A FRIEND IN NEED PART 3
Gabrielle contemplated the squat, black jar that was never out of touching distance. Just because she could, she ran a fingertip over the rounded surface, then sighed and sat back against her saddle blanket. Her saddle blanket. She looked around the neat campsite. Her saddle, her bedroll . her chakram. She felt no pride of ownership of these things. In fact, it was quite depressing that everything here was hers. Even Argo II, who looked up with a quiet whicker as though reading her thoughts, belonged solely to her now.
It was her first night back in Greece after wandering for some six months through Egypt and north Africa. She had been really tempted to look up Kahina and Tazere and see if they still might want to kill her, but she had decided against it. Well, actually, Xenas outraged expression on hearing the plan had decided her against it, although Gabrielle had wanted to know exactly what the difference was between those circumstances and the ones in Japan.
"They were both accidents, Xena," she had argued. "You wouldnt let me sacrifice myself to avenge Korah, but then you turned around and did the very same thing!" Xena had just shaken her head and vanished, leaving Gabrielle fuming in exasperation.
A rustling in the forest nearby brought Gabrielle to her feet, her sais already in her hands. A swarthy man dressed in unfamiliar garb stumbled into the clearing and stopped short at the sight of the warrior waiting to greet him.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked sharply. "And what are you doing sneaking around my campsite?"
The man bowed obsequiously and stuttered out a reply. "My name is Dmitri and I am the bearer of a message. Are you Xena?"
Gabrielle lowered her sais. "No, Im not."
Dmitri looked surprised. "Youre not?" He peered around curiously. "Do you know where I might find her?"
"No," Gabrielle said crossly. "Why? Was she supposed to go with you to a far-off land to right a great wrong from long ago or something?"
Dmitri cocked his head. "As a matter of fact "
Gabrielle interrupted, "Sorry, but youre out of luck. Youd better head back to that far-off land you came from."
Dmitri considered. "Are you sure youre not Xena? Because you fit her description."
Gabrielle laughed shortly. "I do not. But thanks, anyway, I think."
"Youre obviously a warrior," Dmitri continued, still looking around. "And you have the chakram!" he finished triumphantly, pointing to the weapon hanging at Gabrielles side. "Although it does look a little different."
Gabrielle glanced down at the chakram, which still felt strange hanging on her belt. "Youve seen it before?"
"Only in pictures. But they show a design around the rim, and the middle part is not there."
"Well, this is the new improved version." She sighed in resignation. "You might as well sit down. Would you like some tea or something?"
Dmitri immediately availed himself of her invitation and sat down next to the fur bedroll. "Do you have anything stronger?"
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "No, sorry. Its tea or nothing."
"I would love some tea," Dmitri decided.
Gabrielle got out a small wooden cup and filled it with tea from the waterskin. She had started keeping tea in the waterskin only recently. Xena would never have agreed to carrying tea instead of water, and Gabrielle mentally thumbed her nose at her absent companion as she handed Dmitri the cup. She immediately felt a definite pinch and jumped in surprise. Dmitri looked up, puzzled, as she rubbed her posterior and smiled gamely. "The mosquitoes are as big as eagles here, have you noticed?"
Dmitri glanced around, a little alarmed, but Gabrielle sat down on the bedroll and asked, "Now what was this message you were talking about?"
"I come from a village in the mountains of northern Macedonia. My grandmother is the mystic of our tribe, and it is she who sent me to look for Xena. About thirty some years ago, Xena visited our village. She made quite an impression on my grandmother, who continues to tell the story to this day."
Gabrielle was curious in spite of herself. "What story?"
"The story of how Xena stole the dark chakram from the God of War himself!"
Gabrielle almost choked on her tea. "Xena STOLE the chakram?"
Dmitri looked pleased to have amazed his audience. "But yes. My grandmother was a witness to the whole thing. She said she had never seen such fury as when Ares found himself to have been outwitted by a mortal."
Gabrielle nodded, having witnessed that fury firsthand. "Ill bet. But did he happen to mention that he had stolen it himself in the first place?"
Dmitri laughed. "No, but that is no surprise. We were once a warlike people and knew much of the God of War."
"So Xena took the chakram. Why did your grandmother want to talk to her?"
"The message concerns a prophecy involving Xena and the God of War. The time is right for the fulfillment of the prophecy, and my grandmother thought Xena should be made aware of it."
"Well," Gabrielle swallowed. It was still so hard to say this. "Im afraid its too late for Xena to do anything about it. She was killed in battle about six months ago."
Dmitri frowned. "Are you certain? My grandmother knows nothing of this, and she sees all. In fact, she was sure I would find Xena here."
"Well, of course Im certain," Gabrielle said testily. "I was there, too."
"Where was she buried? Does her body still exist?"
"No." Gabrielle looked down at the small black urn. "She was, um, cremated. These are her ashes."
"Ah," Dmitri nodded. "So I have found her after all."
Gabrielle nodded. "Well, in a manner of speaking, yes."
"You mourn for her?" Dmitri spoke softly, and there was compassion in his eyes as he looked at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle lifted her chin and gazed at him. "Yes, I mourn."
"Are you willing to undertake a journey on her behalf?"
"A journey. To visit your grandmother?"
"Yes. I think she may have some things to tell you that you should know." Dmitri handed Gabrielle the wooden cup. "I thank you for your hospitality. I have camped a little distance from here. I will return in the morning for your answer." He stood and, after bowing again, left the clearing and disappeared into the forest.
Gabrielle watched him go and then turned and gazed into the fire. "Well, what do you say, Xena? Do we go north tomorrow?"
Xenas form materialized next to her on the bedroll. "Up to you, Gabrielle. Where you go "
"I know," Gabrielle interrupted. "Youre at my side. But should we go? What do you know about this prophecy?"
Xena considered for a moment. "This is the first Ive heard of it. I do remember the mystic Dmitri is talking about. In fact, she helped me get the chakram from Ares. That was after I left the Norselands. I was on my way back to Greece at the time. I wasnt in her village very long, though."
"Are you responsible for the deaths of any of their villagers? Did you create any monsters that still might be roaming the area? Are we going to run into any more former soulmates there?"
Xena smiled at the rapid-fire questions and shook her head. "None of the above. I was in too much of a hurry to get back to Greece to get into too much trouble."
Gabrielle smiled, relieved. "Oh, and stealing the chakram from Ares didnt get you into trouble?"
"Not really. In fact, I always kind of thought he meant for me to take it, even though he made a show of being mad. He seemed pretty confident that it would be the means for me to become the warrior he wanted me to be."
"Okay, then, well go with Dmitri and find out about this prophecy business. You know, he didnt seem to be too perturbed that you werent here in the flesh. What do you thinks up with that?"
Xena just shrugged. "Maybe well learn more when we get to Macedonia."
Gabrielle nodded and climbed into the bedroll, pleased when Xena lay down to share it with her. She fell asleep feeling secure in the presence of her soulmate.
It took just over a week to travel to Dmitris homeland. Most of the way was uphill, as the plains of Greece gave way to the more mountainous area of Macedonia. Argo II took the steep trails easily, giving Gabrielle the opportunity to enjoy some really gorgeous scenery. She said as much to Dmitri, who began pointing out landmarks which signaled that they were approaching his village.
The village they rode into near dusk that evening was smaller than Gabrielle had expected. Dmitri led her to a small hut on the outskirts of town and ushered her into a candle-illumined, incense-filled interior. A small, frail looking elderly woman was seated on a cushion in the far corner of the room. She looked up as Gabrielle and Dmitri entered and held out a beringed hand to her grandson.
"Dmitri, my son. Have you succeeded in your task?"
Dmitri took his grandmothers hand and bowed over it. "Yes, grandmother. I have brought the warrior you sent me for." A wave of his hand indicated Gabrielle, who was standing a few paces behind him. "This is Gabrielle. Gabrielle, may I present my grandmother, Maria Ouskaya, mystic of the Bulgars."
Maria Ouskaya turned her brilliant gaze toward Gabrielle and smiled, but when she spoke, her gaze moved slightly to Gabrielles left. "Welcome, to you both."
"Thank you, Maria," Xena replied, startling Gabrielle, who had not heard Xenas voice directed at anyone save herself for the past six months. She looked curiously at the mystic, and realized that she could see Xena as well.
"Would you excuse us for a time, Dmitri?" Maria asked, and her grandson bowed and went into an adjoining room. "Please, be seated," she invited, and Xena and Gabrielle took seats on some conveniently placed pillows.
"Whats this all about, Maria?" Xena asked.
"Do you remember the circumstances of your last visit here?" Maria countered.
"Yes," Xena answered slowly. "But whats this about a prophecy? Does it have something to do with the chakram?"
"Indirectly, yes. But it really concerns you and Ares ..and this." Maria held out her hand, on which lay a large glowing stone. Gabrielle took the stone and held it so that Xena could see it also. Xena examined it with a grim expression on her face.
"What is it?" asked Gabrielle, when Xena didnt ask the obvious question.
"Its the Eye of Hephaestus," Xena replied. "I wondered what had happened to it, but I assumed it had been destroyed when I killed most of the Olympian gods."
Gabrielle looked at the stone in awe. "You mean this is the stone that gives power over the gods?"
Xena nodded. "It was designed by Athena and formed by Hephaestus from several different precious stones. How did you come to possess it, Maria?"
Maria smiled slightly. "Ares gave it to me. He said that Athena had placed a spell on it so that it could be used against mortals as well as gods. He thought that Athena might try to use it against you, so he brought it to me and bade me hide it from the other gods. I hid it so well that not even Ares could discover its whereabouts. Im sure the other gods would not have found it either, even if they had survived long enough to look for it." The last statement was made with a slight twinkle in her eye, causing Xena to roll her eyes.
Gabrielle just shook her head in bemusement. "So what is the prophecy?"
Maria became serious once again. "I knew the first time I touched the stone that its existence would ultimately bring about a struggle between good and evil in some form. Over time, the visions associated with the stone became even more definite, and I saw that the struggle would involve Xena and Ares." She spread her hands, and the air almost shimmered around her. "The time has come."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "Maria," Xena began, "I can only fight in the spirit realm. How can I defeat Ares in this state? "
"You cant," Maria stated definitely. She leaned forward and pinned Xena with a direct stare. "You must choose, Xena."
"I thought I no longer had that choice," Xena whispered.
"You do," Maria affirmed. "You can choose to remain in your present state of grace, or you can choose to forsake this redemption and return to fight the evil Ares plans to visit upon the world."
Gabrielle turned back to Maria, hope and doubt warring in her expression. "You mean theres a way to bring Xena back in human form?"
Maria smiled. "Most assuredly. You, my child, are the way." She gestured to the stone Gabrielle still held. "With the help of the Eye."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena, who was staring pensively at the stone. "Xena," she began, then stopped to collect her thoughts. "I told you once I would respect your choice, and I meant it, even though Ive argued with you about it since then. I want you to know that Ill still respect whatever choice you make." Her voice faltered, but she continued. "You know I want you back, but if it comes down to it, I can fight Ares."
"Gabrielle," Xena began, but Gabrielle shook her head firmly.
"Xena, you know I can do it!"
Xena opened her mouth to argue further, but Maria held up a hand, silencing them both. "It will take you both to defeat Ares. He has grown stronger since his return to Olympus. His plan is to raise up a war leader from this very area and bring the entire world into conflict and chaos. The only way to stop Ares without throwing the world out of balance is to imprison him so he cannot use his influence. The time is growing short. I have had a sense of his imminent arrival for several days now."
Xena bowed her head for a long moment and then turned to Gabrielle. "Well, do you think we can save the world one more time?"
With tears in her eyes, Gabrielle held out her hand. Xena clasped it and they sat for a moment, smiling at each other. Then Xena took a breath and turned back to Maria. "What do we do to bring me back?"
Maria nodded in satisfaction. "I have prepared a place deep in the mountain. We will go there now."
The cavern was accessed through a winding passage that led deeper and deeper into the mountain. Finally the passage widened into a large underground chamber. Dmitri used his torch to light several wall sconces that illuminated the room, which had apparently been hewn out of solid rock. At its center was a stone sarcophagus backed by a large carving of a skull. On the sarcophagus lid was sculpted a familiar likeness.
"Is this for Ares?" Gabrielle asked, running her hand over the surface of the coffin.
"Yes," Maria replied.
"But will it hold him?" Gabrielle wondered. "Because he is still a god, you know, and .."
"It will not be the sarcophagus, but the spell created by the Eye that will hold him," Maria explained, seating herself on a convenient rock. "Dmitri, place the Eye above the sarcophagus."
Dmitri removed the stone from its leather carrying pouch and placed it in a recess above the skull.
"Xena, are you ready to reenter this mortal life?"
"Yes," Xena replied. "Im ready."
"Gabrielle, are you ready to bring your partner to this realm?" At Gabrielles brilliant smile and nod, Maria added, "Then strike the Eye with the chakram."
Gabrielle took the chakram from its place at her waist and held it aloft. Her eyes met Xenas for a timeless moment, and then she twisted her wrist and sent the chakram sailing toward the gleaming Eye. It struck with a shower of sparks and sent a beam of light downwards, bathing Xena in a scarlet glow. The chakram itself split into two parts, which ricocheted off the cavern walls. One of the pieces flew back toward Gabrielle, who caught it and looked at it with a puzzled expression. The other piece careened off the sarcophagus and was snatched up with a practiced sweep of Xenas arm. Xena smiled at the satisfying sensation of actually touching a physical object for the first time in months, and then she, too, bent to examine the chakram more closely. It did not look the way her chakram usually did when it split in two. It was a complete circle, with an inlaid design around the rim.
"Look, Xena," Gabrielle observed in an awed tone. "This is your old chakram!"
"Not only that," Xena answered, "Theyre both here." She brought hers closer to Gabrielles to compare them.
But Gabrielle was no longer interested in the chakrams. She reached out and cupped Xenas cheek. "Youre back," she said softly.
"I guess I am," Xena smiled. "Thanks to you."
A rumbling sound like a distant earthquake interrupted the moment. "Ares has discovered the presence of the Eye," Maria announced. "We havent much time. The chakram has returned to its original state, but only the chakram of light can keep Ares a prisoner here. You must wait until Ares is physically present in this room and then strike the Eye with it."
"But which is which?" Gabrielle asked, looking back and forth at the two chakrams. "Theyre identical!"
Xena shook her head. "Well just have to try them both and hope for the best. Maria, you and Dmitri clear out."
Maria stood and clasped Xenas arm. "Good luck to you, my friend. And whatever happens here, know that the redemption you seek has been achieved." Xena frowned, but before she could question the pronouncement, Maria and Dmitri slipped out through the stone passageway.
Gabrielle stepped up to stand at Xenas side. "Okay, what now?"
Xena brought her mind back to their plan. "We wait for Ares. And Gabrielle, the minute the chakram strikes the Eye, we need to get out. Otherwise, well be trapped here with him." An electric feeling in the air alerted her, and she pushed Gabrielle toward a nearby rock formation while she backed into a niche in the cavern wall.
Gabrielle ducked behind the rock column and turned just in time to see Ares materialize in a shower of sparks. He glanced about him for a moment and then strode toward the skull carving atop which the Eye of Hephaestus glowed faintly. "At last," he breathed, and stretched out a commanding hand toward the stone.
"Not so fast, Ares," Xena warned, as she stepped into view, holding the chakram so that Ares could easily see it as he turned to face her. Surprise, disbelief, anger and finally fear chased each other across his face as he realized just what it was that Xena held.
"Xena," he managed, "to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Oh, you dont owe me anything, Ares. Were even, remember?"
"Right, I do remember that. Um, that wouldnt be the chakram of light youre holding, would it?" Ares asked, as he began moving closer to Xena.
Xena countered the motion by backing slowly around the caverns edge. "Wouldnt it? What are you doing here, Ares?"
"Ive got big plans, Xena," Ares growled. "Do NOT get in my way."
Behind Ares, Gabrielle edged out from behind the rocks and began circling to keep behind him.
"Give it up, Ares," Xena advised. "Theres no way Im going to let you fill the world with your evil."
"You used to be all for that evil, Xena," Ares reminded her. "Come on, join me and well rule it together. This just might be the last time you get that offer."
"One can only hope," Xena shrugged, just before she sent the chakram flying. It rebounded off the rock ceiling and struck the Eye dead center, breaking into two halves and falling to the floor of the cavern with a clatter. Xena realized with a sinking sensation that it must have been the dark chakram.
Ares came to the same realization and began to laugh. "Whats the matter, Xena? Is your plan not working?" He pulled his sword from its sheath and began advancing more purposefully toward Xena.
Suddenly a sharp whirring was heard and Ares blade was sliced off at the hilt. He turned in shock to see Gabrielle catch the chakram of light with a triumphant smirk. With a roar of rage that almost drowned out Xenas shout of warning, he balled up a firebolt and threw it with lethal accuracy toward Gabrielle. Gabrielle simply turned her back, exposing the dragon tattoo, which reflected the deadly firebolt back into Ares chest, knocking him backwards.
"Now, Gabrielle," Xena yelled, and Gabrielle flung the chakram directly at the Eye of Hephaestus. The Eye almost exploded in a burst of light, and a heavy stone began descending from above the opening to the cavern. Gabrielle snatched the chakram out of the air, and she and Xena dove for the rapidly disappearing opening. They slid through just as the stone thudded to the ground, actually pinning some strands of their hair beneath its weight.
"Ow," Xena winced as she pulled her hair free. "That was close."
Gabrielle nodded. "We almost didnt make it. But, Xena, I dropped my carrying pouch in there."
"I hope there was nothing important in it. Like the waterskin. Or should I say the tea-skin?"
"Ha, ha. Well, no, I just had a few scrolls in it, actually. But I hate to lose them."
They got to their feet and dusted themselves off. "How long will this hold him, I wonder?" Gabrielle asked.
"For eternity, I hope," Xena replied, but remembered saying the same thing about Callisto in the lava river. She sighed, knowing that nothing was for sure. "Theres probably some loophole that will allow him to escape somewhere down the line. Well just have to hope that someone will be there to stop him."
Gabrielle nodded, and they started down the passage.
"Um, Gabrielle," Xena began, "I can hold the chakram now, so .."
"Oh, no," Gabrielle stated teasingly, holding up the light chakram and blowing an imaginary speck of dust from its surface. "This chakram is mine. I think yours broke back there."
"But you said it depressed you to think it was yours!"
"Oh, now you can read my mind? I never said that out loud!"
"Well, yeah, I could hear your thoughts."
"So what am I thinking right now, huh?"
Xena smiled at her soulmate. "Youre thinking exactly what Im thinking."
Gabrielle smiled, too, acknowledging the joy she felt at Xenas physical presence and seeing that joy reflected in her friends eyes. As they stepped out of the passage into the light of morning, she also felt a sense of peace falling over the two of them, as though a circle had been completed. And she knew that whatever new adventures awaited them, they would face them as they always had together.
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