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This story contains mild violence. If this disturbs you, you may wish to read something else. Then again, how do you stand to watch the show?

Spoiler Warning! This story takes place during the fourth season, after "Family Affair" and before "Crusader." If you have not seen through these episodes, you may want to discontinue reading.

I would love to hear from you. Write to me OfcrRipley@aol.com and let me know what you think about the story, or just chat about Xena stuff in general. I can never talk too much about my favorite show!

Continues from here.

 

Twist of Fates

By Ripley

 

BOOK I   (cont'd)

~~ Chapter VI ~~

 

Xena grabbed the cup Atraxis set in front of her and stared coolly across the table at the young man. "Atraxis," she called without lifting her gaze from Bellerophon. "Has Gabrielle checked in?"

"Nope."

"Youíve got until I finish this to tell me why you shouldnít head right back to Cenchreae."

The young man swallowed his wine and clenched his jaws in obvious anger. "Forgive my rudeness, dear lady, but I do not see that I have to explain anything to you."

Xena took another sip from her cup. "You do not have to see anything at all, dear boy, and you do not have to explain anything, but unless you come up with some pretty good reasons, you are going back with us."

"And how is that?" he said, leaning forward and involuntarily touching his sword hilt.

"I will make you," Xena said simply and finished off her cup. She stood. "Now letís go."

"Where?"

"My friend said she would rendezvous with us here, but I donít like waiting around. The way I see it, there are still about eight of those warriors unaccounted for, and if Gabrielle hasnít taken care of them, we will. Maybe weíll run into her."

Bellerophon jumped up and followed her out of the tavern. "Where do you propose we start hunting for all these people?"

"Weíll head south, where she was, finishing our sweep. Then weíll head east towards the castle. Two of those thugs supposedly went there."

"Why donít we split up?"

Xena glanced over at his eager face."Oh, no," she said. "Youíre sticking with me."

Bellerophon planted his feet in the dirt of the road. "I have enjoyed meeting you, princess, but I feel I must decline your invitation to accompany you. I will take out the raiders myself, and then I am going about my business." Turning, he made it about three steps before he was thrown forward by a knock on the head.

"And Iím going about mine," he heard her say in a raspy voice.

Instinctively, he drew his sword and turned to face her. He had no intention of harming her, just scaring her a little. This ruse about returning home had gone on long enough.

Xena rolled her eyes and drew her sword as well. Why did people always make things so hard? Why couldnít he just go without having his head knocked around a bit?

"I do not wish to hurt you," he said.

"Well, thereís where we differ. I have no problem with hurting you a little bit." With that, she let out a yell and swung her sword overhead at him. He blocked the blow, as she had intended, but she continued with a barrage of strikes that actually drove him backwards across the square. When she could see that he was puffing a little from his exertions, she swung her foot in a wide arc and knocked his feet out from under him. He fell to the ground with a thud and even bit his tongue. Xena swung her sword and nicked him on the shoulder. To his credit, he made no sound, but the look of shock on his face was quite evident. Scrambling to his feet, he came at her with several well-timed blows. Xena parried them fairly easily, waiting until he was in quite a fury before deftly sidestepping out of his way. His momentum carried him forward, and Xena helped him to the ground again with a boot to his backside. As he lay there, she placed her foot on the back of his neck and nicked his other shoulder. Then she let him get back to his feet. She almost hated doing this. He was obviously a good kid and a pretty good fighter, but she was going to have to show him that her skills were not attributable to luck, and that it would be best for him to do what she said.

Bellerophon wiped the blood from his newest wound and stared at Xena hatefully. "Youíre gonna get it!" he screamed, charging toward her. Xena found it interesting that all of his courtly manners were gone. He had totally lost his cool, and she knew now that she had him completely.

Sidestepping once again, she yanked her whip from her side and tossed it out as he flew past. It wrapped itself around his ankles and brought him to the ground as neatly as a little calf. As he hit the dirt once more, his sword broke loose from his grasp and slid across the ground until it was out of reach. Xena quickly walked over to him and prodded him onto his back with her sword. He lay there bleeding and panting, and Xena felt a great deal of pity for him. Even the anger had departed from him.

"Please, Xena," he murmured hoarsely. "Donít make me go back."

"Why not? Itís for the best. You need to make amends with your father." She offered him her hand.

"I know," he said, taking her wrist and struggling to his feet, "But Iíve made a promise to King Iobates and I cannot break it."

"What kind of promise?" Xena asked suspiciously.

The young man hesitated for just a moment. "To take up a quest," he said finally. "To kill the Chimaera."

 

 

As King Iobates grasped the cup she was holding, Gabrielle felt another shiver go down her spine. This feeling of uneasiness increased when she looked at the king. There was a look of complete disbelief on his face as he stared at her. The cup fell to the floor, spilling its contents across the rough stones.

"Iím so sorry," Gabrielle murmured, and bent to reach for the cup. Suddenly, she felt the old kingís hand at her throat, clutching it tightly like a bird of prey. His fingernails dug into her soft flesh, and Gabrielle was surprised at how much strength was in them. She grabbed his wrist and went down on one knee, hoping to break his grasp, but the more she struggled, the tighter his grip became. She stared at him with a question in her eyes, and realized that she was staring into a face of absolute hatred. His blue eyes were practically glowing with an unnatural fire, and his lips were pulled back in a toothless grimace. Using her other hand , she knocked his forearm with all her might and felt his fingers pull away from her throat. Dropping her staff, she scrambled backwards until she was out of his reach and then stood up quickly, her breath coming in great gasps.

Now the old man was staring at her, but not with the false kindness he had shown earlier, or even the look of hatred she had just witnessed, but a look of utter amazement. "It canít be," he was muttering, staring at his hands and then back at her. "It canít be."

Gabrielle checked her hands to see if there was any blood from her throat, then ran to the balcony and began to shout for Polyeidus. Obviously the old king needed more than just physical help. He was cursed with madness. Maybe his servant could do someó

She heard a noise behind her and thanked the gods that the old servant had been so quick.

"Great! Polyeidus! Look, something is wrong with the king andó"

"So this is how the old crone occupies his time!"

Gabrielle looked up to see an armed warrior stalking into the room--obviously the last raider. She had forgotten about him in all the hubbub. He was oilier and meaner-looking than any she had encountered thus far, if that were possible.

He turned his gaze from Gabrielle to the old king, shaking his bald head. "I thought you were supposed to be cursed, but it looks like youíre doing fine, old man." In a moment, he was at the kingís side, holding a knife to the monarchís throat. "Now tell me where your other goodies are, and I might let you and the girl live."

"No!" Gabrielle cried out. She dove across the room for her staff and the pirate turned his attention away from the king for a split second. It was enough. Iobates reached up and struggled to grasp the pirateís throat in that parasitic grasp. This time, however, he had tried it on someone who did not have the respect for life that the girl had. Without a thought, the warrior let out a curse and plunged his knife deep into the old manís chest. Gabrielle cried out and hit the man in the back as hard as she could. Letting go of the knife, he turned and grabbed the staff with both hands, yanking it from her grasp quite easily. Gabrielle turned and ran to the balcony. If she could try what she did before, she might be able to toss him over. But this man was not like the other. He was quick and lithe, and by the time she reached the banister, he was only a step behind her. Trying to step aside, she knew it was too late. He grasped her arms and pulled her to him in a vice-like grip.

And then he made a croaking sound.

Even in her state of panic, Gabrielle stopped her struggling and wheeled around to look at the manís face. His tongue pushed out of his mouth and he suddenly released his grip on her. Rolling his eyes toward the ceiling, he staggered backward and clutched his head as if in great pain. Gabrielle stepped cautiously toward him. Was there a knife in his back? Was Xena somewhere in the room? These thoughts and all others immediately left her mind as she stared at the man before her. Starting in his fingertips and spreading upward, his skin began to turn a horrific shade of black. The blackness continued to spread all over his body, and he fell to the floor convulsing in agony and making small shrieking sounds and choking noises. When the black color had reached his face, he kicked his legs simultaneously, and then lay very still. Gabrielle stepped over to him and leaned down to look at his chest. There was no movement whatsoever. The man was dead.

A strange sound issued from across the room, and it took her a moment to realize that it was laughter. She tore her gaze from the blackened corpse at her feet and looked at King Iobates. A chuckling sound emerged from his throat as he stared at her. His hand rested on the knife hilt sticking from his chest, and she wondered how he was still breathing. She stepped over to the bedside and reached for the knife.

"Youíve got it," he whispered. "Youíve got the curse." He reached up and touched her arm. "Give my regards to Xena!"

The skin on his hand began to change immediately to black, spreading up his arm and over his neck. As the darkness spread, he began to take big gulping breaths and release them in fits of screeching laughter that got louder and louder. Gabrielle began to back away. Her foot hit something and she looked down to see the blank gaze of the blackened raider. She tripped and fell against the far wall. It was covered in ivy that had spread from the balcony, and Gabrielle leaned against the stone structure for support. The leafy foliage felt good against her skin, and the wall helped steady her trembling body. She stood there panting, staring at the carnage that lay before her, until her attention was diverted by a slight sucking sound behind her. She noticed dark leaves falling softly around her and turned to see blackness like a disease spreading quickly over the vine. Hearing a shriek from the bed, she wheeled around. The king was entirely black now. He pointed his finger at her and smiled.

"What have you done to me?" she screamed. King Iobates let out one final chuckle and fell forward in his bed.

Now there was nothing but silence. Gabrielle slumped against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. "What have you done to me?" she said again. But this time it was nothing more than a weary whisper that went unanswered in the chamber of death. Gabrielle placed her face in her hands and sobbed as the eyes of the dead men continued to stare blankly towards the heavens and the blackened leaves of the plant she had touched fell like rain on her golden head.

 

~~ Chapter VII ~~

 

 

"So when exactly did the king give you this task?" Xena asked as she and Bellerophon walked down the street.

"Just this morning," he replied as he headed toward an inn on their left. He had asked Xena if they could stop by there as they swept the southern end of the city, and she had granted him a few minutes. If they hadnít seen Gabrielleís handiwork along the way, they wouldnít have been stopping at all, but Xena had to admit that it looked as though the young woman was doing quite nicely at taking care of her share of thugs.

Still, Iíll feel better when we actually run into her, she thought. She turned her attention back to Bellerophon. "And you delivered the letter from King Proetus of Tiryns over ten days ago?"

"Thatís right. I donít know what was in it. I gave it to the king. Well-- to his servant, Polyeidus, whoís evidently the only one allowed to see him. I went back today and politely asked for a response, feeling I just couldnít hang around in Xanthos doing nothing. There was quite a bit of yelling and shouting, and the old servant came out and said that the king wanted me to take on the task of killing this Chimaera that has been plaguing the country for years."

He stepped through the doorway of the inn and Xena followed. The innkeeper, a jolly-looking soul, greeted him with a loud shout, but it was a young woman serving drinks that made the most of his entrance.

"Bellerophon!" She rushed across the room and threw her arms about his neck. They hugged briefly, and then clasped hands and stood back to gaze at each other. "Iíve been worried about you with all of these pirates about."

Bellerophon glanced sheepishly at Xena. "Well, you should have known that theyíd be no match for me. Besides," he added, "I had Xena to help me out a bit."

Xena decided to let this slide. Heíd been through quite a lot at her hands. Let him show off in front of his girl. In a moment, though, she was shocked to find the young woman clasping her hand and holding it to her face.

"Xena!"

"Hey!" Xena quickly withdrew her hand and cut her eyes at Bellerophon with an embarrased half-smile. He too was looking quite shocked. The young woman quickly recovered her composure.

"Forgive me, Xena. Itís just that I owe you so much."

Xena stared at the pretty blond in front of her. She looks familiar. Still . . .

"You see, I was one of the Bacchae that you released from the spell when you killed the god Bacchus."

"Philonoe!" This came from Bellerophon, who was looking in shock at the young woman.

"Iím sorry, Bellerophon, but I just couldnít bear to tell you before, although it wasnít my fault that I fell in with Bacchus." She looked up at Xena. "However, I also couldnít let this woman be present and not thank her for releasing me from that awful life."

Xena swallowed and nodded her head. "Iím glad I was able to help you. My friend was under that curse as well."

She turned to Bellerophon. "Speaking of which, if everythingís all right here, Iíd like to see if we canít find her."

"Oh, right," the young man nodded. "Iíll be ready in just a moment, Xena. Philonoe," he said, grasping her hand, "Guess what the king has asked me to do? He wants me to kill the Chimaera!"

"No!" Philonoe broke free of his grasp and stared in shock at him.

He frowned. "Look, dear, itís the opportunity of a lifetime, and I need this to clear my name back home. Just thinkó"

"No!" she cried again and turned to Xena.

"Donít let him do it, Xena. If the king gave him the task, then nothing but evil can come of it."

"Now how do you know that?" Bellerophon questioned petulantly.

"Because heís my father," she said quietly.

"What?" her two listeners replied in unison.

 

 

 

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Polyeidus burst into the kingís chamber huffing and puffing from his run up the stairs. "Oh, there you are. I heard you call and came-- " He stopped in the center of the room and stared in shock at the body on the floor. "By the gods!" Then he turned towards the bed. "You didnít," he said, clenching his teeth. He approached the huge canopy. "You stupid old fool! I thought Ió" His eyes opened wide at the sight of the blackened corpse in the bed, its teeth bared in a grisly smile. "This canít be," he whispered.

"Iím sorry," he heard from across the room. Looking over, he saw the young Amazon warrior sitting with her back against the wall and her arms across bent knees. The plant behind her had turned black, and she had obviously been crying.

"Hey, itís all right," he said softly as he stepped towards her. She jumped up.

"No! Get away!" She backed out onto the balcony.

"Gabrielle, " he said, holding out his hand, "thereís nothing to be sorry about. You couldnít help the actions of the king. I couldnít either, but now that heís gone, heís much better off. And so are we. Believe me. Letís just get you out of this room and you can telló"

"Polyeidus." She said it so quietly that he found it more disturbing than if she had shouted. "Look."

Slowly she reached for a rose that had grown up the outside wall and wound its way around a column on the balcony. She grasped it, and Polyeidus watched in amazement as the petals quickly turned black, curling up and falling to the stone floor. At the same time, the rest of the plant began to wither up, death spreading across its vines like an invading army across an open field.

He stopped where he was. "This canít be," he said yet again.

"What, Polyeidus?!" She flung the rose to the floor. "What canít be? Iíve killed two men, including your master. Tell me what is going on here!" Her voice quivered , and her eyes were brimming with tears.

Polyeidus felt an overwhelming sense of pity for the girl. Pity and hopelessness. "I donít know whatís going on, my dear, but I will tell you what I do know." He took a deep breath. "Iíll tell you of the curse of King Iobates."

 

 

 

Xena and Bellerophon both stared in shock at Philonoe.

"Heís my father," she repeated.

"But, Philonoeó" Bellerophon took a step toward her, but she stopped him with an outstretched hand.

"Listen to me. I havenít lived there in years. Zeus, I barely lived there growing up. I spent most of my time in town. Waylon and Apphynia looked after me." She nodded at the innkeeper and his wife. She reached out for Bellerophonís hand. "But I did live there long enough to know that nothing my father could tell you to do would possibly be the right thing."

"But wouldnít it be right to help your country and rid it of this curse?"

"Not if it means your death!"

Xena broke in. "Bellerophon, you say the king gave you this task after you had delivered a message from King Proetus?"

"Thatís right."

"Do you have any idea what might have been in that message?"

"Not really," he said nonchalantly. But he released Philonoeís hand as he answered.

Xena grasped his arm and nodded at the young girl. "Excuse us just a moment." She pulled him into a corner and shook him. "Now look. If you know something youíre not telling me, youíd better let me know, because as things stand right now, youíre getting closer and closer to heading straight back to your father."

Bellerophon clenched his jaws for a moment and then blushed. "When I was in Tiryns, I had a little trouble with the queen."

Xenaís eyes narrowed. "Uh-huh."

He waved his fingers at her and blinked in embarrassment. "Now, Xena, itís not what youíre thinking. She wasnít my type, but she liked me a lot. I turned down several Ėuhófriendly invitations, and then she dropped it. She seemed mad, but I never heard any more about it."

"And then suddenly her husband sends you with an unknown message to her father King Iobates."

The young man swallowed. "Wellóyes."

"Iím thinking Philonoe is right. Theyíre both up to no good. However," she added, as they walked back to the young woman, "Iím not sure how the Chimaera figures into all of this." She addressed Philonoe. "I mean, youíve never seen the Chimaera, am I right?" Philonoe shook her head in disappointment. Xena continued thinking out loud. "Perhaps the king meant to ambush you on your way to fight this thing and make it look as though you died in battle with it. "

"He wouldnít have to do that. " They heard the sound of a chair scraping across the floor. "They could just let the creature kill him."

Xena turned towards the speaker--an older man, a farmer, from the look of his dark skin and rough hands.

"Assuming, of course, that it exists," she said, crossing her arms.

"Oh, it exists," he snorted.

"How do you know?"

"Because Iíve seen it."

The other occupants in the room made slight noises and shuffled about in excitement, but Xena remained unmoved.

"Where and how?"

"On my farm. It destroyed my crops, my livestock, andó" He paused and took a deep breath. "Several people I loved."

Waylon the innkeeper spoke up. "Itís true, Xena. We all heard about it. We mourned the loss of his family. And heís not the only one to lose land and people to that awful thing."

"It set my house on fire and slaughtered several of my cows," said another man who was eating in the far corner of the room.

"And it singed the clothes off my back," added another man.

Xena softened a bit and uncrossed her arms. "All right," she finally said. "Those of you who have actually encountered this thing, tell me everything you know."

Several men and women gathered eagerly around her and each in turn told their stories of the Chimaera. They all seemed sincere, and sincerely terrified at that. Still, Xena was having a hard time with this one, even after all she had seen in her lifetime.

As the last of the villagers finished, she held up her hands for silence. "So youíre telling me that itís been around for some time, no one whoís tried to stop it has succeeded, and that it stays in the foothills just north of here?"

"Thatís right."

Xena leaned on a table and looked intently at all of them. "This is what I really want to get straight. Itís got the head of a lion, a goatís bodyó" She looked around the room and received nods of assurance as she spoke. "A serpentís tail, and it can breathe fire."

A young man spoke up. "But the tail has a serpentís head."

Xena walked to the doorway and stood looking out. Bellerophon came up behind her and whispered in her ear. "What do you think, Xena?"

"I think they saw something, " she said, turning to him. "Iím just not sure what it was. " The young man stood there expectantly. She sighed. "I do think itís worth checking out, though." Bellerophon practically ran back to Philonoeís side.

"Xena thinks itís worth checking out!" Philonoe bowed her head in dejection, but the rest of the people began to talk excitedly. All except the first man who had spoken--the farmer who had lost his family.

"Xena!" he called out, and the rest of the crowd went silent. "Just remember that yesterday there were people in this town who doubted whether or not the warrior princess really existed, or if she was just some tale parents had come up with to frighten their children." Xena shifted uncomfortably as he continued. "And everyone doubted the idea that she was now a champion for good." He stepped toward her. "And yet, here you are, with all of us willing to trust you to help us." The silence was deafening as every person in the room stared at the dark warrior.

"I believe you about this thing," she finally answered quietly. "And Iíll help you."

The celebratory shouts were cut short by the entrance of a young boy into the tavern.

"Xena!" he called as he stared at her in awe.

"Yes."

"Iíve got something to give you." He reached into a satchel at his side and pulled out a card. Taking it from him, Xena saw a grisly picture of a skeleton riding on a donkey. "Itís from Hadara," the boy continued. "She said it was Gabrielleís last card, but she left before she could give it to her. It means--"

"Death," Xena finished for him. She was trying to remain calm as she looked at it. After all, she didnít believe in these things. Yet. . .

The boy continued. "Iíve also got a message from Gabrielle."

"Where is she?"

"She said to tell you she was going to the castle."

Xenaís face fell. That awful place. "How long ago was that?"

The boy looked sheepish for some reason. "About midday."

"That was hours ago," she said frowning. Xena turned to Bellerophon. "Are you familiar enough with the castle from your stay there all this time?"

He coughed. "Well, I didnít really stay there. I stayed here. Uh, I didnít find it to my liking encroaching on the kingís hospitality."

You mean you were scared in that old place, she thought to herself.

" Itís been years, Xena, but I remember everything about it," Philonoe piped in.

"Then letís go." Xena strode out into the afternoon sunlight and turned south towards the castle. She was doing her best to appear calm. After all, there was nothing specific to worry about. She was probably just being overprotective and jumpy. Probably.

 

 

~~ Chapter VIII ~~

 

 

"I first met Iobates," Polyeidus began, "when I was little more than a boy." He was pacing back and forth where the room opened onto the balcony, and Gabrielle, who was feeling weary and stunned, was seated on the floor with her back against the rail. All of the ivy that covered it had already turned black, and she at least felt assured that she could harm nothing else for the moment in this position.

"My father Melampus was advisor to King Proetus of Tiryns, and he felt I was of an age that I could develop the skills of healing and seeing in someone elseís service. He sent me with the kingís blessing to the neighboring country of Lycia, hoping I could serve King Iobates, Proetusís father-in-law. I traveled alone, because I had a special way with animals, and my father had complete confidence in my sense and abilities. After I crossed the border, however, I ran into a hungry giant that had been terrorizing everyone on the road. He caught me and was playing some rather cruel cat-and-mouse games when a man rode up and demanded that he stop. There was a fearsome battle, but the warrior won. You can imagine my gratitude. I told him I was on my way to serve the king, but I would gladly serve him instead. He told me to go on to the king and rode away. Of course, when I reached the capitol of Xanthos, it was only to find that my rescuer was indeed the ruler of Lycia.

"At first they had me doing menial tasks, but my healing abilities soon became evident, and my insight into the welfare of the country intrigued the king. We soon became inseparable, and Iobates did many good things for Lycia. Not long after that he married again, having lost his first wife to illness many years before. Nothing much changed except that there were three of us to look after the kingdom and have adventures." Polyeidus sighed.

"Ahh, Senoba was a lovely girl. And sweet-natured, too. Iobates adored her, and despite the difference in their ages, she felt the same way. After a few years, she became pregnant. She gave birth to a beautiful little girl, but in spite of my efforts, I couldnít save the queen. She died giving birth to the child. Iobates was devastated. I tried to draw him out of his shell with the girl, but he grew to despise her and she knew it. She spent more time in town than she did here, and the gap between them grew ever larger.

"In the meantime, Iobates had become obsessed with the concept of life and death. I guess it was because his wife lost her life bringing forth a new one. He used to sit in front of the fire at night and talk about what it would be like to have the power of a god and control whether people lived or died. He began to push me to search for herbs and roots that had strong healing powers.

ĎLetís find a way to bring back the dead, Polyeidus,í he would say. Of course, such powers were beyond me, and he soon turned to the gods. He started off traditionally, with Zeus, Hera, and Athena. But as he grew older and more bitter over the loss of Senoba, he began to plead with the more stringent onesóAres. . .Artemis. It was at this time that he heard about Bacchus and his group of immortal followers. He built a temple to him, and begged to be given special powers. As he told me later, the god did appear to him one night, and actually promised the power of life and death. But there was a price."

Polyeidus stopped and Gabrielle looked up. "No," she whispered.

Polyeidus nodded. "He willingly handed his daughter Philonoe over to the evil god in exchange for what he thought would be immortal powers."

Gabrielle didnít even try to hide the look of shock and disgust on her face. "Why did you stay with him?"

"I owed him my life. And I had seen the good there once, remember? I kept thinking if I only tried hard enough, it would come to the surface in him again. Do you know what Iím saying?"

Gabrielle nodded. More than youíll know.

"After he had Philonoe, Bacchus told Iobates that he now had the power of life and death. There was an injured horse on the side of the road as the king walked back from the temple. He placed his hands on it and told its owners it would be healed, but the poor creature turned completely black and withered up. It was dead in seconds. The villager was livid and reached out after the king, but soon he met the fate of his horse. It didnít take us long to realize that what Iobates had was simply the power of death."

"Like Celesta?"

"No, my dear. Hadesís sister can kill with a touch, but she is sent to get those who have been called to the other side. It is their time to go. Iobatesís curse took any living thing that crossed his path. When he realized this, he ranted and raved at the temple of Bacchus, but the god had what he wanted. He had no intention of humoring a mortal.

"One night I entered the kingís chamber to find that he had plunged a dagger into his side. The wound was such that nothing could be done for it, even if I could touch him. He seemed to lay near death for days, then weeks. Miraculously, he recovered. When he was strong enough, he began to get up and about again. One morning I heard screams coming from the kitchen. He had actually set himself on fire. He should have been dead, but just like before, his wounds closed up and he went on living. He even jumped off the cliffs near the sea caves, but he washed back up on shore very much alive. The poor soul that found him actually touched him, and turned as black as tar."

"Is that why the king had all those scars?" Gabrielle broke in.

"Yes, my dear. He must have tried a dozen times to end his life. Each time he experienced the pain and suffering, but not the release. And anyone unfortunate enough to touch his skin died immediately. You see, Gabrielle, Bacchus had kept his promise. Iobates had the power of life and death. Death for others, endless life for himself."

The living dead, Gabrielle thought and shuddered. "But couldnít the curse be broken?" she asked aloud.

Polyeidus shook his head. "We tried. Nothing worked. Eventually we turned to the gods. Athena finally appeared and told us that the only way to reverse a curse is for the god who gives it to take it back. Iobates spent almost all his time in the temple of Bacchus. He didnít even eat. He didnít have to.

"Then one day we heard a bard spreading the story that Xena, the warrior princess, had killed Bacchus and freed the cursed Bacchae. There was no hope after that, and the king knew it. He hated Xena from that point on."

Of course. "Are you a friend of Xenaís?" Gabrielle could still hear the old manís voice purring in her ear.

"But Polyeidus, how could the curse have been transferred to me?"

The healer looked at her pityingly. "I donít know, my child."

Gabrielle swallowed and took a big breath. "How long did he have this, Polyeidus?"

He clenched his jaws and looked away.

"Please," she whispered.

"Forty years," he finally replied.

"Forty yeaó" Gabrielle was cut short by the sound of the heavy castle doors swinging open in the foyer far below.

There was the echo of scuffling feet, and then a familiar voice.

"Gabrielle!"

Xena had arrived.

 

 

 

Xena surveyed her choices, then turned to Philonoe. "Whereís your fatherís chamber?"

"Upstairs and to the right."

"Bellerophon, I want you to cover the lower levels. Watch your step and be on the lookout for those thugs. We still have two unaccounted for."

The young man nodded and started into the room to the right.

Xena started towards the stairs. "Philonoe, take me to your fatherís chamber first, and stay behind me and keep your eyes open."

The young woman looked at her hesitantly, and Xenaís expression softened. "Look, I know this is hard for you, and you donít want to see him. But weíve got a job to finish up, and I need to find my friend."

The young girl took a deep breath. "Right." Then she followed as Xena crept up the stairs.

 

 

 

Polyeidus clutched at his chest. "Whoís that?"

"Itís Xena!" Gabrielle replied. Relief flooded over her.

"Wonderful! She can help us. Iím sure of it!"

Something about the old manís tone annoyed Gabrielle, in spite of her distress.

"Now how could she do that, Polyeidus? You have healing gifts and you lived with Iobates for years, and nothing you did helped him. Isnít this the same curse?"

"I donít know, but they say she can do anything."

She can do plenty, but she canít solve every problem. Iíve got to solve some of my own problems every once in a while, and I know Xena wonít understand this any more than I do.

"Up here!" the servant called. Gabrielle reached out to snatch his arm, then caught herself just in time. A wave of nausea swept over her as she thought about what had almost just happened.

And could happen any time. To anyone.

"Sshh!" she said instead. "Is there another way out of here?"

He stared at her in disbelief. "What are you doing? Donít you want to see your friend?"

"Iíve got to have some time to think." She could hear booted feet pounding up the stairs. "By myself."

Polyeidus stared at her momentarily, then nodded in resignation. "Here," he said, scuttling towards the far wall of the bedroom. He pushed against the stone, and a large section of it slowly swung open. "That will take you to the lower level. The door at the end opens onto the outside east wall of the castle." They could hear Xenaís voice and footsteps as she raced down the hall towards the chamber. Garielle stepped in and Polyeidus began to shut the panel. "Be careful of the stairs. Itís dark, but thereís only one way to go. No side entrances."

"When there was just a crack left, Gabrielle stopped the movement of the wall. "Polyeidus, come to me at the east wall when you get the chance. Come alone, and donít tell Xena anything thatís happened to me. Not yet."

The old man looked at her hesitantly.

"Please." Gabrielle could hear voices at the door. The old servant finally nodded and leaned up against the stone, leaving her in complete blackness.

 

~~ Chapter IX ~~

 

 

 

Xena burst in with her sword in hand and surveyed the sight before her: An old man cowering against the left wall, and two corpsesóone in the bed, the other on the floor. She heard Philonoe gasp behind her, and she couldnít blame the girl. She had never seen bodies like this. They were blackened and shriveled, but not in the way that burned corpses might be. It was as if they had been unearthed from some ancient tomb and placed here. She glanced toward the balcony. No Gabrielle.

She addressed the old man. "Are you all right?"

He nodded and rushed toward them. "Xena! You donít know how glad I am to see you!" Xena held her sword at armís length. He seemed harmless enough, but she didnít know who he was. She felt Philonoe move from behind her.

"Polyeidus!" She rushed into the arms of the old man.

He looked nervously toward the bed. "My child, my child, you shouldnít be here."

She pushed away from him and wiped tears from her eyes. "What happened here, Polyeidus?"

He swallowed and led her away from the two bodies. "Well, as you probably know, the castle was invaded by a couple of those pirates. I was in the process of leaving when I ran into a young Amazon."

Xena strode up to him. "Where is she?"

He swallowed and blinked.

Nervously, thought Xena.

"Well, I donít exactly know. She told me to wait around and she would take care of the thieves. I believe she knocked one off the balcony." Xena walked over the to the rail and confirmed that this was true. The man down there wasnít in good shape, but he wasnít a charred piece of wood like the other two.

The old servant continued. "She waved at me and I came up here, only to find that she was gone and that the other thief and your father were dead. Evidently, the king took care of the one on the floor, and then he took care of himself."

"But Polyeidus, you always led me to believe that he could never do that," said Philonoe.

"I canít explain it, my dear. But he was dead when I arrived. Iím sorry."

"Iím not," she replied bitterly.

Xena stepped back towards them. "Wait a minute. Youíre telling me that Iobates did this to both of them? How?"

"It was his curse. Surely youíve heard of it?"

"Yeah, yeah," Xena said and turned away. "I just didnít believe it," she finished muttering.

Her eyes scanned the room. "So you donít know where Gabrielle is?"

"No. But she knew you were in the city. Perhaps she returned there."

"Maybe." Xena was silent a few moments longer, and the other two, obviously lost in thoughts of their own, left her alone. Finally she turned to them. "I believe thatís all of our raiders. Philonoe, help Bellerophon tie up that man down in the garden. Then go to town and send back some people to help withó" She stopped. Sheíd almost said "bodies," but by the gods, one of those was that of the girlís father. "To help Polyeidus," she finally said.

"I just need two or three strong men," he said softly. Philonoe nodded and Xena gently took her arm and led her toward the chamber door. "Weíll meet at Waylonís Inn in town. You know it?"

Polyeidus nodded. "Iíll be there later. Where will you be, Xena?"

"Iím going to look for Gabrielle. When I find her, weíll meet all of you there and discuss this Chimaera business."

"Chimaera!" the old man repeated in a startled voice.

"Later. At the inn. Take care of this for now," she said as she ushered Philonoe out of the room.

Polyeidus nodded and breathed a sigh of relief when the two women left. It had been painful to see Philonoe so grieved and shocked, and he had the feeling that Xena didnít quite believe his story. And she was definitely someone he did not wish to anger. He would wait on the villagers, so they could safely dispose of the king, then he would find Gabrielle and hope she had come up with something. He didnít know Xena, but he had a feeling that a person couldnít hide from her for long.

 

 

 

Gabrielle sat just inside the secret entranceway that led out onto the slopes on the east side of the castle wall. Far away, she could hear the waves of the Mediterranean washing against the cliffs. She had been too afraid of venturing out and harming some creature or person out of ignorance; or running into Xena. She couldnít deal with that just now.

How did this happen? She placed her forehead in her hands and felt something chafe underneath her tunic.

Confused, she pulled it out. They were the cards that Hadara had given to Xena and her. She stared at her own card, but for a while she didnít really focus on it. She was too busy thinking about this horrible change that had come over her. Gradually, however, the card came into view and the images on it began to make an impression. Hadaraís words floated through her mind.

"You will soon find yourself in a situation where you feel trapped, with little hope." Gabrielle stared harder at the young woman on the card. She was bound, blindfolded, and surrounded by eight staffs. About as hopeless as one could get. But oddly enough, the woman on the card had her head turned, as if she could see or hear something behind her in spite of her situation. In the background were several mountains, with a river winding in and out of them. Three bridges could be seen high above the river and nestled amongst the mountain passes. "You will have to cross three rivers or bridges of some kind and perhaps you will escape this sense of being trapped."

Three rivers. Gabrielleís head shot up. Of course. Mnemosyne. She had been to the Temple of Mnemosyne once before when she was haunted by disturbing memories from her past. She had had to cross three rivers that represented the sad moments in her life. It had been a grueling experience, but the goddess of memory had been able to help her. Perhaps she could again.

Gabrielle sat up straighter. Things were by no means good, but at least she had a plan now.

 

 

 

Polyeidus huffed and puffed as he carefully made his way down the secret stairs with his torch held before him. He certainly didnít need to accidently bump into Gabrielle at this point. He thought he heard a movement at the bottom of the steps and called out her name.

"Here I am," came the reply. "Be careful."

He crept down the last few steps until he could see her in the torchlight. Poor child. She looked as if she had been weeping again, and she was leaning against the doorframe for support.

"What took you so long?" she asked.

The old man explained that he had been left in charge of taking care of the bodies in the kingís chamber. He hated mentioning it, but there was no need softening things for her now. She knew what kind of situation she was in.

"Listen," she said. "Iíve got a plan." She tossed what appeared to be a card towards his feet. "Take that to Xena and tell her that Iíve gone to the Temple of Mnemosyne. When she sees the card, sheíll know the message is from me."

Polyeidus ignored the card. "Mnemosyne! But why? I thought you were going to tell Xena whatís happened."

Gabrielle felt the blood rushing to her face. "Look Polyeidus, I know what Iím doing. Xena canít solve this problem, but Iíve been helped by the goddess there before. Perhaps she can help me again."

The old man stooped and picked up the card. It pictured a woman pouring liquid from one goblet to another. "This is one of Hadaraís cards, is it not?"

"Yes. Itís one she gave to Xena, but I took it for safekeeping. Iíve also got my own card. Maybe you think itís crazy, but I got the idea about Mnemosyne from that. Hadara seems to be a wise old woman."

"You donít have to defend her to me, Gabrielle. I admire Hadara." He contemplated the card for a moment, then tucked it away in his robe. "I guess I just donít understand why you wonít tell your friend. Sheís still out searching for you. I donít think sheíll let up."

"She wonít," Gabrielle murmured, and slid into a sitting position with her back against the wall. "Thatís why I want you to give her my message and the card." Her head shot up suddenly. "And Polyeidus?"

"Yes?"

"Tell her to meet me at the temple in four days and then weíll go get Joxer the Mighty."

The old manís eyes widened somewhat. "Joxer the Mighty?"

Gabrielle smiled, though Polyeidus thought it was a bittersweet one. "Yes. Make sure you say it just like that. Sheíll know your message is from me. Tell her nothing is wrong. I just wanted to go there to work some things out."

"All right, my dear. May the gods be with you." He turned and started up the stairway, but was stopped by the young womanís voice.

"Polyeidus?"

"Yes?"

"If things canít be helped at Mnemosyne, I will tell her. I learned a long time ago that it doesnít work to lie to your friends."

"Itís none of my business, Gabrielle."

But she wasnít willing to let him go just yet. "Polyeidus, do you remember hearing about the attempt by the Persians to invade Greece and conquer Athens?"

Polyeidus leaned against the wall and braced the heavy torch. "I most certainly do. As I recall, the stories were that Xena stopped them singlehandedly at Tripolis." There was no answer from the girl, and he decided to add, "But Iím sure you were there doing a great deal as well."

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No. No, I wasnít. I was wounded with a poison arrow and lay near death the entire time. It took all my persuasion just to get Xena not to drop everything and try to get me to safety."

"Sheís a devoted friend. Iíve learned that just in this short time."

"Sheís devoted to anything she pursues, Polyeidus. Thatís one reason I admired her in the first place. But I learned something particularly special then." She looked up at him. "You see, I had always known that Xena was willing to die for me, but I didnít fully realize until that battle with the Persians that she was ready to die with me. Do you understand?"

The old man shook his head.

"You see, Polyeidus, you and I both know that this curse makes me totally worthless to mankind. A walking corpse."

"Now, now," he started, but she held up her hand for silence.

"If it turns outó" She took a deep breath. "If I get to Mnemosyne and they canít help me in some way, then I wonít be able to travel around like I do now. It would be too dangerous. And Xena wouldnít travel without me. Weíd both just sit around withering up, outside and in. If it turns out that my life is wasted, I canít let her do the same thing. Thereís far too much good left for her to do."

"But you told me that youíre going to tell her when she gets there anyway. What if you find that they canít help you?"

"Then at least Iíll have tried. And Iíll have had four days to figure out how to convince her to go on with things."

"I understand, my dear. And I wonít let you down."

"I know you wonít," she smiled. Now if only I wonít.

 

~~ Chapter X ~~

 

"Xena?"

The warrior princess put down the card that Polyeidus had given her and looked up at Bellerophon. After the old servant had given her the message, they had all gathered around a table in Waylonís Inn to discuss the Chimaera. Even the farmer that had lost his family was present, along with a few other villagers. Xena was happy to have them. The more information they had, the better off theyíd be. Still, sheíd found it hard to concentrate without Gabrielle there. Based on the card and the "Joxer the Mighty" reference, she knew the message was from Gabrielle. And she felt she could trust Polyeidus. Still, why did her friend feel the need to return to the Temple of Mnemosyne? It disturbed her, and yet she had no basis for chasing Gabrielle down. Sheíd left her free to travel there once before, and things had worked out for the best. Gabrielle was her own person, and obviously this was something Xena was going to have to get used to. Besides, maybe she could take care of this supposed monster without her friend. It would give her much more freedom without someone to worry about.

Xena noticed that the room was silent, except for the crackling of the fire.

"Xena, do you think itís hopeless?" Bellerophon stated.

"What? Destroying this Chimaera?" She shook her head. "Nothingís impossible. We just have to find its weaknesses and capitalize on them."

"They say it has no weaknesses," said an older villager.

"Describe it to us in every detail. Everything you can remember," she said.

The farmer, whose name was Telion, spoke first. "Itís very largeóabout the length of four men. The head and front legs are those of a great lion, with a mane, and very large fangs. It can spew fire from its mouth."

"How far?"

"Iíd say at least ten paces."

"You say the rest of the body is that of a goat?"

"Yes," answered another man. "With the hind feet as well. Itís fast and surefooted. The mountain rocks donít give it any trouble."

"This snake tail. Itís got a head?"

"Yes, and itís full of deadly poison. I watched it paralyze an ox in a matter of heartbeats."

Xena leaned forward on the table. "Well, it looks as though it will take a lot of strategy to hit this thing in the right spot. However, I assume like any other goat, itís heart should be in the same place. Itíll help that there will be two of us."

"Three," said Telion.

"Four," added another villager.

"It wonít help how many of you there are. Thereís only one way to really take care of that thing." This came from Polyeidus, who had not spoken the entire time.

Bellerophonís eyes opened wide. "And how is that?"

"From the air," said the old man calmly.

There were several murmurs heard throughout the room, and even a few snickers, but Xena stared unperturbed at him. "How would we go about doing that?"

"On the back of Pegasus, the winged steed."

Telion and his companions burst out laughing, and even Xena smiled indulgently. "Polyeidus, no offense, but no one knows if he even exists anymore. There havenít been any stories of him for years."

"Oh, he exists, doesnít he, my boy?" He turned to Bellerophon, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I told you when the king gave you this quest that this is what you would have to do, and you agreed. After all, Pegasus visits the Fountain of Pirene, which is in your home of Cenchreae. It was the only way I thought I might not have your blood on my hands, having given you the kingís task in the first place."

"Speaking of which," broke in Xena, "Why did Iobates give Bellerophon this job at all? You must have some knowledge of his reasoning."

"Why wouldnít he?" questioned the youth. "Iíve done my share of fighting and killing, and Iobates knew it!"

"Shut up," Xena said without taking her eyes off of the old man. "Answer me, Polyeidus."

He looked apologetically at Philonoe, then at Bellerophon. "The letter the king received from King Proetus mentioned that Bellerophon had made some unwanted advances towards Antia."

Bellerophon slammed his fist on the table. "Thatís a lie!"

Xena placed her hand on his. "I told you to be quiet," she said gently. "We know itís a lie. Right, Philonoe?"

"Yes," answered the young girl quietly, and grasped his other hand in hers. He calmed down somewhat, although his face was flushed in embarrassment.

"Now go on," said Xena.

"I knew it was a lie," Polyeidus continued. "But it wasnít my decision. Proetus was demanding that as his father-in-law, Iobates kill you himself. Proetus obviously had some problem with killing a guest under his roof that he didnít think would apply to Iobates."

"I knew Proetus couldnít be trusted," Xena murmured. "Thatís why I left Joxer there in case Bellerophon returned. At least it sounds like Joxerís safe, though, as long as heís Proetusís guest."

Polyeidus continued. "I hate to say it, but I canít honestly say that Iobates would have thought twice about disposing of you, Bellerophon. However, I convinced him of the folly of this, and told him to at least pierce two sparrows with one arrow, so to speak, by sending you after this unstoppable Chimaera that had been plaguing Lycia."

"Polyeidus!" Philonoe cried.

The old man looked heartsick. "Iím sorry, my child, but your father could have killed him instantly. At least this way I thought he stood a chance--especially if he took my advice about attacking from the sky."

"But my father is dead. The task can remain unfulfilled. No one is asking you to do this thing now, Bellerophon."

"I have to, Sweet. Donít you see? I gave my word."

"To a crazed old man who wanted you dead, and who is no longer king! Xena, talk some sense into him." She turned desperately to the warrior.

Xena was silent for several moments, and everyone there was beginning to think she was lost in her own thoughts again before she finally spoke.

"Bellerophon, I understand about giving your word, but this isnít some theater drama or boysí game that weíre playing."

"Look," he said, growing red, "I donít have toó"

Xena raised her voice, and her blue eyes grew steely. "What you do have to do is think like a man. If you really feel that itís important to keep this task from the king, then you must take it."

"I do."

She continued. "But youíll be receiving help from me and anyone else that offers it. And we are going to think about all our options, including taking some time to check out Polyeidusís idea. Do you understand?"

For a moment, she thought he was going to protest, but after heaving a great sigh, he nodded. "I understand."

"Good."

"But Xenaó" started Philonoe in a hurt tone.

"And you, Philonoe. With your father gone you are the queen of Lycia."

Several people gasped, including Philonoe. Evidently this thought had not crossed their minds.

"But Iím not qualified toó"

"Youíre the daughter of the king and you seem to have a kind heart and a good head on your shoulders. In those last two respects, youíre overqualified compared to most of the rulers Iíve met. Youíre also not plagued with some curse. Now this country will need a leader. Are you up to that? Or do you want to watch a lot of people get killed trying to take over an empty throne?"

Philonoeís shoulders slumped. "I donít want that. I suppose youíre right." Her eyes brightened. "But as queen I do not wish for this young man or anyone else to risk their lives chasing after this creature."

"Philonoe!" cried Bellerophon.

"Fine," said Xena quietly. "But you do know, I suppose, that many of your subjects will lose theirs as this monster gets bolder and bolder. With no one to stop it, itíll wreak havoc all over Lycia, including this city. This is probably the best opportunity to get rid of it, while youíve got all of us working together and itís still out near the mountain range and away from people. As queen, however, itís up to you." Xena stood and walked over to the fire. "Waylon, how about some of that cider youíve been talking about?"

Waylon shook himself out of his daze and scurried to get her what she wanted. Bellerophon stalked outside into the cool night air. The tension in the room was palpable. Finally, the new queen spoke.

"You will look after everyone, wonít you Xena?"

"I canít promise that everything will be perfect, but Iíll do my best to destroy this thing without getting us all killed."

Xena saw Bellerophon peeking over the inn doors.

"All right. But you must go to Cenchreae first and do your best to capture this Pegasus creature."

"We will," Xena promised. Bellerophon strode back into the inn and embraced the young girl. Then, suddenly conscious of the other people in the room, he tried to kneel to the new monarch.

"Oh, get up," she said blushing, and everyone burst into laughter.

"Polyeidus," Xena called. He bustled over.

"The Fountain of Pirene at Cenchreae, you say?"

"Itís still his favorite haunt, Iíve heard."

"All right. I want you to go to Mnemosyne and tell Gabrielle to stay put until we get there. You do the same. We should be able to pick you both up in ten daysí time, whether weíre successful or not."

The old man coughed nervously. "So you intend to take her with you to face the Chimaera?"

Xena raised a suspicisous brow. "Of course. She can provide a lot of help. Besides," she added with a smile, "sheíd kill me if I let her miss a good storytelling opportunity like this."

"Right, right," the old man muttered, and asked Waylon for a large mug of ale. For some reason he looked as if he needed it.

 

~~ Chapter XI ~~

 

 

Gabrielle leaned back and bathed her face with a cool cloth. It had been a hard trip from Xanthos, with no human contact, and it felt good to actually have someone nearby. The priestess had commanded her servants to keep their distance, but she herself had proved to be a great source of comfort since Gabrielleís arrival. The young bard allowed herself to stare at the priestess for a moment. Everything about her was sleek and reassuring, from her smooth blond hair, to her flowing robe, to her soothing voice.

Gabrielle was grateful for the calming effect. The journey here had been grueling. After Polyeidus had left her, Gabrielle had scrounged through the castle until she had been able to find a large hooded cloak and some rags. She had made sure that every inch of her body was covered, including her hands, and had found that this had helped. With her hands wrapped tightly, she had grabbed hold of several plants outside the castle, and found that none of them were affected. However, on the last leg of her journey, a tree branch had torn a hole in her cloak and her exposed arm spread a path of death over any plants it touched. This incident made her more determined than ever to seek help from some quarter. Even if she wrapped herself up like a mummy, she knew there would always be the chance of an accident, and she couldnít bear the thought of that.

"You have painful memories once again, Gabrielle." The soft voice of the priestess broke into her thoughts.

She sat up. "Yes."

"But the help you seek is not the same as last time."

Gabrielle shook her head uncertainly. "No, no. . . I donít think so. I mean, last time I had the choice of discarding my painful memories, but I would lose precious ones as well."

"That is correct," replied the priestess. She stepped back to contemplate the young woman. "But if you lose these new memoriesó"

"Iíll forget that I have the curse and possibly cause the deaths of many people."

The priestess said nothing, but Gabrielle could tell that she agreed. Gabrielle stood up and began to pace.

"So there is nothing that you or the goddess Mnemosyne can do to remove this?"

"Only the god who gave the curse can remove it. And Bacchus wasó"

"Killed by Xena. I know." Gabrielle sighed and leaned against a cool stone pillar that supported the temple. "I know."

"You havenít told Xena. Why not?"

"Because I wanted to spare her the pain right now until I found out a few things." And I wanted to solve one of my own problems for once. Without seeing that look of suffering on her face.

"Gabrielle, are you sure that keeping this from her is the best for both of you?"

Gabrielle bit her lip. Thatís what I get for coming to a place where they can read your mind.

"I just wish to help you."

This time Gabrielle snorted in frustration. She turned from the pillar and after a few moments, her eyes focused in on the hundreds of clay bowls at the front of the temple. Each one was filled with liquid, and she knew from past experience that they contained the memories of each person that had ever entered this place. She stared at them momentarily, and then walked slowly up to them. Walking past the rows of bowls, she suddenly stopped and touched one of them.

"This oneís mine," she said, surprised that she was so assured of it.

"Yes."

She looked harder, then ran her finger gently along the edge of another one. "And this oneís Xenaís."

"Yes."

"I never knew she entered the Temple."

"She had been to us before. That is how she knew of its healing powers for you."

Suddenly, Gabrielle felt a ray of hope. Turning, she walked quickly up to the woman.

"Priestess, if this curse canít be lifted, what about Xenaís memory of it when I tell her? Couldnít she erase it by drinking her bowl?"

"She could."

"So all of her painful memories, including that one, would disappear."

"That is true, but her joyful ones would be gone as well."

Gabrielle set her jaw and turned away. "Well, yes, but she wouldnít have to deal with all this pain."

After a momentís silence, Gabrielle felt the presence of the priestess just behind her. "Gabrielle, do you actually think that Xena would be willing to give up all of her memories just to spare herself the pain?"

The young womanís shoulders sagged. "No." But within moments, she was excited again. "But couldnít we just pour out her bowl and spare her that? Do whatís best for her own good?"

"Do you honestly think that would be the right thing to do?"

Gabrielle didnít answer.

"Besides," the priestess continued, "Only the individual can make the choice about his or her memories. It wouldnít work even if I allowed you to do it."

"So thereís no hope then," Gabrielle stated, and her voice was low and hoarse.

"You can always tell her the truth and see what happens."

Gabrielleís temper flared. "I intend to tell her the truth! I just thought that you could rid me of this curse, or spare both of us this painósomething. . . " Her voice trailed off. She suddenly felt very tired. More so than she had ever felt in her life. "I just wanted to stop existing for a while. Itís obvious that my bodyís already done that. It canít die, and it canít help others live."

The priestess looked at her for several minutes, and her expression softened. Very quietly, she spoke.

"There is a way, Gabrielle, but it is very drastic. And it will be extremely painful for you."

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat as she looked up at the woman.

"Show me," she said softly.

 

 

 

Bellerophon let out a great sigh as he stared at the fire.

"Missing someone?" Xena asked quietly as she sharpened her sword.

She and Bellerophon were camped just outside of Cenchreae, not far from the Fountain of Pirene. They had decided to camp close to the fountain in order to keep an eye out for Pegasus. Word was that the winged horse only came in the dead of night. Besides, Bellerophon had wished to avoid the city crowds for fear of being recognized, and Xena agreed with him. Nevertheless, she had made sure a message had been sent to King Glaucus telling of her success at finding his son, and that she would bring him home soon. At least she hoped to.

The young man blushed at her question. "Just a little," he said, and tossed a stick into the fire.

Xena was quiet for a few moments, but after hearing him sigh again, she spoke up. "Really, Bellerophon, I know you miss Philonoe, but itís for the best that she isnít here."

" I know that," he replied.

"Sheís got a job to do as queen, and youíve got something to accomplish here." Xena grimaced as she worked harder at what she was doing. "Believe me, sometimes itís best when the people we care about arenít around to distract us. Weíre better at doing our jobs." Bellerophon looked doubtful for a moment, then raised his brows and nodded his head in reluctant agreement. For a long while both of them were silent.

"I didnít mean to kill him, you know."

Xena looked up momentarily, but said nothing. She continued to hone her blade. She knew the young man would want to talk eventually, but there had been no need in forcing it. She just needed to be ready to listen. A little something she had learned from Gabrielle.

"It was an accident."

"I knew that," she replied quietly.

"Yes, Xena, but I was angry with him. He was my brother, but Deliades could make me angrier than anyone else on earth. You know what I mean?"

"I definitely do," she smiled. Gabrielle.

"We had had an argument earlier in the day. I donít even remember what started it. Isnít that funny?"

Xena decided that this was a question he didnít really want answered and simply looked at him to let him know he had her attention.

He stood up and began to pace back and forth near the fire. "Deliades was two years younger than me, but he was nearly the same size and as strong as a bull." He smiled. "Mother said he had grown at an abnormal rate just so he could keep up with me. We liked to compete, you know." He walked to a nearby tree and began tugging at the leaves. "That was how it happened. Ever since I was about twelve we had gone down to the river and played. One day we found a massive tree that had fallen across. It was a good bit above the water, and pretty wide. Just right for walking across.

"One day after witnessing some soldier training at court, Del suggested that we try a little sparring out on that tree. It was a challenge, and I knew it. I also knew a fall into that roaring water could be dangerous, but I wasnít about to let my little brother call me a coward. You understand?"

Xena grunted. "I had brothers, too, you know."

"Well, we did this for years, and we had some close calls. We both took our share of tumbles off that log, and got swept downstream until the flow of the water grew calmer. Still, it was a lot of fun, and we went there all the time. We always told our parents that we had been swimming. If they had found out what we were really doing, we would have been horsewhipped, Iím sure." He stopped talking and just stared ahead of him, his hand resting on the twig of the tree. The only sound was the crackle of the fire and the scraping of Xenaís stone against her blade.

His voice grew very soft. "Well, thatís where we were that day. Like I said, we had a big argument at the castle, in front of several soldiers and servants. They had all seen how angry we both were, so that brought on a lot of the trouble later.Deliades took off one direction and I went in another, but by afternoon we both wound up at that tree. We got out there on that thing, and Iím telling you it was one unbelievable battle! We were even using our swords--which wasnít smart--but we didnít care. After a little bit, Del nicked me with his, and when he saw the blood, he turned as white as a sheet. I knew he was sorry the minute he did it, but I was angry that my little brother had gotten the better of me. I attacked him with all the fury I could, and he began to back across the log. When I knocked the sword out of his hand, he looked totally beaten, but that still wasnít good enough for me. I tossed my sword into the water and started wrestling with him. He told me I was crazy, and I suddenly realized he was right. I stopped and looked at him and then we both began to laugh. Thatís how it always was with us. Storms of temper blew up fast and hard, but they were always gone quickly. Still, there was nothing wrong with a good wrestling match. We laughed and did our best to throw each other headlong into the river, and finally he just smiled at me and said, ĎRace you home!í Iíll never forget that smile on his face. You know how somebody can look at you once a certain way and you never forget it?"

Xena nodded. I certainly do. Hadnít she seen the look of sacrifice and love on Gabrielleís face when she jumped into that lava pit trying to save her? And she had that same look in that crucifixion vision. She must have replayed those moments a thousand times in her mind, trying to see how she could have stopped the one and avoid the other.

"Anyway, that was the last time I ever saw him. He dove into the water and I followed close behind. I didnít see him when I came ashore farther down, but I assumed he was either running like the wind for home or that he was behind me. Either way, I knew I had to hurry. I couldnít lose to my little brother.

"When I got home, and he wasnít there, I didnít think much of it. I stood around a while, ready to gloat. When he didnít show up, I decided he had gotten distracted somewhere and I bathed and changed. It was later that my father called for me. I heard my mother crying before I knew anything else. She was . . ." He stopped and Xena put her sword away and just watched him, content to let him tell her at his own pace. He ran his fingers through his golden curls, and turned his back to her.

"She was kneeling on the floor cradling Del. He was all wet and he had a huge gash on his head. He wasnít moving. Without asking, I knew that he was dead. Nothing would have kept him from trying to get home to beat me. I knew that now.

"A bunch of servants and soldiers told my father that we had been fighting and had left angry. I guess that I felt guilty for the anger I had shown to Del all day. I even felt guilty that we had been racing. I felt responsible. You know what I mean?"

"Bellerophon, you canít blame yourself for your brotherís death. It was an accident. He would tell you the same thing. When he died, you two were friends."

He sat back down and stared at the fire before finally looking up at her. "I know that now, but at the time, I still felt guilty. I was very defensive, and that didnít help matters much. I could see the doubt in my parentsí eyes, and that hurt worse than anything. I just decided to leave. I acted like a criminal."

"But your parents had faith in you."

Bellerophon clenched his teeth. "Only after that village boy came to them and told them that he had seen us laughing and wrestling up on that tree. They had to have somebody elseís word before they would take mine."

Xena went over and clasped his shoulder. "Thatís not true. Your father sent for me to find you before that boy ever showed up."

He looked up at her quizzically.

"And it wasnít to punish you for a crime. He just wanted his son back. The boy didnít appear until the morning we were leaving."

"Really?"

"Really." She sat down next to him. "You werenít angry with your brother when he died. You can be grateful for that. But you have been angry with your parents. Believe me, Bellerophon, anger will get you nowhere. Hate will utterly destroy you."

"Youíre thinking about how you used to be--before Hercules helped you."

Now it was Xenaís turn to look quizzical.

"Yes, I know the story. We all do."

"Actually, I was thinking of more recent events."

Bellerophon had the good sense to sit and be quiet.

"I tried to kill Gabrielle once, you know."

The young man looked at her in shock. "What? Your young friend you spent so much time looking for in Xanthos?"

"Yes."

"But why? Even Philonoe and Polyeidus made a comment about how devoted you were."

"It was nothing but hatred. I blamed her for the death of my son, when in reality the reasons he died could be traced back to seeds my own hatred had already planted in other people."

"What happened?"

"My son Solan was able to help us. His spirit somehow taught us to turn away from the hate and back toward love and understanding. We were very fortunate." She clasped his arm again. "And so were you. Your brother died knowing that you loved him. Thatís a great gift, Bellerophon." Xena rose and walked over to the blanket she had placed on the ground.

"Xena?"

"Yes?"

"If we canít do anything about Pegausus during the day tomorrow, would it be all right if I sneak into the castle for a little and talk to my mother and father?"

"I think that is an excellent idea." He could just see the flash of her teeth in the flickering light.

"I feel bad that Iíve made them go through this."

"But youíve realized that hatred harbored in your heart doesnít do any good. Youíve conquered the hardest part, Bellerophon." The corner of her mouth quirked. "You just might be hero material after all."

He blushed slightly and then lay down on his blanket. "Right, Xena," he said sarcastically, but she could still see the grin on his face from where she was.

 

~~ Chapter XII ~~

 

 

Gabrielle gasped as she stared at the room before her. It was filled with nothing but candles. They burned in every corner and crevice of the chamber, and they were in all kinds of sizes and shapes. Some were small and nondescript, while others were nearly as tall as she was. Many of them looked as though they could be used to light a peasantís cottage, with bland coloring and smooth sides, except for a few spots where the wax trickled down. Still others had elaborate designs carved in them, or mounds of wax buildup that had obviously accumulated over years of burning.

She followed the priestess down a narrow path that wound its way from the entrance and split off at various intervals throughout the room. They reached a dais at the far end, and the goddess pointed at a relatively short candle that was a soft coral color and had a few intricate designs carved towards the base. "That is yours," she said regally.

Gabrielle shifted her feet uncomfortably and leaned in for a closer look at the candle. "Uh-huh," she finally managed to utter. After a few moments of silence, she asked, "What does it mean?"

"Gabrielle, when you came here before, you were given a bowl that contained all of your memories. Draining the bowl would erase your memories. Each person that enters has one of them." She turned and faced the back of the room. "But everyone also has one of these."

"A candle."

"Of remembrance. Whereas the bowl represents each memory that you have, the candle represents all the memories and thoughts others have of you."

Gabrielle knit her brows. "Pretty much what others think of me."

"Yes. All their memories, thoughts, opinions, even brief encounters. Each recollection of you, both good and bad, continues as long as the candle burns.

"When a mortal dies, the bowl stays the same. No more memories are gathered there because that person has ceased to live, but the candle goes on burning until no one remembers you ever existed."

"So as long as someone remembers you, your candle could go on burning."

The priestess nodded.

Gabrielle gulped. "Why have you brought me here?"

"I think you know, Gabrielle. You said you wanted to take away Xenaís painful memories of you. Those memories, along with her good thoughts of you, have helped make that candle."

"But candles wear down the longer they burn."

"And bowls of water donít contain memories. But youíre in the realm of the gods now, Gabrielle. Look closely at the candles."

Gabrielle did as she was told, and as she stared at the flame, she was amazed to see that wax was running down the wick and building upon the rest of the candle. Each candle got bigger the longer it burned! She was silent a moment and then she asked, "Whereís Xenaís candle?"

The priestess hesitated briefly, but then she pointed to a nearby monstrosity that came to Gabrielleís waist. It was covered with wax buildup and carvings, some of which werenít all that pleasant, and the middle section of the candle contained segments that were completely black.

Xenaís dark past.

"Why is her candle so big?"

She heard the woman sigh. "Is this about you, or about Xena, Gabrielle? Just like the bowl, you can make no decision that involves Xenaís candle. We are here to decide your fate, not hers."

Gabrielle lowered her head and turned back to her candle. "Iím sorry. So what are you telling me then?"

"I understand your problem. I also understand that I cannot do anything about your curse. Iím giving you the rare opportunity to blow out your candle."

The young bardís head came up at this. "You mean to snuff out my existence?"

The priestess shook her head. "No. Only the Fates could do something like that. If you blow out the flame, you simply erase the memory of your existence in everyone that has ever met you."

"But isnít that the same thing?"

"Itís a matter of opinion. Many people would say so. Understand that you yourself will not cease to exist. Your body will still be here, with the curse and its dangers. All the things youíve accomplished and the things youíve made will still remain done. No one will remember them, thatís all."

"But how could that be?"

"Itís simpler than you might think, Gabrielle. Your deeds will be attributed to someone or something elseósometimes Ďluckí will be mentioned. Youíll become something that people just canít quite place or remember. If you were to see people youíve known, youíll be the person who looks so familiar to them. ĎHave we met before?í they will ask. Havenít you experienced this yourself with people youíve met?"

"Yes, butóyou mean?" She didnít finish the question because the priestess was already nodding in response.

"Those poor people," Gabrielle murmured.

"Yes, Gabrielle. And you are about to join them. I want you to think long and hard about this."

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I have thought about it."

The priestess stepped dangerously close. "Then understand thisóyou wonít be able to be around anyone again."

"Yes, I know. The curse."

"Itís not just the curse, Gabrielle. Blowing out the Candle of Remembrance is a very delicate thing. Flames smolder and smoke for a long time, always hoping to be fanned to life once again. You will not be allowed contact with anyone that knew you. The consequences are too dangerous. Once the decision is made, it must be allowed to remain permanent. Do you understand?"

"I understand," she said and turned back towards her candle. But with a tug on her sleeve, the usually gentle goddess spun her around. Gabrielle stared in shock at the womanís fingertips resting on her clothing, but the priestess seemed unaware or unconcerned about the potential danger she was in.

"Do you understand? No memories. No contact. Your life on earth is over, but you will remain, fully aware of everything. Family. Friends. Acquaintances."

Xena. Gabrielle gently tugged her sleeve free of the priestessís grasp. "I do understand," she answered hoarsely. "And I thank you for this opportunity. Itís for the best, I think."

The greater good.

The woman stepped away. "All right. One strong breath. Fast and clean."

Gabrielle leaned down so close to the coral candle that she could feel the heat of it on her cheek. She looked at it for a moment, almost hypnotized by the flickering flame.

Xena.

Blinking back tears, she took a deep breath and blew. The flame sputtered for just a moment, and then disappeared, leaving only a small trail of smoke that drifted lazily into the air before vanishing entirely. The only proof that itóand sheóhad ever existed.

 

 

 

Xena sat straight up and looked wildly about her. Grabbing her chakram, she hopped up and walked cautiously around the edges of the barely burning fire. Had she heard something? She listened. There were only the normal night sounds, and yet she couldnít shake the feeling of uneasiness. Bellerophon was breathing steadily over on his side of the fire, and Argo whickered pleasantly from not far away. Everything was in its place, and yet . . .

After peering cautiously into the woods all around, she finally sat back down on her blanket and used it to wipe the already shimmering chakram. Polishing wasnít necessary, yet she found she couldnít go back to sleep. She had the strangest feeling that she had forgotten somethingósomething very important. She felt an inexplicable sadness of the soul, as if she had suddenly become lost. She shook her head and smiled in derision. Such reveries were not for her. She concentrated on the task at hand. When she finally did drift off to sleep, she was running over all their supplies in her mind and thinking up ways to capture a winged horse.

And wondering why in the world she had sent Polyeidus on an unnecessary trip to the Temple of Mnemosyne. She must have had a reason, but for the life of her she couldnít think of what it was.

 

Continues here...


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