Sand. Wave upon wave ripples out and away toward an infinite expanse finally blending in the distant darkness with the starlit sky. Moonlight dances on the crest of each ripple, creating the illusion of feathered foam on ocean waves that have been frozen in time.
Silence, as huge as this emptiness, permeates the surroundings with a tangible sense of having remained unbroken since the ancient desert came into being. Until now.
Into the depths of the still night comes a rhythmic swishing of footsteps chorused with the muted rustle of a desert robe. A petite desert boot skims lightly atop the moonlit waves. So softly they tread, as if the owner bears a profound reverence for the temple-like stillness of the desert and a deep reluctance to disturb its quiet.
A cloaked and hooded figure traverses the open sand. The individual's size minuscule and insignificant against the vastness of the desert and sky. Onward in unbroken cadence the figure strides, hour after hour, with the night sky moving and changing overhead. The moon had passed its zenith when the figure catches sight of a distant speck rising from the desert floor. The figure's cadence quickens upon sight of this goal.
Slowly, the pyramid takes shape and grows larger rather than appearing closer. As the traveler approaches, granules of sand begin to trickle from the crest of each wave. After a time, a slowly rising wind blows sand up in feathered rivulets; the ocean-like waves become unfrozen. As the wind quickens the traveler pauses. Small hands reach to pull the hood back revealing a young, blond woman, not native to this land. She adjusts the pouch in which resides an urn, fastening it more securely and handling it as if it were more precious than her own life. She gages the distance she has yet to go then wraps a length of cloth over her mouth, raises her hood and hastens toward the pyramid.
The wind is gusting with the hint of how bad the storm will get as Gabrielle stumbles into the opening of the pyramid. Though the opening is small it provides little protection for the inner sanctum from the oncoming storm. Gabrielle moves swiftly toward the Alter and prepares it for the ritual, hoping she can complete it before the full force of the storm hits. From its protective pouch beneath her robe, she cautiously removes the urn and places it on the floor before the Alter. She is aware of how vulnerable it is and positions her body in a way that will most protect it from the oncoming wind.
The Kyphi incense that she brought takes a long time to ignite. Gabrielle removes a tall, thin vase containing a dark, rich liquid from beneath her robe and gingerly removes the wax stopper. She raises the vase in salute to the icons she had placed on the Alter and begins.
"As Isis anointed the dismembered body of Osiris with precious oils and resurrected him, so I anoint the ashes of Xena. I invite the power of Isis and Osiris, the power of death and resurrection, to hear me and preside over this ritual," she cries, her voice faint against the gathering storm.
Gabrielle allows a few drops of oil to fall into the urn. She begins her supplication of other Egyptian gods and goddesses who have the power in this most ancient of lands to judge her lover's soul and restore her ashes to living flesh.
Gabrielle calls loudly, her voice becoming less audible above the moaning wind. "I call upon the goddess Ma'at, goddess of justice and divine order, to judge Xena's heart. I ask that your higher law supercede and appease the need for vengeance in the souls for whom Xena gave her life."
"I call Ma'at's husband, Thoth, god of wisdom. I ask that you measure Xena's selfless acts as the Warrior Princess that she had become before her death. I ask both you and Ma'at to judge that the Greater Good is better served by Xena's continued presence in this incarnation."
"I call upon the goddess Neith; all that has been, all that is, and all that shall be. You who are the first to give birth, allow the ashes of Xena to be reborn and reformed into flesh, bone, blood and life!"
By now the sound of Gabrielle's supplication is completely swallowed by the howling wind. Even so, evidence begins to take shape that she is being heard in the spirit realm. A ghostly stream of dust wisps from the urn materializing in corporeal form. The familiar shape of Gabrielle's soul mate, lost to her these many moons, shimmers prone upon the floor. Tears of joy and hope begin to sting Gabrielle's eyes.
Her vision blurs long enough to keep Gabrielle from noticing the desert swirling fiercely into the room. Sand. Wave upon wave of it is blowing onto and through the iridescent form of her life's love. Rivulets of stinging granules are pouring into the opening of the pyramid like the leading edge of a tidal wave about to engulf and smother the unaware in its path.
Gabrielle realizes with shock that more sand is blowing into the room with each moment and that it is burying Xena. Frantically she tries to brush away the sand, to dig her lover out, her small hands inadequate to the task. Her voice becomes a wailing in chorus with the wind. Her wailing rises in intensity as the storm rises. She watches in helpless horror as the vision of her lover's face disappears beneath the sand. The sand mingles with the ashes, impossible to separate!
Gabrielle struggled out of sleep. She gasped, suddenly awake, her eyes lanced with pain though the light was dim. Her arms ached with residual tension from the dream's struggle. Her heart was still pounding and her chest heaved with panicked breaths. Her gaze darted around the gloom of the tent searching for evidence, for reassurance that her disturbing visions were not still lurking and somehow able to return, able to become reality. Her own trembling hands caressed her face as she let out a sob of both relief and pain. Softly she whispered the name of her soul mate, her beloved friend, "Xena."
"Yes, my love," the warm, low tone of Xena's voice replied. From some unbridgeable chasm Xena appeared, reached out and softly brushed Gabrielle's hair with her fingertips.
"Xena, I had a horrible dream. I was trying to bring you back and something went terribly wrong. You were being buried under the sands of this desert to disappear from me forever."
Xena drew closer to Gabrielle, caressing her lightly around her shoulder, trying to comfort and reassure her soul mate. "It was just a dream, Gabrielle. I'm here with you now, just as I promised I would be. Always."
Xena's attempt at reassurance didn't work. "No, Xena," Gabrielle insisted. "No. The dream is more real than you're admitting. I'm losing you, Xena. Each day I feel you fading a little more than the day before. Your touch is becoming lighter. Your voice is like an echo off a distant canyon wall, less resonant the more walls it bounces off of. Each day is like another canyon wall." Gabrielle trembled with this thought.
She turned to face Xena and continued. "It's like a fading memory. You can remember someone you have loved and lost, like my sister and my family. I loved them with all my heart but I can no longer see their faces or recall the sound of their voices as clearly as I once could. That's actually happening to you, Xena. You're fading out of my life!"
Xena didn't answer. She knew Gabrielle was right. She turned away to hide her confusion, her uncertainty. Some time after they had entered Egypt, she began to feel it slipping away, her tenuous grasp on her ability to appear to, talk to and touch Gabrielle. She had silently raged against it since before it became noticeable to Gabrielle, not allowing her internal fears to be revealed to her lover.
Finally Xena turned to face Gabrielle with the truth. "I don't know what is happening to me, Gabrielle, or why," she admitted. "I don't know if this is because I'm so far away from the place where I died, or if it is because of the amount of time that has passed or because I am losing the power to remain with you in this form. I just don't know."
Gabrielle faced Xena and responded with what had become a typical, angry determination. She repeated what she had said many times since Xena had died, "What I know is that I will search this world until I find a way to appease the gods, to appease you and appease those souls, who you remained in this state for, until I can bring you back to me."
Since her death, Xena had learned not to argue with the Bard. And because Xena shared her lover's desire to continue in this life with her, Xena softly added, "And I will stay with you to help as long as I can."
one short nod. She turned away to adorn herself with her dessert robe;
long, protective, and flowing yet it allowed her freedom of movement to
reach her sais and Chakram, allowed her the freedom to fight. With an almost
unconscious familiarity of having repeated the action too many times, she
felt for and adjusted the pouch, which contained Xena's urn; the urn that
she continued to protect as if it were more important than her own life.
She moved the white fabric tent flap aside and stepped out into the dessert
Egypt. Ancient and wild. The camp bordered the dessert at the edge of civilization. Facing East the dessert spread out to the end of sight. Facing West multi-colored tents and moveable shelters gave way to sand-colored, low-laying dwellings. Gazing farther, the increasing green of the lush Nile valley quenched one's thirsty eyes. The Bard greeted the calm, hot day still shaken from the previous night's visions. Her petite desert boots crunched lightly on the sand as she stepped from the tent. She shuddered despite the heat as the sound stimulated memories of her dream.
Gabrielle's tent was located in the center of the camp in a place of honor. Since arriving in Egypt she had garnered many allies by using her talents as a peacemaker, a negotiator or fighting as a warrior depending upon the need. She had made many friends as her reputation for standing on the side of what is right became known throughout the land. She had recently prevented two rival tribes from going to war with each other by using her uncommon blend of gentle, intelligent persuasion coupled with her warrior's strength. The bard was afforded the same respect and place of honor often reserved only for the elders. Today this honor carried with it a joy and loneliness that Gabrielle saw as a foreshadowing of her life as the Warrior Bard.
She visited the well around which the camp was situated and attempted to wash away the night's visions before attending a final meeting with the leaders of both tribes. Gabrielle stayed in the final negotiations long enough to be sure that they were going well, excused herself and left the tribes to work out the rest on their own.
She wandered aimlessly toward the more populated areas closer to the Nile thinking she would visit the market place and later, the temples. As she strolled she felt the sudden tingle of a presence close at hand. Gabrielle glanced surreptitiously around to make sure no one else was nearby.
She whispered, "Xena."
Xena appeared at her lover's call and joked, "Can't seem to sneak up on you any more, can I? Where are you going?"
Gabrielle looked sideways and up, without raising her head to look her lover in the face, so that her eyes slid coyly in their sockets. One side of her mouth turned up into a half smile, "I'm going to the market," Gabrielle answered the second question. "But as far as you being able to sneak up on meÖ" Gabrielle smirked, "now I know how you felt when you could always tell that Ares was lurking nearby."
"NOTÖ the same thing, Gabrielle." Xena put as much cold humor into the tone of her voice as she could muster, trying to sound offended. She reached over to cradle Gabrielle's face in one hand, grateful for the tangible sensation of that familiar cheek. "Not the same thing at all," her voice became low and sensual.
Gabrielle half closed her eyes and leaned her head into the strong hand that she loved so well. She reached up and pressed Xena's hand to her face, lingering for a long, quiet moment. She sighed deeply and looked up fully into the eyes of her soul mate. She lowered her hand and felt the residual sensation of Xena's touch as Xena lowered hers.
"You're still here," Gabrielle's voice was a mixture of relief and passion.
"I'll be around for a while, Gabrielle," Xena understood the Bard's meaning. She reassured her lover, "I can feel how much I'm fading and I can tell I'm not going to disappear completely for some time yet."
Gabrielle began to speak with little emotion. "I know this started happening since we came to Egypt so it may have something to do with our being here." Gabrielle returned to her feeling of quiet uncertainty. "But if not, how long do we have like this, Xena, before you are really gone? A year? Two?"
"And only I can see you, Xena. No one else can. Only I can touch you. I am so grateful for that but it is still a reminder that you have crossed over to the other side. You just haven't gone to the land of the dead yet. I want you back here with me, body and soul."
"I want that too, Gabrielle, but not if it costs the peace of those 40,000 souls. I hope we can find a way to give them peace and bring me back across to you. But if we can't you may have to go on; you may have to live out this life without me."
Gabrielle sighed, "Xena, I can go on without you. But without you, I am unfulfilled."
Xena paused in silent musing as Gabrielle's words resonated an ultimate truth between them. At last Xena's soft response echoed her soul mate, "And without you I am unfulfilled. It's as if my life had no meaning before you, Gabrielle, but I want my death to have meaning now too. I need you to see that."
Gabrielle countered, "Xena, I once destroyed the very Loom of the Fates because I knew that I had been robbed of my life with you. I have never felt guilty for making that choice because I knew in my heart that a life without you was wrong. I refused to live a life without you then and I refuse to live my life without you now."
Xena lowered her eyes for a moment then looked back into Gabrielle's. "That is what makes you different from me, Gabrielle," Xena acquiesced. "I have felt so much guilt for the things I've done. That guilt was so deep I thought I was drowning in it. The 40,000 souls needing to be avenged were like the final weight dragging me under. I wanted a way that I could feel like I had finally paid for all the things I've done."
Gabrielle took hold of Xena's shoulders and looked steadily into her eyes. "Xena, there is no way to completely undo the past but you came as close as anyone can by changing your life to fight for the greater good. You chose to die for what you thought was the greater good but you never considered choosing to live for the same reason."
She let go of Xena and gazed, unseeing into the distance. "Xena, I know you believe you gave up your life for an honorable reason. On that mountaintop I respected your request to stay dead for those souls because I honored your wishes above my own desires and needs. I did not go against your request because it's what you wanted, what you asked of me." She faced Xena again and said with renewed conviction, "but if you made that decision based on the guilt you feel, you made the wrong choice for the wrong reason. I believe that's what you've done to yourself, Xena. That's what you've done to us!"
Gabrielle ended emphatically, "I'm going to find a way to bring you back."
Xena smiled softly, "Gabrielle, you've taught me so much about what it means to have a true friend, about what it means to be truly loved. You were always someone who stood by me no matter what, who forgave me regardless of what I did. I wish I had inside of me what you have within you."
Gabrielle responded tenderly, "I could forgive you for anything, Xena, and so far I have. But it doesn't do us any good if you can't forgive yourself. In all the time we've traveled together this is something you've never learned from me. This is something you've never done for yourself. It's something you have to do, especially if we find a way to bring you back. Otherwise you'll just do thisÖ" Gabrielle gestured her hands to encompass all of Xena, "again."
by saying, "Then help me, Gabrielle. If anyone can help me do
that, its you." She disappeared from Gabrielle's sight and Gabrielle
turned toward the market.
Gabrielle entered the busy market place. She browsed through the stalls and haggled with vendors for items that she needed. As Gabrielle strolled through the tables, she occasionally sensed a rapid movement at the peripheral edge of her vision. But it was gone each time she turned its direction.
Later she would visit the local priests and priestesses to gather information that might help her in her quest to restore Xena to life. She ate at an outdoor tavern and watched the local people going through their daily activities in pairs and in groups. She felt a pang of loneliness despite her continued ability to see, feel and talk to Xena. She wanted to turn and talk to her lover now, to carry on a conversation with Xena in this public place. She glanced to one side as if looking for Xena and just missed a blurred shape disappearing before it registered that something was actually there. She shook her head, distracted and called for her mug to be refilled.
Gabrielle stayed a long time in the market. She found the village-like atmosphere comforting and familiar even though she was in a foreign land. Finally she decided to go on to the temples and wandered off in that direction. As she rounded a corner at the end of some stalls a figure bumped into her jarring her almost off her feet and catching her at the same time.
"My apologies," said the figure who lingered a mere moment too long.
In an instant Gabrielle grabbed his wrist just as his fingertips touched the pouch in which resided the precious urn. Immediately Gabrielle had the person's neck pinned down over a peddler's table scattering the goods and drawing attention to herself and the thief.
"Not a good idea to try to steal from me," she snarled. "Especially what you have your hand on. It has no value to anyone but me."
"Please!" the man begged. "I did not mean any harm. I have nothing and I need food for my family."
Gabrielle's suspicions were not sated but she let the man up. "Even a poor man might find some work that he could do for food or pay," she said. "I'll let you go rather than turning you in but find another line of work."
Thanking her profusely, the man slinked away and rapidly disappeared in a blurred flurry of movement.
Gabrielle stayed long in the temple as the priests and priestesses answered her many questions. They taught her about the powers of the gods and goddesses whose names she remembered from her dream. They helped her translate the texts that dealt with the death and resurrection of Osiris and worked on finding ways to restore the ashes and Xena's soul back to life. They even searched for rituals that might give peace to the 40,000 souls so that Xena need not stay in the realm of the dead.
Gabrielle was encouraged and happy as she left the temple in the late afternoon. She hastened up the narrow streets so that she could be someplace private to talk to Xena of her day's discoveries. Suddenly a listening stillness came over her as she sensed the barest shift in one of the silences of the narrow street. All her senses came to full alert as a movement caught her peripheral vision.
Gabrielle recognized the blurred movement as the same that had been eluding her in the market place and realized that one of the attackers was also her would-be pickpocket. She crouched, had her sais in her battle-ready hands and drove the handle into the first assailant's face before she even turned to face the direction from which he attacked. This first attacker went down and remained motionless, as Gabrielle counted four more surrounding her.
"Only five of you?" Gabrielle quipped as the second assailant closed in. She caught his short blade with her sais, twisted and flicked the knife out of his hand, disarming him and slamming him hard to the ground in the same fluid motion. Two more charged Gabrielle at the same time. Gabrielle was able to sidestep one providing a blow to the back of his head as he passed sending him crashing, head first, into the dessert-colored wall of a dwelling. His companion was able to deliver a blow to the side of Gabrielle's head as the last of the attackers closed in. This one drove a kick to Gabrielle's stomach. Instead of crumpling over and down to the ground as the attacker expected, Gabrielle flipped her body forward into a roll, kicking both attackers as her feet reached the apex of their circle. She rolled clear of the two, turned and launched her own counter attack. She reached one attacker and hit him with the heel of her palm holding the sais handle, spinning him in the same motion so that he was now between her and the final attacker. As the last attacker charged forward Gabrielle hit her unwilling bodyguard with another heel-palm sending the back of his head into the face of the final fool. The fight was lost for the would-be assailants and those who could, ran stumbling away. Gabrielle sheathed her sais and sauntered over to the first of the attackers who was just beginning to come to. She gripped the stranger by his robe and jerked him around to face her. Her two hands shot out and knifelike fingers delivered an infrequently used jab into the stranger's throat. He was instantly immobilized and gasped for air he could not draw.
Gabrielle leaned intimately close to the man's ear and hissed through her still heavy breathing, "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Talk or you'll be dead in thirty seconds. Why did you and your friends attack me?"
The man gasped, panicked. His eyes darted around still hoping his friends would return.
"You have twenty-five seconds," the bard coolly commented. "Why did you attack me?"
"We know who you are and what you carry," the man croaked.
"What do you mean, 'what I carry'?" Gabrielle's interest was increasing.
"You carry the ashes of Xena, the Warrior Princess," he gasped.
"You attacked me because you were after Xena's ashes? Why?" Gabrielle's voice carried a tone of danger.
"Someone wants those ashes. We were sent to take them from you. We were told not to come back until we had them." His voice was becoming more strained.
"You tell me who wants Xena's ashes and why!" Gabrielle's anger rose.
"A priest named Ramida wants the ashes," the man panted. "Ramida says the ashes of the Greek Warrior Princess contain a great power. He intends to use them in some kind of ritual to make himself unspeakably powerful, like a god! He has strong magic and he is evil. As soon as he heard that you had arrived here and had Xena's ashes he sent for us to steal them from you. That's all I know!"
Gabrielle's fingers stabbed into the man's neck and he audibly drew in a long gasping breath and started to cough.
Gabrielle still had him by the neck of his desert robe. "Tell me where to find this Ramida," she insisted.
"You don't want to find him," the man shuddered. "He's evil, I tell you. I'll be lucky to escape with my life now that I've failed him."
"Just tell me where he is. Now!"
"He has his own temple along the Nile south of the market place. Nothing is around it. No dwellings, nothing. You can't help but get to it if you walk south. But you don't want to go there. Nobody does," he shuddered.
to me," Gabrielle said. "Now get away from me and don't come back." She
watched him run away out of sight around the next corner. In the waning
light of the early evening she made her way back to her tent.
Gabrielle sensed Xena's presence the moment she stepped into the tent. "You know?" she said to the tall beauty.
"Yes, I do," Xena replied. Xena had always been able to be at Gabrielle's side and know what Gabrielle knew even when Gabrielle couldn't see her.
"Then you know I also had good news from going to the temple. Tonight I wanted to share the glad tidings that I had with you," Gabrielle sighed. "There may be gods and magics here in Egypt who can give peace to the 40,000 souls and restore you," Gabrielle could not keep the hopefulness out of her voice. "But it is going to take some time even with the priests and priestesses helping. I wanted to talk with you about that."
Her enthusiasm dissipated. "Now who knows how much time we have beforeÖ" she shook her head in anger and frustration. "This Ramida is after your ashesÖ"
Xena interrupted with gentle reassurance, "Gabrielle, if we can, we will take care of both. We will stop Ramida and we will see what the gods of Egypt can do for us."
Xena had also been plotting, "But first we are going to have to take care of this Ramida. I've been thinking about what we will do about him. He's already come after you once and we can be sure he will keep trying. We should go after him instead of waiting for him to come after you again. And when we find him, we will either have to destroy the source of his power or we will have to destroy him."
"We have fought and destroyed evil that we have come up against before," Gabrielle continued Xena's thought. "We also have friends here who will help us, Xena. With their help, we'll find out all we can about Ramida, including how to defeat him."
"We can't let him get a hold of my ashes of course," Xena began.
"Yes, Xena, that is something you don't have to tell me."
"Just stating the obvious," Xena's grin was short lived. She hesitantly continued, "Just in case we can't stop Ramida, there is another wayÖ"
"Don't." Gabrielle stopped her with a raised hand. "That is not an option," she glared resolutely.
Xena lowered her eyes. Her smile had a serious edge to it but warmed as she looked up again to meet Gabrielle's eyes. "We'll do this just how you want," she said sincerely.
Gabrielle smiled gratefully and turned her attention to more mundane things. She lighted a lamp in the darkening tent. She cleaned herself with water, a gift that was left just inside her tent flap each day by an anonymous donor, thanks from one of the many members of the tribe who surrounded her tent. She pulled out food she had bought at the market and sat on the bedroll to eat.
Xena sat down beside her, familiar habits reasserting themselves in the simplest of her motions whenever she was close to her soul mate. The slight leaning toward a coveted touch, the brush of shoulder against shoulder, the consummation of desire in each other's glance. They allowed the silence to stretch out between them, further evidence of their comfort and ease with one another.
After a long time, Gabrielle drew a deep breath, half sigh and half yawn. Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle, "Sleep now," she breathed closely into her ear. "We will gather our allies and make plans tomorrow."
"Stay with me," Gabrielle whispered. "Let me feel your presence. Let me feel your touch all night."
Gabrielle," Xena's voice held the ache of joy in this tender moment.
"As long as I can still touch you I'll always hold you while you sleep."
Over the next
couple of days Gabrielle, with Xena by her side, gathered as much information
as they could about Ramida and his powers. Little was actually known about
him other than the fact that he was once a priest of Osiris who had broken
away from the priesthood to worship the god, Set. He had inhabited the
temple where Gabrielle's attacker had said he could be found but had not
done anything to arouse the ire of religious or other leaders. Until now.
Gabrielle and Xena elicited the assistance of local priests and priestesses
who began performing rituals to strengthen and protect Gabrielle and her
party of warriors who had volunteered to raid Ramida's temple and capture
They left in the morning light a few days after Gabrielle had been attacked coming from the market. They followed the Nile south out of the town and soon came upon the temple. Cautiously, with Gabrielle in the first wave of the party, they entered the temple.
Gabrielle sent several of her party flanking left and right around the perimeter of the room while she and others crept silently up the center. It was a plain enough temple by the look of it, rectangular in shape, with the four sides facing the four directions. The alter stood in the East adorned with the normal trappings of ritual; a chalice to hold the ritual beer, incense burning forever in its bowl, anointing oil in its vase, the ritual blade. Offerings were placed meticulously at the four directions within the temple. Candles waited to be lit.
It was a plain enough temple except that the few windows allowed shafts of light in at odd angles creating the illusion of shadowy figures surrounding the wary visitors. Plain except that the air shimmered, alive with whisperings that brushed the edge of hearing. Whisperings just audible enough to turn one's head in a vain attempt to locate the source of the sound, to understand the meaning of the words being uttered. Whisperings that distracted and set on edge the battle-ready warriors.
From a blackness just behind the Alter, Ramida materialized. His appearance was like that of any Egyptian priest. Civilized by the look of him. Adorned in a simple linen kilt, wrapped around his waist and hanging to his knees. A leopard skin draped across his bare shoulders. An intricate pectoral necklace, wider than a hand's breadth, hung round his neck. Dark bands wrapped his wrists and upper arms. Upon his shaved head sat a crown with a uraeus-like serpent whose dead eyes starred forward into eternity.
Civilized... until one became caught in the gaze of his eyes. That gaze seethed with an inner barbarism as ancient as the evil magics that Ramida drew around himself. His eyes locked upon Gabrielle's and for a moment she was spellbound by them.
Then the very walls seemed to erupt as attackers materialized all around Gabrielle's party. Gabrielle shook herself as Xena sharply called her name and turned herself to the task of leading her warriors in the battle. The protective incantations provided by their priests and priestesses held and kept the tide of the battle even.
But only for a short while.
Something disconcerting soon became apparent to Gabrielle and her warriors. Their attackers consisted of two different kinds of beings, one real flesh and the other, vicious apparitions. One stroke of a sword would sweep through a horrifying wraith while the next stroke clanged against a real sword in the hands of a solid opponent. Bewildered, Gabrielle's warriors fought valiantly but Ramida's minions ultimately succeeded in separating Gabrielle from her comrades during the battle.
The moment Gabrielle stood alone facing several opponents, Ramida appeared in front of her. One hand locked itself onto her head as he chanted a spell in his ancient tongue. Gabrielle found herself held frozen for the briefest of moments. It was long enough for Ramida's purpose. As Gabrielle responded to Xena's voice unlocking her from the charm and as her warriors fought free to surround Ramida, he reached and gained possession of the urn holding Xena's precious ashes. In the next instant he disappeared leaving the temple empty, he and his warriors gone. The echo of the battle rang to silence as Gabrielle's angry wailing rose into the empty void.
Later that day and on through the night Gabrielle consulted with the priests and priestesses in an attempt to determine what Ramida intended to do with Xena's ashes and what she could do to get them back. During this time Gabrielle confided in a few of them that she had been able to see and feel Xena since the moment of her death. She reported that Xena had begun to fade after they entered Egypt. To Gabrielle's infinite horror and grief, Xena had faded even more since her ashes were taken. Xena's voice, though audible, now sounded like the rustling of breeze across the dessert sand. Her form, still visible and tangible, had taken on a muted quality like the bank of the Nile seen through morning mist. Temporary as one human life in the span of eternity.
Parties were sent in all directions to scour the countryside for Ramida and bring back any word of him if they could. Runners returned regularly with news that no trace of him had been found.
After a long and tireless search through Ramida's temple a priest came to Gabrielle and Xena with their findings. "Ramida worships the evil god, Set," the priest said. "From the scrolls we found in his temple, it appears he intends to restore the lost power of Set in himself, in his own body, and so become a living god. To do this, he must draw the power he needs from one who died in the service of life. It appears that Ramida has been drawing power from the presence of Xena's ashes since you came into this region of Egypt. That is the reason why her spirit has been fading. The ashes of Xena hold the very essence of the power Ramida needs for the ritual of Set. The ritual itself can only be performed under the dark moon that is nearest in time to the longest night of the year."
"Near to the Winter Solstice," Xena said. Gabrielle repeated this so the priest could hear.
"Yes," acknowledged the priest.
"So we have almost two moons to find and stop him," Xena contemplated.
"How great will Ramida's powers be if he performs this ritual?" Gabrielle asked.
"He would become so powerful he could do anything he desires. He could change time and history itself if he chose," said the priest.
"Change time and history itself," Gabrielle mused.
"There is something else," the priest continued. "If Ramida succeeds in finishing the ritual, all the power of Xena's ashes would be consumed. The spirit of Xena would be destroyed forever. For her there would be no afterlife, no reincarnation."
Gabrielle shuddered and turned to face Xena. "Then we will stop him," she said, catching the affirmation of shared purpose in Xena's eyes.
She turned to the priest. "Thank you," she said. "You have told us much and given us answers we can use."
"We will be at your service and do what we can to keep this from coming to pass," said the priest. "Already we have sent messengers to the greatest of our temples to call upon the gods we serve to help us find Ramida and stop his evil. The god Set had to be destroyed once before for the good of both the gods and people. We do not want this god to walk the earth in human flesh."
"And I do not want to lose Xena for all my lifetimes," Gabrielle added grimly.
She thanked the priest again. She and Xena separated themselves so that they could talk. Once alone Xena resolutely faced Gabrielle saying, "Set was destroyed by the god Osiris in the past. Maybe we need to use the power of Osiris to defeat him againÖ Gabrielle, are you listening to me?"
"What?" Gabrielle shook herself from some distant musing. "You said it yourself, Xena. We need to take away the source of his power," she responded vaguely, her attention focused on some phantom of the mind that was gathering force within her.
Gabrielle turned away from Xena, distracted by the gathering power of a single thought. A fantastic image shimmered at the edge of her consciousness. If she could just burn through the darkness, bring light like a thousand torches into her mind to illuminate this dark vision. She saw her fingers reaching out to grasp hold of her vision and could almost feel them curling around the handle of a burning torch. The vision exploded in her mind like a vivid memory and Gabrielle saw herself flinging a ball of fire from her own hand. She envisioned a great mist swirling around her, engulfing her; out of which emerged infinite possibilities, infinite hope. The answer screamed in her mind like a siren song and she knew what she had to do.
She turned back to Xena, speaking like a Delphian priestess, "What if your ashes don't exist by the time Ramida performs his ritual? What if they had never existed?"
"What do you mean, Gabrielle?" Xena was puzzled.
Her visions gathered themselves into one shinning revelation. "Change time and history itself! That's it!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
She turned to Xena with a fierce determination. "I'm going to tell the priests. We have to go as soon as we can. Tonight. We have a long journey ahead of us. We may just have time to do what I have in mind."
"Where are we going? What are you planning?"
"I have just thought of the way we will make all of this right. Make it so that you are back in your body and those 40,000 souls will never have to be appeased," Gabrielle still spoke cryptically.
Xena was still puzzled by her soul mate. "Never have to be appeased?" she repeated. "Gabrielle, what are you talking about?"
to rebuild something I once destroyed," said Gabrielle. "We're going back
An accumulation of dust had settled upon every surface from years of neglect. Dead leaves lay strewn across the floor. Giant stone pillars that had once reached the impossibly high ceilings lay broken about the hall as if thrown there as a result of a battle between titans. But the battle had been between one human and the gods. The trappings of a magnificent feast had once been laid out upon the table. Now one could barely discern the remnants of fruit, once succulent but long since withered. Leaves were dry specters clinging to the lattice-like structure that once held rich clusters of grapes. Chalices that had brimmed with nectar that no mortal ever tasted stood empty about the table or lay on their sides blown over by years of winds gusting through this hollow ruin. A pure gold luster had once shimmered from each chalice but now they were dulled with years of tarnish. The throne, though empty, stood like a monolithic testament to the power that once ruled this place.
The hall whispered as the footsteps of one mortal tapped lightly upon the stone floor. Gabrielle's petite boot made the only rhythmic sound as it intruded upon the temple-like stillness. She passed the table and stared at the spot where the bones of Athena would have lain but nothing was there. Perhaps Athena's archers had placed her body in an honored tomb. Perhaps Ares had done so himself. Gabrielle did not think on this for very long. She looked up to meet the compassionate and worried eyes of the friend who had brought her and Xena back to this place, the goddess Aphrodite.
It had taken half the time toward the Winter Solstice to make the voyage up the Nile then across the Mediterranean Sea to the shores of Greece. It took more time after they set foot on Grecian soil to reach the temple of Aphrodite near the base of Mount Olympus. Aphrodite had appeared and greeted them with her usual flamboyance then achieved an unusual seriousness as she heard Gabrielle and Xena's plight and was made to understand what had become of Xena. As a goddess, Aphrodite could see and hear Xena and was dismayed by the specter Xena had become. As Ramida drew more power from the life force still embodied in Xena's ashes, she had become like an ethereal reflection of her former self. Aphrodite had listened to Gabrielle's plan and agreed to do what she could. As she had done for Xena in the past, they vanished from Aphrodite's temple and appeared in the great hall of the gods on Mount Olympus where they now stood.
"Time to call your brother," Gabrielle said to Aphrodite.
Aphrodite flicked her wrist and Ares appeared in a blaze of light and smoke.
For a moment Ares appeared disoriented. He glanced around the hall, unease settling in his eyes. The memories of the last time Ares was in this place had a visible effect so that his upset was momentarily reflected in his face. His eyes lingered on the spot where Athena had lain in death and for a moment an expression that may have been regret flickered across his face. His gaze finally rested upon Aphrodite and Gabrielle and he recovered from his musings. He gathered back into himself, looked one to the other and said in his too-familiar voice, heavy with innuendo, "Well, I see you two finally got together." He slithered to his usual distance from Gabrielle, too close for comfort, and asked with a silky tone, "Where's your girlfriend?"
"Right behind you, Ares," the low, sensual voice of Xena whispered at his back.
Ares ran his eyes over Gabrielle one more time before he turned. "Well, Xena, it's been a longÖ" he stopped as he saw what Xena had become. He glanced back to Aphrodite and Gabrielle, recovered from his uncertainty and asked, "What happened to you?"
"We need your help," Aphrodite began before Xena could answer.
"As you can see, I'm not my usual self," said Xena.
has a plan," Aphrodite continued.
Ares glanced back and forth, shook his head and said, "What plan? What's happened here?"
As the sun moved shadows across the floor of the Olympian hall, Xena and Gabrielle told Ares the details of what had happened to them, their journey to Japa, Xena's death, the theft of her ashes and what that meant to her continued existence. With Aphrodite's backing, Gabrielle laid out her plan and Ares' part in it.
"We need your help at the forge and anvil of Hephaestus," Gabrielle said, "to forge the metal of Hephaestus into weaving thread and hammer out a pair of shears to cut it."
"And what do I get out of this?" Ares asked with his usual selfishness. He sauntered over to Xena, put out his hand in a possessive manner to stroke Xena's face but his hand passed through her as through empty space. Ares looked in confusion at his hand then back to Xena.
"What do you get, Ares?" Xena asked. She answered with just the offer that she knew would get to him. "You get to go on having me around throughout the ages. I will exist in one reincarnation or another, so you can continue to try to convince me to be with you." After a pause to let those words sink in, Xena finished, "but if you don't help, my soul spins down into an oblivion from which it will never return and I will be lost and gone from you forever."
"So," Ares smiled, "are you saying I still have a chance with you, Xena?"
"As much of a chance as you've always had, Ares," Xena retorted. "But, you'll have nothing of me at all if we fail because you won't do what we're asking. I won't even be there for you to tempt throughout my lifetimes and your eternity."
"Come on, Ares," said Aphrodite. "You've always had a soft spot for Xena."
"Like the soft spot you've got for Gabrielle," Ares smirked.
"As if!" Aphrodite took offense, forgetting for a moment Xena and Gabrielle's plight. Aphrodite looked Gabrielle up and down. "She may be kinda cute for a mortal," she abruptly became uppity and huffed, "but she's my friend. That's all. Something you wouldn't know anything about."
Ares opened his mouth and took a breath. He was going to say one more thing to get the last word in, when Gabrielle interrupted.
"Excuse us but we need to get started if we are going to do this," she said. "Are you going to help us Ares?"
Ares turned, gazing long at the shimmering form of Xena. His eyes softened for a moment as memories of all that Xena had meant to him drifted through his mind. He shook himself, sighed and turned to Gabrielle, " What is it you said you wanted?" he said at last.
Gabrielle laid out her plan. "We must build a loom for the Fates to replace the one I destroyed. We also need you to work the smelting pit of Hephaestus. We want you to melt and forge the metal of the gods. Then Aphrodite and I can spin it into thread that can only be cut by the shears you will also make. Oh, and one more thing. A key must be made to release the Fates from the chains that have bound them all this time".
"And just what good will this do?" Ares asked.
Xena said, "We intend to use these items to bargain with the Fates to restore my life."
Ares asked, "What makes you think they'll do this?"
"It's that or spend the rest of eternity locked up and without their powers. They've had some time to see what that is like. We intend to free the Fates, rebuild their loom and give them thread no mortal can cut. I'd say that would be worth my life to them, wouldn't you?"
Ares shook his head. "Well, I suppose you must count me in for old time's sakeÖ" he paused then finished in a voice dripping with possessive arrogance, "and the future's sake."
Ignoring this last comment, Gabrielle urged, "Then let's get started."
The fire roared as the massive arms of the god of war pushed and pulled at the bellows melting the impossibly strong metal. Xena looked on, unable to aid in this endeavor, a helpless reminder to the others of their common bond. Shadows of two gods and one mortal danced across the walls as the flames exploded with each blast of air. Ares poured the red-hot liquid out into a thin stream. Aphrodite pulled this cooling stream, still too hot for a mortal to touch, stretching it out into coarse metal cords. The cords went onto the spindle of the wheel where Gabrielle labored, spinning reel upon reel of fine thread for the loom of the Fates. When enough thread was spun they turned their attention to building a new loom out of stone and wood from the deserted hall of the Olympian gods. They labored together in this manner as nights crept by and the moon waned toward its dark cycle. The Solstice approached.
It was the morning of the final day. The coming of that night would bring with it the darkness of no moon. Four stood at the entrance to the hall of the Fates. Three shadows stretched away in long lines in the sunrise. The massive doors swung open pushed by the whim of the two gods and they stepped into the hall. Ares pulled the cart laden with the loom and the spools of thread they had labored to spin. The eternal flames burning in their shallow bowls illuminated all that remained in the hall. Gabrielle gazed first toward the burnt fragments of the loom she had destroyed still strewn at one end. But all eyes turned toward the sound of rattling chains as the Fates moved in response to their presence.
Clotho, the Spinner spoke first asking, "What is this?" Lachesis, the Measurer, continued, "Two Olympian gods come here to our hallÖ" Atropos, who cuts the thread at the end of life, finished, "Öbringing with them, the destroyer of our loom!"
Before Aphrodite and Ares could speak, Gabrielle began to explain. "We've come to undo what I did if you will grant us something in return."
Clotho asked, "How would you undo what has been done, Gabrielle?" Lachesis finished "And what request would you expect of us in return?"
Feeling that time was short, Gabrielle went straight to the simplest answer. She raised the key to the lock that bound them. "We would free you," she began. She gestured to the cart where the loom was visible. "We would give you back a loom made out of wood and stone from the hall of Olympus." She lifted the cloth that covered the many spools. "We would give you thread made from the metal of Hephaestus that could only be cut with these." She held the shears for them to see. "In return, you will grant Xena her request."
The Fates looked at one another, nodded then faced Xena as one. "What is it," Clotho began, "that you wish," Lachesis continued, "Xena, the Warrior Princess?" Atropos finished.
Xena began tentatively, "A great evil will be unleashed in the world unless I can come back in the flesh. I wish you to re-spin the thread of my life for me."
"Xena," Lachesis, the Measurer began, "we have seen your death and know the reason for it. What you should know from us is this. You were measured to live a long life in this incarnation."
Atropos, the Cutter of the thread continued, "Though a god can change that by asking that I cut the thread short, a mortal cannot. But you, Xena, during the time you were a killer of the gods, gained the power to cut the thread of your life when you chose."
Clotho, the Spinner added, "You have cut the thread of your life shorter than it should have been. You did this because of your desire for repentance through death. Why should I spin another thread of life for you?"
"Yes," said Atropos. "If we spin your life back into existence, you would still carry a desire within you to make amends for your past by cutting your life short again."
Xena spoke with passion. "I wish that I had never done the terrible things I have done. If you could spin the thread so that I never became the awful killer that I was, then I would not have to feel the guilt that I have carried in me ever since."
Clotho began, "We can not weave all your past deeds out of your life."
Lachesis continued, "If we did that, the measure of your destiny would be completely changed. The warrior you became for the greater good would never have existed."
Atropos finished, "Though many souls died at the hands of your armies, Xena, too many more would have died if you had never turned from the darkness in your life. I would have cut the threads of countless other lives; lives you would not have saved because you would never have turned to the light. You would never have become the Warrior Princess."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena but spoke to the Fates. "I understand. Without the darkness in her past Xena would never have been driven to fight for the greater good. Too many others would have died because Xena wasn't there to fight for them."
Lachesis said, "Yes. The measure of one's life includes how you face your past."
Clotho continued, "Only a heart that can truly love itself despite the things you've done is worthy of the kind of chance you are asking."
Atropos finished, "Unless you change your heart, Xena, we are unwilling to give your life back, for you would only take it again."
"Unless I change my heart?" asked Xena. She turned to Gabrielle, "How do I do that?"
Gabrielle reached toward her lover's hand that she could no longer touch and said, "You have to forgive yourself, Xena."
Xena pleaded, "Gabrielle, You're the one who knows what forgiveness truly is. Help me. Show me how."
Gabrielle spoke from the depths of her desire. "Look at me, Xena, and see yourself in my eyes," she pleaded. "See all the love and forgiveness that I have for you; that is yours without you ever having to ask. Take that into your heart and forgive yourself. But you can't do it for me this time. You have to do it for yourself."
Xena gazed into her soul mate's eyes and saw herself reflected as from the surface of a still pool. On the surface she could see the love that Gabrielle held for her, had always had for her. Xena looked deeper and saw into the memories of her life. That pool had a terrible darkness beneath the bright surface. Xena had chosen too many times to dive into the guilt from that dark past and it had drowned her. To live she had to float upon the surface having embraced the depths below.
She looked deep into her life and witnessed the things she had grown to regret. In a moment's time it was as if Xena looked into the eyes of every one of her victims. From the depths of her heart she apologized to each one. She grieved inwardly for the loss and pain she had caused. She gazed deeper still and saw the losses she had suffered that drove her into darkness. She grieved deeper still for the loss she had suffered that had driven her from her village to become a killer. Xena could feel her grief helping her to release her guilt but it was not enough. She embraced her darkness as a reminder that it was a place to which she never wanted to return. She embraced it because it was the power that drove her to fight for the greater good. She embraced it because it was her stumbling out of the depths of her darkness that had driven her to find and receive the light of Gabrielle in her life.
Lachesis said, "Now see with your heart, Xena, what few mortals will ever be allowed to glimpse."
Then came the vision of the warlords against whom Xena had fought. She knew that she was witnessing what would have been if she had not joined herself in battles to defeat them. Without Xena, these warlords were unstoppable, leaving a bloody path in their wake. She saw horrors beyond her comprehension, cruelties worse than any she, herself, had ever inflicted. She witnessed the destruction, torture and bloodshed of countless souls. Xena saw all the pain and death that would have occurred if she had never taken up the fight for the greater good. She understood that without the driving force of her darkness-turned-to-light, she would not have had the will to fight for the greater good. She knew that if she embraced forgiveness for herself there was still a place in this battle that only she could fill.
Then Xena beheld a tiny glimpse of what the future could be for her, spreading out from this point in time. At every road and every turn in Xena's life, each of her tomorrows was filled with Gabrielle. She saw that up to the point of her death, all the time, adventures and feelings spent with Gabrielle had been merely a beginning. She witnessed herself feeling joy beyond comprehension, passion without restraint. What Xena had learned of love from Gabrielle was like the first steps of a child when compared with what she could continue to learn; the intensity of love she would be capable of feeling if she continued in this life. She saw glimpses of future lifetimes and in every one she was destined to find her soul mate, to find the spirit of Gabrielle again. Finally, she saw and understood that there was a place in this life, in Gabrielle's heart, that only she could fill.
Slowly Xena resurfaced from the depths of her troubled past and the visions of a desired future. She saw again her reflection in Gabrielle's eyes. Xena wept for the joy and purpose that Gabrielle had brought into her life. For the first time Xena understood that she loved the woman she saw in Gabrielle's eyes, the woman she had become because of Gabrielle. She realized that she wanted the fullness of an entire life with Gabrielle in this incarnation. For the first time Xena allowed herself to truly let go, to relegate the darkest parts of herself to the past. She knew she wanted to go on and from the depths of that desire Xena forgave herself.
In this one act of forgiveness Xena felt a light and a joy so huge that she thought she would have to enlarge her very soul just to accept it.
Still radiant with this joy, she turned to the Fates and said, "I don't want you to take away all of the horrible things from my past, but I must ask you to change one thing."
change in Xena, the Fates looked one to another and nodded. Clotho, the
Spinner spoke. "As long as it doesn't change the basic nature of who you
become, it will be done."
The loom was put in its honored place at the end of the hall. The spools of unbreakable thread were laid out before it. The three Fates stood in their proper places, Clotho at the spinning wheel, Lachesis next to her, measuring out how much thread would go onto the loom, Atropos stood at the end, the god-made shears in her hand. Countless lives had been woven into the tapestry, restoring the proper balance in each of them.
Clotho began, "Now it is time, Xena," Lachesis continued, "to weave your life back into existence," Atropos finished, "with the one change we are willing to grant."
Outside the hall of the Fates, the sun was fading into night. As the last rays touched the highest clouds with darkening crimson, the thread of Xena's life began to weave its intricate pattern into the tapestry. Streams of golden light began to sweep through the hall swirling around the shimmering form of Xena. As the thread worked its power, the one change for which Xena had asked, was revealed for all who were present to see.
Somewhere in the past a young and drunk Xena staggered through a hostile town carrying the ashes of a dead friend. The villagers gathered around her, intent upon stopping her from reaching the burial site of Akemi, the woman Xena thought she loved enough to risk the villagers' wrath. They closed in around her like a pack of predatory animals. One at a time they darted in to harry their intended prey.
A villager ran at Xena, a lit torch in his hand. She struck him with the bottle from which she had been drinking, snatched the torch from his hand and kicked him sprawling into the dirty snow of the street. She clutched the torch, waving it viciously in a wide arc keeping the rest of the pack at bay. In this manner she approached the family shrine and placed Akemi's ashes there. By this act, Akemi's soul and the souls of her murdered family were at peace.
Then something else began to happen.
As the angry villagers advanced upon Xena to take their revenge for disgracing their town, a trembling sounded deep beneath the ground. It shook the earth and the village dwellings. It shook so that the villagers stumbled as they approached Xena. From the bowels of the earth the ghostly form of Yodoshi rose, expanding and breathing hugely above the horrified witnesses. A terrible roaring issued from Yodoshi's open mouth. The terrified villagers clutched their hands to their ears and cowered down where they stood, too frightened even to run. The noise went on but the huge, ghostly form had already begun to collapse in upon itself.
By placing Akemi's ashes in a position of honor, Xena had completed a circle of power with the souls of Akemi's ancestors, enabling them to destroy Yodoshi's spirit in the afterlife. The villagers watched as Yodoshi's powerless soul spiraled down into oblivion until only a fading echo remained and a fog-like mist dissipated on the cold wind.
In the silence that followed, the villagers looked in wonder at one another. Somehow they grasped the meaning of what had just happened. The barest glimpse of another fate that they had just escaped flowed through their collective unconscious. They realized that by restoring Akemi's ashes to her ancestral shrine, a great and evil power had been destroyed. Xena's had been an act of honor that had saved them all. The villager's need for revenge was transformed into a silent gratitude. They turned away and went quietly to their homes.
In the present, upon the site of the village, there stands a great city filled with those of the 40,000 who still live and their descendants. It is one of the greatest cities in the land, and to its people, Xena owes nothing.
In the present, night had fallen somewhere in Egypt. Ramida stood before an Alter upon which the urn holding Xena's ashes had been placed. He raised his arms in supplication to begin the ritual of Set. His followers beat upon drums, chanted and danced in a deep spell. Ramida's face shined triumphantly with an evil light. He spoke aloud the incantation to lift his spirit form his body, to mingle it with Set and the power of Xena's ashes, to become the god himself. Xena's ashes rose snake-like from within the urn. At the same moment, Ramida's essence rose from his body. Ashes and spirit began to entwine, to blend into one another as the chanting of Ramida's followers rose in a frenzy. Suddenly, the drumbeat missed its rhythm causing all the dancers to falter. Something began to go terribly wrong. As the other past became reality, Xena's ashes faded from existence and disappeared from the air leaving Ramida's body and spirit naked before the power of a god. Without the power of Xena's ashes the spirit of Set was too great for the vessel of Ramida to contain. A great fire began to burn Ramida from within and he screamed in agonized horror. His followers ran terrified from the temple as Ramida's body burst outward in a roaring ball of flame. Ramida's power ended with the destruction of his body leaving the god Set without a willing vessel, without a foothold to exist in this world.
In the hall of the Fates the thread of Xena's life continued weave itself into the intricate pattern on the loom. As each loop curled into the tapestry, golden bolts of light streamed from the loom with the powerful force of life restored. Each stream penetrated and exploded inside the iridescent form of Xena. With each blow Xena recoiled as if being struck by the fist of a god. She cried aloud in agony.
"XenaÖ" Gabrielle darted haltingly toward Xena, attempting to anticipate and dodge the next bolt, attempting to run to Xena's aid.
"Stop, Gabrielle," the Fates ordered. "Xena's life force is being restored to her. You may not go near her. You may not touch her until it is done."
Gabrielle stood by in agonized helplessness. The hall echoed with roaring thunder from each explosion, echoed with Xena's cries as the bombardment went onÖ and on. With each blow Xena shimmered less with the iridescence that had signified her fading out of this realm and glowed more with the solid power of her own life force. As the final loop entwined itself into the tapestry of her life, the last bolt of light exploded into Xena and she collapsed on the floor. In the echoing silence Gabrielle haltingly stepped forward. She held her breath as Xena slowly raised herself and stood gazing across the now bridgeable chasm to her soul mate. Long and silently, she gazed into her lover's eyes. At last she moved to stand within an arm's embrace and whispered with all the love that had ever ached in her soul, "Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's hand convulsively covered her own mouth stifling a sob of joy and cautious relief. A trembling hand reached out to touch Xena's face, the fingertips brushing so lightly at first, that she was unsure whether she actually felt solid, living flesh. The moist beginning of grateful tears rimmed her eyes. Xena gently took hold of Gabrielle's hand and caressed it to her own face as she reached to softly stroke Gabrielle's face and hair. Tentatively they explored this new reality, still afraid that they had only a moment before it would slip from their fingers. Each confirmed with her senses, with halting touch, with eyes locked to each other's eyes, that this was real. All the while the indescribable ache of joy threatened to burst from beneath the surface of their long unfulfilled hope.
Xena spoke at last, confirming with words what they knew with their senses. "I'm whole, Gabrielle," she said. "You helped me to come back."
"We did it Xena. We found a way..." Gabrielle said with a mixture of laughter and grateful tears. "You've come back to me."
Xena's eyes shown with eternal gratitude as she gazed at her soul mate, "Gabrielle, it was your faith in me, your stubborn desire, that brought me back.You have made so many things possible for me, for my life. Things I never knew could be mine until you showed me."
"What's important is that you forgave yourself, Xena. You forgave yourself and you're alive. You're here with meÖ" Gabrielle stopped.
After long months of bracing herself against the fear that she would lose Xena forever, Gabrielle found herself overcome. She could finally surrender to the sensation of total relief and her whole body seemed to give in to this coveted release. She relaxed into Xena's arms and allowed herself to be engulfed in the comfort of that familiar embrace.
Xena held her lover answering, "I know what it means to forgive myself because of you, Gabrielle. I knew nothing of forgiveness until I saw it in your eyes. I could never have done it without you." Her voice broke as the next words poured from the deepest and most vulnerable parts of herself. "Because of you I'm truly free."
In the embrace of the woman who had been her greatest friend and greatest love, the one with whom she had felt the most intense joy she had ever known, Xena wept.
Still holding onto one another, they turned to their benefactors. They thanked the Fates, who accepted their gratitude with solemn reciprocation for their restored powers. They thanked Ares who commented that they would see him again and with the hint that they now owed him, he disappeared. They thanked Aphrodite, who appeared to be the most gracious and happy of the deities at the outcome of this venture, before she left in a blaze of light. Still leaning upon each other, Xena and Gabrielle walked together out of the hall of the Fates.
A fire crackled in the forest clearing. Only the sliver of a new moon and the bright constellations overhead illuminated the Greek sky. Sparks from the fire flew up in a vain attempt to join with the stars in their dance across the sky. A breeze rippled through the trees like gentle waves lapping onto a distant shore. The hushed forest held nothing unusual for some distance around the camp. No other human walked the woods this night. Into the natural sounds of the forest, two voices softly insinuated themselves.
"I look out at this huge sky with all those points of light and its like each star represents another possibility for us," Gabrielle said.
Xena followed her gaze. "We've traveled so many roads in this life and they have all lead back to the best possibility of all, the two of us together, like this."
Xena and Gabrielle met each other's eyes, allowing the silence to stretch out between them, their speech arrested by the tenderness of this moment. At last Xena whispered, "This is how I want to live, GabrielleÖ each day gazing into your eyes."
"I'll always be there for you to do just that, Xena, always."
Xena turned and stared into some unseen distance. "It seems as if my whole life has been spent in search of something to fight against. I know because of you that its what you fight for that really matters."
Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze and said, "I think that the greatest search in life is the search for our true selves."
Xena answered, "In all that searching, Gabrielle, I found my truest self in you."
She paused in reflection. "I always thought that this is the kind of thing one finds at the journey's endÖ but I feel like our journey is just beginning. She laughed to herself. "Now, I'm not sure what I want to do next. Gabrielle, what are we going to do?"
"The point is we can do anything we want. Now that you've chosen to truly live with your past. You no longer have to suffer, you no longer have to keep paying, because of your past."
Gabrielle favored Xena with one of her quirky smiles that Xena had not seen in a long time, "So the real question is what do you want to do tomorrow?"
Xena laughed softly but answered seriously, "First I need to go see Eve."
"Of course," Gabrielle agreed.
Xena turned to face Gabrielle with the excitement of new beginnings. "Then let's go far away, down to the land of the Pharaohs. Let's make people seek us out if they need us for a change."
"Whatever you want, Xena," Gabrielle returned her exuberance. "After we see Eve, we'll go to Egypt."
Xena and Gabrielle lay beside each other. They gazed up at the new moon with a glad realization that this was the beginning of countless moons they would look upon together.
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