Disclaimers: The dynamic duo does not belong to me. I'm illegally hero napping 'em and loving every minute of it.
Violence: Sure, why not...
Subtext: You betcha. A little touch of subtext never hurt nobody. I personally think it's maintext actually, but since our two heroes kissed not once, not twice, but three times in the series and people still believed they were 'just friends', I'm not sure if this tale here is explicit enough. Judge for yourself, if you feel up to it.
Author's Note: I know I'm a tad on the late side writing this, but I only saw FIN quite recently, because of serious delay in airing on the European side of the globe. Though FIN didn't bug me as much as it did many other fans, I did feel inclined to write a sequel and work out the kinks FIN had left in its wake. Hope it's gonna be enjoyable.
If you liked it, and feel like saying you did, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you didn't like it and feel like saying you didn't, same address, but please, don't get all flamey on me, okay? I love constructive criticism though, so if you've got any good remarks about plot or characterization or what not, I'd love to hear it :).
Her breathing was coming in heavy gasps and her legs were growing weaker by the moment, but she willed herself to keep moving forward. The forest was dense and she had to force her way through the thick foliage, which grazed her bare arms and legs, drawing blood. A branch entwined itself with the dark blue kimono that was covering her body, creating another gash in the already torn fabric.
Horses's hooves thundered behind her, like an approaching storm, roaring. She couldn't outrun them, a part of her knew that. But giving up was simply not in her nature; she had to try.
A yell from behind her, closer than she thought it'd be. She drew power from her last reserves and sped up, her bare feet crackling the dry leaves under her feet rhythmically. The sound was loud and echoed oddly in her brain, consuming her thoughts until even moving seemed like a dream.
With a bang the dream ended, as the roots of a tree caught her foot, and she tumbled harshly to the earth. When she looked up, the legs of a horse skidded to a halt in front of her, the limbs sweaty, wisps of vapour drifting up in the cool morning air. She could hear the footsteps of men and the hooves of horses all around her now. She closed her eyes and dropped her head.
It was over.
A soft thud sounded as the rider let himself slide off his horse, to stand in front of her. "Well, this was a bit of a waste of both our time, wasn't it?" His voice drifted down from above her. "You should have learned from our last encounter you cannot escape me, Himiko."
Himiko took a breath, then slowly lifted her head to look up at her pursuer. He was a tall man; his hair tied up tightly in a knot at the back of his head. His muscled body was protected by light armour and he wore the deep green colours of the tribe of Hojo. "I escaped before," she said softly.
The man chuckled deep in his throat. "I let you go then. I was done with you."
She closed her eyes and swallowed, dropping her head again to hide her pain.
"This time though..." He unsheathed his sword. "There will be no escape."
Himiko bit her lip, keeping her head bent, not needing to look up to see him lift the sword in both his hands, ready to strike her dead. She sent her prayers to the Kami, the spirits, begging them to make her last journey swift and painless. Her hands tensed, her fingers digging into the earth beneath her.
Her eyes shot open then, as she felt something hidden in the earth. Her fingers wrapped around it, finding a solid hold.
A part of her reminded her this was no use. Genyo, the son of the daimyo, the lord of Hojo, was a powerful man. Any struggle against him would only prove futile; she knew this from experience.
But her will to live was too great and she ignored the voice, tightening her hold and pulling her find from the earth, lifting it above her head defensively.
Metal clattered on metal. Himiko glanced up, seeing her own eyes reflected dully in the metal of a sword, which had just crossed blades with the sword of Genyo.
She realised she only had moments now, to use the confusion she'd just created to her advantage. She pushed up with all her strength, knocking the shocked Genyo back just a bit, creating an opening. She scrambled up and darted past him, grabbing onto the saddle of his horse and pulling herself up. The horse reared in fright at the sudden movements around him, then he raced off, Himiko desperately clinging to his back.
"Get her!" She heard Genyo's growl, cutting through the air like lightning. She glanced behind her, seeing Genyo's men a ways back, intermittently hidden from sight by trees.
She would never make it to the city in time. She could not ride a horse properly and the animal would soon slow down. Her mind flashed over her options, then she settled on one, kicking the horse hard in the sides one last time, making him speed up and get out of the line of sight of her pursuers, before she closed her eyes and let herself fall to her left.
The ground scraped against her skin harshly as she rolled out of the way until she finally impacted with a tree. On pure instinct she pulled herself behind it, pushing her back against the hard wooden bark.
Hooves thundered towards her, closer and closer until she could feel the ground under her shake.
Himiko listened mutely as the receding yells of men echoed through the trees, fading slowly until the forest was left in silence once more. She closed her eyes, releasing the breath she'd been holding, leaning her head against the tree trunk for a moment.
Then she noticed her fingers were still folded tightly around the weapon she'd pulled from the earth and she opened her eyes again, lifting her hand and holding the sword up in front of her, staring at the dully-glinting blade. It was not like any sword she'd ever seen before. A beam of dim sunlight peeked through the thick foliage then and reflected off its surface and as it did...
As it did she could swear she heard a sound drifting up from the metal.
A deep delighted chuckle.
t was a pretty little flower with small, bright yellow petals. Xena leaned closer and sniffed it, before lazily turning her head and continuing to watch Gabrielle square off against four men in light armour. The blonde ducked under the sword then pushed the hilts of both her sai into her attacker's stomach, making him double over, before jabbing her knee into his face. "Nice..." Xena murmured as she turning her attention back to the bright blue sky above her, popping her hands under her head and gazing up.
A few more moments, then the clanging of metal stopped. Xena heard the sai being sheathed, then soft distinctive footfalls as her friend walked closer.
Gabrielle dropped down beside her, sitting cross-legged. "I really don't get it, Xena. I mean, how many Romans have I smacked up now?
Xena chuckled softly. "I lost count."
"Where do those guys keep coming from?" the blonde sighed gravely. "Can't they just get a clue and go home?"
"Romans are a little slow in the brain department, you know that." Xena reached over and wiped a small speck of blood off her friend's cheek. "You got them on their knees though. It won't be much longer."
"I hope not," Gabrielle muttered, wiping at a streak of dirt on her knee absently. "Cause..."
Gabrielle released a breath, rolling her eyes. "'Cause these Egyptians are really getting on my nerves."
Xena chuckled. "Heroism comes at a cost, Gabrielle..."
The blonde scowled. "I'm not a hero."
"Uhuh," Xena drawled. "Whatever you say, great Sekhmet."
Gabrielle shot her friend a look. "Xena, that's not funny."
"Sure it is," Xena argued with a smirk. "Half of the population thinks you're the embodiment of the goddess of vengeance, Gabrielle. That's just plain funny."
"My lady!" The bushes rattled and a young boy in his early teens came rushing through, then he slid to a hasty halt as he spotted Gabrielle sitting up ahead. Quickly he dropped to his knees, touching his head to the ground. "Mighty One, the council begs for your presence at dinner to celebrate your latest victory."
Xena laughed. "See... Told you it was funny."
Gabrielle released a tired breath, then pushed herself to her feet. "Tell the council I'll be right over."
"Yes, Great One." The boy hastily scrambled back to his feet and took off again.
"Great One," Xena chortled. "That just always cracks me up..."
Gabrielle gazed down at her for a moment, her gaze hardening, then she turned around and strode off in the direction the boy had disappeared.
Xena frowned, then quickly scrambled to her feet, running after her friend. "Hey." She fell into pace beside the blonde. "I was just joking."
"Yeah, well, it's not funny." Gabrielle shot back, continuing her firm pace.
The warrior studied the angry woman for another moment, then she gently touched the blonde's shoulder, pulling her to a halt. "Hey?" Gabrielle refused to look at her, so she gently laid a finger against the bard's chin and helped her along a bit, until deep green eyes were gazing up at her through slightly narrowed eyelids. "I..." Xena took a breath. "I didn't realise this was bugging you so much." An apologetic look. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle held her gaze for another moment, then released a breath. "It's... It's not you," she murmured. "It's just..." A sigh. "It's hard, Xena... having people look up to me like this."
Xena wrapped an arm around her shoulder, hugging her a little as they continued on their way back to the Egyptian village. "The Roman raids here nearly destroyed these people, Gabrielle. And then you come walking in and send an entire army packing. Can you blame them, really?"
"No, guess not... It's just..." A light shrug. "I'm not used to being in the spotlight. That's...." A pause. "That was your spot."
Xena gently pulled the blond head closer, placing a kiss on top. "The rest of the world just never saw you before, because you had this armoured, leather-clad, dark-haired, infamous partner looming over your shoulder."
The bard chuckled, wrapping an arm around Xena's waist. "Yeah. And no matter how small my top got, they just wouldn't notice me."
Xena laughed softly.
"Not that I blame 'em," Gabrielle continued with a small smile, leaning her cheek against the warrior's shoulder. "Fact is, Xena, people were looking at you for a reason."
"Because I was wearing snug-fitting leather?"
"That too," Gabrielle grinned softly. "But also because... " A breath. "When we stepped into a room, even if it was in some foreign country where they had never heard of you, people would turn to you... because they knew, the moment you walked in that... that you were the hero."
Xena glanced down at the blonde head quietly for a moment. "And that you were 'just the sidekick'? Is that what you're saying?"
A light shrug.
Xena released a breath. "That is so not true," she then stated firmly "You've always been a hero, Gabrielle." A small smile. "You have always been my hero."
Green eyes peeked up at her at this. "I have?"
The warrior chuckled warmly. "Of course..." She ruffled the blond hair back affectionately. "C'mon Gabrielle, first time I saw you I'd had it with this world. It was cold and merciless and I was tired of it." She lifted a hand and gently touched her friend's cheek. "And then you came along and you changed all that. You gave me hope again." A smile. "And that's what heroes do, right?"
Gabrielle held her gaze for another moment, then she glanced down again, resting her head against Xena's shoulder. "I... I don't feel like a hero...."
Xena pulled her a little closer, laying her cheek against the blond locks. "You should. You're... you're more of a hero then I ever was, Gabrielle. I mean... just this situation you're in right now... with me dying." Xena gazed ahead pensively. "I could have never handled this as well as you have."
Gabrielle closed her eyes at the words, glad the warrior couldn't see the expression on her face. "You..." She swallowed. "You did the only thing you could do."
"I did." Xena agreed calmly. "But it wasn't an easy decision to make and I..." A breath. "I'm just glad you've accepted all this the way you have... 'cause... it would have really hurt me to see you hurt... you know?"
"Yeah..." Gabrielle bit her lip, making sure her voice didn't betray her. "Yeah, I know."
Dark brown eyes shot up as the door slammed open, and a figure stumbled inside. "Himiko?" The older man, dressed in a black kimono, pushed himself to his feet, placing his cane on the ground to support himself. "My dear child, what happened to you?"
"Grandfather," Himiko beamed a smile at him. "You will never believe...."
"Please tell me you didn't..." Her grandfather grumbled as he walked closer, the soft tapping of his cane sounding loudly through their silent home. "Tell me you did not go to Hojo."
Himiko dropped her head. "I had no choice. I need to find her."
The older man tossed up his free hand in anger. "You foolish girl."
Deep brown eyes lifted, held back anger drifting in their depths.
Her grandfather lifted a finger at her warningly. "I have told you many times already, we have no need for conflict with the Hojo tribe right now."
"Silence!" The older man lifted his voice sharply. "We are not warriors, Himiko, you know this. We're struggling as it is, I will not let you risk the lives of hundreds of people for a single child."
"She is my daughter!" Himiko shot back, her eyes flashing. "Your great granddaughter! Doesn't that matter to you?!"
"What matters to me is irrelevant! I need to lead this tribe and I ca..."
His speech turned into loud coughing, and he clutched at the handhold of his cane, his knuckles standing out sharply against his skin.
Himiko quickly reached out and grasped his shoulder, managing to steady him as she lead him back towards his chair. "Are you all right, Grandfather?"
The coughing slowly receded. "Of course I'm not..." The older man managed, as he seated himself slowly. "I'm dying."
Himiko closed her eyes. "Please don't say that."
Her grandfather looked up at her. "Your problem, my dear child, is that you refuse to accept the truth."
Himiko shook her head. "Grandfather...."
"No," the older man cut her off firmly. "You keep clinging to these ridiculous dreams of yours, but there are certain facts that we can not escape from. I will die, you will have to lead these people, and your child is gone." His eyes met hers sternly. "Not even the Kami can help us." He waved a hand at her. "Now go to your room." He turned away from her, reaching for a bit of paper and a quill. "I need to send an emissary to Hojo. Find out how much your little endeavour has cost us this time."
Himiko gazed at him for another moment, then she spun around and paced to her room, hastily closing the door behind her.
A sob shook her body. Himiko closed her eyes and bit her lip, trying to suppress her emotions. Her grandfather was a good man, but he was tired. His reign had been plagued by hunger, and evil spirits, and endless civil wars. He'd lost hope.
Himiko released a breath. But she hadn't. After all... She reached into a fold of her kimono, pulling the blade she'd found from its hiding place, holding it in her hands reverently. She had this.
She'd pleaded to the Kami and they'd heard her. They'd given her this weapon, and they had saved her. She let a hand slide over the blade pensively. Perhaps, they would hear her again...
Gabrielle pushed open the door to the building where the council resided. Servants looked up as she entered then hastily dropped to their knees. The bard tossed up both her hands in frustration, shooting a look skyward. "Why do you people keep doing that?!"
The servants shivered at her angry tone and bent their head so deep their forehead touched the floor.
"Oh, for the love of..." Gabrielle sucked in a breath, releasing it slowly in an attempt to calm herself. She forced herself to move forward and let the servants be, walking down the large marble corridor towards where she knew the dining hall was. The bard closed her eyes as relieved sighs drifted up behind her.
She'd tried to tell the people here they were mistaken. That she was not a god of any kind. She had countless scars to prove it, many had actually seen her bleeding just yesterday, from the few wounds she'd suffered in battle, but the people seemed to ignore all these clear signs of her mortality effortlessly.
It was a survival mechanism, Xena had told her. People would willingly blind themselves, would put all their belief in strange prophesies or old tales, just so they could have faith and keep going, no matter how bad things got.
Xena was right, of course. Xena would have just let these people believe and not cared in the slightest. Xena wouldn't have dreaded having a simple dinner with the council.
The bard ran a hand through her hair nervously. She hated this. She so hated being here. People were very kind, and they would smile at her and treat her with respect, but... but no one would just talk to her.
She felt lonely. Especially at these times, when Xena had gone for a moment. When Gabrielle had to spend some time in the company of others, Xena usually took off. The warrior easily got bored with just listening and this way Gabrielle also avoided having to explain why she kept talking to thin air.
It was just that she kept forgetting all the time. When Xena was around it just felt like... like before. And she'd just forget that this was now, and Xena was a ghost, and she would just start a conversation, like she always did and...
And people would look up at her, some in disgust at her idiocy, others, who knew who she was, with pity in their eyes. And people would whisper about her loss, and how her grief had driven her mad.
And she'd cringe as the memories resurfaced. The memories of that last sunset on mount Fuji, watching the sun sink beneath the horizon with her cheek resting against Xena's shoulder. Feeling that shoulder vanish all over again, leaving her with a sense of... utter loss.
Gabrielle sucked in a breath, closing her eyes and shaking off the memories. They could wait. Wait until nightfall and plague her dreams, as they always did. Now, she had business to attend to.
Gabrielle pushed open the double doors to the dining hall. Faces shot up as she strode in, then the group of men seated at the oval table hastily stood and bowed deeply.
There were four men and two women, all older of age, dressed in simple white robes. They were the city's elders, and though she knew very little of them all, since they hardly talked to her, she did know they were all good people, and good leaders also.
"Mighty One," a voice drawled, the speaker doing a lousy job at hiding his dislike at using the term. "It is such a... pleasure... to see you again."
Gabrielle glanced up to meet the eyes of the single man who had not bowed down to her. He was middle-aged, with a bald head, dressed in pristine white linen, a leopard's skin lying over his shoulders, the traditional outfit of the high priests in the area. "Nakthi." She managed a fake smile for him, which he returned with less sincerity.
"Yes, yes, a pleasure indeed." One of the elders, whom she'd come to know as Naeem, found the courage to look up at her. "Please, Blessed One, share with us this humble dinner."
Gabrielle headed for the table, a servant hastily dodging past her and running towards the chair at the head of the oval table, pulling it back for her.
Gabrielle seated herself, the men and women at the table following her example. Nakthi found himself forced to take up a seat at her left side, while Naeem sat at her right.
Soon enough servants came walking over and set plates in front of them all. "I hope you will enjoy this meal, Great One," Naeem said as he watched a young girl fill his glass with wine. "Our cooks have prepared for you the finest of delicacies."
Gabrielle poked her fork at a bit of half-raw, oddly curling meat and held it up in front of her. "Yippee," she muttered under her breath.
"Let us make a toast," Naeem continued, lifting up his now filled glass. "To the end of Roman Rule, at the hands of the Bringer of Vengeance."
Other wineglasses were lifted in an agreeing murmur.
Gabrielle hesitantly took a small sip of her own wine. "Did you uhm..." She gently swirled the liquid, watching the soft sunlight scatter off its surface. "... did you post the guards?"
"Of course," Naeem hastily nodded. "They are placed on the spots you indicated. And we've started the construction of the palisade and the watchtowers."
"Good," Gabrielle scooped up a bit of meat and ate it, then hastily took another swallow of wine.
"I have to say, Mighty One," Nakthi leaned back in his chair, his dark eyes watching her intently. "That I do not see why we need these things... With you looking over our city, do we need feeble wooden walls to protect us?"
The bard took a moment, then she lifted her head. "Yes, you do." She told him, her eyes drilling into his for another moment, before she returned her attention back to her wineglass. "You'll need them when I leave..."
"Leave?" Naeem gasped in shock.
"Leave?" Nakthi said also, but in a much happier tone. "You are leaving?"
Gabrielle folded her hands together, tensing her fingers. "It... It's time for me to move on."
"But... but..." Naeem stuttered. "Great One, have we done something to... to offend you? 'Cause if we have in anyway, I guarantee you we..."
Gabrielle hastily lifted her hands. "No, it's nothing you did, I just..." A breath. "There are other places that I need to travel to. I can't... I can't stay here forever."
Naeem bent his head sadly. "I... I guess we realised you would have to return to your home sooner or later."
Gabrielle managed a smile for him. "Yeah," she mumbled, sadness tainting her voice. "Home."
Her eyes caught the reddish glow in the window then and she gasped in a breath. "Oh my g..." She hastily got to her feet then headed for the door. "Excuse me."
"Mighty One?" Naeem jumped to his feet as well. "You are leaving now? At this very moment?"
"No, no," Gabrielle waved a hand at him over her shoulder. "Just something I have to do now."
She ran up the stairs two steps at a time, but halfway up a voice made her stop.
"So... you're just gonna leave your people to fend off an army by themselves?"
Gabrielle shot a look skyward, then turned. "They are not my people, Nakthi."
The high priest snorted. "I do not get what they see in you. It is obvious there's nothing divine about you."
"No, there's not," Gabrielle easily agreed. "And I never claimed there was, but people here won't listen to me."
"You're nothing but a fraud," Nakthi continued on with narrowed eyes. "You could make them listen, but you don't want to. You want to use their ignorance." His nose crinkled. "You're impure. Death clings to you."
Green eyes gazed into his, then Gabrielle shook her head. "No," she denied, then turned and headed up the steps. "I cling to death."
She ran the last few strides to the door of her room, hastily pushing it open and storming inside.
A soft chuckle drifted up from the shadows near the window. "You do know how to make an entrance, don't ya?"
Gabrielle produced a smile, hastily closing the door behind her. "I uhm... I got into a discussion downstairs." She walked closer and took up a spot near the window as well, resting her arms on the windowsill. "Sorry I'm late."
"That's okay." Xena leaned quietly against the wall, looking at the blonde's profile, outlined in the red light of the setting sun. "If... I mean, if you'd rather stay and talk to the council, you don't have to..."
"Don't be stupid," Gabrielle cut her off firmly, meeting the warrior's gaze. "This is more important than some boring dinner."
Blue eyes studied her calmly. "I'll be back tomorrow, Gabrielle."
"I know that," Gabrielle said softly, stepping a little closer and resting her cheek against Xena as the warrior's arm draped itself over her shoulder. "But I just... I wanna be here." A breath, as she forced the humour back into her voice. "Trust me, being with you beats being with my loyal worshippers anytime."
Xena chuckled softly, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "I'm glad you think so."
They stood for a moment in silence then, watching the sun slowly slide lower and lower, the edge of it gently touching the horizon. "Xena?" Gabrielle then spoke up, a touch of hesitation in her voice.
"Do you..." A breath. "Do you remember what day it is tomorrow?"
Xena felt a small smile creeping onto her lips. "How could I forget?"
"I just..." Her friend shrugged lightly. "I didn't know if you wanted to celebrate this year... because of...well... everything."
Xena pulled back a little, and Gabrielle found herself forced to look up and gaze into those startling blue eyes. "Gabrielle, how many of these anniversaries have we managed to celebrate in the last thirty-one years?"
"Three." Gabrielle couldn't suppress a smirk. "But I don't think you should be counting the twenty-five years asleep."
Xena waved a finger at her. "Of course they count. We were together, weren't we?"
The bard rolled her eyes. "We were, but..."
"Well, then," Xena cut her short before she could finish uttering her objections. "So that's three years out of thirty-one in total." The warrior shot her a look. "Now, do you really think I wanna skip another year, just because I'm dead?"
Gabrielle dropped her head, her eyes fluttering shut as she felt a gentle hand placed on her head comfortingly. "Gabrielle, if this is hard for you, I..." Xena started, hesitantly.
"Don't be silly," the bard looked up at her, a warm smile on her face. "I'm fine. You shouldn't worry about me."
Xena managed a half smile at this. "Sorry. Just can't help myself." She reached out a hand to push aside a lock of blond hair, then gave in to the need to close the space between them and stepped forward, feeling Gabrielle respond instantly and wrap both her arms around her waist. Xena pulled the blond head closer, resting her cheek against the soft locks.
They stood for a moment, soaking up the closeness in silence. Gabrielle shifted a little, looking out the window at the soft rays which sloped over the land. The sun had been reduced to a bright red, half circle.
"I know this little oasis, not too far." Xena's voice drifted into her ear. "Figured we could go there, maybe... relax...."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, letting the soft light paint the insides of her eyelids red. "I'd like that."
"Good." Xena mumbled softly. "I'll lead you there then. You just make sure you're ready first thing tomorrow." A pause. "And ditch the Egyptians."
This got a wry chuckle from the blonde. "Deal."
Xena smiled, then drew her eyes away from the head tucked against her shoulder and looked out the window to see the top of the sun dipping below the horizon. A soft tickling sensation started at her feet, then slowly spread through her body. A smile worked its way onto her face as she felt the pull the other side had on her gently tug at her. And she allowed it to lead her away.
Gabrielle felt the body in her arms slowly fading and she pushed her eyes shut tightly, making the shimmering red behind her eyelids fade into pitch-black darkness.
"Good night, Gabrielle." A ghostly voice trickled into her ear, just as the woman in her arms disappeared altogether.
Gabrielle stood at the window for another long silent moment, before she slowly forced herself to open her eyes. Her arms moved through the empty air, where Xena had stood only moments before, and wrapped themselves around her own body. Gabrielle bit her lip as she took in the sight of the twilight descending over the Egyptian landscape. "Night."
Dark clouds were drifting over her home village. Himiko glanced up as she walked with hasty steps through the quiet streets. The approaching storm had everyone huddled inside. An older woman was the only one still out, hastily collecting clothes off the line she'd left them to dry on.
Himiko moved on, one hand clutched around the hilt of the sword she held hidden in the folds of her kimono. She'd snuck out of the room through the window, not wanting to anger her grandfather any further by having him know she was disobeying his orders.
She just had to try. She had to.
The first drops of rain started to fall as she passed under the torii, the arch that marked the path towards the temple. Thunder rolled overhead as she ran up the few steps leading up to the octagonal building and hastily pulled open the door, stepping inside just before the rain started to pour down in earnest.
She stood in the doorway for a moment, watching the rain splatter on the pebbled path she'd just walked over. The storm had broken suddenly and without any warning, ringing in the early start of the fall.
Was it an omen? Himiko stood doubtfully for a moment, considering this. Was this the forces of nature warning her, that what she was about to do was wrong?
A bright flash lit up the sky, illuminating the outline of her small village for just a moment. Himiko's eyes saddened at the sight of the shaky buildings and the badly thatched roofs.
It was a fishing village she lived in, a small place, with no more than a few hundred inhabitants. Officially they were an independent village, a neutral zone, not belonging to any of the lords of Jappa. In reality though, their independence was a fa┴ade, only maintained by the high sums her grandfather paid to the warlords in the surrounding villages to keep the peace. Their whole family fortune had been given away to these daimyos, warlords. But their funds were now nearly depleted, and it would not be long before they would be unable to pay the fees asked.
And Himiko knew all too well what would happen then. The daimyos were... masters of persuasion. Every single one held something to use against them. The lord Arai laid claim to a town on the shore north of her village, and his ships could sail southwards at any time and take down the undefended fishing boats, depleting them of their only source of income. The lord Miyoki, to the south, guarded the route that led to a neighbouring village with which they traded and could cut off their way at any time. And lord Nishi, the lord of Hojo and father of Genyo... He had the best bargaining chip of all. He had her daughter.
Himiko closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath of the damp air. "I would do it alone," she whispered to the spirits around her. "I would, but... I'm not strong enough." She opened her eyes again, watching the rain get blown sideways. "I need help."
The wind howled softly as it spun its way through the trees.
Himiko squared her shoulders, then closed the door behind her and turned around to face the temple area. A few candles placed on metal contraptions dangling from the ceiling illuminated the room. The space was mostly bare, except for the small altar in the centre. It was octagonally shaped as well and was cut from simple wood, rough decorations carved along four of its sides.
Himiko stepped closer, her footsteps echoing loudly though the empty space. As she walked she pulled the sword she'd found from its hiding place, balancing it on the palms of both her hands reverently. "I tried to save her myself, but I can't." She stopped in front of the altar, then carefully placed the sword on top. The surface was only just big enough for the metal to lay on, the edges of the altar only an inch from the tip of the weapon's hilt and another from the point of the blade. Himiko took a step back and bent her head. "I'm hoping maybe you can...."
The grass rustled softly beneath her bare feet as Xena headed for the large, old tree that stood near the small stream that trickled through the landscape. The sound of the flowing water was soothing and she let it wash the last stains of the pain-filled world below away.
She never felt troubled when she was with Gabrielle during the day, but... but coming here after nightfall, it was like... like sitting down after a long day and only then realising how tiring it had been.
Being with the bard was wonderful, of course, and she wouldn't trade her time with Gabrielle for the world, but ghosts were not meant to walk the earth and doing so anyway....
There were side effects. Tiredness, mostly, but that didn't bother her. What did, however, was the gnawing feeling she felt only when she came back to the afterlife, an uneasiness, drifting around her like constant whispering.
The whispering would fade soon after she'd returned though. Returned to this field where everything was peaceful and calm.
Xena enjoyed the warmth the light was spreading through her. She never thought she would be able to stand this... quietness. She had always been restless, driven. She'd often led Gabrielle to the brink of insanity, ignoring the bard's insistence she had to stop and smell the flowers or meditate or do something else that could provide her with any internal stillness.
Now however... Xena sucked in a breath tinted with the smell of fresh flowers. She smiled as a soft breeze trickled past her, toying with the fabric of her red robes. Now she revelled in the quietness and the tenseness, which had always been a part of her, evaporated.
Xena looked up at the familiar voice, her smile widening as she spotted the figure sitting in the shadow of the tree, waving at her. Akemi was sitting on the embankment, her feet placed in the water, the flowing liquid circling around the limbs with a soft gurgling. The warrior walked over to her, settling down beside the girl, placing her feet in the water as well.
"You're late," Akemi accused, with a small grin to take the sting from the words.
Xena smiled as she kicked her feet at the water. "Busy day today."
"Ah, yes..." Akemi leaned back on her hands, watching the warrior's profile. "The battle was last night, correct?"
"Did she win?"
Xena tried to repress the proud smirk, but did a lousy job. "Of course."
Akemi chuckled softly. "Foolish of me to even ask." She faced forward again, watching the other people seated on the field, listening to the sound of children playing as they chased each other through the high grass. "She is a great warrior, your friend. I always knew you would be a great teacher."
Xena let herself fall back, folding her hands under her head as she gazed up at the bright blue skies. "Nah. Didn't do much. Gabrielle's a natural."
"Of course," the girl drawled, clearly not buying a single word.
Xena turned her head alittle, shooting her a look. "She is. I mean, I taught her some tricks, sure, but that's nothing. She got the hang of sword fighting like this." The warrior snapped her fingers, as she returned her gaze at the sky. "And when she got the basics worked out she just came up with all these new moves. I could only just hold my own against her when we were sparring last time, ya know?"
Akemi let her friend babble on about the blonde tolerantly. "She is very special."
"Yeah," Xena smiled softly. She paused for a moment, her fingers absently tugging loose a stalk of grass. "Tomorrow it's exactly thirty-one years after we first met."
Akemi cocked her head at this. "Really?"
"Yeah." Xena drew circles over her palm with the tip of the torn plant. "We never got to celebrate last year, cause I put on the ring and forgot who she was and she fell asleep and got stuck in this eternal flame for a year."
Akemi blinked at her. "Right..."
Xena smirked. "Long story."
"No doubt," the girl murmured, shaking her head a little.
"Anyway, we didn't get to celebrate, again, so I'm really looking forward to this year," the warrior continued, sticking the stalk of grass in her mouth. "With me being dead and not leading us into harm's way, we might actually have a chance at that this year... ironically enough."
Akemi considered this all for a moment. "When you met her... was it like when we met? You told me once you saved her too, right?"
Xena chewed on her bit of grass pensively. "It was similar, I guess. I did save her and..." A smile. "She knew I would let her come with me, like you did." A shrug. "I never thought about that though, when I met her." She spared the girl beside her an apologetic look. "I'd pushed all the memories of you away, 'cause they hurt too bad."
Akemi dropped her head. "I did not think of you either... because of the guilt I felt."
Xena looked at the bent figure, then reached out, gently touching her friend's shoulder. "Akemi, you shouldn't feel guilty."
"I condemned you," Akemi mumbled, uneasily. "Higuchi burned, because of me, because of what I asked of you. You died because of what I asked of you."
Xena released a breath, then lifted a hand to touch the girl's chin and lift her head so their eyes would meet. "Akemi, I've wandered around for years, looking for... for something I could say or do, to make up for all the bad stuff I did. And every time I'd slay another foe, or correct another wrong and for a moment I'd think: 'That was it. That was the one thing I had to do, the last thing I had to set right.'" Xena managed a wry smile. "But it never was. Every time some other dark thing from my past would pop up and I'd have to get up and move on. Until now."
Akemi looked up at her, unsure, her dark eyes searching Xena's.
"When I look back at everything now... when I remember those years of wandering after Cortese... Chin, Jappa, the Amazons...." Xena smiled back at her, warmly. "It doesn't hurt anymore. Thinking back, I feel... sad still, that so many lives were lost, but... it doesn't hurt like it used to. The voices that used to plague me, turn my dreams into nightmares... they're gone." The warrior laid her hand against Akemi's cheek. "I found peace here. And I thank you for that."
Akemi managed a small smile at this. "I said the Kami would give you peace once. I am glad I was right."
Xena wrapped an arm around her shoulder, hugging the girl to her happily. "So am I."
"I'm no priestess," Himiko placed a small bowl of rice on the altar, next to the sword. "And I... I know it's not my place to call on you." She tentatively added a small vase with a twig with fresh, green and white leaves. "But I don't know where else to turn."
She took a step back and fell to her knees, bowing her head. "My grandfather... He's lost faith. My people have too. We are trapped between three powerful lords and it won't be long before we anger one and he will strike out. And anyone who looks at our position reasonably, would say we are doomed. That there is no escape from this." Himiko glanced up. "But I can't believe that, because..." A breath. "Because I don't want to die. I want to see my daughter again and hold her and...." Himiko swallowed, trying to steady her voice again. "I have too much to live for to let go. And there are many here, like me, who have so much to live for as well and..." She closed her eyes. "You saved me today. Whoever you are. I beg of you, please... Please, help me again."
Xena frowned as a voice shivered through the air, only barely audible. "Did you hear that?"
Akemi glanced up at her. "What?"
"Whispering," Xena mumbled pensively, pushing herself to her feet. "Real soft. Don't you hear?"
Akemi took a moment to listen, hearing the gurgling of the water and the cheerful voices of children, but nothing out of the ordinary. "Perhaps it is the wind?"
The warrior shook her head softly. "No... No, not the wind. It's...."
She gasped in a breath then, her legs giving way suddenly, sending her tumbling to the ground.
Akemi hastily crawled closer, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Xena? Xena, what's wrong?"
Xena's breathing was ragged, and she stared ahead of her with wide eyes. "There's..." She weakly lifted a hand, pointing at the empty space in front of her. "It's dark. Inside. A person kneeling."
"Xena?" A hint of panic was tainting Akemi's voice now. "What are you talking about? There is no dark here. No one kneeling."
Xena didn't hear her though, she was just gazing at the hand she had pointed forward. One moment, it was there, right in front of her, she could see the skin, but the next... It was gone.
The hand became visible again, in a flicker, then disappeared once more.
Blue eyes lifted and Akemi was shocked to find fear lingering in the depth of them. "Help me," the warrior pleaded in a pained voice. "Please, help me."
Lightning flashed, crackling through the air. The storm was on top of her now, rain clattering against the roof of the temple, deafeningly loud. Himiko pressed her eyes shut, trying to block the raging elements out. "Come to me, Kami. Please." She was yelling, trying desperately to top the noise around her. "I cannot do this alone, I have tried, you know I have, but I can't." A tear spilled from her eye and sidled down her cheek. "Please... Please, come to me."
A sudden loud crash behind her had her jumping to her feet. The strong wind had overpowered the lock on the door and had smacked the wooden thing to bits. A strong gust of cold air forced its way in, blowing out the flames lighting up the small space. The room turned pitch dark in a single instant.
Himiko's eyes grew wide as fear overtook her. She'd angered the Kami. How could she have been so foolish as to even try to ask for their help?
The roll of thunder was so loud the stones under her feet trembled. She fell to her knees, staring ahead of her, numbly waiting for what was about to come.
There was a moment of silence, filled with only the pattering of the rain, then lighting illuminated the room for just an instant, but in that instant... Her breathing stopped when she realised what it was the lightning had revealed in that single second.
A naked, curled up, body lying on the temple floor.
Battle sounds sidled between the trees towards her, circling around her. Gabrielle jumped over a fallen log, then increased her pace even more.
She would be fast enough this time. She had to be fast enough.
It wasn't far anymore. She'd run across this stretch of land thousands of times now. Night after night after night... Just a few more paces, Gabrielle knew, and then she'd enter the clearing. Three paces. Two... One...
An arrow snapped into the ground before her but she jumped over it without even flinching, running on up to the solitary figure she could see fighting just up ahead, holding back an entire army single-handedly. "Xena!"
Xena turned around, calmly, seemingly not worrying about the army storming towards her anymore. She was drenched in blood and there were broken arrow shafts sticking from her shoulder and stomach. Behind her a samurai dismounted his horse.
Gabrielle sucked in a breath. "Xena, look out! He'll kill you, stop him!"
Blue eyes watched her quietly. "I can't." Xena said softly, not even bothering to look behind her, where the samurai now lifted his sword. "I can't anymore." Dim sunlight flashed off the metal as it slid through the air, downward. "You were too late to help me."
With a gasp Gabrielle awoke, finding herself sitting up straight in her bed, sweat liberally drenching her.
She closed her eyes tightly, trying to get rid of the nausea that twisted its way through her stomach. She lifted both her hands, hiding her face in them for a moment, before letting them slide back through her scattered locks, salt sticking to her hair.
It was still dark out, just a few moments before sunrise. Gabrielle pushed herself off the bed and trudged into the bathroom, stopping beside a water pump hanging over a small wooden basin. She grabbed onto the lever with one hand and moved it back and forward a few times, until water came from the tap, drips at first, but soon it became a powerful spray.
She stuck her head under the outpour of liquid, letting the cold water soak her hair and flow over her face to finally drip off the tip of her nose. She straightened then, tossing her head back, drops freeing themselves from the entanglement with her hair and catapulting across the room. The blonde sucked in a deep breath, running a hand over her face to wipe the water, threatening to slip into her eyes, away.
The water had filled the basin and as she looked down the surface calmed and she could see her own face reflected back to her. She winced at the tired visage. Her eyes were red and puffy and dark shadows lingered under them. Gabrielle released a breath, then knelt down beside the basin and scooped up two handfuls off water, pressing them against her eyes.
She always woke up just a bit before dawn, to give herself a few moments to get herself together before Xena came. Xena couldn't know, after all...
Gabrielle reached for a nearby towel, pressing it up against her face. Xena was happy now. She was at peace for the first time in the thirty-one years they'd known each other. Really, fully at peace. Gabrielle had seen that, those last moments on mount Fuji. The calm that had settled over her friend, the content smile... Right there, Xena had found her redemption. And that's why Gabrielle had waited for the sun to set. Not because of those forty thousand spirits, not because of the greater good...
Xena deserved this. This happiness. The bard drew in a breath, letting air slip through her dry throat with a soft rasp. And she wasn't going to wreck that for her. She wasn't going to wreck that by letting Xena know about her nightmares, or how she'd gaze up at the night sky sometime and would automatically find pictures hiding in the stars and then cringe as she realised she had no one to share them with.
Gabrielle rose to her feet, flinging the towel into a corner as she walked back into her bedroom, pulling open the top of a large chest. Several pristine white tunics lay folded in the centre. They'd been gifts from the Egyptians, along with a set of matching bracers and anklets, with several lions circling around the metal. Gabrielle selected a tunic with one hand, collecting the bits of armour with her other, then turned and placed all the items on her bed.
She stripped off her sleep shirt, then pulled on the tunic. The linen smelled clean, a hint of some Egyptian oil clinging to it. Gabrielle straightened the fabric with her hands for a moment, then she reached for the bracers. She pushed open the catch with her thumb, then wrapped it around her left wrist. The cold metal sent a shiver up her arm for a moment, but soon it warmed to her skin.
Gabrielle lifted a finger and traced a lion's tail engraved in the bracer. She'd gotten so used to this. To wearing armour, to protect herself from getting hurt. Her nail slid over manes. Yet it seemed the more armour she wore, the more capable she got of defending herself... the more she got hurt.
A dim beam of sunlight hit the metal then, which reflected the soft reddish glow. Gabrielle's head shot up to look out the window to see the sun peeking out over the horizon. "Darn," she cursed, as she hastily grabbed for the second bracer and clipped it on her other wrist. She secured both anklets simultaneously, then stood again and hastily straightened the fabric of her tunic. "Getting sloppy there, Gab," she scolded herself, as she hastily ordered her damp locks with a ruffle of her hand. "No little detours down depression alley, remember. Not gonna do you any good. It's gonna be a good day." She sucked in a breath, then released it slowly. "Good day... So be happy."
Meanwhile the sun had risen higher and higher. The light had turned from a deep red to a light orange to a nice deep yellowish colour and was becoming brighter still. Gabrielle walked over to the window, her bare feet soundless on the stone tiles. She placed a hand on the windowsill, then let her head rest against the stone wall as she watched the sun's ascending.
She closed her eyes, letting the light warm her face as she waited. Waited for Xena's presence. She'd gotten quite sure she could feel the warrior now, could feel her the moment she showed up. A tingle would pass down her spine and she'd know Xena was behind her, without turning around and looking, without a touch or a word. She'd just know.
So she stood silently, waiting as the light reaching her eyes through her closed eyelids became brighter and brighter until...
Gabrielle frowned, then opened her eyes, blinking a few times before she could focus on the golden disk which had now fully risen above the horizon. "Xena?" She turned around, her eyes quickly sweeping over the room. It was empty. "Xena?" She took a step forward. "Come on, we gotta leave to see that oasis of yours, remember?"
The blonde waited a moment for a response. There was none. "Xena, this isn't funny," she tried in an annoyed voice, but still nothing happened.
A feeling was creeping up on her now, a feeling she realised had been stirring since she'd woken up. A restlessness she'd blamed on her nightmares. But it was a different feeling this time, an.... incompleteness. "Something's wrong," Gabrielle murmured softly to herself, as she turned slowly, darting another look out the window. "Something is very wrong. Isn't it?"
A gust of wind drifted in at her words, pushing back her hair, whispering softly.
"Help me...", the voice from her dreams echoed.
Gabrielle gasped in a breath, her eyes widening in shock. She stood for a moment, staring ahead of her blankly. Then she turned for the door and started running.
Thunder rolled, shaking the ground she was lying on. A gust of wind hit her bare back, then circled around her, chilling her.
Xena shivered, curling herself into a tighter ball to try and shield herself from the cold. She wasn't supposed to feel cold. Why was she cold? How could she be cold?
A flash of lightning lit up the room then, and she suddenly realised, when the flash had faded, that it was dark around her. She opened her eyes and found she couldn't see a single thing.
Her eyes weren't used to the darkness. For the past few months there had been only light around her. As soon as night settled over the earth she would disappear after all, and go to the world of the Japanese spirits.
So why were things dark now? What was this place? Xena's eyes darted from left to right, trying to make out anything that could help her pinpoint her location. This darkness, was this the Japanese equivalent of Tartarus? Was this Hell?
The wind brushed over her once again, but there was a whispering in its depths this time, and as it brushed over her ear, she could make out the hushed words.
"Do you remember Cirra?"
Her breathing stopped at the sound of the voice she could only barely hear.
A sudden touch against her shoulder then. She hastily scrambled back on her hands and feet to get away, until she was pressed up against a wall and could flee no further.
Through the dark she could see the outline of what had to be a girl, falling to her knees in front of her and bending her head deeply. "Forgive me, Kami," the girl said. "I did not mean to anger you. I only wished to see if you were well."
Xena gazed at her with wide eyes for a long moment. "Who.... Who are you?"
The girl peeked up, a little insecurely. "I am Himiko. Granddaughter of Matsuo, leader of the village of Onaka."
"Onaka," Xena repeated softly, still not understanding. "That's near Higuchi. Jappa." She shook her head a little. "Gabrielle is not in Jappa. How can I be...?" She stopped then and looked up at the girl again, slightly alarmed now. "You can see me?"
Himiko blinked. "Of course I can, Kami... Why would I not?" The girl then dropped her eyes to the ground again hastily. "You wish for me to look away. I understand. I should not look at you while you are..." She considered her words for a moment. "...present in your purest form."
Xena frowned. "Purest f..." She glanced down, then blinked. "Oh... right..."
"You... you must be cold," Himiko continued, hastily scrambling to her feet, while keeping her eyes respectfully diverted. "I... I'm sure the priests keep some spare garments here that you could wear," she murmured, then turned and started for the other side of the temple.
Xena lifted both her hands and gazed at them for a moment. Her hands. Her body. She reached over with one hand and pinched a bit of skin on her arm. She winced at the jolt of pain that followed.
Pain. Xena let her fingers trail over the skin pensively. Pain and cold and...
"Do you remember Cirra?"
Xena swallowed, closing her eyes.
The chaos of a burning village. A woman's pained scream. A child, fearfully crying out for its mother. Her men brushed by her as they ran away from the flames. A girl stood in front of a burning building close by, staring back at her blankly, her eyes empty. Soulless.
Xena's eyes snapped open again and the visions faded. The voices remained though, hushed whispering. "What's happening to me?" Xena whispered back in a raspy voice. "Why am I here? How can I be...?"
A roar of thunder was her answer, followed by another flash of lightning. The bright flash reflected off metal and Xena's eyes were drawn to the small altar in the centre of the room.
She pushed herself to her feet slowly, her eyes fixed on the blade now, barely visible through the darkness. She took a pace closer carefully, but then stopped suddenly as the whispering around her intensified just a fraction. Her name drifting on the wind.
After a moment she took another step closer, ignoring the increased whispering as she took another and another until she was standing in front of the altar. Thunder again, and another flash, which shimmered on in the metal of the scarred blade, even after the light had faded again.
Xena reached out a shaking hand, lowering it slowly until the tips of her fingers touched upon the blade.
The feel of the dagger she was holding cutting through flesh. The crack of bones as her feet snapped against an unprotected back. The feel of warm blood covering her hands and face.
With a cry of pain, Xena fell back, both her hands grabbing for her head as the sudden crystal clear images flooded her.
I will make you, the Destroyer of Nations... The sword spoke tauntingly with Alti's scratchy voice. Destroyer of Nations...
"Stop it," Xena managed in a choked whisper. "Stop it. Please. Please, stop it."
Himiko looked up at the pained cry, then hastily ran closer to the fallen woman, clinging to the robes she'd found. She fell to her knees beside the woman, and not knowing what else to do she draped the robes around her shoulders.
Before she knew what was happening she was lying flat on her back with Xena crouching over her, blue eyes flashing dangerously mere inches from hers. "You did this to me!" Xena hissed. "You did this!"
Himiko hastily shook her head. "No, Kami, I only prayed for... ah!" the girl choked as an arm pressed against her throat, making it impossible to breathe.
"Don't lie to me!" Xena yelled at the top of her voice, managing to overpower the thunder and the lashing of the rain on the roof. "You did this to me! Undo it!"
Himiko tried to gasp for breath desperately. "I..." She managed, but could get no further.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?! They..." Xena tightened her hold even more. "They need me to avenge them! You have to undo this! Now!"
Himiko gazed up with frightened wide eyes.
Fear. Xena blinked a few moments, gazing down at the small figure. She'd seen it before, in the eyes of countless victims. Countless... Countless victims.
Hastily she backed away, scrambling to her feet. "I..." She sucked in a breath. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to... I..." She turned then and made her way out of the temple door with uneven steps.
Himiko quickly got back to her feet, rubbing her throat as she gazed after the woman. She hesitated for a moment, but it was only a short moment, before she hastily darted out after her. "Wait!"
Xena strode on, seemingly oblivious of the rain.
"Please, wait!" Himiko called out again. "I'm sorry if I angered you, Kami." Her foot got caught under a protruding root and she stumbled, then fell to her knees with a sloshing of mud and water. She felt tears welling up. "Forgive me, please! I only wished to save my daughter!"
Xena stopped suddenly at these words. After a moment she turned slowly, looking at the huddled young girl. "Daughter?"
"Yes." Himiko gazed up at her pleadingly. "She was taken from me when she turned two by a warlord's son. I have tried to find her and bring her back, but he is strong and I'm not." Himiko bent her head deeply. "I need help. That... that's why I prayed. That's why you came." A breath. "You're my last hope."
Xena gazed down at her for a long silent moment, as the rain poured down on them both. "I'm sorry," she then said, barely audible over the rain, before turning around and continuing down the path. "I can't help you."
It was a pleasant dream. Nakthi smiled broadly as he watched the people bow before him, thanking him incessantly for exposing the fraud claiming to be of divine blood. He just had Naeem dragged off towards the dungeons, kicking and screaming. That had been very pleasant to watch indeed.
There was a tap against his shoulder, but he ignored it. Whoever it was could wait. Right now he had a right to just sit here and enjoy his moment of victo....
"Waaah!" Nakthi eyes flew opened wide as cold liquid splashed into his face. "What the...!" He pushed himself up, his eyes darting across the room anxiously until they finally settled on his attacker. They narrowed. "You!"
"Me." Gabrielle wiggled a now empty mug at him, then tossed it onto his bed next to him. "I need to speak with you."
"You may speak with me later!" Nakthi shot back furiously, pulling the sheets up around him. "What right have you to come barging into my room at this hour?!"
The blonde rolled her eyes. "I don't have time for this with you," she warned him in a growl, taking a step towards him.
"Well, we are finally agreeing then. We both have no time for this," the priest retorted smugly, crossing his arms over the blankets. "So you can leave now and let me... Argh!"
He gurgled as a hand wrapped around his throat and lifted him up effortlessly. He glanced down with wide brown eyes, to meet piercing green drilling into him.
"Now pay close attention," Gabrielle growled. "I came here because I need your help to get out of here. You want to get rid of me. I think it's in both our best interests if you shut your trap and started co-operating. Don't you agree?"
Nakthi opened his mouth to speak, then felt the hold around his throat tighten just a bit. He hastily nodded his head.
"There we go...." Gabrielle released her grip, dropping him back on his bed gracelessly. "I knew we'd come to an agreement. Who says talking gets you nowhere these days, hmm?"
Nakthi rubbed his throat, shooting her a foul look. "What is it you want me to do?"
The woman crossed her arms. "I want you to help me pass over to the afterlife."
Nakthi gazed at her for a moment, then a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Well, well...." He rubbed his hands together expectantly. "Why didn't you say that in the first place?"
The rain had turned to hail now, beating against her skin and the soft cloth of the black kimono Himiko had slung over her shoulders. Pine needles stung her bare feet as she walked on.
She'd numbly calculated whereabouts Egypt had to be and had headed off in that direction. A part of her brain had scolded her for that, pointing out how ridiculous it was trying to walk to Egypt. She was on an island, for one... But the rest of her rational thinking was too occupied with the chaos of her thoughts to notice this bit of logic.
She felt cold, pain, people could see her... She was alive. Somehow, some way, she was alive...
"Burn the village..."
Xena closed her eyes, swallowing as memories of some other killing spree fluttered up and made her cringe. Gods, it hurt so bad. The hail, the stings against her feet, they meant nothing, but the pain in her head, in her heart, they were excruciating.
How could she ever have thought she'd found redemption? How could she have thought that saving forty thousand souls would be enough? It wasn't enough... it would never be enough... Never....
"I happen to enjoy a good killing."
A tear sidled down her cheek and she made no effort to wipe it away.
It would be morning now, in Egypt. Gabrielle would wonder where she was. They were supposed to celebrate today after all. For the first time in several years.
Another tear. Xena closed her eyes and just walked on blindly. She'd been right, in that first moment when she'd just arrived in the temple. She'd been right.
This was Hell.
Lost in her pondering she didn't see the protruding root of a tree in the middle of her path and her foot was caught under it, sending her stumbling several paces forward. A tree stood in her way and her shoulder harshly collided with the rough bark, sending a jolt of pain through her body.
A deep growl escaped her throat and angrily she slammed her fist against the tree trunk. The wood cracked audibly, even over the noise of the hail and the wind and the thunder.
"A new Xena is born tonight, with a new purpose in life... Death."
Xena pounded her fist against the tree again. "Stop it! Stop torturing me!" Her knuckles impacted with the bark once more. "I don't want to be here! She forced me! She forced me somehow! I didn't...." She choked, then her knees gave way and she let herself sag onto the ground, the wet earth sloshing as her legs sank into the mud. She bent her head, hiding her face in her hands. "I just wanna go back," she whispered then, on a pained breath. "I shouldn't be here. I don't want to be here." She shifted a little, wanting to curl up into an even tighter ball, but a sudden jolt of pain shooting up from her knee stopped her.
She pulled up her knee, gazing disorientatedly at the trickle of red seeping down her skin. Blood. Xena reached out and touched the cut, then winced as the movement sent another blast of pain down the limb. The cut seemed quite deep. Xena looked at it for another moment, then looked past the leg at the mud. She lifted her hand, prying into the mud with her fingers, until finally they touched upon something solid. Carefully she lifted it up.
A small piece of rock lay in the palm of her hand. Apparently it had only recently been broken off a bigger chunk, because the edge of it was thin and sharp.
Xena gazed at the stone for a moment, letting the fingers of her other hand gently trace the rough material. "I shouldn't be here," she breathed again, before she lifted the rock and laid it sharp edge against her wrist. "I don't have to be here..."
To be Continued in Part II
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