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CHAPTER 18

"Oh love, love, love."
Callisto, The Return of Callisto

 

With a hand gesture, the two deities began their descent to the earth. The strong winds which had once been of aid by granting them speed, were now a hindrance in their attempts at deceleration and avoiding the tall pines of the forest below them. Hapheastus must have given a silent request to the living metal that was the frame of their wings, for spikes strategically broke through the hides and moved gradually, thereby allowing an increasing yet controllable amount of air to squeeze through the wings in order to allow a controlled line on descent.

They had to do some quick manoeuvring to avoid crashing and though the landing was hard, it was sustainable. If they had been less than gods though, bones would have been shattered.

Neither hesitated to put aside the wind gliders and begin to rapidly unstrap their unconscious Ďpassengersí.

"Weíre going to have to hurry," Hapheastus was whipping the ropes from and away from Xena, "if we donít get a fire going to warm them up, hypothermia will set in."

Aphrodite felt her charge. Callistoís skin already felt like ice. She had weakened herself so greatly when she had set Xena and herself free that now, despite her semi-immortality, her mortal life was also at risk.

"It may be too late." She looked about her. "Iíll start a fire, you figure out a way to get and keep them warm because a fire wonít be enough. Considering the condition Callistoís in, Xena being completely mortal must be even worse."

Rather than waste time answering, Hapheatus went to the wind gliders. She crouched between them. ĎMy cherished friends," her hands caressed the metal, which shuddered longingly at the touch, "I have need of your service for some time yet, will you help me?"

The metal swam in response, releasing the hide to lie in a pool of burnished gold at her feet. A thick needle parted to be taken by the god. Extending from behind it was a thread of metal that glinted quietly in the early evening sun. The god murmured her thanks as she began to sew the holes in the hides.


Thanks to the willing aid of the metal, Hapheastus had raised a small square structure by using the hides as a tent and some of the metal as poles, nearly within the same time that Aphrodite had started a suitable fire. The remaining hides were used as thick bed rolls for their two suffering companions placed as close to the fire as possible.

Finished, Hapheastus approached the fire and crouched across from where Aphrodite sat, flanked by Xena and Callisto on both sides. The goddess looked from them to her and silently noted the two serrated swords strapped diagonally across the godís back with square metal links. She also noticed, just as silently, how the metal brought out the dark gold in the godís eyes. Hapheastus observed the former yet failed to perceive the latter.

"Having next to no godly powers besides our immortality, I thought it best to have mundane weapons at hand. I guessed you were still adverse to the use of weapons yourself."

"You assumed correctly. Iíve never wanted to become proficient with any weapon since my time with Ares. Being with him has definitely curbed any desire I might have had to be more like our sister of hunt and archery: Artemis."

The god turned and lowered her head enough so that the shadows hid her eyes, though her jaw visibly tightened. "Xena and the other," Hapheastusí voice was rough, "how are they?"

Aphrodite gracefully acquiesced to the change of topic. "Not well, Xenaís getting worse. They both have mild hypothermia and "the other" is developing a fever. You could call her by her name; unless sheís done you some unforgivable trespass ... ?"

"You know all sheís done, how many innocents sheís harmed."

"No more than your friend Xena."

"Xenaís changed." the dark god put in flatly.

"Callisto might." Aphrodite spoke softly. "Who are we to judge her, let alone steal the possibilities her future holds."

"Donít you think youíre being rather naive?"

"Iím only being honest Haph," employing the nickname she used for the other in their childhood, "weíre gods, not prophets or oracles. How are we to know where any mortalís fate might lead?"

The old terms of affection caused Hapheastus to relent, however slightly. "You always were compassionate."

"As the incarnation of Love," she said with wry humour, "Iíve hardly had a choice, after all, compassion is but one aspect of Love."

"Aphrodite ...", again Hapheastus looked away and now stood, lifting Callisto in her arms. "Weíd best get them in the shelter and bring the fire there." She added with her own attempt at levity, "If only to ease the ache of your imposed compassion."

Aphrodite watched the female god enter the tent before turning to Xena. All her instincts told her that Hapheastus had wanted to say something else entirely.


Chaos entered the room more silently than a catís paw, yet the young woman who sat there with her back to him, head in hand, still staring out the window, sensed his presence.

Gabrielle spoke tonelessly, without moving to look at him. The lack of emotion in her words shackled what lay beneath them. "Do you know where Xena is yet?"

"I have a fair guess."

"Guess?!" her voice became suddenly hoarse rather than strident. "Any fool can guess. What I want is an answer."

"Iím working on it." It entertained him, it seemed, to allow her to treat him like a common servant. "Since sheíll be dead or incapacitated by next eve anyway, what does it matter?"

Now Gabrielle did look at him. Her dark blue irises went from a near lifeless brooding to a violent wild blaze, "Itíll be too late then!! Donít you understand? I have to be there the moment the poison takes effect and not one second after!!" They both ignored the fact that she had screamed that last. Unexpectedly she stood and went to him, wetting his shirt with a rain of tears. Gabrielle grabbed the cloth and pressed it and him against her face. "Please, Chaos, please, you have to find her for me before then..."

"Of course," he murmured against her red-gold hair as he wound his arms about the shaking mortal like a vise, however gentle. "Iím already arranging for your chariot. Youíll see her before sunset tomorrow."


The night was not going well.

"Weíve got to do something!"

Hapheastus, her arms trying to still the uncontrollable shaking of Xena, glanced over in helpless frustration at Aphrodite who was occupied similarly with Callisto. "Iíve raised the fire as high as I dare and these hides are thicker than any other blankets so if you have any ideas about how to get them warmer, Iím more than open to any suggestions."

"Youíre the resourceful one." she snapped. "Surely there must be some way to help humans get warmer," the light blue eyes widened, "of course .."

"Dammit ĎRo, what is it?!"

Aphrodite would have smiled at the use of her childhood nickname but the rapidly deteriorating health of both mortals pressed urgently against her breast. She began to rapidly shed her clothing, much to the otherís shock.

"Haph, hurry," as she stripped naked, she slid into the bedroll and fully embraced Callisto, "weíve got to warm them with our own body heat."

Without words, Hapheastus followed her example. She was shocked by the icy touch of Xenaís skin and, as Aphrodite was doing, quickly undressed the woman she was desperately trying to keep alive.

"Sheís freezing." she said worriedly. "I must have overestimated their tolerance to the cold."

"This is no time for recriminations." Aphrodite said, not unkindly. "As gods, we forget how delicate mortals truly are. You had to get us as close as you could, as fast as you could in order to try and save all three of them. They might have been fine if it werenít for the previous strains of the poison and the escape, let alone the mental and emotional strain from the Hel stone. All we can do now is try to fix what we can. Concentrate to sustain you body heat the same or slightly higher than that of an average human."

It was quiet for awhile except the snap and sparks of the fire as itís smoke rose up and through the smoke flap of the tent. Holding Xena, so frail and suffering, Hapheastus pondered the mortal woman she held against her so fiercely. She knew Xena well enough to know that the warriorís internal suffering must be by far the greater. To blame oneself for so much, including the betrayal of a friend whom Xena trusted like no other ... All this after the years of loneliness and hate to find the courage to open oneís heart to let in another, only to have it torn from her. Hapheastus didnít realize how her own arms tightened protectively around the woman. Mortals had so brief a time in comparison to a godís and yet they strived for so much against such impossible odds. They endured and grew and faced the oft times tragedy of their short lives with a courage that was so great it humbled the god as she realized the delicate beauty that mortality was. For despite the suffering they were resilient. They had the power to face change and to overcome it. Mortality was the key to change, death and rebirth being parts of its greater aspects. As she pondered all this, a part of the armour around the forge godís heart softened and fell away as she became truly aware of the extraordinary attributes of the being she held. And when, at last, Xenaís trembling stopped and her breathing eased, Hapheastus felt an unusual constriction in her throat and wondered at the relief she felt.

 

Callisto was not faring even half so well. Her weakened state, further aggravated by the hypothermia had led to a fever. And in that state of delirium, she did not thrash about but whimpered intermittently; the small sound of a wounded animal.

"Momma," in a weak voice, "momma."

"Donít leave me. Wake up. Please momma, donít --- donít leave me alone."

Over and over, in the voice of a child. Aphrodite tried not only to warm the body of the woman she held so carefully in her arms but also to somehow comfort Callistoís long forgotten heart.

True, Aphrodite had considered asking Hapheastus to break the other manacle in order to give Callisto the god powers that would near-instantly heal her, yet she also knew what Hapheastusí answer would have been: better to let her die than have set a would-be god half mad with loss and hate upon the world. Forced to be honest with herself, Aphrodite could not disagree. Yet she wished it was otherwise as she cradled the woman-child against her and whispered soothing words that lacked meaning beyond their need and desire to comfort, to love. So perhaps then, it was not so surprising that Callisto, semi-conscious with fever, trapped in her past, upon hearing those words and the unrestrained love they held, would mistake the blonde haired woman who spoke them and the breast she was held against, for that of another.

"Momma," she sobbed, her own arms coming around Aphrodite to embrace the goddess tightly, "momma."

"Itís alright Callisto. Iím here. Youíre not alone. Iím here."

"Why? Why did you leave me alone? Was I a bad girl? Iím sorry, Iím sorry, just donít go, donít leave me please donít go. Iím sorry. Iíll be better...."

The Goddess of Love felt the hot wetness of tears from the face pressed against her chest. She simply continued to hold the other woman, for when was the last time that Callisto had been able to weep, let alone, at long last, be held and loved again.

 

With her eyes closed, the Goddess of Love did not see the green light which crept out of Callisto and crawled away.


On Sleipnir, Loki had left Asgard, ridden past Bifrost and the land of dark elves to descend into a gigantic labyrinth of tunnels and caves. Deeper and deeper he descended, until at last he came upon the dwelling of the sons of Ivaldi.

Upon seeing Loki, the dwarves were none too pleased, for the Sly One, also known as the Sky Traveller, was well known to them for his tricks. Nevertheless, they would never let it be said that they were inhospitable to any guest, so they greeted him with restrained courtesy and offered him food and mead. It was only after they had brought out a third jug of mead to refill Lokiís stein, that they then enquired as to the reason for the Tricksterís presence.

"Ah, would that I could say I came merely to reminisce and enjoy the company of two of the finest smiths know to the Aesir ---"

"We are the finest." said one brother bluntly. "No one elseís work can compare with ourís!"

"Of course not!" Loki hastily amended. "Indeed! When odin spoke of his wish to make a chariot for Sleipnir, it was I who came forth to sing the praises of your work, for all the Aesir to hear. Does Sifís hair of gold not shine more beautiful that the rays of the sun? I said, and lo, mortals far and wide now dread the spear, Gungnir, that Odin never parts with. And the vessel, Skidbladnir, that was given to Freyre, which, though it can carry the whole host of the Aesir, can be folded to fit into oneís pocket; is it not the most clever, most brilliant thing any of us have witnessed?"

"And," the other brother demanded, "what did they say?"

"They said that only the finest smiths could make a chariot for Odinís steed, for only the finest could make a carriage so strong as to withstand the speed of the eight-legged horse that can race the very wind, yet make the chariot so craftily that even a mortal can ride within it and yet not feel the slightest shaking."

"We, the sons of Ivaldi, can do this!" they both said together. "What did they offer us in payment?"

"Alas, dear friends," such a long regretful sigh, "they said that only the makers of Mjollnir could achieve such a feat: Eitri and Brokk."

Angry exclamations of sheer indignation escaped both the dwarves. For it had not been so long ago that two sets of three gifts; one set from the brothers and another from Brokk and Eitri, had been presented before the Aesir to judge who were the finest smiths. (the competition of gifts having been arranged by Loki to escape the Aesirís wrath for having cut Sifís hair; the wife of Thor, yet that is another story). The gods had judged the treasures of Brokk and Eitri, which included Odinís armband, Draupnir, the golden bear, and greatest of all, Thorís hammer, Mjollnir, to have been the finest in craftsmanship. Prideful and envious, the sons of Ivaldi have never forgotten that slight, nor would they allow the opportunity to regain their glory and outdo the other dwarves to elude them.

"Dear, dear friend Loki," one brother thumped the godís back in false camaraderie while refilling his stein yet again, "we would not hear of the Aesir paying for such imperfect work as those others insultingly offer you! No! No! We will make this chariot for you. It should be the finest they could ever imagine! Their recognition of our work should be payment enough!"

"Sons of Ivaldi!" Loki dripped of false surprise, "Such generosity! Yet I could not, Odin wished it from Brokk and Eitri, and he desired it by dawn ..."

"Feh," one brother already began to take down his tools, "wait and see! We shall have it done by then and when Odin sees it he shall weep for joy at the sheer sight of it!!"

Loki leaned back in the chair with his mead as he watched the dwarves begin to work. The shadows hid his feral smile.


The opened tent flap hit Xena with a brisk, grey dawn as she stepped outside to get away from the unnerving scene within the tent. Her booted feet crunched dead saffron grass sheathed in frost as she walked to where Hapheastus was crouched, cooking fish over a modest fire.

The god handed over the cooked offering silently. Xena bit into it eagerly; her hunger re-awakened.

After a time, her hunger somewhat sated, she licked her fingers saying, "Whereíd you get the fish?"

Hapheastus pointed through the trees, "From the river nearby. I never ice fished before ... actually, Iíve never fished in any fashion before."

The uncanny silver gaze eyed her speculatively, "You seem ... well."

"Yes," frowned Xena, "the chill is gone along with the numbness in my limbs ... itís almost like the poisonís left my system."

"Or," the god speculated, "the recession is merely a phase before it kills you."

The warrior woman gave a thin, humourless smile. "Ever the optimist." She shook her head, "I feel different though; my thoughts are unclouded for what seems like the first time in days. By the way," she glanced at Hapheastus then back at the fire, "thank you for last night."

"You," the god bowed her head, "remember last night?"

"Iím glad I do, otherwise I wouldnít realize how fortunate I am to have a friend such as yourself."

"Xena, claiming a god as a friend." Now it was Hapheastusí turn to shake her head, this time ruefully, her voice wry, "Will wonders never cease?"

"Hmph." Xena almost laughed, almost.

The fire crackled indulgently into the quiet that followed. When Hapheastus did speak, she remained staring into the fire, her mind both here and elsewhere.

"Once, a very, very long time ago, when humankind was newly born to this world, fresh from a dream, there was someone in my life very like Gabrielle."

"We were young, as was the world then. Yet, even in my youth, I was bitter, scarred at birth far more by the rejection of my family than by any physical wounds. Even so, she interrupted my solitude with a smile of pure sunlight and the warmth of her love and friendship. I resisted at first, being cold and withdrawn," a ghost of a smile was briefly heard in her voice, "but she was tenacious ... and irresistible. Suddenly, life seemed worth living and for awhile I experienced joy, trust and ... love. Not unlike what Gabrielle has done and come to mean to you." Her eyes darkened with the pain of remembrance.

"And then I destroyed it. Not all at once, but piece by bludgeoned piece. I drove her away; as far away as I could and far further than I meant."

"Why?" Xena was touched by the shared confidence, but puzzled, truly bewildered, by the godís behaviour.

A long, melancholy sigh that imparted the ache of several centuries escaped the god. "Because I couldnít believe her feelings for me. I believed myself too hideous to be deserving of the faith her love acclaimed. And so I behaved hideously, brutally, and in so doing, lost the only person who could ever claim what heart I may have - all because I despised myself. Later I found her in the arms of another god. She even had a child by him." In one graceful motion, Hapheastus stood up and at last looked upon Xena with a face sober with sincerity. "Donít let that happen to you and Gabrielle. If someone that special cares for you, then it can only be because you are worth caring about - despite yourself. Such peoplesí hearts are as clear as crystal and can see with unclouded eyes as creatures like us cannot. Donít give up your friend without a fight Xena. I did, and itís a truth that is my one and only regret which has left me more scarred on the inside than all the scars on my body put together."

The god turned at the sound of the tent flap. No one was there. It must have only been the wind.

The heart of the goddess raced, or perhaps it had stopped, such was the shock of hearing those words from Hapheastus. Every syllable had said "Iím sorry". So much time had passed and yet could the god still ...? She had spoken in past tense though. Yet the pain in her voice was both ancient and freshly felt. It could mean, mean ... mean what?

And it was as Aphrodite contemplated that question that the sight before her wiped it away.

A green light suffused the tent.

If she called for help, it could endanger the others outside the tent if they came into contact with the aura. What to do, what to do? Breathe (yes that would be a good start). Tentatively she stretched out a hand (I must be crazy, playing hero is not my schtick). Then she was surprised when the green air oozed away from her touch. Cautiously she took a step forward. Again it retreated from her. Regarding it, Aphrodite would almost swear that it seemed lost, as if it did not know where to go. One step followed another and another as she watched it retreat from her. She spread her arms wide as if to hug it, never taking her eyes from the insidious stuff. Because of her focus, Aphrodite almost tripped over an object that she had accidentally kicked out in front of her.

It was the Hel stone.

Sensing a residue of evil that it could purchase, the green aura unknowingly retreated back into what was once its cell. Before it could escape again, Aphrodite leapt to the object and quickly, without thinking, stopped it with her hand.

It was at that moment that Hapheastus entered, holding a fish on a spit. "I thought maybe Callisto might need some -" The god realized the scene before her, "Aphrodite, what ..."

"Make sure Xena doesnít come in, in case it gets out." she warned quickly. "All I know is that when I used my god sight without thinking, I saw this green guck everywhere and then it went back into its round box because it doesnít seem to like me. Look."

Hapheastus wasted no time in evaluating the situation. In the orb, the green tint roiled at the bottom in an effort to avoid the hand over the opening. Luckily for it, it was not the original full amount so there was space to allow its evasion.

"Xena," the god called out calmly, "whatever you do, stay away from the tent until ĎRo or I tell you differently."

When they heard the sound of confirmation, Hapheastus turned to crouch by the kneeling Aphrodite. "Any ideas as to what happened?"

"None." She bit her lip, "Did you notice if the taint was gone from Xena? This much of it would suggest that it departed from both women but I have no idea as to why or how it was exorcised from them."

"I didnít use my god sight but now that I think of it, Xena seemed more like herself again; her fears and self-doubts again under her control."

"Well, what am I going to do? I canít very well hold this forever."

"Here, let me help." came a voice sickened sweet with hate as Callisto came up behind Aphrodite, holding a sharp stone-like object against the goddessís neck.

"What insanity," said Hapheastus sharply from where she crouched, braced, "do you think youíre doing?"

"Insanity, hmm." Callisto, very much returned to her former self, mockingly replied, "I never claimed otherwise did I? Now Aphrodite," she pressed the sharp object harder against her, "if you would be so kind as to stand up slowly with me?"

All three rose as one; the goddess holding the orb with the utmost delicacy.

"Now," her voice flattened, "take your manacle off of me Haph or Iíll give your pretty friend a set of scars to match yours - along with the added bonus of being able to breathe from her neck!"

"How do you propose to harm her," the god spoke in low, measured tones, quiet like the eye of a storm, "when mortal weapons are useless against us?"

"Oh," Callisto had a most unpleasant look of glee upon her face, "but thanks to you I have something much more than mortal, or donít you recognize your own handiwork?"

The twin moons narrowed in the darkness of the tent and then narrowed further in fury as Hapheastus recognized the blade she had used to cut Gleipnir, in Callistoís hand.

"Draw a drop of her blood Callisto and Iíll hand make your own personal Tartarus designed to enhance your every suffering."

The god took a step towards them.

"Ah ah ah!" the blade pressed closer with the jeering warning. Hapheastus paused. "All you have to do is remove the manacle and we can call it a day."

Hapheastusís jaw tightened, "I canít unleash you and your god powers to terrorize the world, Callisto. Besides, you canít get far, naked, dragging a goddess around. Iíll hound your every step."

"Could I," ventured Aphrodite, "please point out a couple of things since this ever so not-quaint scenario would appear to involve me very much?" She didnít wait for permission but continued, "Callisto, you may have that funky knife but the odds of you being able to kill me, let alone harm me severely, before Haph there gets a hold of you is very unlikely. Actually, Iíd say itís next to impossible. And seeing as Iím the only thing thatís keeping this green ooze from re-infecting that already heavy karma of yours; Iíd suggest you rethink this plan. You could do it out of thanks to me for saving your life or just to give yourself time to think of a more strategic act of psychosis. Either way, unless you want to return into that suicidal wreck crying for her mommy, whom I had to rock and kiss to sleep last night, drop the knife or Iíll drop the orb. Your choice. After all, as an immortal, I can hold this position for eternity, as only a semi-immortal, you canít."

The dead air weighed heavily with the glaring silence.

"Drop it anyway," Hapheastus gritted, "the bitch deserves to be brought to her knees."

The god would have said more but the sudden expression of sadness in Aphroditeís eyes stopped Hapheastus from any further verbal aggression.

"As you would then ĎRoí," she offered as apology. "I have not one tenth your compassion nor even half your capacity for forgiveness."

"Youíre bluffing." said Callisto to Aphrodite.

"I can assure you," the god mirrored her peerís sorrow, "she is not, despite the fact that it will pain her to wound you." A renewed flicker of iron flashed upon her face, "Youíre unworthy of her love."

"Love?! And you call me insane ..." Callistoís bravado rang false yet it went unchallenged. She pursed tight lips, "Alright, I can tell a stalemate when I see one. On the count of three I release flower-girl and she walks to you taking that orb away from me. Agreed?"

"Works for me." piped up Aphrodite.

"1 .. 2 ..," measuring stares were exchanged, "3."

The knife was withdrawn and Aphrodite walked, to her credit, without shaking, to the other side of the tent. However, that would not be the end of it. Callisto stabbed the knife with all her force against the manacle only to have the ensuing backlash throw her to the ground, dropping the knife.

Hapheastus swiftly recovered the blade and, with the other hand grabbed the stunned Callisto with a grip even Thor would have difficulty breaking.

The semi-mortal woman sneered at her, "You said something made by you could break yours. I shouldíve known youíd lie as well as any other god."

"Metal against metal, Callisto." Hapheastus offered the information with dreary scorn and her own sense of justice. "The blade isnít. However, if you were half as clever as you think you are, youíd have realized that you could have freed yourself simply by clashing the two manacles together with enough force."

Callisto stared at her, utterly stunned. "You mean I could have freed myself at any time!"

"If only you had thought of the solution. I thought it rather obvious enough."

"Why would you give me the means to escape?"

"To see," the dark god replied blandly, "if you would."

"Arrgh!!" She tried to free her captured arm to find that she couldnít, not that this surprised her, but frustrated, Callistoís rage urged to lash out.

Hapheastus raised her raven-black brows, "You have more than mortal strength again. The stoneís essence must have leeched some of you power."

"So how do you expect to keep me from dismembering you all? Ropes wonít be able to hold me, and you canít restrain me forever."

ĎTo be honest, the thought of having my hands upon you repulses me, Callisto."

"Like youíre my dream date," she spat venomously, "handsome."

"Then what Iím about to do should please us both; how nice." and the menacing upward curl of the godís lips eclipsed any other remarks.

Wordlessly, Hapheastus dragged Callisto out of the tent with Aphrodite following. Xena, having heard every word, merely watched as did Aphrodite. One short low whistle from the god brought the tent down in a billowing fold of dark leather as the metal holding it snaked its way out and towards the place where Hapheastus and Callisto stood. Like a bronzed eel, it curled up and around Callistoís struggling body to where her arms were being held behind her back. A new set of manacles, connected to each other, formed over her wrists. Another set formed around her ankles with a metal rope between to allow movement for walking. The rest formed into a sword in Hapheastusís hands.

With Callisto now bound, Hapheastus looked at Xena with god sight. And indeed, all of the Hel taint was gone.

"Here," she tossed Xena the sword, "you ready to move?"

Xena nodded firmly, "Self-pity isnít going to save Gabrielle."

The god almost smiled. She walked to Aphrodite and placed her own hands on the orb. "We canít have you hold this forever so letís hope this works." A drop of the living metal, the size of a tear, slithered from the godís hand to the orb and under Aphroditeís to pool over the opening. Aphrodite tentatively raised her hand. When she saw it holding, she sighed with relief and quickly moved her hanks off, brushing Hapheastusís as she did so.

"Time is dogging our steps as surely as Chaos must be." the god began to walk away from the campsite. "Weíd best hurry if we want to pay an unannounced visit to Hel."

"Oh, and would one of you throw some clothes on the warrior queen over there?"

 

CHAPTER 19

Ask the gods nothing excessive.
Aeschylus

 

When the other acolytes of Hel had seen what had become of Ivanovarrh at the hands of their revered and feared goddess, they had fled Helís temple to fates unknown. If they had been punished for their flight, Ivanovarrh did not know, yet he prayed daily, not only for their souls, not only for his, but for the worldís. Even though his fellow followers had abandoned him, blinded as he was. It had been ... difficult ... at first. He had experienced great difficulty in finding things and had caused himself accidental harm often by falling and bumping into things. Occasionally he gave in to tears of frustration. Eventually, he learned to place everything in a pragmatic order according to their use. Eventually, he used a long, thin stick to tap out the unseen edges and debris that he might fall over. He only needed the stick for the less well known halls and rooms of the empty temple. Eventually, he found the well for water and marked the way with a trail of large blocks that his stick would help him find.

Eventually, Ivanovarrh ran out of food.

Out of desperation, one day he had ventured further than he had since his blindness. He felt trees, plants - none edible. Finally he came upon a berry bush. After a tentative taste, he knew them to be non-poisonous and began to eat ravenously to silence the hunger cramps in his stomach. Sated (as sated as anyone can be when weak from lack of food with only berries to fill oneís stomach), he realized that he would need to bring some back for later, that even those that were there would last only two days or so and that he only had a vague idea of the direction home.

That was when he heard a twig snap nearby.

Ivanovarrh froze. His heart beat like a rabbitís. And he waited. There was no other sound, and yet, Ivanovarrh felt as though he were being watched. Flight won him over and so, berries forgotten, he ran toward where he hoped was the temple. Many times he stumbled and fell, the wet his hands felt on his knees he recognized as blood but when he found himself tripping over the stone step of the only home he had ever known, the only place he now knew in darkness, he sobbed with relief and scrambled inside.

It was a full two days before he dared step outside again, and then only for the water essential for survival. It was then his feet tapped against something by the step. Frowning, he bent down and felt it. It was a basket and, if his hands didnít deceive him, it was half-full with berries and nuts. And if his nose did not lie, the softness wrapped in oil cloth was baked bread with a block of cheese. And if fear and need and loneliness had not driven him to mad hallucinations, there was also a thick blanket, clothing, warm boots to replace his worn sandals, along with ointment and clean rags for his cuts and bruises. And Ivanovarrh wept, for the very first time, in happiness.

"Thank-you." he said to the air.

Every week after that, always on the same day and at the same place Ivanovarrh would find a package filled with necessities and kindness. Kindness being a gift too new and fragile to the acolyte. He never attempted to discover the identity of his saviour lest his seeking be seen as an offence. It was in that companionable quiet that his days continued, despite his personal wonderings and longing.

That is, until the day he heard the voices.

"Venerable sir." He tried not to be overly startled or to show his fears. A stray thought: Do I look that old now. He shook the foolish thought aside and instead attempted to look toward the vicinity from which the husky tones of the woman came.

"Yes?" Was all he could manage.

"Thereís nothing for you to fear from us." came a second voice of honey and sunlight. It automatically soothed him. "We merely need information."

"Of course." he hoped he sounded capable.

There was a sudden sound of movement, an exclamation of surprise more than of pain followed by a third voice which, oddly enough, switched mid-sentence from some unknown language to his own.

"There," came the third voice that would have been a pretty melody were it not for the smug maliciousness in it. "Now I can play too; besides, you donít need two earings, greedy girl."

"Callisto," the first voice lowered menacingly and Ivanovarrh knew that woman could be nothing if not a warrior, "you ever try to touch me in any way let alone rip something from my ear again, youíll regret it."

"Aw." came the false tones of the third woman.

"Ladies." a new voice that struck Ivanovarrh to the heart with itís beautiful sadness, the sound of still waters at night when the moon shines blue and silver, "I believe you may be upsetting this gentleman. Please," she, whoever she was, addressed him directly, "forgive them, all of us, for intruding, yet would this be Helís temple?"

"I ... yes." Why would someone come here? he couldnít help thinking.

"Do you know of a way or place in which we can call her?" the fourth one continued. "We have an object that needs returning, a stone -"

"The Hel stone!?!" his whole body began to tremble.

A pause, then "Yes". Then a hand on his shoulder, strong, warm and reassuring, "Steady now. Weíre short on time and the sun is rising, please, can you tell us where we must go?"

"Y-yes, yes of course," he took his stick and began to hurriedly lead them into the temple. "Please follow me, the summoning chamber is this way."

Once there, he hesitated, recalling what had happened the last time he had summoned his goddess.

"Thank-you." again the fourth female as though she had read his mind. "We can go to her on our own from here. Iím sure there are other duties that there are other duties that you need to attend to."

"Ah, yes." Responded Ivanovarrh, all too relieved at being offered an opportunity to flee.

However, a soft hand briefly touching his arm and a softer voice stopped him just before he left.

"Whoever," said the second woman, "did that to you - leave her or him."

Ivanovarrh left them then and walked outside in the fresh open air. The only humans who could call Hel were her acolytes. Upon being told to leave the room, Ivanovarrh knew what he had begun to suspect: that goddesses were now in Helís temple. Goddesses who had voices of honey and moonlight, touches that revealed strength and compassion. And for ever so brief and glorious a moment, Ivanovarrh glimpsed a future that held no apprehension for him.


"Nice how the gods treat their worshippers here." said Xena as her eyes followed the monkís retreat. "Remind me never to visit."

"When Iím done paying back that queer-eyed deity for what heís done to me," Callisto offered, "youíll have a lot more to worry about than where youíre going to take a vacation."

Xena fingered the dry blood on her earlobe from where Callisto had ripped out one of Hapheastusí translation earrings. "Youíll have to do a lot better than this."

"Oh, donít you worry sweetheart," the blonde reassured her darker counterpart. "I will."

"This is accomplishing nothing." Xena said in slicing tones. "How do we get to Hel, Hapheastus?"

The god had been examining the room while the others bickered and Aphrodite watched.

"We have to get her attention." She came to stand before the alter, "I suggest that the mortal and semi-mortal participants please take cover. Now."

When she began to slowly raise her hand and lower it repeatedly in the motion of a hammer on an anvil, gaining force, the others caught on. Xena and Callisto took cover behind pillars on opposite sides of the room from each other but Aphrodite went to Hapheastusí side.

"Are you sure you can do this?" she whispered to the god. "We canít tell how much the barrier may have affected your strength."

"I wonít grovel, beg, pray or prostrate myself for her attention," the eyes glittered, "nor will I have you do so. Breaking her alter should get an immediate response. Her anger is irrelevant: itís her cooperation, not her good will that we need."

She raised her hand to strike, but a softer, lighter one caught and stopped it. She looked upon Aphrodite.

"Then weíd better get it right." she had yet to release Hapheastusí hand. "If the two of us do it together, we should have the combined strength to break it."

Hapheastus stared for a moment into the cornflower-blue eyes, "As you will then."

Being the shorter of the two, Aphrodite moved in front of the other. Her back pressed to the godís front, they moved as one as they raised their arms to strike.

"Ready?" a low breath in her ear.

"Set." she answered.

"Go!" Hapheastus yelled and the twin fists smashed upon and into the centre of Helís altar, spraying stone and dust everywhere in a torrent of cracking and scraping sounds.

The dust settled quickly and they surveyed their shared achievement, neither having moved away from the other. "Do you think we overdid it?" asked Aphrodite facetiously.

A hand came to rest on her shoulder. "Not if whatís happening is what I think is happening."

The temple room had begun to shimmer and fall away like a dream. Xena and Callisto came to stand on either side of the god and goddess as the world around them became dank and cold and so very, very dark. A pale hall rose before them. Around them were growing multitudes of even paler faces; gray with the essence of suffering, Helís dead. And as the discordant music of their lamentations grew louder in the ears of the four living people among them, the doors moaned and slithered open.

"Iím beginning," Hapheastus said as they began to reluctantly walk inside, "to hate being right so much of the time."

The doors closed behind them with the finality of a tomb being sealed. Callisto sauntered about the hall, taking in the musty stench, the mouldy wall hangings and the dead, wailing beyond the door.

"Love the decor." she drawled, "The view from the windows alone must make this place priceless."

"A price few could or would be willing to pay, ignorant mortal." said a voice with a beauty of venom that showed Callistoís malicious tones to be only a weak and failed aspiration to the true evil bitterness and hate that this ancient speaker represented.

It was Hel. Who else?

The rotting hangings of people were pulled aside as the goddess, the monstrosity, approached them. The stench of rotting flesh was nearly unbearable, three of the interlopers covered their faces to keep from gagging. And, though they did not cower or tremble at Helís half-covered appearance or shrink away at the wet sounds of whatever parasites fed and moved under that cloak, they did indeed feel apprehension, gloom, and the sense of power and authority that only a god - or goddess - could wield and wear about them as easily as Hel wore her cloak.

The deformed goddess glided toward the other one facing her. The one who had not covered her mouth at the fetid odour, nor winced in disgust as living things that fed on death whispered under Helís cloak and dropped here or there with a sickening wet landing upon the cold, cracked stone of the floor. Hel approached Hapheastus, and smiled at what she saw. And it was with her right hand that she moved from under her cloak that she used to stroke the scarred left side of Hapheastusí face. The Greek god seemed unmoved by the black-green flesh and tissue rotting off the skeletal hand that now touched her.

Onyx eyes looked into those of moonlight. "We seem to have something in common, you and I." She slowly removed her hand and went to a high-backed chair as deteriorated as the right half of her body. "Youíve gotten my attention through reprehensible means, and now youíve," she leaned to rest her chin on the rotted hand, her eyes - one whole the other partially rotted away - rested on Hapheastus, "kept it. Why?"


The grey-violet of the dawn sky hung heavy against the violent grey of the eight- legged horse stomping impatiently in its harness. The carriage behind it was a massive knot of black metalís dark and damson hues.

"I like," Chaos smiled, "the colours."

Loki merely stood there with a bewitched look upon his usually mischievous face. The other, the woman, said nothing.

Chaos, a tall, languid black against the sullen sky, seemed - disappointed - with the lack of enthusiasm.

He gave her a measuring look, "Itíll take you wherever you want to go with the speed of the wind itself." Still no response. His melodious voice hardened, "Does my gift displease you?"

"Iím well aware," Gabrielleís words were oddly devoid of inflection, "of all the Ďgiftsí youíve bestowed upon me. I will not forget your ... generosity."

A small curl of his lips inferred his satisfaction. He opened the door to the carriage, "You did want to reach your friend before the drug takes effect."

"You just like using Loki as a puppet." she glanced at the god. "Will he remember any of this?"

"Nothing." The sensual mouth widened, "It should be ... interesting when Odin finds him, and Loki with no memory or easy explanation for his actions. Shall we away?"

"More strife ..." Gabrielleís movements were slow. She nearly stumbled but caught herself, "Not that any of it matters. I have to reach Xena," she stepped into the dark cage, "before itís too late."

Chaos shut the door.


Aphrodite could only stare in ghastly wonderment at Hel. Challisto listened to the discussion with the vigilence appropriate to any predator. Xena was a mask of warriorís discipline.

Hapheastus was adamant.

"You can have the stone when we have your promise and have seen the promise through."

Hel was a coiled asp, "Youíll give me my stone and give it now."

The wailing grew outside the dank hall.

"Perhaps ..." Aphrodite was uneasy with Helís unflinching gaze upon the forge god, "we should ...?"

"You," the fiery silver eyes were as still as stone matching the incarnation of death and decay face to face and will to will, "are wasting our time with threats more empty than this hall!! The stone only has a tenth of its power back: itís useless to you in its present state. Tell us how to remove the rest of it from the mortal it inhabits and promise us to restore Xenaís life from the poison sheís taken or we will leave this place and bring the stone to Odin. Perhaps he would be more ... reasonable." Hapheastus turned to leave.

"Wait." spat Hel, "Iíll have you killed if you try to leave and then pry the stone from your corpseís rigoured grasp!"

"If you could have done that," the god was underwhelmed, "you would have done it as soon as you learned I had the stone. You didnít, so obviously you canít. Give me the answers I wish to hear or watch your weapon fall into the hands of the enemies you seek to use it against."

The half-skull face of Hel hissed in vexation. "The life of the warrior for the stone." She finally pulled her gaze from Hapheastus to regard Xena. Though her damson lips were straight, the skin that was pulled away from the rotted side showing the white and yellow of jaw bone and teeth that appeared to grin eerily at them all.

"Done." she said simply.

"Done and done." agreed Hapheastus.

"To remove the taint from Gabrielle?" Xena spoke finally.

"You need merely do what was done before," the reply was lazy, bored, "bring the person to the brink of death. The evil will leave the body in search of another host and thatís when you can trap it."

"That canít be all of it." the blue of Aphroditeís shrewd gaze narrowed. "True, Xena was near death but Callisto is half-immortal. It could only have been after she began to recover that the evil left her completely. I would have noticed before that since I was watching over her."

"That would be because of your ...love." the revulsion was plain in Helís voice, "Unconditional. Such is detestable to such pure evil. It left because the hostís body was weak from both near death and from allowing some of your love to reach into her."

Xena cocked an eyebrow and stole a sideways glance at Callisto, whoís face grew tight and she muttered something under her breath.

The dark haired warrior wisely chose to remain silent - on that subject. "So Gabrielle has to nearly be killed and then sheíll be free?"

"Not," Hel smiled, "quite. The more the evil within, the stronger the hold. The stronger the hold, the greater the extreme one must go to in order to force it to leave its grasp. Near death wonít be enough." The smile widened, the skull-sideís grin grew even more grotesque.

"Youíd have to kill her."


Gabrielle gazed upon the rainbow bridge that led to Asgard and the Aesir, blinded to its beauty as was her heart.

"Theyíre not here." Chaosís voice from atop where he drove the carriage was, free of all artifice for once, surprised.

"Obviously." Gabrielleís voice took on a hard edge which had, thus far, never been present in its soft tones, "Where is Xena?"

"It seems only logical that your hero would go to Odin and the Aesir for help ..." the entity thought out loud, "who else could they possibly turn to in hope of aid ... ?" His tone changed as easily as a card changes hands; a twist of admiration and anger, "Theyíve gone to Deathís temple; they went to Hel."

Without a word, he spurred Sleipnir away from the bridge of the gods and back down to Middle Earth using his will as another would a whip.

CHAPTER 20

If I do vow a friendship, Iíll perform it to the last article.
Othello

Outside the temple, behind some large boulders and pine trees, Xena could still hear the malevolent peal of Helís laughter as they left her domain. She could still hear the vile beingís words: Whatís the matter? Youíre a skilled warrior arenít you? Just do the job right ....

Now Xena was arguing with Hapheastus, "Give me the bow."

The god shook her beautiful head sadly, "Itís too heavy a burden, too much of a risk. Iíll fire the arrow into her heart ... I swear. Iíll minimize the damage of the arrow to the greatest possible extent, Iíll just have it barely pierce the heart - just enough to spasm and drop her. Then all you need to do is carefully remove the arrow and resuscitate Gabrielle. Look," she held up an arrow that had no triangular head, the metal merely went into a point, "thereís no head thatíll cause further tear when you withdraw it from her body. And itís made of the living metal so I might be able to help guide it, ensuring that it stops before it goes through the heart more than whatís needed."

"Might?" Xena said.

"Itís very delicate, fine control and Iím ... not as strong as I could be."

"Then this is what weíre going to do," the tone of the warrior princessís voice brooked no argument. "I take the bow and when I shoot I need you to concentrate. Use all youíve got into controlling my arrow. Got it?"

She wrapped one hand around the bow, the other on the arrow. Each below the spot where Hapheastus held them. Xenaís face softened when she looked into the godís, "Please my friend, I have to be the one to do this."

A moment, no more, and the forge god relented under all that those eyes silently said. She relinquished both bow and arrow to Xena.

Another hateful laugh, this one from a much more mundane source. "This is just too rich," Callistoís eyes were fierce, "simply too lush. Iíve so longed to see you wailing over the body of your murdered friend. I never dreamed that youíd be the one to kill her."

At first, Xena said nothing, yet when Callisto opened her mouth, she spoke. And then only quietly and without any anger, only sorrow. "She forgave you, you know."

Callisto stepped back, as if from a blow, "What?"

"Gabrielle," Xena checked the tautness of the bow-string, "she forgave you for killing Perdicus ... for all that you did to her."

"Then sheís a fool." the blondeís voice rang somewhat hollow. "Sheís nothing more than a reconciled victim."

"I thought something similar," she checked the aim from the boulder to the clearing in front of the temple; the line of sight was perfect. "I donít think that anymore. Gabrielle once told me she believed you regretted all the evil youíve done." Now she did look at Callisto, her light eyes grew misty, "I donít know that you do regret it all, but I do know that when we were both affected by the Hel stone, I saw a girl who had been overwhelmed by such terror from which no one could have remained unscathed, unscarred in their soul. I know I saw the young woman that girl became and I saw the torment she - you - still are surviving. I told you I took no joy in seeing you suffer. I meant it. I saw how alone youíve been and still are. I saw not only how you behave now but also who youíve been and all the possibilities of who you could still be. I canít help but wonder if you had someone like Gabrielle in your life, if Gabrielle had never come into my life ..." her voice failed.

 

Callisto walked softly to her, stared at Xena from a breathe away, speaking in a deadly hush, "That you would be me and I would be you?" The air between them stilled with what was and what came between them then. It was Callisto who broke the silence, "Donít flatter yourself." She pushed past Xenaís shoulder and moved to a thick spruce where she crouched, waiting for their expected visitors.

A hand came to rest on Xenaís shoulder and Xena looked up in surprise to see that it was Aphrodite. "Believe in yourself Xena, and believe in your love for Gabrielle ... I know she believes in you." With that, the goddess moved away to crouch beside Hapheastus.

Xena breathed. And she prayed.

Hapheastus seemed almost withdrawn. Aphrodite nudged her gently and tried to offer a reassuring smile, though it waned under the pressure. "Try not to worry Haph, itíll all work out, youíll see. Hel agreed to return Gabrielleís soul if Xena couldnít save her from the arrow. So whatís to worry?"

"Hel agreed too quickly." was the short reply.

Aphrodite sighed, "I suppose your paranoia is only natural considering how our family behaves."

"Hm." The god kept herself alert as to who - and what - might appear at the temple.

"Once," Aphrodite spoke mostly to herself, "when the world - when we - were young, I had often wished that we had spent our time more wisely, that I had made better choices. With every generation of mortals, I feel our grasp here dwindling. Sometimes, I even dream that I could actually die ... and sometimes ... though afraid, I am also eager for that adventure. And it is times such as this, that such fancies seem more than passing whims."

Hapheastus did look at her then and pondered before speaking from where they were, these two immortals, hidden from the world outside that was both known and strange to them. "I, too, have dreamt that I could die." She briefly raised the back of her hand to brush Aphroditeís cheek; the touch was as gentle as a kiss. "Maybe one day it shall happen. Wouldnít it be something ĎRo, if you and I could die and be reborn and meet anew? That would ..." She looked away and back toward the temple, "that would please me."

"However," the words grew more still and harder, "I know this; your death will not come this day Aphrodite."

"What of Chaos? You canít dismiss his presence so easily."

"Dismiss him, No." her words cracked with their icy coldness, "Remonstrate with him at length, more likely."

The thunderclap of eight hooves drew everyoneís attention back toward the temple.

Looking upon the slate coloured horse and the shadow hued carriage, Aphrodite grew ashen at the sight of the dark and pale driver. "Looks like you get your wish, Haph."

Hapheastus, so intent upon her own rage, could not see the troubled gaze that looked from behind her shoulder, where Aphrodite kneeled.

Xena tried to steady her thoughts as she steadied the bow. She wished that the numbness which had reappeared in her limbs would flow over and steel her heart for what she now had to do. To save her friend she had to kill her. Logic told her it was simple enough yet when she caught sight of Gabrielle disembarking from the carriage, a hundred regrets and a thousand doubts crowded her resolve. Do I have the strength to hurt both of us in order to save you, Gabrielle? Her limbs began to feel heavier.

"I canít do this." she said below a whisper.

Gods, or at least goddesses, must have good hearing because Aphrodite immediately went to her.

"What do you mean? You have to!"

"No," Xena struggled, "itís not that. The poison is starting to act. I need help to draw the bow while I aim."

Immediately, Aphrodite added her arm and hand to Xenaís and with her aid, they drew the bow back to its full length. As Xena aimed at the heart of the person closest to her in all the world, her determination almost wavered again. That is until she was able to look into Gabrielleís eyes. She had moved stiffly out and past the carriage and had then looked around her until she looked directly at Xena; as if she could see where Xena was. Perhaps she could, after all, she knew how Xena planned, how her mind worked. But if she did see Xena, and Xena would swear she had, why did Gabrielle not warn Chaos of their presence , or at least move? She just stood there as if waiting. Xena nearly cried out at the look of empty despair within her friendís eyes. Her jaw tightened and she took aim.

"Ready Hapheastus?"

"Completely."

Aphrodite held her arm, and Xena let fly the arrow. She watched it as it flew into Gabrielleís chest. Watched as Gabrielle fell soundlessly. And ran.

She nearly fell on Gabrielle and quickly braced the wound before pulling the arrow out with swift precision and then applying pressure to the wound.

"Well?" she looked wildly up at those who had followed her.

"Itís leaving." replied Hapheastus. The god quietly revealed the orb and peeled off the seal to allow the taint to enter. Having no suitable host within reach, it readily went in to its cage to avoid Aphrodite or possible dissipation. With a quick self-inflicted gash Hapheastus resealed the orb with her own blood which turned to a dark iron upon impact. She looked back to Xena, "All clear - go!"

Xena tipped back Gabrielleís head and placed her lips firmly against the otherís to breathe oxygen back into the now still form. She combined that with a fist to the chest several times and then repeated the procedure. The growing numbness was making precision difficult though and unfortunately, none of the others knew the technique. She heard Hapheastus say that a piece of the living metal from the arrow had remained in Gabrielleís heart to seal the puncture and lessen the internal bleeding. As she breathed air into Gabrielle for the fifth time, she suddenly felt the otherís lips begin to move against her own. Her hand felt the otherís renewed heart beat. Xena half-sobbed against Gabrielleís mouth which she kissed. And then proceeded to kiss and touch Gabrielle anywhere she could reach as a crazy feeling of relief and exhilaration washed over her and she called Gabrielleís name over and over.

"Xena?" the voice was so weak, so ... far away.

"Gabrielle, shh. Everythingís going to be okay now." she smiled through her tears of relief and joy at her friend.

"Donít ... hate me?" the voice was confused.

"Hate you?" it was nearly a laugh. She took Gabrielleís face in her hands, "I could never -." She stopped. Something was wrong, both with her and with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle saw it in her eyes. "Itís the poison. I gave it to both of us. Weíll both be dead soon; gone from all the pain in this world." the bard managed a frail smile. "I was so scared Iíd miss you and that we wouldnít be together for this."

Dread displaced disbelief. "Gabrielle, why? I could understand wanting to kill me for all Iíve done to you ... but yourself?"

"... all youíve done ...?" Gabrielleís voice was fading, "Xena, you never led me into danger ..., I followed ... couldnít stop ... me .." She blinked and widened her eyes, trying with difficulty to focus on Xena. "Didnít want ... kill you but no other way to keep you safe ... and be with you." Gabrielle tried to swallow, found it impossible and choked. "Couldnít let Callisto take you ... couldnít let Chaos win ... knew youíd find a way ... couldnít let myself live ... with what I did to you ... but canít take it back - Xena!" all her breath expelled from her with that name. Gabrielleís body stiffened, then went limp, the eyes empty, lifeless, staring up at Xena. Gabrielle was quite dead.

"No!!" her whole body shook with the pain as the extent of her loss struck Xena and she tried to clutch the corpse of her friend to her but her body wouldnít work properly, only flail heavily. She could no longer raise her arms. No longer could Xena hold herself up and so she fell against Gabrielle. Her vision blurred. She tried to think but even her thoughts slowed to only that one name that seared her heart: Gabrielle. And as part of her fought against the rush of oblivion that she knew was her death, a part of her welcomed it too.

 

Chaos observed all this with only a detached interest. The unexpected decision of the group to seek Hel had concerned him and how it might affect his plans. The mortalís death was also surprising, but irrelevant at this point. She had served her purpose and furthermore, had entertained Chaos to some extent. With the two Greek deities involved - even now they rushed over to the fallen mortals - and having gone to Hel, no doubt, would only strengthen the Aesirís belief that the Olympians were plotting against them. The war would begin and Heavenís hold on Earth would be weakened and then broken, with Chaosís assistance. He concluded that there was nothing here that he need attend to. The plan was undamaged. Having as yet gone unnoticed, or at least ignored, by the others (a novelty to the entity of Space and the Void) Chaos decided it would be best to depart now and watch as his will and wishes began to unfold before him.

"Donít leave the party yet," came a silky voice of malicious intent, "it wouldnít be polite."

Apparently Chaos was wrong.

He turned without even a whisper of sound and looked upon the woman with the wild blonde locks and black and silver armour.

"Callisto." He did not smile.

"You remember me, how nice." her smile was the embodiment of wrath itself. "I remember you too. You were the old woman who led me to the Hel stone. Iíll even bet it was you who caused the quake that helped free me. Oh, I know what youíre thinking: So what? After all, what could a semi-immortal do to an entity like yourself? I even know," her head cocked to one side, the smile only wider and she wrung and twisted her hands, "what else youíre thinking. You think youíre all safe now. Your plan can now go without a hitch with Xena out of the way. The world is yourís and no one can stop you, blah, blah, blah." Callisto clucked her tongue, "Been there myself. And thatís why I know this is all far from over. Xena and her special chum are dead. Doesnít matter, after all, look how many times Iíve returned from the grave," she gave a momentary sneer, "and those two pull it off even more often. It really is annoying. Thereís more going on than those really, really weird eyes of yours can see old man and I mean really old, if you are a man even. Now, I can tell you whatís going on, prepare you," how darkly her eyes shone, "for a wee little price." She put her arm forward, "Take the manacle of Hapheastus off, now and Iíll tell you their plans."

Both his eyes darkened. "Even if I gave you your god powers back, misguided ant, you still could not harm or in any way avenge yourself upon me. We both know thatís what you really want. Even if Xena rises again, there is nothing she could do, there is nothing you could. Nothing."

"How about this?" Callisto smirked and with a battle shriek struck Chaos across his face with the arm manacled with the metal forged by a god.

To his own astonishment, Chaos was spun around by the blow though he quickly regained his composure in time to meet a blazing gaze of silver novas before a blow flung him through the air to crash against one of the temple pillars. He lay in the rubble and realized that what he was experiencing was pain. It was both in shock and fury that he stood. However, both rage and vengeance rained down upon him in the forms of Hapheastus and Callisto. The bludgeoning from the divine metal from the mortal and the stinging blows and cuts from the god and that cursed living metal were unbearable to Chaosís pride, Chaosís ego.

"ENOUGH!"

An invisible blast of force sent both god and mortal flying high and landing hard several feet away from the entity of Chaos; the embodiment of him on Earth.

"How dare you lay hand or weapon on me!!" Chaos roared in a voice of black fire and burning nebulas. All around him the air began to crack and sizzle as the aura of the black of space itself began to form around him; his cloak and hair raising with the mounting aureole of power that suffused him. "I would give you a hundred lives to rend each from you in a new manner of suffering. Be grateful that I cannot, as I end your insignificant lives by introducing you to the true meaning of pain!! - Aahgr!" He looked down in amazement at the two arrows suddenly sticking, one into his abdomen and the other his throat. Chaos turned eyes that glowed with their infernal light upon the archer.

It was Xena. And she was very, very much alive.

"Donít forget about me." She said aside to Aphrodite, "Look after Gabrielle." She notched another arrow.

Hapheastus had launched herself anew at Chaos with Callisto only steps behind while Chaos raised his arms as the arcs of his power grew with his frustrated outrage. And above them all the sky began to turn crimson.

And Ivanovarrh heard and sensed it all.

 

The acolyte had not left the temple but had listened. Nearby, he knew the strangers fought a person - a thing - whoís voice terrified him even more then Helís. Nearer though, he knew, was the one with the voice of honey and clear summer days.

He went to her.

Aphrodite looked up at the man in surprise. She caught his outstretched hand and pulled him down next to her and Gabrielleís still lifeless form.

The goddessís brief touch upon him caused him to tremble further, but not with the fear Hel instilled.

He swallowed, "Great Lady, it would be my honour to serve you in any way I can. Perhaps if you could tell me what I can do? What is happening?"

"O Zeus," she breathed, "Ivanovarrh, I think you might be better off not knowing."

"Lady, please, if I can be of service ..." he knew not where this sudden bravery that made him speak came from.

"The sky," the goddess breathed, "is on fire, Chaos seems to be about to extinguish us all, and a great tear is appearing above him. Ivanovarrh ... I think itís the end of the world."

Ivanovarrh sighed in sympathy.

Just before Chaos unleashed his violent omnipotence upon his attackers, the terrible sound of Heaven ripping the sky open brought his attention sharply upward. He saw the crimson sky and the bloody sun that bled upon the Earth. With growing realization he saw the tear in the sky rip open above him; ever widening as was his horror and apprehension as the Heavens parted to reveal the void from which Chaos came. The true part of him that was him.

"No!! I wonít go back!!" he yelled over the rising gale. "Not until sheís mine again!!"

The god Hapheastus ran straight into him, lifting Chaos off his feet and toward the void, toward himself. Granted, the impact of the blow had smashed the Greed god with such force that she lay half-buried in the ground many lengths away. However, the damage was done. Refusing to relent, to surrender, Chaos grabbed hold of the nearest thing: the chariot. The winds of Heaven lashed and dragged at Chaos trying to loose his hold and pull him back into his void. Sheipnir neighed shrilly and struggled to hold ground with his eight legs. He was joined by a fierce creature who grinned at him through a blood filled mouth.

"Well, well," Callisto sing-songed, "looks like they were right and that bad widdle Chaos wasnít allowed out to play." Her tone became more serious, more cruel, "there had to be some reason why you hadnít used your power directly before. And now that you have, you have more than just the attention of us mere non-cosmic beings. Thatís what you get for using me and getting in the way of my destiny." She looked at the horse which was keeping the carriage grounded. "Ooh, poor little horseyís in trouble, maybe I should help it?" She gave a wild laugh and moved to where the harness attached Sleipnir to the heavy device.

"No, wait! Iíll give you what you want ..."

Callisto looked up at the falling sky. "I think itís a little late for that, donít you?"

"Dammit Callisto," Xena found it difficult to be heard over the maelstrom, "whatís taking you so long? Free the horse and jump clear!"

"I canít!!", she shouted back in obvious frustration as she continued to bang the manacled forearm against the rigging. "Thereís no latch and it wonít break!!"

"Throw the stone against it." Ivanovarrh quickly whispered to Aphrodite, "Throw it against the carriage."

"The stone?" Aphrodite looked from it to him. "But we need it to ..."

"Thereís no time!" he insisted. "Hurry and throw it, just donít miss."

Aphrodite took aim and threw.

 

"Callisto, get clear!!"

Callisto heard but a grip stronger than iron took hold of her manacled arm.

"No," Chaos hissed, "I wonít allow you to escape my fate or your punishment."

Aphroditeís aim was true and in a great shower of light and dark the carriage was shattered as was the stone. With eyes shielded by her hands, Xena saw the carriage, the stone, Callisto and Chaos go through the hole in the sky. Instantly, the sky, the sun, the very air, all returned to normal, as if it had never been.

All that followed then was silence.

 

CHAPTER 21

Vows are spoken to be broken
Depeche Mode

 

They entered the summoning chamber with all the somberness of pallbearers. A battered Hapheastus with a sword still strapped to her back, was assisted in walking by an insistent Aphrodite. Xena, paler than the godís scars, carried the body of Gabrielle. She was only a few strides in the room when she raised her voice.

"Hel!" Xenaís shouts echoed against the grey stones, "Hel!! Show yourself and keep your promise or so help me, all the gods and cosmic beings in the universe wonít keep me from ripping your ugly head off and feeding it to Cerebus!!"

The far end of the chamber shimmered and the dank fog of the realm of the dead began to fill the room as part of it became Helís hall. Therein stood Hel, with her deathís head grin and the wail of her unwilling tenants could be heard in the near vicinity.

"A promise must be seen to by both sides." her tone smug, "I still do not have my stone."

"I donít suppose," Aphrodite asked," that we could have your assurance that the stone will never be used again?"

Hel gave a brittle and vile laugh.

Aphrodite shook her head against the obvious no. "Donít give the stone to her Haph; no good will come of it. Sheíd destroy this country - if not more."

"Gabrielleís worth any country or world," Xena threw in, her voice harsh.

"I, for one," the silver eyes locking levelly with Helís, "would like to know why Gabrielle has not been revived."

Helís grin darkened a trifle, "I trust no one. The stone, give it to me."

Greek god and goddess shared a glance before Aphrodite nodded and Haph drew the stone from her torn tunic. She tossed it to Hel with blatant irreverence.

The Norse goddess caught it with her black, rotted, skeletal hand an began to turn away. The fog commenced to withdraw.

Xenaís face hardened further, "WAIT!! Gabrielleís still - sheís not alive yet you monster!"

Hel looked over her shoulder, nonplussed, "I promised your life back from the poison. When you died and thereby entered the realm of my power, I gave you your life back. I promised the other mortalís life back from the arrow; and after death, she was revived. I did not promise to return her a second time. The poison killed her after the arrow. There is no reason, nor do I feel any inclination to return her again.

She and her world withdrew further, satisfied by the look of utter distress and loss on Xenaís face.

"Hel, wait." came a steady voice of deep waters and deeper nights. "Perhaps there is some way you could reconsider? A show of generosity on your part to outshine that of the Aesir?"

Hel turned fully around to contemplate Hapheastus, who had been the one to speak. With that unnerving walk, step/slide/slither/wet noise movement she crossed over the threshold where her realm ended and the temple room began. She moved past the two mortals to stand directly before the god, completely ignoring she whom Hapheastus leaned against for support.

"After you left I enquired about you." Her voice was a coiled slither of silk. "It seems we have much in common. More than just looks." She eyed the god possessively. "Your parents forsook you as well; cast you down into the bowls of the Earth and left you to rot. What did ĎPrettyí here," she motioned to Aphrodite, "do to help you then? Nothing. The soul of one more mortal, whatís that to me?" She licked her black, half-rotted lips with a blacker tongue. "But you, you would make a fine companion. Together we could tear down both the Aesir and the Olympians. We could make the world as we choose!"

"Stay with me," Hel purred, "and Iíll give the mortal back ..." With that she stepped forward and kissed the god fully on the mouth and though Hapheastus did not draw away repulsed, as she had expected, Hel fully tasted the indifference of the otherís lips.

She withdrew, her eyes flashing sharply, "Either stay with me, or Iíll never release Gabrielle."

"Gabrielle for me," Hapheastus sounded bored, "just like that? Everyone else can go in peace?"

"Haph!" Aphrodite resisted the urge to shake, slap or hit someone (Haph or Hel, she couldnít decide which deity she wanted to strike more). "You canít be serious?!"

The god was both surprised and bewildered by the very real fury in those summer blue eyes. "Donít worry ĎRo. I have no intention of agreeing to that bargain when I have something else Hel wants more."

Helís eyes narrowed.

"Like you said, Hel, trust no one!" She reached into her leather jerkin and held up an orb. "You didnít think Iíd give you the real stone did you.?"

Hel, aghast, looked down at what she herself held, only to watch it melt as the living metal poured itself down to the floor and toward its shaper.

"You ..." Hel could not continue, choked on her own fury and hatred.

"Thatís correct: me as opposed to you. You were right about certain similarities that we share, Hel. I know what itís like to be thrown down into a dark pit without even a motherís love to comfort me, without a friend to console me. I know what itís like to be the butt of jokes and hear the snickering of all the glowing, golden family who live their eternity in the warmth of the sun and the clean air of the open sky."

"Was it so much to ask for more, Hel? To want, just a little? And the reality burns your guts from the inside out, inch by inch, layer by layer, so that it all becomes one desire: to take everything away from them like they did to you. Because no matter what you have now, it was given to you by those you hate above all others: your world, your servants, your Ďtenantsí, your Hall, even your bed. It was always solely Odinís to bestow and never yours free to take. See, Hel, I know you. And I know that what you want most is to hurt them like they hurt you and for that you need this." the god held up the orb so that what light there was could play upon it. "The life of the woman for the stone. Itís all I want, Hel. That and to leave here. The soul of one mortal among many, as you said whatís that to you who have a legion of them? One mortal life returned is all your desire for revenge will cost you, here and now."

Hel glowered a dark violet.

Finally she reached out for the stone. "As you said, I have a legion of dead. You sell cheaply, Greek god."

Xena had lowered Gabrielle to the ground. Almost immediately, she saw the faint rise of Gabrielleís chest. Quickly she rushed to help her friend, laying her mouth against Gabrielleís to help the other begin to breathe fully again ....


From somewhere darker than any blackness, from somewhere colder than any winter, Gabrielleís mind sluggishly began to move again with thought as from somewhere very far away. She heard her name being called over and over. And with an effort past mundane comprehension, she was able to focus and form the one thought: Xena. Xena, whoís mouth was on hers, breathing air back into her lungs, life back into the body she had forgotten. Xena, whoís hand remained firmly over Gabrielleís breast to feel the steadily growing heartbeat. Gabrielle felt no pain, only an increasing awareness of her own body. She felt a wet warmth drop on her face, could taste the salt water of it against the lips that pressed on her own. Tears, she realized. Xena was crying, weeping in fact. Xena, who rarely showed so open a display of grief, let alone sobbed like this. Never like this, as though her heart was about to break. Xena, whoís voice, between breaths, Gabrielle could hear; begging, pleading while saying Gabrielleís name desperately. It was the first time Gabrielle ever heard so deep a fear in Xenaís voice - not for others, but afraid for herself. Xena was terrified. Terrified of losing me? Xena ...?


"Xena ... ?"

Xena froze, afraid that she had mistakenly heard --.

"Xena?" It was Gabrielle.

Still weeping, now with joy and complete and total relief, Xena embraced her friend as Gabrielle began to move and her eyes, a fuzzy, waking blue, opened.

 

"There," Hel smiled, "now give me my stone."

"By all means." Hapheastus handed over her charge. "I have no need of it."

Hel, indignant, robbed of her full triumph, still glowered menacingly in a fine show of her great displeasure.

"Pray," her tone gritted like rocks being scraped against one another, "that we never cross paths again."

And with that she was gone, along with Niflheim, fog, the wailing dead and all else. Leaving the reluctant heroes in a room filled now only with the weeping of joy and of life.

 

It was some time later before they were ready, physically, to leave. Aphrodite had tended to Hapheastusí wounds while Xena and Gabrielle ate and rested as best they could while still near Helís temple. Aphrodite had found a coarse white shirt with a wide collar and generous sleeves with which to replace the dark clothing of Hapheastus that was ruined in the battle with Chaos.

The Sun was high in the near cloudless sky of blue and it rained its warmth gently down upon them all. With the help of the acolyte, they had gathered some provisions and stood to depart. Aphrodite was not at all surprised when Ivanovarrh appeared, stick in hand and his own provisions slung in a neat bag over one shoulder.

"You leaving?" Xena asked, not unkindly.

"Ah, yes." he almost shuffled his feet where he stood, which amused Aphrodite with its endearment. "There are no others here and .. nothing left to guard really. It seems that my time to be here is at an end and perhaps ..." his face softened, taking years off of his visage, "perhaps a gentler .. path may be in my future to follow." He smiled, "At least I hope so."

"Few deserve it as much as you Ivanovarrh." Aphrodite hugged him warmly, which made him blush though the warmth of his smile increased.

"Indeed," added Hapheastus, "we owe you much for your aid -- and your silence. Though I gather the one who is no longer your mistress will discover what Iíve done. Eventually. Youíre well rid of her and her abuses. My best wishes go with you along with my thanks."

"Any idea where youíre going to start looking?" Xena asked while shaking his hand in gratitude and goodbye.

"I think," Ivanovarrhís face almost glowed with a serenity, a clarity that had settled about him, "that I will start by picking berries."

While they saw him off, meanwhile beginning their own trek towards the way home, Xena noticed that Aphrodite seemed to be the only one not bewildered by Ivanovarrhís words. If anything, Xena couldíve sworn she saw a small, knowing smile tug at the goddessí lips. Certainly Xena wondered about that secretive look, but as they put growing distance between themselves and the hollow temple, appropriately devoid of all life, she found the burden lifting from her heart as the structure disappeared from sight. And then only two things were on her mind: Gabrielle and home.

 

PART 4

AFTERMATHS AND DELIBERATIONS

I

 

In the days that passed while they made their way back to the magical gateway between here and home, the biting cold had retreated, the skies had been cloudless and the weather serene. It was as if Nature herself was showing her gratitude and relief that the travelers had evaded catastrophe by allowing a surcease before true winter set in with her white mantle and crown of ice.

This appeasement was not fully felt by all of the travelers. Indeed most of the time had been spent in silence. Gabrielle, spoke not a word beyond the necessary. She remained deeply tormented by her actions and was unreachable in the heavy grey nimbus of silence in which she had shrouded herself. Granted, Aphrodite was basically a stranger, and Hapheastus, closer though not enough, was suffering herself from the strain of being amongst -- and interacting with -- others for the first real time in centuries. Certainly then, she could not know what words would break through Gabrielleís solitude. Neither god nor goddess knew how to soothe their companions, for Xena suffered for Gabrielle as equally as Gabrielle tormented herself with who knew what thoughts of self-condemnation .. or worse. Thus, divinities though they were, they were powerless, for there was a silence that lay heavily between them that neither knew how to break as neither god nor goddess had ever learned how to bend.

 

Another stop to allow the mortals to rest. Aphrodite did not begrudge or resent this. At this time, she wanted -- needed to take things slowly. She needed this time to consider herself -- and another -- and of opportunities lost and perhaps, perhaps, found.

It did not take long to locate the forge god. A god that was as one with fire and water; the fire of the forge and the water used to perfect her art. And like the elements she used, Hapheastus both burned and cooled simultaneously. Thus it was not without some hesitation that Aphrodite pursued the god, yet despite her doubts, she was driven by something - something that both burned and cooled.

Through dense pines, Aphrodite saw her. Hapheastus stood under a waterfall, standing barefoot on the slick stones. Her white shirt still on, it was pounded into her skin by the wild torrent of water. She stood with her face upturned and arms and hands stretched out to either side as if she could hold it all: the sky, the crashing of the water that drowned out all other sound. Aphrodite became as still as the trees she stood beside as she watched the god with fascination and wonderment. Beneath and within the spray, at that moment, Hapheastusí face was unguarded, eyes closed, young and with a beauty that would tear a heart at the pleasure the sight of her was. Aphroditeís refusal to move was a sign of how moved she was. And how she longed to speak with Hapheastus at that moment. How she longed to hear what the godís heart, unguarded, would say. How tragic then, that all in the universe was impermanent and so then must that moment end - and in so doing, lead to another. Such was the source of hope or despair depending on what one chose.

The god realized she was no longer alone and moved away from the water and over to the goddess. The goddess moved away from the sheltering trees and over to the god.

"I wanted," Aphrodite was apologetic, "to see how you were."

"Managing." Hapheastus was back to careful neutrality and politeness, "Thank you. Weíll all be better for being home, I think." She added, "When we get there."

On dry rock, Aphrodite sat, drawing her knees up to her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs. "It must be hard for you. Having to deal with people again. Itís been centuries," was that reproach in her voice, "since last we spoke."

"Itís kind of you to consider me." Damn Hapheastusí politeness! Aphrodite swore. "I know youíve been busy. How is your son?"

"Cupidís fine." She tried to detect anger in the godís voice but failed. "Heís too much like me, I think. Weíre always butting heads."

"And," neutral face beyond neutrality, "his father?"

"Uninterested in the lifestyle of parenting for which Iím most glad. He would have raised Cupid .. badly. Although the father was a mistake, I love my son."

Dammit, that was not what she came to speak to Haph about. "Haph ...," her heart tightened, anticipating answers she hoped not to hear, "did you mean what you said to Hel .. about hating all the Olympians?"

Hapheastus paused, "Not all. And over the many years my hate became detachment for I did not wish to give them even an ounce of my -- soul, if we possess such."

"Them." Aphrodite repeated softly. "Am I one of "them" to you?"

"Hardly ĎRo." the mask of neutrality began to slip, then aghast she said, "Did you think I could hate you?"

"Iíve wondered. Especially back then." She almost looked at Haph in that moment. "Why, why did you push me away so cruelly from you? Surely you must have known my feelings."

"I .." the god looked down at her feet, her voice gentled, "I can only say that I -- loved you no less, but that I hated myself more. I wonít insult you with an apology. I behaved like a monster then."

"And now? You still keep me at arms length and I donít understand it."

"Now things are as they are." Hapheastus struggled to re-steel herself, "What use is there in might-have-beens." It was not a question, and as cool as the water by their feet.

Aphrodite rose in sudden outrage, "Blast it Haph!" The blue of her eyes blazed into a kaleidoscope of sea shell colours, "How dare you try to put me off with your cold manners and your damned, feigned mask of unfeeling!" She hit Haphís chest with a slim fist, "I know you have a heart in there so stop trying to shut me out! Tell me how you feel Hapheastus because I --" her torrent was broken off by the sound of crashing underbrush nearby and then the sound of Xena calling desperately after Gabrielle.

Aphrodite sighed sympathetically but her sympathy was not for Gabrielle alone. "This is not the time for us to have this out. Some of this group has got to appear stable, for the sake of the others at least."

"I...," Hapheastus sounded torn, "agree."

Aphrodite looked up into the godís eyes and saw the concern on the scarred face. "You really do care about them donít you?"

Hapheastus said nothing.

The goddess shook her head, "Sometimes I think you stay in that cave not because you feel so little for others, but because you feel too much." She sighed again. Before the other could react, she kissed Hapheastus on the lips. She stepped back and regarded the stunned face before her. "We are going to continue this discussion, Haph. At a time when we wonít be interrupted." That said, she left.

Aphrodite had chosen hope.

 

How? Xena asked herself. How could it have gone so wrong? When Hapheastus and then Aphrodite had left the campsite, she had thought it a good opportunity for her and Gabrielle to talk. Yet with only a few words past Xenaís lips, Gabrielle had turned away from her from where they both sat, and with a muffled sob, had rapidly risen and rushed away into the underbrush. Dismayed, Xena followed her. She would not give up. Gabrielle needed her and somehow, some way, Xena would get through to her friend.

With her experience as a hunter and as a warrior, it was easy to trace her way to Gabrielle. Gabrielle, who was quietly sobbing against a fallen log. The bitter weeping -- so desolate, was the like of which Xena had hoped never to have her friend suffer from.

She knelt beside her, taking her black cloak and placing it about them both. "Careful," was all she said, "or youíll catch cold."

That simple act seemed to undo Gabrielle further for her tears only multiplied as she felt the strong comforting arms around her, holding the cloak in place.

"How," Gabrielle had to force the words past the harshness of her weeping, "can you be so kind to me, Xena? How!? I -- I tried to kill you." Her voice broke, "I almost succeeded in it too; in killing both of us. And, gods forgive me, I wish I had died there rather than live with the pain and shame of what Iíve done ..."

"No," Xenaís voice cracked under its firmness, "no, Gabrielle! Donít ever wish such a thing. Donít you know," now withheld tears broke her own voice, "that it would kill me to lose you."

"But I canít live with what Iíve done Xena!"

"You have to Gabrielle," her tone was as gentle as the touch of rose petals, "and you will. First though, you have to forgive yourself. For me, thereís no question of forgiveness; you were influenced by something that twisted you from the inside out. I had only a small taste of it and I still have nightmares about it. I can only imagine what you must have been put through. But Gabrielle, I do know what itís like to hate myself for what Iíve done. Donít let it do to you what it did to me, Gabrielle. Donít let the pain and guilt make a home in your heart."

"But Xena, it was all me." her eyes were wide with the terror of it. "Itís like a great, big monster suddenly grew and upon looking in the mirror, I realized that the monster was myself. Sure the taintís gone that woke it up, but now I have to live with the knowledge that in some hidden place inside of me, an evil creature sleeps. Always there, inside me ... waiting."

"So you do the hard part now Gabrielle," Xena tightened her arms reassuringly, "you learn to live with it, with yourself. You have to remember itís there, so that you grow stronger for it, but you also have to remember the wonderful, compassionate woman you are and that you choose to be the best of yourself despite the horrors visited upon you. You forgave Callisto. Gabrielle, do you think yourself so less of a person that you donít deserve to forgive yourself ? Because I sure as Hades donít."

"I ...," though her tears hadnít lessened, the wracking sobs had eased within Xenaís arms, "I donít know."

Well I do." Xena said matter-of-factly. "And whenever you need to know who you are, look beside you and see it in my eyes, because by your side is where I will always be."

"Look, Gabrielle," she continued, "I know Iíve never said this straight out to you. Never thought I had to but I think you need to hear it now. Gabrielle," she took the otherís face in her hands and pressed lips briefly yet meaningfully against the otherís brow, soothing back the red-gold hair as she did so, "you are my dearest friend, the closest person to me in all the world, youíve all of my heart and half of my soul and," they delved deep, each into the otherís eyes, blue within blue, "Gabrielle, I love you."

At that, all pretenses broke and they both wept against each other. One for having re-found herself and something equally precious, the other for having regained her cherished friend; and maybe, just maybe, a lost part of herself as well.

II

Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages.
E. A. Poe

First it had been cold and black beyond all darkness; of such stuff that it would consume any light brought into it. It would snuff it out along with anything else. Then there was nothing. For a brief while, there was peace for the annihilated self that had been so forcefully flung there. The quiet of oblivion.

And then it was all stolen away.

Again there was cold, but more mundane. It was bright, too bright. The woman had to shield her eyes from the distant yellow orb. She stood from where she lay and realized that the white, bright cold under her feet was ice and that the deep lapping sounds were waves from the ocean that surrounded the small ice island, rocking the thick platform only gently. The woman noticed that, although the ice came up in jagged formations, like that of a miniature mountain, an even larger one mirrored it from below, anchoring her and it from being capsized by the thick water. She saw a herd of sea-beasts moving through the water the likes of which she had never seen. They were far larger than bears, and black on top with a single fin each on their backs that cut through the water as easily as air. There were marks of white on their underbellies and above their eyes. They ran withing the ocean like wolves made for the sea. If this view gave the watcher any wonderment, she showed no sign. For it was not joy that filled her heart. She had been torn from the first moment of true peace she had ever known. The void had destroyed her, and in that fleeting moment, she had had the first and only refuge from the driving rage and hate that consumed her. Itís what death should have been: a final rest. The void had been the only escape she had found from herself yet in its cruelty it had violently flung her back out into life again. That rejection, so harsh to her, so tragic, only made her laugh insanely at her torment. She further realized that were it not for the unmanacled arm, she would be dead from the cold, but Tartarus, she already knew, was but one more torture to feed her fractured psyche with even more hate. The sound of far away voices caught her ears. She pushed her blonde hair away from the one that wore the special earring. Good, she could understand them. And she saw them, a small group of people wearing thick coats of fur with hoods that hugged close to their round faces. Dark hair, dark eyes, slanted, she was unfamiliar with their facial structure. She must be very far from where she wished to be. Nevertheless, she noticed the odd canoes that looked like they were made out of the shiny hide of some sea creature and only held one person; and only one paddle, thick and round at both ends. She saw the boat handler flip and then resurface again non-plussed. And again she laughed, no less harshly but now holding a malevolent amusement that made even the ice under her shiver in sudden cold.

She rubbed her manacled forearm, "It may take me years, but Iíll find you and all you hold dear. Iíll find some way to remove this fetter and then Iíll come for you Xena, Iíll come for you all."

Callisto raised her arms and waved, calling out to the people fishing. And again, she laughed and the world shuddered at the sound of it.

III

... you stand there so nice in your blizzard of ice ...
L. Cohen

The inn was completely empty save for one lone customer and a strange one at that. It wasnít just the scars that covered half of his face, nor those strange silver eyes ... it was more in the way he held himself. A quietness, a discipline ... and a sadness not usually seen in someone who was still young, maybe in the late twenties, perhaps a little older, but surely no more. Either way, the hostess and cook of the inn thought it best to keep their distance and give the foreigner all the space they could.

Hapheastus noted their fear from where she sat indifferently. She noted the shield bearing the thunder bolt and hammer with only the briefest of glances. The god merely sat, and waited.

She did not need to wait long. The door opened and cold air swept into the room with the one who entered. The chair opposite her was pulled out and there sat one cloaked in a sky of night and stars, bearing a long spear and regarding her with his one eye. From across the vast expanse of one small table, the Olympian and the Aesir contemplated each other.

"You must have traveled a long way to be here," she passed the Aesir a mug of ale. "Shall I call you Gagnrad or do you prefer your real name, Odin?"

"Iíll leave the choice to you." said Odin. He raised his cup, "I expected to share drink with those mortals if they returned here. Though you are alone, you are with them, so," the tankard was drained, "how shall call you?"

"Hapheastus." the forge god drank hers.

His dark brows rose thoughtfully, "They told me a little of you. You do not seem in any manner comparable to Hel."

"Perhaps."

"Youíre here for my assurances, are you not? That I wonít send anyone after those mortals of yours," he shrugged broad shoulders. "Thereís no reason for me to. No real harm came to me or mine. Loki and Hel will not be so free from my wrath though. There is also the matter of the Hel stone which, as I understand, you returned to that cursed bitch."

"If you know that I gave it back to her," Hapheastus said smoothly, "then you know exactly what it was that I handed over to Hel."

"It was a trick," Odinís grin was fierce and not exactly pleasant, "worthy of a Norse god! Let alone managing to put Chaos back in his rightful place."

"Odin the All-Knowing," murmured Hapheastus, "then why do you insist on punishing Hel and Loki? Hel did not use the stone -- it was taken from her before she had the opportunity, besides," the silver eyes darkened, "if you felt that stone was a threat, you would have taken it from her long ago. I saw it, I know it canít affect the gods. All these years you let her hold onto a foolís hope. As for Loki," now she shrugged, "he was under thrall just like my brother Ares was. His actions were not his own."

"Compassion for my enemies would be a weakness I cannot allow." Odin spoke with distaste.

"Or wonít." Hapheastus said.

His one eye flashed, "Chaos played on their true nature. That doesnít change the fact that they still plotted, and plot still, my downfall."

"Yes, Ragnarok," the Greek god mused, unmoved by Odinís anger, "the end of the gods."

"You Greek gods probably fear death."

"No," she spoke calmly into his scorn, "I myself look forward to it. A chance at new beginnings. For some a chance at redemption for what theyíve done against their own. Just think of it, Odin, in another life, Hel may prove to be your saviour."

"You condemn my actions against Hel," he sneered, "just like those soft mortals of yours."

"Oh, I know that, unlike my mother Hera, you acted -- at least in part -- to protect the Aesir. Hera acted solely out of spite and vanity for what she thought a child of hers should look like. I canít help but wonder though, that if we gods do have souls, how those actions will bear upon them. As for myself, I do not care for the bloody end you crave or the selfish pursuits of my brethren." Hapheastus stood, "I have what I came for. May your future hold all that you have worked for Odin of the Aesir."

Odin, father of the gods, sat a long time in the silence of Hapheastusí departure, brooding over those words.

 

IV

Weaned from life and torn away in the morning of the day;
Bound in everlasting gloom;
Buried in a hopeless tomb.

E. Brontë

 

A great shriek rang throughout all of Niflheim, its outrage and impotent wrath tore the very air. Despite the dreadfulness of the noise, no one approached Hel from where she stood. Her hands, one skeletal and the other whole, clawed the empty space between them for want of what, or rather whom, she wished to rend. She merely stared, unblinking at the broken orb at her feet, all but empty except for a bit of the original stone wrapped within a green phosphorous fungus that had fooled her. The Greek god had tricked Hel by giving her another fake orb, knowing Hel would not think the second a fake; knowing that the bit of original fragment placed within it would still give enough scent and feel of evil that Hel would be deceived. Fooled long enough for Hapheastus and the others to retreat so that they were deep within their own territory before Hel would discover the truth; knowing Hel was to weak a deity to dare to follow.

It gave Hel little satisfaction to go about amongst her flock of dead and gouge out their eyes, tear out their hearts, intestines and so forth ... yet powerless to avenge herself against those she hated, Hel tortured her lifeless tenants anyway.

 

V

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till Iím gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove.

Leonard Cohen

 

Ivanovarrh had not strayed far from the path in the berry bushes. Some would say, that upon the path of destiny he did not stray whatsoever. He heard the rustling of leaves underfoot and of thick folds of -- skirts? He stopped. The noise not far from him ceased as well.

"Please," with what he hoped was a friendly face, "please tell me who you are; it was you who have been bringing food to me, has it not?"

"Aye, it was me." the words fell against his skin like the petals of a flower. "I hope I did not offend you."

"Not in the least." he hastened to reassure the woman. "I am Ivanovarrh, once an acolyte of Helís temple, now ... now I find I prefer to contemplate life and happiness rather than what the enclave entailed. May I have the privilege of knowing how you are called?"

"Mikheala." the softness of her voice soaked into Ivanovarrhís soul like rain upon a dessert. "I live not far. It has," a sadness coloured the words, "been lonely since my family died from the fever some time back; only I survived."

"My sorrow for your loss." he shared her ache sincerely.

"I -- thank-you." She seemed to be considering her next words. "Uhm, Ivanovarrh, I donít mean to embarrass you but you have berry stains all over your cowl from walking through the bushes." was that a muffled laugh he heard? Oh, what a kind and rare melody it was to him, "If you wish, we can go to my homestead and I could clean it for you ... and perhaps a meal?"

"Merely let me take your arm and lead me there," he grinned, "for it would be foolish of me indeed to refuse a hero brave enough to save me from fearful berry stains."

It was a silly joke, true, yet it was his first attempt at humour. Nevertheless, Mikheala openly laughed in that gentle way that told him it was not at his expense but rather a shared acknowledgment. He joined her and the full roundness of his laugh both surprised and pleased him. A soft hand took his and wrapped it around her arm, but she did not remove the hand from atop his. He blushed as they began to walk toward Mikhealaís home.

On the way there, they spoke of many things, of the stuff that both broke their hearts and healed them, of pasts not forgotten and hopes renewed, and of mundane things that, together, seemed to take on all kinds of new beauty, new hope and new and unforseen possibilities. And in that time, Ivanovarrh could not help but notice that Mikhealaís voice, her very presence, held all the warmth of a summer sun and all the richness of honey.

VI

There have been times I cannot hide,
There have been times when this was drear,
When my sad soul forgot its pride
And longed for one to love me here.

E. Brontë

Clad in their regular clothing, Xena and Gabrielle seemed much improved in spirit where they stood outside the cave of Hapheastus, the two deities enjoying their reaction.

"Never thought," Xena said wryly, "that Iíd ever be so happy to be home again."

"For more reasons than the climate," a haunted look moved across Gabrielleís face, "Are you sure Chaos is gone for good?"

Xena encircled her friend with an arm while Hapheastus answered, "Very much so. You know, it was you who gave me the idea in the first place."

"How so?"

"The comment you made back in Lokiís Hall about truth being multi-faceted depending on which light from the crystal one chose to regard. We, the Olympians, are one beam, one "truth", while the Aesir are just a bending of the mirror, yet we are all of one reality. At first I couldnít understand why Chaos, being so powerful, remained in the shadows, working through others. The only answer that made any sense was that he was hiding from an enemy -- a threat, and that getting him to reveal his true self would catch the attention of whoever or whatever it was that he feared so much. Being north made no difference, Chaos and Heaven exist everywhere, they just might look or be called differently depending on which refraction of light one knows."

"Thatís too much head-talk for me." Xena said drily, Hapheastus merely shrugged. "Heís gone, thatís what counts. Well, Hapheastus, weíd best be on our way. Thank-you for everything."

The god clasped her outstretched arm. "Itís I who owe you and Gabrielle the thanks. If ever you two come by this way again, please visit." They both ignored the way Aphroditeís jaw dropped at that.

Gabrielle seemed torn about what to do but then flung her arms around the forge godís neck, unable to keep back all her tears. She muffled against Hapheastusí neck, "You saved Xena from what I did to her and you saved me. Iíll always be grateful."

Hapheastus held the trembling mortal against her, "Just promise me," she said in a low voice next to Gabrielleís ear, "that youíll use that compassion of yours to help heal yourself."

"Maybe," she disentangled herself from the god, "... in time ..." She moved to stand with Xena.

"Aphrodite, you really pulled through for us." Xena gave the goddess a nod and clasped her hands. "I wonít forget it."

Aphrodite gave them both a radiant smile. "You just look after your friend and Iíll consider us even."

"Hmph," the warrior stepped back, a small smile upon the full lips. "You should know better than anyone that thatís exactly what Im going to do, and more, if Iím worthy of her."

"Gods," Gabrielle futilely tried to wipe away tears that continued to run down her face, "worthy of me? I hurt all of you and you Aphrodite, I allowed to be tortured ... Iím too ashamed to ask for your forgiveness."

"Gabrielle," the goddessí smile never lessened, "I hardly think that you could have stopped Chaos even if you tried. You werenít under your own control -- temporary insanity if you will. Itís done, itís past. Try to let it go, for both your sakes."

The bard could only nod her head mutely. Having spoken their farewells, they parted ways. The deities regarded them as they became lost from view.

"Theyíll be okay." Aphrodite said.

"In time ...," said Hapheastus, "I hope."

Aphrodite turned to the god, "speaking of hope, I was hoping that we could finish that chat of ours. You could begin by telling me where you disappeared to before we left the northern woods for your gate."

"I was just tying up loose ends. Youíll," the silver eyes turned away from her, "have to excuse me Aphrodite. I find the trip has wearied me far more than I realized." The god quickly retreated, her back to Aphrodite as she entered her home and sealed the door behind her without looking back.

 

Deep within the catacombs, Hapheastus fled in spirit and body. She stared for a while at the forge she had not left in centuries. She noted how unchanged it was and how that both reassured and disturbed her -- that her absence should have so little consequence. She left there and went to another room, one she did not have lit upon her entrance, preferring the comfort of the dark; except for the torch fire coming from outside the open door.

Hapheastus immediately went to a life-size statue nearly equal to her in height. She took the smooth metal of the carved face in her shaking hanks and leaned her head against its cool brow.

"Iím sorry, Iím so, so sorry." her beautiful dark voice now a ragged whisper, "Iím a coward and an idiot to be so afraid of losing what I donít even have. I should have told you by the waterfall that I love you and that I always have. That all I wanted to do was take you in my arms and feel you next to me. To hear your voice," a half-sigh, half-sob escaped her lips, "say those words back to me. Forgive me Aphrodite," the god said to the statue, "for being too afraid to even try to let you love me. You have always been here, deep in my heart, but how can I let you know that, when one harsh word from your lips would scar and break it far more than this body of mine?"

"Honesty," said Aphroditeís voice, "would be a stupendous place to start."

Hapheastus froze, her eyes shut tight. She heard the sound of Aphrodite raising herself from the chair where the god herself usually sat. She then felt a hand, as soft as the words, touch her face and run through her dark hair. She shivered at the touch, trembled even.

Please, Haph," come the voice she dreamt of for an eternity, "wonít you open your eyes?"

"You must think me," she still hadnít opened her eyes, "quite the fool."

"No." full of understanding -- and more, "I think that youíre someone whoís been terribly hurt and who never learned to trust love. But love is so simple Haph, just open your eyes and look at me. Let me show you how simple it is and can be."

The god opened eyes of wet mercury and was caught by the dazzling depth of the kaleidoscope of colours in Aphroditeís . For this was no painting, no unfeeling statue, or remote dream. She had followed Hapheastus and waited for her here. The goddessí smile trembled with the force of all she felt and she tenderly wiped a tear away from Hapheastusí strong and vulnerable face.

"Iím terrified," Hapheastus said to her, "even if you think less of me for it."

"How can I think less of the one I love?" replied Aphrodite as she moved to embrace her.

It was all the answer Hapheastus or Aphrodite needed.

 

VII

I know that I have done thee wrong --
Have wronged both thee and Heaven --
And I may mourn my lifetime long
Yet may not be forgiven.

E. Brontë


Iíll walk where my own nature would be leading;
It vexes me to chose another guide;
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side;

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing:
More glory and more grief than I can tell;
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can center both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

Charlotte Brontë

 

Itís hard for me to talk about this. The pain hasnít really left my soul yet, perhaps it never will completely and maybe thatís how it should be. I still have nightmares about it. I keep telling myself it will take time but I donít know that I can ever fully forgive myself for what I did, tried to do, to Xena. I never thought I could become so corrupt, that my love could turn into such hateful things. But I did and I had. Xenaís been amazing. A touch here, a word there, always caring and gentle. She often wakes me when Iím having these bad dreams, gives me her hand and sings what sorrow she can, away.

So I try. I try to tough it out but the truth is ... the truth is that Iím not very strong or very brave. I try to let go but I canít stop thinking; thinking about all the things I said that I should never have said, all the things I could have done and I never did. If only I could have those moments back. If only, as I write this, I could hold Xenaís hand. But I guess thatís the true pain about oneís past: you canít go back and redo it. I wonder ... I wonder if this is how Xena feels sometimes; so ashamed, so afraid of what she could again become that she feels too terrified to even move? And I know of the horrible things sheís done, and I suppose, could do again under extreme circumstances. I love Xena though, and even though sheís done so many terrible things I know who she is along with who she was and I know who she strives to be. Maybe thatís how she now sees me. Sheís a hero. She strives to be the best part of herself not only for herself but also for the sake of others. I admire and respect her so because now, more than ever, I recognize the kind of courage and will power that must take. And she needs me. In the beginning, when we first started out together, I had confidence in that. She needed a friend and I needed to be one. As I am now though ... I know that she wanted more for me: for me to be safe, to always be happy, to be a shining symbol of what she strives to protect, but the world is always changing. And Iím not who I once was and if that was not always my choice, at times it was. We travel as equals now, with this new, unwanted intimate understanding of each other. Yet if it doesnít make me a better person, I hope it doesnít make me any worse. Either way, Iíll have to learn to live with myself and get past this. But sometimes, I canít help but wonder if Xena doesnít wake-up and watch me while I sleep, pondering the evil Iíve done, that potential thatís still there, like a sleeping monster and her lying close to the home in which it dwells. I wonder if all the good she sees in me isnít just a reflection of herself that she puts on me; that what Iíve done was tragic and not truly my fault. The truth is that what Iíve done was not only tragic but unconscionable and also, truly, my flaws, my evil, my fault, me. True to her word, whenever the terror of only seeing the monster I could be overwhelms me, I look into Xenaís eyes and see who I really am, Iím Gabrielle, beloved friend, bard, and more. And thatís enough. Though, looking into Xenaís eyes like that, sometimes Iíd swear I was looking into the eyes of an angel.

If thatís an omen or a portent of hope, I canít say.

But I hope ...I hope...


END


Authorís Notes

First and foremost, I wish to credit the actors and crew of "Xena: Warrior Princess". Were it not for the splendidly written stories I watched in eagerness every week on TV, were it not for the memorable acting of Lucy Lawless (Xena) and Renee OíConnor (Gabrielle), along with Hudson Leick (Callisto), Kevin Smith (Ares), Alexandra Tydings (Aphrodite), and a host of others, I would not have been inspired to write this story.

I should mention from the outset that "Xenaís" brother TV series, "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" has an episode that deals with the romance between Aphrodite and Hapheastus (who really is a man, Iíll get to that soon) called "Love Takes a Holiday".

Although there is a lot of accuracy in regards to both Greek and Norse mythology in this book, there also exists many divergents from them for the sake of plot. Therefore I would like to mention that no stone of Hel exists in Norse mythology. Most of what is written is based on memory from when my mother (God and Gods bless her) used to read myths to me when I was a child. However, I had to look up how a lot of the names were written and so for spelling and the story of Helís birth, I relied on The Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings, written by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Itís a fantastic recounting of Norse myths and I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to read more about the adventures of Thor, Odin, Loki and others.

As for Greek mythology, Iím sure there are many books offered at your local library or bookstore. I feel I should mention that Hapheastus is a male god in the original myths, I took a lot of poetic licence there. It has never been absolutely ascertained however, whether he was thrown from Olympus by Hera because she was repulsed by her sonís deformity or because he was the product of one of Zeusí (Heraís husband and Kin of the gods) many infidelities. Cupid or Eros, is considered the son of either Ares or Hermes, depending on the storyteller. As for whether gods have souls or not, perhaps Iíll leave that for the dreamers to contemplate ...


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