by B. S. Barber
No sex, little violence. Just a good-ol-fashioned romping adventure with our
dynamic duo, who I make no claims to but sure wish I could
Being traveling companion and best friend to one of the most feared
warriors in the land isn't always easy. Sure, it has its advantages. Like
getting the biggest room at the inn and the quickest service you'll ever
see. But, my friend has this uncanny knack for choosing the path of most
resistance and going where no one in their right minds would go. And I'm forced to either follow, or get lost trying to find my way home. Like the time she decided to help the Earth Mother save the world. We'd been traveling through a vast woods, overlaid with moss and vines. "These sure are some old trees," I remarked in hushed tones. This place seemed to demand a reverence I seldom felt any more.
"This is said to be the most ancient forest in the known lands," Xena replied, equally hushed.
"I've also heard it's supposed to be haunted." Never one to let my fear get the better of me, I blurted out my thoughts. And of course that brought a short laugh from Xena.
"Then it is haunted!"
"There is supposed to be a spirit here that exacts payment, but only from those who chose not to do what's right." Xena tried to reassure me. But I wasn't. "What kind of payment are we talking about here?"
Xena glanced in my direction, gauging her possible answers against my current skittishness. "You don't want to know," she finally said. That shut me up and made me pay attention.
We walked in silence for awhile, the only sound the rhythmic clop of Argo's hooves on the lichen encrusted path.
The clash of metal on metal split the air.
Xena dropped the horses reins, drew her sword and raced around the bend to the sounds of fighting heard in the distance. My reaction time is much slower. As I rounded the bend I could see a woman of middle age dressed in earth tone leathers wielding a wooden staff against five men. Two more were lying on the ground, either dead or unconscious. While I stood there taking
this all in, the woman rapped one of her adversaries smartly on top of the head with her staff, whacked another on the butt, and caught a third in the gut as he foolishly charged her from the rear. I stood there dumbfounded. This normal looking, middle-aged woman had just taken out seven armed men with nothing more than a wooden staff? I thought only Xena did things like that!
Xena, of course, had wasted no time gawking before charging into the thick of things. A sixth attacker was setting to take a swing at the woman's head with his sword when Xena grabbed his arm, blocking the stroke. The woman stepped back a few paces and, with a questioning look, stared at Xena. Another of the bandits, (for that is what I assumed they were; who else would attack a lone woman in the forest in such number), probably thinking Xena too busy to notice, tried to take her from behind. Still holding the one, she caught the other by his wrist, slammed the two together with a resounding thud, then into a third as he was struggling to regain his feet. All three tumbled to the ground in a heap of tangled arms and legs. Just as I was thinking the two women had everything under control and I could relax, a sudden motion to my left turned into a massive fist headed straight for my face. Instinct alone saved me; I ducked jerkily. Xena's stern guidance as I laboriously attempted to master the moves she tried to teach me, gave me the ability to block his next swing and flip him to the ground. I quickly retrieved my dropped staff and gave him a cracking blow to the head, hopefully strong enough to put him out of action for awhile. Never stand back to admire your handiwork in the middle of a fight. At Xena's shout, I ducked again. The whistling of the sword as it passed within inches of my head was the most frightening sound I've ever heard. And the sight of Xena's broad back between me and my would-be executioner was the most re-assuring. As she quickly disarmed the bandit, I looked around for the woman we'd come to rescue. She was gone! And so were the bandits. Xena and I stood alone in the center of the road.
"Where'd she go?" I asked Xena.
She looked around, obviously as puzzled as I. "Strange, she was here a minute ago."
"Well! That's gratitude for you!" I exploded. "Takes off without even so much as a 'thank you'!"
"Maybe we frightened her Gabriel. We did kind of appear out of nowhere. And you know the reaction's I usually get."
I was not to be that easily mollified. "And it's a good thing we did, too, we just saved her life!"
Xena frowned thoughtfully. "I'm not so sure."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I'm not so sure she was even in trouble."
"What?" I couldn't believe my ears!
Xena turned and started back to where we'd left Argo. "Think about it," she said over her shoulder without slowing down. "How often have you seen a woman take out seven armed men without even getting a scratch." "I've seen you do it lots of times," I retorted. "Though I admit, she didn't appear to be in as good a shape as you are." Xena's long legs were putting too much distance between us for my comfort, so I had to shut up in order to catch up. She was already at Argo's side, checking her and our gear, when I came stumbling up. The adrenalin high I had gotten from the fight was quickly dissipating and fatigue was starting to set in.
"It's getting late. We should try to find a place to make camp." Xena must have noticed my less than graceful return.
"In these woods? You're kidding, right?" I suddenly felt much stronger. Like I could go on for days, or at least till we were out of this forest.
"Why not," Xena asked calmly. "We're safer in these woods than we would be in a lot of other places."
"Right." It was probably a good thing she had her back to me. We continued our journey till we reached a small clearing set off to one side of the road. Xena surveyed it with an experienced eye.
"This looks like a good place, we'll camp here."
As she began setting up camp, I went in search of wood for our cook fire. I hadn't wandered far from our site when I came upon a cluster of rock seemingly piled one on top of the other till they reached a height of about four feet. As I rounded this cairn, I noticed a small figurine protectively
nestled inside an alcove. It was of a woman, with flowing brown hair, dressed in robes of rich greens and earth browns reaching to her feet. In her right hand, she held an oak staff carved with ancient symbols and bound with iron at the middle. The tip pointing to the sky was in the shape of an eagles head, the other was firmly rooted to the ground.
"Xena," I called. "Come take a look at this."
"What is it?"
I was so intent on the statue I didn't hear her until she was standing beside me.
"Doesn't she look a little familiar to you?" I asked, still studying the figure.
Xena looked at it and frowned. "You mean like the woman we helped?"
"Yeah!" I knew it had looked familiar!
Xena looked sidelong at me, then studied the statuette more closely. "Nah, it couldn't be."
As she turned to leave, I had one more look, not really convinced it wasn't the woman we'd helped. Then, shaking my head, I followed Xena back to our camp.
Though I was sure it would never happen, I fell asleep almost instantly
that night, only to be awakened by the sound of Xena's sword being pulled
from its scabbard. I lay there pretending sleep till I could find out more
about the situation. A shadowy figure stood over Xena as she sat calmly on
her bedroll, her sword draped across her knees. A sudden flare from the
dying embers of our campfire momentarily illuminated the figure. It was the
woman we had helped!
"Hello, Xena. We need to talk."
"Who are you," was her reply.
The woman feigned sorrow. "You don't recognize me? Why, I'm hurt!"
Xena only looked at the woman. "I'm supposed to know you?"
A heavy sigh escaped the woman. "Well, I guess we've never actually been formally introduced, but I've heard you say some pretty nice things about me. And I do try to look out for you whenever I can." Still not getting the response from Xena she was apparently looking for, she continued. "Remember the statue? The lady in the robes holding the staff?"
Xena frowned at the woman. "Oh? So what happened to the robes?"
"Hey, a girls got to go with the times, you know," she said, laughing. "It was getting kind of hard to keep things cleaned up around here in that outfit, and I sure don't have the legs you have to be able to wear something like that." The woman obviously meant Xena's short leather skirt. "Gabriel,
you might as well join us."
Apparently I wasn't as good at playing possum as I'd thought. Xena glanced over at me as I sat up. "She was just telling me she's the lady from the statue."
"I knew it!" Exultation at being vindicated rang in my voice. "Who are you?"
Making herself comfortable on a rock set by the fire, she explained. "Well, a long time ago I was known as Erda. I'm not sure what name they use today; not too many people seem to care anymore. So Erda will do for now."
"And just exactly what is it we need to talk about, Erda." Xena had sheathed her sword while the woman was getting settled.
Erda turned her attention back to Xena. "I need your help recovering something that belongs to me."
Xena glared at her. "I don't run errands for the Gods," she snapped.
Erda chuckled. "Have you no respect for the ones who rule this world?"
"They don't rule me," Xena replied harshly.
Erda clapped her hands together in delight. "Excellent! I knew I could count on you!"
Either Gods were a lot dumber than I'd thought, or this one just wasn't listening. "I think she just turned you down," I interrupted.
Erda grew serious. "No, Gabriel, she just re-affirmed my faith in humanity. There are still those capable of thinking for themselves and refusing to bend to the will of the gods."
"But aren't you one of those Gods?"
"I like to think I'm not like 'those' gods. Besides, I'm not trying to rule anyone."
"But why would a God need our help?" Ever the devils advocate was I.
"It's rather complicated, so I'll just try to highlight a few things for you. Like I said earlier, not many people seem to care about the old gods any more, so our powers are waning; we maintain our strength through human belief. The stronger the belief in us, the stronger we are. As people turn
to other gods, or simply forget us, the weaker we become, until we're not even able to defend our homes anymore. This forest is my last refuge, and I will let no one destroy it. I've been forced to withdraw from most outside contact so that I may be able to at least defend this. People have forgotten that this world is a living entity; the more that forget, the less I am able to heal the wounds inflicted by mankind. Faith must be restored. People must be made to believe again in the Earth as Mother, or the future of all humanity will be forfeit!"
The ground around us began to shake as Erda's impassioned words rang forth. Xena and I looked at each other in startled concern. Erda turned red-faced. "Sorry, I have a tendency to get a little, ummm, irritated shall we say, when I think about how people behave sometime. I've been working on controlling my temper."
"So where do we fit in," Xena asked.
Erda stood and began pacing. "Remember the staff the statue was holding? That is an actual piece of the Tree of Life. Every statue of me has at least a small sliver of the Tree as the staff. That's one way I have of keeping track of things in remote areas; my staff is connected to these pieces. I
had been noticing over time that I was losing contact with various places, but didn't think much of it because things do happen to the statues occasionally and they must be replaced. But lately, I've had a strange sense of foreboding, and only recently found out that a mage has been collecting
the staffs to make one of his own. Only his is to be a staff of death rather than life. I need your help in destroying it."
My astonishment at this request overcame my awe at being in the presence of a God. "Wait a minute!" I yelped. "Did you say you want us to destroy a wizard's staff?"
Erda turned to me. "No, I want you to help me destroy it."
"Why can't you destroy it by yourself?" Xena asked.
Erda gave a small resigned shrug. "I have a little problem being amongst humans. It would seem I gradually loose control of myself the more I'm around them and the longer I'm away from here."
Xena took this into consideration, remembering the shaking we'd experienced a few moments ago. "Just what do you mean by 'loose control'?"
Erda almost looked embarrassed. "The reaction varies. The more stupidity I encounter, the more drastic the results. And boy, you people can do some really stupid things."
"You still haven't told me why I should help you."
Erda quit her pacing to stand in front of Xena and look deep into her eyes.
"Because, though not many know it, you care about injustice and oppression,
and do what you can to fight it every chance you get."
"And this is one of those chances?"
Xena stood and began gathering supplies for our breakfast; the sun was just beginning to peak through the branches. "Ok, just as long as you don't create any more problems than we're already likely to encounter."
"You mean, we're actually going to take on a wizard!" I almost couldn't believe she had agreed, at least not so easily!
Xena was waiting for my reaction and actually had the gall to smile. "Why not? It might even be fun."
"And I know a shortcut." Erda's smile was even bigger.
Erda's shortcut turned out to be a very long, dark, damp, underground
tunnel burrowing deep within the earth. Had the torches we carried not been
made out of a luminous plant-like substance Erda kept stored for just such
occasions, I fear we would have gotten lost in the dark, for surely any
normal torch would have burned out long before our journey reached its end.
"If I'd known this was the kind of shortcut you had in mind, I might have
decided to stay behind with Argo," I groused. I hate being underground,
especially this far under.
Xena put her torch behind her, shading its glow with her body. "I see light up ahead, we must be almost there."
Erda confirmed her guess. "Yes, the tunnel ends soon, we must be careful."
We exited the tunnel to stand on a large hill overlooking a valley spread out before us, at the heart of which, surrounded by a shining ribbon of water, was the wizard's city.
Erda took the torches from us and placed them in the cave entrance. "We need to stop a minute and change into something a little less noticeable," she said upon her return. "What's wrong with the way I'm dressed?" Xena inquired with a strange look in her eye, as if daring Erda to say the wrong thing.
"I didn't say there was anything wrong with the way you're dressed," Erda
hastily replied. "I just think we should be as inconspicuous as possible,
don't you? After all, as Gabriel pointed out, we are going to be doing
battle with a mage and we may need every advantage we can get. I promise you
it won't be that bad."
Erda pondered a bit, faced Xena squarely, then made a sweeping gesture with her hand. Leaves of all sizes, shapes and shades of green began swirling madly about, to eventually settle upon Xena's shoulders in a hooded cloak of forest green. As Erda turned to face me, I closed my eyes, unable to witness what transformation she would chose to bestow on me. When I opened them again, I was covered in a multi-hued cape of earth tones.
"That should suffice, don't you think?" Erda was obviously pleased with herself. Which, judging from the quality of the garment I was wearing, she had every right to be.
Xena wasn't quit as impressed. "It depends on who, or what, we're supposed to be."
"I am an Earth-mage, and you two are my assistants, who by the way, never speak except through me."
I'd swear she was directing that at me.
"Think you can handle that?" Xena asked, eyebrow raised. And that was directed at me.
I don't think she was too impressed with my glare, either. As we continued on down the hill, I couldn't help but notice the beauty of the flowing countryside around us and make comment about it. "Don't be fooled by what the eyes see, Gabriel," Erda pointed out. "This place is upheld by the black powers of the mages that live here. Most of what you think is beautiful, is only an illusion."
"You have to learn to look beyond what your senses tell you, to the very heart of a thing, in order to see the difference between what's real, and what is presented," Xena added.
That brought a smile to Erda's face. "Very good, Xena! You surprise me, and I'm not often surprised these days. The truth is, Gabriel, this once was the very heart of science and technology."
"Then what happened?" I asked, looking around in disbelief at what they were telling me.
"Greed. The lust for power. Mage's from all over were drawn here, trying to gain the power of this place for themselves, until there was nothing left but the corrupted remnants of spells gone wrong. Anyone with even a shred of decency left long ago." I wasn't sure if the sadness in Erda's voice was for the loss of beauty this place once held, or the loss of purity the people once showed.
A loud crash at the edge of the trail startled us all. Xena whirled to face it just as a large man-shaped beast came charging out of the brush and straight for me. I could tell by the murderous gleam in his eyes he was bent on carnage. As he roared past, Xena ripped off her cloak and jumped on the creature's back, forcing him to change his attack. It seemed mere seconds before she was tossed from him like a minor nuisance. The instant she hit the ground, Xena rolled out of the way and to her feet as the beast tried to stomp her. When she turned to face the monster, another burst from concealment at her back, raking his claws across her shoulder. The first
beast renewed his attack with vigor, but Xena had drawn her sword and blocked his claws inches from her face. With muscles knotting along her arms and shoulders, she forced him back enough to give her room to deliver a vicious side kick to the chest of the one who had marked her, knocking him back into a tangle of bushes. With her full concentration directed at the original attacker, she swept his feet from under him with her leg, taking him to the ground, then smashed the pommel of her sword to his head, stunning him. By this time, the second beast had untangled himself from the
pile in which he'd landed, and charged again. As she spun to face this new onslaught, the one she had thought stunned grabbed her about the ankles, causing her to fall head first into the attacking creature. Instinct made her raise her sword in self defense and the monster's impetus drove him into
the blade. As he crumpled in a pool of blood, the other creature gave out a rising wail of grief and despair, then fled into the forest. Xena stood, looking down at the creature dying at her feet, her bloody sword held limply in her hand.
"I didn't mean for this to happen," she said softly, turning to face us.
I went quickly to her side as she sank to the ground, Erda right behind me. Erda shuffled around in a pouch she carried under her cloak. "Let me look at that," she commanded Ariane, indicating the wounded shoulder. "I'm all right."
"No you're not."
She found what she was looking for and pulled out a small healing crystal, which she began using on Xena's shoulder without further comment. "What is this thing?" I had never encountered a creature similar to this one before.
"I would guess one of the spells that went wrong." Xena looked to Erda for conformation.
"Yes, poor beast. At least you have put it out of its misery. Now I will put it to its final rest."
Erda stood over the beast and began drawing symbols in the air with her staff. Saying a few words of ancient prayer, she made one final gesture and the ground rose up to form a shallow mound covering the beast. She then turned back to Xena.
"You did what had to be done," she said, gently placing her hand on Xena's uninjured shoulder. "You didn't make the beast what it was, or do anything to cause it to attack."
I could see the steel return to Xena's eyes. "No, but I can make sure whoever did is held responsible."
Erda sighed. "Then, we'd better get to the city, huh."
As we topped the last rise before entering the city, Xena called a halt so
that she might survey the area more closely. Pointing to the golden span of
bridge that joined the city to the rest of the land, she questioned Erda.
"Is that the only entrance into the city?"
"No, there are other bridges leading out of the city. It's set up like a wheel; the river is the outer rim, with the hub being the heart of the city where the most powerful mages live."
Xena considered this a moment. "And, I suppose that's where we'll find our mage?"
"Of course. Only the most powerful could use the magic of the Tree of Life."
"And you're sure this plan of yours will work?"
"I know it's hard for you to do, Xena, but you must trust me. You concentrate on getting the staff, and I'll take care of the rest." We crossed the bridge where it met a road so straight, it seemed to run to the very heart of the city. All around us were gleaming buildings, burnished by the sun's rays to a copper sheen. A center fountain, shaped in the image of a mermaid, spewed forth crystal water. Even the cobbled streets held not a hint of debris. Erda frowned, disgust plainly evident on her face, and halted. She turned to Xena, gripped her tightly by the shoulders, looked into her eyes and gently tapped her with a finger on the forehead. As she did the same to me, I felt a wrenching sense of vertigo. Everything tried to turn inside-out and I was forced to close my eyes tightly to keep from falling down. Clinging desperately to Xena's arm, I gasped. "What happened!"
All the beauty had vanished, and in its stead was filth and decay. The once gleaming buildings now stood in disarray, some with no windows, or doors fallen in.
"I figured we'd be better off seeing what we were really facing, rather than the illusions they put up to lull us," Erda answered in a grim voice. "Good idea. We're less likely to be distracted this way." Xena's tone was equally grim.
We continued in silence, each keeping a lookout for any movement that might warn of danger. As we approached the mage's mansion, we were confronted by guards posted at the gated entrance. Keeping to her guise as our master, Erda demanded admittance. "I am here to see the mage Lokius."
The larger of the two guards stepped forward menacingly, hand on sword hilt. "And who're you supposed to be?"
"Someone who is here to see Lokius," Erda replied in a calm manner.
The guard seemed to loose some of his bluster as Erda stood her ground against him. "Do you have an appointment? No one sees Lord Lokius without an appointment."
Erda stepped closer to the guard, sensing his beginning uncertainty. "Do you wish to disturb him to find out?"
The guard frowned hesitantly, then looked to his companion for support. His companion was either more intelligent or more experienced at such difficulties, for he wasn't about to become involved in the situation. Rather than risk his lords ire at having one of his expected guests refused, the guard let us pass.
"We did it!" I crowed, safely beyond the hearing range of the guards.
"That was the easy part." Xena always had a way of bringing me back to reality.
"Yes," Erda agreed. "Now to find Lokius."
I stopped. "You mean the staff, don't you?" I really didn't want to find Lokius.
"If we find Lokius, we'll find the staff," Erda explained. "From here on, we must be extra careful. Anything could happen."
Xena drew her sword and flipped the edge of her cloak over her shoulder to free her arm. "You lead. I'll take care of anything coming up behind us."
We hadn't gone far when Erda pointed down a hallway leading to the left. "This way, I can feel the power of the staff pulling me."
The hallway opened onto a large chamber, with stairs leading up both sides, and several other entrances ranging the walls to our left. Erda entered the chamber first, and was met by armed resistance. The man approached with pike at the ready, but Erda merely stood her ground. As the man charged, she stepped to one side, placed her hand upon the wall and grabbed his arm as he
drove past. The instant she held him firmly, he turned to stone. "That's a handy little trick," Xena commented as she stepped into the chamber.
Erda grinned. "Unfortunately, the effects will only last a few hours."
"Hopefully, we'll be long gone by then," I ventured as I followed the two deeper into the chamber.
"Wait!" Erda commanded. "Something is not right."
We had stopped in the center of the chamber, Erda turning slowly as though she were trying to get her bearings. A thickening mist had started to fill the room as figures formed in the entrances along the wall. One stepped forward to greet us.
"Erda! How good of you to come!"
"Lokius!" Erda hissed.
"As you can see, I've been waiting for you. I knew my staff would draw you here," Lokius gloated.
Erda scowled. "Is that what this is all about, to get me to come to you?"
"But of course, my dear. How better to conquer the world than to capture the Earth Mother herself!" His mad laughter grated on my ears.
"How did you elude my senses?" Erda demanded, trying to keep his attention centered on her.
"You sense life, Erda," He began, condescendingly. "There is no life here. The power has drained all life from this city. Now come with me, quietly, and I will spare your little friends."
"No!" Xena stepped defiantly between them, ready to defend Erda from Lokius and his men.
Lokius looked almost insulted by the move and motioned his followers to attack. As he nonchalantly swung his staff at Xena's head, Erda cried warning. "Xena, don't let him touch you with the staff!"
Xena blocked the staff with her sword, forcing the tip to the ground before backhanding Lokius in the face. Erda pulled her own staff from under her cape and tossed it to me just in time to block a guard with a pike bearing down on me. I loosed my cape, giving me more room to maneuver, and tossed it aside. Luckily, it swirled around another guard attacking from the rear, causing him to trip and fall into a third, taking them both crashing to the floor. During the brief respite this gave me, I looked around to see how the others fared. All I could see of Xena was a mass of struggling bodies as six guards tried to hold her down, beating and kicking her. Erda, too, must have seen her predicament, for she gestured with her hands, and Xena's cape turned into a whirlwind of leaves, startling the men and giving Xena enough of a distraction to be able to force herself up off the floor, sending them sprawling. By this time, Erda had turned several men around her into stone, and was unable to see Lokius edging up behind her. As he raised his staff to strike, Xena and I gave simultaneous shouts. "Erda! The staff!"
Erda ducked, and shoved a guard into Lokius' staff. He screamed; a hideous, soul-wrenching cry of anguish as the staff touched him and turned him to smoldering ashes. Xena covered the distance between her and Lokius with giant strides, seeming to brush aside any resistance to her passage. She attacked with a vengeance. Lokius managed to block her strike, but the force of the blow took a small chip from his staff.
"Xena, break the staff! You must destroy the staff!" Erda bellowed.
Xena renewed her attack with vigor, hitting the staff in the same spot, again and again with mighty strokes, taking another chip each time. Lokius was forced back, step by step, till he had no-where else to run. With one more supreme effort, Xena struck, cleaving the staff. A blinding flash of
light escaped it as it shattered into tiny fragments, causing Lokius' men to fall to their knees, screaming, hands clutching heads that were quickly becoming ash.
Erda came rushing to where Xena and I stood, mouths agape at the scene surrounding us. "Xena, you and Gabriel must get out of here! Get to the tunnel, quickly!"
"What about you?" Xena asked, as Erda tried to hustle us out of the building.
"I must finish this. The power has been corrupted and must be destroyed. I cannot allow what has happened here in Atlantis to happen anywhere else. Now go!"
The ground began to shake as Xena and I fought our way out of the city and to the cave. At the entrance, we stopped to look back, but there was no sign of Erda. Several fires could be seen, burning in the city, and the shaking was growing continually more violent.
"Do you think we should wait for her?" I asked Xena.
"No. She'll be all right," Xena replied as she stood staring back at the city. "She's a God, remember."
As we entered the tunnel, trees began crashing down as giant boulders fell from the top of the hill upon them.
"I hate to say this, but maybe we should go a little bit further down the tunnel," I ventured tentatively, shaken by the nearness of the falling boulders.
"Maybe you're right," Xena grudgingly admitted. "Come on. Just as we entered deeper into the tunnel, an avalanche covered the entrance, plunging us in total darkness.
"It's all right, Gabriel, look, I've found the torches," came Xena's disembodied voice.
I turned to the sound, and could just make out the darker shadow that was Xena. Once my eyes had become accustomed to the gloom, I could also tell she did, indeed, have the torches in hand. But, when she strode past me, away from the entrance, I protested.
"Wasn't the entrance in that direction?" I pointed in the opposite direction from that which she had chosen.
"You want to get out of here, don't you?"
I nodded enthusiastically, forgetting the poor vision afforded by the torches.
"Then we go this way." And with that, we set off to find our way home.
alt fic index <> homepage