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"Praise Morpheus," Manus intoned in a whisper, the most his lazy vocal cords could manage after a year of disuse. Seemingly unaware of his audience, he stretched his arms out before him, studied his hands and long fingers as if he were seeing them for the first time. Momentarily, he shifted, carefully easing back into limbs dormant for many months. As he moved to swing his legs to the floor, he felt a sharp stab of pain. One hand flew to the source and came away from his thigh bloodied. "Hazards of the flesh," he muttered, ignoring the pain to take a full inventory of his reanimated body.
Quietly, by eye, Xena located her sword and chakram. Each was a half dozen paces away, in opposite directions. Attaining either of them would leave Elkton unguarded and vulnerable. She still possessed her breast dagger and boot knife, concealed. She could hurl either one-handed with lethal accuracy -- pierce the heart -- if the bastards got one...
Restrained by Xenas hand, Lysandra managed to choke out a strangled, "Master!"
Xena weighed the two threats, Lysandra versus Manus. In a heartbeat, she deemed Manus the more dangerous of the two. She released Lysandra to fall giddily to her knees while simultaneously reaching for her bootknife. She flung the razor-sharp blade at the mystics face while the breast dagger, taken from Gabrielle during their first visit to this valley, sped for the broad expanse of Manus chest. Instinctively, Manus threw up his hand to cover his face, a defensive reflex that had unexpected results; the knives screamed to a halt, one a hairs breadth from his prominent brow, the other just piercing the priests robes above his heart; as he exhaled in relief, he could feel its sting. And there the vipers hung, the focus of attention to everyone in the room.
"You see now? You cant defeat him!" exclaimed Lysandra, scrambling to her feet. "Hes a god!" she proclaimed, jutting her chin out petulantly, ignorant of the tempting target she presented to Xena.
"Lysandra," Manus called in an imperious voice. "Child, come to me." Without hesitation, Elktons prized pupil moved to stand at Manus side. Still so weak... he mused as he leaned heavily on her shoulder.
"Lysandra," cried Elkton. "Fight it! Fight him!" But the girl merely returned a blank stare, as if his words were foreign to her.
"Its useless, Elkton...her devotion to me is complete," said Manus. He turned to look down at the girl. "Is that not true, child?" Lysandra smiled, nodded and gazed up at him with the sort of keen admiration generally reserved for heroes. "Youre to be commended for your initiative, and your quick thinking, and you shall be rewarded."
"Your release is reward enough for me, Master," she replied sweetly. She leaned into him and stared in rapt fascination at the two blades, poised with such murderous intent. "You did that, Lord," she whispered conspiratorially. She elaborated in words meant only for him. Morpheus gift to you -- a toy to occupy the long hours spent in the dreamscape.
She was in his head, tucked into the same comfortable little niche hed allocated for her moons past, and yet as he tried to respond in kind, he found he had no connection to her, that the bridge was, for all intents and purposes, one way. Frustrated, he gave voice to his thoughts, heedless of whomever else might hear them. "Yes...yes...Morpheus always rewards the faithful." Manus voice, newly strong, was quietly marveling. He beamed down at Lysandra who was looking at him with open, genuine passion -- the passion of a disciple for her Master. Irrational! He shook his head. He had never in the past cared what others thought of him, and yet now, looking into her youthful face, he found he wanted to live up to her expectations. She looked at him seriously and nodded, and he knew that his thoughts were laid out to her like an open scroll. The idea was both comforting and disconcerting. "Im flattered Morpheus gave me any thought at all."
He has thought of little else since your exile into the dreamscape. Her attitude was casual and easy-going, and she could feel Manus reaching, stretching, groping for some kind of purchase, some toe-hold in her psyche and she could sense his disappointment when none was granted. "You can do other things, too," she said, leaning into him to speak into his ear.
Manus moved his free hand experimentally -- up and down, across the width of his chest -- the two knives mirrored his actions. "Amazing," he breathed, squeezing Lysandras shoulder in a display of satisfaction. He shook his hand once, towards the ground, and the knives dropped with a clatter to the crypt floor. "Truly amazing."
Xena determined that Manus fascination with his new-found godly powers would be short-lived. Choreographed to a resounding rendition of her warcry, she armed herself and executed a standing somersault, acrobatics engineered to befuddle and surprise as well as cut distances. She touched down, sword poised, less than one stride from her target, but with no more effort than it took to flick aside an insect, Manus wriggled the fingers of his left hand, flinging Xena across the crypt and into the wall with breath-snatching force.
Elkton had followed Xenas assault on Manus with concern, and now he cringed openly at the sound of armor, flesh and bone impacting unyielding stone. He looked at Xena, crumpled and unconscious, dead or dying for all he knew, and his head was filled with raging, contradictory thoughts. As much as he abhorred violence, he could see no other way to end the confrontation. Clenching his teeth, he picked up the fallen Sword of Psyche, steeling himself for what lay ahead.
Though he had neither Xenas youth or skills, he did share her motivation. He turned at the waist to confront his enemy and, hiding his anger behind the barest of restraints, said, "Say goodnight, Manus!"
"Oh, my night is just beginning, old man," retorted Manus. He threw out his arm, stiff and straight before him and Elktons progress was brought to an abrupt standstill. The old mystic strained against the invisible bonds that held him, giving him the appearance of a man walking against a strong wind. The effect was almost comical. Manus grinned, enjoying himself immensely. "Lose the sword, Elkton," he said. "It doesnt suit you." Elkton dropped the sword like it was his idea. Manus cocked his head slightly and regarded the old mystic with contempt. "You look constipated, old man."
"Thats disgust, Manus," replied the priest in as dispassionate a voice as he could push out between clenched teeth. "You disgust me. It was a mistake to take you into the priesthood. You always were a liar and a cheat."
"And a good one!" retorted Manus with misplaced pride.
Elkton shook his head and snorted, "And to think I once called you friend..."
Manus lifted an eyebrow. "Youre so naive. You trusted me and I betrayed you. You have only yourself to blame."
Elkton struggled briefly against the unseen forces holding him, but it was like walking through treacle. Finally, winded, he spat, "Bastard!"
Manus clicked his tongue and said, "Sticks and stones." Supported by Lysandras sturdy young shoulders, he took a few tentative steps off the dais before stopping briefly at Hesperos body. His face was a mask of disappointment. "Pity about Hesperos. He was quite useful."
"Now hes a throw rug."
Manus whipped around to meet Xenas eyes and the look in his own dark orbs was nothing short of pleased surprise. "Ah, Xena! Why arent you dead?" he asked, genuinely curious.
"Maybe if you show me how its done," drawled Xena, the intimation unmistakable. The threat was still hanging in the fetid crypt air as Xena struggled into a sitting position, favoring her ribs. She had enough experience with fractures to know that although the ribs were painful, none were broken. They didnt concern her half as much as her legs which, tucked beneath her, had no feeling at all.
"Xena!" called Elkton, awkwardly twisting a complete one hundred eighty degrees to catch a glimpse of her; he didnt like what he saw. "Are you badly injured?"
"Im just peachy," retorted Xena dryly, as she forcefully massaged the calves of her legs; they were not broken, as she had feared, but they were weak, as if after a long, strength-sapping illness. "Just peachy," she muttered. In counterpoint to her casual demeanor, inside the warrior a fire burned; it popped and hissed as it fed on the promise of revenge. Vengeance, Xena knew, was a powerful motivator; Manus was proof of that. "Manus," she called, and she realized her voice was the only thing about her still able to convey strength and threat. "This is between you and me. Let Elkton go."
Manus chuckled warmly. "My dear, Xena, why should I choose at all when I can have you both?"
"Lord," hissed Lysandra. "Youre not yet fully recovered...the sleepers, Lord... they rob you of your strength..."
Manus shot her an angry glance. "Nonsense," he refuted, and to illustrate his claim he made a threatening gesture with his hand in Elktons direction.
Powerless to move of his own accord, the old mystic closed his eyes, anticipating the worst that Manus fertile imagination could conjure: a sword in the belly or a deadly fireball engulfing his body. Instead, he felt a tickling in the pit of his stomach and was simultaneously overcome with a feeling of intense vertigo. His feet and legs, formerly rooted to the ground, took on a feeling of weightlessness. He found he wanted to vomit and by keeping his eyes screwed so tightly shut, he knew he was only exacerbating the condition.
Manus knew his contemporary was expecting something extraordinary and if and when Elkton opened his eyes, he would be surprised, if not amused, to find himself hovering, wraith like, 10 feet above the floor and rising still. Manus tucked his tongue between his molars and glared at the impotent manifestation of his power.
Xenas hands came together twice, loudly, in a mocking salute meant to wound. "Impressive parlor trick. Can you pull a rabbit out of a turban, too?" She saw Elktons eyes snap open and the utter surprise on his face at learning his predicament. She hoped he was prepared for gravity to kick in at any moment. "Hang in there, Elkton," she quipped. "Ill get to you." Drawing from a pool of resolve fed by a trickle of raw hatred, she braced one hand against the wall and used it as a lever to coax her legs beneath her. They were rubbery and weak, and she tottered unsteadily, like a practiced drunkard; her right leg buckled and she went down hard on one knee.
"Xena, Xena, Xena," crooned Manus as he strutted and preened with the arrogance of a man whod been born to godhood. "As much as I am enjoying your valiant performance, the time has come for you to die."
"What a coincidence: I was thinking the same thing about you," drawled Xena, once more getting to her feet. Her eyes swept the floor for a weapon, all the while wondering if she would have the strength to wield it with any kind of effect. The feeling was returning to her legs but with it came pain. With barely disguised effort, she pushed away from the wall to stand on her own. She didnt fail to notice the surprise on Manus face as she did so. He still feared her, and that knowledge gave her strength.
"Stay where you are, Xena," warned Manus. He shook off Lysandras grasp and moved forward under his own power. He jabbed a bronzed finger towards Elkton. "Or watch him drop like a stone!"
"Im prepared to die, Manus!" exclaimed Elkton, his back to the smooth stone ceiling. His one consolation was that the circumstances afforded him a unique perspective, and although he suspected the fall would kill him, he showed no fear. "Your intimidation wont work here!"
Xena gave Elkton an almost imperceptible nod of approval. "You heard the man, Manus. He doesnt fear you. And me..." She shrugged and added nonchalantly, "I just wanna rip out your black heart and go home."
Lysandra tugged at his sleeve, while keeping her gaze fixed on Xena. "Lord," she whispered fiercely. "Release the sleepers. While they divide your energies, you will never reach your full potential." Again, Manus shook off her grasp and again, Lysandra persisted. As long as you maintain even the most fragile of ties between the waking and dreamscape worlds youre vulnerable. Freeeeee them, she said, drawing out the first word. Free them and be free yourself.
Manus observed Elkton, his former mentor, trolling about on the crypt ceiling using his hands and feet to maneuver and wondered at the old mans ingenuity and grit; he looked at Xena, ten paces distant...injured, unmoving. He wondered why he should fear her in such a state. What have I to fear from mortals? Im a god. Morpheus chosen! He felt another tug at his elbow.
"Trust me, Lord!" Lysandra spoke ardently, drawing his attention to Xena who appeared to be making a miraculous recovery. You havent much time.
The Warrior Princess teetered and lurched, putting the flat of one hand against the wall to steady herself. Her injuries, such as they were, were just debilitating enough to give Manus the space he needed. Inwardly, she wondered why Manus did nothing to stop her. Her earlier flight across the room and subsequent impact with the unforgiving stone wall left little doubt that he was capable of killing her if he chose.
"Im warning you, Xena!" exclaimed Manus. "I can kill with a thought -- remember Linius?" He concentrated hard; in his minds eye, he pictured her flying through the air, arms and legs flailing like a childs ragdoll, but try as he might, he was unable to turn the image into a reality. He gave an inward groan of disgust and frustration as he realized that he could wound her only with words. Gesturing with an open hand towards the body of Gabrielle, he said, "And then theres the matter of your dear friend..." Hed stopped her cold with the reference. "Gabrielle... wasnt it?" He arched an eyebrow in mock confusion. "Yes...Gabrielle...thats a nasty-looking wound...do you think she suffered...much?"
"Not half as much as youre going to," quipped Xena, her face set in stone. The Sword of Psyche lay at her right foot; she couldve sworn it hadnt been there moments before. As her legs began regaining their strength, she surreptitiously slid the toe of her boot beneath the hilt.
"Master, your enemy is about to arm herself," cautioned Lysandra in a sing song voice. She stepped away, leaving his side for the first time since his awakening, and although her actions spoke of fear and self-preservation, her face showed nothing but contempt. Free the sleepers, Master... free them or die yourself.
Manus regarded Xena with renewed interest. She was armed, the sword having been popped effortlessly into her outstretched hand. She no longer needed the wall to stand erect and though she moved slowly, with great care, it was clear that her strength was returning. Briefly, he conceded that in his desire to revel in victory, he had lingered too long in the crypt. When Xena positioned herself between him and the only exit in the room, he was sure his arrogance had cost him.
Lysandra stood at the periphery of the scene, one small hand clenched anxiously down upon the other. There was genuine anxiety in her entreaties to Manus. Master, she will slit your throat if you do not act now!
Looking into Xenas eyes, Manus was doubtful he would get off that easy. Finally, it was his fear of a prolonged and painful death at her hands which galvanized him into action. With unseemly haste, he returned to the loathsome, yet familiar dark recesses of the dreamscape. It was like coming home...to an orphanage. Women, men and children, mingling, wandering in the profound blackness, clutching one another in fear and uncertainty. Silvus, Photis and the other priests moved among them, whispering words of comfort and reassurance, much as they had done in waking life. These were the trump cards he had been waiting to play. At Lysandras insistence, and for his own survival, he began releasing them, one by one. Each release left him with a pang akin to hunger, but almost immediately he was suffused with an overwhelming sense of well-being which he attributed to a massive influx of psychic energies.
Let go, Master. No fear. A god fears no mortal.
From his trance-like state, with his eyes rolled back into his head, he could sense Xena lunge for him, the sword poised to make a two-handed plunge into his chest, but he knew no fear. A god fears no mortal.
Ceyx and Violence
He just stood there, leaning slightly forward, a small smile on his lips, as if he were preparing to enter Elysia after a long, fruitful life of selfless good works. Xena could hardly wait to inform him that hed been detoured to Tartarus at her insistence. With new-found strength, she raised the sword above her head and brought it down, point first, upon an ornate circle of cloth at Manus heart. He might as well have been clad in the finest armor since, despite Xenas best efforts, the razor-sharp blade glanced harmlessly off his chest.
Manus head came forward, calmly, as if he had all the time in the world. He brought his eyes to bear on the Warrior Princess and conjured up a scornful chuckle from deep in his throat. "Ill give you points for persistence, Xena."
"Ill give you the point of this sword!" she retorted, bringing all of her weight to bear behind the blade. It was unthinkable that she could be this close to vengeance and not succeed.
"Thats it, Xena!" exclaimed Elkton, using the heel of his right foot to spin ninety degrees against the ceiling until he was situated almost directly above Manus head. From this vantage point he could see everything -- Manus exerting every ounce of psychic energy available to him, Xena countering with an equal measure of physical force. And he could see Lysandra, too, the picture of anxiety, fists clenched to her chest, bottom lip trapped between perfect white teeth. She must have sensed his scrutiny for she paused in her observance of the struggle to look directly up at him and the expression on her face, although familiar, was not her own. In that brief moment of unspoken contact, he understood her at last. "Hes still vulnerable, Xena! No god, this one!"
Hes right, Master! reinforced Lysandra as she came to stand at Manus elbow. She was close enough now to see the perspiration on his brow, the spittle on his lips as they curled back defiantly. He did not make an impressive picture. You have to release all the sleepers!
Manus was shaking, struggling to maintain some semblance of control. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "I have!" He winced as he felt the pinch of cold steel on his chest. Instinctively, his big hands closed around the blade to prevent further injury.
All of them! The dead, too... Lysandras eyes fixed on his robe where a crimson rosette had begun to blossom. Perhaps it was redundant at this stage, but she made a point of reminding him of his mortality. Release the dead...or join them!
As Manus felt the insistent sting of the blade, he dipped for what he hoped was the last time into the dreamscape and threw open all the doors, but he did not feel any different; there was no rush of psychic energy as there had been the first time. He had no time to speculate on the reasons as the blade slipped through his blood-soaked hands and another hairs breadth into his chest. Free of any ties to his old prison, sheer force of will had brought him to the precipice of immortality and the unparalleled gifts of Morpheus were his. As difficult as it was to take his eyes from the grimacing face of his would-be executioner, he closed them, trying to summon forth for her a grisly and painful demise. Fueled by a fertile imagination and long months spent dreaming of revenge, the images were gruesome in the extreme. He took her apart in his head, piece by piece, and the possibility of seeing his greatest enemy destroyed filled him with exquisite anticipation. When he heard her grunt and cry out, he knew he had succeeded. Shes dead! He had to see! He had to see her dead! Manus eyes flew open. Xena was so close; her face was blurry shades of bronze and blue and a slash of crimson framing a triumphant grimace. He gasped as ice-cold pain pierced him from chest to shoulder blade and the copious amount of blood pouring from between his fingers left little doubt that he had been struck a fatal blow.
"Hurts..." said Xena, giving the blade a push for emphasis. "...doesnt it?"
Manus dark face reflected the turn of fortune in numbed surprise. Long bronze fingers enveloped the blade where it protruded from his chest, and his head shook with disbelief. While he still had breath in his lungs he called upon Morpheus to save him.
Morpheus replied with perfect silence.
"Xena," cried Elkton as his feet lightly touched down on the crypt floor. He moved quickly to her side and squeezed her arm. "You did it!"
Xena offered the old mystic a small smile, a perfunctory gesture that was all resignation and no joy. She felt no qualms, no pride or remorse, only a weary indifference. She renewed her grip on the sword hilt and prepared to withdraw the blade.
"Lysandra..." Even as the blood drained from his body, leaving his extremities tingling with cold, the dying priest sought out the familiar figure of Lysandra. She hovered at his side, like some grim cherub, his reflection dwelling faintly in her dark eyes. He wished that he could touch her mind one last time to know what secrets she held there. Further rational thought was lost as the blade left his chest with a slickening whisper. He sank slowly to his knees, dark blood staining his robes and puddling at Lysandras shoes as she stood over him, arms akimbo. "Who..."
"Thats the most intelligent question youve asked tonight," she said, a slight quirk on her lips. She enjoyed the way his brows came together in a puzzled frown. "But who is not half as important as why." She crouched to meet his gaze. "In the dreamscape, Morpheus gave you space, room to hone the skills he bestowed upon you." She shook her head. "But you couldnt be content with that. You sought godhood...you saw yourself as an equal beside Morpheus. It was presumptuous of you, Manus, to think you could take those gifts into the flesh." She clucked her tongue audibly. "Morpheus abhors presumption."
Manus shook his head, as if the word were foreign to him, but any verbal response was lost as he gasped for air. Blood bubbling upon his lips, death took him supine to the floor.
"Oh, dont look so shocked," cooed the teen. "You trusted me and I betrayed you. Sound familiar?" With her finger, she traced the bloodied icon of Morpheus on his robes and glared at him with undisguised contempt. "Youre an embarrassment, Manus. You cant control one little bard and yet you expected to sit at Morpheus right hand?"
"But..the prophecy..." Manus argued with what little strength was left him.
She smiled and smoothed vagrant wisps of sweat-damp hair from his eyes. "Foolish mortal. I wrote the prophecy."
Xena stood to one side, baffled by Lysandras revelations. Presently, her lips formed a hard, flat line and the sword slipped from her fingertips, kissing the stone floor with the single peal of a ships bell. She appreciated the way Manus winced as the sound cut through him. She was relieved that his death was not a quick one and she wondered, briefly, if that made her a monster.
Manus coughed wetly, biting back death as his ice cold fingers absently probed the gaping hole in his chest. He seemed beyond the pain, more intent on Lysandra than the blood leaving his body. As his dark eyes waned to a grayish cast, he asked again, "Who are you?"
Her voice held a well-honed edge of ridicule as she replied, "If I told you that, what would you ponder on for eternity?" As he settled back against the floor, his breath more and more labored, she knew her time was short. Rising, her playful smile was replaced by an expression as stern and reproachful as she could muster. "You have bloodied the Sword of Psyche in the name of evil." She watched his eyes grow impossibly wide as she pronounced sentence upon him. "In deference to your many years of faithful service, Morpheus is prepared to be merciful." Hope flashed briefly across his broad face and it thrilled her to quash it. "You may have what you promised Gabrielle and myself. Everlasting peace. Give Hades my regards."
Manus jaw worked convulsively, gasping his last breaths of air like a fish out of water. He convulsed once, twice, reinforcing the allusion, and then was still, his dark eyes transfixed at some point on the ceiling high above his head.
Lysandra gazed at Manus body in rapt fascination. He had died so well, with such drama. It was a pity he could not die twice and she was on the verge of saying just that when she felt Elkton touch her arm. She met his smile with an inquiring lift of her brows. "Yes?"
Without saying anything, Elkton nodded at the large tapestry behind the dais; Morpheus in the guise of Cyex, husband to the beautiful Halcyone, whose expression of surprise he saw mirrored in the youthful face before him. "You resemble your mother."
Lysandra smiled at the man whom had put the puzzle pieces together. "There are those who say I favor my father more."
Xenas eyes were drawn to the tapestry as well. "Son-of-a-bacchae..." she said in a derisive whisper. "Morpheus love child. Isnt that just perfect."
Lysandra stepped over Manus body to address Xena. "Your contempt for the gods is well-known, Xena. If I hadnt been certain that you would laugh in my face, I wouldve disclosed everything to you back in Amphipolis."
"I thought Morpheus abhorred presumption," replied Xena, hoping the irony was not lost on the Dream gods progeny.
"And me?" Elkton waited for Lysandra to acknowledge him. "When would you have told me?"
"Forget it, Elkton," interjected Xena, waving a dismissive hand. "Getting a straight answer from the gods is like trying to nail water to a wall."
Elkton nodded, considering the validity of Xenas words. How many times had he expressed similar sentiments? "So...all of this..." he gestured airily. "Your coming to me last year for tutelage...it was all just part of some scheme..."
Lysandra observed Elktons wounded countenance and was inexplicably compelled to soothe his battered ego. "No. There was no inkling of Manus plans that far back. Father insisted I study with you, to learn patience, and organization. He thought it would teach me humility if I were made to serve." The old mystic grunted and feigned interest in Manus body. She would have to work for his forgiveness and some small part of her resented him for it. "Later, when he discovered Manus true intentions, Father assigned me the task of bringing him under control. He saw it as an excellent opportunity to put my natural gifts and the skills I learned from you into practice."
"The pupil has surpassed the teacher," said Elkton.
"Im sorry," she said hastily.
"No, my dear," he met her gaze and patted her hand affectionately. "How could you help it?" He shook his head and with more than a hint of self-mockery, said, "All this time I thought you were simply a gifted student blossoming under my skilled tutelage...and here you were just naturally pre-disposed."
"I was wrong not to let you in on the plan, Elkton, but Manus psychic reach was absolute. Whatever you knew, Manus would know and then he would simply retreat into the dreamscape until another opportunity presented itself."
"If you knew what Manus was up to, why not just deal with him in the dreamscape?" Xenas query was not so much a question as an indictment.
"Because by the time I sensed his true intent, Gabrielle was already under his influence," explained the girl. "Manus was all powerful in the dreamscape. I could only do so much without raising his suspicions so the prophecy had to be permitted to follow its natural course."
"A course you pre-ordained," said Elkton. The girl nodded wordlessly. "So there were never any plans for Manus godhood..."
Lysandra loosed an incredulous hoot. "Not hardly. In every way conceivable, it was all in his head."
"And all that business with the levitation, that was never Manus doing," deduced Elkton.
"No, once again in the flesh, he had no more power than any other mortal. What he did have, however, was a toe-hold in the dreamscape. He had to be persuaded to leave that world behind. Thats where you came in, Xena. I had to give Manus the illusion of godhood while at the same time convincing him that you were threat enough to destroy him before his powers were fully matured."
"I understand now," said Elkton, coming to Xenas side. "If you had killed him without his first having released the sleepers, they wouldve been doomed to wander the dreamscape until their bodies here died, which at the rate Manus was draining their energies wouldnt have been long at all." The old mystics beaming countenance fell upon his prized pupil. "Kudos, Lysandra.
"Oh, yeah, youre quite the bard," said Xena without admiration. "Constructing such an intricate prophecy."
"More intricate than you know, Xena. Manus never had any intention of honoring his side of your bargain. I do, however. One death and it all ends."
Looking at Gabrielles still form on the floor, Xena said between clenched teeth. "You got your one death."
"Yes," the girl agreed, her eyes on Xenas retreating form. "The culmination of a finely-detailed plan." Xena stopped and turned. Lysandra recognized the expression of outrage and disbelief. "You hate me, dont you?"
It was a childs question, spoken by a child. Xena spared her the observation, but little else. "I might hate you, if I gave you any thought," she replied, and her restraint surprised her. At Hesperos body, she pulled the chakram from his chest and began to clean it against the fabric of his robes. She took her time, knowing she was being scrutinized, yet drawing strength from the familiar task. Her hands and eyes moved over the weapon; for all the lives it had taken while in her possession, it remained relatively unblemished, as if newly forged. How she envied it. When at last she straightened, seating the chakram in its place at her side, she turned again to face Lysandra. "My friend is dead," she said simply; she had failed to anticipate how profoundly those four words would rock her emotionally. "If I make a thousand good friends before Celesta comes for me, there will never be another Gabrielle." She smiled when she said it: Gabrielle. She could feel tiny muscles draw her lips up slightly at the corners of her mouth, as if it were impossible to utter that name without smiling...or crying. But tears would come later, in the privacy of some sheltered glen, around a campfire, or as she sat astride Argo on a dusty road. Shaking herself from her reverie, Xena made a conscious effort to keep her body from betraying the level of her grief. "My friend is dead. Thats more of a loss than you could possibly understand."
"I agree," she said quickly. "Its a pity that you should be so wounded by your friends death. Especially when I promised Gabrielle no harm would come to you. She made me swear. Must be a mortal thing," she concluded with a shrug. "Like you, Gabrielle was given a choice. She chose to be the last person to die for Manus."
"She didnt know what she was doing," Xena fired back. "She had no comprehension --"
"Dont confuse ignorance with innocence. Gabrielle agreed to our bargain, but you, Xena, with your noble gesture of self-sacrifice, you almost ruined it!"
Xena wheeled angrily. "Excuse me?"
"Because the prophecy was permitted to unfold as written, Manus is no more."
"Manus is no more? How clinical is that?!" Xena took a deep breath to calm her frustrations; the young womans cavalier attitude was proving to be something of an irritant. "Youre not going to absolve yourself from blame or responsibility by sanitizing your actions. A number of people are dead tonight. Youre the architect of all that."
"Guilty," she shrugged with a smirk. "As charged."
"You little twit!" Xena spat. "I ought to --"
Lysandra countered, "What? Put me across your knee?"
Up went the eyebrow as Xena quipped, "You read minds, too." If you dont want to know my opinions, stay out of my head.
Lysandra shrank visibly from the mental rebuke. "Im not completely heartless, Xena, in spite of what you might think. Steps are being taken to remedy what can be remedied."
Elkton was cautiously optimistic. "The villagers...my priests?"
"Awakening," Lysandra said lightly. "Even as we speak."
"And Linius...and Gabrielle?" he prompted. "What of them?"
Lysandra hung her head just slightly. "Linius died by his own hand."
"Guided by Manus!" argued Elkton, understandably baffled.
"Still...by his own hand." Anticipating his next question, she said bluntly, " Dead is dead. If you want to appeal to a Hades, thats up to you. But my powers are limited. You, Xena...if you had died upon your own sword, I could not have helped you."
"No more excuses!" said Xena. "Dont waste any more of my time. Now, unless you care to throw yourself on my sword, theres nothing you could say or do that would possibly interest me." Without waiting for a response, she turned and gathered the limp form of Gabrielle in her arms. The bards head reposed against Xenas chest, over the heart which beat for the both of them beneath her armor. The girls body, a strangely comforting weight in her arms, was still warm and her face was unmarked, save for a small drop of blood at the corner of her mouth. The illusion of sleep was so profound that Xena had to fight the urge to shake her awake. When she had regained her composure, she called over her shoulder, "You coming, Elkton?"
Elkton did not hesitate. Admiration for his pupils skills aside, Xena was his friend. "Right behind you, Xena."
Fear of being abandoned among the dead spurred Lysandra into action. "Youre afraid to ask about Gabrielle!" It was no surprise that her words brought Xena to a standstill. From where she stood, she could see the warriors head dip, presumably to study the still features of the girl in her arms. "How much is your pride worth to you?"
Xena turned at the inquiry. "Whats that supposed to mean?"
Lysandra advanced across the floor until she was standing at Elktons side. "Perhaps I should have said what is Gabrielles life worth to you."
Elation and grief shared a heartbeat as Xena saw an opening, but she was cautious. She knew from past experience that the gods, with their hidden agendas, never did anything without expecting something in return. "If its mine to give, its yours."
"Youre very earnest," said Lysandra with genuine admiration. "I dont know as you have much that I want, Xena. Being a god Im pretty much set for life. However..." She lifted an eyebrow expectantly. "I will take a demonstration of humility."
"Dont do this, Lysandra," growled Elkton.
Lysandra ignored him, studying the beautiful face before her, caught in a rare moment of extreme vulnerability. "Beg me," she said simply.
Xena looked at Gabrielles face. If theres even a slight chance... Hugging the girl closely to her, she sank to one knee in a desperation plea. "Please," her voice cracked, heavy with emotion.
Lysandra placed her hands on her hips and grinned. "You are so easy!" she said, shaking her head in amazement. Xena: Warrior Princess on her knees before the illegitimate child of Morpheus. Father, do you see this?!
"You got what you wanted, Lysandra," said Xena, looking up from an uncustomary position of submission. "Im on my knees...its not something I do every day..." She glared at the girl with a mixture of frustration and contempt. Her voice dissolved to a whisper. "Im begging you...bring her back...please..."
"Oh." Lysandras brows came together in a puzzled frown. "I never said I could do that." Smiling, she said, "I just wanted to see you on your knees."
Xena closed her eyes, consolidating her raging emotions; grief warred with anger, vengeance conflicted with justice. On the periphery of this battlefield, Xenas memory of Gabrielle prepared to do battle with them all.
My dinars on the bard.
Xena flinched perceptibly at the invasion, but did not open her eyes to engage the godlings no-doubt questing gaze. She resolved to never again give the gods that quarter, that tiny window of trust she had bestowed upon Lysandra. She took a tremulous breath, wondering if pride alone could get her to her feet. She shifted the body in her arms and stood, staggering for a moment under the weight.
Lysandra pounced at the opportunity. "Wouldnt it be nice if she could walk out of here on her own?" Under her former mentors reproachful gaze, her broad smile withered to a pout.
Elkton expelled a patient breath, reminding himself that godling or not, Lysandra was still a child. But youth shouldnt excuse everything. Being passionate by nature, he had never excelled at keeping his emotions under rein, but as he approached Xena, braced for a righteous display of temper, he saw instead a woman whose soul was laid bare before strangers...laid bare at the whim of a child. It was the defining moment in an evening of defining moments. "Xena," he whispered, putting his hand on her shoulder.
The presence of Elktons hand reminded Xena that she still had someone for whom to be strong. He kept it there, maintaining the connection, as they started from the room.
Lysandras voice pursued them. "Theres more, you know! Dont you want to --"
The old mystic wheeled. "Enough, Lysandra!" barked Elkton, his eyes daggers for the godling. "You have said and done quite enough."
"Indulge me, Elkton. For old times sake?" She cocked her head and looked at him with genuine affection. When his exit was not immediately forthcoming, she approached the weapon lying on the floor between them and hefted it, one hand on the gilt pommel, the other beneath the gleaming blade. "The Sword of Psyche...beautiful, isnt it?"
Xena slowly pivoted on her heel. Gabrielles head, tucked neatly beneath the womans chin was a searing reminder that beauty kills, too.
"Is there a point to this?" Elkton asked, his voice stripped bare of civility.
Lysandra held the blade out to him. "I sensed that you were struggling earlier in the evening to remember something specific about this blade." Her young arms began to tremble beneath the weapons weight but her face was impassive. "Has it come to you?"
Elkton left Xenas side as if drawn by a forceful lunar pull. Inside his head, the last puzzle piece slid into place. "The sword was designed by Zeus and forged by Hephaestus expressly for the execution of criminals."
"You taught me that. What else?" Lysandra prompted. The old mystics fingertips brushed the surface of the weapon. It hummed in his grasp. Lysandra lowered her arms gratefully. "What else, Teacher?"
"The blade..." Elktons eyes moved over the body in Xenas arms and the words raced to leave his lips. "...the blade cannot take an innocent life!"
"Precisely," echoed the girl. She watched Xena tremble perceptibly as she absorbed the implications of the conversation between mystic and godling. As punishment for what she perceived as slights at Xenas hands, Lysandra resolved to draw out the details. "To lure Manus from the dreamscape, I had to give Gabrielles death the appearance of credibility...melodrama, a flashing steel blade, the blood..." She observed Gabrielles body, draped limply across the warriors strong arms. "...the pain." She cocked an eyebrow and regarded Xena who met her eyes with an unwavering expectant gaze. "All the trappings to re-enforce the illusion." She moved to stand before the warrior. "But before I could convince Manus that Gabrielles death was genuine, Gabrielle herself had to be convinced. His intense psychic bond with her would have seen through any deception on her part. As long as she believed her sacrifice was a real one, he would, also. And so I sold death to her, lock, stock and barrel. The way she jumped at it you wouldve thought I was giving it away." Wordlessly, without invitation, she placed her hand over the wound in Gabrielles chest. Her hand became luminescent, radiating light and a warmth Xena could feel pass through the bards body and into her own. Lysandra, sensitive to Elktons curiosity, motioned him to her side. The pupil performed for her teacher as he stood at her elbow, gazing down at her handiwork in fascination. "You told me once that death is an illusion..." Transfixed by the godlings display of power, the old mystic merely grunted. "Tonight," Lysandra said, "I have demonstrated just how profound an illusion it can be." With that, she removed her hand to reveal the flesh beneath unblemished by injury. "For my next trick..." she concluded brightly, looking at Xena as if she expected applause, but the warriors eyes were otherwise engaged. Gabrielles chest rose and fell naturally, and her mouth quirked slightly, as if in irritation, when Xena shifted her in her arms. In answer to Xenas unspoken query, Lysandra replied, "She will wake shortly, in her own time."
A combination of personal concern and professional curiosity compelled Elkton to ask, "Will she remember any of this?"
Lysandra shrugged. "Difficult to say. It might all be crystal clear to her when she awakes.
It might be foggy recollections, or it could present itself as nightmares." She was silent for a moment, watching as the bard made slow progress towards full consciousness. She couldnt resist commenting, "Heavy sleeper, huh?" Xenas face was stone as she turned to leave without comment, which only served to irritate the girl. Putting her hands on her hips, she said, "You know, Xena, it wouldnt hurt you to thank me."
"I bet it would," replied Xena without breaking stride. She stopped at the open door to the crypt and leaned against it, waiting for Elkton and enjoying the rhythm of Gabrielles heart as it beat in sync with her own.
The old mystic moved past Lysandra, taking a last moment to survey the crypt...Manus body growing cold on the cold stone floor, Hesperos, his toadie, dead at his side. The sentries, Phyus and Androcles, neither of whom had been fatally injured, were beginning to stir. If Lysandra was true to her word, the temple infirmary should be bustling with activity when he arrived to take inventory of his friends. Backpedaling, fixing his stern gaze on Lysandra, he joined Xena at the crypt threshold. Almost as an afterthought, he turned and addressed the girl. "Lysandra..."
She smiled broadly, expectantly. "Elkton?"
He exhaled with effort. "In all good conscience, I dont think I can thank you, either." He watched as the girls expression collapsed. "Im sorry to lose you as a student. As a god you have tremendous potential...as a mortal however, I fear for your soul."
She shrugged. "As long as one of us does." Feeling magnanimous, Lysandra addressed Xena. "Take care of your friend, Xena. Youre still breathing because she cared more for your life than for her own."
Xena acknowledged the girl with a curt nod, and something more. With a wry smile, she said, "I still say you could do with a sound paddling."
Lysandra laughed. "In your dreams."
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