Jappa had been a trap and Xena had walked right into it without a second thought. One would have thought she’d learned her lesson by now. But no. It was obvious she hadn’t. Else she wouldn’t be in this mess right now. She thought she had left her guilt behind her long ago. Apparently, she’d thought wrong. When she’d learned about the 40,000 innocent lives she had claimed in Higuchi more than three decades ago, her sense of guilt had overwhelmed her and clouded her judgement. Gabrielle had told her it was an accident. It was. But the absolute horror of the consequences of her actions had weighed heavily upon her. If she hadn’t been so obsessed with making it up to those 40,000 souls, she would have smelled a rat long before the jaws of the trap had snapped shut. Ever since Akemi’s messenger had found her in Greece, something had been nagging her but she hadn’t really thought about it until after she’d stopped Gabrielle from completing the ritual that would bring her back to life. She’d had that one chance to make things right and she had blown it. No wonder everyone thought of her as just another dumb warlord and who was to say they were wrong?
Everything had started in Jappa almost four decades ago and Yodoshi had been enslaving souls ever since so why had Akemi finally decided to seek her help? Yes, it was true that Yodoshi had been preparing an army to wipe out Higuchi but something just didn’t feel right. Why wait nearly 40 years and how many enslaved souls before seeking her help? It had to be a trick. But Xena had spoken with Akemi and sensed the truth in Akemi’s words. That meant Akemi had been used. But by whom? Yodoshi? Why would he do that? He could have just enslaved her like all the other souls. He didn’t need her to stay dead. Someone else must have wanted her dead. Maybe that someone had seen Xena’s presence as a stumbling block in the future and decided to get rid of her now? That would make sense. Xena scrubbed her face with her hands and sighed. So many questions and yet she had no answers to any of them; just lots of theory. She’d tried searching for Akemi; but like the rest of the enslaved souls, Akemi had been released into the afterlife and that was a place Xena could not enter. She did not belong there. It was obvious from the reception she had received at the gates of the underworld. She could have fought her way in but the guards hadn’t been hostile to her. Instead, they had been extremely respectful yet adamant that she was not to be allowed access into the underworld.
She was dead. That much she knew. And without a physical body, neither ambrosia nor the golden apples could help her this time. Alternatively , she could call in a debt and ask Aphrodite or Ares to resurrect her. But she’d died in Jappa and everyone knew the Olympian gods had no powers outside of their domain. Talk about a tight spot. She would have to figure out some way to get out of this mess. She had to. She’d promised Gabrielle she’d never leave her and she intended to keep her promise. A tad late, yes. But better late than never. Speaking of which, she’d better return to Gabrielle’s side.
Despite all her reassurances to the contrary, Gabrielle was in pain. Xena could read it in the lines around her eyes and the stiffness with which she held herself. Even her smiles were tinged with sadness and she’d evidenced no interest in her food. For the Lean-Mean-Eating-Bard of Potidaea to pick at her food instead of devouring it spoke volumes for the turmoil she must have been in. It had been unfair of Xena to place Gabrielle in such an untenable position that evening on Mount Fujisan. Indeed, some might argue that it had been downright cruel and Xena would not have said a word in her own defense. What misery Gabrielle must have felt as she held Xena’s ashes cradled in her arms, her eyes staring longingly at the Fountain of Strength, the only thing standing between her and bringing her soulmate back to life being Xena herself. As the sun had set that day, Xena had watched as the sparkle in Gabrielle’s eyes faded away into a dead emptiness. What a sacrifice Gabrielle had made that day, giving up the one person she loved more than life just so that person could finally achieve peace.
And Xena had been grateful. In that one moment, she had understood just how much Gabrielle truly loved her. In all her life, she’d never been on the receiving end of such love until she’d met Gabrielle. And Najara had been right, Xena had hurt Gabrielle. Again, and again, and again. And yet, Gabrielle had stood by her through it all. Til the very bitter end. If Xena could have another chance, and oh boy would she try her darnest to make that so, she’d dedicate her life to loving Gabrielle the best she could. And even though she knew it’d be impossible, she’d do everything in her means not to hurt Gabrielle ever again. For now, Xena could spend as much time as she was able with Gabrielle. After all, her presence seemed to lift Gabrielle’s spirits somewhat and she’d even managed to coax the bard into finishing half of her lunch today so things were definitely looking up. Maybe she could try holding Gabrielle to sleep tonight. That might help with the nightmares. It used to work while she was alive so it just might work now. It was worth trying anyhow.
Xena stood, her body tense with anticipation as her senses detected a presence zooming in on her. As a spirit, she wasn’t armed but that had never stopped her. Grinning, she turned to face the oncoming threat, her body seemingly relaxed but ready to explode into motion at any moment. A man dressed in black flowing robes approached, a katana sheathed upon his back. Something about the man struck Xena as being vaguely familiar and she finally realised why as he landed a safe distance from her and executed a deep respectful bow.
“Harukata,” Xena acknowledged with a nod. “You are looking good. Seems like you got your youth back. You’re not here to kill me are you?”
“Ghost killers like me are in great demand in the underworld and the Lord Enma has appointed me Imperial Ghost Catcher. My main duty is to help spirits with unresolved business enter the afterlife. That’s why I’m here, Xena. To help you.”
“Thanks Harukata but I have no intentions to head on into the afterlife. My place is with Gabrielle and I’m not leaving her.′ Xena turned her back on Harukata and started walking towards the land of the living where she knew Gabrielle to be waiting for her.
Harukata threw out a hand to stop her even though she could not see the movement with her back turned. “Xena, wait. I have the answers you seek as well as a possible solution. Just spare me a few moments. I’ll try not to keep you away from Gabrielle too long. I am rather fond of her.” Xena turned around to face Harukata, seeming to weigh the sincerity of his words. He shrugged and reiterated, “I am.”
“Alright. I’m listening.” Xena said as she walked back to Harukata and glanced around at their surroundings. “You’re gonna talk here or is there somewhere more private? I have a feeling the answers to my questions aren’t meant for certain ears.”“You are right.” Harukata agreed, gesturing with his hand to bring forth a shimmering portal on his left. “Come, we can talk inside my abode. It is safe there.” With that, he disappeared into the portal. Seeing no other alternatives and sensing no danger, Xena shrugged and followed after him.