, years ago, when Xena told her, quite mysteriously, that she had a surprise for her. She recalled thinking how oddly Xena was acting, maybe because she had never DONE anything like this before. A gift...Gabrielle remembers Xena opening the stable door, and then leading that beautiful black mare out. Her coat literally shone in the afternoon sun! She was so pretty...and when Xena handed her the reins, and said, "She's for you", Gabrielle couldn't help but start to cry. Even now, a small tear creeps out of Gabrielle's eye, and she holds on tight to that image of her and Xena, riding off that glorious day...side by side. Together.

Xena...why did you leave me all alone..?


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part IV: JOURNEY'S END

Phantius had been as swift and strong as he had promised. After two and a half days of almost relentless riding, the charming youth had to turn back, if he was to be home in time for his place in the annual hunting tourney. Gabrielle bid him a fond farewell, and watched proudly as he started his return. She waved him goodbye with one hand, and massaged her sore rear with the other. I may have made good time, Gabrielle thought with a smirk, but boy, could I have ever used a saddle!

Of course, she didn't tell Phantius that. Just like she didn't tell him how she stayed awake all night, every night, waiting for that witch to return to haunt her further. But it never happened. And now, more than four days after starting this journey, Gabrielle was forced to stop for a second and wonder if her old friend Meleager had been right after all. HAD she imagined her encounter with a ghost from her past? Was her mind finally starting to play the tricks on her that she had seen happen to some of the elder women of her village? She wasn't THAT old, was she..?

No. It was her. I'm not so deluded in my thinking that I can't tell dream from reality. Besides, there's no turning back now. I'm not even a half day's walk from Salaya. I haven't been this close to her in six years...Gods, what am I going to SAY to her?!? I hadn't even thought of that! She'll think I'm as mad as Meleager does. Just a silly girl, looking for an excuse to see the mighty Xena again. HAH! Not likely...

Driving such insecurities out into the breeze, Gabrielle promptly resumed her trek on foot, her battle staff helping to ease the few miles travel between her and her destination. Along the way, she tried to keep herself from thinking about what she was doing, and who she was going to see. It wasn't easy. She found herself wishing she hadn't had to sell her pan flute last year. Nothing set her mind at ease like a nice happy tune.

It was no more than two hours into her walk towards Salaya that she encountered them. As she made her way along the trail, three young men appeared on the road in front of her. Nothing terribly unusual...except Gabrielle saw the look in their eyes...one she had learned long ago to recognize as a telltale sign of trouble approaching. Big lads...trying to conceal their daggers, but she knew all the tricks by now. They started moving out, spreading around, trying to surround her. Gabrielle felt an old voice talking in her ear, telling her what to do. She surrendered to the instinct. Act, don't react.

"Afternoon, ma'am. Could you give us directions? We seem to have lost our way."

Gabrielle's grip on her weathered staff tightened. "I'll say. Wrong target, boys. Leave now and you won't get hurt. I'm in kind of a hurry."

The one who seemed to be in the lead, a blonde boy in his twenties, noticed the edge in his prey's voice. He should have paid more attention to it. "Get her!"

The two who were circling in from the sides darted for Gabrielle. She threw down her handbag and grasped her staff with both hands. A chill of anticipation ran through her spine...I haven't fought since...when, Corinth? A flood of memories inundated her as the adrenaline flooded...the day she first received her staff from the Amazons, her victory alone against the gorgon at Loesha, and of course that time she actually gave Ares himself a whack..! HOW had she survived THAT one..? Time enough to reminisce later, silly bard, you're in the middle of a fight! Gabrielle watched intently as the nearest attacker drew his dagger, and lunged at her with it. She sped her staff around in a flash, relishing the echo as it cracked against his thick skull.

Her second foe, foolishly undeterred by his compatriot's quick defeat, hurled himself at the warrior-bard with murderous zeal. Gabby deftly ducked his ham-fisted assault, and flipped the reckless lad overtop of her with a maneuver she learned fifteen years earlier. She leapt to her feet in an instant, her heart pounding with the thrill of battle. Surprisingly, her opponent was up and ready in short order as well! The kid has potential, Gabrielle mused. Hopefully, he'll realize the error of his ways, when he comes to. She waited patiently for the boy to attack again, then let fly with a nasty blow to his temple. She didn't envy the pain he'd awake to, but then, she didn't ask to be mugged, either. Now, where's the third one...?

"Come on, boys, I got the goods!"

Gabrielle spun and saw the last of them running off down the trail, as if his life depended on it. And he was carrying her handbag.

"NO!"

In a second, Gabby reached down and grabbed a dagger out of one of her fallen opponent's hands. She spun it about a few times in her hand to get it's heft, then threw it with everything she had. The last of her attackers fell like a stone as the weapon dug sharply into his calf. He screamed out as he hit the ground, and Gabrielle ran over to him, grabbing hold of her bag and tearing it quickly from his grasp.

"This--does not--belong--TO YOU!!"

"AAAHHhhhh...my leg! Help me..."

Ignoring his pleas for the moment, Gabrielle opened up her bag and quickly scanned it's contents. She breathed a sigh of relief to see everything still in it's place. With two fingers, she warmly stroked the cold metal hide of one item in particular...

"Please...it hurts..."

Snapping out of her sentimentality, Gabby grabs a few clean rags out of her bag and kneels down beside the fallen youth. She repositions his leg, roughly, and grabs hold of the hilt of the knife. He whimpers.

"Hold still. This'll hurt...a lot. Maybe next time..."

A swift yank, and the blade comes free. He suppresses a scream. Gabrielle tosses the weapon and starts cleaning and bandaging the wound.

"...You'll think twice before trying something like this!" She worked diligently, and deftly, just like she was taught. She'd run into Hippocrates about four years ago, and was almost stunned by how proficient he had become. She picked up a few pointers from him that even Xena hadn't known! Too bad I don't have any thread, Gabrielle mused. Oh well. A nice limp might help the message sink in a bit.

Dressing the leg as best she could with her few supplies, Gabrielle tied it off tight, earning another cry from her patient.

"Now listen. Your friends will be awake soon. Get them to walk you to the inn just down the road. You need to stay off that leg for a few days. And be nice. You've seen what the opposite gets you."

"Th-thank you...I'm sorry..."

Gabrielle rises to her feet. "Yes you are. But you don't have to stay that way your whole life. Think about it." Leaving him to suffer in silence, Gabrielle gathers up the rest of their weapons, and stuffs them in her bag. Then, staff in hand, heads on down the road again. It's only after a few minutes that her adrenaline cools down enough--Gods, that was WONDERFUL!--for her to notice she still has blood all over her hands. Clean rags are all gone...she looks around, and sees a small stream through the bushes. In a few moments, she's kneeling down, washing her hands off, watching as the small pool of blue water is stained crimson.

She laughs a bit to herself. Blood Innocence...she hadn't rolled THAT phrase around in her head for a few years. What's it been...thirteen years, more? Gods, I remember how I cried after my first kill. Xena tried so hard to tell me it was okay, but I wouldn't listen. Just a frightened little girl.

And now you're a tired old woman, spending too much time living in the past. Focus on the present, Gabrielle. Do what you came to do, then get on with your life...such as it is. Gabrielle stood up again and dried her hands roughly on her skirt, then headed off with renewed vigor.

Evening was just starting to force it's way into the sky when Gabrielle arrived at the outskirts of Salaya. She'd only been here once before, almost ten years ago. She made her way into the village, keeping her eyes peeled, trying to keep her heart from racing too fast. I can't believe I'm here...she's so CLOSE...

A burly old farmer working by the side of the road caught Gabrielle's eye, and she walked over. He saw her and gave a friendly wave.

"G'evening, Miss. Anything I can help you with?"

This is it, Gabrielle. Be strong. "I'm looking for the farm of a man called Darius. I have a..."

The old farmer's face turned serious. "Aw gee, I'm afraid you're a little late for that, Miss. Poor Darius, he passed away a couple years back. Damned shame. Were you close to him?"

Dead?!? Gods, no, I can't be too late! Calm down, calm down... remember, he's not the one you're interested in. She could still be here. "Ummm, actually, I was really looking for... his wife. You know,..."

The smile returned to the farmer's face, and he spat out a hearty laugh. "Oh, the farmer-princess? Yeah, she's still here. Took over the farm after Darius shuffled off. She and the kids keep the place running mighty good, too. You just keep going up this road, 'til you get to the town meeting hall. Then hang left, and you can't miss it. It's the one with the really big, mean-lookin' scarecrow!"

"Thank you very much." Gabrielle waved politely and started heading up the road. A cold sweat started to form on her brow. Come ON, Gabrielle, she badgered herself, what's the big deal? SHE's the one who did the leaving, remember? You have nothing to be nervous about. Nothing.

And, in a short few minutes that seemed to Gabby like years, she found herself staring at what was, without question, the biggest, meanest looking scarecrow she had ever seen. Yeah, that's about her style. Now, if I could just stop shaking...

Gabrielle was about to head for the main house, when she caught glimpse of movement from the field in behind. She darted towards it, her heart pounding now harder than it had in over six years. She ran as fast as she could, stopping when she got close enough to make it out. A woman...no, not A woman...HER. You could feel her presence from the road. What's that she's pulling...is that a ploughshare?!? Look at her...she's in better shape now than she was before! She looks like she's added over ten pounds of solid muscle. Oh, Hercules give me strength, I don't know if I can do this...

Out on the field, the master of this farm tends to her field the same as she has for the last two years. Who needs an OX? she had told her neighbours. They laughed, but they stopped pretty quick. Sweat seeped into her thick blouse, as her powerful legs dug ever harder into the soil. Her diligence had yielded a record crop this last season, and with a little luck...

Xena stopped in mid stride. Something was...wrong? No, but still, she felt something...someONE...that she hadn't felt in a long time. She discarded the straps of her ploughshare and looked about her. In an instant, she saw the solitary figure standing out near the house. And in that same instant, she recognized her. How could she not? She hadn't been out of Xena's thoughts for a single day since they first met. Xena could feel a lifetime's worth of emotion flooding to the surface. Her whole body shook, as if she had been physically struck...she's HERE! She's really HERE! When she cried out, it was almost involuntary. She couldn't have stopped herself even if she had wanted to try.

"GABRIELLE!"

Gabrielle leaned her head back, and steeled herself. Just do what you came to do, Gabrielle. That's all you have to do.

"Hello, Xena."

The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part V: BITTER REUNION

They just stood there, staring at each other for what seemed like forever. Xena's eyes were almost brimming with tears, and a joy she hadn't felt in ages welled up inside her. Gabrielle was trying hard to keep a cool facade going. Give her the message. Then you can go. That's all you have to do.

After a while, Xena broke the standoff. She bolted over to where her former companion was standing. She couldn't contain her enotions for another second...and she had full well expected Gabrielle to be feeling exactly the same way. But when she got close enough to clearly see the look of hurt and anger in Gabrielle's face, a terrible shudder passed over Xena's heart. And she realized this wasn't going to be the reunion she had dreamed of at all.

"Gabrielle? Please, what's the matter? It's been so long..."

Gabrielle straightened her shoulders, struggling not to be too intimidated by Xena's always overwhelming presence. "I came to give you a message. A warning, really. That's all."

Xena looked confused. "A message? The first time we've seen each other in six years, and you have a MESSAGE to deliver? Gabrielle, come on. I've missed you."

"MISSED me?" Gabrielle's attempts at controlling her emotions failed as quickly as she feared they would. "How can you say that? If you cared so much for my company, then why did you leave?"

"I...Gabrielle, I explained that. I was tired. I'd been fighting my whole life, and I couldn't do it any more. I just wanted to...to settle down, and devote my life to something other than waging war. I thought you understood...that it was okay with you."

"If all you wanted to do was not fight anymore, then why didn't you let me join you? Why did you make me stay behind? We'd been together for TEN YEARS, and all of a sudden you just throw it all away?!?"

The former warrior's head sagged, and her shoulders drooped. She didn't know how to answer. "I'm...I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I.."

"Sorry?" The accusatory edge to Gabrielle's voice was as sharp as a knife. "Fine. Thanks. Apology accepted. Glad that's all cleared up."

"Gabrielle, PLEASE..."

"Xena, Callisto's back. That's what I came to tell you. She said she was coming for you."

Xena reeled. This is too much all at once, she screamed inside herself. Six years, and then THIS..? "Callisto? Gabrielle, how can that be?"

Gabrielle snapped defensively. "Don't you patronize me, don't you DARE patronize me!"

"I wasn't! I just meant...Gabrielle, are you sure?"

"I know what I saw. It was her. And she hasn't changed her tune in fifteen years. She wants YOU."

That name started reverberating in Xena's head like an echo. Callisto. She thought she had left that anchor far behind. But even now, the chain started pulling again. How many more would be hurt this time? Because of the monster I let loose on the world? How many deaths will I be responsible for?

Gabrielle caught the contemplative look on Xena's face, and let her stance soften ever so slightly. "I heard about Darius. I'm sorry."

That seemed to snap Xena back to the world, and she looked again on her old friend. "Thanks. He was a good man. Lycus and Sarica tool it pretty hard, but they've bounced back."

"What about...what was his name...Argolis?"

"He left a few years back. Decided he wanted to see the world. He made it back for the funeral, though."

"Mmmm. Well, listen..."

"Do...do you want to stay for a while? It must have been a long trip. You know, Sphaerus' farm is just on the other side of the village! And there's someone else you should see as well."

Gabrielle looked up at Xena's face, and saw what LOOKED like genuine affection. Have I been judging too harshly all these years? Maybe...maybe I could try...

However, before Gabrielle could respond, a sudden frown crossed Xena's face, and her eyes widened just a little. "Or...well, maybe you could come back ANOTHER time. We're...you know, it's coming up to harvest, and things are a little busy right now, so..."

As fast as it left, anger leapt into Gabby's heart. "I don't BELIEVE it! After all these years, you're STILL trying to drive me away! Fine, I can take a hint!" Gabrielle turned to leave, but Xena snapped a quick hand on her shoulder.

"Gabrielle, wait! That's not it, honestly! It's just..."

She turns back, and stares devastatingly into Xena's piercing blue eyes. "What? Can't you tell me the truth, even now? Right now, you tell me! WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME ALONE?"

Xena looked back into Gabrielle's eyes, eyes that were once full of life and innocence, and now spoke only of bitterness and pain. It broke her heart. Her voice was barely audible, and every word hurt. "I did what I had to do. Gabrielle, you and I shared so many things...no one ever meant as much to me as you, you must believe that. But...I brought you SO much pain. How many times did you almost die because of me? How many terrible memories did I cause? And Callisto...she wouldn't EXIST if it weren't for me! ALL she ever wanted was me, but I wasn't enough. Every person she hurt or killed, I was responsible for. Look at poor Diana...Callisto BUTCHERED that sweet girl, for pity's sake, and just because she LOOKED like me! But after what she did to you...I couldn't let you be hurt because of me again, I COULDN'T! I have never forgiven myself for that. And I never will. I'm SO sorry..."

Both women had lost their battles to hold back tears. "You were...PROTECTING me? That's IT? You...you arrogant BITCH! I was not a CHILD anymore! How DARE you make my decisions for me?!?"

"You were in danger just being NEAR me...you had Perdicus then, anyways. That was..."

"Perdicus...you know, I haven't seen him in almost as long as you? We just couldn't..couldn't go on together. He was wonderful, but...it was YOU, Xena, it was ALWAYS you! You were EVERYTHING to me, and you left me when I needed you the most!"

Xena swept her hair back with a shaky hand. She couldn't recall ever being this far out of control, and she didn't like the feeling. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Gabrielle. I only wanted to keep you safe."

"And I suppose that's why you want me to go NOW, right? Because of Callisto? Well, I'm STAYING! This isn't finished, not on your life!"

Xena extended a friendly hand, which Gabrielle promptly knocked away. "I--I'll have Lycus get a room ready..."

"I think it would be better if I stayed somewhere else tonight." Gabrielle tried to get her quavering voice under control, with only moderate success. "For now, at least."

"Right...sure. Ummm, there's an inn...or no, Sphaerus would be glad to take you in. I can show you the..."

"I'll find it." Gabrielle turnand starts heading off, but stops after a few paces. She reaches into her bag, and pulls out something she's been carrying around for more than half a decade. She half turns, and tosses it into Xena's hands. "If she really is back, you may need that again. See you tomorrow."

Gabrielle walks off, and Xena watches her go with a heavy heart. She looks in her hand, and a rush of nostalgia sweeps over her as she once again holds her Chakrum aloft. Hasn't even rusted, she notes with a chuckle. Soon enough, she lets it drop down to her side. For almost half an hour, Xena stands alone in the growing darkness, until she hears a voice from the house calling her name. She turns lethargically, and sees beautiful Serica standing in the doorway. With little enthusiasm, she makes her way towards her. The look on her adopted daughter's face is one of noticeable concern.

"Are your chores done?"

"Xena...who was that woman? Was it...Gabrielle?"

"We'll talk about it tomorrow, honey. Get some sleep."

Serica can't help but notice the shiny weapon in Xena's hand. "Will...we talk about THAT, too?"

"Later, Serica. Later." She casts a fond but stern glance in the girl's direction, and she quietly backs off to her room. Xena plops herself down in a chair, feeling as exhausted as she ever has. She tosses her Chakrum limply onto a table, and leans back. Ignited by the furor of the last few minutes, Xena's mind finds itself wandering...back to that terrible day, six years ago, when she turned her back on her best friend in the world...she clenched her eyes, and didn't fight the memory this time. She had to remember. She was so sure she had done the right thing...but maybe Callisto was right all along. Maybe all I can do is bring pain...and death.

The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part VI: TRAGEDY

SIX YEARS AGO...

Perdicus had just put the finishing touches on the new home. He and Xena had built it with their own hands, for him and Gabrielle to raise their child in. Little Sarina was almost a year now, and was as precocious a little thing as this tiny farming community had ever seen. She seemed to love her cousin Joran with a passion, and he responded in kind. Joxer was, of course, wonderful with both of them. Despite his ferocity in combat, he always retained that childlike quality that Lila had fallen in love with. They both helped out so much during that first year, but none more so than Xena...she doted on Sarina as if she were her own, perhaps still feeling guilty about what had happened to her own child, all those years ago. Whatever, little Sarina couldn't have had a more loving Godmother. Her first word, in fact, was "Zee-na?", a moment that actually brought a tear to the warrior-princess' eye, much to Gabrielle's delight.

Night was starting to fall in Potodaia, and a chill wind was blowing. There was a small celebration in town that evening, heralding the beginning of the new season. Pharis had spared no expense in hiring several exotic entertainers, and there was a good spectacle to see, and a fine feast to match. Enjoying the festivities, with her sister, her husband and her best friend by her side, Gabrielle reflected on her life at that moment and thought to herself with a beautiful smile, "I have never been happier than now."

It was past Sarina's bedtime, of course, so she had left her daughter at home. Lila's friend Ariana watched over her, as she had several times before. Joxer had some small security matters to attend to, but promised he would be along to join Lila and the others before too long. Strangely, though, he WAS taking too long, and Lila started to worry. She always was a worrier, Gabrielle chuckled. Still, she agreed to go with her sister to see what was keeping her husband. They left Xena and Perdicus at the celebration and headed across the village to Lila and Joxer's home. When they arrived, the door was open.

Gabrielle and Lila entered the house cautiously. Inside, they soon heard a low moaning. Gabrielle lit a torch, and there on the floor was Joxer, badly cut and beaten to within an inch of his life. Once upon a time, Gabrielle would not have been surprised by such a sight, but now...

Lila leapt over to her fallen husband, and cradled his head in her arms. Gabrielle ran into the other room to check on little Joran. He was safe and sound, thank the Gods. She returned to Lila, who was so worried, so scared, but Joxer refused to lie still. He called to Gabrielle, though his voice was weak...She came, and kneeled down beside him.

"Who did this, Joxer? What happened?"

He answered painfully, fear evident in every word. "It... was...C-Callisto! She's...back..."

The words had barely had time to register in Gabrielle's mind when the cry came from outside. A terrible warning that filled her with dread. One single word:

Fire!

Gabrielle's head snapped up. She stared out the open door with a sense of fear she had not felt in ten years. In an instant she was on her feet and darting outside, then veering off in the direction of her home. She prayed the whole time.

The first wave of smoke hit her square in the face as she got closer, and she almost screamed. Now she could see the bright red glow, rising over the tops of the other homes. She ran harder than ever before in her life. Now, she was only seconds away...and she was close enough now that she could hear her laughing...

She rounded the final corner and looked on her home. Before it stood a vision of death from hers and Xena's past...a creature of evil that was supposed to have been dead and buried. She stood, torch in hand, gazing madly on the unforgiving inferno that engulfed Gabrielle's small house, and she laughed that horrible laugh, so loud and so hard the Gods on high must have heard it. But over it all, over Callisto's mocking laughter, over the din of the blaze and the terrified screams of the townspeople, Gabrielle could swear she heard her daughter crying out to her. For the last time.

Gabrielle saw it all in less than a second, watched her world die, and just kept on running. Straight for the pyre that her home had become. If it hadn't been for Perdicus tackling her and holding her back, she too would have gone up in that conflagration. So many times since that day she had wished he had let her go. But Perdicus wrapped his arms tightly around her, and told her there was nothing they could do, and lied so valiantly about how everything would be all right. And all Gabrielle could do was stare and scream...scream the name of her baby girl, her own little piece of beauty that she had brought into this world, maybe the most beautiful thing that had ever lived. Now just a memory...just like that.

"Sarina...oh, no, please, no...PLEASE, NO!! DON'T TAKE HER FROM ME!! SARINA!! Sarina..."

After who knows how long, Gabrielle stopped screaming, and just lay there, shaking in Perdicus' arms. Slowly, he stood, and held her up with him. He tried to look into her eyes, despite the tears that flooded both their faces.

"Gabby? Gabby, please, listen to me! GABRIELLE!"

But Gabrielle wasn't listening to him. Instead, she heard other voices...a friend, a good friend...Xena? Yes, Xena. And she was angry, as angry as she had ever heard her. She was screaming at someone, but who? Gabrielle turned her head and looked through her bleary eyes at Xena, sword drawn, squaring off with...her. The woman who...

Without another thought, Gabrielle pushed Perdicus away violently, and turned and ran. As fast as her legs would carry her, she ran, back to her sister's house. Her legs screamed at her to slow down, but she wasn't listening anymore. Why listen? The world doesn't make sense anymore anyways, not without Sarina. Gabrielle ran like a woman possessed until she arrived back, to find Joxer slowly rising to his feet. Lila saw the devastation in Gabrielle's eyes, but before she could ask, Gabrielle grabbed Joxer's sword and left again.

"Callisto, do you have any idea what you've DONE?!?" Xena was so enraged she could barely speak. She was gripping her sword so tightly, her fingers were starting to bleed. "You worthless, vicious..."

Callisto waved a warning finger at Xena. "Tut-tut, Xena. Sticks and stones. What's done is done, isn't that so? Besides...what are you gonna do about it?" She grinned like the madwoman she was, the lust for blood dripping off her words.

Xena stared at her so hard, her eyes felt like they would burst out of their sockets. Tears welled up, but she wouldn't allow them. Not yet. "I'm going to kill you."

Callisto threw her head back and screeched out that hellish laugh of hers once more. "KILL me? Old news, Xena. Been there, done that. Still, my sympathies. TOO bad about your pretty little god-daughter. Maybe NOW you'll start to KNOW what it FEELS..."

The blade burst through Callisto's chest like a lightning bolt, taking the breath from her taunts. Stunned, she stared down at the shiny protrusion, dripping with her own blood. She choked out one last chuckle, then collapsed onto the ground. She slid cleanly off the sword, and Gabrielle held tightly onto it as she watched Callisto hit the ground. She didn't even look up, not once, to see the look of horror on Xena's face.

"Gabrielle?"

Whatever was left inside Gabrielle snapped then and there, and she raised the sword high. With a yell of rage, she brought it down on her fallen tormentor, and again, and again. She screamed and screamed as she hacked away at the cause of her pain. She struck blow after blow, 'til her arms felt as if they would fall off. And then she struck again. Her bellows were almost feral, gut-level howls of pain and fury. It took Xena and Perdicus both to pull her off. It wasn't enough, she screamed. It would never be enough.

They later discovered that one of Callisto's surviving priestesses had forged some sort of supernatural pact, to exchange her life for her mistress'. But explanations were of little importance anymore. It was almost a week before Gabrielle stopped crying. The mood in Potodaia was like that of a tomb. Perdicus and Lila tried to reach Gabrielle constantly, but she was inconsolable. And Xena...Xena was so distant after the incident. Something had changed inside of her now. She wouldn't talk to anyone about it, though, but she stayed by Gabrielle the whole time nonetheless. After about a month or so, Gabby finally started to return to a semblance of normality. She was at least walking and talking, a marked improvement from her previous state. It was then that Xena made her announcement.

"Leaving? But...but why? Where are you going?"

"My days as a warrior are over, Gabrielle. I'm...tired. I don't want to fight anymore. I'm going somewhere where I can live my life in peace."

"Well...then I'm coming with you!"

"No, Gabrielle. You and Perdicus belong here."

"But...Xena.."

"Gabrielle, this is something I have to do...on my own. Darius has a farm in a town called Salaya. That's where I'm headed."

"Xena, please don't leave, not NOW!"

"Be brave. You have people here who love you. You'll be fine."

"No, Xena, you can't go! I need you here, I do!"

"You're strong Gabrielle. Believe that. When you're stronger, feel free to visit. But I've got to get going, if I want to make camp before nightfall."

"You're leaving NOW? But...Gods, don't I even get to say goodbye?!?"

Xena leans over and embraces the little bard with all her might. She hopes the tremble in her voice won't give her away. "Goodbye, Gabrielle. I have always loved you, you know that."

Gabrielle was speechless. After a moment they separated, and Xena stroked her hair fondly. Then, she simply turned and walked away. Gabrielle felt like crying, but doubted she had any tears left inside of her. She just stared dumbly, watching her partner walk out of her life with barely an minute's explanation, and wondered why everything was crashing down around her. Then Xena stopped, and turned around. She stared into Gabby's eyes again, then let a smile cross her face. She unhooked the metal disc that hung so faithfully from her hip and tossed it towards the bard. Gabrielle caught it and held on tight.

"I won't be needing it anymore." she said. And then she was gone.

And Gabrielle discovered that she still had some tears left after all.


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part VII: DIVINE INTERVENTION

Halfway through the night, Xena awoke with a start in the chair she somehow drifted off in. She was in her kitchen, her chakrum staring silently at her from the table. Almost absent-mindedly, she wiped the half dried tears from her cheeks that had fallen while she dreamed. Potodaia...Sarina...Callisto. Six years, or a million? What did it matter?

Standing up top her full height, Xena crept quietly out of the house, careful not to disturb Lycus and Serica. Emerging into the crisp night air, she took a deep breath to remind herself she was still alive. Longer than I've had any right to be, she laughed. Sometimes she marvelled that she could even still MOVE after the life she'd led. But country life seemed to agree with her. As she crossed her field towards the stable, warm thoughts of the last few years here crossed her mind. She had had a good life with Darius...so sweet he could be sometimes. He taught her a few things, about life. About peace. Still, even right at the end, he knew...he had ALWAYS known, she supposed, that she never truly loved him. Just the life. The calm, after a lifetime of torment, and bringing the same to others. The kids were a gift from the Gods, true. I NEVER thought I would make a half-decent mother! They've been good for me, I think. And I even think I've been good for them. It's nice to think I've brought SOMEONE in this world something, other than pain.

With a squeaky creak, Xena hauled the stable door open and made her way in. Just the one horse here right now, old Moerae. Silly old girl. I think you're ready to retire now too, aren't you girl? That's all right, you don't have to answer. I can recognize a tired face when I see one.

Xena stood silently for a while. She was unsure about what she was about to do. It wasn't the sort of thing she usually did, but then, today has not been her usual day. Her mind was still reeling from it all. Gabrielle...

Summoning up her courage, Xena lowered herself to her knees, and propped her arms up atop a bail of hay, lacing her fingers together. It was clumsily done. It was the first time she had done it in...how long? She couldn't remember. Had she EVER done this? Xena found herself suppressing a shudder. Get a hold of yourself, "warrior princess", she scolded herself. You've fought Titans, you can do this.

And so, for the first time in a long, long time, Xena Warrior Princess closed her eyes and prayed.

"...You know I don't do this very often. I'm not the type. I've always depended on myself and my own inner strength to guide me through whatever life had to throw at me. So far it's worke out pretty well, or so I thought. But now... Hercules, I just don't know what to do. The living embodiment of everything that was reprehensible and evil in me, a creature I had thought long dead, ...WHY? Why is she back, after all this time? Haven't I atoned? Haven't I and all those around me suffered enough? And sweet Gabrielle... You know how I feel about her. I've never loved anyone more. I COULDN'T love anyone more. I swore I would never hurt her, ever again, and that's EXACTLY what I've done. Please... help me. Help me..."

And then Xena heard the voice, as gentle as she remembered it, coming from behind her...

"All you ever had to do was ask."

Xena turned her head, and saw him. He stood so regally, but with the bravery and humility that marked him as something special, even among Gods. His hair shone even in the darkened stable, and moonlight somehow found it's way to the reflective gauntlets he sported on his forearms. Everything about him spoke of the glory of Olympus. He was divine. He was Hercules.

"It's been a long time, Xena." He smiled his beautiful smile, and she suddenly found it difficult to stand. As gallant as always, he extended a helping hand. When she took it, she could feel the little hairs on the back of her neck standing on end.

"Yeah...a long time. You're...looking good, Hercules." Why did she feel like a little girl? She had been...intimate with this man, back when he WAS a man. Godhood, she supposed, is just one of those things that permanently changes a relationship.

"You too. You know, sometimes I regret leaving. It was--a lot simpler, back then. Me and Iolaus, rolling into town, never fearing death, unbeatable. I miss those days." There was a noticeable sadness in Hercules' eyes, even deeper than the loss that haunted them before. Xena noticed, and became a little less sorry for herself than she had a moment earlier.

"I called to you tonight because...I'm feeling a little, I don't know, lost. Two people came back into my life tonight. And neither of them seem to like me very much."

"You're wrong, Xena. Gabrielle loves you very much. You must believe that, or this wouldn't hurt you so."

"Hercules, I've really screwed up."

"You did what you thought you had to, Xena. It was just as much a sacrifice for you as for anyone."

"Leaving her was the hardest thing I've ever done. And what for? All I've done is cause her more pain. And now, she's here, and I don't know if she'll even TALK to me! And if she's right..."

Hercules' eyes narrowed somewhat. "Callisto." The son of Zeus had only faced Callisto once, but that was more than enough as far as he was concerned.

"Is it true? Is she really back? HOW, Hercules? Does Hades have so little control?"

"I--I'm not sure. I've had this---feeling, for a while now, that something was--happening."

Xena looked hard at Hercules. "Something..? What kind of something?"

"I'm not exactly sure. But Hades has been spending an awful lot of time at Areopagus lately. And whenever HE'S involved..."

There was just enough anger in Xena's voice to let Hercules know she understood, only too well. "Ares. Are you saying he's somehow involved with Callisto's return?"

"No, I...I just don't know, Xena. It's funny, actually. I always used to berate my father about not helping out enough, never doing anything to stop the cruelty of his fellow Gods...I never imagined the responsibility, or the limitations. It's... overwhelming."

Xena placed a kind hand on Hercules' shoulder. "I'm sure you do just fine."

"Thanks. Listen, whatever is happening, I may not be able to help, at least directly. But I promise, I'll do what I can. I...have a few favors I can call in."

Xena's head sagged in near exhaustion. "Thank you." She paused, and then; "Hercules...I miss you. You know that."

He smiled again. "I know. But we all have to live with the decisions we've made. What other choice is there?"

"You're right. I guess I just wish I had made some better choices along the way."

A sudden smirk crosses Hercules' face. "Xena, six years ago, ...did you do what you thought was right?"

"Yes! You KNOW I did!" As Xena stared into Hercules' eyes, he slowly began to shimmer and fade, like a dream being driven out of a sleeper's drowsy head. He kept on smiling, and spoke warmly to her as he returned to his impossible home in the clouds.

"This time...do what you FEEL is right..."

And Xena stood alone in her stable, with only old Moerae as her witness.

"Quite a day, old girl." She cast a sideways glance at the aging mare, Darius' favourite. Not much good anymore, of course. Past her prime...

Not the only one in this room that fits that description, Xena thought. I haven't swung a sword in anger since Potodaia. How am I supposed to fight that devil, after all this time? I doubt I even remember how...

Wrong. Don't even TRY to fool yourself with that line. If there's one thing you're good at, my dear, one thing you will never, ever forget, no matter how old and gray you get, it's how to fight...and how to kill.

Of course, killing has never proved an effective strategy in this case. How many times have we buried that ghoul, only to be haunted by her one more time? I sometimes wonder if she was EVER human at all. And if Ares is really entwined in this somehow... I don't even want to think about that. Hercules has kept HIM off my back for over a decade now. Surely he couldn't STILL want me back? I'm long since past being prime warlord material.

Xena suddenly noticed how tired she was. She didn't think she had been this drained in years. The loose piles of hay strewn around were starting to look pretty good... Maybe just this once, she thought to herself, as she lowered herself down and flopped down into a thick matting of the stuff. In the OLD days...this would have been an improvement...over our usual ...arrangements...me and Gabrielle...miss those days...

And then Xena drifted peacefully off, old Moerae keeping watch over her, making certain the only demons to plague her Mistress tonight would be the ones from within.


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part VIII: FIRST STRIKE

The still of the morning air was cut, literally, by the sweeping blade. She hadn't held it aloft in over five years, but it may as well have been yesterday. She lobbed and thrust and slashed the gleaming sword all around, running through her old exercises with a thrill she hadn't felt in ages. Gods, how she had missed this! How did I ever leave this behind? she asked herself, incredulous.

With the reclaiming of her trusted weapon, so too had all the old instincts come flooding back to the fore. When she heard the creak of the barn door opening, she spun around in a flash to level her blade at the intruder. She regretted it, of course, when she saw a rather distraught Lycus and Serica standing in the doorway, gazing on their adopted mother with confusion and, worst of all, fear. She lowered her sword immediately, somewhat embarrassed. Lycus and Serica slowly entered. Xena sighed. I knew this was coming, she told herself. Time to face the music.

"Xena...what's going on?" Lycus asked with those pleading eyes of his. Serica, her pretty features crossed with worry, echoed her brother's sentiments.

"I think we deserve an explanation. Have you forsaken your oath so quickly?"

I've prepared for this, Xena thought to herself, so how come all of a sudden I don't know what to say? She drew a deep breath, and took her best shot. "I'm sorry. I should have told you earlier, I just...didn't want to upset you. Something is happening, kids, something bad. Someone from my past...a woman, named Callisto, has returned. She's...she's hard to describe. But take it from me, nothing more evil has walked the Earth. And she'll be coming soon, for me. I have to be ready."

"But there must be some other way to handle her! Must you resort to violence so soon?"

"Serica, I wish there were. But there's no option. Not with her."

Lycus stepped in. "Our father died believing exactly the opposite. There's ALWAYS another way."

"PLEASE, Xena! If you return to those ways, they'll make you leave! I don't want to lose you, please..."

Stay in control, Xena. Focus. "You're gonna have to be strong, honey. This is something I have to do."

"This is all because of that woman, Gabrielle. I HATE her!"

Xena's face suddenly drew very serious. "Don't you talk that way about her, EVER!" Serica withdrew immediately, and Xena regretted the tone of her attack. She wasn't handling this half as well as she had planned. "Honey...I'm sorry. Look, I'll try and explain everything, really. I can't explain Callisto all at once. Tonight, I promise." They looked less than satisfied, but they knew better than to argue too much. They both sulked off and exited the barn, leaving Xena alone.

Having no more heart for swordplay this morning, Xena resheathed her blade and stowed it, then wandered out into the sunlight. She should be working her fields now, she knew. But more and more, Xena kept running into the idea that that part of her life was at an end. And part of her liked that, a lot. She felt guilty about that, of course. It just felt...inevitable. Offhandedly, she wondered if she wasn't about to die...

Enough. It's been a week, and hardly a word. It's time, she told herself. Go and see her. Now.

Xena collected herself and her thoughts, and headed off into town. She would either be at Sphaerus' place, she thought, or else...visiting. With an old friend.


Gabrielle held the spoon up to his mouth, trying as she had all week to coax him into eating. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. "Come on, open up. It's good, it is! You have to eat. For me?"

The voice was weak when it answered. "Is...is that my Serita? Is that you? Are you..there..?"

Gabrielle tried to keep herself together. "I'm right here, Salmoneus. I'm here." Gods, he's so frail! I always remembered him as being so...vibrant! Full of energy, ready to get everything out of this life there was for the taking! Now...now, he's barely even there. Just a ghost, waiting to die. Xena had said that he wandered into town six months ago. After his wife Serita had died, he just...gave up. Penniless, alone, and broken. Xena found him and made sure he was taken care of, as best they could. I didn't even make it to the wedding, Gabrielle reprimanded herself angrily.

The door swung open, and Gabrielle turned her head to see Xena standing there. For the last few days...no, the last few YEARS, she had felt nothing but animosity for her. Now, seeing her there while she tended to poor Salmoneus, some of the old feelings couldn't help but creep back in. And they felt so right.

"Hi." Gabrielle let the spoonful of food drop back to the bowl. Salmoneus wasn't eating today, anyway.

"Hi. I thought you'd be here." Xena felt a flutter in her stomach. And to think, she laughed quietly, this woman used to be intimidated by ME? "How is he today?"

"Same as yesterday. It was wonderful of you to bring him in like this. I-I just wish there were something I could have.."

"Me too. But that's just the way it is." Xena looked on Gabrielle and was mystified as to how she had ever walked away from her.

"I remember...I remember when he gave himself over to Talmadeus, to save those villagers? And at first, I thought...that he had sold us out. Gods, it took me so long to figure him out."

"I don't remember that..."

"Well...you were sort of...dead, at the time." Gabrielle couldn't help but chuckle at the thought.

"Oh, right...Talmadeus. The seltzer thing. That was a long time ago."

"A lifetime ago. Xena..."

"No, Gabrielle. I...I should be the one to talk now. Hercules knows I've had all the opportunity in the world, but I've kept quiet. And that's a mistake I can never make up for. But now, I want to let you..."

A piercing scream cracks the moment in two. Cries of panic and terror echo through both of their ears from outside. The world seems to move in slow motion for a while as Xena and Gabrielle, for the first time in more than half a decade, leap instinctively into action, together. In a flash they are out the door of the small hovel, and Xena particularly is shocked to look upon the scene of carnage that awaits. Her adopted home, under siege. The riders sweep through the unarmed and pacifistic villagers with an unholy bloodthirst. Their scabbards hack and cut at leisure. Buildings are put to the torch at whim. And as Xena and Gabrielle look on at the ruthless attack, they both see the red and black bandoliers worn by the raiders. The mark of the cult. A fanatical group of murderers who had proved as difficult to kill as their deity. Callisto's children.

"I thought they were gone for good..."

"We thought wrong. Let's GO, Gabrielle!" Xena launches herself at the closest of the cultists. With a terrible yell, she strikes him with six years worth of fury. The crack of the killer's shattering ribs resounds throughout the small village. As Xena picks the sword out of his trembling hand, Gabrielle swings her staff and throws herself into the fray. With nothing less than a vengeance, she sweeps one rider after another off their mounts. Xena, with her newly stolen weapon, slashes at the invaders with a reckless glee. The attack is blunted, if not stopped. The attackers regroup, having found themselves a new target. One of them shouts out the new mandate to the others:

"My fellow children! Behold! The object of our HATE!! KILL that one! XENA!!"

The cultists reign in their steeds and circle the warrior princess, and Gabrielle dashes fleetly to her side. Back to back they stand, holding off the surrounding hordes as best they might. Foe after foe falls, but more and more just keep coming! They redouble their attack. Their enemies seem almost endless. Despair never enters their thoughts, though. Give in to hate, rage..? No...Once before, but never again. Honour, justice, ...THESE are the things they once fought so hard for! And if they die now, they know, these are what they die for! With reserves neither thought they possessed any more, Xena and Gabrielle battled as no mortals ever have. But the numbers were too many...they were overwhelmed...

The cry came from the outside. The cry for reinforcements, from the cultists. Somewhere, on the outskirts of their attack, someone had breached their defenses. Someone was battling their way in, just as Xena and Gabrielle were battling their way out. It was ever so slight, but the two warrior women felt the relief in the pressure of the attack. And they made the most of it. As their attackers atention was diverted, they fought their way to better ground, felling their opponents with all speed. As their enemies dropped, Gabrielle tried to see what it was that had granted them this boon, and given them the chance they needed. And as she fought, she saw a solitary figure, sun gleaming off his dark armor, slashing and hacking at their seemingly innumerable enemies with precision. His sword was like poetry as it swooped though the air, his crossbow never failing to find it's target. The cultists fell like wheat before the scythe under his merciless attack. When did he grow that beard? Gabrielle wondered. It looks good on him, she thought, but it still can't hide that boyish quality he carries. But as the bodies piled high around him, no matter what Gabrielle's image of him may have been, there could be no question:


Joxer the Mighty had arrived.

The battle ended shortly after. Xena and Gabrielle, with Joxer's timely arrival, had driven off the few remaining fanatics. The once peaceful village was spattered with the blood of war. It's citizens tried as best they could to help one another through this crisis. As the healing started, Gabrielle found her way over to Xena.

"Was...was that it? Have we beaten her?" She already knew the answer, naturally. She just had to hear it from someone else.

"No. This was just a taste. When she truly comes, we won't get off that easily." Xena wiped the blood off her face, and looked up as a familiar face drew near. It had been a long time since she had seen Joxer, and she never thought he would look so sweet to her. "Good to see you again, Joxer."

With a silly grin, Joxer answered back. "You too. The BOTH of you." He looked at Garielle, a sadness in his face. She tried to avoid his gaze, but could not.

"Joxer," Gabrielle asked, "Why did you come here? Why now?"

He puzzled over that question a bit, then told them; "I--I had a dream. About the two of you. In danger. And, I know this'll sound strange, but, in the dream? I could have sworn I heard Morpheus himself talking to me. He said something about...owing somebody a favour?"


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Chapter IX: THE CALL TO ARMS

One thing is for sure; When Hercules calls in a favour, people pay attention. Morpheus' distress signal was caught by more than just Joxer. Familiar faces arrived almost daily, heeding the call and responding in the only way such people can. Salaya had never before seen such an influx of legends. Few places had. Still, this was primarily a village dedicated to peaceful ideals, and the presence of so many who were renowned for their abilities at waging war, for whatever cause, resulted in more than a little anxiousness in the citizenry. Xena's home acted as the meeting place for the arriving heroes. Several of them gathered there right now, and Gabrielle happily entertained them with a few of her stories. She thought she hadn't spoken so finely in a decade.

"...And so, Xena, along with her partner Gabrielle..."

That part was greeted with warm laughter from her small audience, and she smiled bashfully. All these friendly faces, most of whom she hadn't seen in so long, was like a tonic. She felt as if she WERE that young girl again, still fighting and wandering with Xena and Argo.

"...and the mysterious master of the beasts from a far-off land did return the fabled Golden Fleece to it's rightful resting place in Argos. And the scheming priests of Braxus were driven back to their foul pit, to menace the world no more. Thank you!"

The crowd clapped appreciatively, none more so than one beefy man in front, who leapt to his feet and slammed his hands together as hard as he could, and that was plenty. He shouted his praise at the top of his mighty lungs.

"HAAAAAA, HAHAHAHAHA! Gabrielle, I've missed your stories!"

Gabrielle curtsied extravagantly. "Thank you very much, Stallonas. I recall that YOU had quite a flair for the telling as well!"

"AHHH, barding was never really for me. I'm much better at fighting than I ever was at storytelling. Hey, I stopped by the Academy a few months back, did I tell you?"

"No, really? How's the rebuilding going?" The famed Athens Academy for Performing Bards that Gabrielle and Stallonas had both attended, briefly, had been severely damaged in a fire three years earlier. Some said it was the Children of Callisto who had committed the crime.

"Great! Place looks better than ever. Y'know Euripedes is teaching there now?"

"Really? Gods, I've got to visit there myself sometime. Soon. Those were good days."

Stallonas smiled wide. "They're all good days, Gabby! Just gotta remember that."

Gabrielle smiled as broadly as she had in years at that. How could she have stayed away from all these people for so long? Seeing them all now...a little older, a little wiser...

"Oh, please! May I be excused? I've already been sick once today."

Well, she thought, everyone but Autolycus. He was neither. Twelve years ago, Ares got so enraged at the human race that he stole from them the gift of sight. Who better than the King of Thieves to steal it back? But apparently, even this act wasn't bold enough for Autolycus, so while he was in Ares' palace, he stole Ambrosia as well. Not enough to attain Godhood, but it more than sufficed to grant him eternal youth. He looks younger now than he did the day I met him, Gabrielle noted. And his manners haven't improved over the years. Not that I would want him to change.

"Still feeling a little under the weather, Autolycus?"

"I don't know how many times I have to remind myself, NEVER to eat from those stupid roadside hot dog stands. Last time I was sick for days!"

"Whatever happened to the guy who started those things? Falafel?" Stallonas leaned in. "I heard he got so stinking rich he bought himself a kingdom up north and retired. Sure beats working for a living, donnit?"

"Perish the thought, dear boy." Autolycus got up and stared out the window. A handsome man with blonde hair also rose, and walked over to Gabrielle.

"It WAS a great story, Gabrielle. I hope there are no...you know, hard feelings, about the last time..."

Gabrielle smiled coyly at Deon. Such a gentle soul. Gabrielle never could resist playing with him, however. "I don't know, Deon. I mean, it was a long time ago, sure. But really, forcing yourself on an innocent girl? How could I..."

Deon's face turned noticeably red. "Oh, I hardly FORCED myself on you! I was just...goofing around, that's all!"

"Hmmm. Well, I suppose you learned your lesson." Gabrielle giggled at the memory, of Xena teaching a slightly misguided demigod the errors of his ways. Deon's reaction to the recollection was closer to a wince.

"What can I say? I'm my mother's son!"

Gabrielle laughed. "You are that, Deon. Really, I'm glad you're here. ALL of you." Gabrielle looked happily over the group assembled here in Xena's main house. Autolycus, Deon, Stallonas, and Mara and Thalia, an Amazon couple who had helped Xena and Gabby out during Gabrielle's 'abdication' years ago. Seeing them gave Gabrielle a sense of...family. She suddenly realized how much she missed her sister.

"Where is Xena this morning?" Thalia asked. Deon answered first.

"I think she's out back, with Joxer and Kefor."

"She's got the right idea," Mara noted. "It's a beautiful day."

"Fresh air is overrated." Autolycus retorted grumpily. "Give me a nice stuffy castle, filled with serving wenches and soft beds over a romp in the great outdoors any day."

Sensing the coming argument, Gabrielle beat a hasty retreat out the door. It WAS a beautiful day, she saw, and for the first time in a long while, that seemed to matter. She soaked it all in for the longest time, then wandered out back of the house. Out in the field, she saw Xena walking with Joxer and Kefor. She hoped Xena was enjoying the company of old friends as much as she was.


"I'm glad to see the both of you, you know that. But I want you to know, this isn't your fight. If you decide to leave, I'll understand." Joxer stopped walking, and looked into Xena's eyes. "You're wrong, it IS my fight. The first time I met Callisto, I willingly took her orders. That's something I can never make up for. Maybe this is my chance."

"Joxer, nobody blames you for that. If it hadn't been for you standing up to Callisto, Gabrielle would be dead. I haven't forgotten your courage that day."

"Maybe. But that witch still robbed me of my niece. And I owe her one for that." Xena put a hand on Joxer's shoulder. With a gentle squeeze, she let him know that she understood.

"What about you, Kefor?"

The young centaur stood straight and proud, his winning smile belying his effectiveness on the battlefield. "I could never let you down, Xena. You remind me too much of my mother."

"I never got that. Personally, I don't see the resemblance."

"So what's our next move, Xena? Callisto's already struck once, her second move's bound to be worse." Xena pondered Joxer's words for a moment. Before she could answer, though, she spotted Gabrielle heading over. Her mood brightened somewhat.

"Gabrielle. I'm glad you're here. I need you to do something for me."

"Like what?" Gabrielle had been finding it harder and harder to stay angry at this woman. She was happy it was so.

"Get everyone together. Have them all assembled and ready to travel by noon. I'll meet you all at the north road, by the temple."

Her curiosity shone through like a beacon. "We going somewhere?"

Xena smiled. "We are. I'll explain later. Right now I have to go and meet with the village elders. Get going." Xena watched her friend dash off back to the main house. There were still words to be said, she knew. But maybe the healing had finally begun.

"Feels like a family reunion around here." Joxer noted wih a grin. "I almost forgot...how's your brother, Xena?"

"He's good. Toris still visits every once in a while. His duties at Amphipolis keep him pretty busy. Now go on...We've got things to do."

With flourish, Joxer and Kefor raced off to join the main group. Xena savoured a moment of optimism, then headed off towards her own meeting. She moved with resignation. She knew she was about to give up a big part of her life. But what were her choices?

Huh. That's the same thing you told youself six years ago, Xena reminded herself. It wasn't right then! But this was different. This was immediate. After the attack by the cultists, she figured the choice wasn't hers to make anyway.


Noon. At the roadside near a small temple, eight of the most powerful combatants in the world today waited patiently (with the exception of Autolycus, who paced and complained relentlessly) for the arrival of their defacto leader. As instructed, they carried supplies for travel, although none knew where they were going, or why. They asked no questions, though. They all were aware of the gravity of the threat they faced, and none more so than the woman they waited on now. The great camaraderie between this assemblage of heroes made the time pass quickly. Stallonas and Kefor had become fast friends, and the same went for Deon and Joxer. Gabrielle, meanwhile, enjoyed a little catching up on Amazon life with Mara and Thalia.

"Ephiny has been wonderful, Gabrielle. Things have been much more...what's the word...enlightened under her rule. Just between you and me," Mara leaned in conspiratorially, "Melosa always seemd a little...high-strung. Y'know?"

"I remember thinking the exact same thing. I have to admit...sometimes, I kinda miss being an Amazon princess. Made me feel special."

"You'll always be a princess to us, Gabby." Thalia patted her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and Gabby enjoyed her first girlish giggle in recent memory.

"Hey-hey! Look at that!"

Gabrielle and the others turned their heads to see what it was that Stallonas thought so fascinating. They saw Xena, walking down the road towards them, leading a tall brown horse beside her. It took Gabrielle a few seconds to realize what was different about her. Then she noticed the armor...the sword sheathed on her back...the chakrum dangling from her side. It seems the warrior had beaten out the farmer after all. Gabrielle almost instinctively leapt to her feet. The sight set her heart to fluttering...it was like watching her past come to life all over again. But as she watched, despite all her emotions to the contrary, a small voice started whispering in her ear...and she couldn't quite shake the idea that something was very, very wrong...

"You're a sight for sore eyes, my dear." Autolycus reached out to take Xena's hand. She politely refused. "But really, what's with the shawl?" He picked nonchalantly at the wide scarf wrapped around Xena's neck and shoulders.

"Deep cleavage is a little uncalled for in a woman my age. Now hands off."

"Are you ready?" Gabrielle thought her voice was a little jittery just then, but no one seemed to notice.

"We're ready. I know a place a few leagues from here. We'll make camp there. When Callisto hits, I don't want any innocents around for her to hurt."

Gabrielle walked up close to Xena. "How did the kids take it?"

Her head bowed ever so slightly. "Good. Better than I expected."

"Boy are you a rotten liar." Xena looked up again, and Gabrielle took hold of her hand. They smiled.

"All right, let's get rolling!" Stallonas as usual took the initiative, and all those who had horses mounted up. Xena too hopped onto old Moerae, and the gathered forces prepared to move out.

"Room here for one more?"

It was a familiar voice that called out, and Gabrielle felt a shiver down her spine. She turned slowly, and looked at the handsome new arrival, his jet black hair turned slightly gray at the temples, his Trojan armor polished to a fine shine. A few others there recognized the new arrival as well.

"Hey, this really IS a family reunion! Long time no see, stranger!" Joxer was thrilled to see his old comrade of course. Gabrielle still couldn't find her voice, so Xena spoke instead.

"Good to see you. We're glad you're here."

The newcomer responded curtly, his eyes focussed on Gabrielle the whole time. "Thanks. Hello, Gabrielle."

It was all she could do to answer. "...Hello, Perdicus."


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part X: PRELUDE TO WAR

The few shattered ruins left standing served as a sort of centerpiece for the newly formed camp. Not even Xena knew whose temple this was, or how long ago it had been abandoned. People in these parts stayed away from this site, mostly due to rumours of the place being haunted. How appropriate, Gabrielle thought. As good a place as any to fight a ghost.

A few more additions to the force had arrived in the two days since the camp had been struck. It was Democritus' arrival, though, along with two of his star pupils, that seemed to bring the reality of the situation home for everybody. After all, why would you need surgeons, unless you were about to fight a war? Up until then, it had seemed more like what Joxer called it..a reunion. No more. This was an army. And war was on it's way.

Before long, the camp took on a decidedly military air, with Xena it's commander. No one was allowed in, or out, without her approval. Day and night, the dark-vested legions of the Black Wolf Society kept the camp's perimeter under constant supervision. Gabrielle found herself rapidly losing her taste for spinning stories. It was bad enough that she and Xena hadn't had a chance to really talk in days, but now with Perdicus staying in the same camp as well, Gabrielle didn't know what to do. Preparing for a bloodbath on top of it all was no great help. Especially since, more and more, she couldn't shake the feeling that they were all going about this exactly the wrong way.

The sun was setting on the second full day at the camp. Gabrielle was alone in her small tent, trying to set her mind at ease using an ancient meditation trick she learned many years ago from Robertus Tonicles. It wasn't working. She was about ready to give up in frustration, when she heard someone rustling about at the front of her tent. She clambered to her feet in time to see him entering. I suppose I couldn't avoid him forever, she sighed. I just wish that sometime in the last two days, not to mention the last five years, I could have been able to think of a single thing I could say to him. But the best I can manage is...

"Hello."

Perdicus smiled softly. "Hi. Can...I come in?"

She ushered him in without a word. He walked inside and stood before her, staring into her eyes, even though part of her wanted to avoid his gaze. But it was time, she knew.

"You still look beautiful, Gabby." Perdicus brushed his hand across Gabrielle's hair. She bowed her head, feeling suddenly embarrassed, even if she didn't know exactly why. Perdicus noticed, and withdrew awkwardly.

"I'm sorry...I don't want to make this uncomfortable for you."

"I'm not uncomfortable," she lied, "It's just...well, it's been so long, and...I don't know, I feel like I was a coward, leaving the way I did. I seem to have made quite a habit of doing that to you. I'm sorry." Gods, that sounded so LAME, she chided herself angrily.

"Gab, you have nothing to feel sorry over. After what happened...I can't blame you for leaving Potodaia. Or for wanting to be alone. I want you to know, that I'm not angry with you."

"I wish you were. It would make this easier."

Perdicus placed a reassuring hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and squeezed gently. Always so gentle with her, no matter what she did. She had trouble looking him in the eye. "Gabrielle... I don't want to complicate things for you. I won't try and reenter your life, unless you want me too. You know I'll always love you, and I think that somewhere inside of you, part of you loves me too. But I finally figured out that you and I were never meant to be."

Gabrielle cursed herself for a weakling as tears started to roll down her cheeks. Perdicus moved to wipe them away, but she stopped him short.

"For a long time," he continued, "I told myself that you left because of what happened...to Sarina. But after a while, I finally realized what I should have known all along. Something I didn't want to accept. I guess I was just being stubborn, but you know me."

Gabrielle tried, but couldn't force a smile onto her face. She tasted the salt of her tears as she asked, "What... what did you realize?"

Her former husband stood as stoic as he could manage, fighting back tears of his own. "That...that I had always come in second. And always would. Even when you were...WITH me, I wasn't the one who owned your heart. Wish as I may, I know now...that Xena will always come first."

"It...it was never like...like THAT." Gabrielle remarked weakly.

"I know. But that doesn't really matter, does it? It doesn't change how you feel, or where you hold each other in your hearts. I fought against that idea for a long time, but I accept it now. You should too."

Gabrielle shuddered and flinched, and her whole body leaned in towards her childhood friend. She suddenly felt very cold, and she collapsed into him. "P-Perdicus..."

"Gabrielle..."

"Perdicus...I...I miss her SO MUCH!!" Gabrielle wrapped her arms tighly around Perdicus, and he covered her with his arms. She shook with the force of her sobs. A half decade of pain flooded to the surface. Perdicus cried with her.

"I miss her too, Gabby. More than anything in this world."

"WHY?? She was so...perfect. My b-baby girl.."

"Carry her inside your heart...that's all we can do. We'll always carry her inside of us. Always."

"My little baby...Mommy loves you..."


They stayed locked in that cathartic embrace for ten minutes before Gabrielle finally stood away. This time she let Perdicus help wipe away the tears. She felt...different now, somehow. She looked up at this man she had hurt, and mistreated, and yet with whom she had shared her beautiful child with. He was right, she knew. But he was strong. And that was what was different, she noticed. For the first time since Potodaia...she felt strong again. She felt as if she should say something to him, but before she could think of the words, a slight chill blew through the small tent. She and Perdicus looked towards the source, and saw Xena standing, somewhat embarrassed, in the tent's entranceway.

"I'm sorry...I didn't mean to.."

"It's okay, Xena." Perdicus replied quickly. "It's time for me to be going anyway." He turned to leave, then cast a contented glance back at his former wife. "Goodnight, Gabrielle. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Pleasant dreams." She waved him goodbye with a smile. He made his way past Xena, avoiding her gaze somewhat, and walked into the night air. Xena slowly entered as Gabrielle composed herself as best she could.

"I didn't want to interrupt...if this is a bad time..."

"No, it's fine. We've...said what needed to be said."

Xena smiled. "I'm glad, I really am." She looked down at the ground just then, and fiddled with her hands for a moment. She laughed, nervously, Gabrielle thought. "My turn now."

Gabby stared at Xena. "Is it?"

The laugh again. "Yeah. This isn't easy for me, but you know that. I just...have something to tell you, that I should have said a long time ago."

"Go on..."

"Gabrielle...when I left you...it was the hardest thing I had ever done. I hope you can believe that. But I couldn't BEAR the thought that I might bring you more pain. I would rather have died. So I left, because I thought that was the best way to keep you safe. I truly believed that, Gabrielle."

The little bard didn't say a word. She didn't even think she could if she wanted to.

"But I was wrong. As wrong as I heve ever been in my whole life. I should NEVER have left you, especially not then. You were my best friend and so much more, and I abandoned you, just when I should have been helping you. It was stupid. It was arrogant, and it was terrible. I don't blame you for being angry with me, it's the least I deserve. Gabrielle..."

With a slight tremble, Xena lowered herself to her knees, and bowed her head in shame. Gabrielle almost gasped at the sight. When Xena spoke next, her voice was an emotional shadow of it's former self.

"Please...forgive me..."

Gabrielle dropped to her knees and threw her arms around her friend without another word. She squeezed her tight, and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.

"Xena," she whispered, "...I've missed you so much..!"


It was late when Xena exited Gabrielle's small tent. Xena told her to get some sleep, but that wasn't likely. Gabrielle hadn't felt this awak, this ALIVE since her baby had been born. She laid herself down on her makeshift bed, and stared upwards for the longest time, savouring the feeling of freedom that washed over her. It's been one heck of a night, she whispered to herself. And she wished that hers was the only voice she heard. But despite her euphoria, there was still that one other nagging voice, the same one that had been gnawing at her for days now. Something is WRONG, it screamed, but she didn't want to listen. How could something be wrong? After tonight? A night of forgiveness...love...


And then, like a bolt from the blue, Gabrielle suddenly understood. She knew exactly what was wrong.

And she knew what she had to do.


She waited another whole hour before she crept out of her tent, staff in hand. It wouldn't be easy getting past the sentries, she knew. Flora had trained her Wolves well. But Gabrielle had been trained by the best. She was familiar enough with the guard patterns to know where the weakest point in their defense was. She waited in the shadows until the time was right, then darted out, like a flash. She was halfway to the road when she heard the voice cry out.

"HALT! Who goes there?"

Gabrielle stopped, and cringed a little. They sure don't put much weight on original dialogue in the Black Wolves, she muttered as she slowly turned. The young guard who spotted her was quite visibly shocked to see the face of his quarry.

"Gabrielle? What...what are you doing out here?"

This is SO embarrassing, Gabrielle thought. Caught like a rookie. BY a rookie, no less! "Listen, I can't explain now. But please believe me, it's vital that I get out of this camp right now! I know how to stop what's going to happen!"

She knew she was wasting her breath. Wolves followed orders. "I'm sorry, but Xena says, no one leaves without her say so. You'll have to come with..."

With a swift whack, the sentry stiffened and fell flat on his face. Gabrielle snapped to a fighting stance immediately... and then relaxed, when she recognized Autolycus strolling towards her. This IS quite a night for surprises, she mused.

"Never did care too much for these characters. Too spooky for my liking."

"Autolycus. What are you doing here?"

"Why, it's such a beautiful night! And besides, who can sleep with those Amazons in the next tent? You'd think they could give it a rest for one night, we're not ANIMALS for Zeus' sake!"

As subtle as ever. "Well, thanks. But why..?"

"You aren't the only one who has a bad feeling about all of this. Sounded to me like you're as good a horse to bet on as any."

Gabrielle smiled. "Xena won't be too happy about what you just did."

"If I cared much for rules, I'd be an old man by now. And you know I've always had a soft spot for you, my dear. I still have fond memories of that night in Athens..."

Gabrielle's eyes went wide at that, and she had to work hard at maintaining her smile as she spoke through gritted teeth. "I thought we both agreed that THAT night never happened!"

Autolycus let his eyes wander as he strolled around. "Yes, yes of course. It's just... the image of such sweet bliss is not easy to erase from one's mind. Don't tell me... you don't have the same trouble every now and then?" Autolycus shot her a familiar glance, and Gabrielle had to remind herself that she did NOT have time for this.

"Autolycus, I have to go. NOW. When Xena notices I'm gone tomorrow, let her know I'm okay. And I WILL be back."

"As you wish. Take my horse if you want. She's the white spotted mare. And don't say I never did you any favours."

Gabrielle turned to leave. "Thanks again." She was just about to leave when she turned back. "What's her name?"

Autolycus looked at her. "Who's name?"

"Your horse. What's her name?"

Autolycus smirked that sly smirk of his, and he answered, "Argo."

Gabrielle's jaw dropped, and Autolycus took his leave with a wink and a grin. "I couldn't resist."


Minutes later, Gabrielle and Argo were speeding off into the night, racing against time to try and head off armageddon. Gabrielle knew full well the weight of the responsibility she had just taken upon herself. But she still allowed herself to relish the feel of the wind as it whipped through her hair. And the pounding of Argo's hooves sounded to her like a sweet song that she hadn't heard in a decade. And so despite what awaited her, and the price should she fail, she smiled broadly now, and promised herself that never again would she forget what mattered. Never again.


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part XI: THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Dawn was just breaking over the day, and Gabrielle was giving Argo a quick rest by a small lake they had come across on the road. She smiled to herself...she never would have suspected Autolycus of having such a sentimental streak in him. But then a lot of the friends she had made in her lifetime were full of surprises.

And she had just left them to face a terrible danger alone. But she couldnít let herself think that way, she knew. She was doing what had to be done. Gabrielle wished she could have told Xena, but she couldnít take the gamble that her friend wouldnít understand. Although, she supposed Xenaís years with Darius might have opened her eyes to a few new ideas. Yes or no, it was a moot point. Her companions were up to almost any challenge, she knew. They would be fine without her. She prayed it was so. Too many times over the years, people she loved had fallen prey to the evil of the world. Argo made some gentle splashes in the water nearby as Gabbyís thoughtís drifted to places and people long gone...appropriate, she noted darkly.

Time for regrets another day, Gabrielle. She shook herself out of her reverie and rose to her feet. Turning towards her mount, she let out a shrill double whistle. Argo looked at her and stared in utter confusion. Gabrielle smiled, somewhat embarrassed, and a touch sad.

"Sorry, girl. Guess the similarity ends with the name."

Gabby walked over and saddled up, then headed off down the road once more at a healthy trot. If she rode hard, she figured she could be there by nightfall. And the sooner the better. She had become convinced that Callistoís return was more than a simple vendetta this time. Xena had told her last night that Hercules thought Ares might even be involved! And the way they were being allowed to gather such a force for counterattack... well, this "little bard" smelled a plan being formed, and it sure wasnít hers. I know that what Iím trying is the only way, she told herself. I just hope it works...


With a fury born of frustration and worry, Xena yanked Autolycus literally off his feet and dangled him angrily in the air.

"You did WHAT?!?"

"Xena...youíre wrinkling my shirt..."

Xena let out a noise of utter disgust, and hurled the King of Thieves into an unceremonious heap on the ground. He landed with a grunt, and quickly clambered to his feet, dusting himself off with panache. "Really Xena, you must work on your etiquette. I SAID I was sorry."

The unconscious Black Wolf guard had been discovered several hours after the actual incident. It was a mere minutes afterwards that Mara noticed Gabrielleís absence. Xena immediately launched a full scale search of the surrounding area, which concluded moments ago with Autolycusí confession concerning Gabrielleís disappearance. Xena didnít take the news lightly.

"You smug bastard. If anything happens to her..."

"If anything were going to happen to her, it was going to happen here. Look around you, Xena. This place has just become the most dangerous place in the world to be. A DEAD woman has pegged you for death, for Zeusí sake! That isnít something to be taken lightly."

"Where did Gabrielle go, Autolycus?" Xena was straining hard not to flatten Autolycus right now.

"She didnít say. However, she wanted you to know that she was fine. And that she had every intention of returning." Autolycus turned calmly to walk away. A hand like an iron vise clamped onto his shoulder and persuaded him otherwise.

"WHY did she leave? WHY?"

"Well, if you must know, she seemed to be under the impression she knew how to avert whatever it was that is going to happen here. Such a dreamer..."

"Donít push me, you arrogant little..."

"Listen, if there is even a remote chance of heading off the bloodbath that you must know is coming, then good luck to her! I didnít become immortal because I WANTED to die!"

"Then I suggest you stop talking now and get out of my sight." Xena released her hold on Autolycus, who proceeded to massage the spot where she gripped him.

"My pleasure! I wonder how Amazons are at massages..."

The once and future King of all Thieves wandered off, and Xena stood motionless, stewing in rage. And to the nearby allies who had witnessed this recent unpleasantness, it seemed as though she was angry at Autolycus. But of course that wasnít it.

She was mad at herself.

Was it something I did? She wondered. If I had done something differently, maybe, spoken up a little earlier...Is this how she felt six years ago?

No, no...stop thinking like that. Gabrielle isnít like you. She doesnít abandon her friends. Whatever her reasons were, I have to believe that they were good ones. And Autolycus is right. Wherever she is, it must be safer than here.


Hours passed as Gabby and Argo pounded the leagues away with a vengeance. There were few travelers to be found on the road today, she noticed. I wonder if people can somehow sense whatís coming, Gabrielle wondered, and have the good sense to stay well hidden. Or maybe Iím just being paranoid. Besides, itís not even accurate. Looking down the road a ways, she could see two men on horseback heading in her direction. She didnít think too much of it, until she noticed both were armed. Even from this distance she could make out the hilt of their swords. She tensed involuntarily. No reason to suspect them of being trouble, of course, just a reflex. One that had been much in action these last few days. She thought she had forgotten how to think as a warrior. She found herself now wishing she had. She too was tired of fighting.

The approaching figures got closer, and she got a good enough look to make a startling discovery..one of them wasnít a man on a horse at all. A centaur? And darned if he didnít look...familiar...

Gabrielleís face lit up. "Phantius!!"

The centaur and his companion finally took notice of the lone woman they had noticed up ahead. Phantius heard his name being called, and in a second he recognized the voice. "Aunt Gabrielle?!?" He motioned for his companion to follow him as he raced ahead to meet Gabrielle halfway. Soon enough all three of them met up near a large shade tree by the side of the road.

"Aunt Gabrielle, what are you doing here? I thought you were with Xena, in Salaya. I...we had dreams, about you, and..."

Gabrielle stopped him with a gesture. "I know, I know. Xena and some others are at a campsite outside Salaya. You arenít the only ones to have that dream. I donít think I know your friend, by the way."

"Oh, right! Gabrielle, this is Theseus. He was a disciple of Cassius."

The dirty blonde young man reached his hand out in friendship to Gabrielle. "A pleasure. Xena spoke well of you when she came to Cassiusí aid one time. I owe her a debt I intend to repay."

"So YOUíRE Theseus! Itís good to meet you."

"Aunt...are we headed the wrong way? I thought Salaya was to the south."

"No, youíre on the right trail. You should be at the camp in a few hours if you hurry." She knew what question was coming next.

"Pardon my asking," Theseus said, "but if campís that way, why are you traveling in the opposite direction?"

"Itís hard to explain. Iím...on a bit of a quest, you might say."

"Well, lead the way! You say there are already others with Xena, Iím sure they can manage on their own. You may need our help!" Phantius could be terribly noble when called upon, as Gabrielle already knew. She hoped his feelings wouldnít be hurt.

"No, Phantius. Trust me, Xena will need your help more than I, especially if I fail. This is something I have to do...on my own...

Gabrielle unsuccessfully suppressed a shudder, as she recalled when Xena spoke those same words to her, six years earlier. I hope thatís not an omen, she thought to herself.

"But Aunt, Please! How can we just leave you alone?"

"Iím not alone. Phantius, you have to trust me. Go to Xena, tell her Iím all right. Sheís probably worried. And tell her...tell her to watch out for Joxer."

Phantius looked uncertain. "Iíve heard of Joxer the Mighty. From the stopries, he can take care of himself."

"He can. I just..." Gabrielle fought a sudden wave of emotion. :I donít want my sister becoming a widow. Thatís all."

"Aunt, please, let us..."

"Where Iím going, Phantius, you canít follow. Iíll explain it all when I get back."

Phantius was less than convinced, but he wasnít very good at arguing with his Aunt. For that matter, few people could successfully argue with Gabrielle.

"Are you sure?"

"Iím positive. Now go, youíd better hurry. And Phantius...thank you for coming...again." Gabrielle smiled warmly and patted Phantius on the cheek.

"All right, all right. But promise me youíll be careful!" Phantius was about to turn to leave, when..."Are you sure you wonít at least tell me where youíre going?"

"Nice try. Shoo! Iíll join you soon, donít worry!"

Phantius bowed his head, embarrassed, then reluctantly started off down the road again with Theseus. Gabrielle watched them fade off into the distance before she remembered that she too was in a hurry! She gave Argo a quick nudge in the side and she was off again. Seeing Phantius again so soon made her realize just how much had happened to her in the last few weeks. It was as if her whole life had been transformed. She had wasted so many years on bitterness and regret. Now, she saw the light on the horizon for the first time in what felt like forever. And the sun felt good on her weary face.

Enjoy it while you can, she joked grimly. There may be a decided lack of fresh sunlight where youíre going.


"New Arrivals! Xena!"

The call came out midway through the afternoon from one of the Black Wolves on sentry. Standing orders required Xena to OK any newcomers. She interrupted her makeshift war council, comprised of Joxer and Thalia, and headed out to see who it was. Joxer and Thalia accompanied her. They were all surprised at the sight that greeted them.

"Uncle Meleager?" Joxer blurted out, amazed. "What are you doing here?"

The wizened Meleager raised himself up proudly to his full height. "Meleager the mighty goes where he pleases, boy! I figure Iím here for the same reason as all of you. I thought I was just having bad dreams!"

"Who are those two with you, Meleager?" Thalia asked. Joxer was unfamiliar with Meleagerís companions also, but Xena knew them. And she was none too pleased to see them.

"Oh, these two? Why, I ran into these little ones on the road here. We seemed to be going in the same direction, so I decided we should travel together! Strength in numbers, you know." Meleager reached down and slapped his young companions on the back. Without a word, they each turned their heads up simultaneously and stared at him, then lowered their gaze once more. Xena stared, almost speechless, at the blonde haired boy and girl in front of her. They canít be more than twelve!

"Arin...Alanna? What are you two doing here? Whereís Iphicles?"

The children simply stood and stared. Joxer, confused, looked towards Xena.

"Xena? Who are they?"

Xena found words difficult, but she managed. "Their names are Arin and Alanna. Theyíre the twin son and daughter of Iolaus and Phoebe. Iolaus was killed by Heraís enforcers not long after their birth. When Phoebe was killed stopping the Echidnaís rampage two years later, they went to live with Herculesí brother Iphicles. What I DONíT know is why they arenít with him know."

"They probably gave him the slip," Meleager piped up. "Theyíre mighty quick when they want to be."

Xena glared at the ancient warrior. "How would you know?"

"I seen it! We came across a bandit on the road here. Boy, you shouldía seen it! They had him floored before he knew what hit him! Of course, I could have dealt with him myself, but..."

Xena threw her head back and shouted at the Heavens. "Am I to fight with CHILDREN now?? Shall I let more innocents be slaughtered by this maniac?!? HOW MANY MORE??"

Meleager quieted down, and everyone fell silent. Arin and Alanna continued to stare, unmoving.

Xena slumped down again, suddenly very tired. "...how many more..?"


It was dusk when Gabrielle at last reached her destination. She tethered her tired steed near the water, where she could drink at her leisure. Hopefully, she would be back for her. Gabrielle started to feel the first bit of fear since she had decided on this course of action late last night. I was never the worldís greatest swimmer, she recalled. And a fine time this is to bring THAT up! Well...no sense in wasting any more time...

Gabrielle gazed one last time at her uneasy reflection in the surface of the Alconian Lake, took a deep breath, and dived. Her staff lashed firmly around her waist, she swam down, down, down... Praying with all her soul that when she reached the other side, it wouldnít be as a permanent resident.

Dusk. A thick fog rolled over the camp. A chill sank into the bones of the assembled force. As Xena walked across the camp, she felt something...a curious feeling at the base of her spine, that she hadnít felt in...

Her eyes flashed into awareness, and Xena scanned the campground in an instant. It took a few passes to spot it...one small area where the fog was just a little thicker. And getting more so by the minute. The sky started to grow darker faster. Storm clouds approached. Xena could hear lightning welling up not far. She allowed herself a smirk. The dirty bitch always did have a flair for the melodramatic.

"SHEíS HERE!!!" Xena yelled at the top of her powerful lungs. In a flash, warriors started pouring out of their tents and pulling off of their assigned watches. Swords were drawn. Bowstrings were drawn, and senses were heightened. The fog seemed to lift in one fell swoop, only to collect in one spot, in the heart of the camp. It swirled and squirmed like a thing alive. It looked as if it would collapse in upon itself...and the next instant, a terrible wind sprang forth from within the fog, almost knocking the warriors off their feet. It blasted in all directions, and carried with it the stench of decay. Sand and dirt whipped about everywhere, but Xena alone never closed her eyes. Not for a second. Instead, she focused on the lone figure that was now standing in the heart of the old ruins. Her eyes shone like fire in the dark of the evening. And as all the other eyes in the camp cleared, one by one they fell upon this new arrival and stared in abject awe. Many of them had never before seen the dead return to life, and were duly shocked. But Xena knew better. This was not life come back. This was death incarnate. This was evil in human form. This was Hell on Earth.

The word came out of her mouth on itís own. It tasted like poison on her lips. "Callisto."

The figure smiled. That awful smile.

"...Xenaaaa..."


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part XII: BEYOND THE VEIL

It was just like Xena had described it, all those years ago. Gabrielle had thought her lungs were ready to burst when she saw the light. She just barely had the energy to force herself towards it, but she did it. And when she did...

Well, just like that, Gabrielleís adventure in the Underworld had begun.

She found herself inside a small cavern of rock, with barely enough room to move about. She unfastened her staff and held it before her, in the direction of a faint red glow. "This is why youíre here", she said to herself defiantly, and she slowly started to venture forth. After a few paces, she stopped. A noise up ahead...a voice! Get ready, girl. Youíre about to come face to face with your first Underworld citizen. I sure hope itís a friendly one...

Gabrielle carefully followed along the slick stone path laid out before her, and rounded a corner opening onto a huge cavern. Another lake...No, you idiot, a river! The river Styx! Then the one singing must be...

Gabrielle whipped around to see a hooded man, standing in a mid-sized gondola in the river. He was busily polishing some of the more filth-encrusted areas of his bizarre boat, and pounding away an unfamiliar tune. A sudden feeling of dread passed over Gabrielle, but not because of what you may think.

Stupid, stupid girl! Youíre supposed to be a bard, and you forgot about THIS?? Gods help me, what am I gonna DO?

"Oh, I loves to sing about the bee-yoo-tee-ful lassies...eh?" Charon the boatman suddenly stops what heís doing and turns around to look at Gabrielle. He stands there motionless for a moment, then speaks again.

"Aha! A new one! Ya gots to speak up, lady, if you wants a ride. Where ya headed? Little joke there..."

Gabrielle stood there looking uncomfortable for a minute, then started shuffling towards the boat. She hoped against hope it wouldnít come, but then...

"Hold it! Ya got a coin? No one gets across witíout a coin, and I mean no one! My charity days are over. I mean, a man has to earn a living, ya know! And thereís this bee-yoo-tee-ful sash Iíve had my eye on...would go great with my raggedy cloak..."

Gabrielle stammered for a moment, chastising herself bitterly for what she was about to say..."I...forgot to bring one."

"What? No coin?? Well, I hope you like it where you are now, missy, cause no way are you getting on this boat. Uh-uh, no how."

"Please? Itís very important!"

"Yeah, sing me another one, kiddo. Iíve heard Ďem all, believe you me. Sorry, but rules is rules. The bus to limbo will be along shortly, thereís a lobby just off to your right you can wait..in...Hey, wait a second. Are you dead?" Charon leans in towards Gabby and sniffs her demonstratively. "Donít smell dead."

"Iíll take that as a compliment. Iím alive, thanks. Iím here looking for someone."

"Hoboy! Donít that beat all! Well, you ainít gonna find no one from there, little lady!"

"There must be something...how about this?" In desperation, Gabrielle hands Charon her staff.

"This? This is a piece aíwood, kid! What am I gonna do with..." Charonís words drift off as he handles the weathered fighting staff. Gabrielle eyes him nervously.

"Oooohh...hey, this thing has got...whatchacallit...sentimonial value, donnit? Yeah, I can feel it. Oh yeah, thatís, thatís very good. Very good. Okay, climb aboard. Mind the step, now."

Charon deposits his newly acquired staff alongside his own steering pole, and prepares to push off as Gabrielle climbs carefully on board the ship of souls. Funny, she thought to herself, I just gave away my staff. That old girlís saved my life more times than I can count. And now itís gone. Why doesnít that depress me?

Gabrielle pondered that last thought as Charon steered them expertly over the fabled River Styx. It was a surprisingly smooth journey, and a shorter one than she expected. It was only a few minutes before Charon poled them up to a small pier jutting out from a thoroughly unpleasant plateau of rock. Flames were evident licking up over the boulders, and the tortured screams of the damned rang in Gabbyís ears. The boat lolled to a stop, but Gabby sat waiting for a moment.

"Awright, here you are. Have a pleasant stay."

"Ummm...I was actually trying to get to the Elysian Fields..."

"Hey, listen, youíre alive, you go where I take you. Donít worry, youíll be fine. Just follow that pillar of flame to the left until you come to the guy being eaten alive by maggots. Then itís straight ahead. Canít miss it."

"...Thanks..."

Carefully maneuvering herself onto the pier, Gabrielle chokes back a gag as the first wave of sulfuric fumes slams into her. Charon chuckles under his breath and pushes off again. As he leaves, Gabrielle takes a few steps into Tartarus, and quickly starts reminding herself to do nothing but good deeds when she returns to the land of the living. This is NOT where she plans on spending eternity.

As she follows the path Charon described to her, Gabrielle is forced to avert her eyes more than once. Sheís not as squeamish as she once was, but the sights down here would unsettle the strongest of stomachs. Creatures so evil they would burn the wings off an angelís back, just to hear the sound it would make. Villains so reprehensible they would slit an infantís throat as soon as eat breakfast in the morning. And a disturbingly high number of them were familiar faces, Gabrielle noted. She had spotted Atyminius shortly after exiting Charonís boat. Hades had apparently saved a special punishment for the man who had dared to steal his helmet. And Draco was off in a corner, desperately trying to get a bite of a juicy apple, forever out of his reach.

Just ignore it, Gabby told herself. Youíre almost there...

"Whore!! Little whore!! Look what youíve DONE to me!"

Gabrielle stiffened, and her blood froze in her veins when she heard THAT particular voice calling out. Though she screamed at herself to keep walking, she nevertheless turned and gaped at the silver haired man who lay prostrated on a rock, great chains holding him down, as he was slowly and eternally eaten alive by fire beetles from the inside. Itís the least that sick filth deserves, Gabrielle swore. She glared at him with cold eyes.

"Now youíre down here with the rest of us!! Now YOU suffer, dirty whore!!" His madness spat at her from his twisted soul. Gabby stood firm. He had broken her once, but not this time. Iím stronger now. Heís nothing to me anymore. Leave him to rot.

Gabrielle turned away from the sight of this blight from her past. And as he continued with his spiteful taunts, she started walking. She felt proud of herself, somewhat. Xena would have been proud, she smiled.

Her aggressor held somewhat less esteem for his target. "Where are you going? You donít walk away from ME!! Get back here this instant, you hear? YOU HEAR?!?"

She paused a moment, and half turned in his direction. A momentís satisfaction, she supposed, was not too much to ask. A final farewell.

"Goodbye, father."

And she walked away.


Within minutes (was it that soon? Time seemed...funny down here.), Gabrielle arrived at the gateway to the fabled Elysian Fields. She marched smartly through the bronze mists that covered itís passage, trying to have no fear of what she would see on the other side. Because to her, encountering the damned legions of Tartarus was a walk on the sand compared to what awaited. She hoped that she was up to the task,

Suddenly, the mists parted. And Gabrielle could only gasp in awe, as the impossible beauty of the divine fields played itself out before her eyes. Itís...incredible! I donít remember it being THIS beautiful... of course, I wasnít here for that long. And it WAS a long time ago.

As the infinite expanse of the afterworld sank in to her mind, she was instantly struck by the question of how she was supposed to FIND the people she was looking for! Eternity is a big place, after all. I donít exactly have a road map...

Not finding an answer forthcoming, Gabrielle decided the best option would be to just keep walking, and hope she got lucky. Some plan. I really wish I had thought this whole thing through before I...

Gabrielle suddenly got the impression she wasnít alone. Turning to her left, she was quite surprised to see two people standing there. Were they just there a second ago? She didnít think so. She looked at them, a man and a woman, arms wrapped around each other in a loving embrace. The woman was a vision of beauty, much as Gabrielle recalled her from their all-too infrequent meetings. The man was the way she always pictured him...vibrant, full of life. Ready to get everything out of this world there was to get. And looking at the contented smile on his face now, it seems he had found it. Still, Gabrielle could not mask her shock. It had been, after all, just a few days...

"Hiya, Gabrielle. Donít be upset. I passed away in my sleep the day after you and Xena left. It was my time."

Gabrielle could only stand gaping at Salmoneus, happily holding onto his beloved Serita. So long apart, and now, together for all time.

"Thank you for caring for him, Gabrielle. Now...itís my turn." Serita turned and placed a gentle kiss on her husbandís face. Gabrielle felt as if she were intruding on a dream. She shook head to try and clear it. When she looked again, they were gone. And Gabrielle walked on.


As she walked, a childís laugh caught her ear. The girlish giggle of a small infant. She turned her head towards the sound, and seated almost right next to her (and they werenít there a second ago, she was sure) were a young woman, barely more than a girl, really, and a baby girl. The young woman was cradling the babe in her arms, singing her a sweet lullabye. Gabrielle recognized the tune as one from her home village. And she recognized the woman, as well. And the child. And they both shared the same name. Her voice broke as she said it.

"S-Sarina?"

The young woman looked up, and saw Gabrielle. She wrapped her arms lovingly around her tiny namesake, and stared warmly up at her childhood friend. When she spoke, Gabrielle was sure no sound had ever been sweeter to the ears.

"Iíll take good care of her, Gabby. Until youíre ready to come for her. Sheís very beautiful. Just like her mother. Thank you."

Gabrielle closed her eyes with as much force as she could muster, trying with all her might to fight the tears back. I donít have time for this, I donít have time!

When she opened her eyes again, they were gone.


For a while after that, Gabrielle wandered aimlessly through the expanse that was the Elysian fields, with little success. She had to admit that it was hard to concentrate in this place. Too many ghosts, literally. At least she hadnít run into any other old acquaintances. She thought her heart might break if too much more was placed upon it. But she wasnít getting anywhere, she knew. She needed help. Maybe she could ask someone, or perhaps...

"Excuse me..."

Gabrielle turned and saw a handsome man in dazzling black armor standing before her. She had met him before, long ago. I was wondering, she joked to herself, if I might run into HIM down here. I hope Iím not in trouble.

"...But just what do you think youíre doing here?"

Iím in trouble. Gabrielle composed herself, and tried her best to curtsy politely. She thought she didnít end up looking COMPLETELY tactless.

"My apologies for this intrusion, Hades...LORD! I mean LORD Hades!" Stupid, stupid... Hades bristled. "Thank you for acknowledging that I am the master of this realm, at least. One that YOU shouldnít be in, unless Iíve completely lost track of things down here."

"Iím kind of...visiting. Heh. Well, really, Iím looking....for someone, some people...." Youíre handling this very poorly, she pointed out to herself.

"I know who youíre looking for. And Iím afraid I canít permit it."

Iím in REAL trouble. "But why? If you know why Iím here, then you know that lives are at stake! Please, let me do this!"

"Itís impossible. A...bargain has been struck." Hades seemed uncomfortable with that, Gabrielle noticed.

"What kind of bargain?"

"Thatís none of your affair! I must insist that you leave. Now."

In for a Dinar, Gabrielle..."Hades, Xenaís life is at stake. Sheís helped you in your times of need! Is this how you repay her?"

Anger flared over the face of Hades, and Gabrielle figured, "At least Itíll be a short trip", but then...it passed. Replaced by regret. Disillusionment. Disgrace.

"I canít help you. The pact is made, and I can do...nothing."

"Iím not asking for help! Just that you not stand in my way! Please, Lord Hades. I know Ares is powerful, but..."

"Who said anything about Ares?!? How did you know that?"

Gotcha. "Call it womanís intuition. Come on, heís screwed you over how many times in the past? Just once, wouldnít it be nice to see him get whatís coming to him? At your hands?"

Hades fell silent. Gabrielle prayed harder than she had in six years. Win or lose, it gets decided here and now. Come on, come on...

"Donít loiter. Do what you came to do, then leave."

Gabrielle had a sudden memory of when she talked her parents into buying Tympani for her when she was ten. This tops THAT, she decided. "But how will I find..."

"There are ways." And he vanished. Now what did he mean by...

"I-I donít believe it...Gabrielle? GABRIELLE!!"

Turning around, Gabrielle saw a man running towards her across an open field. A slight breeze swept through his golden hair, and he seemed to shine in the sparkle of the sunís rays. Gods above, heís even cuter than I remember! Gabrielle wished she still had her staff, because much to her dismay, she found herself getting ever so slightly weak in the knees. Well for Herculesí sake, donít giggle! Within moments, he was before her, and without saying a word, he wrapped a powerful hug around her and lifted her straight up.

"H-Hi, Iolaus. Ummm...long time no see!"

Iolaus lets Gabrielle down to the ground and looks happily upon her. "Itís so great to see you! Howíve you been? Howís Xena?"

"Weíre fine, Iolaus. Really. Uh, howíre you?" That was stupid question, she suddenly realized.

"Great, great! Phoebe and Nadia are setting up a picnic across the way. Come on! So, how long have you been here?"

"Not long. And I canít stay, either. Iím here to..."

"Canít stay? Waitaminnit...Youíre still alive?"

She suddenly felt very guilty, even though she knew that was silly. "Umm, yeah. I am."

Iolausí boyish face lit up brightly. "Even better! Iím glad, I really am. But, what brings you here?"

In short order, Gabrielle informs Iolaus of the situation, and her plan. He is intrigued. She can tell by the look in his eye that the thought of helping out in one last adventure is too good to pass up.

"Callisto, eh? Brother, I remember that witch. All too well. I had that scar for months! Sure wish I was up there right now..."

"I know. We...I miss you."

Iolaus smiled. "I know. I heard you. Iím glad that Herc helped out. I know Hera tries to keep him pretty limited in what he can do."

"Do you ever get to see him?"

"Sometimes. Itís tricky. Hades gets a little prickly about the other Gods entering the Underworld, for whatever reasons. But, yeah...sometimes."

"Good. You two are a great team. The best."

"You two arenít so bad yourselves. Now this plan of yours...are you sure itís gonna work?"

"Wonít know until I try. Can you help me?"

"Well, Iíve seen them before. Phoebe should be able to spot Ďem."

"How?"

"Hey, she saw you from across that field! You remember her eyes." Phoebe had inherited her fantastic eyesight from her Argonaut father. She could spot a sparrow at ten thousand paces. It was worth a try.

"Lead the way!"

With that, Iolaus and Gabrielle started off at a flat run across the green rolling plains of the Elysian Fields. As the wind blew their hair and the sun kissed their eyes, Gabrielle felt confident that she would succeed. It would work, it had to! If only, she grimly remembered, she could do it in time...


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part XIII: TO THE DEATH

On a suddenly dark and stormy night, a veritable legion of the worldís deadliest living mortals stand and stare at their newly arrived opponent. A single woman, who makes no immediate moves against the assembled masses. She simply lolls her head around, from one side to another, her blonde hair swooping about in the wind, an unnerving grin adorning her face. As she surveys the army of heroes gathered here, for no other purpose than to end her terror before it has a chance to spread ever again...the smile widens.

And those arrayed against her..?


Joxer the Mighty, once a flighty fool, now a legend;
Deon, son of a god with powers unknown to mere mortals;
Autolycus, eternal king of thieves;
Mara and Thalia, an Amazonian duo of deadly skill;
Meleager the Mighty, an ancient warrior, past his prime..?;
Kefor, a sturdy centaur warrior;
Stallonas, a swaggering battle engine fueled by solid muscle;
The Black Wolves, a secret society dedicated to battling injustice;
Arin and Alanna, heirs to the legacy of the Argonauts;
Perdicus, a noble warrior forged in the Trojan wars;
Xena, Warrior Princess, and greatest heroine of her time (or any other?);


On first glance, hardly an evenly matched conflict. But as Xena watched her seemingly unkillable opponent, swaying to and fro, mocking the cycle of life and death by the mere acting of existing, she got a terrible feeling of dread...that it was THEY who were outmatched.

"What are we waiting for? Letís GET HER!!" With that, the headstrong Stallonas tore a path towards Callisto with all the speed and bluster his powerful legs could lend him. Xena wanted to tell him to stop, but she didnít. Part of her, and she hated herself for it, but part of herself had to see what Callisto had to offer. Her hand rested anxiously on her chakrum as the other warriors slowly moved in, allowing Stallonas a moment to begin the attack.

He reached Callisto in seconds, and she didnít struggle as he slapped a massive, crushing bear hug on her. With a grunt, he hauled her up off her feet and squeezed her mercilessly, a maneuver that had once been successful for Stallonas while wrestling a Stygian Boar! The others held off their attacks, watching and waiting to see if their assistance would even be necessary, for Callisto made no move to free herself. However, her grin never evaporated from her lips, as Stallonas exerted pressure enough on her spine to bend steel. In fact, it seemed to grow wider...

"Donít...make me kill you, lady!" Stallonas tried to sound supremely confident, but was actually somewhat disturbed that his assault had yielded not even a register of discomfort from his supposed victim. It was like she didnít even feel...

Callisto reared her head back violently and shrieked out a laugh that split the night in two. Then, with deadly force, she slammed a headbutt into Stallonasí face, shattering his nose. He staggered slightly, although he was no stranger to such traumas, and in that instant Callisto broke his grip on her with what looked like a minimal effort. She landed lithely on the ground, and fired a swift series of blows onto Stallonas before he even saw her move. Blood splashed across her face, and it almost seemed to make her stronger.

Xena screamed out. "Get him OUT of there! NOW!!" She pulled her chakrum to readiness, but had no clear shot with Stallonas still standing. And how he was doing THAT, she didnít know. Callistoís beating was savage and relentless. She could almost feel the blows from where she stood.

Mara and Thalia reacted instantly, pulling their drawstrings back and letting their arrows fly from their more advantageous position to Callistoís left. The first one was a clean hit, piercing her shoulder expertly. Callisto seemed to notice. She spun like the wind to catch the second arrow, and in the same movement flipped it about and drove it straight through Stallonasí neck. A startled gurgle escaped his windpipe before the life started flowing from his body, and as he fell to the ground, Callisto shrieked with glee. She ripped the arrow out of her shoulder and hurled it down at Stallonas. Several other combatants angrily started encroaching on her position, but a sudden cry from one of them made them stop. Literally.

"Wait!! Hold on, let me try!" The speaker was Deon, and when he spoke, people listened, whether they wanted to or not. That was what he was counting on right now. Xena too hoped that his ability would succeed, and the battle could be contained without further bloodshed. She knew that it would not.

"Callisto!" He called out, as forcefully as he could manage. The demon to whom he spoke glanced calmly in his direction, licking the blood off her face. "I want you to stop fighting us. You donít want to fight. Do you hear? Lay down your arms, and surrender. Itís for the best, Callisto. Just give up, and everything will be okay. Go on..."

A blank stare suddenly blankets Callistoís face, and she stops what sheís doing. She straightens up, and lazily hoists her sword out of itís back mounted sheath. She holds it out in front of her, then pauses and looks, almost sadly, at Deon. A glimmer of hope springs to life in Xenaís heart.

"Thatís it," he continues. "Now, throw it down on the ground. You donít want to fight, Callisto. Just let go of your hate, and throw down your sword."

Callisto looks at her sword, and then at the ground. She wavers for a moment. And faster than most eyes could even follow, she spins her sword upright and hurls it with zeal through the air, piercing Deon in the midsection. He falls back with a pained scream, and Callisto laughs again.

"He SAID to throw it! Hmmmm. Heh. Heh heh."

Before Xena could utter the order, several Wolves had already started hauling the wounded Deon off to Democritusí makeshift triage. That left her with only one last task. One last order to give...

Holding her chakrum high over her head, Xenaís call went out...

"ATTACK!!"

And Callisto shrieked again.


While on another plane of existence, the once half-human son of the father of all creation sat uneasily watching the battle, cursing his stepmother for the unending hate that crippled his ability to help those that he loved above all others...


Mara and Thaliaís arrows flew as fast as they could pull them from their bows. Callisto dodged them as if they were crawling towards her. Thalia, frustrated, tossed her bow to the ground and yanked her bullwhip from her side. She cracked it violently at Callisto, who leapt backwards with simple grace to avoid the weaponís sting. As soon as she landed, she found herself ensnared from behind by a thin but tough length of cable. A small hook at the end dug into her arm, drawing blood. She cared not at all for the wound, but turned to see who her capturer was. She followed the cable back to the arm of Autolycus, who was holding firm.

"You know, youíre really quite an attractive woman. Itís a shame youíre such a lunatic. We could have made beautiful music together."

Callisto stood fast, and shot a smile so laced with venom it made even the brash king of thieves shudder.

"Well...arenít you the charmer?" She spoke chillingly, then flexed nonchalantly, snapping the steel wire like thread. Autolycus stumbled off balance, but Callisto grabbed the wire before it fell, and with a yank she pulled Autolycus roughly to where she stood. She caught his neck in her hand and squeezed tight.

"Iíve waited a long time for this..."

Autolycus struggled in vain, but the grip closing his air off was stronger than any vise. His choking gasps fell on deaf ears...

"Let him GO!"

Callisto turned her head and saw Xena, sword drawn and mad as all Hades. She snarled madly, and flung the King of Thievesí at her , bowling both of them into a heap. Xena and Autolycus rolled painfully across the ground. When they came to a halt, Xena pitched Autolycus off from on top of her, and swung about to see Callisto stopping Keforís charge with a single blow.

"My...apologies..." Autolycus croaked painfully. "Donít know...what...came over me..."

"She was NEVER this good!" Xena remarked angrily. "Not on the BEST day of her life!" She watched for another moment as Kefor was sent crashing to the ground, and Mara and Thalia moved in to take Callisto on personally. Then she saw the two sneaking up on her from behind...

"NO!" Xena bolted to her feet and ran. Autolycus started to rise, then fell in a coughing fit.

"Iíll...Iíll be right with you...donít worry about me..."

Mara swung her shortsword with a fury, but only managed to nick her opponent a few times. Callisto danced like a dervish, a blur of motion, stymieing the Amazon warriors. Thalia had abandoned her whip now and slashed with a knife, but Callisto was managing to block or dodge BOTH their blows effortlessly. Mara lunged angrily at Callisto, who sidestepped and snared Maraís arm. A devastating elbow to the head convinced Mara to relinquish her hold on her weapon. Callisto aimed another such blow, and Thalia rushed her, trying to defend her partner. Callisto tossed Mara aside and hammered Thalia in the gut, then wrapped her in a one armed headlock. Before she could even struggle, Callisto wrenched her opponent like a rag doll, and the SNAP froze the blood of everyone within earshot. Maraís heart shattered as Thaliaís limp form crumpled into a heap.

"...Thalia..?"

"Youíll join her soon." Callisto cackled as she raised Maraís sword high for a killing stroke. Before landing the blow, a small rock pelted into her head from behind. Annoyed, she turned and saw Arin standing with several other stones in hand. He pitched another, and Callisto barely deflected it in time, although it distracted her enough that she didnít see Alanna cartwheeling in from her side, and she managed to land a tricky blow on her target, knocking her off balance. Alanna ran over to where her brother stood, and Callisto charged wildly, as Xena too sprinted in. Arin made a move to run, but stopped when he noticed his sister intently gazing at the attacking Callisto...and he knew, she was seeing again...

Xena screamed, knowing she wouldnít make it in time. "ARIN! ALANNA, RUN!! GET AWAY, NOW!!"

Callisto was right on top of them...almost...when Perdicus made his last minute tackle and wrestled her to the ground. They rolled around for a dangerous second, then Perdicus felt himself being literally thrown into the air, landing almost ten paces away with a crash. Callisto leapt to her feet and glared at the children, only to see Joxer and a group of Black Wolves had moved in. Callisto hissed in exasperation as, behind cover, Xena hurried Arin and Alanna out of the battle.

"I want you two to stay OUT of this! Do you hear me? Get out of this place, and stay hidden until..."

"Xena..."

Shock registered on the Warriorís face as Arin spoke her name. The last she had heard, neither of them had said a word aloud since the death of their mother.

"What is it, Arin?"

Arin pointed at his sister. "She saw something."

Xena kneeled down to look in Alannaís eyes. She knew that they had inherited more than just their parentsí prowess and agility. Alanna had her Motherís unique clarity of vision...maybe even more so.

"What, honey? What did you see?"

Alanna turned and looked at Callisto, currently butchering her way into a wave of black clad attackers. Her gaze was steely and cold. "That woman...sheís not who she looks like she is. Not exactly."

"What do you mean? When you look at her, what do you see?"

Alannaís eyes narrowed. "Itís hard to say. She looks funny. She IS herself...but thereís more."

"More? I donít understand, honey, please, try..."

Xenaís questioning was cut off, when a terrible scream covered the camp. She turned and watched as one of the Black Wolves fell to the ground, joining several of his brethren. Joxer stepped in, sword ready, and Xena rose to her feet. The time for talking with children is over, she told herself. In a second, her sword was out and she moved in.


"If it isnít the jellyfish. I never did get to watch you die, did I?"

Joxer forced his fear down into his gut. "And you never will. This is where you get yours!"

Callisto laughed gleefully as she launched a flurry of strikes at her enemy, who taxed his years of training to the limit just to block...barely. Each blow hit with such force his teeth rattled. He almost thought his sword would buckle and snap.

Still reeling from the initial attack, Joxer was caught quite by surprise when Callisto leapt in the air and vaulted him, landing behind him. A lightning kick to his back had him eating dirt in no time flat. He rolled onto his back despite the pain, and saw Callisto already swinging her sword around to drive into his heart. He was about ready to make his peace with the Gods when something sliced through the air over Callistoís head, followed by a resounding CLANG of metal on metal. A second later, the top half of Callistoís weapon fell, decapitated, to the ground below. She and Joxer looked about and watched Xena snatch her returning chakrum out of the air with ease, then hurl herself feet first at Callisto. NOW thisíll get interesting, Joxer knew...

Or rather, he thought. Callisto ducked Xenaís attack with ease, and countered with a sideswiping blow that stopped her cold. Xena fell gracelessly to the ground, and hadnít even stopped jostling when she felt herself being lifted straight up. Callisto drove her fist into Xenaís side, doubling her over. She leaned down and placed her mouth next to Xenaís ear, and whispered...

"...not yet..!"

...Before levelling her with a sweeping kick straight to the head. Xena reeled and collapsed, unable to remember when she had ever been hit that hard. She fought to focus her vision and stand, but winced when she tried. Then she felt something else, and after a moment realized someone was dragging her away. Then her ears stopped ringing enough for her to recognize Keforís voice.

"...you out of here. Whatís going on, Xena? Sheís MASSACRING us! Itís like we donít even matter to her! Weíre...nothing!"

Xena couldnít answer. She could only watch as more warriors threw themselves into combat with her oldest enemy, and fewer and fewer returned...


Perdicus was knocked to the ground almost as fast as he had gotten up. His jaw felt broken, but he couldnít tell, since his entire body was screaming in pain at him all at once. When he glanced upwards, he almost felt a small shard of hope run through him, as Joxer was actually making a little headway against this demon, thanks mostly to the fact that Autolycus was so relentlessly hanging off of her back. He managed to hold on even as she slammed her skull into his cheek, and drove her elbow into his kidneys. Somehow, though, she was still parrying all of Joxerís attacks.

"OWW! For Zeusí sake, would you KILL her already? This is not my idea of a good time!"

"Iím TRYING!! Sheís too fast! Iíve never seen anything LIKE.."

A sudden twist by Callisto disarms Joxer in an instant, and a kick from nowhere hits him like an avalanche. He hurtles to the ground, leaving the king of thieves with Callistoís undivided attention, much to his chagrin. Both of her elbows hammer into his gut, and he feels something explode inside. His grip melts, and she tosses him aside like a doll. Perdicus tries desperately to get to his feet in time to avert her next stroke, but knows he canít make it in time. Her sword falls...

And before it connects, a thundering charge from aside blows her off her feet. She twists in mid air and manages to land with some grace, but her anger is a palpable thing now. She glares at her attacker, all four hooves of him...

"Not too late, are we?" Phantius announces triumphantly. Beside him, Theseus dismounts and readies his sword and sling for combat. Callisto grins, and coils like a cobra for the attack, when suddenly, those around her hear a strange, awful whistling sound cutting the air...

Callisto recognizes the sound, but doesnít dodge in time to avoid the entire strike of the javelin. The jagged point still manages to take a nasty chunk out of her shoulder, and her howl of fury and pain brings a smile and a bellowing laugh from her attacker.

"Ha HAAA!!! Never turn your back on Meleager the Mighty, you witch! Plenty more where that came from!"

"HRAAAHH! Old man, Iíll tear the flesh from your BONES for that!"

"Donít count on it, harlot."

Callisto turns her gaze to see Perdicus, Phantius and Theseus forming a united front against her. They stand firm, weapons drawn and blood in their eyes.

And she laughs.


"Tie it off! Hurry!!"

Democritus had seen better days. Right now, in fact, he wondered if there could be a WORSE day than this. His tiny triage was getting far more action than he had ever anticipated, and his staff of two trainees was hard-pressed to keep up with the pace. He was up to his elbows in a dying Wolf soldier when Kefor entered his tent, Xena leaning against him.

"Democritus! Here, quickly!"

Xena spotted Democritus about to hand his patient off to one of his students, and she waved him off, speaking through gritted teeth. "Iíll be...fine. How are you doing...back here?" It hurt to talk, she noticed frustratedly.

"NOT good." Was his angry reply. "Stallonas is DEAD. Thalia is DEAD. Deon is hanging by a thread, and almost half the Black Wolves didnít make it. Am I to understand this is all the work of ONE woman?!?"

Xena looked about the small ward and shuddered. Good friends and brave warriors lay dead, dying. Mara wept bitterly over the body of her lover, another casualty to unending hate. All because of a terrible accident she had caused over twenty years ago. All because of me. No more.

Xena forced herself upright and drew her sword. "Keep working. Iím going to put a stop to this."

Before Democritus or Kefor could object, a commotion is heard just outside the tent, and then something hurtles inside. A small object, rounded, that lands with a smack on the bloodied floor. It rolls unevenly and comes to a halt at the feet of one of Democritusí trainees, who immediately starts to panic upon identifying the gruesome sight.

"Easy, EASY..."

Xenaís eyes went wide with shock, and she glared at the front of the tent to see Callisto standing there, soaked in blood, sword in hand. She glanced downwards and smiled madly at Phantiusí lifeless eyes, then up again to meet Xenaís stare.

"The poor thingís leg was broken..." She taunted. "I just put him out of his misery!"

Keforís fur bristled. "You murdering JACKAL!! Youíll DIE for..."

Xena restrained him with an arm, and continued staring at Callisto, who made no move, save for absent mindedly playing with the ochre she was covered in. The blood of my friends, Xena screamed inside. One more death Iíve caused by creating you. The last, I swear.

"Letís step outside."


While far away, a familiar but waterlogged figure splashes into the open air from the depths of a sparkling lake, drawing a startled whinney from her borrowed horse. As she dries herself off, she prays to all the Gods on Olympus high that she had been successful...


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part XIV: LOVE AND FORGIVENESS

The sky grew darker, the wind blew harder, and rain started to drive hard to the ground, and Xena knew in her heart it was all for their benefit. Her and Callisto. One way or another, this was to be their final battle...

They walked outside in silence, at armís length, eyes never leaving the other. Their pace slow, but vastly differing demeanor. Callisto was like a child, ebuliant and carefree, staring lazily at her nemesis without worry. Xena focused on Callisto as she had trained to do all her life. Never underestimate an opponent. Stay alert. Every muscle in her body prepared for the battle ahead. In her mind, every duel she had ever fought, every war, every struggle flashed through her mind. Theyíre all meaningless, she realized. She glanced around her. The finest warrior force ever assembled on this Earth...humbled. Broken. I couldnít have done this, Xena silently admitted. But it doesnít matter. If I die now, it doesnít matter. Just as long as I take her with me...

As Callisto and Xena came to a slow halt in the center of camp, the remaining combatants, who could still move, shuffled to a safe distance. This wasnít their fight anymore, they knew. Theseus helped Joxer to his feet, and Autolycus and Perdicus leaned on each other to keep from falling down. All hopes now rested on the self styled Princess whom they had arrived here to defend. They prayed she would be enough...

Their eyes remained locked. Callisto bobbed her head to one side, and grinned like an animal. "Ready, old woman? Not much point in delaying any further. Unless you want more of your so-called friends to sacrifice themselves for you."

Xena flexed her wrists. Her sword cut through the night air like the hot breath of the dying. "Not one more, Callisto. You end now."

"Oh, so noble. Funny. I can remember a time when the causes you fought for were somewhat less lily white. Perhaps youíve forgotten?" Callistoís gaze grew intense, the hate stabbing out with palpable force.

"Iíve forgotten nothing." Xena was getting very tired of this witchís accusing voice. "Now are you done?"

"In such a hurry to die?" Callisto shook her head. "As you want it, Xena. Die."

Callisto shrieked so loud Xena thought her ears would bleed. She lunged forward and slashed at her, and the war was underway. Xena deflected the strike, and countered immediately with an attack of her own. Their swords danced like lightning, the shattering resounds of metal on metal blanketing the valley. For what seemed like an age, the two foes were locked in this deadly embrace, apparently evenly matched. Slowly, though, one gained ground, strike by strike getting the better of her opponent.

I canít believe it, Xena thought...sheís WEAKENING! Stop it, donít get sloppy, keep at her. Fighting the others must have taken a lot of her, that stands to reason. Just donít stop, old woman! Keep fighting!

Callisto DID seem to be feeling the strain of the battle. Her attacks were growing sloppier, her defenses slower. Finally, a poorly calculated lunge gave Xena the opening she needed to drive a knee into her gut, staggering her. With the hilt of her sword, she then flattened Callisto into the dirt. Callisto sprawled out on the ground beneath her, dazed and gasping. Whatever her advantage was, Xena realized, sheís lost it! I HAVE her now! With no hesitation, Xena raised her sword high, prepared to deliver the killing stroke...

"Please..." Came the weak cry from the figure at her feet. "Have...mercy..."

Xena faltered for just a moment, not expecting such a plea from ...this. But only for a second. "I spared you once. And it was the WRONG thing to do. Iím sorry." Then, she drove her blade down, hard and fast, hoping despite herself to end it quickly.

But her sword never reached itís target. She immediately felt that something was wrong. And when she looked down, and saw Callisto smiling up at her, the blade of the sword firmly held in her bloody hand despite all of Xenaís straining to remove it, the words her enemy spoke sent a horrible feeling of dread through her soul...

"Just kidding."

Xena didnít see Callistoís leg move, but she definitely felt it as it drove her knee out of joint, dropping her like a stone. Before she even hit the ground, Callisto was up on her feet. Another kick straight to her temple made the world go fuzzy for a minute, until she once again was yanked upright. Callisto grinned maniacally, breathing hard and hissing like a snake. The blows came almost as fast as the raindrops, and Xena reeled beneath them. She tried to block, but it was enough of a struggle just remaining conscious. What...was happening? She...sheís not...I donít understand...

Fists like sledges shattered Xenaís ribs. An uppercut sent a shard of pain racing into her skull, and she connected hard with the ground once again. Still drunk from agony, Xena was powerless to resist the booted foot that wedged into her throat. Gasping, she gazed up in a blur and saw her conqueror, grinning with a fervor bordering on ecstasy. Through her dizziness, Xena could see the glint of the blade as it rose in the sky, and hear the laughter above...and she knew this was the end. Sheíd lost.


"...Itís hard being alone."

She stared morosely at the dusty carving on the face of her brotherís tomb, wallowing for an uncharacteristic moment in self-pity, when the voice spoke up from behind her.

"Youíre not alone."

She turned, and there again was Gabrielle, that stupid little girl who kept following her around. I TOLD her to stay away, Xena said to herself, and yet here she is. And now, she intrudes on this moment? I should tell her to go to blazes and be done with her. She has no place in my life, and I donít want her in it. Thatís what I should do.

So why, instead of chasing her off, do I just smile and stare like a little girl myself? Whatís wrong with me?


"Push, Gabrielle! Harder, you can do it! Come on...!" "Xena...I think itís coming..! Oh, Gods!! Help me!"

Perdicus tried his best to ease his wifeís pain, holding her hand tight. Xena was straining to remain calm, to keep control of her emotions right now. Gabrielle was all that mattered. She could see the head now! And, as she guided the tiny life out, voices inside her cried out in joy all at once. And when she held the beautiful little girl up for her best friend to see, and watched her gorgeous smile light up the small cottage they had stopped in, she felt as if it were HER child she were holding. She could love it no more.

"Itís a girl, Gabrielle! You have a daughter!"


"Please...forgive me..."

She kneeled humbly in the darkness, the first time she had ever made such a gesture in her life. For no one else would she have even considered it. Yet now, with this woman, anything else would have seemed an insult. She half expected a command to leave, and never return. She had to bite her tongue to keep from giving herself away when her friend joined her on her knees, and embraced her with all the warmth she remembered of her.

"Xena, ...Iíve missed you so much..!


When she looked again, she saw Callisto more clearly, dangling the sword above her head like an executioner. Fitting, Xena supposed. She didnít care anymore. All that mattered was that Gabrielle was safe...and she had forgiven her. Xena smiled as the sword stiffened in Callistoís hands.

Iíve always loved you, Gabrielle. Remember me well.


Xena closed her eyes, calmly awaiting the final cut that would send her over. But it didnít come. Was her killer playing some final game? Wanted to look me in the eyes as she thrusts the blade in? She blinked her eyes open, and saw Callisto, still standing above her, but not looking down any more. Something off to one side had caught her attention. Something important, by the looks of her face. Xena turned her head with a groan, and saw...what? Fuzzy shapes...almost like people, but...no, it IS somebody! Two...two women. But WHO, and why..?


"Who in the name of Zeus are they?" Autolycus asked weakly. Perdicus squinted for more recognition, but came up empty.

"They look like mirages, or...memories."

"Or ghosts."


Xena stared at the spectral forms, as they came into greater clarity. One woman was older, with silver hair, and a red robe. A sash of blue across her body. And the younger, little more than a girl, with golden hair. Sheís pretty. But I donít understand, who are...

Something popped in Xenaís memory then, and she got a great feeling that she HAD seen these two before! Where? Whatever the memory, itís been a long time. So faint...what could it be?

Xenaís eyes flashed open. She snapped her head upright, ignoring the pain, and looked at Callisto. That look on her face...pain. Terror. Sorrow. And she knew where she had seen them before...


TWENTY TWO YEARS EARLIER...


The sun had barely risen in the sky when her army had thundered in. The glare from the sunrise sparkled off her armor as she hacked her way through what little resistance this village had to offer. Hardly a challenge, the Warrior Princess thought...just another village to conquer.

She ordered Argo to a halt as soon as she smelled the smoke. Always alert, she scanned the area with haste, and noticed a blaze had started on the other side of town. Several houses were already engulfed, and the screams of the villagers were spreading almost as fast as the flames. A feeling of dread rippled through her frame. This isnít what she wanted! With a yell, she turned Argo around and tore off towards the fire.

"Piricles! Whatís going on, I ordered no burning!" Xena screamed at one of her lieutenants, who held forth no answers.

"None under my watch started it, my queen, I swear it!" The man backed off as subtly as he could. He had seen Xenaís wrath, and had no desire to be the recipient of it on this day.

Damn the Gods to Hades, Xena muttered angrily. How can I LOOT a town if itís nothing but ash?!? Someoneís going to pay for...

She slowed to a halt, as the burning spread, and she observed the streets of the small village...what was it called? Cirra? Her soldiers were everywhere, taking down the feeble defenses that sprang up. But the villagers, where were they? She had expected the streets would be choked with the rabble by now, with the fire...She glanced inside one of the homes, barely more than a fiery tomb now...she heard choked screams from inside. She didnít know why, but she spurred Argo towards it. As she neared, a burning section of roof crashed to the ground, prompting Argo to a quick halt. Xena was unprepared, and fell tot the Earth with a crash. She leapt to her feet and glared inside the small window. Through the smoke, she saw two women...one old, one young. They were clutching each other tightly as their lives ran out, and the flames licked at their clothes. Xena stared in disbelief as they looked back at her...and she saw the fear. They were more afraid of HER than of the fire! Didnít they understand? They wouldnít be harmed! I donít KILL women and children, I DONíT! Donít they KNOW THAT?!?

"GET OUT OF THERE!" Xena found herself screaming. "You WONíT be harmed, I PROMISE you! Do you HEAR? Get out of there, youíll be KILLED!!"

Another part of the house collapsed, and a wave of heat knocked Xena down once more. She sat up and listened as the screams came flooding out...joined by others all across the town. Her soldiers milled about uneasily. They were warriors, but this was not how they were accustomed to beating their enemies. Xena was, for the first time since before Amphipolis, unsure of herself. What...what do I do? I didnít mean to...

"MOTHER!! AREALLA!!! NOOOO!!!"

Xena turned her head and saw a beautiful blonde woman, nearly her age, screaming towards the house and being held back by a large, burly man. The look in the womanís eyes was that of someone whose world was dying. It was all too familiar a look. Xena closed her eyes, then rose and walked away. Enough sentimentality, she tried to tell herself. If theyíre too stupid to leave a burning building, thatís no fault of mine. I have business to attend to.

As the Warrior Princess mounted her steed and rode away, the girl she left behind stopped struggling and watched as she left...her eyes blazed into Xenaís back hotter than any fire...she didnít even hear the gentle words being spoken by her neighbour from behind...

"Itís over now, Callisto. Theyíre gone. Thereís nothing you can do."


The boot lifted from her throat and Xena took a grateful gulp of air. She kept on staring at Callisto through the rain. Callisto reeled like never before, as she tried with shaking hands to reach out to the figures before her...

"M-mother? Arealla? Is..is that you?"

The older woman sighed sadly and bit her tongue. The younger girlís eyes widened as she looked on her sister once more. "Callie?"

A small cry escaped Callistoís throat. "W-what are you...doing here? Youíre GONE! Youíre DEAD!! No, this is a TRICK!! YOUíRE DEAD!!"

"My little angel...donít you remember?"

"Callie, itís me! Believe me, itís us."

Callisto took a startled step back. Xena lay motionless. "Please, no...donít do this...I saw you die, heard your suh-screams...Oh no, oh no..."

Callistoís mother extended a trembling hand to her daughter. "My sweet baby. Is it true? It canít be true, what she told us. You canít be like that, you canít! Not you! Why would you DO such things?"

She? Who is she talking...Xenaís eyes widened. Gabrielle. That little sneakís topped herself with this one.

"Donít do this, PLEASE DONíT DO THIS!!" Callisto screamed, and put a hand on her head as if in sudden pain. Her sister cried.

"Callie, itís wrong! Please, weíve met so many of them, your...victims. Theyíre good people! They donít deserve to die! Please, Callie, I know youíre not like that!"

"THEY didnít deserve it?? Did YOU?? Should I have just let her get AWAY with it all?!? SOMEONE has to make her PAY!! I DID it for YOU!!"

"Do you remember...when I was very young, and weíd all sit out by the river? And you would hold me in your arms, my big sister, and youíd sing to me...you had such a sweet voice. It made me so happy when you did that, I felt like the safest little girl in the world. I want you back, Callie. I want my big sister back."

"Callisto, sweetheart...stop hurting people for us...we donít want you to hate anymore. It wonít bring us back."

"Then what WILL?!? ANYTHING!! Gods, PLEASE!!" Callisto dropped to her knees, sinking silently into the muddy ground. Not a sound was breathed across the camp. "I want you back so much...I miss you so much...please come back..."

"Itís up to you, Callie. Love us. Thatís all you have to do. Love us with all your heart, like we..." Arealla stammered for a second, overwhelmed. Her mother wrapped her arm around her, and Callistoís heart shattered again. "...like we love you. And someday...weíll all be together again. Please...we love you..."

"I love you, my baby...please, come home..."

And then they were gone.

Callisto leaped to her feet and ran to the spot where a moment before the figures had stood. She waved around frantically, desperately, her tears evident even through the downpour.

"NO!! Donít LEAVE ME!! Not again!! DONíT LEAVE, PLEASE!! COME BACK!!!"

Despite herself, Xena couldnít help but try and say...something. "Callisto..."

Hearing the voice, Callisto whipped around and levelled her sword at Xena once again, but this time the anger was gone. There was only fear in her face now. "DONíT COME NEAR ME!!! STAY AWAY!!"

She waved the weapon in all directions, defensively, keeping everyone at bay, though none made a move against her. She trembled like a leaf in the wind, her eyes the picture of pain.

"No, I WONíT!" Callisto screamed, to who no one knew. "I CANíT!! Donít you SEE??" Callisto moved away from Xena quickly, until finally, she stopped, and with one movement, flipped the sword around, aiming it at her own heart...

"...I just wanna be with them...I-Iím gonna be with them now..."

Xena rose to her feet, feeling a terrible dread that she didnít understand. Why stop her? You were going to do it yourself! It made no sense to her. And yet she cried out anyway.

"NO!"

The reply was a whisper..."yes."

The blade pierced cleanly, and she didnít make a sound as she fell to the ground. Xena ran over to her and pulled the sword out, but it was too late. She knew a fatal wound when she saw one. But this was CALLISTO! She screamed inside. She deserves this, doesnít she? After all sheís done...

Xena drew her face close to Callistoís, and listened as the last words were choked out...it was the first time Xena had ever heard genuine beauty in this voice, so often laced with hate...

"Iím gonna be with them now...I love you so much, Iím coming...coming..."


And then the world exploded.

Or so it felt to Xena, who was knocked back with the force of a cyclone, as a terrible, furious wind howled out from her enemyís dead shape. A noise like Armageddon made eardrums rattle all across the camp, and a brilliant ruby mist shot up like a geyser, staining the night. Xena crashed backwards, trying to right herself as quickly as possible, but fumbling from the pain. What NOW?, she asked desperately. Her allies, who had backed off up to this point, started moving in once again to defend against this new attack, if an attack it was. But the force of the gale kept them from getting too close, so they could only watch as the mist swirled about into a single mass, and with a great peal of thunder and a burst of flame, it took shape. It was all over in an instant, and then the scene returned to normal, Callistoís inert form lying prostrate on the ground, unmoving. But the chilling scream of rage from the terrible new arrival who now stood over the fallen Callisto let everyone there know that things had just gotten a lot worse. "Terrific" Xena noted sardonically as she gently probed several broken ribs, "And here I was starting to think I just might survive all this."

"DAMN YOU HADES!!!" The God of War thrust his angry fists in the air, shaking with the fury that coursed through his immortal veins. The curse sent shivers through the survivors, Autolycus in particular. He never envied running into former targets, especially not divine ones.

After a moment in which none dared move, Ares regained his composure. He straightened his helmet and stood tall, and stared dispassionately at the assembled force, or what was left of it. Finally, he allowed himself a smile. It made Xena feel ill.

"Why, Ares? After all this time, why? Iím useless to you now." Xena tried not to let the air of defeat show too strongly, but she felt it nonetheless. It was all she could do right now to stand, her enmity towards her former lover the only thing keeping her up.

"Oh, I beg to differ, dearest," The words slipped off Aresí tongue like blood off a dagger. "Itís never too late for revenge. You, out of all the warriors in the world, were the one who defied me the most, who brought humiliation upon my great name! Who continually defied my attempts to return her to my fold. You...didnít think I was just going to let that slide, now did you?"

From deep inside, a small voice started crying out to Xena. And she swore, it sounded just like Gabrielle. "Keep him talking!" it said. She was inclined to agree.

"This was all about revenge, against me? Then why bother with the warning to Gabrielle? Why give us time to marshall a defense? Youíre slipping, Ares."

Ares placed two fingers on his jet black goatee and gently stroked. "Slipping? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it. Sure, I could have just killed you. Instead, Iíve slaughtered dozens who have fought against me and my warriors for decades! How many innocents have been saved at the hands of those Ďnobleí warriors here today? How many of my wars have been stopped short by the interference of you pathetic Ďheroesí? Well...no more."

Xenaís eyes told the story. "You...you knew what Hercules would do. You WANTED him to summon us here!"

A smile lit up Aresí cowardly face. "Lambs to the slaughter, Xena. My brother may be a die hard do-gooder, but heís a predictable lout, and easily manipulated."

"And thereís no one better at manipulation and deceit than you."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear."

"So why the deception with Callisto? Afraid to take us on yourself?"

Ares flinched at that, then shook a reprimanding finger at his one-time disciple. "Tut tut, Xena. Thatís for me to know...and you to go to your grave wondering about. Iíve tarried here long enough. Time for you to see what happens to those who would defy the will of a GOD!" Ares began to move forward, when he suddenly flashed an arm up and, out of nowhere, caught an arrow that had been flying straight at his head. He glanced and saw Mara several paces away, bow in hand. He snapped the shaft in two and grinned. The others took their cue.

"ATTACK!"

With whatever strength they had left, Joxer, Kefor, Mara, Perdicus, Theseus and a somewhat reluctant Autolycus moved en masse towards the ultimate enemy. Meleager, winded, stayed back with Arin and Alanna. Xena reacted instantly.

"NO!! Stay BACK!! He canít be beaten, just get OUT of here! NOW!!" Xenaís heart sank when her order was ignored down to the last fighter. She was proud, of course, but couldnít see a way out anymore. This had to be the end.

"Yes, my children, come! Let Ares give you ALL your just rewards!!" Ares unsheathed his ebon sword, and the air boiled as he swung it around. Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the arrowhead that Mara had shot, and hurled it with a vengeance back at itís owner. She cried out as it pierced her shoulder, and she fell. The others couldnít allow themselves the luxury of worrying about her. This was too important. Perdicus seemed to have regained a little more wind than most, and was first to arrive. He launched into a savage attack on the lord of combat, which was countered with nonchalant ease. Xena hobbled in to try and assist, and with a wave of his hand, Ares knocked her back.

"Ares, you COWARD!!" Her taunts were in vain. Ares was engrossed in bloodlust now. Only their deaths would satisfy him now. It was hopeless.

Kefor galloped in and joined in the attack, and was equally deftly parried. He and Perdicus tried to coordinate their attack, but it made no difference. Ares was unbeatable. With one motion he disarmed the two, then shot his hand out and yanked Perdicus aloft by the throat. Ares grinned sadistically, and Perdicus tried desperately to shift about in his grip, to look at Xena...

"Gkkk...X-Xena...tell..her...Tell her I always...l-lo..."


Crack.


Xena slumped as she watched the body of Perdicus, once the husband of her dearest friend, fall dead to the ground. She let out a cry. Why couldnít he have settled for me? She cried bitterly.

Ares howled with delight, and waved his arm. All attackers were repelled back, and a wave of fire sprang up about the God. The flames singed and burned, and as they screamed, Ares laughed. HE watched briefly as they scrambled to what they thought of as safety, then he laughed harder.

"No escape, little mortals! You should have served Ares when you had the chance!! Now you pay the price! NOW you ALL DIE!!"

And as Ares prepared to move in for the kill, he was stopped in his tracks by something he quite simply had not expected. He had to do a bit of a double take as he asked himself , incredulously, Ďdid someone just tap me on the shoulderí?

And he turned, and saw the last face in all creation he wanted to see.

"Brother, " Hercules said, "Iíve wanted to do this for a LONG time."

And the night air was shattered again.

The force of the blow would have been enough to sweep everyone off their feet, if any of them had still been standing. Several watched in awe, as Ares went flying hard, driving a furrow into the ground as he impacted. Xena stared at Hercules, come to Earth once more, but no longer wearing the familiar garb he had in his more mortal days. No, he was shining brightly now in magnificent battle armour, doubtless crafted by Hephaestus himself. She didnít know why he had come, and only now, but she was certainly glad he had. As Democritus tended to Maraís wound, Ares slowly picked himself up out of the dirt, and gazed in shock and fear at his brother immortal. Hercules wasted no time, though, and was already speeding in to press the advantage. Now THIS, Xena thought, will be a show to see.

And then it was over.

Ares vanished in a flash, with barely an echo remaining to suggest he had ever been there. Hercules was a touch disappointed, but not surprised. Ares was, in his dark heart, a bully. And once the advantage is gone, so is he.

Across camp, people slowly started to rise once again. Hercules walked over and set down his helmet of gold and silver, and tried to help. Most who were still alive at this point could manage on their own, with the possible exception of Xena herself. He put an arm across her shoulder and helped her to her feet. She smiled, when she wasnít wincing. Had they won? It seemed hard to believe, and it was a pyhrric victory at best, but...it was over. Maybe thatís the best that could be said.

"Sorry Iím late." Hercules said regretfully.

"Iím just...glad you came." She had more questions, but before she could voice them, Arin and Alanna came running over. They looked up at their powerful uncle, and he smiled warmly back.

"Hi, kids! Itís great to see you again, it really is!" Joxer arrived to help Xena, and Hercules kneeled down and hugged the children softly.

"Iíve seen your father sometimes," He told them, looking into their too-sad eyes. "And he wants you to know that heís very, very proud of you. But he wishes you would talk more. He misses hearing your voices."

He gave Arin and Alanna one final hug, then a disturbing look crossed his face. He stood, and looked over at Xena, then up at the sky.

"I have to go. Iím probably gonna catch heck for this as it is. But I promise, he wonít bother you again."

"Thank you, Hercules. For everything."

The next moment, he was gone, and there was nothing left to do but start healing.

Across camp, warriors collected their fallen comrades, licked their wounds, and shed their tears. But Xena had one last thing to do before that. She pushed away from Joxer and painfully, slowly limped her way towards the center of camp, where the body of Callisto still lay peacefully. When she arrived, she lowered herself down, and looked on her fallen foe, her eyes still wide open, a look on them Xena never expected to see. A look of hope. Xena smiled quietly, and passed her hand over Callistoís face,

"Do us all a favour this time, Callisto..." she whispered, as she shut the tortured girlís eyes for the last time...

"...Rest in peace."


The Visitor Presents:
LIFETIMES
Part XV: TWO FRIENDS

It was late the next day when Gabrielle returned, to a scene of carnage. The death toll had been staggering; Deon, Phantius, Stallonas, Perdicus, Thalia, almost ALL the Black Wolves...and many of the survivors were in pretty rough shape themselves. The camp remained up for almost two more days, as Democritus tried to heal the bodies of his friends as best he could. Arrangements were made to transport bodies for proper burial, except for Stallonas, who had no known living kin and was buried at the site. Kefor agreed to help Theseus in transporting Phantiusí remains back to his village, but Mara would allow no one to assist her with Thalia, until Autolycus, in a most unusual show of warmth, talked her into letting him help her.

"I always was a sucker for a hard luck case." His attempted nonchalance was only half convincing. Even he was overwhelmed by the events of the last week.

Xena required more healing than most, and of course, was the most stubborn in refusing aid. Gabrielle personally took over her care when she returned, and delighted in telling Xena the story of her trip to the other side. They stayed there longer than the others, wishing them well as they eventually all went their separate ways. Meleager escorted Arin and Alanna home, but not before they both said goodbye to Xena and Gabrielle.

Gabrielle told Xena what Iolaus had explained to her...Hera wouldnít permit Hercules to interfere with the everyday goings on in the mortal plane. He could only intercede when the Gods were involved. Ares used Callisto to mask his presence on the material plane, but needed Hadesí assistance to make the plan work. It was Gabrielleís bravery and ingenuity that made victory possible. Once again, Xena thought...


It was the second night after the battle, and the camp was deserted except for Xena and Gabrielle. There was only a slight chill in the air, and the world was peaceful and calm. They had spent the last days mourning, healing, and trying to forget. But now, there was one last soul to put to rest. Xena wasnít sure if Gabrielle would understand, but of course she did. And so the stood that night before a crudely erected altar in the center of the camp, and placed the body of the warrior woman Callisto atop it. Gabrielle handed Xena a lit torch, she lit the altar...and the flame burst up high, engulfing the past within itís embrace.

"I can see now where everything went wrong for me..." Gabrielle spoke in hushed tones. "When I let myself be goaded into killing...not to defend, or protect...but out of anger, and hate. When I strayed from the right path."

"I hope she finds her peace, I really do. I want no more suffering on my conscience."

"She will. In the end, I think she realized that loving them was ultimately more important than hating you."

Xena stepped closer to the fire, and gazed intently as the flickering flames danced across the altar, the heat licking her face. She felt more at peace now than ever in her whole life. It felt right.

"Goodbye, Callisto. And good luck."


Xena awoke late the next morning, surprised to see Gabrielle up and cooking breakfast already. This little bard was full of surprises these days.

"Morning. I didnít want to wake you, you need your sleep. Youíre still in pretty rough shape, yíknow."

"Iíve been worse." She lied. "Smells good."

Gabrielle beamed. "Caught us a rabbit, can you believe it? Not bad for a little farmgirl."

"Not bad at all. Iím lucky to have such a skilled physician and hunter with me." Xena smiled wide.

"Hurry up, itís almost done!" Gabrielle cleared a spot for her friend, and soon, they started in on their last meal at the camp.


Within a couple of hours, they had extinguished the last fire and gathered up whatever belongings they had left there. Xena saddled old Moerae up, and Gabrielle slung her handbag over her shoulder. Xena looked at her curiously.

"Whatís wrong?"

"Whereís you staff?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "Poling the river Styx. Itís a long story."

"Youíll have to tell me sometime. So...where are you headed?"

A contented smile crossed her tired face. "Home. I miss my sister, my nephew...itís time."

"Iím glad." Xena tried to smile, but was obviously hesitant. She felt awkward about what she was about to ask. Just do it, Xena, she told herself. Just one little question...

"Would...would you like some company?"

Surprised, Gabrielle stared hard into Xenaís eyes. She saw a humility that was never there before. It made her smile wider. "What about the kids?"

Xena bowed her head, almost bashfully. "I talked with Sphaerus before I left. He and his sons are gonna help out with the farm for a while. I...had to renounce my oath of peace to be here, so Iím not exactly welcome back there right now." She looked up again at Gabrielle, a playful look in her eyes now.

"Well, I dunno...Maybe I should have some time alone right now...yíknow, just to put things into perspective..."

"Oh...oh, sure, I understand. Thatís a good idea."

They stared at each other for a minute, until an infectious smile started working itís way onto Xenaís face.

"So...which route do you think youíll be taking?"

Gabrielle couldnít hold back the laugh. She turned and walked ahead a few paces, waving her arm in a summoning motion as she did. "Come on! Weíre not getting any younger!"

Grinning from ear to ear, Xena grabbed Moeraeís reins and scooted after Gabrielle, and soon they were walking side by side, down the long, long road to Potodaia...

"I was wondering," Gabrielle said. "I missed the big fight, and..."

"What?"

"Well, I was just wondering...did you do your...thing?"

Xena arched an eyebrow. "What Ďthingí"

"You know, that yell-thingy you used to do! Did you do it?"

"OH, my war cry! Hmmm...no, I guess I must have forgot."

"Could...could you do it now?"

Xena looked at Gabrielle, and she looked as young as the day she met her. "Iíll give it a shot..."

Xena stopped, took a deep breath, and let out a mighty "AYIYIYIYIYIYIYII...", before stumbling into a coughing fit that almost knocked Gabrielle flat on her behind she was laughing so hard.

"AHEM...Ahuhhh...Oh, my...I used to do that, AND fight? I AM getting old!"

Gabrielle composed herself. She put an arm around her friends shoulder, and started her off down the road again. "Maybe you are. But you wonít ever have to do it alone."


One day, in a village called Potodaia, a young dreamer named Gabrielle met a crusading former warlord named Xena. One was seeking adventure; the other, redemption. On that day, an historic partnership was forged that soon grew into a friendship like no other.

Their journeys were legendary.

They changed the world.


And the story isnít over.

CURTAIN


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