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All is Revealed
"Lias buried the others where we found them," Silvus was saying as he removed the sleeping childs small shoes. "Why do you ask?"
"Im simply concerned that they received a proper burial," replied Hesperos, casually tossing a blanket over Silvus charge. "Lias was good to --"
Hesperos paused in mid-sentence as his Masters voice rumbled in his head. "Lias was good to do such unpleasant work. If theres nothing else I can do for you, Silvus, I should return to my duties in the kitchen."
Absorbed in his work, Silvus gave no sign that he detected anything other but cordial indifference from the older man. "Yes, of course. Thank you for your help."
Hesperos turned on his heel and began a slow retreat through the massive chamber, picking his way through and over the occupied palettes.
My plan is in jeopardy, Hesperos. Go to the kitchens at once! Manus associate knew better than to question his masters orders and though the voice inside him implied urgency, he strolled casually from the room so as not to draw undue attention to himself.
* * * * * * * * * *
"I...I serve..." Gabrielles breath was coming in short gasps, her face drenched in perspiration. She was clearly agitated. "I serve...oh, help...." she cried, and winced, as if in pain.
"Elkton, stop this!"
"Were almost to it, Xena," replied the mystic breathlessly. He hovered at the edge of his seat, eyes fixed on the animated face before him. "Whom do you serve, child? Tell me." Gabrielles fists clenched in her lap, balling up the material of her skirt -- her lips moved, twisted, framed words, but no sound came forth to satisfy Elktons plea. His own hands reached out, clamping over the bards, forcing a stillness. "Peace is the reward. Peace in the Masters arms. But who is the Master, Gabrielle?"
"Elkton..." warned Xena, drawing his name out. She stood at the end of the table, fingers splayed on its surface, knuckles white.
"No!" Gabrielle cried out, wresting a hand free of Elktons grip. In one swift movement, it found the discarded knife on the bench and brought the blade down in an arc, slashing Elkton across the forearm before Xena could react.
Xena was there in a fast heartbeat, planting herself between the injured mystic and her friend while trying to make sense of what she had just witnessed. Over her shoulder, she saw the mystic clutching his arm in pain as blood seeped between his fingers. "Elkton..."
"Im alright, Xena."
Xena watched Gabrielles knife hand carefully. "Gabrielle, its me...Xena," she said, attempting the use the same calm, professional voice that had been so disturbingly successful for Elkton. She looked into the face of her friend, disappointed in the air of vagueness in the eyes that met hers. "Gabrielle," she crooned, palms outward, at chest height, non-threatening, or so she hoped. "I want you to listen to me. Put the knife down."
Galvanized by the bards actions, Manus summoned the last of his strength. Spoiled! If youve spoiled my plans, little one, peace, for you, will be a fond childhood memory.
Inside a scrambled head, Gabrielles will warred with Manus. Master! No!
You are pathetic! Manus spat, every word, every syllable a calculated attempt to regain control of the girls conscious actions. All my hard work and youve all but given them the key to my door.
I can do better, Master. I swear it! Let me try, please! Show me. Tell me and Ill do it...
There was a pause before Manus responded. Your contrition sounds genuine enough, child. Perhaps I may salvage something after all.
Xena watched her companion with keen interest; the girl stood stock still, struck and minted on that spot, knife hand unfaltering, lips moving soundlessly, something in her eyes turned inward. "Elkton," Xena drawled, looking peripherally at the mystic. "Whats happening?"
"Youre a warrior, Xena..." said Elkton, without taking his eyes from the bard. "You mean to say you dont recognize a battlefield when you see one?"
Clear your mind, child, let me in...wholly...without reserve. My desires, when fulfilled, will grant you what I have promised from the start...peace. Thats it, crooned Manus. Youre doing so well. You see how much better it is when you dont fight me? Your youthful exuberance cost me the element of surprise, but perhaps we can turn it to our advantage. What are you feeling now, little one?
I feel...hate...anger...like a bitter pill melting in my throat...I dont understand...
Manus, ever observant, saw an opening. You dont have to understand to profit from that which grows within you. Anger is a seed. Properly tended and nourished, it blossoms into --
-- into?! Tell me...
Use your anger, little one...if anger is the seed, let your enemys voice be the life giving water. Let each word from her mouth be a drop that nourishes the seed. Plink. It grows and
I am free, flesh again. Plink. It grows, and peace is the reward. Plink. Do you understand?
Yes. Yes, I do. Im so tired...
Rest now, little one.
Gabrielle blinked, awakening. "Xena?" She felt an unfamiliar weight in her left hand and looked down to find a knife, bloodstained. As she took in the scene -- Elkton bleeding, Xena in a unfamiliar defensive posture, and a bloody knife in her own hand -- Gabrielle drew a logical, but unlikely conclusion. The knife clattered to the stone floor and she staggered back, unsettled by the weight of her actions. "Oh, gods...Elkton..." she stammered. "Im so sorry..." She retreated from the scene until her back met the stone walls of the kitchen, and then her knees buckled, and her body melted into the cool stone and slid slowly to the floor.
To the untrained, it might appear that Hesperos had chosen an awkward moment to make his entrance; he stood at the foot of the stone steps, hands on either side of the stairwell, mouth appropriately agape. Even as Xena moved to Gabrielles side, she suspected it was all an act.
"Hesperos," she barked. "Help Elkton. Hes been injured."
"What happened?" Hesperos asked, moving to the table where he swiped up a dubious looking piece of cloth and applied it to the slash on Elktons arm. "Thats a nasty looking wound," said the cook with an undisguised hint of admiration.
"Gabrielle..." Xena crouched beside the bard and looked into a pair of troubled, wounded eyes she recognized so well. "Talk to me, Gabrielle...what happened?" But Gabrielle could only sob and shake her head. Exasperated, Xena grabbed the girl roughly by one arm and hauled her to her feet. "Elkton, is there someplace she can rest?"
"Of course, Xena," replied the mystic, holding his injured arm to his chest. "You can take her to my quarters. Hesperos will show you the way."
"No. I should tend to your wound." Xenas eyes fixed on Hesperos. "Hesperos, you take her and stay with her until I get there. But dont let her sleep, do you understand?"
Hesperos nodded, surprised as anyone that Xena should entrust him with the welfare of her companion. "If thats what you want, of course." He moved forward and took the dazed girl by the arm. "Come with me, child," he said with uncharacteristic tenderness.
Elkton followed the cook and the bard as far as the bottom of the stairwell and then turned to address Xena, astonishment plain on his face. "I cant believe you did that after what we both suspect."
Xena took Elkton by the elbow and led him back towards the table. "Thats exactly why I did it, Elkton." She guided him to the bench and proceeded to unwrap the bloodied bandage. "If Hesperos suspected we suspected him, then Manus would know."
Elkton winced as Xena tended his wounded arm. "So you agree then? Its Manus were dealing with."
"Yes," she replied. She folded the bandage in on itself and used a clean corner to wipe the blood away. "Hes using Gabrielle for his own purposes. As long as he thinks hes got the upper hand, we stand a chance of beating him...if he suspects and retreats into the dreamscape..."
"What would you do then, Warrior Princess?" asked Elkton sarcastically, bushy eyebrows knitted in a frown. "Go after him?"
"If its the only way to free Gabrielle, yes."
"No!" retorted the mystic sharply. He pulled away from Xena and rose from his seat. "His real strength is in the dreamscape. You dont want to meet him on that battlefield if you can possibly help it." He tied the bandage off himself. "No. We have to make him come to us."
* * * * * * * * * *
"This is the one," said Hesperos, as he and Gabrielle arrived at Elktons cell, a single door at the end of a long, winding passage. In the time it took to walk from the kitchens to the sleeping cells, neither party had spoken, and yet Hesperos had worked at her psyche for the duration...probing, groping, snuffling about inside her confused mind to gauge the damage done, and to consider what actions might heal the breach.
"Ill be fine," Gabrielle said as she saw Hesperos turning the knob. "You dont have to stay with me." She very much wanted to be alone, to cry, to scream, to think...to run. Yes. She wanted to leave this place more than anything. If only people would stop looking at her as if she were made of glass...
Hesperos dropped his hand to his side and studied the miserable face before him. "I would be happy to stay...to talk...if you like."
"No..." she muttered, her hands fidgeting nervously. "How can you say that?"
"You must think Im a horrible person..."
"Why?" he asked, although her response would be superfluous; he was in her mind and he knew things.
"I attacked Elkton," she replied, her eyes brimming with unspilt tears. "I stabbed him."
Hesperos nodded. "You were provoked."
Gabrielle looked at him as if shed been struck. "I was..."
"Provoked," he reiterated.
"I was provoked," she echoed, and her actions made sense to her now. "But the Master is angry."
"Yes," replied Hesperos. He took her by the elbow and turned her to face him. "But his anger is short-lived. Did he not just moments ago take you into his confidence and instruct?"
"Yes. But Im not sure I understand what he wants..."
"You will. That is a promise from the Master. Even now you can feel his forgiving embrace."
Gabrielle smiled in relief. "Yes."
"Even now he conspires to grant your utmost desire," he whispered. "We understand desire...you and I..." Hesperos swept back errant wisps of honey blonde hair with his fingers.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, mesmerized by his voice, and almost melted in Hesperos arms.
Rest for the Wicked
Thats the way Xena found them when she stepped into the scene. Hesperos, for his part, reacted with cool improvisation. "Are you feeling better now?" he asked, looking deeply into the troubled eyes of the bard.
"Xena," said Hesperos, keeping one hand firmly on Gabrielles arm, as if in the act of steadying her. "You had no trouble finding us, I see."
"No," replied Xena simply, her eyes went from Hesperos hand, clutching the bards arm possessively to Gabrielles bemused face. "You okay?" she asked, putting a hand on the girls shoulder. Plink.
Hesperos interjected, "She was feeling a bit unsteady." Xena shot him a sideways glance Hesperos had no trouble interpreting.
"If you wanna keep that hand, I suggest you move it," Xena advised through clenched teeth. Instantly, Hesperos hand returned to his side.
"Its all right, " said Gabrielle, looking at Xena with the polite attention reserved for strangers. "I was dizzy. Hesperos was just helping me."
"Uh huh," replied Xena dubiously. Slinging her saddlebags and the pouch over her shoulder, she took Gabrielle by the elbow. "Lets get you inside. This is the room?" She arched an eyebrow at the cook, who nodded. She preceded Gabrielle into the room and, turning to shut the door, found Hesperos settled in the arch. "Shouldnt you be in the kitchens -- kneading something?" Hesperos merely blinked and smiled in retort, taking one step back as Xena shut the door in his face. "Not much to look at, is it?" she said, surveying the small cell -- spartan described it best: a single bed barely large enough to accommodate the generous girth of the mystic, and a rickety table and chair. Resting on the sill of the only window in the cell was a miniature idol of Morpheus; an old blanket, folded in a square, provided a measure of comfort for the devouts arthritic knees. A dozen votives had been placed around the little altar; they flared and guttered, their wax trickling down to join the hardened pools formed on the sill. Dropping their kit on the floor, Xena turned the only chair outward and said bluntly, "Sit down before you fall down." In lieu of a verbal response, Gabrielle opted for the edge of Elktons paper-thin mattress rather than the chair at Xenas fingertips. "Id rather you sit in the chair."
Gabrielle took all the time in the world to look up and regard Xena warily. "Why is it important where I sit?"
"Because youre less likely to fall asleep in the chair."
"I like it where I am."
Xena exhaled, the beginnings of impatience. Taking advantage of the meager amenities
Elkton permitted himself, she borrowed a small cloth and a bit of water from a basin on the table.
With her back to her friend, she wrung out the excess water, at the same time establishing a mindset that would permit her to function effectively in these rarified circumstances -- Gabrielle as adversary. "Okay," she said, wheeling, moving the chair so that it faced the bard. "Let me see that hand." Xena sat, her knees touching Gabrielles. She had to forcibly pry open the fingers of the bards injured hand, a task that was surprisingly difficult. As she sponged the blood away, she hoped to find some neutral topic of conversation to fill the awkward silence between them. "This isnt bad at all...doesnt even need stitches."
Looking down at the thin red line, vivid against the pale pink skin of her palm, Gabrielle regarded the injury as if it were someone elses hand. Perfunctorily, without any real concern, she asked, "Hows Elkton?"
"Hes fine...hardly more than a scratch," replied Xena. "Hes more concerned about you." She folded the cloth in on itself until it was a tiny, damp square in her palm. "How are you doing?"
Plinkplinkplink. Gabrielle gave a minimal nod and a terse, "Im fine. Tired. Id like to be alone if you dont mind."
"Im afraid thats out of the question," replied Xena, rising.
"Im not going to hurt anyone else, Xena. I dont know what happened with Elkton, but it wont happen again." When a reply was not immediately forthcoming, Gabrielle said, "You think Im lying."
"I think youre confused. Youve been through a lot." Xena moved to the window, feigning casual interest; she could feel the bards eyes on her as she did so. Presently, she turned, her face in a dusty shaft of sunlight. "Look, Gabrielle, whatever else happens..."
Plink... oh, gods, Xena, please stop! Xenas words dissolved into a meaningless static buzz, every syllable a poison drop on the seed Manus had planted within the bard. Plink. It began with a dangerous utterance. "Shut up."
Xena, calm, as if she had not understood the words. "What did you say?"
Gabrielle looked up, her eyes narrowing, hateful. "I said shut up. You talk too much."
Xena was more wounded than angry, but her hurt was tempered by the knowledge that although these words were coming out of Gabrielles mouth, they were not Gabrielles words.
"I talk too much? No problem," she said with a slight quirk in the false smile she wore.
Someone knocked at Elktons door - three times in rapid succession. Xena was visibly irritated as she went to answer it. She opened the door with a jerk to find a young novitiate. "Yeah?"
"Excuse me, Xena, but Elkton needs you to come to the cloisters at once," stammered the young man, intimidated by the size and demeanor of the woman before him. "Please," he added, an afterthought.
Xena sighed and glanced over her shoulder at Gabrielle before turning once again to the novitiate to find him yawning, full in her face. "Am I boring you?"
"No," he said, hurrying to apologize. "Im sorry...I...havent slept."
"Wait for me outside." Without waiting for a reply, she shut the door three quarters closed and approached the bed where Gabrielle sat brooding, pale green eyes narrowed, jaw firmly set, hands clenched in her lap...the little indications of someone in physical pain. "Id better see what Elkton wants."
"Go then," retorted the girl, shaking. "Leave. Get out. Please." Two orders. One appeal.
Wordlessly, though it was galling her, and without delay, Xena left the tiny cell and pulled the door closed behind her. From the dubious secrecy of the passageway, she spoke quietly to the waiting novitiate. "You stand right here, you understand? No one but Elkton or me comes or goes from that room. Is that clear?"
The novitiate trembled noticeably. "Yes."
"Maam...Miss," he amended, correctly interpreting the glare meant for him. Delicately, he inquired, "Whos in there?"
Xena was caught slightly off-guard by the question. "My best friend," she said, her reply less definite, less confident than she had hoped. Without further delay, she turned the key in the lock. Her keen ears picked up the sound of padded boots moving about on the other side of the door and then she felt the handle turn in her hand.
"Xena..." Gabrielle voices muffled, seemingly confused. "Xena, why did you lock the door?"
Xena rested her forehead against the rough grain and tried to beat down the waves of frustration and utter helplessness she was feeling. She could sense the young man standing behind her, staring at her in his own confusion, but she didnt know him well enough to care what he must think of her...this warrior who imprisons her friends.
In Elktons chamber, Gabrielle waged war on her prison, on her jailer. "Come on, Xena..." she appealed, one palm flat on the door, the other wrapped around the cool iron door handle. "Open up," cajoled the bard, tracing the wood grain with her fingertips. "This is ridiculous. Anyone who didnt know better would think you fear me."
Looking down from her position, her fingers hanging just lightly from its smooth surface, Xena saw and felt the handle make its first, and ultimately incomplete rotation. Then, it jiggled and jumped impotently in her hand.
"XE-NA!" roared the bard.
Xena felt the reverberation in her body as Gabrielle pounded her fists into the stout planks. With more effort than she showed, she pushed herself away from the door and turned to the young man at her elbow. "Whats your name?"
"Linius!" he shouted over the din, in counterpoint to her casual attitude. "Im called Linius!"
"Well, Linius, where do I find these cloisters?"
The young man sighed in relief; finally, a question he could answer with some authority.
"Go back this way and turn left at the end of the passage, youll find a narrow corridor...follow that for a hundred paces or so and youll come upon a fork, bear right for --"
"Never mind," said Xena, waving her hand in a flurry of impatience. "Ill find it." She started to leave, then, almost as an afterthought, she picked up and broke the only stool in the corridor over her knee, throwing the pieces against the wall. "No napping on the job, you got me?" The novitiate swallowed hard and nodded.
Xena found her way through the maze of corridors to the cloisters with surprisingly little difficulty. Beneath a bank of windows, against a backdrop of unruly ivy, she saw Elkton and another man, perhaps 10 years her senior, poring over a parchment. Elkton saw her, too, and hailed her with a terse wave. "Elkton, you wanted to see me?"
"Yes, Xena." As she joined them, Elkton asked, "Hows Gabrielle?"
Xena shook her head. "Ill ask the next time I see her, because the girl I just left bears no resemblance at all to the Gabrielle I know."
"That doesnt surprise me," interjected the third party sadly.
Elkton took the opportunity to introduce Photis, his immediate subordinate, and the man most likely to assume the position of High Priest should he, Elkton, die. "Photis is the scholar among us. "
Xena merely nodded. "Whats going on?"
Elkton deferred to his contemporary and Photis launched into explanation with palpable excitement. "Well, Xena, something really very fascinating has developed. Actually, it was Elktons suggestion but I never dreamed it would work out so well..."
"Whoa...draw a breath, Photis," said Xena, visibly annoyed. "Whatre you talking about?"
Photis regarded the warrior, carefully weighing her irritation against his need to perform for his mentor. It took him no time at all to opt for brevity. "Manus is using your friend to escape the dreamplane."
"Its true, Xena," said Elkton. He gestured to the parchment with his uninjured arm. "And we dont have much time at all if whats on this parchment is correct."
"Okay," said Xena, gaining interest by degrees. "I give. Whats on the parchment?"
"In ministering to the sleepers, I discovered that some, but not all of them, talked in their sleep -- nonsense words and phrases, or so I thought. Two nights ago, I assigned novitiates to each of the more vocal sleepers, to keep a record of every word spoken. Photis was assigned the unenviable task of making sense of it all."
Photis moved to Xenas elbow to better display the parchment, five columns, each a dozen words deep. "I hope you can read my scrawl..."
Xena gave the paper a cursory glance. "It looks like gibberish... night, one, innocence..."
"Yes, on the surface, it is gibberish. Taken separately, the words mean nothing, just the random babblings of sleepers, but --" Photis shifted a page of parchment from back to front. "I played around with it a little, omitted some words here and there..." He cleared his throat and recited with effect. "Longest day, shortest night, innocents blood to set it right. Once more to flesh, once more to bone, made to pay -- every one."
"It rhymes. How nice," quipped Xena, her natural cynicism coming awake.
Photis glared at her, nonplussed. Elkton snorted. "How you can you make light of this, Xena?"
"Elkton, you said it yourself: nonsense words..."
"No, no!" countered Photis. "Listen: longest day, shortest night...thats the solstice."
"An innocents blood..." said Elkton. "That could be Gabrielle. Perhaps a sacrifice on the solstice night. And that reference to flesh and blood...these are more than just random words on a page, Xena. This borders on prophetic."
"Be that as it may, Elkton, we cant build a defense based on your interpretation of words Photis has moved around on a page till it made sense to him."
"Then what would you suggest we do, Xena? March down to the crypt and lop off Manus head on the spot?"
Xena scratched her ear thoughtfully. "I gotta admit, the temptation to separate his head from his body is a big distraction."
"Xena," began Photis, rolling the scroll up in his hands. "If Im wrong, all weve done is waste a few minutes assigning importance to gibberish. If Im right, and we do not act: your friend will be dead, and Manus will be a free man tonight. Now, do you want that on your conscience?"
Xena shot Photis a glance, The Look, Gabrielle affectionately called it. To his credit, Photis returned her scrutiny with an unblinking stare of his own. "Okay," she said at last, relenting. "So, if tonights the night, why dont I just stroll down there and --"
"Separate his head from his body?" asked Elkton with a smile; Xena shrugged. "I would gladly wield the sword myself, Xena, if I thought it would put an end to this madness, but Im afraid we would only be condemning his victims...the villagers, Gabrielle...to death."
"Elktons right," said Photis, tapping the scroll lightly against his lips. "Manus hold in the dreamscape is strong. Hes using the sleepers dreams and nightmares to fuel his machinations.
Theyre still alive because he needs them. Kill him, sever that tie, and all could die. No. To understand how to stop Manus, we must understand the message here, in the scroll."
Xena exhaled. "Lets hear the verse again." Photis recited by rote, with feeling, the warning as constructed by him. As poetry, it lacked style...as prophecy it left her feeling vaguely chilled. "So, for Manus to be free of the dreamscape, Gabrielle must die on solstice night...is that the general interpretation?"
Elkton and Photis exchanged glances. "You sound skeptical, Xena," said Elkton. "What else could it mean?"
"Why Gabrielle?" Xena took the scroll from Photis. "I mean, why not someone else?"
She shuffled the stiff parchment to look at the master list Photis had assembled. "Ideas?"
"Gabrielle is still a blood innocent," observed Elkton. "Using her as his instrument of revenge against you, Xena, must seem like divine judgment. The preparations for his flight from the dreamscape have probably been in the works for some time, but when you and Gabrielle entered his realm of influence, it was an opportunity he couldnt resist."
"That may be true, but Manus doesnt have the power the write prophecy," countered Xena. "People like the Oracle and Photis here record it for posterity, but they dont invent it." She walked the length of the room in silence. At the wall, before one of the many altars to Morpheus, she turned to face the two men. "Only the gods can write prophecy."
"Yes," said Elkton, lowering his voice to demonstrate that he understood the gravity of her statement. "Manus has the approval of Morpheus...I cant believe it, but...it must be..." he shook his head, utterly dejected. "So, what now, Xena? If the gods are the architects of this misery, what chance do we stand against them?"
Commiserating, Xena walked briskly to the mystic and squeezed his arm. "Because it is just prophecy, Elkton," she retorted with quiet assurance. "And prophecy can be changed, re-written...erased altogether."
"Any one of the above is certainly a possibility, so long as were agreed on the requirements as set down in the prophecy," interjected Photis. "There are two irrefutable truths -- an innocent must die to free Manus, and Manus must be released to be executed."
"Photis..." Xenas eyes drifted up from the parchment. "Explain something to me."
"Surely," he said, drawn by her voice to stand at her elbow. "What is it?
"Whats this word?"
Photis squinted. "Innocense...yes, thats an s. I know. Ive been told I have the handwriting of a healer."
"Innocense," Xena repeated, rolling the word around on her tongue. "Why did you choose innocent...as in an innocents blood...why not innocense?"
Photis seemed at once amused and unnerved by her scrutiny of his verse. "I dont know... creative choice, I suppose. Why does it matter? It comes to the same thing."
"No. No it doesnt."
"Xenas right," said Elkton. "Read the verse, Photis, but this time exchange the word innocense for innocent."
Photis brow furrowed. He took the parchment offered him and began to read, angrily accenting each third syllable as he did so. "Longest day, shortest night, innocense blood to --"
"Thats it," interjected Xena with a raised hand. "Stop there."
Photis, having failed to see the significance of the revise, glared at her. "Theres more."
"Not an innocents blood, my friend," said Elkton, clapping a hand on Photis shoulder. "But blood innocense. Its not Gabrielles blood that must be spilled, but Gabrielle who must spill blood...she must kill for Manus." He raised an eyebrow inquiringly. "But kill whom?"
"Three guesses," quipped Xena dryly. She squinted at the waning sunlight; the solstice would officially begin at sunset.
"Well, I assume both you and Elkton are high on Manus list of priorities," interjected Photis, moving between the warrior and the mystic. "Using Gabrielle as the weapon of your destruction most probably appeals to Manus sense of the ironic. He was always a touch too theatrical for my tastes."
"This is Gabrielle were talking about, Photis. She would never hurt me."
"She might not mean to, Xena, but --"
"Photis," Elkton interrupted, "I think Xena and I need a word in private." Photis nodded, gathered his scrolls to him and left at a brisk walk. "Xena," said Elkton, once they were alone. "You have to stop thinking of Gabrielle like that."
"Like what? Like my best friend?" she retorted bitterly. She felt Elktons hand on her arm, squeezing encouragement and she gentled her voice. "Shes still in there, Elkton. Whatever else Gabrielle has said and done in the last twelve hours, Manus hasnt totally taken her over. She fought him. Shes still fighting him."
"Its a losing fight, Xena," countered Elkton. "Now, I dont know the precise protocol Manus employed during the time Gabrielle was his prisoner, but whichever it was, its apparently been devastatingly effective. She has but to close her eyes to feel and receive reinforcement from him, his dominion over the dreamscape is that absolute. Trust me when I say she is literally minutes from surrender."
Xena glared at Elkton, her blue eyes level and serious. "How can you say that with such certainty?"
"Because as High Priest of Morpheus, and Father Protector of this village, Im an old hand at battling nightmares, and you, my friend, are a gifted amateur. Youre able to lock emotions and memories away in a corner of your mind. Gabrielle, however..."
"...expresses every thought on her mind...the moment she has it..." murmured Xena, a sad smile on her lips.
"Such candor is endearing, yes, but unfortunately, its probably the reason Manus chose her in the first place. People like Gabrielle...empaths, we call them...theyre like a blank piece of parchment...open, receptive to ideas...Manus conditioning has simply removed the natural barriers that might otherwise keep her from fulfilling her duty."
"And you think her duty is to kill me."
Elkton lifted one wiry eyebrow. "Among other things..."
"She wont, you know," said Xena with conviction.
"You sound very sure, my friend."
"I am. Im telling you: she wont hurt me."
"That, my dear Xena, could be the kind of faith that gets you killed."
"Welcome back, little one," said Hesperos. He put one hand to the small of Gabrielles back and ushered her across the physical threshold between waking and dreaming. "Its lovely, wouldnt you agree?" He made a broad sweeping gesture with his free hand, encompassing a vista of blue skies, black sands and a dusty footpath between sloping green hills. The birds above her, flying in V-formation, headed south.
"Its lovely," she agreed at last; the warmth of his hand on her back felt strangely comfortable. "I know this place..." her brow furrowed and she pivoted on her heels, taking in the scenery. "This is where..."
"Yes, child." Hesperos dropped his hand and moved to stand beside her. "This is where Perdicus died. You remember that day..."
"Like it was yesterday," she replied, all amazement. "We stood here..." she looked down at her boots, dusty, planted in the wagon ruts in the road. "...right here..." She unconsciously touched her fingers to her lips. "We kissed...we kissed and then..."
"And then?" Hesperos prompted, feigning ignorance.
"And then Callisto was there...and then Xena...out of nowhere. She saved my life."
Hesperos circled her with predatory grace, dragging his finger along her shoulder blades as he did so. "She let you live. Theres difference."
"Callisto wouldve killed me...she did kill Perdicus..." her voice trailed off into a sad whisper as she remembered clashing swords, a single swift strike, and a young man dying at the edge of the road. Wordlessly, without thinking, she moved to a spot where the grass was slightly matted, slightly bloody. "He fell here." She bent and touched the grass; her fingers came away crimson, sticky. "Still warm..." she marveled.
"Its crossed your mind that your young husband might still be alive if not for you, hasnt it?" Gabrielle nodded, sullenly. "What if I were to tell you that only one person among those present on this road that day couldve saved Perdicus..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Callisto wouldnt --"
"No," he said sharply, like a schoolmaster reproaching a child. "Not Callisto." With an airy gesture, the scene wavered into focus: young lovers locked in a passionate embrace, stars in their eyes in the middle of the day and then an unexpected and violent intrusion culminating in clashing swords. "This is how you remember it..." Gabrielle nodded, lips trembling, eyes brimming with tears. "But..." he said, taking her by the shoulders. "Stand here." He positioned her in the prints he had left in the soft dirt. "Now...look with different eyes..." he said, conjuring yet another scenario. "Sometimes, Gabrielle, its simply a matter of perspective." Again, the young lovers embraced, whispering endearments, making plans... Gabrielle had an overwhelming urge to call out, to warn them of the danger...and again, now frighteningly predictable, Callisto makes her appearance. "Your young man was brave," said Hesperos into her ear, narrating the scene. "But he didnt know his adversary...and here comes Xena, on cue...one of those showy dismounts of hers and its all for appearance you know...look...shes blocking those strikes, but shes not even attempting to do any real damage to Callisto. Oh. Nice move, really very good. What do you think she means -- kill your soul?" Hesperos breath stirred the tiny hairs at her nape. "And here it comes, watch closely...I think youll find this bit enlightening...do you see that? Watch her face, see the way her eyes follow Callistos every move...she sees it coming...she knows...and yet..."
"And yet?" Gabrielle shook herself, stammering, "No...shes too far away to stop it."
"Come, Gabrielle, you and I both know that kind of distance is nothing to someone of Xenas amazing talents. Look at her eyes...they move from Callisto, to the young man, and back again...she sees the plan forming in Callistos head, but she does...nothing. She watches, a witness...a bystander...an accessory to the murder."
Gabrielle listened to his words, drugged with terror, as repeatedly the scene, in startling clarity, was played out again and again before her eyes until she saw all the little nuances and clues of which Hesperos spoke. "She couldve saved him...she chose not to."
"She as good as struck the blow herself." Hesperos moved to stand before her; she did not flinch as his fingers touched her hair and her neck before they drew her to him in a powerful, needy embrace. "Look at me, Gabrielle..."
Her pale green eyes found his, waiting, alight, and a smile crossed her lips. "Hello, Perdicus..."
Hesperos wet his lips. "Kiss me...wife."
His Masters voice. Hesperos hands froze momentarily in their joyful exploration of the young bards curves before dropping dejectedly to his sides, a schoolboy reproached. "I have no excuses, Lord."
Manus clicked his tongue in disgust. "Do you think I bestowed these gifts on you for your own pleasure? I was willing to ignore it the first time because it worked towards our end, but this..." Manus moved in orbit around the sleeping bard and his errant toadie. "...is self-indulgent and self-serving." With a minimal wriggle of his fingers, Gabrielle vanished with a sigh. "I am scant hours from deliverance. You need to be more focused than ever before. You must restrain your own desires and keep the bigger picture in mind. Do I make myself clear, Hesperos?"
"Abundantly, Lord. All is in readiness. It cannot fail."
* * * * * * * *
Distance was the answer, Xena thought as she moved through the myriad of passages, letting cold pragmatism replace incapacitating guilt. It felt good to have a plan, the details of which she had drawn in the short minutes since leaving Elkton at the cloisters. She would collect Gabrielle and take her, aboard Argo, to a point as far outside the village as possible while still being able to return to the temple herself before the height of solstice. It bolstered her flagging energy to think of dispatching Manus; finesse and subtlety aside, nothing satisfied like the stroke of a sword. As she neared Elktons chamber, the air almost hummed with expectancy and Xena found her hands had that same tingly chill that came before every battle. Shell struggle. She wont be able to help herself. Xena knew a dozen different ways to subdue an opponent without doing physical harm, and she was prepared to do anything to remove Gabrielle from Manus deadly equation. She rounded the final corner onto the short passage to the sleeping cells and there, right where shed left him, was Linius. He lay slumped against the door and her fingers at his throat confirmed that Manus had claimed yet another victim. She muttered an oath and gently settled the young novitiate against the opposite wall. Turning the key in the lock, she put her hand on the doorknob and entered the room. The votives, mere stubs now, gave off a weak, flickering light, but it was enough for Xena to see Gabrielle recumbent on the bed.
"Gabrielle?" she queried, approaching. Sleep, Xena mused. The one place I cant protect her..the one realm I cant conquer...not under these conditions. Xena knew from costly past experience how vital the home ground advantage could be -- many times it was the deciding factor in her battles -- Manus most definitely had the home ground advantage. But, she reflected with some satisfaction, shed won many a battle on foreign soil. She shook the sleeping bard by the shoulder, and when she didnt respond, shook her a little more forcefully. "Hey..."
Gabrielle tensed, anticipating the torment that rained down upon her soul whenever Xena spoke. But need had replaced dread and she found herself lying perfectly still, baiting, coaxing more from the normally taciturn warrior; even the impatient sigh which preceded Xenas next statement fell like a nourishing cloudburst upon her anger.
"Gabrielle, wake up." Xenas hypersensitive ears heard the click as the bards eyes snapped open. "Get up. Were leaving."
Gabrielle sat up, swinging her legs to the floor. "You locked me in," she accused, getting to her feet.
Xena made her irritation obvious with a groan. "We dont have time for this discussion right now." She took the bard by the elbow, none-too-gently. "We have to leave."
"Would it do any good to ask where were going?"
"None at all."
Gabrielle became dead weight, pulling the warrior to a halt before they had even left the room. "Im not taking one step more until you tell me where youre taking me."
Xena turned deliberately, and her inquiry had the weight of a threat. "Do you really want to test me, Gabrielle?"
Abruptly, Gabrielle shook off Xenas grasp and angrily strode the length of the small cell.
At the window, in the flickering light of the candles, she considered the miniature icon of Morpheus while feeling herself the object of equally intense scrutiny. "I know, you know," she said at last, without turning.
Xena stood with her back to the open door, arms akimbo, keen eyes focused on the form and the likeness of her friend. "You know what?"
A slow pivot, calculated for effect, brought bard and warrior face to face. "You killed Perdicus...as sure as running the blade through him yourself, you killed him."
Xenas breath hitched imperceptibly in her chest. She knew the accusation to be utterly untrue, of course, and so did Gabrielle, but it was the latters unwavering belief in her, made clear time and again, that gave her the strength to respond in true cavalier fashion. "Whatever."
Three syllables in a simple utterance that set Gabrielles blood boiling. "Thats it? Whatever?!"
Xena lifted an eyebrow. "Youre spoiling for an argument, Gabrielle," she said, glancing sideways out the window at the setting sun. "And, well, we just dont have that kind of time right now."
Gabrielle shifted her weight, appearing to relent. "Time is short. Youre right."
"Why dont you just keep that thought in your head? As a given."
Narrowing her eyes, Gabrielle advanced until she was mere inches from the warriors
face. "I have three words for you, Xena."
"Just three?" Xena feigned amazement.
"Ummm, three are all Ill need...take a nap."
Xena barely had time for the words to register before her world went black and she crumpled to the stone floor, profoundly unconscious. Hesperos tossed the leg of the stool against the wall and offered his hand to Gabrielle. "Come. The Master awaits."
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