Business (Amazon Scrolls--Prologue) (Part 1)
Notes: Xena, Gabrielle, and the other characters from the show "Xena Warrior Princess" belong to Renaissance Studios and MCA Universal. All other characters are of my creation and are fictious. Comments are welcome and should be sent to ? .
Spoilers: A Friend in Need I & II, Adventures in the Sin Trade I & II, The Debt I & II, Lifeblood, Purity, Back in the Bottle
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, language, bath scene-although it is along the lines of what you would see in the show)
Chapter 1 (Reprising the end to
"A Friend in Need")
Gabrielle scaled the sheer rock face of Mount Fuji with great determination and urgency. She knew that the sun was sinking quickly toward the western horizon. The battle between the spirits of Xena and Yodishi still echoed through the pine forest beneath her. Yet, the Bard only concerned herself with getting to the fountain with the box of ashes in her hand.
Then, she heard a monstrous scream far below. Affording herself a quick glance, she saw that her companion's spirit had won the day. With a smile, she clamored the last few steps toward the sacred place.
"Okay, I'm here," she thought, producing the box. Sunset was still fifteen minutes away. There was plenty of time to bring Xena back. Leaning close to the fountain, she grasped the lip of the lid and prepared to raise it....
...only to be stopped by a spectral hand pressing down on the wooden container. "No, Gabrielle. I can't come back," the warrior's spirit explained.
"What are you talking about? Of course, you can," the poetess asked.
"No, I can't. There are 40,000 souls whom I doomed to wander in the afterlife. They will only go to Paradise if I avenge them. The only way to do that is for me to stay dead," Xena continued.
Gabrielle's jaw dropped and she disagreed, "Xena, you can't be serious! This is so unfair! How is the world supposed to go on without you? How...How am I supposed to go on without you? You're everything to me!" Her blue eyes filled with tears.
The sight of her soulmate's tears broke the warrior's heart. But, her duty was clear. The sun had almost set. Ten more minutes and she would be on her way back to defend those spirits from further torment.
However, at that moment, the light shifted in front of the friends. "What in...?" they chorused.
"Xena...Gabrielle," a familiar voice announced. "Your time together is not finished."
"Yakut?" Xena inquired.
"Yes, Xena," the deceased shamaness replied. "It's me. I wish I could come under better circumstances, but we don't have much time."
"Right," the warrior agreed. "The sun is setting. What is it? We can talk after I cross over."
Yakut shook her head fearfully and sighed, "That's it, Xena. If you choose to die now, you will not be allowed to cross over into Eternity. Instead, you will wander in the Land of the Dead. Your work on Earth is not yet complete. Just as you saved me from that fate, so am I doing the same for you."
"But, I have to safeguard those souls! What happens if I don't?" Xena protested.
"There are others who will guide them to safety," the shamaness stated. "Meantime, you are needed elsewhere on Earth. 5 million souls depend upon your intervention, Xena, not to mention other tasks down your road."
"But, I need to redeem myself! What about all of the wrongs?" the Warrior Princess countered.
Gabrielle stared at the horizon. While this argument continued, the sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky. "What is it, Yakut? We're running out of time!" she demanded.
The shamaness nodded, "It is the kingdom of the land you call Chin. Once again, an old enemy's ghost rallies his forces against the people."
"And my people need you," another familiar voice indicated. Appearing to the right of the other three women, a Chinese woman of average height, dressed in a fine silk robe and her hair was tied back in a small knot. She was a paradox of humility and regalty. "Your time for redemption is over, Xena. You accomplished your goal here by offering to sacrifice yourself. Remember what I told you once before. You have to stop desiring and trying to exert your will over things. That includes your destiny."
The Bard gazed with awed eyes at the spectral newcomer and guessed, "You must be Lao Ma."
"I am," Lao Ma agreed, offering Gabrielle a slight bow. "Now, pour the ashes into the fountain, Gabrielle. It is time."
The Potadeian smiled and opened the box. "Xena, I hope you understand." Then, with only seconds to spare, she dumped the ashes into the water. Turning around, she saw the last light of sunset fade in the western sky.
The fountain, however, remained still.
Gabrielle stared into the dark waters and shook her head. Did she wait too long? What if she had? And would those poor people in Chin be doomed?
As if sensing her friend's thoughts, Yakut reassured, "Have faith and keep watching the fountain."
At that moment, the waters began to froth and boil. The ashes glowed with a blue-white energy. Suddenly, a blinding light flashed across the spot, obscuring the blonde warrior's vision. When her eyesight had returned, Gabrielle recognized the woman standing in front of her. "Xena!" she exclaimed happily at the sight. "You're back!"
"Yeah it's me," the Warrior Princess declared, embracing her friend tightly and giving the latter a peck on the cheek. "And if I'm back, it is so good to be with you!"
"And that goes double for me," the Bard informed her. "Just don't do that to me again! Okay?"
"I promise," Xena agreed. "We still have a lot to do." Turning back to her former mentor, she asked, "Lao Ma, what is happening in Chin?"
"The Dragon has grown yet another head and threatens to devour the dove and the eagle lest the hawk flies back to roost...." the empress informed her. "Forgive me, but that is all I am permitted to say. Good luck to both of you." With that, she vanished.
"She is somethin' else," the Thracian warrior declared. "Always making sure that I'm on the right path."
"That's what friends are for, Xena," Yakut concurred. "Now, go forth and resolve the situation in Chin. After that, follow the way west."
"West? You mean we're supposed to go back to Greece?" Gabrielle asked.
"I can't tell you that. Just that your road heads west, but it winds its way through the Kingdom of Chin. By the way, Xena. I took the liberty of retrieving these items for you from where you had buried them," the spirit answered, pointing to the armor and gear lying next to the fountain.
"Thanks," the warrior grinned, donning her leather halter and fitting herself with the armored pieces. "Looks great. I'm only missing one thing."
Her friend nodded and held the chakram out in front of her. "Here it is, Xena. I took care of it for you."
The raven-haired woman accepted her weapon and eyed it in the pale moonlight. "Now, I feel whole again," she declared.
"On that note, I too must be returning," Yakut commented. "Farewell to you both!"
"Farewell! And thank you for helping to bring Xena back," Gabrielle sighed.
"You're welcome! Besides, you both need each other...each other...each other...." the spirit advised, fading from view.
"So, what do we do now?" Gabrielle probed.
"Now, we camp here. At dawn, we'll make our way back to the coast and book passage across the water. Next stop, Chin," Xena informed her. "Let's head for Higuchi and get off this island. I've had enough of this place for a lifetime."
"Sounds great," the Bard agreed. "Just as long as we get out of this place." Lying down next to her partner, she added, "It is good to have you back, Xena."
"It's good to be back, Gabrielle. Good night," she concurred and fell asleep. The days ahead would be busy ones and they needed every bit of sleep that they could get.
Two days later, Gabrielle leaned over the deck of the oak sailing vessel crossing the sea between Japan and Chin. Sailing had never been her favorite form of transportation and this trip, especially given the choppiness of the water, had left her stomach doing flip-flops in addition to the decidedly green pallor across her features. "At least, Xena's here with me," she reassured herself. The night before, she had dreamed that her companion hadn't turned back from her suicidal course. "I don't know if I could handle that."
At that moment, the clouds broke and the sun shone brightly, illuminating everything in sight. The Bard smiled. With the storm behind them, maybe her stomach would give her some peace at last.
In the steerage compartment below, Xena sat on a barrel, sharpening her sword. The repetitive motion kept her mind locked in on the job at hand. At times, the guilt ate away at her. Should she be here? If she didn't know better, she would have thought that Ares was behind the intercession. But then, he was still busy reclaiming his former dominance. "If anyone but Lao Ma had told me that I had achieved redemption, I wouldn't have believed it," she muttered to herself. "It's been so long."
Then, a gentle breeze wafted into the cabin. Riding atop it was a faint cherry scent.
"What in...?" she wondered, grasping her chakram.
"There is no need for the weapon, Xena," Lao Ma's voice advised. A moment later, the spirit materialized in front of her friend.
"I'm glad to see you, but I thought that...?" the warrior pondered.
"That I wouldn't be able to answer your questions? While I do need to let you and Gabrielle discover the nature of the mission ahead for yourselves, I can provide the answers for your inner doubts," her mentor explained.
"You said that I was redeemed," Xena probed.
"Indeed I did. For the last three decades, you have been on the road to redemption. As I said, to offer yourself in the manner you did, signifies the change. In addition, there is what you did for Callisto in Hell as well as saving Eve from herself," the spirit told her. "You have changed what is in your heart, Xena. That is what truly matters."
"But there is still so much blood on my hands," the warrior disagreed.
Lao Ma considered this statement for a moment before continuing, "Yes. But, there are so many other lives that you have saved. Never forget, Xena, nobody is perfect. However, you have learned the lessons that I tried to teach you so long ago."
"Thank you, Lao Ma," Xena smiled. "For giving me my life back."
"I merely showed Gabrielle the way," the other replied humbly. "Beyond that, it was your decision to come back. Now, focus on the task at hand."
"Ming T'ien. How did he return?" she asked.
"His spirit and Pao Ssu's were not destroyed as you had believed. They floated between the ethereal planes until their souls were able to reform. You will know more when you arrive in Chin," the spirit continued. "One last reminder, Xena. You are a good person now. Keep to the path that you have started down and you will be fine." With that, she faded from view.
"I hope you're right, Lao Ma. I hope you're right," Xena sighed, sheathing the sword and putting it on her back. "Let's see what Gabrielle's up to." Climbing the stairs, she walked out on deck. The fresh salty air cleared her head, shaking the musty cobwebs from her consciousness. Against the brilliant colors of the dawn, she spied Gabrielle leaning against the deck. "I wonder if she needs help with the pressure points again?" she asked herself. Walking up to her, she called, "Gabrielle! There you are!"
The Bard turned surprised by her friend's appearance, "Oh, Xena! Good morning!"
"Hey, did you sleep at all last night? I noticed you were tossing and turning like a fish on dry land," the warrior informed her.
"A little. I dreamt that you died and crossed over," the poetess admitted. "I know it's silly, seeing as you're alive and standing here. But, a part of me is still afraid that you'll die...."
The warrior managed a wry smile, "We all die someday."
"C'mon, you know what I meant!" the other woman protested.
"Yeah, I did. Sorry, Gabrielle, I've been dealing with my own doubts since we left the fountain," Xena revealed.
"What? Did you see any spirits?" the Bard inquired.
"Lao Ma came back," the warrior noted. "She needed to emphasize what she told us."
"I guess that means you are truly redeemed, doesn't it?" the Potadeian probed.
"I suppose so. It's still hard to believe. She also reported that Ming T'ien and Pao Ssu are at work again," she explained.
"Those two? Xena, you destroyed them! How?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Apparently, they hung on between worlds," the warrior guessed. "How they did it isn't important. What is important is that they're back, and we need to stop them."
"And we'll do that together," the Bard added, grasping the other's hand.
The Warrior Princess grinned. She was so glad that her friend was standing beside her in this latest test. "Keep your Chin up, Gabrielle. We're almost to Chin and it's gonna be a heckuva journey before it's finished."
The day passed by slowly as the ship bobbed up and down on the rolling waves. For some reason, the motion ceased to make Gabrielle ill. Rather, the constant motion lulled her to sleep.
Xena looked at her friend with relief. For the past four nights, the Bard hadn't slept more than two hours at a stretch. At least, she would be able to get her strength up before they docked in Chin sometime the next day. For the warrior, something was amiss. She sat up and looked around the cabin. "The deck," she groused. Walking up the stairs, she stood on the deck and surveyed her surroundings. The moonlight washed over the planks and reflected off of the sea's surface.
"It is serene, tranquil, and beautiful. Kind of makes me....think," she started. Glancing around again, she snarled, "Makes me think of a skunk. Here, Stinky! Come out cuz I can smell ya!"
A flash of light appeared out of nowhere and formed itself into the Greek god of war, Ares. An ebony eyebrow arched as he asked, "How do you do that?"
"Trade secret," the warrior hissed. "Now, what is it? Aren't you a little out of your territory?"
"True," the deity admitted. "But, that whole suicide thing on Fuji had me going there."
"Like you care," she snapped.
He allowed a shocked expression to creep across his face. "And I don't care? Listen, Xena, it's you that keep denying us. Now, I really got my kicks off of watching you kick Yodoshi's ass. But, giving yourself up for a bunch of stupid villagers who could care less about you, that really takes the cake," he ranted angrily.
"As if you would understand, Ares. I caused those people to die," she retorted.
"Yeah, yeah. Xena, I overheard what your friend there had to say to you. She's right, ya know. You have to stop feeling so guilty about your past," he stated. "Otherwise, you're going to rot from the inside out. By the way, does Gabrielle have the account written yet? I hear there are playwrights in the market for another tragedy."
She gasped in astonishment, "Since when would you even come close to caring about what Lao Ma would say? She's a peaceful person. And you...well enough said."
He snickered, "On most counts, I'd give you that one. She's too much of a sissy pacifist for my taste. Now, her son...Whoa! I envy that Chin war god who gets to take credit for him! He's a real man."
"Real monster, you mean. I created him," she sighed.
"I knew there was a reason I liked him!" he exclaimed and strutted a few steps about the deck. "You are such a good teacher, Xena. Just look at Gabrielle...."
She turned on him and got right in his face before snarling, "Leave her out of this!"
"Why? Because she's some pure goody-two shoes?" he baited. Then, he broke out laughing. "Hasn't the last few years shown you anything, Xena? She's quite the warrior in her own right, you know."
"Yeah, I know," she admitted. "Someday, I'd like to get her away from all of this crap."
He nodded, "Right. Just remember, my offer to her is still on the table...."
She drew her sword and waved it threateningly in front of his face, "Still trying your luck, ain't ya? Well, get this straight. If you come anywhere near her or my other friends again, I'll cream you!"
He frowned knowingly, "Hey, if you're still smarting over the attack on Althanor or the other deal in Arizona, deal with it. Your buddy, Dubois, seems to be doing okay."
"As usual, Ares, you are so shallow. If you bothered to look under the surface, you'd see that Alti stirred up a cesspool inside of him! I should let him take another crack at ya," she spat, a wicked smile crossing her features. "Then, you'd see how 'all right' he really is."
"Whatever," he shrugged, changing the subject. Deep down, he knew that she was right although he would never admit it to her face. "Just do me a favor," he requested.
"That depends on what it is," she deadpanned.
"Just be careful. Greece wouldn't be the same without you and Gabrielle. And, by the way..." he continued.
"Yes, now what?" she pushed.
"Aphrodite asked me to give her best to Gabrielle. So, when you see her, could you?" he asked.
She smiled, "For Aphrodite, sure."
He shook his head, "For her, okay. For me, keep away. You can be so frustrating sometimes!" With that, he vanished.
"Yeah, baiting you is one of life's little pleasures," she stated to the now-empty deck. But still, for Ares to appear so far out of his territory to warn her about Chin, something bad had to be waiting for them there.
"We'll just have to be really careful," she reminded herself. Stifling a yawn, she headed toward the stairs. "There are a few hours left before sunrise. Maybe I can grab some sleep before we dock."
Just after midday, the ship docked on the Chin coast. Wasting no time, Xena stepped onto the pier followed closely by Gabrielle. Behind them, Argo II and the brown mount anxiously trotted the length of the pier.
"So, where to now?" the Bard inquired.
"We head west along this road," the warrior indicated, checking the saddlebags, and then mounting Argo II. "Come on, Gabrielle!"
Her companion nodded and climbed onto her steed. Once she had done so, they galloped away towards their destiny.
For two days, the women rode across what had once been fertile fields. Now, the grasses burned, soot and ash covered the ground, and smoke choked the air. Whoever had come through here had used the dreaded black powder once again. Not a thing remained alive in their path.
"Who would do this, Xena?" Gabrielle asked with uncertainty. "I thought that we dealt with Khan and the holders of the powder on our last time here."
"Obviously, somebody still knows about it. Looks like Lao Ma was right. The dragon has grown another head after all," the warrior informed her friend.
At that moment, a distant rumbling echoed out of the distance. The companions stared at the hills in front of them and saw an army some 500 men strong standing atop it.
"Whose men are those?" the Bard asked.
"I don't know," the warrior replied. "But, I think we're about to find out!"
In the distance, the men seemed to be setting something up. One touched a torch to the ground, and a series of smoky plumes hurled towards them.
"Get down!" Xena warned, jumping off of Argo and pulling the poetess off of the other horse. Fortunately, the bombs exploded about thirty feet short of them, but still close enough to get the message across. The enemy had been waiting for their arrival and had announced their intentions with a vengeance.
The Bard drew her scythes, preparing for what was to come. The troops were rushing forward to meet them. For a brief second, her mind flashed back to Japan. Hadn't Xena been in this situation. She saw her friend rush forward into the samurai, slashing and cutting her opponents to shreds before the leader cut her down in turn. "Not this time!" she bellowed.
"Gabrielle, get down! I'll cover you if you want to try to get to K 'ao Hsin's temple," the Warrior Princess directed, jarring the other woman back to the present.
After what they had been through just a few days earlier, the Potadeian was having none of it. "No, Xena, not this time! If we die then we die together," she argued, flipping her blades into position.
Xena started to argue, but the retort died unspoken on her lips at the sight of her friend's resolve. "No, you're right. Okay, let's stay close together. Sounds good?"
"As it should be," the blonde warrior-poet concurred. "Together!"
By now, the enemy horde was only 100 feet away from them and closing in fast. Chinese war cries could be heard above the din and the banners chilled them. They illustrated the return of their foe. For embroidered on them was the hated symbol of Ming T'ien--the Green Dragon.
"Let's get 'em!" the warrior bellowed, unsheathing her sword and holding the chakram in the other hand. With a snap of the later wrist, the circular weapon flew at the enemy, caroming off of five men, slicing the wicks from the mortars, breaking several blades from their hilts, and cutting the head dragon banner in two before returning to her hand.
Never let it be said that Xena didn't have a flair for the dramatic. Charging forward into the enemy horde, she cut a path through their numbers with deadly percission via sword, chakram toss, fist, and foot. Many troops charged her only to fall before her onslaught. Seeing as this was the first battle since her "reincarnation", the Warrior Princess let it all hang out.
Not to be outdone, Gabrielle knocked, jabbed, stabbed, and beat her own way deep into the dragon divisions. Determining not to let either her or Xena fall before this enemy, the Bard pushed herself onward, never allowing herself to let up, nor giving any quarter to the army.
The battle raged for nearly twenty minutes. Despite the women's best efforts, they began to tire. However, they would not quit not when so much rode on the outcome of the conflict. So, they fought on, determined to meet their end together if need be.
However, as good fortune would have it, another wave of troops rode up in back of the two female warriors, reinforcing their position. The leader, a man of stocky build, carried himself in a familiar manner. Ordering his men forward, he charged into the fray, claiming a few of the enemy for himself.
The leader of the dragons knew better than to engage this new force with his battered and tired troops. He had figured to outlast the two furies and had taken serious casualties accordingly. Now, his followers would fall like wheat unless they fell back and regrouped. "Retreat!" he yelled and rode away back over the hill.
The other dragons also turned and fled, leaving their banners and much of their gear behind.
For several minutes, Xena stood at the crest of the hill, watching the dragon soldiers move back. When she was satisfied that they were far enough away, the warrior walked back to her friend's side and asked, "How're you doing?"
"I'm okay. A few cuts, but otherwise, I'm fine," the Bard replied. "And you?"
"About the same," she agreed, surveying their new allies. These soldiers wore the traditional colors of Chin and the house of Lao. But who?
At that point, the leader rode up beside them and dismounted from his horse. "Are you two all right?" he asked.
"We are. Thank you for the assist," the Warrior Princess expressed.
"It was no trouble given this is the third time you have come to our aid against the accursed Green Dragon," he affirmed.
Gabrielle stared at the man for a second. She knew that voice. "Lin Che? Is that you?" she asked.
The leader laughed as he removed his helmet. Sure enough, the guerilla leader from the campaign against Pao Ssu, Ming T'ien, and Khan had indeed come to their assistance again and had brought plenty of manpower with him. "Yes, Gabrielle. It's me, Lin Che. Now, come, we must get going. The dragons will gather reinforcements and return soon en masse," he advised.
"Where's Lao Ma's daughter? Where's K 'ao Hsin?" Xena demanded.
"She is well for the moment and back at the temple complex. Come and I will take you to her," he explained.
The Warrior Princess whistled shrilly, signaling Argo II and the brown steed to come out from their hiding place. Then, after the two warrioresses had mounted them, they followed their allies toward the southeast and their base of operations.
The dragons rode hard towards their hideout. Their leader, Chan-Kua, had not believed the legends surrounding the Warrior Princess and her companion, dismissing them as idle wives' tales. Their bruises spoke volumes to the contrary. Smarting from the licking they had taken and fearing the wraith from their lord, they stopped in front of a mammoth cave and dismounted. Warily, the troops moved inside of the gaping mouth to report on what they had seen.
The Siamese twin spirits floating near the back of the cave were restless. Ever since their escape from the world between worlds, Ming T'ien and Pao Ssu had plotted revenge on their sister, Kao Sin and the people of Chin. Waiting until their enemies were scattered, the twin spirits marshaled their forces and ravaged the countryside. But, in this latest incursion, something had gone wrong. They could sense it. The sight of their battered troops confirmed this feeling.
"My lord!" Chan exclaimed. "It was unbelievable! You were right!"
The Green Dragon considered this statement and replied, "So, you ran into Xena, did you?"
"How?" the general inquired.
"Only she and her friend, Gabrielle, would be able to hold you off until reinforcements arrived," Pao Ssu hissed.
The field leader nodded nervously, still not knowing how to deal with the two-in-one spirit.
"Leave us," the female spirit commanded. Once they were alone, she continued, "What do we do now?"
The spirit turned to reveal the Dragon who answered, "We need to plan. Xena's interference wasn't something I was counting on. I felt her death in Japan! She shouldn't be here!"
Again, the spirit turned and his sister responded, "Well, she is here. We need to come up with something to deal with her and Kao Sin."
From the "flip side," Ming T'ien concurred silently. Strategy had always been his strong suit and it wouldn't take him too long to come up with a plan.
The sun was low in the western sky by the time the group reached the temple overlooking the northern end of the valley. For Xena, the structure brought back memories of her earlier trips into this land and the earliest stages of her spiritual healing. First, she saw Lao Ma's intercession and attempts to bring her down the road towards peace. Then, she relived the indignities suffered at Ming T'ien's court and how those events had almost cost her Gabrielle's friendship. Finally, she saw the destruction caused by the emergence of the black powder under Pao Ssu's direction. "This time, we need to finish the job," she affirmed to herself.
Gabrielle urged her horse alongside Argo II and tapped her friend on the arm. "Hey, you seem awfully quiet. What's going on?"
"Oh, I'm just thinking about the good I've had from this place and all of the pain," the warrior sighed.
"But, you've grown here. We both have, Xena. Never forget that," the Bard assured her.
The Warrior Princess managed a grin and smiled, "Thank you. You don't know how much that means."
The poetess smiled silently. With the way they knew each other, a facial gesture spoke volumes.
"Besides," Lin Che added, "Chin owes you a great deal, Xena. You've been a true friend."
"I'm glad to be of service, Lin Che," the warrior replied honestly. "Now, let's talk to K 'ao Sin."
He nodded and led the two companions to the stable beside the temple. Dismounting, they climbed the stairs and entered the great hall. Inside, the three travelers saw a solitary slender woman with long dark hair pacing back and forth.
"K 'ao Hsin!" Xena exclaimed, hurrying across the room.
"Xena! I'm so glad you could come to our aid!" the other woman replied, embracing her visitor. "I was worried when Lin Che didn't come right back."
"We ran into some trouble," he explained, embracing her. "But, all is well...at least for now. Xena and Gabrielle beat the insurgents back."
"With the assistance of your relief force," Gabrielle indicated.
"Do you think I would have left you?" he inquired incredulously. "Of course not! You are our friends and allies!"
"I would not allow she who is like my own sister to be so deserted," K 'ao Sin asserted. "We need all of the help we can manage to rule this territory."
"We?" Gabrielle asked. "So, are you co-rulers?"
The two natives exchanged glances and smiled. Then, she continued, "Yes. After you left for the West, I discovered that no noble was left alive who wanted to rule at my side. Lin Che was going to leave as well. I needed a leader for the state affairs."
"I agreed to serve in this fashion and a good friendship blossomed," he added.
"Eventually, we decided to marry. His bravery in defending the land allowed me to elevate him to this position. But, I also found that I respect and admire him," she explained. "We have lived as such for the past 20 years."
Xena smiled. Certainly, the woman in front of them had her mother's finer traits. If given a chance, great things would come from their rule. "If I have anything to say about it, it'll happen," she vowed silently.
"So, what happened? How did the other soldiers get the black powder back? I thought Xena turned everyone with the knowledge to stone," the bard wondered.
"For a while after you left, we thought so as well," he started. "Then, about six months ago, the explosions started again. Our troops held their own, but eventually, the enemy started to push us back."
"I have meditated on this misfortune," K 'ao Hsin revealed. "I hoped that another hero would be sent to help us. How fortunate that you have arrived in our hour of need."
"Thank your mother," the Warrior Princess told her. "She got us to divert down here."
Gabrielle shuddered. That reply was certainly an understatement.
"Anyhow, they have Ming T'ien's banner," Xena continued. "Somehow, he's back...and if he's around, you know that your sister can't be far behind."
"I figured as much," the empress surmised. "I have no wish to harm my siblings, but they are leaving me with no choice. " A slight tear escaped her left eye.
"It will be all right," he reassured her. "All will be as it was."
"I...I know," she agreed, straightening herself and advising her friends, "Come, you have had a difficult day. A bath, a meal, and rest will do you both good. If you will follow me."
The warrior and bard were tired and readily followed their hostess down the hall.
Within a few minutes, the two female warriors lounged in the hot bathing pool. The steamy water relaxed them, easing their muscles and their minds.
For Xena, the bath brought back memories of a time long before when Lao Ma had hid her in this very place from her enemies. How many times had her teacher helped her before she realized the value of the lessons? The thoughts continued to echo over and over in her mind as she reclined back into the water's warm embrace.
"This place is something else, isn't it, Xena?" Gabrielle inquired, swimming up to her companion's side. "They did a nice job of rebuilding, didn't they?"
"Yeah, they did. It looks like it did 35 years ago," the warrior agreed.
The bard began to knead her friend's shoulders. "You seem so tense. Here, let me," she informed the other.
The treatment brought a smile to the warrior's face. "Mmm...that feels so nice. You always had the magic touch."
"Thanks," the poetess smiled. "It's good to hear that. So, do you have a plan yet?"
"Concerning our friends in the hills? I think they'll force a battle now that they know we're here," Xena assumed. "I think Lin Che would agree with me."
"Right," Gabrielle agreed. "Isn't it nice that he and K 'ao Hsin are together?"
"Yeah, they make a great couple," the warrior agreed. "Time to switch."
The bard concurred and swam forward, allowing her friend to get behind her and do the same to her. "Thanks," she sighed. "I needed that."
"No problem," the Warrior Princess assured her. "Feeling better now?"
"Much," the poetess indicated.
"Good. Now, as you were saying, I'm glad that the remaining nobles accepted Lin Che as one of their number. He certainly fought well enough the last time we were here," Xena noted.
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed. "He certainly stuck by our sides when the going got rough. Just like Joxer...." At the mention of their deceased friend, she trembled.
Xena sighed. No matter how often she had told her otherwise, the bard still blamed herself for their friend's death at Livia's hand. Still, one more time wouldn't hurt. "It wasn't your fault, Gabrielle. You can't keep beating yourself up over that."
"I know, but part of me still aches over being so stupid as to think I could reach her by myself," Gabrielle admitted.
"That's you. If you hadn't tried, I would have been surprised. Besides, Joxer's in a better place, trust me," Xena assured her.
"Thanks, Xena," Gabrielle smiled and hugged her friend.
"Anytime," the warrior agreed. "Now, let's get dried off and out to the table. Dinner's should almost be ready."
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