The Great Voice
Disclaimers- The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Eve belong to their creators at Renpic. No infringement of their rights is intended.
Subtext and Violence- Probably close to the television show.
Historical Note- The sacred city of Nippur actually existed in Mesopotamia and was home to the Sumerian god Enlil. Excavation of the city began in 1889 by an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania.
My most grateful thanks goes to Carissa, my beta reader, for doing a wonderful job and for having better eyes than I do. Thanks also to Jane and MJ for kind words, encouragement and blessings in my life. Feedback welcome at email@example.com
Two years had passed since the events in Japan. Two years since Xena had been lost to the world. Gabrielle steadfastly refused to call it Xena's death, saying transition or changing instead. The word death was so permanent that Gabrielle could not bear to consider it and Xena in the same thought.
Among Gabrielle's friends there was more than one concerned whisper regarding her inability to accept the loss of Xena. They were concerned for her sanity because Gabrielle continued to talk to Xena. Not talk of her, but to her. Gabrielle knew the worries of her friends and had tried to stop talking to Xena in public, saving their best chats, as had been their way, for the campfire.
They think you left me, Xena. They'll never know how close you still are to me.
Gabrielle's words went unanswered, at least to any ears, for Xena had been right. Xena had told Gabrielle that she would always remain in her heart and at her side. This was a promise that had been kept, but in a most unanticipated way. Gabrielle felt, rather than saw or heard, what response Xena would make to any situation. Feelings of reassurance, comfort, and companionship were all there in abundance and Gabrielle knew it should have been enough, but without Xena's physical presence in her life nothing could ever truly be right again.
For a year after Xena's passing, Gabrielle had carried her ashes. She had doggedly sought out wise men and scholars, priests and poets, mystics and madmen all in a futile attempt to reclaim what Xena had relinquished. She had tried amulets, charms, prayers, incantations, chants, and spells but all to no avail. After that year Gabrielle reluctantly accepted the finality of Xena's sacrifice and what could not be in this lifetime. With Eve at her side, she placed the black urn in the family mausoleum at Amphipolis and tenderly said goodbye to any hope of Xena's physical return or the prospect of any real joy in this life.
Rest well, my beloved warrior Gabrielle said, and know that we will be together again after this life has ended.
Eve's eyes were full of tears for the mother who had saved her and also for the brave woman who had loved her mother so well. Gabrielle shed no tears. For someone whose emotions had always lived so closely to the surface, this was astonishing. Gabrielle explained to Eve, In my life nothing again will cause me such pain or tear at my soul as what happened at sunset that day on Mt. Fuji. I'll never cry again.
Gabrielle and Eve had parted soon thereafter, each promising to keep in touch with the other but both knowing it would be so very painful to keep those promises.
Gabrielle resumed the life of traveling to which she had become accustomed with Xena. True to her word she headed to the land of the Pharaohs, then on to the Kingdom of Ethiopia, then across the great desert of the Dark Continent continuing the work Xena had started. Gabrielle wasn't driven by the need for redemption as Xena had been, rather she was driven to show the world what Xena had done for her and to enhance Xena's reputation and legend in every way she could. Gabrielle proved to be a consummate problem solver. As many times as Gabrielle needed to use physical force, there were twice as many times when cleverness, ingenuity and common sense proved victorious. Through all her travels, Xena's beloved chakram remained at Gabrielle's side. Reaching down to touch the weapon that Xena's hand had also touched gave Gabrielle a sense of communion with the one she knew she could never touch again.
During her travels the bard in Gabrielle was reborn with renewed vigor and sense of purpose. In every tavern, temple and palace Gabrielle related the events occurring in Japan and the Warrior Princess's magnificent sacrifice. At the end of the tale, after describing the heart wrenching fading away of Xena's spirit, Gabrielle would hold up the chakram and simply say, This, and my love for her, are all that remains. The most battle-hardened warrior was known to have wept.
Then, at the end of the second year, Gabrielle received word from Eve by way of a messenger traveling with a Saharan caravan. The message was simple.
Meet me in Amphipolis. Come as soon as you can.
Since Eve's redemption she had been working with the followers of Eli. She was widely known as one of the Chosen and had been working to bring Eli's message to towns and villages and to open small temples dedicated to the new religion. Eve's study and devotion had led her to an understanding of herself and peace of heart surpassed by few. As time passed though, Eve began to realize she was being given an access denied any other believer. She began to hear what she could only call The Great Voice.
Eve didn't have sufficient words to describe The Voice. It was Eli, but more than Eli. It was all of nature, yet greater than that also. It was as indescribable as peace or power or love and yet it was all these things and more. At first The Voice was nothing more than a whisper heard in passing, not unlike the soft rustling of leaves in spring trees as gentle zephyrs flow past. As time passed Eve became more attentive to The Voice and by shutting out the rest of the world in prayer or meditation was able to communicate with this vast new power. Eve would speak or sometimes merely think of her question, and The Great Voice would place the answer in her mind. She longed to know more about The Voice.
What shall I call you? Eve asked.
Call me as you will, came the reply. I as yet have no name among mankind.
Are you a new god to this Earth? she wondered.
I have been here since the beginning, and before, was her answer.
Eve wondered if this god was like the Titans or the Olympian gods. Before she could utter the question The Voice placed a soft laugh into her mind. I allowed them to have their time. They were quite entertaining weren't they? In the youth of its time mankind was not yet ready to know me. Simple gods with human frailties were as much as man could fathom. Zeus and the other Olympians were my creation but even now they are fading in mankind's memory.
But what of Eli? Eve questioned.
Eli is a closer to what I am, but he too is my creation. Eli is mankind's next step toward the day when it can comprehend all that I am. Think of Eli as a part of me if it makes it easier to understand. You see, I have great patience with mankind; I can wait for it to know me. For me, eternity is but a moment.
For the second time in her life, Eve's beliefs were rocked. She sat quietly, attempting to sort out all she had learned in her mind and finally she spoke.
I am honored you have revealed yourself to me, but I must ask why me and why now?
The Great Voice was silent but a moment. Honor or not you must decide when you know the reason for our discourse. I will make everything you must do clear to you, but you need to know the task I lay before you will be difficult and dangerous. The very world is at stake.
Eve trembled at these words and the awesome responsibility she faced.
Be strong, Eve The Voice said, For I do not expect you to accomplish this thing alone. You will need more than yourself and there is one who will be of great help to you. It is time to return Xena to the world.
The journey north had been an arduous one, Gabrielle reflected as she neared her destination of Amphipolis. When she received the message from Eve she had been camped at an oasis negotiating a deal between rival Bedouin tribes who had been feuding over territory and trading rights. Gabrielle had immediately hooked up with a caravan loaded with goods to trade to the Romans and Greeks and headed north to the sea with them. The traders assured the bard she would be welcome on the Egyptian ship they had hired to meet them at a small port town on the coast. Truth be told, they were grateful to have a warrior of her reputation with them; it had been a bad year for merchants. It wasn't just that there were more raiders and thieves; it was other things as well. The sands of the great desert were more restless, the earth trembled and volcanoes long thought dormant smoldered and rumbled. Across the land a sense of unease pervaded.
Stopping at a stream several leagues from Amphipolis to water her horse, Gabrielle looked at the parchment in her hands. It was tattered from its long journey following her travels and was even more so now after repeated readings.
I don't have a good feeling about this, Xe. There's no way Eve would send a message like this unless she really needed me, but why doesn't she tell me more? I get the feeling I need to get to Amphipolis in a hurry. What do you think?
From her heart there was a renewed sense of urgency, making her spur her horse along even a little faster.
Okay, Xe, I get the picture. Let's go see our daughter.
The landmarks became increasingly familiar as Gabrielle neared Amphipolis. Feelings of curiosity and apprehension mixed with more somber reflections as she remembered the reason for her last trip to Xena's hometown. She recalled the near crushing grief of returning Xena's ashes home and afterward planting a small pomegranate tree near the entrance to the mausoleum.
The pomegranate was a fitting memorial, she thought. A fruit that appeared hard and unpalatable on the outside yet sweet and nourishing on the inside. So to Xena.
Traveling over the last hill, Gabrielle spotted the town. It hadn't changed much in two years. Women still sang as they gleaned in the fields and townsfolk still bustled among the homes and businesses. Entering the tavern that once belonged to Xena's mother, the bard asked the bartender if he had seen Eve.
That would be the Priestess of Eli? Aye, I've seen her. She's where she is everyday- at the resting place of the Warrior Princess and her family.
Gabrielle wondered how long Eve had been waiting for her and what her business was in the crypt. She decided to go to Eve immediately instead of arranging for a room at the Inn or even procuring food. The sense of urgency was near overwhelming at this point.
She covered the distance to the mausoleum in a brief time and stopped just short of the entrance. In the last year the pomegranate tree had grown miraculously. It was now full grown and bearing fruit. Near the middle of the tree, two large branches had grown back across themselves forming a large X in the center of the pomegranate.
Nice touch, Xe, Gabrielle murmured and was delighted with the sense of amusement that sprung from her depths.
Pulling her mind back to the task at hand, she took a deep breath and went inside. Gabrielle took a minute to allow her eyes to adjust to the cool shade of the interior. The first thing she noticed was the scent of beeswax from candles burning in a semi-circle near the alcove where Xena's ashes had rested. Inside the circle was a small altar with two more candles, one burning and one unlit. Between the two candles sat the black urn she had carried for so long. Gabrielle spied Eve's form kneeling before the altar, apparently deep in prayer. The bard approached her daughter quietly, not wishing to disturb her but she had taken no more than two steps when Eve suddenly rose from her knees and whispered At last.
Gabrielle and Eve embraced, holding tight to each other and their memories. Slowly Eve pulled back and gazed at Gabrielle. She appeared strong and healthy, with a determined look to her eye. That was good, Eve thought, for Gabrielle would need all her strength for what was about to happen.
Eve placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and steeled herself for the revelation she knew she had to make.
Gabrielle, over the last few months I have been privileged to come to know a vast power in our world.
The bard smiled. Yeah, I know Eli...
No, not Eli, Eve interrupted, even above Eli. This power has revealed to me secret and dangerous things. This might be difficult to understand but let me try to explain.
With that, Eve spoke of The Great Voice and its place in the order of things as the truly Supreme Being. Gabrielle was amazed at the tale but she knew Eve to be neither demented nor a liar.
Okay, Eve, if you say you have been given this message I believe you, but why? What is the purpose of a revelation to just one person? What does this have to do with needing me here in Amphipolis?
Eve took a deep breath. Well, now two of us know about the revelation and soon it will be known to a third person as well. As for the why, that's simple . we have to save the world.
The Amazon gave a small laugh at this. Save the world, huh? You, me and what horde?
Eve gazed at Gabrielle seriously and said No horde but something as good. Hear now the words of The Great Voice and question me more afterward if you need to. Settling themselves on a mourner's bench in the crypt, Eve began the story.
In a time long before mankind set its foot upon the earth, The Great Voice was there. He created the earth and gave it over to a race of beings the like of which we can only imagine. They were caretakers of the earth and were given dominion over it. The Chendra were a peace- loving race, able to shape themselves physically to the needs of the world around them, and under their guidance the earth was fulfilling it's vast promise. There was one among them though that could not accept prosperity in the presence of true abundance or peace in the most tranquil of lives. It secretly craved more. It envied the power, the knowledge, and the position of the Great Voice. This evil one turned away from the goods of the earth and began to feed on every vile and impure thing it could. It preached sedition and heresy, then fed on the negative emotions those actions produced. It took nourishment from evil, becoming more evil itself. It worked against the structure and the harmony of the world until so much of what The Great Voice had created was in danger of reverting to the wild seething elements from which it had been brought forth. The Great Voice was dismayed by these events and disappointed in the Chendra who had been a beloved race, but who were now mired in debauchery and destruction. Then the final insult occurred when the evil one, Sutahlak by name, preached that as The Great Voice was, it would become. The Great Voice knew then that no other course was an option. Sutahlak was imprisoned far beneath the earth, condemned to rue it's actions for all time. Then a great cleansing fire passed over the earth and all, including the last of the Chendra was destroyed. Nothing survived as the face of the earth became molten and sulfurous. As the righteous anger of The Great Voice cooled, so eventually did the face of the earth. The earth itself was forgiven and reborn by the hand of The Great Voice. A new beloved race was created and mankind was given the breath of life. So it has continued to this day. In it's prison, Sutahlak knew of his loss of power with the new prominence of man upon the earth and it has hated. It has hated The Great Voice for it's imprisonment and has hated mankind for usurping its place. The physical part of Sutahlak has long since passed away and over the course of time it has become a consummate evil, growing stronger by feeding on it's own evil self. Now the strength of the evil has allowed Sutahlak to escape from its bonds and return to the earth with a vow of revenge. It has shaped itself into the form of a man, very powerful and very dangerous, to lead mankind to its own demise and regain the earth for itself. To save the world this is the person we must destroy.
The full importance of the mission was not lost on Gabrielle and with a voice barely above a whisper she asked, You, I and a third person are to accomplish the destruction of embodied evil? Who is this third person? Another god, an archangel ?
Eve hesitated, and then spoke softly Xena.
With a single word, the world as Gabrielle knew it was shaken to its foundation. She grasped Eve's arms to steady herself and waited as a flood of emotions and questions passed through her.
Eve, Xena the bard's words faltered.
Gabrielle, I know this is a shock. I was just as shocked as you when I heard, but the Great Voice has told me just as Xena needed to be a spirit to kill Lord Yodoshi in Japan, so now she must be a mortal to deal with Sutahlak. A human must destroy Sutahlak if mankind is to prove it is deserving of its place in the world. The Great Voice gave mankind its free will and would never force us to do what is right but he will never again allow a race to become like the Chendra. Make no mistake, Gabrielle, if we fail and Sutahlak succeeds in decimating or subverting mankind The Great Voice is prepared to destroy the earth completely. It would be as if the earth never existed and there will be no forgiveness this time. We must end this evil or the Great Voice will do so forever.
Eve paused here, gauging what effect her words were having. Gabrielle was calm now, her words even.
Xena never backed away from a fight for a just cause and neither will I, but Eve Xena as a mortal again how? You know how hard I tried for a year to bring her back. I left no stone unturned, no remedy untried. Did I miss something; did I fail Xena?
Eve placed a reassuring hand over the bard's. No, Gabrielle, you didn't. Think about the pomegranate outside. Just as it will bear no fruit until the tree has matured, so Xena couldn't come back until the time was ripe. The time and the circumstances are now right.
Gabrielle accepted this. I'm ready then.
From her heart Gabrielle felt the stirring of Xena. The anticipation of battle came across as a low humming which sent the blood flowing faster through her veins.
Xena's ready too. Now how do we get this thing done? The Ghost Killer said I needed to get Xena's ashes to the Fountain of Strength on Mt. Fuji by the second sunset after she was killed for her to return to the living. Was he wrong?
Gabrielle, the Ghost Killer told you what he thought to be true, but his information came from his gods. Unfortunately mankind has been misinterpreting the words of the gods for a long time. Two sunsets to a god may not be the two days we think it to mean. Believe me, this thing can be done now.
But what about his instruction to place the ashes in the Fountain of Strength? Will we need to return to Japan?
Eve smiled at this. You traveled with Xena for six years. You became friends and found yourselves as soul mates. Now Xena resides in your heart and mind. The Ghost Killer was right; the Fountain of Strength is crucial but, Gabrielle, why can't you see the plain and simple truth? That well on Mt. Fuji was never Xena's Fountain of Strength. You are, and always were, her Fountain of Strength, and you will be the one to bring her back.
Eve stood pulling Gabrielle by the hand she still held into the semi-circle of candles. Removing the cover from the black urn, Eve produced a small sharp dagger from her cloak.
The Great Voice said your life essence was the fountain. With those words Eve made a quick slice across Gabrielle's left palm. Suspending the hand over the urn, both watched as a few drops of blood fell into the ashes then stood back to watch.
Eve was confused, unable to comprehend what might have gone wrong.
Could I have misunderstood The Great Voice? Gabrielle, what's wrong? What's the matter?
Eve's musings had been cut short by the look on the bard's face. It was a look of utter desolation.
Gabrielle turned desperate eyes to Eve.
She's gone. Xena's gone.
What do you mean 'gone'? Eve questioned.
The humming in Gabrielle's veins had disappeared. It wasn't the quiet that Xena usually dwelt in, it was a complete absence. Xena had vanished.
Two years. She's lived with me in my heart for all that time and I've never felt alone, but I can't feel her anymore, Eve. I've lost her, and I feel like I've lost myself. Gabrielle grasped Eve by the shoulders and gave her a slight shake.
Why did this happen? You said she'd be back! You've taken the only thing that gave me a strength and purpose to continue in this life! Oh, it hurts, it hurts so bad!
Eve tried to calm the increasingly agitated bard. Gabrielle, maybe there's an explanation for this.
Gabrielle's voice was raised and strained. Explanation? What is there to explain? You brought me here, you and that damned Voice. We were doing fine, but no you needed help to save the world! Everybody always needs help to save the world! Well, what about me? I've lost the last part of Xena I'll ever have so who is going to save me?
Gabrielle released Eve and began pacing. I want her back, Eve! Just give her back now!
The priestess' look of helpless confusion enraged the bard.
Damn it! Damn it all to Tartarus! Gabrielle threw back her head and with arms stretched wide screamed to the heavens, Xena! Don't leave me alone, Xena! I need you, I've needed you since the first day we met, and I'll need you forever! Come back to me, Xena, I can't live without you!
At that moment, for the first time in two years, tears brought forth by all-consuming anger and grief filled Gabrielle's eyes and streamed unabated down her cheeks. Eve was stunned at the raw display of emotion by the bard and in an effort at comfort she reached to tenderly wipe the tears away. As her hand reached toward Gabrielle's cheeks, she paused.
It couldn't be, she thought, or could it?
Lifting a single tear from a flushed cheek onto her fingertip, Eve dropped it into the black urn. Immediately a wisp of smoke arose from the ashes.
Gabrielle's eyes lifted in time to see the unlit candle flare to life and the wisp of smoke expand to cover the urn then envelope the whole altar. A light emanated from the smoke that intensified and chased shadows from all corners of the crypt. The light brightened further and became almost painful to sight. Eve and Gabrielle shaded their eyes from the sun-like brilliance and saw a shadow moving within the light. The shadow became more defined then became flesh and a quite naked Warrior Princess stood before them.
Xena looked down at her body, then turned her gaze on the two awestruck women. One eyebrow lifted in a very familiar way and Xena said simply Well, I guess its happy birthday to me.
That was the last thing Gabrielle heard as her vision swam and everything went black.
Gabrielle C'mon, Gabrielle. Damn, for the past eight years she chattered constantly at me and now nothing.
Gabrielle heard the familiar voice and wondered whether or not this was just another of the dreams that had haunted her since Japan. Jade green eyes fluttered open and were captured by eyes too ice blue to be a dream.
Atta girl, said the warrior, I knew you were tough.
Xena, it really happened. You're really back. Gods, I missed you. Well, I mean I knew you were there. I knew you could hear me but I missed your voice and face and your warmth
Gabrielle, hush now. Xena said as she place a finger over the blonde's lips. It's okay, I missed you that way too. You don't have to explain.
No words were needed at all as soul mates reached out to one another and embraced. The forced separation was over and both women simply held on, savoring the absolute joy of completeness.
Eve cleared her throat. I hate to break this up but we've got a lot to do and, Mother, I'm willing to bet my cloak isn't going to be enough clothing for you for long.
The warrior and the bard moved back and helped each other to their feet.
Yeah, I guess it might be a little drafty at that. Xena said with a crooked grin. But Gabrielle, don't worry, we will talk.
Gabrielle nodded and said, No problem. Say, it's getting late. Let's go down to the Inn. You know I didn't have any lunch, and I sure could eat something now.
Xena glanced at Eve. Nice to know some things never change. I live, I die, and I live again, but Gabrielle's appetite just goes on forever.
The three women burst out laughing and headed for the Inn.
Eve arranged to have supper brought up to her room as Gabrielle and a hooded Xena slipped up the stairs as quietly as possible. No one wanted to explain what an unclothed, presumed dead warrior princess was doing roaming her hometown.
Supper was a quiet affair interrupted only by Xena's commentary.
This bread! Did bread always taste this good? Did you try the ale? It's so cool and foamy. Realizing she was being a little too enthusiastic, she grinned sheepishly. Sorry, it just feels so good to feel again.
After eating, Xena turned to Eve.
Alright Eve, you and the big guy are hosting this party so what's the plan? You can skip all the background stuff because Gabrielle and I shared a pair of ears when you explained earlier.
Eve nodded. I have some information for you, but first a few gifts. I knew I would have time before Gabrielle could get here so I took the liberty of having a few things made.
Reaching into a traveling bag, Eve removed a shift, breeches, boots and battle dress all painstakingly crafted and faithful to Xena's originals. Xena slipped into the clothing.
Thanks, Eve. You know there's nothing like a little leather to make me want to say 'I enjoy being a girl!'
Next Eve turned to a long box that had been sitting on the floor.
Mother, The Great Voice said you left a few things behind in Japan that you might need now.
Reaching into the box, Eve removed Xena's armor, scabbard, and sword. Xena took them, rendered nearly speechless.
Gabrielle stepped to Xena's side and held up the chakram she had worn for two years.
You'll be needing this too.
No, Gabrielle, The Great Voice sent one last gift. Eve reached into the box a final time and brought out a new chakram. Its configuration was identical to Gabrielle's but the metal was unlike anything they had seen before. It gleamed dull silver, but the metal felt warm to the touch. The only ornamentation was the letters Alpha and Chi.
The beginning of X. It was definitely meant for you, Xena, observed Gabrielle.
Xena whipped the chakram around her hands for a moment, feeling the weight and checking the balance.
Nice. Tell the big guy I appreciate all this the next time you chat, okay? Now what was that information you have for us?
It's not much I'm afraid. First, Sutahlak has had a long time to observe mankind. It's going to be adept at taking advantage of human weaknesses. Second, though the beast is a shape shifter, it has lost its physical being. It no longer can hold the energy necessary to recreate the form of a non-living being. It must borrow the energy from a living person. This will mean that Sutahlak would not be able to take the shape of a dead person like a warlord you had killed or even your parents. Last, you'll find the monster to the east, north of the meeting of the two great rivers.
Xena thought a moment. Let's see, a shape shifter, totally evil and wily beyond belief. Shouldn't be much of a problem. Listen, this has been a big day and a lot to think about but we newborns need our rest. What do you say we continue this tomorrow?
Eve and Gabrielle agreed the idea had appeal. Eve climbed into the bed while Xena and Gabrielle spread blankets on the floor. Gabrielle yawned widely as she lay down next to the warrior.
I hope I can sleep tonight. I've had some trouble the last two years.
You're telling me? I was there you know. I never minded our campfire talks but those all-nighters were getting ridiculous. What the heck was your problem anyway?
Hmm. I can't seem to recall now was Gabrielle's reply. The bard laid her head on the warrior's shoulder.
Goodnight, Gabrielle. Uhm, Gabrielle ?
Gabrielle smiled sleepily. You're entirely welcome
That night the moon shining in the window found only three women sleeping in perfect peace.
The next day was spent on the road heading to the east. The pace was steady and by evening the trio was ready to make camp. Finding an easily defensible clearing, the women stopped and things fell into a familiar routine. Xena brushed and groomed the horses, Gabrielle made a stew from dried meat and vegetables, and Eve collected wood for the night's fire. A comfortable silence ensued as each woman was absorbed in her own thoughts.
After the meal Eve retreated to her bedroll for prayers and meditation. Gabrielle pulled a scroll and quill from her pack and Xena settled next to her with sword and sharpening stone. The rhythmic sound of stone gliding across metal was like a soothing lullaby to the bard.
Xena's voice broke the quiet. What are you writing?
It's been a pretty amazing two days, and I thought if I wrote it down it might make it more real to me. This is a dream I've had so often I'm afraid it will end like all the other times. I wake up, you're not there and it hurts again.
Gabrielle, I'm so sorry.
It's okay, Xe. I made my peace with what you did in Japan a long time ago. I guess I just couldn't make peace with your not being with me.
Xena glanced over to Eve who had finished with her prayers and was sliding into her blankets and into sleep.
What was it like, Xena? You know, when you were gone?
Xena thought for a moment. It was strange, Gabrielle. It was like being held in a silk glove. It didn't hurt, but I couldn't move. For a long while I thought it was my punishment, but then I realized the silk glove was of my own making. I couldn't move forward to my fate in the next world because I cared too much about you in this one. I couldn't bear to not keep my promise to you no matter how much I wanted to continue on my journey.
Oh, Xe, I kept you from your destiny. Maybe if my need for you wasn't so strong, so selfish
No! Xena interrupted. Never think that! You are my destiny, Gabrielle. I couldn't go forward because half of me was here with you, but it was exactly where I wanted to be.
Xena stopped for a moment not trusting her voice.
Walk with me, Gabrielle she finally managed to say.
The warrior and the bard left the campsite and stepped into the cool of the surrounding forest. They wandered toward the small stream not far from the camp. The two friends stood for a while just watching the moonlight play off the trickling water. Finally Xena turned to the blonde.
When we were in Japan I made mistakes. At the time I thought my decisions were the right ones, but now I know better. I regret not being honest with you about my plans from the beginning. When I taught you the pinch I thought I had given you everything I could and that it would be enough. I didn't trust you, and I didn't trust me to work things out together. Can you forgive me for that?
Without hesitation. Gabrielle vowed, echoing her words used at the teahouse two years before.
The brunette smiled. From this point on you are my partner in this mission. A full partner. There will be no secrets, no hidden plans. Though I shouldn't have needed it, you have proven yourself true in every way I could have ever asked.
Gabrielle swallowed hard and gazed up into those incredible blue eyes. She could only nod as a reply. Xena took the bard's hand in her own.
Sit with me now. I have things to tell you.
Seating themselves on a fallen log, the warrior began. I needed to bring you out here because Eve doesn't need to hear what I have to tell you. I already knew what this mission was going to be. I knew before you returned me to this world because I had already been told by the being Eve calls The Great Voice. He spoke to me on the other side. I knew about Sutahlak and the threat it poses to mankind. I asked to be the one to try to destroy it. There were others who volunteered; Perseus, Achilles, Ajax and more, but the honor was given to me. I'm not sure why but I think it has something to do with you. We're strong apart but together we're nearly unbreakable. I think The Voice wants mankind to succeed but knows we must determine our own fate. If we, together, are the reason I'm back I want to hold nothing back from you again.
Gabrielle digested Xena's words. What don't you want Eve to know?
First, she can't come with us. All the guidance she will be allowed to give us has been given. You and I are now humanity's champions. Through Eve, The Voice has given us what He can or what He will, I'm not sure. I only know Eve must stay behind before we reach the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Next, Sutahlak will not be like any adversary we have faced before. You know it feeds on evil. It also feeds on self-doubt, suspicion and every dark emotion of the human heart. I know about that darkness. In Japan, I thought I had to stay dead for the forty thousand souls to achieve grace, but the truth is what needed to stay dead was my dark part. I needed to forgive myself as much as I ever needed anyone else's forgiveness. I feel healed now, Gabrielle, my soul is ready for the light. Maybe that will help against Sutahlak. I only know I can still be a warrior without ever needing to fear the darkness again.
Oh Xena, I wanted that for you for so long. I wasn't sure you'd ever be able to forgive yourself for the past. Gabrielle reached out to hug Xena, but the warrior kept them apart.
One last thing, Gabrielle. I want to be honest with you. In allowing my return I have been given no promises. The Great Voice can't promise me we will succeed in our mission, and even if we do succeed He never said my return would be permanent. When this is finished I'm afraid I will have to leave you again. I wanted you to know.
Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly. She stood, drawing the warrior into her embrace.
I have you now, and that's more than I had before. You said I was your destiny, Xena. It will be enough; we'll make it enough. I'm with you though, no matter what.
Xena held tightly to her destiny.
I knew you'd say that.
Far to the east, north of the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an inky blackness roamed the palace of the Sumerian King. Having shed the shape of the king, Sutahlak found itself ravenous. Taking on a human form without its own physical being required much energy and the last Chendra constantly hungered. Fortunately, little energy was needed in manipulating the humans. They followed commands without question and were easily fooled by one skilled in the arts of flattery, intimidation and persuasiveness. Oh yes, mankind would trip over itself in its rush to destruction. The monster would have smiled had it been physically possible to do so.
Once Sutahlak decided where to begin its campaign of evil, all that remained was to choose the vessels the beast would use to achieve its victory. In the Sumerian society there were only two it needed. King Jannos was one and the High Priest of Enlil was the other. Together they held the power in Sumer and influence throughout the region. The king reigned over all civil matters and controlled the well-trained army. High Priest Riscari presided over the great temple of Enlil and held sway over the human hearts in the land. Both palace and temple were located in the sacred city of Nippur, a gateway to Mesopotamia and from there, the world.
No one would question the authority of the Sumerian god of creation and when the High Priest declared a holy war the army of the king would follow.
Leaving the stench of the human body behind, Sutahlak exulted in its own power.
I am the master of these pitiful creatures and soon all the world will know.
As if on cue, the beast felt a fine tremor emanating from the earth. It seemed as if the earth itself was made uneasy by the presence of pure evil. The creature reveled in the sensation. Power and domination were intoxicants to Sutahlak, but now it needed nourishment.
With unerring precision the monster tracked its prey. Most humans in the palace had fed the beast at one time or another already. The feeding left them weaker and emptier. The draining of the dark emotions left the humans unable to feel much at all. It was as if a jar of water was slowly emptied, leaving the dry container fragile and easily broken. Not that the Chendra had any use for the empty humans anyway. Without their capacity to feel, they were less than worthless. Empty humans were ordered destroyed. All were destroyed but two. The king and the high priest were maintained in a trance-like state, necessary for the shape shifters plans.
Overwhelming hunger brought Sutahlak to the hunt at hand. Its hunger had increased since sensing the danger, the challenge coming from the west.
Yes, human, come to me. Let me see the blackness of your soul. Let me taste your fear.
The beast was confident of its mastery of all humans. This champion would be no different. No, not true, it would be different. The defeat of a human champion would demoralize all mankind. At least it would when Sutahlak showed the challenger's bones stripped of flesh and the heart plucked from the breast. The resulting banquet of fear would empower the Chendra to begin its march on the rest of the world. Petty kingdoms and vast empires alike would crumble under the power of Sutahlak. The humans would bow to the will of the beast or be enslaved for feeding and pleasure. A delicious thrill passed through the bodiless spirit. The regular sources of feeding would not do tonight.
Slithering up the staircase to the rooms where the family of the king was kept prisoner, Sutahlak slipped through the door into the nursery. Spying the innocents asleep in their beds, the Chendra made its choice, a young girl of not quite eight summers. Reaching deep into the mind of the child, the monster found those areas of fear and torment. It immediately conjured images for the child; the little girl trapped in a fire, suffocation in a closed grave, rats crawling over diseased limbs, parents mutilated and beheaded. The child whimpered in her sleep and the Chendra leaned in with satisfaction and drank deeply. The monster fed at the trough of fear. It fed so deeply it never noticed the strained sound as the immature mind snapped.
As Sutahlak left the chamber it almost laughed at the expression on the little girl's face. The eyes were open and staring but there was nothing behind them. The vessel was quite empty.
The inky blackness made its way back to the royal chambers. It was sated for now. As the Chendra reconstituted the form of the King, it relaxed and smiled.
Yes, human, come to Sutahlak.
In the month since Xena's return, the women had made good time on their journey eastward. Leaving Greece they traversed the land of the Ottomans and neared the first of the great rivers in Babylon.
Though constantly on the move the month had been nearly wondrous for the three. If possible, there was an almost daily increase in the love and respect between them. Xena felt profound gratitude to The Great Voice for allowing this reunion, and she had tried to imprint every moment, every look, and every touch on her memory. If she were to cross back over to the other side when the ordeal was over, this time would sustain her until that final reunion in the next life.
One morning, a morning indistinguishable from the other mornings on the road, a new scent made an appearance on the gentle breeze. Xena looked at her companions and said, The Euphrates is near, we should be there in a candle mark or two.
Eve shook her head. You know, I was a proficient warrior myself but I could never understand how you do that.
With a smirk, Xena shrugged her shoulders. I have
many skills. Gabrielle and Eve finished for her, and then laughed.
Guess it shows, huh? Xena said and joined the others in the laughter.
In just the amount of time Xena predicted, the great Euphrates came into view. Several ships were docked at the port city they approached. Gabrielle's heart ached at the thought of the conversation Xena would need to have with Eve. She remembered the hurt and indignation she had felt when Xena had left her behind on particularly dangerous adventures. She wished she could spare Eve those feelings.
Xena reined her horse to a stop and the others followed suit. Xena turned in her saddle to face Eve.
Eve, we need to talk.
Mother, it's okay. I know I can't continue with you from here. The Great Voice has spoken to me and let me know I'm to go no further. I am too connected with Him to be allowed to help you with what you'll have to do. Come now, let's arrange for your passage on one of those ships.
They rode to the docks where Gabrielle bargained for places on a ship for Xena, herself and their horses. The ship would sail that very afternoon and take them to the junction of the Euphrates and the Tigris. That would be close enough.
Near the time of boarding the three women stood together on the pier. Gabrielle hugged Eve to her.
Thank you, Eve, for giving Xena back to me. You know, I couldn't love you anymore if you were my daughter by blood.
I know, Gabrielle and I love you too. Take care of yourself and Mother.
I will. Gabrielle vowed. With a final look she turned and boarded the ship.
Eve watched her go and turned to Xena. Xena's eyes brimmed with tears.
Mother, please don't be sad.
I'm not crying because I'm sad, Eve. These are tears of happiness. I'm so proud of you and of the person you've become. No one could have asked for more in a daughter. I've loved you from the first moment I saw you and nothing will ever change that.
Eve returned Xena's smile I wish I could say that, but I can say I've loved you every minute since Eli gave me new eyes to see through. Go ahead now, Gabrielle is waiting.
Xena drew her daughter in for a long hug then without another word turned, walked onto the ship, and joined Gabrielle on the deck. The mooring lines were loosened and the ship pushed away into the river. Canvas was unfurled and the journey down the great river began. Gabrielle and Xena stood on the deck watching until the form of Eve dwindled and was then lost on the horizon. Gabrielle touched Xena's arm and looked up at the stoic warrior.
We'll see her again. We have to believe that.
Xena's only reply was to lay her hand over Gabrielle's and squeeze tightly.
It was only a matter of days before the ship arrived at its destination but it had been an enlightening trip. The crew gossiped as shipmates do and told Xena and Gabrielle stories coming out of Mesopotamia, specifically the city of Nippur. One crewmember told a particularly dark tale.
I used to sail the other river. Good money was to be made from bringing slaves and bound workers for the temple. The gods know that thing just keeps getting bigger but over the last few months the demand for slaves increased tenfold. My captain asked why so many slaves were needed now but the temple priest just shrugged and said the others were 'used up'. The way he said it unsettled most of us. I know it made my flesh crawl. Won't travel that river again no matter how much gold is offered.
Other crewmembers offered stories of rumblings under the earth, failing crops in what had been fertile land and storms brewing up from seemingly out of nowhere.
When Gabrielle and Xena disembarked they knew the magnitude of evil they would face was greater than either of them had imagined.
After purchasing food and supplies the pair turned determined eyes and their horses northward.
Gabrielle and Xena had ridden but two days northward when they first spotted the city of Nippur across the fertile plain. As they drew nearer, one structure dominated all others of the city.
"You think that's the temple, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"Probably. Looks like something a self important, worship seeking God would want built. Still, it might be a good place to start looking for information."
Riding into the town the two women were greeted with everything from suspicious looks to hostile stares.
I guess tourism isn't high on the list of local industries," Gabrielle mused.
Leaving their horses at a nearby stable the pair made their way into the temple. It was massive. The central tower seemed to fly up from the floor for several hundred feet. Workers crawled around the structure like ants performing a hundred different tasks. Both women were amazed at the undertaking. Xena brought her eyes down quickly enough to see an officious looking man in a red robe approaching them. His girth and manner spoke of one who was in charge, or thought he was.
"Here now, you can't be in here without permission! Who do you think you are to enter the great temple of Enlil? "
"This is Gabrielle of Potediea and my name is Xena. We only wanted to ask ..."
"Xena? The Warrior Princess? Surely she is dead!"
"Don't believe every bard you hear," said Xena giving Gabrielle a sidelong glance.
"Well, what do you want? You are heathens and outsiders and you can't be in here without the high priest's approval."
"Let us talk to him then, " said Xena.
"You can't. High priest Riscari has gone to the palace for his regular consultation with King Jannos. I can't say when he'll be back. It would be best if you just leave now."
"Okay, okay" Xena muttered, "you don't have to drop a temple on us; we get the hint. C'mon, Gabrielle."
The two women left the huge temple but as soon as they did Gabrielle said, "There's something really rotten here. Since when have kings and high priests ever been pals? They're almost always stepping on each other's toes, vying for power or wealth. It doesn't make sense that they would consult on anything."
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I guess the palace should be our next stop."
Using an intimidating glare, Xena pried directions out of a merchant and the two women were soon at the palace of the Sumerian king. Requesting an audience, they were ushered into an antechamber teeming with merchants, petitioners and ambassadors all waiting to see King Jannos. A clerk brusquely informed them that they needed to take a seat and wait for their names to be called. The pair quickly ascertained that many of the people in the antechamber had been waiting several days for an audience.
"If they think I'm gonna cool my heels here they're crazy, Gabrielle. We need to see the king and figure out where Sutahlak is. Maybe I'll just grab that clerk by the..."
"Xena! Don't get upset. Maybe we should try a little reasoning first."
"Okay " grumbled Xena " but I'm not a patient woman you know."
Gabrielle smirked at this. "No, really?"
Walking over to the clerk, the bard flashed her best smile.
"Sir, it's urgent that we see the king on business of the highest priority and..."
"No." the clerk said.
Taken aback slightly, Gabrielle tried again. "Now, sir, I'm sure you can't mean that. We have a matter of life and death. Can't you see...
"I said no. Do you need that written on a scroll for you?"
"But if you would only listen..."
"One last time. You don't have an appointment, you wait.
Gabrielle exploded, "Why you little papyrus pusher! You think you can just sit there and say who goes in and who stays out? I'll have you know
"Gabrielle," Xena said laying a hand on the bards arm, "don't get upset."
The blond glared at the warrior as Xena continued. "because I remember when you got upset with that guy in Athens." Xena feigned a shudder and gave the clerk a sad look. She drew a finger across her neck meaningfully. "It wasn't a pretty sight when she was finished with him, if you know what I mean. A girl with a chakram is a mighty dangerous thing."
The clerk looked at Gabrielle in alarm "Well, if it was that important why didn't you just say so in the first place? Of course you should see the king immediately. Follow me."
As the women followed the clerk Xena snickered in Gabrielle ear "I gotta hand it to you, you were right. It just took a little reasoning."
An elbow to the ribs stopped Xena's chuckling just as they were escorted into a large hall. The walls were decorated with depictions of Sumerian and Mesopotamian gods. Every three paces a well-armed guard stood at attention. A throne was centered on a raised dais at the far end of the hall and the figure seated there was imposing. His features were hawk-like, sleek black hair held in place by a simple gold band. His chest was bare except for an oversized amulet indicating his royalty and his lower limbs were covered with white linen trimmed in gold.
"My Lord Jannos," the clerk intoned, "there are visitors here with urgent business before your throne. This is Gabrielle of Potediea and Xena of Amphipolis."
The king looked up from the parchment he had been studying and fixed nearly black, lifeless eyes upon the two women.
"Xena of Amphipolis? Well, well. I believe news of your death had reached us some time ago."
"I guess you just can't keep a good woman down," Xena replied.
"Hmm, I suppose not if the woman is good. I had heard otherwise about you.
Xena visibly bristled at the remark, her jaw clenching slightly. Gabrielle thought the change was subtle enough that the king wouldn't notice but was stunned to see him lean back with a small smile of victory. She leapt to her friend's defense.
"Xena is good, your Majesty, and that's why we're here to..."
"Find the source of the disruption, shall we say, in my little kingdom? I'm well aware of the reason for your little journey here and I assure you your trip has been wasted. We do not need your help. I rule here, I am in control."
The king eased back onto the throne and let a cold smile cross his features.
"Because I do rule here, I can offer you what others cannot. Join me, work with me. I can promise you it will be worth your while."
Xena's spoke then, "Thanks but no thanks, we already have a job to do."
The smile left the King's face "Then best you be about it, warrior.
Xena and Gabrielle turned to leave but just as they reached the door of the hall the king called out "Xena!"
The Warrior turned and looked directly into the cold, dead eyes.
"Interesting choice," said the king.
Xena nodded. "You have no idea."
With that, the warrior and the bard left the hall. Once outside, Gabrielle asked, "Xena, what was that business back in there? What choice was interesting?"
"Us, Gabrielle, we're the interesting choice. We're the choice to be his enemy."
"But why would we want to be an enemy to King Jannos? "
"Not Jannos, Gabrielle. Sutahlak.
Sutahlak!" Gabrielle nearly spit out the word.
Wait, you're saying King Jannos is Sutahlak?"
"Yep. Xena's face was grim.
"Xe, are you sure? How do you know?"
"Guess I just smelled a rat. Oh, and there is this." Xena lifted the chakram given to her by the Great Voice and extended it to Gabrielle. Gabrielle reached for it and as her hand made contact with the normally warm metal she pulled back quickly.
"Wow! I haven't felt anything so cold since
"Ares' ice coffin?" Xena offered.
"Yeah. The pair resumed walking away from the palace.
"The way I figure it," Xena continued, "this is like some sort of divining rod for evil. It never felt like this until we were with King Jannos. Even now the metal is warming back up"
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Could it have been reacting to something else in the palace or even something within us?"
"Thought of that." said Xena. "That's why I tested Jannos. C'mon, Gabrielle, you don't think that after all this time I would react to a crack about my past? "
Gabrielle realized that Xena's flash of anger at Jannos' insult had been deliberate. A small smile of admiration appeared on her face. "I should have known. He really enjoyed your reaction, didn't he?"
"He ate it up, Gabrielle, literally."
"I guess his dessert was me being annoyed and trying to defend you."
"Nope, there wasn't anything he could do with that. Xena stopped and placed a hand on Gabrielle shoulder. "You did that out of love."
The two women stood silently for a moment smiling into one another's eyes. The moment was interrupted by the growling of Gabrielle's stomach. Xena raised an eyebrow at the blonde. Lifting her chakram, she placed it near Gabrielle stomach. "Hmm, just like I figured ice cold." Xena couldn't quite smother her laugh.
"Funny, Xe, very funny. You know you missed your calling." Gabrielle said as she playfully swatted Xena's arm. "I can see it now Xena, Court Jester."
The women laughed and headed off to find a tavern. Behind them in the palace Jannos gave instructions to his guards then retired early to his chamber.
The tavern was small but clean and located near the stables where the warrior and bard had left their horses. A meal of roasted meat, cheese and bread was brought to them by a girl of no more than a dozen years. Gabrielle gave her a broad smile as the food was set down and a shy smile was returned.
So what's your plan, Xena?" inquired Gabrielle.
"Our plan, remember? You're involved in this too, you know. I saw you come up with some pretty good ones over the last two years.
Gabrielle blushed. "Sorry, with you here it was easy to slip back to letting you lead the way."
"Where we go in this, Gabrielle, we go together."
"Okay then, Xe, I think we should go back to the temple. Maybe we can get help or information out of that high priest. At least it's worth a try."
The young serving girl was bringing two mugs of ale to the table at that time. She regarded Gabrielle seriously and spoke in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Don't go to the temple, lady. You're nice, you don't want to be a stone face."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena who shrugged her shoulders.
"Sweetie, what do you mean? What is a stone face?"
The girl glanced around and replied hesitantly. "Sometimes my friends and I earn extra coins by running errands for the priests or builders at the temple. We see a lot of people going in, mostly slaves and workers. Sometimes we see them again and they don't seem happy or sad or anything. I said one day they looked like their faces were made out of stone so that's what we call them."
Gabrielle thought a moment then asked, "Can I see one of the stone faces?"
"Uh-uh," replied the child " the guards always take them away; I don't know where. "
Kelisel! a woman's voice boomed from behind the girl. "Stop bothering these customers and get some ale over to the merchants at that table."
The child rushed to comply as the woman approached Xena and Gabrielle's table.
"Don't mind the young one. She don't know what she's saying. She's always had quite the imagination. Nothing she said would bear repeating please." The last word was almost a plea.
Gabrielle nodded, "Not a word."
The woman breathed a sigh of relief and moved away.
Gabrielle looked across the table at her friend. "These people are terrified and it sounds like they have reason to be. Xe, I don't know what's going on at the temple or how Sutahlak fits in to all this but I want to stop it.
Xena's eyes narrowed. "We will, Gabrielle we will. Let's go over to the temple now and see if this Riscari can tell us something."
Gabrielle and Xena left the tavern to the deepening gloom of the evening. The city streets were quiet and the women moved along at a leisurely pace.
"How many? " Xena said in a conversational tone.
"Ten or so." came Gabrielle's reply.
"That's what I thought. Just enough for a little exercise; it's been a long time. How many do you want?"
"It only takes one for a conversation. I'd hate to take away from your fun."
"I appreciate that, Gabrielle."
Xena smiled as a dozen soldiers with swords drawn emerged from the shadows and rushed toward the pair. Xena took out the first two soldiers with a flat hand to the nose of one and a backhand across the face of the second. She glanced over to see Gabrielle already had one soldier incapacitated on the ground.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain." Gabrielle began.
Xena leveled a third soldier with a roundhouse kick and caught a fourth by the arm bringing her elbow down hard on it, producing a crunching sound.
"You'll be dead in 30 seconds unless you tell me what I want to know," continued the bard.
A fifth and sixth soldier were dispatched when the Warrior Princess gave a mighty leap and brought a booted foot to each of their heads.
"Who are you working for and why were you sent?" The captive soldier started talking.
Xena pulled her sword from the scabbard on her back, spun it in her hand then disabled three more soldiers with a slashing attack. Glancing over to see Gabrielle removing the pinch from the soldier, Xena let out her battle cry and flipped backward over the heads of the last two soldiers coming up behind her. Heads were slammed together and the pair joined their comrades on the ground.
Gabrielle walked up to Xena.
"It was Jannos. He told them we were troublemakers and a lesson needed to be taught."
"I don't know, Gabrielle, think they learned it?"
Gabrielle laughed and the women resumed their trek to the temple.
Xena and Gabrielle approached the temple of Enlil. Torches were lit and the pair was surprised to see work continuing despite it being in the evening hours. As they entered the temple the same priest they had encountered earlier in the day met them again.
"You two again? If nothing else, you're persistent."
"Yeah, we are and this time were not going until we see the high priest." Snarled Xena.
"Well, Enlil must be smiling on you tonight. High Priest Riscari is here and has a few moments to speak with you. I believe he's expecting you."
"I bet." muttered Xena.
The warrior and bard followed the red robed priest out of the main body of the temple into a small wing. They were led into an office and seated in chairs across from a large desk strewn with scrolls and diagrams of the temple. They were given instructions to wait there for the High Priest. As the door closed behind the priest another door opened at the opposite end of the room and a small man in a brown robe entered. His face was round with wisps of gray hair protruding from a squarish hat.
"High Priest Riscari?" asked Gabrielle.
"Why yes, my dear. And you must be Xena and Gabrielle. King Jannos told me I should expect to see you. Please forgive me for having kept you waiting but the work on the temple does occupy a good deal of my time.
Gabrielle smiled. "I can see that it would. It's very impressive."
Riscari did not return her smile but said emphatically "Yes, and very soon it will become a place befitting a god.
"Wasn't there a temple to Enlil here before?" asked Xena.
"Yes, a small rather rundown place. The Great Temple will be the centerpiece for a rebirth of man's worship; a place for the world to know my master's greatness.
The high priest's eyes seemed to glaze over for a moment before he came to himself.
"However, I'm sure you didn't come here to discuss religious matters. How can I be of help to you?"
Gabrielle started to explain their mission but Xena smoothly interrupted her. "Well, it's nothing of great importance. We had hoped you might have seen or heard of unusual occurrences happening in this area. We had heard such stories in our travels."
Riscari laughed then. "You mean the earth trembling or perhaps problems with the crops? Yes, they have occurred but it is my belief they are merely other gods becoming jealous or frightened.
"Why do you think that? questioned Gabrielle.
"My dear child, when a god reaches its zenith other gods are bound to be surpassed."
"Or destroyed? asked Xena.
Riscari shrugged. "It is not for me to say. Perhaps you would know something of that. I heard at one time you had the power to kill gods."
"Maybe it's time again, replied Xena. "Let's go, Gabrielle. We've taken up enough of the high priest's time, and I'm getting a little tired. It's been a long day. Besides, there seems to be quite a chill this evening."
Xena had turned away from Riscari and was lightly tapping a finger on her chakram where only Gabrielle could see. Gabrielle's eyebrows lifted slightly but her face betrayed nothing.
"Sure, Xena, I'm little tired myself. If you'll excuse us, High Priest, we'll be going."
"Certainly. You can find your way out?"
The women assured him they could and left the temple shortly thereafter. Once back on the city streets Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Let me guess. Him too?
"Mm-hmm. Sutahlak gets around."
"This isn't good Xena. The king and the high priest are the evil one. The town is either working with them or are afraid of them and Sutahlak is already so confident he's building a temple to himself. This isn't going to be easy."
"No, Gabrielle, it isn't, but at least we know who we're going up against. Now we just have to figure out how to destroy him. I could have tried in there but it has to be done right the first time we try. I don't think we'll get a second chance."
"Xena," Gabrielle said, " Remember the little girl in the tavern? I've been thinking about what she said, the stone face thing. She said they didn't seem to be happy or sad. It sounds like they're emotionally empty. I think Sutahlak isn't using them for workers, I think he's using them for
"Food." Xena finished. "I know, I thought that too. We need to be sure we don't become his next meal."
The women were each lost in their own thoughts as they walked toward the stables. Retrieving their horses the pair made camp outside the city, each feeling safer away from the palace and the temple.
That night, both Xena and Gabrielle dreamed of Japan. While their dreams followed different paths, they both arrived at the same destination- Mt.Fuji. Both dreamed of the terrible moment that Xena's spirit had disappeared leaving each in loneliness and despair. In their sleep Gabrielle and Xena instinctively reached out for one another. As hands met and hearts were reassured, a sense of calm descended on the camp. Dreams for the rest of the night were peaceful.
In the dark, an inky blackness slipped away still hungry.
In the morning Xena and Gabrielle woke to identical feelings.
Sutahlak was here, wasn't he, Xena?
Yeah, I think so. I feel kind of dirty inside, Xena observed. He's getting bolder. First, sending soldiers, now trying us out himself. That settles it, we have to make our move today.
The two women talked over breakfast. Laying out a plan to distract the evil one, find and free King Jannos and Riscari then bring about the destruction of Sutahlak.
I don't know, Xe, this plan has a lot of holes.
It's the best plan we've got, Gabrielle. There's too much riding on this for us to fail.
The warrior and bard broke camp and headed back into Nippur. Near the temple they stopped, knowing their paths would take them in different directions for the first time since Xena's return.
Gabrielle, I want you to promise me if things get too rough, you'll get out of there. I mean it, I don't want anything to happen to you.
Xena, if we don't get this job done what would be the point of me surviving? To be enslaved or used for food? There isn't an option this time.
Blue eyes looked deeply into green. Well then, just be careful and come back to me.
With a nod Gabrielle simply said, Count on it. and trotted off toward the palace.
Xena waited several minutes, giving Gabrielle enough time to reach her destination. Closing her eyes, Xena brought all her warrior skills to focus on the task at hand. When she was satisfied she was as ready as possible, her eyes opened. With an intense gaze at the enormous tower she headed into the temple.
At the palace, Gabrielle requested an audience with King Jannos and was led to the same waiting area as before. Just before entering the antechamber, Gabrielle grabbed the servant walking ahead of her and pulled him behind a column in the hallway. Applying the intimidating stare learned from Xena, Gabrielle quickly learned the location of the King's chambers. Gabrielle tied and gagged the servant and headed off using the directions she had been given. As she moved, she hoped she and Xena had been right when they guessed the King and Riscari would be kept in a more private prison than the palace dungeon. She reached the final corridor to the king's chambers without too much trouble. She had avoided most servants and soldiers. The three that had challenged her were now asleep courtesy of the butt end of her sais. Peering into the last hallway, Gabrielle noted five soldiers spaced apart in the corridor each bathed in soft lamplight.
Not too bad, the bard thought. That thought was quickly dismissed as Gabrielle heard the footsteps of many soldiers behind her.
Oh boy she thought and slipped behind a hanging tapestry trying to be as small and quiet as possible.
Entering the temple, Xena was anything but small and quiet. A booted foot kicked open the temple doors and an enraged Warrior Princess yelled, Where is he? Come on out, Riscari! I know what's going on here! C'mon, show yourself!
Workers and priests were pushed aside and relics smashed as Xena let her anger flow unchecked. With the full-blown rage of a former warlord running unabated, it wasn't long before Sutahlak as Riscari appeared.
Well, well, Xena Riscari purred. Even at the palace I could feel your presence here. Your anger is delicious. Xena felt Sutahlak's tendrils wrap around her soul, touching and tasting. When they were withdrawn she felt weak and filthy.
Gods, Gabrielle, hurry. she thought.
Gabrielle watched as the guards changed. Just before leaving the new men in their places, the captain of the guard told them the king was indisposed and had sent word he was not to be disturbed by anyone. The bard smiled, knowing Xena had managed to lure Sutahlak to the temple. Taking the chakram from her side, Gabrielle hurled it skillfully down the long hall. The chakram neatly severed the chains holding the lamps above three of the soldier's heads. Three distinct thumps were heard as heavy lamps met skulls. Gabrielle neatly snatched back the returning chakram and placed it at her side. The remaining two guards were baffled by the sudden failure of the chains and moved to investigate. That move brought them directly into the path of the blonde. Gabrielle took down the last two soldiers with moves sure and deft. As the last soldier slid bonelessly to the ground, she headed up the hall.
She entered the king's chambers and quickly started a search of the large room. Gabrielle soon found a small room neatly hidden behind a royal crest carved into a wall. Using a small lamp, Gabrielle entered the room and saw the forms of King Jannos and Riscari lying on pallets. Approaching them she noticed their breathing was shallow and erratic, their skin waxy and drawn.
Your majesty? Gabrielle called softly.
Hearing no reply, she reached out to gently touch the king's shoulder. At first touch the king's body disintegrated into dust before Gabrielle's eyes. Startled, she stepped backed into the body of the High Priest. His form also crumbled into a pile of dust and clothing. The bard's eyes widened in shock, then fear.
Xena! she said and took off at a run for the temple.
As Gabrielle was entering the king's chamber, Sutahlak as Riscari was taunting the Warrior Princess.
Feeling a little empty? Strange, I feel fine. Foolish human, don't you know your weakness feeds me?
Xena regained enough strength to surprise Riscari by flipping forward until she came to a stop directly in front of the priest and clamping strong hands around his neck. The strong grip seemed inconsequential to the priest as he continued to speak to Xena.
Yes, Xena, hate me. As the words were barely out of the priest's mouth his form wavered then disappeared altogether. In its place was only a dark shadow that seemed to project thought into Xena's mind.
Well done, Xena. I didn't expect your blonde friend to find the bodies, but no matter. It is a minor inconvenience. I no longer need them. Your demise will suitably prove my invincibility. Too bad your friend couldn't be with you here at the end but she has been unavoidably detained by her death.
Xena's mind was filled with the vision of Gabrielle running through the palace corridors and being confronted by dozens of armed guards. Though Gabrielle fought valiantly with her sais and inflicted a great deal of damage, sheer numbers proved too much and she was eventually worn down. Xena mouthed a silent warning as she saw clearly the fatal sword thrust to Gabrielle's back. The warrior saw the trickle of blood from the bard's mouth, the glazed expression on Gabrielle's face as she slid to the ground and the rise and fall of the chest with the final ragged breaths.
Xena was devastated by the vision and an all-encompassing black rage filled her being. Sutahlak's voice in her mind was almost sensual.
Oh, yes I must have more of your hate! This is by far the most potent I have ever encountered. You are magnificent in your loathing! I must show you more!
Before Xena, the black shadow disappeared and Gabrielle's body was in its place, awash in blood from innumerable wounds. Her gaze was distant as she gasped out Xena
Then, as a small bubble of blood escaped her lips, Gabrielle died.
Xena stood completely still, staring at the lifeless form of the bard. She was filled with a mind numbing emptiness. In her mind, Sutahlak's voice returned.
What's the matter, Xena? Is a little reminder of your friend enough to make you lose your nerve? How disappointing. Well, if that's the case I have no further need for this vessel. With those words Gabrielle's form faded and the slithering mass of darkness was left in its place.
Xena used this moment to digest what she had seen. If Sutahlak used Gabrielle's form then it meant the bard was still alive. The anger and sadness of a moment earlier were replaced with a boundless joy.
With an ear shattering battle cry, Xena flipped forward onto the inky blackness only to have her feet pass completely through. Drawing her sword, She slashed through the shadow without effect. Demented laughter filled her mind as Sutahlak spoke.
Don't you know you cannot kill what does not have a body? Too bad you can't do this.
Sutahlak filled Xena's mind with vicious kicks and blows, which threw the warrior back as if she had been struck physically. Xena reeled with pain but struggled to her feet. She felt the icy chakram at her side. Whipping her arm back, Xena smiled.
Hey, Sutahlak, here's a little present from the Great Voice.
With that the chakram flew through the air striking the shadow causing the blackness to crystallize. Xena leaped forward and using both arms, brought her sword down into the black crystal. It shattered explosively into a million tiny pieces, which twinkled for a moment before evaporating completely. By the time Gabrielle burst into the temple, Xena stood alone.
Xena Sutahlak..did you..?
Yeah, Gabrielle, it's gone. It was a cold day in hell. I'll tell you about it later. Let's just get out of here.
From the earth a slow rumbling shudder started. The shaking increased and small cracking noises were heard from all areas of the Great Temple. Dust and small bits of mortar fell from the walls.
Gabrielle, run! screamed Xena.
The pair ran for the entrance, now forced to dodge larger and larger chunks of the collapsing tower. Both women dove through the door as the walls of the temple crashed in on themselves. They quickly came to their feet and moved further away from the rubble. Xena and Gabrielle watched as the earth cracked open wide taking the ruined tower inside then slowly close back up. As the last open area closed seamlessly the rumbling and shuddering of the earth ceased. Where the might tower once stood now only sand drifted across the ground.
Workers and townsfolk who had survived were stunned and wandered up to one another for comfort and explanation. Confused looks crossed their faces as words left their mouths they had never heard before. Hundreds of different languages and dialects were heard.
What's going on with everybody? They aren't making any sense at all. They just sound like they're babbling.
That's exactly what it is, Gabrielle babble.
Sometime later Xena and Gabrielle were surveying the area where the Great Temple had once stood. The city was quieting rapidly now as workers, slaves and townsfolk left no longer able to communicate with one another.
What do you think happened with the people's speech, Xe?
I'm not sure but I know one thing; these people will never again work together to build another temple. That Great Voice is pretty powerful.
The warrior and bard stood quietly. Gabrielle saw tension shadow the blue eyes of her friend.
What is it, Xena? What's wrong?
Nothing. I mean I don't know. Xena hesitated a moment before continuing. I guess what is strange is that we completed the mission and I'm still here. I had no promises, remember?
Gabrielle felt a flicker of hope and searched Xena's face for answers. So what does this mean? Can you stay and for how long? I need you, Xena, I need you in my life.
I'm not sure what it means, Gabrielle, but I'm here now and I intend to make the most of any time I'm given. That means spending it with you.
Gabrielle smiled. I think I can handle that.
Xena opened her arms and Gabrielle walked into them.
As the vision of Xena and Gabrielle embracing faded slowly from her mind, Eve opened her eyes. Once again she saw the small rise overlooking the Euphrates River where she had sat keeping her vigil.
Thank you for letting me see that Eve said with gratitude.
The Great Voice responded, I merely said you could not go with them, I never said you could not know what was happening. Besides, I'm glad they succeeded; I have a great fondness for humanity you know.
Could you show fondness for two particular members of humanity? Eve asked. Xena and Gabrielle belong together. Must Xena return to the other side? Couldn't you give them some time?
There was silence then the Great Voice spoke. I suppose I could give them a moment.
A moment? That's all you can spare them?
The Great Voice placed a soft laugh in the woman's mind. Remember, Eve, I have been here a very long time. Eternity is like a moment to me.
Eve smiled and rose to her feet. She picked up her pack and wandered unhurriedly down the rise content in the knowledge that a certain warrior and bard would have all the time they needed together.
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