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.
Harukata's abode reminded Xena of Akemi's teahouse. It was furnished in the same manner except for the walls which were covered with katanas of all shapes and sizes. Xena ran her fingers over the katanas, lingering to appreciate the design and workmanship of each individual blade. Completing her examination, she glanced over at Harukata, an eyebrow raised in query.
"I have collected katanas all my life. Lord Enma thought I'd appreciate having them in the underworld and I do. They are only spiritual representations of the katanas I have in my old home. After all, physical weapons have no power here." Harukata explained while he carried a tea set to the low wooden table set in the middle of the room and gestured for Xena to take her place on the other side. "Come, let us begin. Time may pass slower here in the land of the dead but it still passes and Gabrielle needs you before the night falls if she is to get any sleep tonight."
"So it would work?" Xena asked as she settled herself in front of the table, her hands resting casually between her knees.
"Yes." Harukata agreed as he placed turned a tea cup over and placed it on Xena's left before filling it with tea. "The two of you are soulmates. Your presence is crucial to her well-being. Actually, the bond between you and Gabrielle is so strong that she should have followed you into death." He lifted a hand to forestall Xena's protest, looking intently into Xena's pale blue orbs as he continued, "She's alive because your soul roams the land of the living still. The moment your soul enters the afterlife, her soul will follow soon after."
"How is that possible?" Xena asked, her left hand fiddling with the tea cup, obviously unsettled by Harukata's revelation. "Gabrielle has survived my death before."
"Ah. But that was before the final bonding. There are three levels of bonding possible for soulmates. The first is a sharing of the physical self which most people have no problems with. The second requires the sharing of blood. The third and final bond involves the sharing of souls. Once all three criteria have been met, soulmates are bound in life and in death."
"So, the first bond was when we... um..." Xena stuttered, a rare flush colouring her cheeks.
"Ok. The second bond is blood. Blood... You mean when Gabrielle drank my blood as a bacchae? Or when we clasped our bleeding palms together during the Amazon shamanic ritual?"
"The blood drinking started it but it was the shamanic ritual that completed the second bond. Blood had to be shared and even though you offered your blood to Gabrielle that first time, she did not reciprocate. So the bond could not be completed."
Xena rubbed her neck. Strange that she could develop kinks in her neck as a spirit. She slowly stretched her neck and sighed as the vertebrae popped back into place. "I guess the spirit sharing part would be when Ares forced us to share the same body."
"That's one. The other was when you possessed her while trying to get the ambrosia that would bring you back to life." Harukata said as he took a sip of tea.
"Oh yes. Forgot about that. Gabrielle doesn't like to talk about that. Too painful for her. But I guess this is even worse. So. Let's just cut to the chase. Is Gabrielle in danger?"
"Not directly. But if your soul gets destroyed, so will hers. More importantly, you have one month before your soul enters its afterlife. And as mentioned earlier, Gabrielle's soul will follow when that happens."
"Why one month?"
"Drinking from the Fountain of Strength allows a soul to exist in the land of the living for a month. The effect is accumulative but after the first month, you would need to consume souls just to maintain your existence. Like Yodoshi." Harukata looked up from his cup and continued, "Xena, the souls have been avenged with Yodoshi's destruction. There is no reason for you to remain dead. Actually, Lord Enma was so impressed by your sense of honour that he wishes to right the wrong done to you. Unfortunately, the creator god of Jappa has forbidden the gods from resurrecting the dead so you would have to turn to another source for help." He paused then, taking another sip from the cup and filling it from the teapot before asking, "You know Eli, don't you?"
"Yes, I do. But aren't the gods limited by geography? This is not Eli's domain so I doubt he would be able to help me." Xena ventured.
"You are right. And even though your daughter Eve has spread Eli's message to Jappa, his powers are unable to affect you directly. However, he might have a solution which could work indirectly. Lord Enma is certain Eli can help you. Go to Chin and seek out a temple dedicated to Eli. You should be able to reach him there."
Things were definitely looking up. Xena thought, grinning. "I'll do that. So, who's behind this whole mess?"
"I was getting to that. Mikaboshi, the god of evil, seems to have taken an interest in you personally. He was enraged by the intrusion of the foreign one's teachings in Jappa. To promote love is to diminish evil and Mikaboshi was afraid he would lose his powers if your daughter's message of love managed to take root in Jappa. He sent his followers to infiltrate the Elijians in preparation for their annihilation. However, two moons ago, one of his followers learned of a prophecy in which the Defender of the Faith would defeat the embodiment of evil to bring about the era of love. When Mikaboshi learned you were the Defender of the Faith, he was afraid. He'd heard how you had brought about the Twilight of the Gods in Greece and singlehandedly slain seven of the Olympian gods with Eli's blessings. Mikaboshi believed the prophecy was a harbinger of his doom so he set in place a plan to lure you to Jappa and kill you in hopes that your death would neutralise the prophecy."
Xena nodded, picking up the tea cup and fiddling with it. She noticed the amusement on Harukata's face, caught herself balancing the tea cup on one finger, and sheepishly put the cup back on the table. She'd always had a habit of fidgeting with her hands when she was bored or deep in thought and the wheels in her mind were definitely churning crazily right now. "That makes sense though I haven't heard that prophecy myself. How did Akemi get involved? She wasn't lying when she told me about the 40,000 souls needing vengence to achieve grace in death. I could taste the truth in her words."
"Akemi was misled and so was I. The fire you started in Higuchi that day would not have taken a single life. It was Mikaboshi who fed power into the flames, raising a stiff wind to spread the fire rapidly through the entire city and raze it to the ground. He made Yodoshi the Lord of the Dark Lands by feeding Yodoshi on the souls of the 40,000 people who died that day. In return, Yodoshi swore allegiance to Mikaboshi and that was the start of his reign of terror in Higuchi. To achieve a state of grace, those 40,000 souls needed to be avenged but it was Yodoshi's death that was needed. Not yours. Their deaths was not your fault." Harukata said firmly as he looked at Xena sternly, willing her to believe him. "You must accept that."
Tension was evident in her very posture as Xena met Harukata's eyes. "I started the fire. I have to bear responsibility for that."
Harukata nodded. "It seems Lord Enma was right. You seek redemption for your past wrongs but all the good you have accomplished in these past years cannot make up for all the evil you have visited on others. Your guilt eats away at your soul and you jump at every opportunity to make amends. But Xena, know this, you will never fulfill your destiny if you insist on holding onto your guilt. Your enemies will exploit this weakness. And once your guilt brings you to sacrifice yourself in a misguided attempt to make things right, who will be left to stop them? I think Gabrielle has mentioned this before but let me repeat it just in case. You can do more good alive than dead." He paused slightly, searching Xena's face for a hint of understanding but her face was a perfect mask and gave nothing away. "Mikaboshi has used it once and is certain to use it again since it worked perfectly the first time. Be prepared."
When Xena didn't acknowledge, Harukata continued, "I have given you all the information Lord Enma had entrusted me with. The sun is setting and I'm sure you are anxious to return to Gabrielle. One last word of caution: Mikaboshi cannot harm you or Gabrielle outside of Jappa but his followers can and he has sent warriors to hunt down Gabrielle and scatter your ashes to the four winds as a precaution. You might want to warn her." He gestured behind Xena and a portal appeared. "That portal will take you straight to her. Goodbye my friend. I wish you success." He offered Xena a bow of farewell.
Xena returned his bow and rose to her feet with her usual grace. "Gabrielle can take care of herself. But you have my thanks. Friend." Turning, she strode towards the portal without a backward glance and disappeared from sight.
Harukata waved a hand to dismiss the portal and stood to clear the tea set from the table. "Time to report back to Lord Enma. I have done everything I can. Now it is up to her," he mumbled.
Merchant ships usually did not bother with passenger cabins since they rarely took on paying passengers. However, the attack of Higuchi by Yodoshi's army had left the city in desperate need of medical supplies which this ship happened to be carrying. As a result, most of the cargo holds were empty and the captain had offered Gabrielle one of the smaller cargo holds as sleeping quarters. It was stuffy but clean and lit by a singular oil lamp which was swinging freely from a hook hammered into the center of the hold. Gabrielle's bedroll and sleeping furs were laid out in a corner. Xena was seated on the bedroll, her back resting against a wall, a well-muscled arm wrapped possessively around Gabrielle who sat cuddled up with her head pillowed upon Xena's left shoulder. Xena was dressed in her trademark leathers though her breastplate was nowhere to be seen. She'd learned in the days following her death that she could remove pieces of her armour by thought alone and she knew how uncomfortable her breastplate could be for Gabrielle so she'd left it off upon entering the hold.
Over dinner, Xena had briefly gone through with Gabrielle what she'd learned from Harukata. Predictably, the idea of Xena being restored to life had cheered Gabrielle up considerablt and she'd even chased down the cook for a second helping of the lamb stew that had been on the dinner menu. Xena had watched as the sparkle returned to those emerald green eyes and she'd felt her breath catch in her throat when Gabrielle had turned to her wearing her trademark cheeky grin. Oh yes. This was the Gabrielle Xena knew and loved so well and she'd do anything just to keep it that way.
"Don't take this the wrong way but I'll be glad when you get your body back." Gabrielle said as she looked up at Xena, her hand reaching out to caress a cheek as she pulled herself up and laid a gentle kiss on Xena's lips.
"Ah!" Xena exclaimed in a husky voice, her pale blue eyes darkening in desire as she ran a thumb over Gabrielle's soft lips. "You're an insatiable little kitten, ain't ya."
"Meow." Gabrielle grinned, her right hand curled into the simulacrum of a claw as she playfully swiped the air in front of Xena's face. She suddenly stopped and dropped down onto the bedroll beside Xena hugging her knees. "This is just weird isn't it? I mean, you are dead. And here I am trying to seduce you. Gods, what's wrong with me?" She rested her chin on her knees and gazed pensively at nothing in particular. A gentle hand rested on her shoulder and she turned her head to catch the mischievous look upon Xena's face. "What's with that look?" Gabrielle asked, her heart thudding in her chest, almost afraid to hope for what she knew that look to mean.
"You're the adventurous sort ain't ya?" Xena asked as she ran her fingers down Gabrielle's arm, drawing a shiver and a whimper from the lascivious bard. "I think I can still give pleasure. Why don't we give it a try?" Xena whispered seductively, her voice hoarse with desire. She moved up behind Gabrielle, her hand turning Gabrielle's face towards her before she reached down to capture Gabrielle's lips in her own.
Gabrielle lost herself in the kiss, surrendering to her body's demands for her soulmate's touch. Experienced hands, mouth and tongue played her body like a harp and she was aware of how warm the stuffy cargo hold had become. Teeth gently nibbled on her ear and Gabrielle was suddenly struggling to get her clothes off. She needed to feel Xena on her bare skin. Needed the assurance that only her soulmate could give. Her red top flew across the hold to land on a crate and her red skirt followed soon after. Gabrielle let out a moan as Xena kissed her way down her throat and around her breasts before latching onto a nipple and teasing it with her tongue. Hands roamed down her body, lingering in sensitive places, sending jolts of desire down her body to center between her thighs. Xena's leather dress dematerialised around her and Gabrielle gasped at the feel of Xena's well-toned body gliding down her own, Xena's firm breasts trailing a sensuous path down her stomach. Then Xena's mouth claimed her own as the pleasure built, and she heard Xena murmur, "I love you Gabrielle" just before the wave of pleasure carried her away. And then she was lost, her hands clutching convulsively on a muscled back, her screams echoing into the emptiness around them.
When Gabrielle returned to her senses several moments later, she found herself lying curled up on her side. A lazy arm tightened around her middle and drew her closer to press up against the warm figure that was spooning her. She didn't remember how they came to be in that position but she wasn't about to complain. It was very comfortable and she didn't feel like moving anytime soon. Not that she could anyway. She giggled as playful teeth nipped at her earlobe and managed to eke out the words, "I don't think I'm ready for a repeat performance so soon."
"Glad to have been of service. As always." Xena drawled as she laid a kiss on Gabrielle's cheek. "Go on, get some sleep. We have a long day ahead tomorrow."
"You're not getting any arguments from me," Gabrielle mumbled contentedly. "One sleeping bard coming right up." She entwined her fingers with Xena's hands and placed it over her heart. "Oh. And I love you too Xena. Always." She said as she drifted into a dreamless sleep.
They were due to arrive in Chin today and Gabrielle was raring to go. Her life had purpose once again and she was glad. It had been fortunate that things had turned out the way they did. If Jappa hadn't been a trap, Gabrielle knew Xena would have been torn between the fate of those 40,000 souls and hers. And she didn't need an oracle to tell her Xena would have chosen her and condemned those 40,000 souls. Gabrielle would rather die than have Xena live with the guilt of that decision for the rest of her life. But the 40,000 souls were at peace and Xena had a chance to reclaim her place in this world. And everything was just fine. For now at least. Gabrielle shook the dark thoughts out of her mind and went in search of the captain to check on the ship's progress before returning to Xena and her sleeping quarters with what she'd learned.
"The captain says it would be roughly two candlemarks before the ship sails into Chin. How far did you say the temple was?" Gabrielle asked as she rummaged in her pack in search for her money pouch.
"Not more than a day's walk or so from the port." Xena replied. She glanced at her pack and raised an eyebrow. "You can't run around Chin carrying two packs. Why don't you put everything into your pack? There isn't much stuff in mine anyway."
Hearing the chink of coins, Gabrielle pulled out a brown leather pouch from her pack and tucked it into a pocket sewn into the inside of her skirt. She squirmed around a little, adjusting the pouch until it settled comfortably in its hiding place. Without a word, she walked over to Xena's pack and brought it over to her own. Dropping the pack beside hers, she sat down cross-legged in front of the packs and fiddled with the cover on Xena's pack. "I..."
Xena knelt down beside Gabrielle and took both her hands in her own. "I know this is hard for you. You don't need to unpack it. Just put my pack in yours. It would fit."
Gabrielle sighed. "You are right. It would be a hassle juggling the two packs while carrying your ashes. Maybe the bad guys would laugh so hard I could just sneak by. Would save me the trouble." She looked up at Xena who had an eyebrow raised in amusement. "Not going to happen huh." She said then shrugged. "Can't blame a bard for trying." She picked up the wooden oriental bowl containing Xena's ashes and studied it intently. "I should probably wrap this up and put it inside the pack. It would be safer there. Especially seeing how it is in such great demand. Reminds me of the time I was dragging your sarcophus back to Amphipolis and these bounty hunters just kept trying to steal your body. Some things never change do they?"
"Hey. Don't cry." Xena whispered, wiping the tears from Gabrielle's face. "Those bounty hunters didn't succeed then and they sure ain't going to this time. You're a much better fighter now and I know you'll wipe the floor with anyone who dares to even try."
"Oh yes. I'm going to do everything I can to bring you back so those followers of Mikaboshi better watch out. Nobody messes with the Battling Bard of Potidaea." Gabrielle declared, her emerald green eyes flashing fiercely.
"Try Warrior Bard of Potidaea," Xena quipped, She paused then, wondering how to broach the subject of the possibility that they might fail in their quest to return her to life. "Gabrielle, you have come so far from the little girl I met in Potidaea. You have changed in ways I never could have imagined. You have also suffered more in these seven years than most people have in their entire lifetime. Once, you wanted to be a travelling bard but now you are a respected warrior. There was also the time you gave up fighting only to take up arms again in my defense." She shook her head in rememberance and a tinge of regret. "I remember you saying how you lose a little of yourself with each battle. Every day you spend with me just brings more and more battles. I don't want you to lose yourself Gabrielle. My heart aches everytime I see the pain in your eyes as you struggle to reconcile your actions with your beliefs. You know there's a possibility we might not succeed. And I was thinking I'd ask Eli whether it is possible for you to..."
Blazing green eyes appeared inches away from Xena's pale blue orbs startling her into silence. If looks could kill, she'd definitely be dead by now. Gods! She's so beautiful when she's angry. The thought came unbidden to her mind.
"Xena, don't you even dare think that!" Gabrielle interjected, jabbing a finger into Xena's chest in agitation. "We will succeed or I will die trying. But either way, that will be that. I will not have you going behind my back and ensuring my survival while your soul enters the afterlife alone." Another jab. "I chose to follow you. It was I who begged you to take me with you. You never once forced me to travel with you. You always gave me a choice and I made my decisions. I chose to make your path mine. I chose to save my best friend instead of letting her die because I couldn't live without her. I chose to fight because I wanted to help you in any way I can. I chose to walk beside you because I love you. You are my home. My life. Without you I am lost." Her voice softened. "Don't you understand that? I lose a bit of myself everytime I kill but I find myself again whenever I look into your eyes and see your love and belief shining back at me. We have hurt each other time and again but that is what love is about. Our love is so deep we have no defences against each other and that makes us vulnerable to getting hurt because no one is perfect. Not you, not me. We make mistakes, we learn from them. And I don't regret choosing to love you. I knew the risks and I accepted it. I don't want to live in a world without you, Xena. I don't." Gabrielle grabbed Xena's shoulders and gave it a little shake. "Why can't you accept that?" She demanded.
Xena sat stunned, her eyes unfocused as she tried to process everything Gabrielle had said. Gabrielle was right. Even after all they'd been through, especially after everything they'd been through, Xena still didn't understand why Gabrielle had stuck with her through the years. She had been an evil warlord, her hands awashed with the blood of the innocent people she had killed in every single continent she had set foot on. She had been remorseless and saw love as a weakness to be exploited. She'd never really experienced true love until Gabrielle came into her life. Gabrielle knew her past but chose to see her as a hero. It was her belief that had sustained Xena through all the trials they had suffered. She trusted Xena never to hurt her but that had been exactly what happened. Xena had even tried to kill Gabrielle. And she would have succeeded if they hadn't fallen off the cliff and into the sea to surface in a strange land where they realised their hatred for each other was born out of their betrayed love. They'd learned to forgive each other but Xena hadn't really forgiven herself for her attempt on Gabrielle's life and she definitely didn't feel worthy to be on the receiving end of such devotion and love from the gentle bard. She knew well her dark side and her potential for violence and chaos. And she was always afraid of the day when it would resurface and either kill or maim Gabrielle or drive her away forever. That day hadn't come yet. But never was a long time and Xena couldn't guarantee that would never happen. And so, if they fail, Gabrielle could get a chance at a new life, a life where she'd be happy and pursue her dreams. That is, if Xena found a way to keep her alive.
"No!" Gabrielle shouted. "Stop, just stop! This is killing me!" She grabbed Xena and proceeded to shake her like a rag doll. "I don't want to hear anymore of this... centaur crap! You hear me? Enough!" She paused, all the energy seeming to drain out of her as she slid down bonelessly to land on the floor.
Concerned, Xena reached out her hand tentatively, stopping just shy of Gabrielle's own hand. "Gabrielle?"
This query was greeted by silence. "Gabrielle?" Xena tried again, this time resting her hand on Gabrielle's knee. A tear landed on the back of her hand and Xena jerked in surprise. "Gabrielle?" She called as dropped to her knees next to Gabrielle and wrapped her arms around the slumped shoulders of the little bard. "Gabrielle, hey." She said softly and let out a sigh of relief when she felt Gabrielle's head lean forward to rest on her chest. "I'm sorry. I just want you to be happy." Xena mumbled as she tightened her hold around Gabrielle, trying to undo the damage she had done. Hesitantly, Gabrielle's hands moved around Xena's waist before tightening and they stayed locked together for a long while, neither speaking.
It was a full candlemark later before Gabrielle moved to extricate herself from Xena's embrace. The tension from their argument had left her body aching all over and she grimaced as she stretched the muscles in her back. Wordlessly, Xena glided over and started kneading Gabrielle's back and shoulders. Her fingers danced over each muscle, identifying tension points and using her hands expertly to work out the kinks swiftly and efficiently.
"Gods, that feels good. Really good. I'm glad that's one of your many skills." Gabrielle sighed as she surrendered to Xena's gentle but firm ministrations.
"Yeah. Well, I'm glad too. You're strung tighter than a crossbow string. You feeling better?" Xena asked as she teased the last kink out of Gabrielle's shoulder and eased herself down beside her. Seemingly of its own accord, one hand reached out and started tracing a pattern on Gabrielle's thigh.
"I'm fine. Just tired I guess. Tired of fighting with you." Gabrielle captured Xena's errant hand in her own and sighed. "I know I'm exaggerating but sometimes I feel as if the whole world is trying to get between us. I get kidnapped, you get killed, or vice versa. Someone or something tries to drive a wedge between us or trick us into betraying each other. It's bad enough we have to deal with that. I don't want to have to fight with you over us. Especially not your guilt over me. I made my bed and I'll sleep in it. For better or worse. In sickness or in health. Even in death. No regrets Xena. None at all." She looked up at Xena then, her eyes pleading. "Could you please accept that?"
Xena stared into those forest green eyes and found she couldn't deny Gabrielle. She chuckled to herself. What Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets. Never been able to say 'No' to her much anyway and I definitely ain't gonna start now. Not with those puppy dog eyes staring at me so piteously.
"Alright. I can't promise but I'll try. It's hard for me. But you're right. That old argument gets tiring after a while." Xena paused, looking around the cargo hold searching for something with which to
change the topic. Spotting the packs, she waved a hand casually towards them and asked, "You wanna start packing up? We should be arriving soon."
A slow smile crept up Gabrielle's face and she nodded. "That's all I can ask for. I know it's hard Xena but I really need you to do something for me. When we get your body back, could you stop throwing yourself onto your sword whenever somebody comes along and plays on your guilt? I'm so tired of you dying on me and I don't think it's going to grow on me anytime soon. Not in this life or the next or any of our lives to come. We take enough risks with the life we lead and I can accept those risks but you need to stop crucifying yourself for your past. You do more good alive than dead, Xena. The world needs you and I definitely need you."
"Sorry, figure of speech." Gabrielle said sheepishly then scrunched up her face as the words conjured up a painful memory. The snow was falling, the Roman soldiers having laid her on top of a wooden cross, the feel of the ropes circling her arms and legs, turning her head to the left where Xena's battered figure lay on another wooden cross and hearing Xena tell her she was the best thing in her life, and then the pain as iron spikes bit into the flesh just above her ankles and then into her palms through the piece of wood they'd placed there. She shuddered and rubbed her arms as if the snow in her memories had infected the cargo hold with its freezing cold.
"Hey, bad memories?" Xena asked in concern as she gave Gabrielle a half-cuddle. She knew what memory had spooked Gabrielle. Alti had shown her the vision of their deaths and it had replayed in her mind over and over again as she tried to prevent it from coming to pass. When Caesar became a problem and Xena had to travel to Rome to kill him, she'd left Gabrielle in Greece, thinking that she'd be safe there. But the fates had intervened and Gabrielle had been captured by Brutus on Caesar's orders and brought to Rome. When she'd learnt of Gabrielle's capture, she'd abandoned her plans to kill Caesar and set out to rescue Gabrielle. And she would have been successful if it weren't for Callisto's interference. Gabrielle was almost out of the prison compound and Xena was holding off the guards when Callisto severed Xena's spine with her own chakram, causing the warrior to hit the ground, her legs useless, a Roman soldier advancing upon her with his sword raised to put an end to her life. That had brought Gabrielle running back in her defence. And Xena could only watch helplessly as the guards surrounded them and bundled them back into the prison cell. They'd been crucified on Mount Amaro and it had been snowing just like it had been in the vision.
"I'm fine." Gabrielle smiled her thanks. "So. You think you can try to do that for me? I don't think I'm asking that much."
Xena quirked an eyebrow at her. "Not much I see. Alright. I can do that. For you. Only you." She rose to her feet languidly and offered a hand to Gabrielle. "C'mon. Let's get this show on the road. We are getting my body back!" She proclaimed, giving Gabrielle a wink and a friendly pat on the butt as she pulled the bard to her feet.
It was a beautiful day for travelling. The sky was cloudy but not overcast and a gentle breeze kept the noon day heat from becoming overly stifling. Gabrielle had stocked up on some herbs and supplies at the port town before heading out for the temple. Her travelling pack seemed much fuller than it had been and was slung casually over her left shoulder. The chakram hung in its usual place on the right side of her belt and her sais were tucked neatly into the holders around her boots. The dragon tattoo covering her back could be made out through the cross straps of her red top. They didn't pass by many travellers on the road but those they met seemed to give Gabrielle a wide berth once they noticed the tattoo on her back.
After travelling for nearly two candlemarks, they entered a forest and Gabrielle was grateful for the shade. She decided it was a good opportunity for a break and let her pack down on the ground before settling herself on a thick root. She took a drink of water from her waterskin and watched as two black and white speckled rabbits darted out from the undergrowth in a game of tag, bounding across the dead leaves littering the forest floor. The rabbits skidded to a halt suddenly as they tumbled too close to Gabrielle and twitched their noses as they detected her foreign scent. And then they were gone, two streaking blurs racing away into the undergrowth they had appeared from moments earlier. Gabrielle smiled at their antics and took another sip from her waterskin before replacing the stopper. She casually secured the waterskin to her pack before arching her back in a lazy stretch.
"Two behind, one in the bushes to my right and another behind the tree on my left. Did I miss out anything?" Gabrielle asked in mid stretch, acting nonchalant.
"Yeah. One up in the tree preparing to throw something sharp at you. But you're getting the hang of it." Xena drawled then in a sharper tone commanded, "Roll, now!"
Gabrielle threw herself forward into a tight roll, feeling the rushing air at her back as two metallic objects thudded into the tree where she'd been just moments ago. She came out of her roll with her sais in hand and whipped around, jabbing a one-two combination to catch her assailant just below the ribs. The black robed figure collapsed to the ground gasping for breath but Gabrielle's body was already in motion. She planted her right foot and pivoted, taking out the attacker closing
in on her left. Sensing danger behind her, she ducked as a katana cleaved the air over her head then whipped her head back to connect with something soft. A muted crunch could be heard and another black robed figure collapsed onto the ground whimpering, his hands clutched protectively over his family jewels.
Three down, two to go. Gabrielle counted mentally and she spared a glance over at Xena who was leaning languidly on a tree watching her fight with a knowing smirk on her face. Guess she's enjoying herself. And so am I. Gabrielle acknowledged as she took a running start before performing a tight flip over the bad guy in front of her. Two metallic objects flashed past and lodged into the black garbed attacker, dropping him where he stood. Nice timing. She grinned wryly, landing on her feet, sheathing her sais in one move and twisting her body as she grabbed the chakram and threw it up into the tree behind her. The chakram flew through the air, neatly severing the branch on which a black robed figure had been crouching and dumping the poor soul flat on his face. Her first assailant had regained his breath and was rushing up to her with his katana raised above his head when the chakram whirred past, clocking him in the head and sending him off to a dark place before speeding towards Gabrielle's face. Instinctively, she raised her right hand and plucked the chakram out of the air, slapping it back onto her belt.
Xena fell into step beside her as Gabrielle walked towards the prone figure of the assailant she had dislodged from the tree. As she passed by the tree she'd been sitting on, she plucked out one of the metallic missles imbedded in the trunk and examined it. It was a flat metal piece shaped into a four-pointed star with a hole in the middle. "Interesting design." She commented to Xena, bringing it up so as to provide a better view.
"Yeah. They call it a throwing star or shuriken and it is unique to Jappa." Xena took another glance at the weapon and quipped, "At least this looks nicer than the ones they were using more than 30 years ago."
Gabrielle shrugged and threw the weapon over her shoulder just as they reached the owner of the throwing stars. She grabbed the guy by his shoulder, turned him on his back and straddled him, her hands lying flat upon his chest. "Hey! Why did you attack me?" Gabrielle asked. "Do I look like easy pickings?"
Dark brown eyes focused on her and narrowed as the assassin sat up in one explosive moment. "Die you foreign devil!" He screamed, his hand reaching within the folds of his robes.
In a motion too fast to catch, Gabrielle jabbed both sides of the man's neck with her fingers and watched as he blinked in confusion, falling back down onto the ground, suddenly robbed of his strength as the blood flow to his brain seemed to stop. "I've shut off the blood to your brain. You have 30 seconds to tell me who sent you and why." Gabrielle recited, glaring down at him as he gasped for breath. "Starting now."
The man's face contorted as he fought for control before succumbing to the knowledge that he would die a painful death in 30 seconds unless he satisfied the foreign woman's need for answers. "Mikaboshi... sent us... after ashes... stop the foreign warrior... who defeated Yodoshi..." He managed haltingly.
Gabrielle rewarded him with a dazzling smile. "Thanks. That wasn't so hard was it?" She released the pinch and punched him out before getting onto her feet. "Now I see why you enjoy this so much." She said to Xena with a cheeky smirk. "This is fun!" She strode over to her pack, dusted it off and hefted it onto her shoulders before picking her way north, whistling as she practically skipped through the forest.
Yup, she's good. Couldn't have handled that better myself. Xena mused as she followed the sound of the whistling into the woods.
They'd found a river just before sunset and Gabrielle had chosen a clearing nearby in which to set up camp for the night. The temple they sought wasn't too far away and they should reach it just before noon if they resumed their journey at first light tomorrow. Being unable to interact with anything in the land of the living other than Gabrielle, Xena sat against a nearby tree, watching as Gabrielle collected firewood, started a fire, laid out the bedroll and sleeping furs and took a much-needed bath in the river. Xena reached out to pick up a stone by her boot, frowning as her hand passed through the stone as if it wasn't there. The rules governing spirits and their interaction with the land of the living was driving Xena out of her mind. She could lean on trees and also walk through them. She could touch Gabrielle but not through her clothes. And she couldn't undress Gabrielle though she could play with her hair. She frowned harder as an idea nagged at the back of
Could it be? Hmmm... That's a distinct possibility. Yeah. Gabrielle is my soulmate so she's solid to me and I to her. And the clothes probably gain solidarity because she's wearing them but I can't interact with them cos they reside in the land of the living. As for walking on the ground, I guess it must be my own perception or maybe some god took pity on the spirits and decided it would be frustrating to sink into the ground when they try to sit or walk while in the land of the living. Yup. Guess that's it. Now, let me just go see what's taking Gabrielle so long.
Xena padded over to the river, her hand passing through Gabrielle's clothes as she ducked under the branch they were hanging from. Could have just walked through it I guess but I better not make a habit of that. Be hard to break when I'm finally solid again. She stopped in her tracks suddenly as a dripping wet green-eyed goddess stepped out of the gloom towards her, naked as the day she was born. Would you just look at that? She's gorgeous. Xena mused, reveling in the sight of the naked bard.
"You might want to close your mouth before a bat flies in or something." Gabrielle joked, her eyes twinkling with amusement as she caught the adoring expression on Xena's face. "I look good huh." She teased, a hand on her hips.
Closing her mouth with a nearly audible snap, Xena wondered how goofy she'd looked gawking at Gabrielle that way. "You're beautiful. As always." Xena said, her eyes drinking in every curve of the figure before her. "Don't you feel cold?"
Gabrielle walked right up to Xena, her straw-coloured hair plastered to her head and stopped mere inches away, craning her head to look up into dark blue eyes. "I might be." She licked her lips and closed her eyes as Xena leaned down and kissed her. She reached up to wrap her hands around Xena's neck and felt muscular arms glide down her body, stopping just below her butt then pulling her up along the warrior's body until Gabrielle was able to hook her legs around strong hips. "Mmm... You need to get out of that armour." She murmured as Xena broke the kiss long enough for Gabrielle to take a deep breath. "It's poking me in all the wrong places."
A low growl greeted her as teeth nibbled demandingly on her lips and she arched her back, feeling soft lips and gentle teeth work their way down her neck. She bit back a moan as Xena's tongue lapped at the hollow in her throat. She was almost giddy with desire as she felt strong thighs moving purposefully towards the camp where Gabrielle knew the bedroll to be their ultimate goal. She whimpered as Xena buried her face between her breasts, licking the water droplets from her cleavage. The world tilted around her and the soft warm feel of the bedroll was suddenly beneath her. She fumbled with Xena's breastplate, gasping as it blinked out of existence, her fingers making contact with smooth soft skin instead. Time seemed to stop as she admired the chiseled figure of her soulmate looming over her. Then the moment was over and her world was filled with busy hands, soft lips, a probing tongue and exquisite sensations. Glad I'm not a Hestian virgin. Gabrielle thought before the passion consumed her totally.
Gabrielle lay spent on the bedroll, one arm draped over her soulmate. "Gods, that was great. Everytime with you is just as mindblowing as the first. I think the Hestian virgins would rethink their vow of chastity if they had you to contend with." She ran her hand over Xena's taut stomach muscles, tracing a diagonal scar that ran from her left ribs to just below her belly button. "On second thought, I have no intention of sharing you. They can find their own warrior princess." She giggled uncontrollably at the thought of linen-clad virgins rampaging through Greece and jumping any tall dark female warrior unlucky enough to cross their path. Gabrielle's stomach chose that moment to rumble disagreeably.
"Looks like your stomach doesn't think much of my love making. Better feed it before it scares all the little rabbits away." Xena chuckled, raising herself unto her elbows and re-materialising her leathers and armour on her.
"Nifty trick huh." Gabrielle commented as she dug inside her travel pack for the bread and cheese she'd bought earlier. "I kinda prefer taking them off myself. More exciting that way." She winked at Xena before returning her attention to the wrapped bundle on her lap. She unwrapped the bundle, sliced off a huge piece of cheese, placed it on the chunk of bread smeared with olive oil and took a huge bite, chewing enthusiastically. "Muaybee I shood hafe cot a fiss for din er instead. Or not." She mumbled around her food, swallowing after the word dinner and wrapping the bread and cheese up before setting it aside. "Time to get my clothes. Seeing how we are getting company soon. Not that we were expecting any. Wouldn't want to shock the person to death without knowing what they were here for." Gabrielle muttered under her breath, pushed herself off the bedroll and jogged over to the river to retrieve her clothes.
Xena nodded sagely, not uttering a single word as she stared at a place on her left where a woman crouched in the shadows observing their camp. The woman was some distance away but she didn't doubt she'd seen Gabrielle eating naked by the fire. Xena had noticed her creeping up on their campsite just as Gabrielle had been rummaging in her pack for food but she'd sensed no threat from this unexpected visitor and thus said nothing to Gabrielle. The woman was obviously experienced in stealth and her fluid movements identified her as a trained fighter though the chainmail and twin swords she wore hinted towards a seasoned warrior. Xena winced as a metallic clink gave away the woman's location to anyone with an operative ear. She shook her head wryly. Chainmail is a bad idea for sneaking up on people.
Knowing her cover had been blown, the woman stood up and strode confidently towards the camp just as Gabrielle returned from the river. She'd taken the time to dress and Xena noticed she'd laced up her boots where her sais lay tucked away inconspicuously. Xena stood up and put her back against a tree, running her eyes over the newcomer. The light from the campfire revealed dark red hair tied back in a long ponytail that ended around her waist and golden eyes that gleamed from a strong handsome face which would never be described as beautiful. She stood nearly as tall as Xena herself but she was stockily built, her muscles well-defined and prominent even through the armour. Her chainmail armour covered her entire upper body, except for her arms which were left bare, and ended just slightly above her knee. Silver gauntlets protected her wrists and lower arms. A thin silver circlet with an emerald sat just above her brow. Xena knew this woman was no mortal but her body offered no clue as to her true nature. Sensing Gabrielle move up beside her, she folded her hands across her chest and waited as the woman stepped around the fire and stopped at a safe distance from them.
She placed her palms together in front of her chest and performed a court-worthy bow. "Sacred one. Forgive my intrusion upon you. I have been waiting for your arrival since the new moon and it is an honour to finally meet you." The woman said as she bowed again. Her voice was a deep baritone and she spoke with a melodious lilt not wholly unlike singing. Seeing the look of confusion on Gabrielle's face, she bowed again then introduced herself. "My name is Ci Nu and I am at your service."
Gabrielle was so stunned by this greeting that it took a second nudge from Xena's elbow before she realised that Ci Nu was waiting for a response. "Hi. I'm Gabrielle. Would you like to take a seat?" She asked, gesturing towards one of the fallen logs she'd dragged before the fire.
Ci Nu bowed her thanks, crossed over to the log and fiddled with her chainmail armour until she could sit down comfortably. Gabrielle plopped herself down on an adjacent log and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her thighs and staring intensely at Ci Nu. Xena sprawled herself next to Gabrielle's feet and settled down to make sense of the situation.
"I think you have me mistaken for someone else. I am not sacred. Not by a mile. Or even a hundred miles for that matter." Gabrielle said thinking back to the last time she'd been addressed that way. Not long after beginning her travels, she'd accidentally freed three Titans who had been imprisoned in stone by the gods. The Titans had believed her to be a virgin goddess and addressed her as such.
"It is no mistake, sacred one. You bear the mark of the sacred dragon on your back just as our prophecies have foretold."
"You mean the tattoo on my back? It's a gift from a friend in Jappa. For protection. My friend didn't say anything about it being sacred." Gabrielle spared a glance at Xena who shook her head in affirmation.
Ci Nu seemed slightly disconcerted by this admission and her eyes suddenly unfocused as she stared at Gabrielle. Apparently satisfied by whatever she saw, she nodded. "I have seen your aura and it is the golden dragon. There can be no doubt. You are the sacred one." She insisted then paused, seeming to consider something puzzling. "But your aura is streaked with black and there's a purple cord trailing away behind you. Are you injured, sacred one? If you are, I must bring you to our healer immediately."
Xena quirked an eyebrow at Gabrielle who returned her unspoken question with a shrug. "I'm fine. No injuries. That I know of anyway. A golden dragon huh. Why don't you tell me about these prophecies of yours?"
"A black aura almost always means death and auras never lie. But you seem unharmed. And I have never seen a purple aura or even a cord that trails behind the aura. It is a mystery. I shall get our healer to look at you when we return to my clan. He will know if there is something wrong with you."
Gabrielle waited for Ci Nu to continue, her right hand unconsciously reaching down to grab Xena's, their fingers intertwining with each other.
"Ten years ago, our population had been decimated by a war that had started as a simple territorial dispute. Those of us who survived agreed on a truce that we may return to our clans and start rebuilding. The uneasy peace was soon shattered when a foreigner invaded our lands from the west three years ago. He wiped out half of our clans before the rest of us decided to set aside our differences and forge an alliance against him. Unfortunately, he was much stronger than us and we could not defeat him so we finally surrendered in the hopes that we may be spared. He didn't kill us but he has decreed that a female be sacrificed to him every year from each clan. With our low birth rates and the attrition of our females, our population has been on a steady decline. Two years ago, three of our seers went on a vision quest to seek a solution to our problems. Only one of them returned but he'd seen our deliverer coming from the east and bearing the mark of the sacred golden dragon. This sacred one is said to be a foreigner to our shores and mortal but her spirit is strong and she would slay the tyrant in an honourable fight and return us back to our glory days." Ci Nu explained. She paused to look at Gabrielle then reeled in shock as she stared down at Xena. "Your aura is so strong and yet. You... You have a guardian. A purple dragon. This is... unbelievable." She exclaimed.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks. Xena shrugged. "You can see her?" Gabrielle asked, gesturing towards Xena.
"Yes. I couldn't before but now I can see that the purple cord leads from you to her."
"How about now?" Gabrielle asked as she let go of Xena's hand.
Ci Nu frowned, her brows furrowing in concentration. "She's gone. All I see is the purple cord trailing behind you."
Xena quirked another eyebrow at Gabrielle and she smirked. "Interesting. So, I'm supposed to defeat this guy in a fight when none of you could? Lucky me I guess." Xena poked her with a finger, an unspoken question evident in her eyes. Having travelled with Xena for so long, Gabrielle knew what that question was without asking. "Oh right. You said something about your people being immortal?"
"We are not immortals but we are dragons and our lives are long. Anyone or any creature with a shorter lifespan than ours is deemed to be mortal." Ci Nu replied.
"Dragons. Right. So why are you in human form? Or is that normal for you?"
Ci Nu sighed. "The tyrant has forbidden any of us to assume dragon form but we prefer to stay in human form anyway. It is easier to interact with the humans who live here without drawing too much attention to ourselves." She stood up then and stretched. "It is getting late and I will not keep you from your rest. I wish you a good rest, sacred one." She bowed. "Tomorrow I will return to lead you to my home. It is less than three candlemarks from here."
"Whoa. Hold your horses there. First things first. I need to talk to someone at a temple near here. After that, I have something I need to do before I can take a shot at fulfilling this prophecy of yours. Oh, but you are welcome to share our camp for the night." Gabrielle stated matter-of-factly.
"I'm afraid time is not on our side, sacred one. The next sacrifice is due in four days. He will come personally to choose his sacrifice and every year without fail, he will demonstrate his strength and power over us by challenging us to a death fight. None of our fighters have been able to defeat him but with you on our side, we will not lose."
"Four days huh." She looked over at Xena and received a nod in return. "Ok. That will work. You can accompany us to the temple. Once we have the information we need, we will see about your little problem." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand reassuringly and felt it returned in full.
It was still dark when Gabrielle felt a sharp pain in her side. She opened one bleary eye to meet mischievous blue eyes gazing down at her. "It's too early to be up and about." She grumbled, letting her eye shut as she tried to snuggle down harder into the warmth that was Xena. There was a brief reprieve before long fingers teased a ticklish spot behind her knee. Gabrielle jerked upright and slapped her palm onto a leather-clad stomach, startling herself wide awake at the pain tingling through her hand. "Ow!" She cried in outrage, looking down to be greeted by two identical raised dark brows. "Serves me right, huh." Gabrielle sighed then smiled down fondly at her soulmate as large hands enveloped her own throbbing hand and massaged the pain away. "I love you, Xena but you do realise Ci Nu could handle those followers of Mikaboshi herself. There are only four of them and I'm sure she's a much better fighter than me. And she's had a long time to hone those skills."
Xena wiped the sleep from Gabrielle's eyes, mischievous grin firmly set on her face and asked, "But where's the fun in that?"
"Ok ok. One warrior bard coming right up." A gentle slap on her butt had her up and running towards where Ci Nu stood surveying the four intruders dressed once again in black flowing robes that covered their bodies from head to toe, leaving only a small slit for their eyes. "Nice morning for some butt kicking huh." Gabrielle called in greeting, skidding to a stop beside the taller woman as she drew her sais and got them ready.
"Good morning sacred one. I was hoping to settle this without waking you." Ci Nu replied, dispensing with the bow as she kept her eyes on the two guys bearing down on her.
"Can't let you have all the fun now can I?" Gabrielle quipped as she moved forward to meet the two attackers headed her way. A metallic flash caught her eye and she flipped her left sai point out to pluck the throwing star out of the air. With a twist of her wrist, she flicked the throwing star back at its original owner and was gratified to see the missle hit its mark, embedding itself firmly in the guy's chest. Gabrielle spared a glance over at Ci Nu and saw two black forms hit the ground simultaneously as the dragon warrior drew her twin swords, slashed down at both attackers and sheathed them in one continuous motion. That is kicking ass. Big time! Gabrielle thought then turned back just in time to catch the glint of the katana as it homed in on her neck. Dropping to her knee, she reached up with both sais, neatly stopping the blade before twisting her sais to disarm the attacker. Using her feet, she powered herself upwards, landing a one-two combination on the man's stomach before knocking him out with a roundhouse punch.
Gabrielle tucked her sais back into their holder then looked over to find Ci Nu staring at her intently. Probably criticising my technique or something. Aloud, she said, "Seeing how we're already up, might as well hit the road. Any objections?"
"No, sacred one. Please, lead on."
"Didn't know you knew how to use those throwing stars. But nice throw." Xena murmured in Gabrielle's ear, sending goosebumps running down her neck.
Gabrielle glared at Xena. "Thanks. But save that for when we have the time." She teased before busying herself packing up the campsite.
The rest of the journey passed uneventfully and they reached the temple way before noon. The temple was typical of its kind though somewhat well-hidden from the road. Gabrielle asked Ci Nu to wait for them in the tavern of the nearby town, explaining that it might take a while before they were done at the temple. At first Ci Nu insisted on staying by her side but Gabrielle slowly wore her down and wrangled a concession from the dragon warrior to get rooms in the town inn so they could stay the night before making the trip to Ci Nu's home in the morning.
Xena watched as Ci Nu disappeared out of sight in the direction of the nearest town. She then turned to Gabrielle, resting a hand casually on her shoulder. "You could get in some shopping at the town." She suggested. "The temple is only a gate. I have to travel through it to find Eli. And you won't be able to follow. No reason for you to waste time here. I'll find you at the tavern once I'm done."
"Don't worry about me. I'll just make myself at home and work on my scrolls while you talk to Eli. There's food and water in my pack so I won't go hungry or die of thirst." Gabrielle reassured the warrior, leaning in and laying a kiss on Xena's lips, forestalling her protest. "And I'll feel better knowing you're nearby. Shopping can wait. You are my priority now."
Xena pulled Gabrielle closer and gave her a real kiss before setting foot in the temple. The place was deserted but clean. Xena waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the temple hall. "Make yourself comfortable. I'll try not to take too long." She closed her eyes then called out in her mind. Eli? I need your help.
Gabrielle watched as Xena closed her eyes then a bright light flared where her soulmate had been. When Gabrielle opened her eyes next, Xena was gone.
Guess we are in the right place. Gabrielle thought. She looked around the temple, finding a spot where she had a good view of the temple entrance then settled down to wait. It's a good time to record our adventure in Jappa before I forget the details. Not as if I could get it out of my mind if I tried.
She remembered the shock that had jolted through her when she'd found Xena's body in Morimoto's camp. The body of her soulmate and best friend had been strung up on a tree like a piece of meat, a gaping hole all that remained where her head should have been. Gabrielle had fallen to her hands and knees retching at the sight then screamed her anger and pain at the uncaring skies. A thousand soldiers up against one warrior princess and the cowards had chosen to hide behind an avalanche of arrows, piercing Xena with arrow after arrow before charging the mortally wounded warrior in an attempt to subdue her with their sheer numbers. And yet, Xena killed hundreds of them before she died. Gabrielle had seen the corpses that littered the battlefield and she knew her friend had faced that last battle with her usual courage and fearlessness. Xena did not deserve to be decapitated, her head gracing the trophy case of a self-proclaimed samurai who ridiculed the very idea of honour and her body put on display for the world to jeer and mock at. Gabrielle could only guess at the loneliness Xena had felt as she struggled through the pain, drawing upon hidden reserves repeatedly as she fought her way through the enemy. They had never discussed it. She knew Xena would never describe that battle for her just because it would be too painful for Gabrielle to hear it.
But Gabrielle could jot down the less painful aspects of their time in Jappa and when she was finally ready, she knew she could convince Xena to give her the whole story. She took out her writing implements from her travel pack and settled down to write.
When her vision cleared, Xena found herself standing in a room draped completely in white silk with Eli seated on the floor dressed in white flowing robes that seemed to glow faintly.
"Xena!" Eli exclaimed, rising from his seat to embrace Xena warmly. "It is so good to see you again. Considering the circumstances. Come, sit down and tell me how I can help you."
Xena lowered herself onto the floor and waited for Eli to resume his seat before launching into a heavily summarised explanation. She told Eli about Mikaboshi's role in her current circumstance and how Gabrielle's soul would follow her in death if she couldn't find a way to return to the living within the next half moon. She touched on Harukata's advice to seek out Eli for an alternative means of resurrection. "Eli, you do not owe me anything and I would understand if you do not have a solution for me. But you know how much I love Gabrielle and I hope that you would at least tell me how I can break the bond so that Gabrielle can go on to pursue her dreams even if I do not
return. I cannot let her die."
"I see. There is a solution. Have you heard of the Fountain of Life?" He asked then continued without waiting for a response. "Anyone who drinks from the Fountain of Life will become immortal. But the water can also bring back the dead. Without a physical body, it is harder but not impossible. To restore your physical body, you need to mix your ashes with water from the fountain. Once that's done, you need to merge your soul with your body."
"How do I do that?" Xena interrupted.
"You just need to lie down in your body. After that, someone has to give you the kiss of life by transferring water from the Fountain of Life into your body. The only other criteria is that the person giving you the kiss of life must be mortal. Which means that person cannot drink from the Fountain of Life before resurrecting you."
"That sounds simple enough. But how do I find this Fountain of Life?"
"It's located on an island called Bimini to the far west. I could open a portal for you to get there but there is a spell that prevents the living from teleporting in. It is a safeguard to protect the Fountain of Life from those who would abuse it. I can't teleport Gabrielle there and sailing to Bimini from Chin would take almost two moons, time that you do not have. The best way would be to seek the help of the dragons here in Chin. They can fly Gabrielle there in less than a day if they don't stop. And they know what the Fountain of Life looks like. Dragons have been guarding the fountain since the beginning of time."
"I really appreciate your help Eli." Xena said, pausing as she considered whether to push matters. "What about the bond?"
"Ah. The bond between you and Gabrielle is just amazing! Unfortunately, there's no way to break it. But, always remember: Selfless love is the greatest power anyone can possess." A portal appeared on his right. "I think it's time for you to return to Gabrielle. She needs you." He leaned over to give Xena a hug. "Be well my friend. Til we meet again."
Xena stood up to take her leave. "You too my friend. And thank you." She turned and walked through the portal, pondering Eli's statement on selfless love and how that would help keep Gabrielle alive.
The room Ci Nu had managed to secure was small but not too shabby. The bed was clean though a little hard but it was much better than sleeping on the cold hard ground. A small partition at the back hid a wooden bath tub in which Gabrielle was happily enjoying a relaxing hot bath while singing at the top of her voice. Xena had wisely chosen to stay away. She loved Gabrielle but her toneless singing never ceased to leave Xena with a splitting headache. Logically, she was a spirit and spirits do not get headaches but she wasn't about to test that theory.
Gabrielle sang whenever she was in a good mood and she was definitely in one now. Xena had told her about the Fountain of Life in Bimini and what she had to do to bring Xena back from the dead. It sounded simple enough and Gabrielle had no intention of drinking from the fountain to achieve immortality. Her place was with Xena, in life and in death, and she wasn't about to change that. They had a little over half a moon to perform the ritual and there was definitely enough time for her to challenge the foreign dragon three days later, free the eastern dragons and enlist their help in getting to Bimini and the Fountain of Life. That was the plan anyway. What could go wrong? She had never fought a dragon before but Ci Nu had reassured her the fight would be a contest of the spirit instead of a physical battle. Gabrielle had grown into a formidable warrior under Xena's expert instructions but she knew skill, speed, and intellect could only compensate so much for what she lacked in strength and size. Her spirit however was another matter. Gabrielle had always been somewhat mule-headed. Once she had her mind set on something, even the gods couldn't change it. Now, she was focused solely on defeating the tyrant and restoring Xena to life. Woe to anyone who dared to stand in her way.
Ci Nu was waiting for her down in the tavern when Gabrielle finally made her way there. She loved sleeping and nearly seven years of travelling with Xena hadn't changed that much. Xena always woke before the crack of dawn but she'd usually let Gabrielle sleep in unless there were pressing matters to attend to.
After a hearty breakfast, they set out for Ci Nu's home. Xena had popped out earlier mumbling about something she needed to check out so it was only the two of them on the road that morning. While they travelled, Gabrielle peppered Ci Nu with questions about the dragons, their origins and culture amongst other things. Ci Nu patiently explained their history, about how the eastern dragons were descended from the four dragon gods who ruled the seas and how they'd learn to live peacefully with the humans who populated the land. She told of the rise and fall of the great clans and the territorial dispute that had preceded the decline of the dragon population. Ci Nu revealed how baby dragons were trained from young to read, write, fight and hunt. She also described the quest a dragon took as a coming-of-age ritual to discover their calling in life.
"Wait a minute. At what age does a dragon come of age? So to speak." Gabrielle interjected.
"A hundred years of life." Ci Nu replied.
"A hundred? Right. And how many years does a dragon usually live?"
"Thousands. It varies but the oldest dragon we have on record lived 10,500 years before he succumbed to old age."
"Wow. Do you mind me asking just how many winters you have seen?"
Ci Nu smiled at the question and inclined her head in acknowledgement. "I am young by our standards but I have seen many human dynasties rise and fall throughout my lifetime. I'm a little under a thousand years old. 912 years to be precise."
Gabrielle looked Ci Nu over and commented, "You look. Good. For a nearly thousand-year-old dragon."
Ci Nu let out a chuckle. "As I've mentioned, I'm young for our kind. But no, our human form does not reflect age the way a normal human body does. At the age of 50, we achieve our mature human body and that's that. To the outside world, we probably look to be all in our late twenties. It's just easier that way though we could transform ourselves into any human form if we so desired."
"That's convenient. So, tell me about these auras."
"An aura is basically the life force or energy a person or dragon possesses. The brightness determines the strength of their energy and the colour of their aura reflects the dominant characteristics of their soul."
"So mine's a golden dragon. What does that mean?" Gabrielle asked.
"Gold symbolises wisdom and prosperity but there has only been one golden dragon in our entire history and that is the sacred one. Our legends tell us he is our protector and he would appear in our time of need. As a human, your aura should not be that of a dragon but our seer believes he has chosen you as his vessel hence the aura we see upon you is his and not really yours."
"Vessel huh. So that's not really my aura? I wonder what mine looks like." Gabrielle mused. "What about the purple dragon you saw?"
Ci Nu stroked her chin, thinking. "That is a mystery. There has never been a purple dragon in all history and I don't recall the sacred one as having a guardian. Perhaps the purple dragon is linked directly to you and bears no relevance to the sacred one. We could ask the healer when we reach my clan. He is one of the oldest dragons in Chin right now."
"Hmmm... Right." They were approaching the place they'd camped the previous night. "Shall we stop for lunch? It's another three candlemarks to your home, isn't it?"
"Your memory serves you right sacred one. If you would like to start a fire, I'll hunt some game for us."
"Sounds good." Gabrielle said and dropped her pack on the floor. "I know just the place to get some firewood."
After a sumptuous meal of rabbit, Gabrielle and Ci Nu continued on their way. One and a half candlemark later, they stepped off the road and headed down a well-hidden path which led to a huge cavern. There was nothing special about the cavern except there seemed to be no way out other than by which they had entered.
"Nice cave but I doubt fifty dragons could fit in here. Did I miss something?" Gabrielle questioned.
Ci Nu chuckled. "No sacred one. You are right. My home lies past this cave and only dragons may enter. Come." She beckoned, leading the way to the back of the cave where Gabrielle noticed a dragon chiseled into the wall.
"Oh. That's the key huh."
"Yes. But the dragon will only reveal itself to those it recognises as belonging to our people. Follow me." Ci Nu laid a hand on the dragon carving and walked through the seemingly solid wall.
Gabrielle stood staring at the spot where Ci Nu had disappeared then shrugged. "Right. Walk through a solid wall. I can do that."
"Yes you can. And I'll be right there with you." Xena said as she materialised beside Gabrielle. "Go on. It's just a clever illusion. But if you weren't a dragon, you would be walking into a cave wall and that would hurt." She added just as Gabrielle took a step towards the carving.
"That's not funny. I'm not a dragon." Gabrielle retorted, turning around to pin Xena with a glare.
"Yes you are. O Sacred One." Xena mocked playfully then raised her hands in surrender as Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "C'mon. Where's your sense of humour?"
"You're not going to let me live that down are you?" Gabrielle challenged.
"Nope." Xena grinned then swept her hand towards the dragon carving. "Let's go. Ci Nu's waiting. And don't worry. You are kind of an honourary dragon so it will let you pass." She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and pulled her through the wall before Gabrielle could protest.
They emerged into a dense forest where Ci Nu stood waiting patiently, her body covered in dappled sunlight. There was something about the forest that inspired awe and reverence. Gabrielle felt as if she was intruding upon a sacrosanct place where humankind had been forbidden to walk. Come to think of it, humans were prohibited from these grounds but neither Gabrielle nor Xena were considered solely humans just now. Gabrielle nodded over at Ci Nu and gestured for her to lead on. Before Gabrielle taken a step, Xena tapped her shoulder, pointing back towards where they had come. There was no sign of the cave anywhere. A tall thick oak stood directly behind, a familiar dragon carving gracing the trunk. Gabrielle mentally took note of its location just in case they ever needed to make a hasty exit from these lands. Xena had always taught her to think ahead and be prepared for any contingencies but Gabrielle had never developed the habit, choosing to depend on Xena to bail them out time and again from sticky situations.
I can't expect Xena to save me every time I get into trouble. It's just not fair to her. She has never complained but I really need to start doing my part.
Deep in thought, Gabrielle did not notice when Ci Nu stopped in front of her and it was only Xena's hand on her shoulder which kept her from walking into the dragon warrior. The dense forest had given way abruptly to a clearing twice the size of Potidaea and it was filled with opulent buildings arranged in a circular pattern that reminded her of the chakram she carried on her belt. Half of the buildings had white roofs and the other half black. Each building was covered in intricate carvings and precious metals that would make even Ming Tien's palace look like a hovel in comparison. Ci Nu's return and the appearance of a foreigner in their midst seemed to draw the inhabitants like flies to centaur poop. It wasn't long before a crowd of people had gathered in front of Ci Nu milling uncertainly.
Then the crowd parted to allow a man dressed in the white robes of a scholar to pass through. His facial features were eerily similar to Ci Nu's though in his case, it made for an extraordinarily handsome looking man. He carried himself with confidence and it was evident from the crowd's reverence that here was a man accustomed to wielding power and authority. Gabrielle would have bet that this was the clan chief and Ci Nu's father. She wasn't disappointed when the man spoke.
"Greetings, sacred one. I, chief of the southern forest clan bids you welcome. It is indeed our honour to have you here." He tucked his hands within his sleeves and bowed. The rest of the clan followed his lead and paid their respects to Gabrielle.
"Erm... Thanks but could we dispense with the formality? From what Ci Nu here has told me, I am only a vessel for the sacred dragon so... You are making me really uncomfortable. And please, call me Gabrielle." She said uneasily as Xena looked on with that irritating knowing smirk on her face. Out of the corner of her mouth, she added to Xena, "Wipe that smug look off your face before I do it for you."
That only served to broaden Xena's grin but she lifted her hands up in a placating gesture. "This is such a different reception from what I normally get. But ok. I can play nice."
Ci Nu walked over to the chief and whispered something in his ear. His countenance grew troubled but he nodded. "I beg your pardon for making you uncomfortable, sac... Gabrielle. Come, you will be a guest in my house for as long as necessary. Our clan will prepare a feast tonight to celebrate your arrival." He barked out some instructions to the people around him and they disappeared quickly to carry out his orders, leaving them alone. "My daughter tells me you require the services of our healer. Are you hurt?" He asked gently.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Thanks for your concern but I am fine. However Ci Nu seems to believe there's something wrong with my aura so she thought the healer might be able to help."
"Yes. My daughter speaks the truth. Pardon my audacity but there is death in your soul and that would give the foreign one an advantage should you decide to accept his challenge." He waved his hands in the air dismissively. "Enough of all this morbid talk. Let us retire to my humble abode. I have asked for the healer to attend us there. Come."
The chief's house lay in the middle of the clan and had a white roof. There wasn't much to distinguish it from its counterparts except for a red banner over the door declaring this to be the residence of the southern forest clan chief. "Classy." Xena mumbled as she followed the procession through the door. Gabrielle was shown to large quarters near the back of the house. It had a huge soft bed in the middle and a private bath near the front where it was hidden from sight by a long bamboo screen. A horse could have swam inside the bath and still have room for Gabrielle and Xena to sit comfortably inside. It was filled with warm water that jetted in through little spouts situated throughout the bath and drained through a small grating at the bottom. Bottles of scented bath oils, soap and petals were laid out in a small tray nearby together with two towels. On the bed covers lay two folded robes. One a white cotton bathrobe and the other a golden silk robe.
Before Gabrielle had the chance to settle down in the room, Xena caught her gaze and directed it towards the warm bath that lay invitingly before them. She then looked back at Gabrielle, her eyes travelling once over the bard's body before stopping on her travel-stained clothes and raising her eyebrows in query. Knowing an invitation when she saw one, Gabrielle gave Xena her trademark cheeky grin, stripped off her clothes to leave them in an untidy heap by the door and made a beeline for the bath, dragging Xena along in her wake. They disappear behind the bamboo screen and it wasn't long before sounds of a water fight filled the room.
After the bath, Gabrielle went out into the main hall in search of the healer while dressed in the golden silk robe and sandals which their host had so thoughtfully provided. During their little discussion in the bath, they had agreed that more information was required and the best source would be the healer since that was what Ci Nu had led them to believe. Xena was concerned about both the challenge and the black streaks Ci Nu had noticed in the aura of the golden dragon. If what they said was true, Gabrielle had a weakness which the foreign dragon would seek to exploit and that was something Xena wanted rectified as soon as possible. Or if it couldn't be fixed, knowledge was power and with sufficient information, they could probably come up with some strategy to turn things to their advantage. Watching Gabrielle walk down the corridors in the golden silk robe, Xena had a moment to reflect on just how golden Gabrielle's hair was and wonder if that had anything to do with the golden dragon's choice of vessel. Then she realised that Gabrielle's hair had actually darkened to a rich gold colour after they had entered the dragons' enclave. She decided it would definitely be good to gather more information about what they were going up against here.
They made a final turn into the main hall where a non-descript man about Gabrielle's height stood waiting. Like the chief, he too was dressed in the white robes of a scholar and he bowed as Gabrielle approached. "Sacred one, I am the healer of the southern forest clan. The chief has asked me to provide you with whatever assistance I may. If you are ready, would you please follow me to the healing room? We would have more privacy there and I would have access to the tools of my trade."
Gabrielle returned the bow. "Lead on. We need all the assistance we can get if we are to defeat this tyrant."
The healing room was a relatively small circular room situated near the front door. There were three treatment beds arranged in a vaguely triangular arrangement in the middle of the room. A tall wooden cabinet stood near the back from which came the heady scent of herbs. Gabrielle recognised the smell of certain herbs which Xena often carried in her travel pack but there were plenty which she wasn't familiar with. Xena was intrigued by all the unfamiliar herbs present in the room and made a mental note to learn more about them in the next two days.
The healer directed Gabrielle to lie down on the bed at the apex of the triangle. "Shall we start? Your aura will show any injuries or concerns we may need to address." He said, then pulled out a white palm-sized crystal from the sleeve of his robe. "You will need to hold this crystal in your hands, and concentrate all your energy on it. This will focus your aura into the crystal and allow me to carry out a thorough examination."
Gabrielle settled herself on the bed, which wasn't as hard and unforgiving as it seemed, then reached out to take the crystal from the healer's hand. "Focus my energy on this crystal huh. Anything I need to worry about?" She asked, turning the crystal over in her hands. It was surprisingly warm and smooth to the touch.
"The examination might take a while but there are no risks involved. You may stop at any time, sacred one. But it would be easier for me to make an assessment if there are no interruptions. Our guards have been doubled since your arrival and the chief has commanded that we not be disturbed until I am finished. You may begin whenever you are ready."
"Are you expecting an attack?"
"No, sacred one, but we are not taking any chances. If the tyrant learns of your presence amongst us, he might not be willing to take the risk of the prophecy coming true. The easiest way would be to eliminate you before the challenge could occur. You are now in our protection and our clan will fight to the death before we let you come to any harm."
"Right. Let's do this. No one is dying if I can help it." Gabrielle laid down on the bed, her hands holding the crystal above her stomach. "You need me to place the crystal somewhere specific?"
"That is fine sacred one. Shall we begin?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and Xena walked over to stand beside her soulmate, ready to spring into motion at the slightest hint of danger. After a while, the crystal started to glow and the healer pulled a chair over to the bedside where he laid a hand on the crystal, bowing his head in concentration. Xena watched the crystal intently but she couldn't make out anything other than the glowing and the healer didn't move a single muscle.
A candlemark came and went. Xena's trained senses picked up neither sound nor movement within the house but she could hear the bustle outside where the clan was busy preparing for the feast later that night. She searched Gabrielle's face for any signs of strain or distress but there were none. Sporting a wistful smile, pale blue eyes traced the all-too-familiar features of the woman she loved as Gabrielle lay there unmoving. When Gabrielle wasn't having one of her nightmares, she looked so peaceful and innocent that all Xena wanted to do was protect her from evil and pain. But these past seven years hadn't been easy. Xena had failed numerous times to protect Gabrielle and had even been the cause of pain on more than one occasion. There were times when she wondered if Gabrielle would have led a happier life without her. Maybe she should never have allowed Gabrielle to tag along on her journey. Blood, violence, death and destruction followed Xena like a faithful dog and that was not something an innocent cheerful young girl like Gabrielle should ever be exposed to. But it had happened and Xena was glad of the company. Yet there were times when she wondered if it had been a selfish decision on her part. Gabrielle had insisted it was her choice but Xena could have put her foot down and sent the young bard back to Potidaea despite her protests. But she hadn't. Then again, knowing just how stubborn Gabrielle was, she'd probably have followed Xena regardless and in the process gotten herself into more trouble. At least in keeping Gabrielle close by, Xena had been able to keep an eye on her and that had proven a good thing more times than she'd bothered to keep count.
Just like Gabrielle said, it is time I accepted it. We both chose our paths and we ended up together. And that is what matters at the end of the day. We may hurt each other but we also love each other. She is my family and I am hers. She is my way and my greater good. Without her, I would have never turned my life around. And I definitely would have been dead earlier and that at my own hands. Without me, she would have been just another embittered slave to Mezentius or even a famous playwright who had never known love. And I know just how much she enjoys travelling around the world with me, recording our adventures and telling stories. Indeed, what Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets. And if this life with me is what she wants, I'm not going to tell her no.
At that moment, the crystal stopped glowing and the healer straightened up in his seat while Gabrielle opened her eyes blinking languidly at Xena. "Hey."
"Hey yourself. You feeling alright?"
"Good as new actually." Gabrielle grabbed Xena's proffered hand and pulled herself up, stretching lazily before turning her attention on the healer. "So, how did it go?"
The healer however was staring open-mouthed at Xena or at least at where she was standing. "Wa... wa... was that your soulmate?" He asked.
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena then pulled her down onto the bed so she could lean back against the warrior who had by then wrapped an arm comfortably around Gabrielle's waist. "You mean her?"
"Yes sacred one. She is alive? I thought she was... dead." The healer replied, having regained sufficient composure to shut his mouth when he wasn't speaking.
"Erm. Well, she is kinda dead. But we are working towards rectifying that. After we settle this little matter with the tyrant here." Gabrielle said in respond, sparing Xena's hand a reassuring pat.
"I think I finally understand. Your aura shows that you are perfectly healthy physically but the streaks of black symbolise death which wouldn't have made any sense given your physical condition. Except that your aura is linked to another and that is something very rare. It has not been seen in a dragon since the war started so none of the younger generation know what it means. We have stories but it is difficult to believe in something when you have never experienced it before. The black streaks I saw were caused by your soulmate's death. The link between the two of you is too strong for either of you to survive the other's passing into the afterlife. And so you are dying. Just not yet. And that is something I haven't figured out yet."
"I knew that. A friend told us about it so we were actually on a quest to bring her back to life. Until we were interrupted by Ci Nu. It's complicated but something happened which gave us a little more time so we are making full use of it." Gabrielle explained, settling herself more comfortably in Xena's embrace before asking, "Will this affect the challenge?"
"The challenge will be a spiritual fight. Basically, the combatants would enter the fighting arena and go into a meditative trance where they release their spirits from their bodies to duel in the spiritual ring. The spiritual ring is an extension of the fighting arena which is projected onto the crystal ceiling above so that the battle may be witnessed by everyone. No one is allowed to enter the arena or interfere with the fight in any way. Any injuries incurred in the spiritual ring will be reflected upon the physical body. The duel ends when either spirit disappears from the spiritual ring. That usually happens only when a combatant is dead or dying. As you can see, this would be a fight to the death."
"Sounds familiar doesn't it?" Xena murmured into Gabrielle's ear, giving it a little nip for good measure. "Remember when we fought Alti in the spiritual realm? Injuries received there were translated into the physical realm. This would be similar. And it's just like the Amazon's royal challenge. A fight to the bitter death. You up for it?"
Gabrielle bit her lip in frustration. "Why must it always be a fight to the death? I'm sure there are more peaceful solutions to the problem. But if I have to fight him, I will. And I have learned from the best so he better watch out." She mumbled in reply to Xena before addressing the healer, "Isn't there another way to defeat the tyrant? I'm not a big supporter of death or fighting."
"Sacred one, we are an honourable people. We have tried to reason with him but he isn't willing to listen. If we refuse, he takes by right of might. And we are not willing to assassinate him. The only course of action we have left is to beat him in fair combat. And none of our best fighters have been able to manage that yet. He is insanely powerful so there is a high chance that your link to your dead soulmate could prove your ultimate undoing. This quest that you mentioned, could we help you complete it before the sacrifice? If we could revive your soulmate before the duel, you would have every single advantage over the tyrant. Soulmates draw strength from each other and in a spiritual duel, a combatant with a surviving soulmate could be said to have a distinct edge over a combatant who has none."
"We need to get to Bimini to perform the ritual that would bring Xena back. And I don't know if we have enough time to do that and get back here before the tyrant arrives for his sacrifice. Our friend said your clan could help us get there."
"Xena is your soulmate? You mean Xena, the warrior princess? The woman who defeated Khan and his army of a hundred thousand men? That Xena?" The healer looked at Xena in astonishment and awe.
Xena rolled her eyes and Gabrielle smirked. "Yes. That Xena."
"Oh good heavens, she's a legend! That would explain the colour of her aura. Purple. That symbolises magic though it would more accurately be known as Lao Ma's powers. Or it could also be a meld of red and blue. Red symbolises courage, action and confidence. Blue signifies commitment. Both of which would describe the Xena we know." The healer rambled excitedly.
"Yup, that's her alright. So, do you think we could get to Bimini and return in time to meet the challenge?"
"Oh. Bimini. You are headed for the Fountain of Life? I know where that is. It is at least a day's journey away by air and a return trip would take at least two days. The tyrant will be arriving on the morning of the third day so that would be cutting it a little too close. But I'm afraid we wouldn't be able to bring you to the fountain til after the tyrant has been defeated. The tyrant has forbidden any of us to assume dragon form which means we will not be able to fly you to Bimini. Switching to our natural form sends out a signal in the spiritual realm which cannot be suppressed and with how things stand right not, it's a risk we cannot take. The tyrant's enforcers are scattered throughout our lands and anyone who dares defy the tyrant would meet death at the end of their swords. I wish we could help you. With Xena on our side, the tyrant wouldn't stand a chance."
Xena's face took on a thoughtful look and she placed her hand gently on Gabrielle's shoulder to stop her reply. After a moment, she whispered something into Gabrielle's ear who nodded and turned to the healer. "Two questions. First, I thought I was just a vessel for the sacred dragon. Shouldn't the fight be between the sacred dragon and the tyrant? If that's true, the sacred dragon's spirit should not be affected by mine. Second, if we defeat the tyrant, what's to stop the enforcers from attacking us?"
The healer leaned forward, steepling his fingers and staring intently at Gabrielle. He frowned in thought, his brows furrowed in concentration. Both Gabrielle and Xena waited for the healer to gather his thoughts. The healer finally nodded in satisfaction before speaking. "This concept might be a little hard to understand but we believe the spiritual and physical aspect of a person is integrated into a whole that encompasses who we are. If a person is spiritually weak or under attack, physical weakness or ailments will follow. This works in reverse as well. If a person is physically infirm or wounded, the spirit is similarly weakened. I do not dare to speak on behalf of the sacred one but it is my belief that you were chosen for your soul-link with the warrior princess. She is well-known for her prowess in the spiritual realm but anyone who has knowledge of her would be suicidal to even consider challenging her. The logical choice in this case would be yourself. The soul-link grants you access to her considerable powers and the tyrant can't turn down your challenge without appearing to be a coward. Our western cousins do not possess the ability to read or see auras and the tyrant is typical of his people so he wouldn't know you have a soulmate or that the sacred one is residing within you. That would be to our advantage. Unfortunately, Xena's death has weakened your spirit considerably and negated the advantage we would have had over the tyrant. You will be channeling the sacred dragon's spirit in the fight but any wounds received would still be reflected upon you because the sacred dragon isn't really here." He paused, searching Gabrielle's face for any signs of confusion. Seeing none, he continued, "Your ability to channel the sacred dragon is limited by your spirit. In your current state, you would not be able to channel more than half of the sacred one's powers. And once your spirit is fatally wounded, the sacred dragon's gateway to our world will be closed permanently until a new vessel is found. And that would probably take some time."
"That's a lot to digest but it makes sense. Don't you think so? Though losing half of the dragon's powers doesn't sound good. We have two days to find a solution or an alternative. I'll work on it." Xena said and felt rather then saw Gabrielle nod her head in agreement. She squeezed Gabrielle's arm assuringly. "Now about those goons of his..."
"Right. Is there any way I could channel more of the sacred dragon? And what about the enforcers?" Gabrielle directed the questions at the healer.
"The enforcers are actually oriental dragons who have somehow been bespelled by the tyrant. They serve him with undying fealty and our scholars have not managed to dispel the enchantment. However, such spells are typically broken upon the demise of the object of their loyalty. And since the tyrant has ordered them not to interfere with the challenge or the actual fight, we should be safe from them until one of the combatants dies. If the tyrant survives, he will proceed to choose his sacrifice and we will remain under his yoke. As for your other question, there is nothing we can do at the moment. However, I will ask our scholars to scour our records for anything that might aid our cause." A gong sounded then, its brass tones echoing around the healing room and the healer stood. "Do you have anymore questions, sacred one? If we are done here, I believe that is our summons to dinner."
Gabrielle rose from the treatment bed excitedly, rubbing her tummy and licking her lips. "Dinner sounds really good." A growl of agreement emitted from her ravenous stomach and she blushed as Xena broke into laughter. "I'm done with questions for now but Xena is a healer and she would like to learn more about some of the herbs you have here. We could probably do that tomorrow. And I enjoy learning about other cultures and their stories so I would probably like to speak with your scholars or look at your records. That is, if you and your scholars don't mind us taking up your time."
"A healer you say? Interesting." He stroked his chin. "Xena and I would have much to discuss. She could enlighten me on her techniques and I could introduce her to some of ours." He grinned and Gabrielle could almost envision him rubbing his hands in glee. "Tomorrow it shall be. I will look forward to it. And I will introduce you to our chief scholar at dinner later. I'm sure he would be more than honoured to share our records with you. Oh, you are also a bard aren't you? Do you think you would be up to some storytelling at the feast later? We would love to hear some of your stories. Just let the chief know if you are agreeable."
"Ok. Glad that's settled! And I'll think about those stories. After I stock up on a little food." Gabrielle enthused, a huge grin on her face as she headed out of the room at such a fast pace that the healer was left scrambling to catch up. Dinner was calling her name rather insistently and she was already salivating as she followed the enticing aroma out of the chief's abode and across to the clearing where a veritable treasure trove of delicacies awaited her.
The roughly circular clearing in the middle of the village was lined with rows upon rows of long tables and benches that had apparently been sitting there for years, decades, or even centuries. This was where the southern forest clan held their celebrations and feasts since long before Gabrielle or even Xena had been born. Wherever the great dragon wars had been fought, it had apparently left this place untouched. A huge building dominated one end of the clearing and churned out plate after steaming plate of highly delectable fare which the servers placed neatly upon a huge table near the center in front of which sat a stage of sorts. It was this table upon which Gabrielle's gaze was riveted. She counted twelve different types of meat dishes, eight vegetable dishes and desserts galore. No simple bread and cheese here though there were plenty of cakes and pastries amongst other equally mouth-watering goodies.
In the light shed by the numerous lanterns strung throughout the clearing, Xena could make out roughly three hundred people at the feast. The women numbered a mere two score and five and there were no children in sight. Come to think of it, Xena couldn't recall seeing any children since their arrival. Ci Nu had mentioned dragons having low birth rates but it seemed births was something the clan hadn't seen for a while.
I should get Gabrielle to check with Ci Nu later. That's if I can get her to focus on anything other than stuffing herself with everything in sight. I better stop her from overeating. Else she's gonna suffer later.
That stomach of hers never knows when enough is enough. An image of Gabrielle holding a handful of raw squid and munching on a tentacle oozing black goo came unbidden to mind and Xena had to suppress a shiver. That is something I hope never to see again. And it was kinda a side effect of the seasickness pressure point cure I taught her. No danger of that here so at least I don't have to watch her eat weird stuff. This time...
From what Xena had seen of the village earlier that day, it could comfortably house a thousand people. So if everyone was accounted for, excluding the thirty guards on patrol throughout the village, the southern forest clan had likely lost more than half of their population in the clan wars and subsequently in their fight against the foreign invader. It would be a good idea to find out just how many dragons were lost in their fight with the tyrant. Knowledge was power and knowing their enemy would likely give them the upper hand and help them defeat him. She spotted the chief seated at the head of a table furthest away from the kitchen and noticed Ci Nu scanning the crowds seemingly in search of someone. Having a good idea who that someone might be, Xena grabbed Gabrielle around the waist and steered her forcibly away from the tableful of food and towards Ci Nu. "Manners." Xena chided. "Our host is looking for you so let's go sit down and let the feast begin. The sooner that happens, the earlier you get to eat. And I've a coupla things I need you to find out. C'mon." She dragged Gabrielle through the crowd, explaining what she had observed along the way.
Gabrielle reached Ci Nu's side and pleasantries were exchanged before she was ushered to the seat on the chief's right hand side while Ci Nu took her place on the chief's left. As soon as both of them were seated, the gong sounded again and the milling crowd started making their way to their seats at the various tables, leaving the servers standing by the serving table waiting for their cue to begin the feast.
Seeing everyone seated, the chief stood and addressed the clan, "As all of you should be aware by now, we the southern forest clan have been honoured by the presence of the sacred one." He gestured to Gabrielle and bowed. "According to the prophecy our seer gave us two years ago, our deliverance is close at hand but we have to be careful. All patrols are to be doubled until the challenge and every able-bodied member will bear arms on that day as a safeguard. We have to be prepared for any retaliation that might happen after the challenge. Anyone approached by the sacred one for assistance will spare no effort in rendering just that. No tardiness will be tolerated. This is a crucial point in our history. If we fail, that will be the end of our people. If we succeed, a new era will dawn for us all. And we will not fail. We, the southern forest clan will do our part to ensure the safety of the sacred one and help her prepare as much as possible for her fight with the foreign usurper." He paused to look around the clearing, making eye contact with every single dragon and eliciting a determined nod from all. The chief nodded then, expecting nothing less. "Tonight, we will celebrate and welcome the sacred one amongst us. Let the feast begin!" He pronounced, clapping his hands twice.
With that, the servers moved into action. Each table had been assigned two servers and two plates of the same dish were placed equidistance on the table while the servers went around the table serving a portion to each diner. The remaining servers wandered the clearing offering trays of beverages for selection. Gabrielle was served first with eight different types of dumplings. They weren't anything Gabrielle had tasted before and she was definitely raring to go. She reached for the silver chopsticks placed on her right and was about to start when Xena stopped her. Even though Xena couldn't eat, the dragons had thoughtfully provided her a place beside Gabrielle.
"Wait. Skewer each piece of food with the chopsticks before you eat them. The dragons use silver chopsticks because they are able to detect certain types of poison. If the food is poisoned, the silver chopstick will become tarnished." Xena gestured towards the chief and Ci Nu who were testing the food with their chopsticks. "Follow what they're doing and you should be just fine."
Gabrielle looked across the table and imitated Ci Nu's actions. When the silver chopstick emerged unscathed, she happily popped the dumpling into her mouth, savoring the silky smoothness of the skin and the rich meaty texture of the filling. "Mmmm... Nice." She mumbled over a mouthful of food. "I'm sorry you can't try this." In a lower tone, she asked, "You think the tyrant might have spies in their midst?"
Xena laughed at Gabrielle's garbled speech. "Swallow your food." She chided. "You could always learn how to make some of their nicer dishes. You're a great cook and as long as you make those little dumplings with the red stuff inside, I'm contented." She grinned at Gabrielle's look of astonishment. "You know I love your food." She teased then turned serious, "I haven't seen any signs that the tyrant has infiltrated the clan but we can never be too careful. There are always people who might not view your presence as a good thing."
Gabrielle nodded then focused on devouring her food. There was chicken, duck, venison, beef, seafood, fish, pork, tons of leafy green vegetables, mushrooms, soup, rice and noodle. By the time they were halfway through the meal, Gabrielle found herself unable to eat another bite. She might be the Lean-Mean-Eating-Bard but this was way too much food even for her. She watched as everyone else cleaned up the food on their plates. It was apparent that the dragons had a larger appetite than their human forms suggested. She smiled and politely refused any more food, choosing to lean on Xena in order to relieve some of the pressure from her overly distended stomach. Gabrielle had a sweet tooth so it wasn't any surprise to Xena when she insisted on tasting every single dessert available near the end of the meal. In response to Xena's raised eyebrow, Gabrielle countered, "I have a separate stomach for dessert. You know that."
"Yes I do. But Gabrielle, you are going to be in a world of pain later. Good thing I have just the herbs you need in my pack. Use the herbs to make a tea. It should help. You gonna take up the healer's invitation and tell some stories tonight?"
"Argh..." Gabrielle groaned. "I will definitely need that tea." She rubbed her stomach ruefully. "You think they will let me beg off from story telling? I don't think I'm ready. I can't do this while you are... dead... You have always been the inspiration for my stories and I have never been able to do the bardic thing when you are... You know..." She buried herself into Xena's embrace, a sudden desperate need to feel her soulmate descending upon her.
"Shush." Xena said, a warm feeling enveloping her as she stroked Gabrielle's hair soothingly, one arm wrapped possessively around the bard. "It's gonna be ok. Just excuse yourself later if they should ask. I'm sure they will understand." She looked up as the chief clapped his hands again then spotted the healer heading over to their table with another man in tow. She stood up and prodded Gabrielle to shift herself to the right so that she may reposition herself on the left. "The festivites are starting. Let's just enjoy it and I think the healer's headed our way to introduce their chief scholar."
Hauntingly beautiful music filled the air and dancers dressed in colourful flowing robes flitted out of the darkness and onto the stage even as the servers busied themselves clearing the tables. Xena entertained herself by watching the performance and scanning the clearing for signs of danger while Gabrielle and the chief scholar discussed bardic stuff. She followed their conversation absently, tuning in only when she heard Gabrielle turn the conversation to the war with the tyrant and the seeming lack of young dragons in the clan. According to the chief scholar, the southern forest clan had been nearly 850 dragons strong prior to the interclan wars. By the time a truce had been reached, only 539 of them were left. Three years ago, the foreign dragon had slain more than 200 of their clan before they finally submitted to his rule. In the years since, none of the females had been able to carry a child to term. They either failed to conceive or lost the baby within the first three months of their pregnancy.
Probably brought on by stress. The possibility of being selected by the tyrant as a sacrifice every year has gotta be real stressful. This tyrant must be quite a skilful warrior if he could take on hundreds of dragons and come out alive. Not to mention defeat and kill more than 200 dragons from just one clan. I'm sure glad Gabrielle's not gonna be meeting him in physical combat. Any one of these dragons would be tough to defeat even for me and as good as Gabrielle is, she would still find it much tougher. Fighting in the spiritual realms isn't something new to me or even Gabrielle. Maybe I can go through those experiences and see if there's a way to help Gabrielle defeat this foreign dragon. The healer might just be right. Individually, we might not be a match for him but together, there's no telling what we can do. Good thing I don't need sleep. I have three nights to come up with a plan. I'm not going to let Gabrielle do this alone. Xena vowed silently.
The next two days and nights were fully occupied. Xena spent the nights analysing her battles with Alti and struggling to find any commonality between the shamanic rites and the dragonic spiritual challenge. The only thing she knew without a doubt was that Gabrielle had to be in tip top physical and mental condition. She made sure of both in the upcoming days by clearing any doubts Gabrielle might have and ensuring the bard ate properly and slept sufficiently. As a spirit, she wasn't sure she could be barred from the fighting arena or spiritual ring though her presence would readily be detected and the rules of the challenge might be compromised as a result of her interference. The dragon poop could literally hit the roof, so to speak. If only she could find a way to combine her essence with Gabrielle's. If this were a physical battle, Gabrielle could relinquish control of her body to Xena but this was a spiritual battle and possession would be equivalent to interference by a third party.
The day after the feast was spent with the healer in the healing room. Gabrielle learned more about herbs and healing in that one day than in the seven years she'd travelled with Xena. Gabrielle was a competent healer, having picked up much of her healing skills from watching Xena over the years but the many herbs, their properties, and their different uses had always eluded her. She was familiar with the more common herbs that Xena used but that was the extent of her knowledge. Xena taught the healer most of her unorthodox healing methods and the healer shared his extensive knowledge on the medicinal properties of the flora found in Chin. Gabrielle left the healing room at the end of the day with an armful of packed herbs courtesy of the healer. They were mainly herbs used to treat wounds, infections or disease which Xena felt would be useful in their travels and Gabrielle had dutifully labelled each packet for easy identification. Not that Xena would need it. But Xena knew it was better to be prepared. They might not succeed in their quest to bring her back and Gabrielle would need the labels to identify the herbs.
Gabrielle spent the next day with the scholars going through their records while Xena explored the village and its surroundings. An invisible barrier separated the clan lands from the rest of Chin and the only way in or out of the village was through the portal they had come or by air. Xena inspected the guard posts, checked the patrols and visited the fighting arena which was housed in the village hall situated in the middle of the black zone. Much of her time was spent in the dueling arena watching the dragons practice their dazzling fighting skills. Her hands clenched spasmodically by her side as she watched Ci Nu's twin blades dancing through the air like a whirlwind, pivoting and slicing its way past all challengers. Xena was itching to pit herself against Ci Nu who was obviously the clan's best fighter but she couldn't so she contented herself by allowing her keen mind to analyse each duel, learning the intricacies of each individual weapon style. Later that day, she returned to find out what Gabrielle had learned from the scholars. Bardic stuff aside, they had trolled through the entire library of records in search for information on the sacred dragon and the spiritual challenge but nothing new or useful had emerged.
After dinner that night, Gabrielle and Xena headed out of the chief's abode in the company of two armed guards who were tasked with protecting Gabrielle on the chief's orders. Desiring some private time with Xena, Gabrielle had protested long and hard but the chief had refused to budge. The two soulmates found a dark clearing just outside the village and Gabrielle used her art of persuasion on the guards to convince them to give her as much privacy as possible. The two soulmates laid down side by side on the grass like so many nights before and looked up at the clear night sky.
"I miss this. Just the two of us, gazing up at the stars." Gabrielle said then remembered the presence of the guards somewhere behind them. "If we ignore the guards, that is." Xena broke out into laughter then and Gabrielle glanced over at her quizzically for a moment before joining in. "Thanks, I needed that. I must have been really tense huh."
Xena propped herself up on her right elbow, taking a moment to study Gabrielle's face before laying a kiss upon her forehead. "Yeah, you were. Need a backrub? I do have many skills." She winked, eliciting any wave of relieved laughter from the fair-haired bard.
"Yes, yes, you do. Maybe later. I just want to enjoy this moment for now." Gabrielle pointed at a cluster of stars, "That's a dragon. Those three stars are the mouth and you can follow the path of the stars tracing the long serpentine body. You see it?"
"What, those stars? That's gotta be a warrior. There's the belt and the sword in his hand."
Gabrielle turned to look at Xena with an incredulous look on her face. "Xena, you know how I've always said you lacked imagination, I was wrong. You are obviously seeing things that aren't there. That's definitely a dragon. How could it be a warrior?"
Xena shrugged. "Just depends on how ya look at it."
They bickered over a few more constellations before Gabrielle subsided into a brooding silence.
"You're worried about tomorrow ain't ya?" Xena asked, wrapping her right arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and pulling her close.
Gabrielle nodded, snuggling into Xena's side and draping an arm over the warrior's stomach. "There's a chance I might fail tomorrow. I'm not afraid of dying because that just means we will be together. But if I die, the dragons may never be free. I've never been good at this spiritual realm thing. Just look at what happened the last time I tried to fight Alti. You would have been a better choice. I'm not a hero. I'm not used to everybody depending on me. All these years, everyone has looked to you for deliverance and answers. The weight of their expectations is overwhelming. How do you cope with it? I can't. Even when I was leading the Amazons, the responsibility was suffocating and I couldn't have done it without you by my side. All these years, I might have complained about not getting the credit I deserve or badgered you to give me more responsibility but I realised after Jappa that you were my safety net. I am only able to do the things I do because I know you will always have my back and if things go wrong, you will always bail me out. I don't want to take over your mantle. I just want to fight by your side. So yes. I am worried about tomorrow because you won't be able to save the day if I fail. And that scares me. It scares me a lot." She sighed. "I'm babbling right? I do that when I'm nervous and Zeus knows how nervous I am now." She paused as a thought struck her. "But he's dead... So that means nobody knows. I... Ok, I'm babbling. I'm going to stop now."
"I know." Xena said quietly after a long moment of contemplative silence. She lay eerily still as she continued, "You are a hero, Gabrielle. When I first saw you, you were standing up to Draco's men demanding the release of the other women in exchange for your freedom. That was you being a hero. Then there was the time you threw yourself over Terreis in an attempt to protect her from the arrows. And let's not forget the innumerous times you have saved me from a fatal injury or death or when you stood up to me for what you believed in. You were the hero who saved Higuchi from the flames. You are a legend Gabrielle, just as much as I am. To the Amazons, you are the one they turn to in their time of need. And you did what you had to for them. That's what being a hero is about." Xena looked down at Gabrielle and kissed her tenderly. "It is a huge responsibility and I don't always succeed. Luckily for me, I have my overwhelming need for redemption and... you. I do what I do because I want to make up for all the wrong I have done in the past. But that hasn't always been enough. The one thing that has kept me going is you. Whenever I have been tempted to give up, I remember your unwavering belief in me and I know I have to find a way to triumph, to succeed, to do the impossible. I never want to fail you but I have done that countless times. If you hadn't been there to keep me on the straight and narrow, who knows what would have become of me."
She stroked Gabrielle's hair, marvelling at its softness. "Oh, by the way. Did you know they coined a saying after you? It's called the 'gift of the gab'. For people who have this innate ability to talk their way out of anything. Fitting isn't it?" Xena chuckled as she watched Gabrielle's face contort through a myriad of expressions before settling on pride at having her name used in such a manner.
"An idiom huh. Guess they will have something to remember me by for posterity. But seriously Xena, your speeches are way longer than mine." She tilted her head back and laid a kiss upon Xena's lips. "But thank you. I never thought of it that way."
"You never do. Just do your usual thing, Gabrielle. That's all. And don't you worry. I'll not let you fail."
"My usual huh. I can do that. Xena, you are an overprotective mother hen. But I know that's because you love me. And I love you too Xena." Gabrielle tugged on Xena's breastplate, frowning. "Now come here. And get that stuff off you before I get jabbed in all the wrong places."
Xena pushed herself up, turning around to straddle Gabrielle, one hand placed on each side of her golden tresses. "You mean like that, my Queen?" Xena teased as her armour faded out. She bent down to rub her nose alongside Gabrielle's before laying a chaste kiss upon her lips.
"Nice." Gabrielle murmured in appreciation. "Very nice." She arched her back to capture Xena's lips only to have the warrior lean away from her. Gabrielle reached out to draw Xena down but was thwarted by Xena's strong hands which were holding hers immobile. She looked up and pouted. "Xena, stop teasing me!"
"Uh-uh. I'm not the one with all the clothes on. So who's the tease here?"
Gabrielle blushed. "Oh. Clothes. Right. Erm, I need my hands. And you need to get off me. It would be so much easier if I could zap them off like you." She grumbled as she stripped.
"No fun in that, Gabrielle. I always did enjoy undressing you. But you're just gonna have to do that for now. At least until I can do that myself." She leaned in to nibble on Gabrielle's ear, her teeth moving down Gabrielle's neck slowly as she gently pushed the naked bard back onto the soft grass. "I'll make it up to you. I promise." She ran her hands down Gabrielle's body, taking the time to explore the sensitive areas, running over Gabrielle's breasts and down her chiseled stomach before reaching down to cup Gabrielle's butt. She eased her knees between Gabrielle's legs, lifting them onto her shoulders before stealing another kiss.
The two guards exchanged an all-too-knowing look when the sound of Gabrielle's increasingly loud moans reached their ears. Embarrased, they kept their backs to Gabrielle, focusing on the village lights in the distance, no doubt wondering about the sanity of the foreign woman who had been chosen by the sacred dragon. By the time Gabrielle's moans turned into screams of pleasure, both guards were perspiring profusely and fidgeting uncomfortably due to the restrictive confines of their codpieces.
Gabrielle nestled contentedly into the crook of Xena's arm, her body covered in a sheen of perspiration. Other than Xena, she had only been with Perdicus, and then only that once on their wedding night. And it didn't really count. It had been awkward and Gabrielle had felt nothing except relief when it was over. Or perhaps it was the guilt talking. Guilt for abandoning Xena who'd had no one but her. Guilt for choosing to run away with Perdicus instead of confessing her true feelings for Xena. Guilt because Gabrielle had imagined what it'd be like making love to Xena even as Perdicus grunted and pumped above her. And ultimately guilt because her rash decision cost Perdicus his life. If she'd never agreed to his marriage proposal, he would still be alive today. He could have been happy with a woman who loved him wholeheartedly. But Gabrielle had been desperate for love and she'd jumped at the chance to finally be happy, away from the source of her neverending frustration. And she'd ended up with nothing but heartache. A tear ran down her cheek and onto Xena's chest, prompting the warrior to tilt Gabrielle's face towards her.
"Hey. What's wrong?" Xena asked as she wiped away the tear from Gabrielle's face.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Just thinking of Perdicus."
"Ah. Perdicus." Xena pulled Gabrielle closer so she was lying half on top of the warrior's body with her left cheek pillowed on Xena's left breast. Her hands rubbed Gabrielle's back soothingly, working out the tension in the muscles by touch alone. "Have I told you how sorry I am about Perdicus?"
"Xena, it wasn't your fault."
"Ah, but it was, Gabrielle, it was. Callisto would never have gone after you if it weren't for me. And Perdicus would not have died if I hadn't stopped her from killing you. I could have saved him. But all I could think about was protecting you from Callisto. I never thought she'd go after him. I should have. I'm sorry, Gabrielle, so sorry."
"It's not your fault, Xena. You were only protecting me. I am the real reason Perdicus died."
"Hush. Don't go there. Let me bear the responsibility for his death, Gabrielle. My shoulders are broad enough. Trust me. It was my fault. I knew your feelings for me but I never reciprocated though I had fallen head over heels in love with you the very first time I set eyes on you in that clearing outside Potidaea. And I had a bump on the head to show for it. At first, I thought you had a crush on me. When you didn't outgrow it, I convinced myself you would never be happy with me so I constantly kept you at a distance, hoping someone would come along and sweep you off your feet. And Perdicus did. When he asked you to marry him, I was sure you'd finally found your happiness so I gave you my blessing. There are so many ifs, Gabrielle. So if you must blame someone, blame me. I should have known better but I have never been much good at this love thing."
"You knew huh. Should have expected that. You're a warrior. This lovey-dovey stuff isn't your forte. I could have tried harder. But that's neither here nor there. It's in the past so let's just leave it there. I'm no longer a little kid Xena. I will take responsibility for my mistakes and learn from them. Wasn't that what you taught me?"
"Yup. C'mon. Time to head on back to bed. Tomorrow's a big day and we need to be prepared. Can't have the tyrant finding us naked on the grass when he arrives tomorrow." Xena stood up in one fluid motion, her armour rematerialising around her before she reached out to pull Gabrielle to her feet. "If he doesn't learn of our presence until he issues the challenge, we would have the element of surprise on our side. And we will need every advantage we can get."
"Do we have time for a bath before bed? I think I have dirt in places that should never have dirt." Gabrielle lamented as she dusted herself off before donning the silk robe.
Xena's face broke into a huge smile. "We will make time for a bath. And maybe something a little more exciting besides." She winked and they walked hand-in-hand towards the chief's abode while the guards fell into step behind them.
One green eye blinked open then slowly closed, barely registering the brightness of the room. Xena chuckled and the dead weight lying on her shifted slightly as Gabrielle sought to burrow back into sleep. "Good morning sleepy head." Xena greeted chirpily.
Gabrielle let out a groan and groped along the bed with her left hand, searching for a pillow. She found her quarry, grabbed hold tightly and swung it with all her might at where Xena's face should be. Instead of an indignant shout, all she heard was the whump as the pillow connected with the bed. Suppressing yet another groan, she turned to look over at Xena only to be greeted by the unsettling sight of the pillow resting where Xena's head should have been. An image of Xena's decapitated body flitted through her mind and she reared back in shock, tumbling gracelessly off the bed and onto the floor with a startled screech. When she'd recovered sufficiently to pry herself off the floor, she found herself kneeling inches away from Xena's alternately concerned and amused visage. "Don't you dare laugh." Gabrielle threatened.
"Uh-uh. I'm not laughing. Here." Xena reached out and hefted Gabrielle back onto the warm soft bed. She gave Gabrielle a once-over and was relieved to find the bard hadn't even sustained a bruise from her ungracious fall. "What was that about?" She leaned against the headboard and pulled Gabrielle down to settle comfortably against her chest, one arm instinctively wrapping itself around the bard's shoulder.
"I'm not a morning person. You know that."
"Yeah, but that was more than you being your usual grumpy self." Xena observed astutely.
Gabrielle suppressed a shudder as she relived that night in Jappa all over again. It was pouring with rain and her samurai garb was totally soaked through, rivulets of rain running down her face and into her eyes causing her to blink as she caught sight of something flesh-coloured hanging from a rope, twisting ever so slightly in the wind. It had taken quite a while before the object resolved itself into a tall human body riddled with cuts and arrow wounds. The body was pale from the blood loss but Gabrielle knew every inch of that body better than her own. She'd started at the feet, working her way slowly up the body, cataloguing every single injury, and feeling her stomach clench in sympathy with each successive wound she saw. And then she'd noticed what she should have realised at first glance but had failed to comprehend. There was only a jagged bloody gash where Xena's neck should have been. Someone had decapitated the love of her life. Horror, disbelief, anguish, and anger overwhelmed her and she'd fallen to her knees retching. Retching and screaming.
Xena felt the tremours course through Gabrielle's body and pulled her in closer, her hands fluttering all over the bard as she sought to comfort her. "Hey. It's okay. You're gonna be alright."
"Xena?" The whisper was so faint that anyone other than Xena would have missed it.
"I'm here, Gabrielle. I'm here."
Gabrielle reached out her hand and intertwined her fingers with Xena's. "Promise me. Promise me, Xena. Please just promise me.' She whispered hoarsely.
Xena raised their intertwined hands and kissed the back of Gabrielle's hand. "I promise."
"I haven't told you what the promise was."
A small sad smile crossed Xena's face. "Don't ever do that again. Right?"
"Right." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand. "Jappa was the worst. Do you have any idea how it feels to look at your body hanging there swaying in the wind without a head? If it were only the injuries you sustained, I could at least live with that. But decapitated? That's just sick. Sick." She iterated, her stomach churning at the remembered sight.
"I can imagine. I was the destroyer of nations. I've done it and seen it done. If it had been you... I can imagine." She rocked Gabrielle in her arms. "I promise... If we bring me back, I promise. I won't do that again. At least not without discussing it with you. Okay?"
"Okay. Bad time to breakdown huh."
"Kinda. You've got a big bad dragon ass to kick. But I think we have some time before that. You up for breakfast?" Xena prodded.
"Food's always good. I could eat a whole deer. You think they have some?"
Xena chuckled. "Let's go look. C'mon."
"Right behind you." Gabrielle said as she snuggled down further into Xena's embrace.
"Gabrielle," Xena said in mock exasperation. "I can't move if you don't."
"Just a while more." Gabrielle pleaded.
"Alright." Xena grudgingly agreed though there was nowhere else in the world she'd rather be at that moment.
Even Gabrielle couldn't finish an entire deer but she'd manage to polish off two huge portions of venison which the chief's cook had duly conjured up. After breakfast, they'd checked in with the chief and learned the tyrant was expected to arrive only after the sun had past its highest point in the sky. With more than enough time to spare, they went in search of the healer to test out a theory Xena had thought up during the night.
They found the healer in the hospice where he was moving from cabinet to cabinet taking stock of his medical supplies. His armour and fighting staff were laid out neatly on one of the treatment beds. When he caught sight of Gabrielle, the healer abandoned his chores and greeted Gabrielle with a deep bow. "Good morning, sacred one. I trust you had a good rest last night?"
"Yes. The chief has nice soft beds. Very conducive for sleeping. Amongst other things." She added cheekily as she stole a glance at Xena who pretended not to have heard her last sentence.
"Ah. I'm glad our hospitality has not been found wanting. How may I be of assistance today? The tyrant will not be here til the afternoon. When you hear the gong sound twice later, it means he will be arriving soon. I would suggest you stay with the chief til then. He will guide you on what to do."
"Thanks, we'll do that. But there's something we thought you might help us with. This soul-link that exists between me and Xena, is there a way to communicate or send our spirit through it?" Gabrielle asked, her hands gesticulating excitedly as she talked.
Gabrielle had always had a habit of talking with her hands which Xena had noticed immediately during their first meeting. In the seven years they'd travelled together, Gabrielle had learned to tone it down somewhat but the hand gesturing would reappear whenever she was excited or while telling a story. Maybe it was a bardic trait but it was distracting. Especially since Xena often couldn't take her eyes off Gabrielle whenever she reverted to talking with her hands. Xena leaned back on a cabinet and grinned, watching the bard through half-lidded eyes.
The healer frowned as he pondered Gabrielle's question. "I can't be sure but if soulmates are able to draw strength from each other through their soul-link, it would make sense that they should be able to share via the link. Provided both are alive. It might not work if one half is dead but it's worth a try."
"That's what I thought. C'mon Gabrielle, we have three candlemarks before noon. Let's go back to our room and see what this soul-link of ours can do."
Gabrielle nodded. "That's all we needed to know. You were a great help. Thanks." She turned and hurried after Xena who was striding purposefully back to the chief's abode.
Back in their room, the soulmates settled down cross-legged on the wooden floor facing each other and held hands. Closing their eyes, they tried to sense the connection between them. Gabrielle called on the meditative techniques Eli had taught her decades ago while Xena utilised her warrior discipline to focus her concentration. The room was utterly silent. The only sound being that of Gabrielle's slow steady breathing. It was her breath that Xena focused on, sending out her senses towards Gabrielle, probing gently in search of an intangible spiritual link. She concentrated on matching Gabrielle's breathing, inhaling when she did and exhaling with her. As their breathing synchronised, a faintly glowing thread took shape in their minds, growing stronger with every shared breath until it solidified into a roiling cord of fiery energy that seemed to bridge the divide between them. It was a thing of rare beauty that inspired awe and reverence yet vaguely unsettling in its seeming intensity.
And what Xena saw disturbed her. Gabrielle's end was brighter but it was obvious that energy was flowing on a one-way trip from Gabrielle to her. It was almost as if she were leeching Gabrielle of life and that was something Xena couldn't live with. She broke contact with Gabrielle and started pacing the room, deep in thought.
"Xena, what's wrong? You saw the soul-link?" Gabrielle asked. She leaned back on her hands and followed Xena with her eyes, to one end of the room, then the other, and back again.
All she received was a noncommital grunt.
"You saw it." Gabrielle stated it as a fact. "We both saw it."
"Did you notice?" Xena asked without breaking stride.
"Notice what?" Gabrielle asked quizzically.
"It's nothing." Xena said, executing a sharp turn to resume her pacing back across the room.
"Then why are you pacing?"
"Thinking." Came the clipped reply.
"I can see that. Xena, this is a good thing. We can see it so we might be able to use it."
Xena plopped herself casually onto the bed. Maybe we could communicate through the link just like how the dead can hear us when we think of them. Worth a try. She concentrated then nearly fell off the bed when a faint voice intruded in her head.
The dead can hear us when we think of them.
Did that thought come from you? I was just thinking the same thing. Xena frowned at Gabrielle whose face had crinkled up into a delighted grin.
This is fun! Xena could almost hear the childish glee in Gabrielle's thought. I'm not sure. I might have remembered you telling me that a long time ago.
"Why couldn't we do this earlier?" Xena asked. "This soul-link ain't something new between us."
Gabrielle shrugged and grinned as she caught Xena's gaze riveted upon her heaving bosom. "We never tried it." She paused as a thought struck her. "You know, I heard you screaming my name in Jappa. It was so loud, I thought you were somewhere nearby."
"I did. Maybe you heard me. But... I heard you in my head calling my name. At the time, I thought it was a memory. Now I am not so sure." Xena mused then gathered herself together. "Why don't you take a bath? See if this works with some distance between us."
"Don't see why it wouldn't but a bath sounds good." Gabrielle stood up and slipped out of her robes in one quick motion. "You sure you don't want to join me?" She looked at Xena with an tentalisingly raised eyebrow.
"G'wan. I'll stay here."
"Going." Gabrielle turned her back on Xena and deliberately sashayed her way over to the bath. Stop staring at my butt you pervert. Gabrielle thought at Xena. And don't think I didn't catch you eyeing my breasts just now. She turned at the bamboo screen and gave Xena a cheeky grin before disappearing behind it.
You are a vixen. You know that?
Definitely. And you love me for it. I'm in the bath. Rubbing soap over my considerable assets. You sure you want to stay there all by your lonesome self?
Xena groaned at the image Gabrielle had conjured up in her mind. You are a terrible tease. But yes, I love you. Couldn't stay away if I tried. And I'm not trying too hard right now. She pushed herself off the bed and closed her eyes. She didn't have to concentrate much to see the soul-link. Keeping it in the back of her mind, she strode towards the bath. Now let's see if the consummation of our passion does anything to this link of ours. Xena kept that thought to herself.
It was nearly three candlemarks after noon before the gong announced the impending arrival of the tyrant. By then, Gabrielle had finished a sumptuous lunch courtesy of the chief's personal chef after indulging in a long bath with Xena that had inevitably been taken up by an extensive exploration of each other's bodies. Gabrielle was now decked out in a custom made dark chainmail armour not unlike what Ci Nu was wearing. An intricately crafted sword sporting a jewel-encrusted hilt hung by a delicately tooled scabbard on her left. She'd kept her boots with her sais neatly tucked away in their usual position and the chakram occupied its place of honour on her belt by her right hand. To a casual observer, she would have seemed like just another member of the clan except for her golden tresses and forest-green eyes that had narrowed in determination at the sound of the gong.
Xena on the other hand was dressed in her usual brown leathers and brass breastplate, not that anyone would have noticed even if she'd strutted around the village naked. But she'd always prided herself in never being caught unprepared, especially when Gabrielle's life could be in mortal danger, and she drew comfort from her armour even though she had neither sword nor chakram by her side. They could communicate mentally via the soul-link but neither Xena nor Gabrielle had found a way to transfer energy through the link. One thing gave Xena hope though. During their little tryst in the bath earlier that day, Xena had noticed energy flowing through the link and into Gabrielle, causing her end of the link to glow slightly brighter than before. Unfortunately. Xena hadn't been able to replicate the energy exchange outside of their lovemaking but some faint memory nagged at her and she knew there was something she was forgetting. Something important that could tilt the balance firmly in Gabrielle's favour. Something she had to work out soon if Gabrielle was to have any chance at winning the challenge.
The chief had requested Gabrielle to join his entourage in welcoming the tyrant. According to the report he'd received from the guards, the tyrant was accompanied by three enforcers, all in dragon form and fast approaching the village. They would escort the tyrant to the village hall where the rest of the clan would be gathered. When he issued his challenge, Gabrielle was to step forward and accept the challenge on behalf of the southern forest clan. Once he accepts, both Gabrielle and the tyrant would have to enter the fighting arena which was laid out in a design similar to the village. The black circle within the white zone belonged to the challenger so that was where Gabrielle would sit down and approach a meditative trance. The tyrant would occupy the white circle in the black zone. Once both combatants were ready, the spiritual circle would open to admit them and the fight would begin. While the fight was in progress, the fighting arena and spiritual circle would be sealed off. Neither physical not spiritual entities would be allowed to enter and interfere.
Gabrielle nodded in understanding and reached out to grab Xena's hand, taking comfort in the strength of her soulmate's grip. She looked over and lost herself in the pale blue eyes that held her gaze unflinchingly. Eyes that spoke of an eternal love. Eyes that conveyed unquestioning belief in her ability. Eyes that promised everything would turn out just fine. Xena towered over her, exuding power, confidence and invincibility. Gabrielle closed her eyes, tilting her face slightly. Soft lips met hers and for a moment, the world seemed to stop and Gabrielle could almost believe Xena was alive and Jappa never happened. For a moment, that gentle loving kiss was all there was and nothing else mattered.
Gabrielle, remember I love you. Always.
I love you too Xena. Always.
Always. Xena agreed, knowing this would be their final goodbye if things somehow turned sour today. It's time. She caressed Gabrielle's cheek tenderly then let her hand drop to her side as Gabrielle turned to the chief with a nod to signify her readiness.
Neither Xena nor Gabrielle had seen a dragon before though Hercules and Iolaus had a run in with a young dragon decades ago. At Gabrielle's insistence, Iolaus had described that dragon in as much detail as he had been able to. Now, they stood behind the chief watching as four dragons swooped down upon them. Three of them did not fit Iolaus' description at all. Instead, they looked almost exactly like the tattoo on Gabrielle's back except that they were majestic creatures that inspired both awe and fear in equal measures. They were covered in iridescent scales that gleamed in the bright sunlight, seeming to glide through the air like fish in water. The fourth dragon however seemed to fit Iolaus description perfectly except in a few minor details. This dragon was jet-black, its powerful body much more compact than its oriental counterparts. Huge leathery bat-like wings sprouted from its back and the dragon used them to power through the air jerkily. A palpable sense of evil emanated from its every single pore and there was no doubt at all to Gabrielle that this creature had to be stopped. At any cost.
The black dragon glided to land in front of the chief's entourage, somehow managing to make the shift from dragon to human form in the split second before touching down. As a human, he looked normal enough if being slightly over six feet tall and decked out in custom-made black plate armour adorned with spikes was anywhere near normal. He had a full head of long dark hair which had been braided in long cornrows that ended just above his waist. An angry scar bisected his left eyebrow, running from the center of his forehead to the edge of his left eye. Smouldering dark brown eyes lighted upon Gabrielle and stayed there. He might have been handsome except that rage had twisted his face into a grotesque approximation of a snarl.
The chief and his entourage bowed, confirming Gabrielle's suspicion that this was indeed the tyrant. She followed suit but paid little attention while the chief paid lip service to the tyrant, choosing to study her opponent instead. Meanwhile, Xena had noted the tyrant's unflinching gaze upon Gabrielle and instinctively stepped forward to interpose herself between them. Interestingly, he bore no weapons though the spikes on the back of his gauntlets were capable of dealing substantial damage if he managed to land even a single solid punch. Xena's eyes however were drawn to a black stone fused into the middle of the breastplate and pulsing dully like a heartbeat. None of the southern forest clan had mentioned the presence of this little trinket and Xena couldn't help but wonder if it was a new addition to the tyrant's possessions. She glanced over at Gabrielle who was studiously ignoring the tyrant's glare.
Gabrielle, the stone. I'm sure it's magic. Be careful. Xena sent via their soul-link.
Xena frowned, perplexed. The stone might have been the same colour as the armour but its pulsing drew the eye easily hence it could not have been readily missed. The pulsing black stone in the middle of his breastplate. Do you see it?
Gabrielle looked the tyrant over but saw nothing out of place. The breastplate was smooth, utterly devoid of any design or indentation. No pulsing anywhere. Except my heart racing in my mouth anyway.
No wonder no one mentioned it. Seems no one can see it except me. Trust me, it's there. Just be careful.
The three enforcers had landed and formed up behind the tyrant, acting as bodyguards. They were dressed in chainmail just like the dragons of the southern forest clan and all bore swords in their hands. Whatever pleasantries there were had been gotten out of the way and Gabrielle waited for the chief to lead the way towards the village hall. The tyrant, however, had other plans.
"That female. She's not from this clan. And she wasn't here when I last came for my sacrifice. You will not keep her from me. I will have her. Today." The tyrant proclaimed, jabbing a finger in Gabrielle's direction.
Silence greeted this declaration as everyone except Xena and the tyrant looked to the chief for a response. Xena was staring daggers at the tyrant who was in turn utterly transfixed by Gabrielle. The chief cleared his throat, hoping to draw the tyrant's attention away from Gabrielle. When he realised that wasn't working, he decided to speak anyway. "My Lord, she is but a visitor to our lands and I'm afraid we are not able to present her to you as a sacrifice."
The tyrant turned and glowered at the chief. "My word is law. I want her and I will have her. If you choose to defy me, I will wipe out your entire clan. And you will be the first to die." He grabbed the chief by the throat, pulling him close and growling in his face. "Do we have an understanding?"
"Let him go." Gabrielle said quietly as all eyes turned unbelievingly towards her. When the tyrant still hadn't released the chief, Gabrielle repeated, "I said let him go." Hands on her hips, she glared at the tyrant who finally loosened his grip, allowing the chief to retreat back to the relative safety of his entourage.
"Thank you." Gabrielle said, making sure the chief was fine before turning back to the tyrant with a smile. "As the chief said, I am a visitor. But if you want me, you'll have to fight me. If you win, I'm all yours. If I win, you'll leave Chin and never return."
The tyrant stared incredulously at Gabrielle then started laughing, his shoulders heaving up and down uncontrollably. When he finally stopped, he strode up to stand inches away from Gabrielle, towering over the bard as he stared down at her. "If I want you, I will have you. Who are you to challenge me?"
Gabrielle looked up at him unshrinkingly. "Big bad warlord that you are, you're not threatened by little old me are you?"
"I will crush you, little one. No one talks to me this way." He raised his fist in front of her face, the spikes on his gauntlet just barely grazing her cheek.
"Good. Let's go then. The arena is waiting. You win, I'm yours. I win, you leave Chin. Without hurting anyone." Gabrielle kept her eyes fixed on the tyrant's, seemingly unconcerned by the proximity of the spikes or the violence they promised.
"Wrong, little one. We fight to the death. When I win, the entire clan dies with you."
"That had better not be a crack about my height." Gabrielle cautioned. "And when I win, your rule in Chin will end. For good." Without waiting for the tyrant's reply, she turned and headed towards the village hall, trusting the rest to fall in behind her and knowing Xena would warn her if the tyrant or his enforcers made any threatening moves towards her.
The village hall was packed when they reached it. Other than the guards on duty, every single member of the clan had turned up fully armed. Judging from the nonchalance displayed by the tyrant and his enforcers, it would appear that this wasn't a new development. The clamour of voices stopped abruptly upon their entrance and everyone turned to give their undivided attention to the chief who had stepped up onto a raised platform at the front of the hall. At his signal, the entire hall went down onto one knee, bowing their heads to pay their respects to the tyrant as befitting his status as their ruler. The chief then made way for the tyrant who took the place he had vacated on the platform.
The tyrant made a dismissive gesture with his hand and announced, "You may rise." The clan rose as one to their collective feet and waited patiently for the tyrant to make his usual speech. Instead of boasting about his prowess, the tyrant surprised them all by cutting straight to the point. "There will not be any sacrifice today." He pointed over at Gabrielle. "This female had the audacity to challenge me to a fight. And a fight it is. When I win, every single one of you here will die together with her." He enunciated clearly, making it apparent that Gabrielle had brought this judgement upon the entire clan.
Glances flew around the room as the dragons looked to each other for answers before finally alighting upon the chief's sombre countenance.
The chief raised his hands placatingly. "Our ruler has spoken. It will be as he says. As chief of the southern forest clan, listen to me. If he wins, we will lay down our lives before him without resistance. Fellow dragons, today we will face our fates with dignity." He declared before turning towards the tyrant, addressing him and the enforcers who stood in a semi-circle behind him. "However, in the event that Gabrielle wins, let there be no further bloodshed in Chin. There will not be any revenge or retribution. Now, or in the future." The tyrant sneered at the chief but certain of his victory, conceded the point with an inclination of his head.
"Let it be noted that our ruler has agreed to the terms. According to the age-old rules of the challenge, no one is allowed to interfere with the fight. This is a fight to the death. The sole survivor will be deemed to have won the challenge." The chief looked over at the enforcers who nodded their assent. He looked over to Gabrielle and noting her readiness, announced. "If both combatants are ready, please take your places in the fighting arena."
Without hesitation, Gabrielle made her way into the fighting arena and sat down cross-legged within the black circle, her elbows resting upon her thighs with her head bowed and her eyes closed. The tyrant followed soon after, assuming a similar position within the white circle. Xena stood outside the arena, her arms folded and her legs akimbo as she watched Gabrielle's body relax into a meditative trance, wishing all the time that she could have taken Gabrielle's place instead. The chief and his entourage had taken up a position by the side of the arena while the enforcers had split up to stand on the sides behind and flanking the tyrant. Every eye in the hall was trained upon the crystalline ceiling on which the fight would be displayed in full detail.
A faint yellowish glow suffused the ceiling then pulsed once as it registered the presence of both Gabrielle and the tyrant's spirit within the fighting arena. It then cleared to reveal two dragons poised on each side of the spiritual circle, a shadowy barrier separating the two combatants, preventing them from going at each other. The dragon representing Gabrielle was a majestic specimen even by the oriental dragon's standards. It shone a bright golden yellow and fairly radiated power. To the observers below, the sinister dark streaks marring its underbelly were apparent but Xena knew that the evident weakness would not be visible to its opponent. The tyrant however presented as a solid grey dragon limned in a dark cloud of roiling energy that practically screamed evil and Xena couldn't help but feel that the evil energy was linked somehow to the pulsing black stone on his breastplate. The grey dragon positioned itself in front of the barrier, its gaze locked upon the golden form on the other side where it hovered just out of reach, seemingly content to let its opponent make the first move. That was typical of Gabrielle. She had always fought defensively, biding her time until an opening presented itself before striking. That was how Xena had taught her to fight all these years and personally, it suited Gabrielle just fine.
A shrill whistle split the air and the barrier disappeared instantaneously. The tyrant, having been ready for just this moment dove forward, his huge wings tucked into his body as he aimed himself at his opponent, his razored-teeth maw gaping menacingly. Just before impact, the golden dragon dodged sinuously to the side, its claws raking parallel crimson furrows along the left side of the grey dragon as it barrelled past. The grey dragon hissed in fury, changing direction sharply as it sought to pin down the more agile golden dragon. The fight continued in this fashion, the grey dragon seeking to use its greater strength to dominate while the golden dragon relied on its superior maneuverability to gracefully evad each attack. Crimson wounds covered the grey dragon as the golden dragon managed to score a direct hit on nearly every counterattack it made. Indeed, it would seem that the result was a foregone conclusion but both Gabrielle and Xena knew better than to make assumptions. A fight was never over until it was over.
Despite its numerous wounds, the grey dragon seemed to be getting stronger with time while Gabrielle could feel herself tiring. The golden dragon's movements were slowing, each evasive maneuver a veritable struggle, barely getting out of harm's way as the grey dragon's claws passed ever closer. And then it happened. The golden dragon seemed to falter as it came out of a spinning roll from under the grey dragon and Gabrielle felt the claw struck home upon her shoulder. A puncture wound appeared on Gabrielle's physical body but in the spiritual realm, it was more than a simple injury. Xena watched as a web of darkness blossomed from the wound, spreading its tendrils down the golden dragon's right foreleg and rendering it all but useless. Poison! The grey dragon's claws were poisonous! Xena's heart raced, knowing from experience the tide of the battle had turned. Gabrielle was in danger.
The golden dragon managed to right itself but the poison had taken a huge toll upon it and the grey dragon gained the upper hand. It badgered the golden dragon relelntlessly, its claws drawing blood with each attack until its opponent lay helpless before it, all but paralysed. Gabrielle could no longer feel anything. She heard neither the victorious roar of the grey dragon nor saw him prepare to deliver the killing blow. Somehow, she knew she was dying, her battered body lying somewhere below her upon the fighting arena, twitching in its last throes of life. She had failed and the southern forest clan would pay for her foolhardiness. If only she'd kept her mouth shut and stuck to the chief's plan, no one else would have to die today. Her only hope was that Xena would find a way to salvage the situation. And if that didn't come to pass, at least Gabrielle could console herself with the knowledge that they would be together again, forever.
Outside of the arena, faces were grim as the southern forest clan came to accept that the deliverance promised by the prophecy would come in death instead of freedom from the tyrant's clutches. The chief and healer hung their heads, unwilling or unable to watch their prophesied saviour die. Ci Nu however had her gaze defiantly fixed upon the ceiling, as if hoping for a miracle to appear and turn their death sentence into an unconditional pardon.
Xena stood frozen in the pose she'd adopted at the start of the fight, a look of utter despair and helplessness upon her face. Time seemed to slow as she watched the grey dragon swoop down, its claws extended to tear out the golden dragon's throat. Her emotions bubbled to the surface and broke through her catatonic state, propelling her forward as she screamed, "No!" And in that very moment, caught between the life and death of her soulmate, Xena finally understood the cryptic statement Eli had offered her in the temple that day.
"Selfless love is the greatest power anyone can possess."
I'm not letting Gabrielle die. Not gonna happen on my watch. Gabrielle, I will not let you die!
Xena knew instinctively what had to be done even as she knew very well the risk she would be taking. If she succeeded, Gabrielle would live and go on with her life but it was very possible that Xena would be relegated to a memory and nothing more. A daunting decision but Xena didn't even have to think twice about it. If the worst happened, Gabrielle would be upset but she would be alive and so would the entire southern forest clan. And the oriental dragons would be free from the tyrant's rule. All in all, that was a good day fighting. Her mind made up, she focused on their soul-link and surrendered herself completely to Gabrielle's dire need, feeling the draw as Gabrielle's soul locked onto hers like a leech, draining Xena of her essence.
A bright flare around the golden dragon caused everyone to avert their eyes. And what they saw next was totally mind-boggling. The grey dragon lay in a heap on the other side of the circle while the golden dragon rose effortlessly above it. Purplish flames limned the golden dragon as it hovered in place, roaring a defiant challenge at its opponent which now stood before it. Purplish gold eyes met smouldering grey ones in a contest of will which ended with another charge by the grey dragon. Unlike its previous strategy of evasion, the golden dragon held its ground, turning into a backward somersault as it grappled with the grey dragon, its jaws closing firmly and surely upon the exposed grey throat. Claws scrabbled on scales, some punching through to tear at flesh as the grey dragon sought to loosen the death grip upon its throat. Blood flowed freely from the golden dragon's underbelly but it neither shied nor panicked, its only response to clamp its jaws ever harder around its opponent's windpipe, mercilessly cutting off the air supply and causing the grey dragon to finally collapse in a twitching heap beneath it. Determination and triumph shone forth from the golden dragon's purplish gold orbs and with a toss of its mighty golden head ripped open the blood-stained grey throat. A gong sounded overhead as the grey dragon faded away into mist, leaving the golden dragon victorious.
The crystalline ceiling flashed a bright golden yellow before turning opaque once again. All eyes now turned unbelievingly towards the fighting arena where the tyrant lay dead, blood pooling under his body from his numerous wounds, the deadliest of which came in the form of a gaping hole where his throat should have been. Gabrielle on the other hand looked to have escaped totally unscathed. The injuries that had been inflicted upon her physical body earlier were nowhere to be seen. Outside the arena, guards had surrounded the three enforcers, prepared for violence but the loyalty spell had been broken with the death of the tyrant and all three former enforcers now stood staring uncomprehendingly at their surroundings, apparently having absolutely no idea how they came to be there. The chief arranged for them to be escorted to the healer's compound where one of the guards would answer any queries they had and explain the situation to them. The healer hurried into the arena and knelt down beside Gabrielle, checking her over for any signs of injury while two clan members removed the tyrant's body from the arena, and cleared up the mess.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open to find the healer crouched over her. With a relieved smile, she asked, "Does that mean we won?"
"Indeed. You defeated the tyrant and delivered us from his cruel reign. On behalf of the clan, thank you." The healer said, reaching out a hand to touch Gabrielle's forearm tentatively. "How do you feel?"
"Dizzy." Gabrielle admitted. She levered herself to her feet, stumbling a little as her legs refused to support her. Only the healer's firm grip on her elbows kept her from falling flat on her face. "And hungry. I could use some food." She frowned as she looked around the arena, searching for her soulmate's familiar form. Xena should have been the first person by her side but she was nowhere in sight. Her stomach turned. Something wasn't right.
Xena? Gabrielle tried to send through their soul-link but received only silence in return. Fueled by a sudden fear, Gabrielle extricated herself from the healer and ran out into the village hall where congratulatory pats rained upon her. "Excuse me, pardon me." She said as she wended her way through the crowd, her eyes darting every which way in search of the one person who mattered the most to her right now. "Xena?" She shouted amidst the hubbub. "Xena!" A hand landed on her shoulder and she whirred around, the disappointment showing plainly upon her face when she realised it wasn't Xena. "I need to find Xena. Do you know where she is?"
The healer shook his head. "I don't but we need to talk. Do you remember anything at all about the fight?" He queried gently, guiding Gabrielle through the crowd until they reached a relatively secluded place near the chief's abode.
"I... I... No. I can't remember anything after sitting down in the arena. Is that important? What has that to do with Xena?" She asked, confused.
"The tyrant was getting ready to land the killing blow when something strange happened. There was a bright flare and a purplish fire appeared to surround the golden dragon. Immediately, the fight turned firmly in your favour. When I checked you over just now, I noticed that your aura has changed. The golden dragon is gone but his role here is done so that's only to be expected. What worries me however is that I can no longer see your soul-link. It's as if it was never there."
"It's gone?" Gabrielle looked uncomprehendingly at the healer. "What do you mean gone? Xena's my soulmate. We are meant to be together forever. She can't be gone." Agitation underlying her every action but her gut told her the healer was right. Gabrielle couldn't feel Xena at all. Actually, she couldn't feel their link at all. It was almost as if it had never existed. She turned towards the healer, shaking him by the shoulders. "What does this mean?" She demanded.
The healer waited for Gabrielle to stop before he answered. "I think she found a way to merge your souls." When Gabrielle took a deep breath to interrupt, he held up a hand to halt her. "I'm not sure what that means but I think you need to perform that ritual soon or you might lose her forever. If you'll collect the things you need, I'll personally bring you to Bimini."
Gabrielle stared at the healer in shock, unwilling to contemplate the idea of losing Xena once again. She took a moment to collect herself then nodded decisively. "I'll get her ashes from my pack."
Halfway to the front door, Gabrielle heard the healer call out, "You'll need clothes to dress her in. And I'll get some food from the kitchen. We'll need to eat along the way and Xena would probably need some sustenance too. I'll meet you back here when you're done."
Back in the silence of their room, Gabrielle could finally sense the emptiness within her. The very same emptiness she'd felt in Nicklio's hut six years ago while sitting beside Xena's very cold and very dead body. She reached for her travel pack, rummaging through the contents until her fingertips grazed the smooth silk in which Xena's ashes had been wrapped in. Placing the precious bundle in front of her, Gabrielle reached to undo the knots, her hands trembling so badly that it took her quite a while to liberate the little wooden bowl from the silk wrap. Cradling Xena's ashes to her bosom, she felt her anxiety ease somewhat, almost as if the ashes were the final link to her soulmate. Barely daring to hope, Gabrielle closed her eyes and focused on Xena, willing the absent warrior to make a dramatic appearance before her. "Xena," she called.
"Gabrielle..." The air surrounding Gabrielle seemed to breathe, carrying with it a distinct hint of melancholy. Gabrielle was reminded of her struggle up Mount Nestus, accompanied by the barely audible utterances of an obviously delirious Xena. Opening her eyes, Gabrielle looked around her, noting the absence of a certain warrior princess. Not entirely sure it wasn't just a figment of her imagination, Gabrielle called out to Xena once again. This time, she was greeted by a heavy silence so ominous her heart nearly skipped a beat.
Xena, I don't know if you can hear me. But don't you dare give up like you did on Mount Nestus. I'm not losing you again. I can't. I won't. So hold on for me. Just hold on. I'm going to Bimini to get you back. You're not leaving me again. You hear me? You're not. My life just isn't complete without you.
Gabrielle wiped the tears from her face, determined not to succumb to her worst fears. There would be time for that later, whatever the outcome. She dug out Xena's pack and pulled out a simple linen shift. Xena's armour and sword had been buried in Jappa and the only item of clothing left in her pack was that singular linen shift. Next, she changed back into her usual travelling clothes which the dragons had been considerate enough to wash for her. She tucked the linen shift into her belt then strode purposefully from the room, Xena's ashes clutched firmly in one hand.
Ci Nu and the healer were waiting for her outside the chief's abode. The healer had changed to dragon form, a saddle for two strapped upon his back just behind his forelegs. Ci Nu approached Gabrielle, producing a bun from the cloth bundle on her shoulder and offering it to Gabrielle. Then she detached a waterskin from her belt and handed it over as well. "Here, you'll need this. It will take us at least half a day to get to Bimini. I'll be tagging along just in case." Watching Gabrielle stand there with the bun in her hand, at a loss what to do with it, Ci Nu took pity on her. Laying a hand on her shoulder, she coaxed, "I know you're worried but you need to keep your energy up. If not for yourself, then for Xena. If you drain yourself, you might unwittingly tax her limited resources instead. Go on, finish that and we'll be on our way."
Gabrielle stared at Ci Nu then at the bun sitting in her hand. Remembering the roiling energy within their soul-link earlier, Gabrielle knew Ci Nu might just be right. If Xena had indeed found a way to feed Gabrielle energy through the link, the reverse might also be true. Not willing to take the risk, Gabrielle sunk her teeth into the bun, chewing mechanically. In different circumstances, she would have taken the time to savour the sweet taste of the chicken within the soft spongy texture of the bun but her mind was otherwise preoccupied. To Gabrielle, this delicious offering might just have been a hunk of stale bread and cheese for all the difference it made.
When the last bite finally vanished down Gabrielle's throat, Ci Nu vaulted into the saddle before reaching down to help Gabrielle up. She wrapped one arm around Gabrielle to secure her, the other hand reaching past to grab hold of the pommel. With a lurch, the dragon sprung into the air, maintaining a steep ascent that threw Gabrielle back into Ci Nu, the chainmail armour pressing uncomfortably against her back. An image of Argo plodding along a dirt road came to mind, Gabrielle perched in front but leaning cozily into Xena who sat behind with her arms loosely wrapped around the bard, hands resting on the reins. That had been one of Gabrielle's favourite ways to travel because it made her feel protected and loved. Unfortunately, with their propensity for walking into danger, it hadn't been the safest way.
The dragon continued to climb and small wisps of clouds started to stream by them. When they finally straightened out, Gabrielle noticed the clouds provided both cover and protection from the sun and any other predators though she doubted any creature would be stupid enough to challenge a dragon. She risked looking down and would have lost her balance on the saddle if Ci Nu's arms hadn't been wrapped tightly around her. They were flying so high up that Gabrielle couldn't see the ground at all.
Seven years ago, she'd been just another village peasant when Xena had stumbled into her life. Tired of her mundane life in Potidaea, Gabrielle had begged the warrior princess to take her along on her journeys. In her youthful exuberance and innocence, she'd believed herself to be destined for greater things than growing up to be the wife of some dull farmer. How naive she'd been. In her journeys with Xena, Gabrielle had seen more of the world then she'd bargained for. She'd travelled to exotic places, met legendary heroes, became a princess and a queen, died more than once, had her fair share of heartbreaks, fought monsters, killed her only child, betrayed her best friend, and flown on a dragon. Not many people could lay claim to that but she could. As a bard, this would make a great story. And if it ended with Xena's resurrection, it would be even better.
Flying an oriental dragon wasn't as bumpy as Gabrielle had expected. Unlike their western counterparts, oriental dragons didn't depend on wings for flying hence the trip was smoother than it would have been on a horse. Day morphed into night, the moon and the stars replacing the sun as a witness to their journey and still they flew on. Nearly seven candlemarks after they had left Chin, they started descending through the dark night sky, headed for a tiny little island in the middle of a vast ocean where they stopped for dinner and to attend any nature calls. After a simple dinner consisting of dried jerky, they resumed their flight east, the healer having explained to Gabrielle that this would be their only stop since that one little island was the only land enroute from Chin to Bimini.
Gabrielle's mind was a merciful blank as they flew, her exhausted mind having given up trying to make sense of what had happened during the fight with the tyrant. In Xena's absence, key information was missing and all she could do was speculate. She wanted to lash out at something, anything; to give vent to her frustrations and fear instead of allowing them to coil within her like a serpent waiting to strike. It was making her edgy and Ci Nu's constant physical contact with her wasn't helping at all. Stopping for a break had taken the edge off somewhat as she'd unleashed her deadly sais upon a defenceless tree, chipping off chunks of bark and leaving the tree chillier on her departure than before her arrival.
It must have been at least three candlemarks later when Ci Nu tapped Gabrielle on her shoulder, drawing her attention to the front where a huge red dragon loomed, its wings beating almost lazily as it waited directly in their path. Judging from its looks, it appeared to be a western dragon though it had a much longer neck and was more slender than the tyrant had been. The healer slowed to a stop before the red dragon and the two dragons exchanged high-pitched clicks while Ci Nu and Gabrielle looked on. Apparently satisfied, the red dragon headed back the way it came, the healer following closely behind. The moon had set and the stars did nothing to dispel the darkness surrounding them. Their sole reference in this pitch blackness was the faintly glowing figure of the red dragon before them who seemed to know exactly where they were headed. Not long after, they started to descend once again, hot on the tail of their guide. The red dragon swooped down to land and the healer stopped, hovering in place as if waiting for something. A burst of bright orange flames spread out from the red figure beneath them and torches flared into life around it. They could now see the clearing beneath them and the healer glided in to land a short distance away from the red dragon.
Feet now firmly on the ground, Gabrielle looked around. They were on a beach of sorts, the sand strewn with rocks and the usual beach debris. A scraggly mountain dominated the right side as far as Gabrielle could see, which in the cover of night wasn't really that far at all. She was soon joined by Ci Nu and the healer, both in human form and carrying a torch each. Under the watchful eye of their dragon sentinel, the healer started walking towards a spot in the mountain that was darker than its surroundings. Gabrielle followed immediately after and Ci Nu brought up the rear. Nearer to the mountain, the torches revealed their destination to be a narrow opening that was passable only in single file.
Upon entering the cave, the temperature dropped drastically and Gabrielle almost had reason to curse her choice of attire. The air within was dank though it wasn't totally disagreeable. In actual fact, it could have been a lot worse, the cave could have been inhabited by bats but the distinct smell of bat guano was comfortingly absent. A rivulet ran parallel to the wall on their left and the healer followed it almost religiously through various twists and turns, navigating through the confusing network of tunnels with ease. Gabrielle was hopelessly lost by the time the tunnels opened out into a vast cavern deep within the mountain. The rivulet they'd been following continued its way to the back of the cavern where it emptied into a small pool fed by numerous similar rivulets, sitting like a fat spider in the middle of its web.
The healer walked past the pool to the back of the cavern, slipping his torch into one of the torch holders conveniently placed there. Ci Nu did the same then stepped back to the center of the cavern where she kept a watchful eye on all the tunnels, supposedly standing guard while Gabrielle did her thing. The healer stood to one side of the pool and gestured for Gabrielle to proceed.
"This is the fountain of life?" Gabrielle asked, gesturing at the seemingly ordinary pool of water before her. "It looks..." She shrugged.
"Appearances are misleading at the best of times. Great power often lies within the most ordinary of vessels." The healer intoned. He noted the expression of doubt on Gabrielle's face and immediately understood her concern. "This is the fountain of life. You have it on my honour. Begin the ritual and you'll see for yourself."
Gabrielle glanced between the healer, the pool, and the wooden bowl in her hands then step hesitantly forward. She uncovered the bowl, revealing greyish white ashes within. Kneeling down, she lowered the bowl towards the pool. She is interuppted by a flashback of her performing that exact same action on the side of Mount Fujisan only to be stopped by Xena's firm hand pressing on hers. Gabrielle blinked, driving the memories back to focus on the present. History would not be repeating itself today. She immersed the wooden bowl into the pool, feeling the cool gentle swirl of the water on her hand and watching in amazement as the ashes seemed to dissolve upon contact with the water. One moment it was there and the next it was gone. A momentary panic gripped Gabrielle as she stared at the empty bowl in her hands. She looked up at the healer who gave her a reassuring smile but Gabrielle wasn't in the least comforted. If this didn't work, she had just lost what little she had left of Xena. Forever.
She stood up apprehensively, turning a full circle to study the bare cavern. Nothing had changed. At all. Turning back to the healer, she asked tremulously, "Isn't something supposed to happen? Where's her body?"
"Patience, Gabrielle, patience. The deed has been done, the ritual started. Now we wait."
"Wait? Wait? How long are we supposed to wait?" Gabrielle demanded, pacing restlessly in front of the healer, the wooden bowl lying forgotten by the side of the pool.
"How about now?" The healer asked after a pause. He placed his hands on Gabrielle's elbow and gently but firmly turned her around. The naked form of a well-built woman lay on her back beside the pool, long dark hair spread around her head like a halo.
Gabrielle sprinted over to drop down to her knees beside the body, running her hands along the cold but familiar planes disbelievingly. It was Xena's body in all its glory but without any of the wounds she'd picked up in Jappa. She searched that proud and noble face, looking for a sign of life but finding none. "How will I know to perform the next step of the ritual?"
"You can't proceed to the next step until her soul has been reunited with her body."
"Would you be able to see her aura when that happens?"
They settled down to wait.
The torches had burned down lower and Gabrielle was slumped over Xena's body in exhaustion when she felt moisture erupt under her hand. Startled, she sat up straight and stared at the bloody gouges that had carved a path all over her soulmate's body.
"She's here but her aura is very faint. She's too weak. Gabrielle, you need to finish the ritual quickly." The healer materialised by Gabrielle's side, his tone chock full of urgency.
Gabrielle exploded into action. She took a mouthful of water from the fountain and hurriedly dropped down beside Xena's head. She bent down to place her lips over Xena's and slowly allowed the water to trickle into Xena's mouth, all the while being careful not to accidentally swallow any herself. When she'd transferred all the water to Xena, she straightened and watched Xena's face expectantly. "Xena?" Minutes passed but still there wasn't any change. "It's not working is it?" She asked the healer, her gaze not once leaving Xena's face.
The forlorn answer came softly, "No, it's not. I'm sorry."
Not moving from her spot beside Xena, Gabrielle asked, "Is she still here?"
"Yes. Her aura is faint but it's still there."
Gabrielle cupped Xena's face in her hands. "Xena, I know you're there. I know you can hear me. I need you. Don't leave me. Come back. Please. Come back." She leaned down and kissed the unresponsive Xena tenderly, then passionately, as if she could somehow kiss her back to life.
From where the healer stood, he watched transfixed as the golden glow of Gabrielle's aura flowed into Xena through that one passionate kiss and the faint purplish glow that was Xena merged with Gabrielle's, leaving both suffused with a brilliant purplish gold hue that was stronger than the sum of their parts. In the many centuries he had been alive, he'd never seen anything like this. Indeed, these two remarkable women shared a connection so strong that even death could not destroy it.
Gabrielle felt Xena return her kiss and she sagged with relief into the strong embrace of her soulmate as Xena drew her close. Breaking the kiss, she buried her face into the crook of Xena's shoulder, tears of joy streaming uncontrollably down her cheeks. "You came back." She exclaimed.
"Wouldn't miss this kiss for anything in the world." Xena quipped. Her body hurt all over but she chose to hold Gabrielle close, stroking the bard's hair soothingly and taking pleasure in the feel of Gabrielle's bare skin upon hers. Having always been stoic in the face of pain and injuries, Xena bit off a groan when Gabrielle lifted herself off her body, the movement bringing a searing pain that burned all the way from her breastbone through her stomach and down her thighs. A lesser man or woman than Xena would have been left writhing on the floor in agony but Xena only raised herself up onto her elbows to gaze down down at the extensive damage on her body, mentally cataloguing each injury and the next course of treatment. Her stomach was a mess and she could see her innards peeking out from deep gashes that looked as if a big cat had tried to gut her. That was the worst of the lot though there were also the three puncture wounds in her left shoulder and upper arm as well as a variety of gashes on her back, arms and legs. She flexed her muscles, relieved to find none of her bones were broken though she knew there could be trouble if any of her innards had been perforated.
Gabrielle too had finally taken in the full extent of Xena's injuries and she now ran her hands gently over her soulmate, careful to avoid touching the wounds. "You're badly hurt. How did this happen?"
"Dragon." Xena grunted. "Courtesy of the tyrant." She tried to sit up but was stopped by the healer who now knelt by her side.
"We need to treat some of these wounds now before they get infected. You're not going anywhere until I'm done." The healer took command of the situation, reaching for Ci Nu's cloth bundle and pulling out a well-stocked medical kit.
Xena's first instinct was to decline but one look at Gabrielle's determined eyes quelled any resistance she might have offered. Xena lay back down quietly while the healer cleaned her wounds and stitched them up, her jaw clenched against the pain, uttering not a sound. Gabrielle sat beside her, holding her hand, concern and a million unspoken questions warring upon her face. Thankfully, the examination revealed none of her innards had been damaged and once she'd been properly bandaged up, she felt strong enough to sit up and even stand. If it weren't for Gabrielle's insistent hand upon her arm, Xena would probably have persisted on the healer to embark on their return journey to Chin.
As things were, they decided to spend the rest of the day resting in Bimini. Ci Nu and the healer left Gabrielle and Xena alone in the cavern while they went to apprise the red dragon of the situation and hunt some game for lunch.
In view of Xena's injuries, Gabrielle had been hesitant to assume her usual position on top of Xena but the warrior had insisted, assuring Gabrielle that she wouldn't be hurting her. Gabrielle had finally given in and they lay comfortably by the fountain of life, Xena's left arm half curled around the bard's back.
"You're going to tell me what happened, aren't you."
"Later, Gabrielle. Now we sleep. You need the rest and so do I."
"Promise?" Gabrielle mumbled sleepily, barely suppressing a huge yawn.
"Promise." Xena said, running her fingers lightly across the bard's unblemished back. The dragon tattoo that had dominated much of Gabrielle's back was gone. Xena had allowed Akemi to give Gabrielle the tattoo as a form of protection since Xena would no longer be able to do that herself but she'd hated it. Hated the idea of not being able to watch over Gabrielle and she was infinitely grateful to find it gone. She was back and Gabrielle didn't need some ugly body art to keep her safe anymore. Smiling, Xena closed her eyes and allowed Gabrielle's gentle snores to lull her into restful sleep.