Friend In Need Part III

by W. Brad Danbrook

Disclaimers: The usual...


The expansive blue ocean seemed to stretch out endlessly before her. The waters danced with the rays of a brilliant orange sunset. A solitary figure traveled alone. Gabrielle floated along with a powerful image of Xena’s ghost sitting beside her. Her small craft drifted aimlessly forward. She had so very much to say to her beloved soul mate, she hardly knew where to begin. Gabrielle looked wistfully at the slowly darkening purple sky. She turned quickly to address a question to Xena. "Xena, I never did…" Her words were cut short. The image in her mind of Xena had disappeared into nothingness, like smoke in the wind. Gabrielle reached out her hand to feel the air where Xena had sat. Nothing but her own memories remained, that, and the urn which contained Xena’s ashes. After the stunning events of that day, Gabrielle had thought that she could feel no more pain. Suddenly her overwrought frame seized up in a paroxysm of emotion. Gabrielle’s body buckled over onto the boat’s bottom. Her collapse was absolute. She cried out in utter despair, "God, Xena…how could you do this to me? How do you expect me to carry on? I’m not as strong as you…I never was! Oh Xena…Xena…. Xena, please come back to me…I’ll do anything. I don’t care about how many souls must die. I need you, I can’t live without you! I love you Xena!" Gabrielle’s body shook with despair. Her plaintive wailing was carried away on the ocean’s breath. She cried with a fervor beyond anything she had experienced before. Gabrielle was well acquainted with loss. After losing Perdicus, Joxer, Hope and indeed her won very innocence, she had believed that an immunity had developed-that her heart had scared over. Gabrielle was changed that moment in ways more powerful than those that had come before. Something of the twinkle that shone from her warm eyes faded. The radiant smile, which could brighten the darkest of days, was dimmed. Gabrielle was visibly hardened by Xena’s tragic death. She was still the Bard from Potedia, and yet in many ways her ebullient spirit had been extinguished. Gabrielle was galvanized by the experience of Xena’s demise.

Her mind was utterly blank. She feared that the slightest effort at thought would bring the painful feelings rushing back. Without her intrepid partner, Gabrielle was lost. She had not realized until that moment how much Xena’s hopeless quest for redemption was such a vital part of her own life. An emptiness bordering upon the catatonic occupied Gabrielle’s spirit. A part of her understood why it was that Xena had felt the need for self-sacrifice. Yet another part of Gabrielle, this new aspect of her being, felt cheated by Xena’s demise. She no longer cared about the reasons for Xena’s death, she only wanted her love back, at any cost. A self-absorbed, dark spirit seemed to cloud Gabrielle’s better judgment. After countless hours spent drifting aimlessly towards the west, her mind slowly began to awaken from its torpor. The sky had grown black, speckled with infinity of twinkling stars. The waves rocked the boat gently as Gabrielle stared upwards at the magnificent night sky. She wondered if Xena was looking down on her that moment, from one of those flickering lights. She whispered up into the air, "Goodnight Xena, wherever you are, I don’t know how, but someday we will be together again…" Gabrielle’s face was softened by the slightest of smiles. She dreamt of Xena that night, of their adventures, their struggles, and their love. The tiny boat continued to drift westward.

Gabrielle’s sleep was arrested by a loud crash. Her body instantly bolted upright. Instinctively she cried out, "Xena, look…" She stopped herself in mid-sentence. Gabrielle stared up to see a large ocean-going ship. It was of an unusual design, crafted of strange wood and ornately decorated. A dark turbaned head peered over the side of the ship. Gabrielle looked up to see an older East Indian man toss down a rope ladder to her. Carefully collecting her few belongings from her boat, she decided to make her way up to the ship. With another rope, she secured her boat to the side of the larger vessel. As she made her way over the side onto the deck, she was met by a wide assortment of burly sailors. Some wore brightly coloured turbans and had weathered brown faces. Others in the motley crew were younger and oriental, wearing long intricately embroidered capes. There were several older men of Greek heritage. One face amongst the throng stared in amazement at the beautiful young woman. Gabrielle looked at the middle-aged, distinguished face in utter disbelief. "No…it couldn’t be…" A faint smile brightened her sad expression. The salty sailor looked back in dumbfounded shock. "Gabrielle? I thought…you, Xena…" Gabrielle’s face sank slightly at the mention of Xena. "Autolycus…" She rushed toward her old friend and threw her arms around him. Autolycus was overwhelmed by the unexpected display of affection. "Gabrielle…I can’t believe it’s you…but why are you so…young….and where’s Xena?" His words were met by Gabrielle’s tearful silence. She was incapable of speech. He carefully continued, "What’s wrong? Did something happen to Xena?" Gabrielle simply sunk her head and nodded slowly. She stammered out a response with great difficulty, "she…she’s gone…." Autolycus had aged much since their last meeting. His hair had thinned and grayed. Deep lines had worked their way into his handsome visage. His eyes still retained that inimitable spark of mischief. He wore a long dark brown leather coat, with a loose green striped shirt underneath. Autolycus looked down into the tear-obscured eyes of his close friend. "Gabrielle, what happened? I mean, I heard these stories about you and Xena still being alive…I can’t say I ever believed them. Now you tell me Xena is really gone? Come on…how bad can it be…Xena’s died lots of times. Hey, she even spent some time inside me. Right? We’ll get her back, don’t worry!" His charming, easy smile brought a moment of happiness to Gabrielle. Gabrielle listened to his words and then slowly shook her head. "Autolycus…I wish it were that simple. It’s different this time. Her body…all that’s left are these ashes…and Xena doesn’t even want to come back…" Her words were choked with emotion, as she continued, "so much has happened, I just don’t know what to do without her." Autolycus’s expression became graver. He pointed to the urn at Gabrielle’s feet, "Xena?" Gabrielle nodded. Autolycus was at a rare loss for words. The desperate state of his friend was clearly evident. "Listen Gabrielle, I know things seems bad now…and as soon as you explain to me exactly what happened, maybe I’ll understand a little more. All I know is, Xena meant more to me than I can say, maybe I’ll never fully understand what you two had, but I do know one thing. Love is the most powerful force on Earth, Gabrielle…more powerful than any king, weapon or nation. If Xena really is gone, we’re going to find a way to get her back. A person who’s done that much good, and changed that many lives…well that person should stick around, that’s what I say! I don’t care if we have to travel to Hades , we’re going to get her back!" Autolycus’s bold enthusiasm brought a bright smile to Gabrielle’s beautiful face. In her heart, she knew it was hopeless, yet even the thought of touching Xena again gave respite to her weary heart. Gabrielle looked up at the thief turned sailor and put her arms around his waist. "So Autolycus, you aren’t a pirate, are you?" Autolycus was dismayed by the remark. "Gabrielle, I’m offended! I’m a totally legitimate businessman, who just happens to ply his trade on the high seas…now, of course, if we come across the odd treasure…" Gabrielle smiled warmly at his response. "I’m glad some things never change…" The vessel continued to sail briskly westward. The sails billowed with a strong gust. The ship sliced smoothly through the ocean’s skin. Gabrielle breathed in the bracing salt air.

Xena did not feel the exact moment of her death. She was simply there, and then gone, to another place. It was not unlike the moment of her former death by crucifixion. Yet, that time Gabrielle had accompanied her to the afterlife. The journey she now took was a solitary one. Xena no longer had any sensation of her physical self. She felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. Most acute was the lightness that now characterized her soul. The constant pain, guilt and remorse had completely disappeared. It was a sort of happiness she could barely remember. She was not yet fully aware of her surroundings. A vague feeling of warmth and security transported her across an expanse of ethereal emptiness. It was not a place she had been before. She wondered whether she might once again see her beloved Solon. At that instant, a piercing pain of recognition disturbed Xena’s peaceful rapture. The image of Gabrielle came flooding back into her mind. Suddenly she realized her forfeiture offered in her endless quest for redemption. A storm of doubt clouded her psyche. The shock caused her to tumble downward through the air. She landed softly upon a precipice. A figure clad in blinding white approached her. It was a face she recalled well. The pleasant, blond haired angel walked up to Xena and placed his soft hand upon her head. "Xena. You do remember me. I should hope so…I’d say we’ve had quite an interesting history together." Michael smiled and waved his arm over Xena. She immediately became aware of herself physically. "Xena, I’ve provided you with a body- at least something that you can relate to for now. This realm is not a physical, but a spiritual one. You have no need of a body anymore. Soon you will join your son in the Elysian fields." Xena was mystified by the exchange. She gazed at the Archangel and smiled. "Michael, what is this place? I don’t recognize it." Michael was amused. "That’s right, I forget that you’ve died before. This place is different. None of this is really happening, Xena. I’m not really here. This has all been created to assist you in your final transition." Xena looked at the shining image and shook her head. "So…are you saying that I’m not dead?" Michael responded carefully, knowing full well the horrific nature of her demise. "No, Xena…this time you really have passed on. Even if you could return, your physical body no longer exists. Your form has been reduced to mere ashes. That is not important. You must learn to accept this new phase of your existence, so that your soul may feel that perfect everlasting peace." Xena nodded warmly at the explanation. "I’ve never felt this sort of peace…I didn’t think it is was possible-not for me." Michael smiled beneficently. "Yes Xena, your supreme sacrifice to save those 40,ooo souls, has brought you an absolute serenity. Congratulations." Xena’s wan smile was less than convincing. "Something is wrong, Xena?" She nodded slowly. "I miss Gabrielle. I’m worried about her." The Archangel attempted to allay her fears. "Xena, that is no longer your concern. You must have faith. Gabrielle will be fine. Her time will come when it comes. It is not your place to question these matters." Xena was somewhat miffed by the response. "So what are you saying…that suddenly I’m supposed to forget everything and everyone that meant anything to me? How do you expect me to do that?" Michael put his hand gently upon Xena’s shoulder. "It’s all about faith, and trust. As soon as you let go of that active part of your mind, your peace will be complete. Until then, you must remain in this place." Xena’s expression was frustrated and quizzical. "Where the heck am I again?"

"Just think of it as heaven’s waiting room." Xena was unimpressed by Michael’s explanation. "You know, I’ve never really been much for trusting or waiting." Michael chuckled as he slowly began to flap his enormous wings. As he floated away, he left Xena with a final send-off, "Suit yourself, Xena. You’ve got all of eternity to figure out what you need to do." Xena felt a frustrating sense of anger. It was difficult to adjust to this new set of emotions within. Struggling to find some sort of resolution, she could not help but wonder what Gabrielle was doing.

The mysterious bald Hindu holy-man walked along the dusty dirt road. He was middle aged, and walked with a mild limp. Small, ferocious eyes focused on the journey ahead. He wore a long draped robe of shimmering blue silk. His sandals were of the Eastern style, multi-hued and pointed. He had been walking along this road to Bombay for three days. He grew weary and stopped by the side of the road. The punishing hot sun beat down hard upon his tanned, lined face. Sweat poured profusely over the unusual marking upon his forehead. Aidan was on a quest to attain forgiveness from the greatest of all Hindu deities, Krishna. After sipping what little water he had left, Aidan continued along the difficult path. In time he came upon an old woman passing by in a horse and cart. "Good woman, I was wondering if I might trouble you for a ride. I am so tired." The aged woman pointed an accusing finger towards him. "You are demon! Be gone, demon, be gone!" Aidan fell to his knees to plead his case. "No. I’ve changed, I am on the path of redemption now. You must believe me woman!" The woman laughed caustically at the figure prostrated before her. " Demon does not change nature, only disguises!" With that, she left him alone. His journey continued as the merciless sun began to set. Aidan soon stopped by a clearing and set up his camp for the night.

Gabrielle awoke to a magnificent purple hued sunrise. She had spent the night swapping stories with her old friend, Autolycus. The flood of memories brought both happiness and regret. She still had little in the way of a plan for her future. She had originally expected to journey northward. Now it seemed that fate was sending her in a different direction altogether. She decided to allow fate to guide her course. Autolycus came up yawning and scratching from the lower decks. "Hey Gabby. Beautiful morning isn’t it? What say we chow down?" Gabrielle followed him down to the mess hall. They sat across from each other on a long wooden table. She was surprised by how friendly the swarthy looking sailors were. "This is a great crew…I mean…they’re so nice…" Autolycus smiled knowingly at the remark. "You don’t get it do you? All I had to do was tell them who you were. You’re a legend, you and Xena." Gabrielle was stunned by the news. "That’s amazing. So where are we headed anyway?"

"Well…we have a few errands to run, you know, bartering, trading, that sort of thing. Eventually we’ll be back in India for more supplies." Gabrielle was intrigued by the explanation. "India…" Her voice stopped as a torrent of recollections washed over her. A melancholy wistfulness seized hold of her. "So many memories-good and bad….but always with Xena. It will be hard to go back there alone this time." Autolycus completely understood. "Man, you and Xena really did get around. Is that where…the trouble started?" Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "No…no…it was more like something from the past that finally caught up with her…with us." Her head lowered onto her arms. Autolycus reached over to comfort her. "It’s all right Gabrielle…you don’t have to relive that now…some day you can tell me what happened to Xena." The conversation drifted to lighter subjects. Autolycus regaled Gabrielle in exciting descriptions of the adventures he had experienced. Gabrielle was relieved to change the subject. She stopped him at one point. "You’re kidding me…you we’re married?" Autolycus’s eyes opened wide in mock indignation. "What? That’s so hard to believe? I mean if that knucklehead Joxer could do it, why couldn’t I?" Gabrielle’s mind was filled with images of her greatest fan. "You know Autolycus, Joxer really was one in a million. I don’t think Xena and I ever really appreciated what a great person he was." Autolycus nodded. "Yeah…he was always good for a laugh I guess." Gabrielle shook her head. "No, he was more than that, much more. Sometimes I wonder if he ever knew how I really felt about him." After finishing their meal, they both walked up to the deck. The sun was shining directly overhead. The air was filled with the sound of rushing water. Gabrielle was surprised to notice that her usual seasickness had not shown up. It was one of many things that had changed about her. Autolycus turned to take his leave. "Well…got to go earn my keep."

"Anything I can do?" Autolycus then smiled broadly at Gabrielle’s question. His teeth were still a dazzling white. "I don’t know, what can you do?"

"Well, I can help clean those fish."

"Be my guest. Work is the best thing for you…to keep your mind on the present. You’ll see, we’ll be back in India in no time. I’m sure you have lots of friends there." Gabrielle sat down upon a wooden keg and set to work. "Friends, yes…and some enemies too…"

Xena could already tell that she wasn’t cut out for this life of bliss. Perhaps she had spent too long wrestling with the demons that had always plagued her. More than anything, Xena missed not having Gabrielle around to share in her newfound happiness. Without her, it all seemed meaningless. Xena reflected upon the profound changes that had she had undergone. All of her constant guilt and pain had disappeared. Xena stood up and stretched her long arms. To her amazement, she realized that she now sported a fine set of powerful wings. It was not a new sensation by any means. Xena decided to test out her rusty flying skills. Lifting gently into the clear sweet air, Xena’s angelic form cruised effortlessly through the clouds. The feeling of absolute freedom brought tears of joy to her sparkling blue eyes. She sailed carelessly upon the heavenly wind, her heart full of innocent wonder. Gradually her feelings of sadness over the loss of Gabrielle began to subside. Slowly, like a distant childhood memory, her persistent longing ebbed away. Her face glowed with a radiant serenity. Xena’s connection with the world of the living was nearly gone. The Archangel Michael looked down at his latest protégé. He reminisced about the tumultuous history they had shared. He smiled peacefully, pleased by a job well done on his part.

Aidan awoke to the same blinding hot sun. Thankfully the temperature was still cooler from the night. He decided to break camp quickly to take advantage of the moderate morning air. His feet were covered in calluses, burning into the leather of his badly worn sandals. He was still growing accustomed to this new harshly physical reality. His former spiritual realm was destroyed by a superior foe. He had severely underestimated his adversary, Xena. Aidan often marveled at how very close he had come to absolute victory. He had nearly drained Gabrielle’s soul completely. Xena’s animal instincts had proved to be an overwhelming force. Stripped of his divine energy, but not his knowledge, he was barely able to rematerialize in the world of physical reality through sheer force of will. The prodigious effort involved in the transformation very nearly consumed his soul entirely. Through techniques mastered over decades, he retained a powerful arsenal of spiritual weaponry. He finally came to realize the folly of his ways. Aidan now was on a path of peace and spiritual redemption, or so he imagined. His soul had undergone significant change. He had much for which to atone. After a time another horse and cart drew near. He motioned up to the young man who sat upon it. "Sir, please wait a moment. I am in desperate need of a ride. Might you allow me to come with you?" The yellow turbaned head nodded slowly. His deep dark eyes sized up the weary traveler. "Why are out here alone? It is dangerous. Where is it that you are going?" Aidan was cheered by the opportunity. "Oh, I can assure you that I can take care of myself. I am master of many defensive techniques. Perhaps I might teach them to you. My destination is Bombay, but I will travel as far as you take me." The man driving the cart was named Raja. He jerked his head toward Aidan, and made a place for the strange wanderer. Aidan beamed with satisfaction. He threw his meager belongings onboard and sat down. "My son, you’ve made a wise decision. Your good deed will be rewarded, as are all good deeds. In time, I will teach you much." The horse started up along the narrow dirt road. Aidan felt that his luck had changed. He grinned with satisfaction and began a conversation with the Indian youth. The boy would later come to regret his decision to pick up the stranger.

Gabrielle spent many days cleaning fish and talking to Autolycus. He could not have been more astonished by the events she described. "So let me get this straight. You two were both crucified, and brought back to life by this Eli Dude? Right? Then, you spent twenty-five years in some frozen cave…then you came back to life again…and then finally this Akemi shows up out of nowhere, and Xena has to atone for the death of 40,000 souls? Is that it?" Gabrielle nods in agreement. "That’s it in a nutshell, yes."

"I’ve got to tell you, Gabrielle, it’s hard to believe, but I guess it must be the truth. The question now, is what to do about it. We’ll be in Bombay in a few days. I’ve got a few friends who might know what to do." Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "I appreciate what you’re trying to do…but what’s the point? Even if I could miraculously summon a God to bring Xena back, why bother? She’s just a pile of ashes. Who even knows if the Gods still exist? Anyway, I don’t know if Xena wants to come back. She made her choice." Her words were harsh and full of bitterness. Autolycus was concerned by her dark attitude. "Gabrielle, what are you saying? Are you giving up on Xena?" Gabrielle stood up and pounded her fists onto the ship. Her voice was shrill and loud. "I wasn’t the one who gave up, Xena did! After all I sacrificed! How dare she! I hate her for abandoning me! I gave up on all my dreams to be with Xena, to help her, to show her the way, and in the end, it meant nothing to her!" Autolycus attempted to calm down the shaking woman. "Gabrielle, stop it. That’s not the hero I know. Why don’t you try and write some scrolls…that always used to make you happy. I want Xena back as much as anyone, but you’re getting crazy! Have you ever considered the fact that Xena might finally be happy now-wherever she is? Doesn’t she deserve that much?"

"Crazy am I? Fine! I don’t care about my stupid scrolls anymore! What difference does it make? So Xena’s happy now? What about me? I’m miserable…I don’t even know what the point of living is!" Gabrielle stomped away in a rage. Autolycus remarked at how Xena’s death had transformed Gabrielle, and not for the better. They were three days from port. He hoped the cure for Gabrielle’s misery would be found somewhere there.

Aidan and the young man stopped for the night. They set up camp beneath a grove of trees. The sun had set, and the air grew cooler. The faint sound of wildlife could be heard in the distance. Raja spoke first. "I don’t like the sound of that. What if there are tigers out tonight?" Aidan smiled with supreme confidence. "I have no fear of tigers. They cannot hurt me. I simply will them to be tame. Here, let me show you how. By learning to control one’s body, you learn to control the mind. By controlling the mind, one learns how to use fear. One must make a friend of fear, otherwise it becomes a terrible enemy." Aidan demonstrated a strange Yoga position to the boy. He grabbed his legs with his arms, arching his back. Raja attempted to mimic the move. Aidan clapped quickly and softly. "Yes, that’s it! Very good! Now concentrate on your breathing…on achieving perfect stillness." The boy concentrated all this energies as the guru instructed. Soon he began to fall into a deep trance of emptiness. The boy drifted deeper and deeper into quietude. His extremities began to acquire an odd cobalt blue tint. Aidan smiled gleefully. "Excellent…"

Xena alighted upon a billowing soft cloud. Her mind was suffused with the peace and stillness of Heaven. She watched as Michael floated gently down towards her. "Xena. I am so pleased to see that you are adjusting to this new phase of your existence. This peace you are now experiencing is something that you have worked hard to accomplish. You can not imagine how much we have all wished for this." Xena smiled and nodded. "What do you mean we?" Michael looked puzzled. "Xena, you must have understood by this time that the entire Divine world was interested in your fate. Our Lord has prayed fervently that you would finally end up choosing the side of goodness. Despite all your early shortcomings as a soul, you have achieved absolute forgiveness now. You now have but one final choice before you. You may relive the triumphs and joys of your life, in a state of absent minded bliss…in the Elysian Fields…or, you may choose the way of the Archangel, and commit yourself forever to the fight for good. Just one thing you must know Xena, the life of the Archangel presents many challenges…it is not a life suited for all. Lucifer…well you know what happened to him. Should you fail, your fate might well be worse than his. Do you understand the choice before you?" Xena was still becoming accustomed to her new newfound spiritual freedom. She did not understand completely. "If I am an Archangel, will I still have some connection with the world of the living?" Michael chuckled slightly. "Well, yes and no. You still will have some influence in the material world…but you must also realize that you now serve a higher purpose. Yours will no longer be a quest for self-redemption, for self-forgiveness. Your self, as you once knew it, no longer exists. Now, if you choose to spend eternity in the Elysian Fields, you will continue as your self-as Xena…of course this existence is merely an illusion." Xena began to comprehend the daunting choice before her. "So you’re saying, I have to choose between a difficult, totally selfless, dutiful existence, serving God, or live a happy illusion- a lie?" Michael acknowledged her words with a slow nod. "I can give you time to make your decision. It is an important one, Xena." Xena thought about her options for only a moment. "I guess I’ve never been one to choose the easy path, Michael. Why start now? I choose to serve God, in whatever manner she sees fit." Michael laughed. "She?" Xena chuckled also. "Hey, you’ve got to give me a little freedom…why couldn’t he be a she?"

Aidan carefully drained the life-force from the young man. The techniques he employed had been perfected over years. There was no pain involved, simply a slowly deepening cold, as the victim’s body became more and more quiet. Aidan left the lifeless cobalt blue statue in a clearing by the road. Aidan still intended to accomplish many good deeds, but reasoned that his spiritual power still required vital force. The young man was a means to a greater end. Aidan continued on his way to Bombay. There he would find many willing souls who would assist him in his quest for redemption. He smiled with self-satisfaction as the horse and cart followed the twisted dirt road. A hot wind blew across his path as the sun burned down hard. He would be in Bombay by the next day.

Autolycus shouted out to Gabrielle. "Hey, look! Land! Man, I can’t wait to stand on old terra firma." Gabrielle was anxious to once again touch dry land. The voyage had taken several weeks; and it had done her much good. She made her way over to Autolycus. The trip had brought them much closer. It was important that she try to heal herself. The shock of losing Xena had very slowly begun to heal, though the pain hadn’t disappeared. She still had no real plans for her future. It was as if Xena had given her own life a sense of purpose. Now that Xena was gone, Gabrielle seemed completely adrift. She had nothing left to prove. Happiness seemed an inconceivable hope. It was a cold emptiness that consumed her now, and nature abhors a vacuum. Autolycus, for his part had done his best to comfort his stalwart friend. They both still missed Xena terribly. It formed a powerful emotional bond between them. They disembarked as the ship came into port. They hailed a horse and cart and made their way into the bustling city. The busy docks were buzzing with activity. All manner of cargo and passenger rushed here and there. The cacophony of foreign tongues serenaded the two travelers. The raucous surrounding cheered Gabrielle. "This place has changed a bit since I was last here. It’s interesting to be back, after so many years." Autolycus was pleased that the change of scenery had managed to lighten Gabrielle’s mood somewhat. "Look at this place! Now if there’s not money to made here, then I’m not the King of Thie…I mean the King of Businessmen…yeah, that’s it!" He chuckled slightly at his mistake, and continued. "You know Gabrielle, I don’t know what your plans are, but you could stay with me, just for a while…I know this guy in town with a big swanky house-plenty of room for you. You could even have your own room!" Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose up in mock accusation. "Right, I know you Autolycus, how do I know I can trust you?" Autolycus gazed at her with feigned indignation. "Gabrielle, I can assure you that my intentions are entirely honorable." Gabrielle smiled graciously. "All right…I guess you have changed. I’m starving, let’s find some place to eat." The cart continued through the throng of chattering voices. The air was redolent with pungent odours and aromatic perfumes. Villagers draped in a rainbows of blazing colour streamed by. Gabrielle was still far from being happy, but she was not miserable either. The two stopped by a small tavern to replenish themselves.

The tavern was old and filled with every manner of traveler and transient. Chinese sailors, dark skinned African traders and exotically dressed women sat all around the establishment. The multifarious clientele impressed Autolycus. "Gabrielle, look at these people…think of the business opportunities!" He rubbed his beard devilishly as his mischievous eyes spied a sparsely populated table. He motioned for Gabrielle to follow him. She was intoxicated by the vibrant sounds and smells. It provided a necessary distraction for her weary heart. Gabrielle absently followed Autolycus to a table where a solitary stranger sat. Autolycus pointed towards the two seats and inquired as to their availability. "Mind if my friend and me sit down, it seems to be the busy hour." The stranger nodded politely and gestured to him. Gabrielle sat down and for the first time and noticed the odd man. She was struck dumb momentarily. "Oh My God! You…you…you died…" Aidan gazed up peacefully at the puzzled bard. " good to see you again. You’ve changed." Autolycus was mystified by the exchange. "Hold it one second. You two know each other? How the heck did that happen?" Gabrielle had abruptly pushed her chair from the table and was now several feet away from them. Her expression was pained and angry. "I don’t know how you are here…it doesn’t make any sense. All I know is…you won’t fool me again." Aidan’s calm expression displayed not the slightest bit of aggravation. He smiled with beneficent warmth. "Gabrielle. I understand your misgivings about me. You have every right to be wary of me. However…I must tell you that I have changed. The man you see before you is a transformed being. I live only for good now." Gabrielle shook her head violently and shouted at Autolycus, "Get away from him. You don’t know how dangerous he is!" Autolycus was unmoved by Gabrielle’s show of distress. He attempted to mollify the perturbed woman. "Gabrielle, I don’t know who this is, but he doesn’t seem too dangerous to me. Why don’t you give him another chance. Everybody deserves that, don’t you think?" Aidan was bolstered by the encouraging remarks. "True…very true. I wonder if a certain individual we all know…Xena…wasn’t she able to change? By the way, where is the great warrior princess?" Gabrielle’s fury subsided somewhat at the mention of Xena’s name. Autolycus interceded to speak for Gabrielle. "Uh…actually, Aidan…Xena’s gone." Aidan was taken aback by the declaration. "Xena…dead? I can hardly believe it. The life-force that breathed in her was so very strong…strong enough to defeat me in fact. I’m so sorry Gabrielle. I had no idea. I know how much she meant to you." Gabrielle could not help but be calmed by the sincere sounding sentiments. "Thank you…I can’t really talk about it…you understand…" Autolycus noticed a lull in the hostilities and offered up a mutual solution. "Listen Gabs…what say we let bygones be bygones and have a little chow. I know you’re hungry. We can work this out later. Gabrielle reluctantly sat down to the table. Her expression showed how suspicious she still remained. Slowly the conversation became more amiable. They dined on exotic curries,rice, fruits and hearty wine.

Xena was transformed into a being of pure goodness, destined to spend eternity defending the light. In a profound and wondrous ceremony, she was anointed with heavenly oils and blessed by the hand Of God. All the Archangels in attendance watched with admiration as their newest recruit took her first flight as a messenger of Peace. Xena experienced a feeling of peace and oneness far beyond anything she had ever thought possible. Her graceful form soared with joy as she finally came to understand the meaning of love. Gabriele came near to speak with her. "Xena, are you ready to assume your duties?" Xena nodded happily. "I will do as you say, Gabriele, command me." Gabriele smiled widely. "Excellent. We have noticed some problems with somebody you once overcame. He is a pernicious spirit named Aidan." Xena was momentarily confused. "I…don’t understand…he was vanquished years ago." Gabriele replied with a grave response. "Xena, this is a dangerous being. He must be stopped. His powers have weakened…but he grows stronger by the day. There is one other thing…it looks as if he may be targeting Gabrielle again. You understand that if you accept this mission, you must remain completely neutral, especially when it comes to Gabrielle. Do you think you can do that?" Xena looked down and paused. Her perfect stillness was shattered as she slowly processed the information. "Of course I can…I want to do everything possible to help Gabrielle." The Archangel looked at Xena with a stern stare. "Xena, you understand that you will no longer be fighting for Gabrielle, or for yourself. You now serve a higher purpose." Xena’s expression was steadfast and determined. "I understand." The two warriors of God stood together as Michael carefully explained to Xena her impending mission.

The three travelers left the tavern together after enjoying a satisfying meal. The hot sun had begun to slowly sink behind the mud brick buildings. The oppressive heat was moderated somewhat. The hectic market crowd had begun to disperse for the night. Gabrielle was far from trusting the mysterious Aidan, yet part of her was too tired to protest. Perhaps after relying upon Xena’s better judgment for so many years, her own had become slightly atrophied. Xena would never have given him another chance, she thought. During the meal, Aidan had been very persuasive in explaining his newfound path of redemption to Gabrielle. It was a subject of which she was well acquainted. They walked down a narrow road toward the edge of town. Autolycus at once spoke up. "Well, Aidan, you tell quite a story, and I’d love to stay and chat, but my dogs…they are a’barkin!" Aidan nodded in agreement. "Yes. Both of you must be exhausted after that long journey. Where are you staying for the night?" Gabrielle chimed in quickly. "Oh, we’re fine. Autolycus has friends in town, right?" Autolycus looked suddenly sheepish. "Yeah…about that…I guess I didn’t mention that I don’t exactly know where they live…" Autolycus shrugged his shoulders in apology. Gabrielle was not amused. "But…so you’re saying we have nowhere to sleep tonight? Well, I guess we can camp somewhere out of town…it’s not like it would be the first time or anything." Aidan immediately insinuated himself into the discussion. "I won’t hear of it. I insist that you stay with me…at least until you find a place." Gabrielle’s reticence was evident as she shook her head vehemently. Autolycus attempted to ameliorate her doubts. "Listen, it’s just one night. I promise we’ll be gone by morning, Gabrielle. Aidan’s okay…I mean, doesn’t everybody deserve a second chance?" Gabrielle was far from being mollified, but grudgingly agreed to accept the Guru’s invitation. Aidan led them to an unimposing house not far from the market. Inside he showed Gabrielle and Autolycus to a sparsely furnished room, and provided them with linens for the beds. Aidan retired to his own bedroom just across from them. "Goodnight, Gabrielle, pleasant dreams, and try not to worry so much. Tomorrow I will show you some new mediation techniques I’ve learned, if you like." Gabrielle thanked him for the lodging, but declined his offer. "No offence Aidan, but I think I’ll pass, those techniques of yours make me feel…a little blue." Aidan chuckled and closed his door.

Gabrielle climbed into her bed. She was exhausted by the strange occurrences that day. "Good night Autolycus…and remember, I don’t trust this guy yet…watch yourself." Autolycus smiled cheerily. "You don’t have to worry about me Gab. I always sleep with one eye open…always on guard." He immediately fell fast asleep and began to snore soundly. Gabrielle felt an odd sense of uneasiness. It was more than simply her misgivings about Aidan. It was something else entirely. She looked down on the floor to see the urn containing Xena’s ashes. She then gazed up at the sparkling stars through the open window. A warm breeze fluttered over her bed sheet. "Goodnight Xena, wherever you are…" She nodded off into a fitful dream filled sleep. Xena had watched the proceedings since the three had left the tavern. She was still not powerful enough as a disembodied being to communicate with the living. At best, she could reach others only through dreams. She lovingly gazed down as her soul mate drifted off. Her angelic form was draped in intricately embroidered white silk. Her wings flapped slowly as her hand reached out to touch Gabrielle’s forehead. A bright glow appeared upon the bard’s head, where Archangel Xena had brushed her. Her mind awoke from its sleep. Gabrielle watched intently as Xena appeared to float overhead. It was a terrible shock to her delicate emotional state. She cried out in dismay, choking back a torrent of tears. "Xena…is that you? It can’t be you…is this a dream?" She reached out her hand to touch the hem of the heavenly creature’s gown. It passed effortlessly through the material. Xena smiled and reached out both her arms in a calming gesture. "Gabrielle. It is me….and it is not. The Xena you once knew is no more. I have come, here in your dream, to comfort you, to help you to understand." Gabrielle wiped the tears from eyes. Her eyes continued to well up. "I don’t understand…you say you’re not Xena…then where is she? I want you to come back to me…you cheated me!" She stamped the bed with a furious fist, overcome with emotion. Archangel Xena tried desperately to calm Gabrielle. "No, Gabrielle, no…I’m so much happier now that I understand. Life and death are merely two sides of the same coin. I came to help you see that. In time, we will be together again." Gabrielle was unmoved by the attempts to pacify her. "Yeah…well I hope that’s soon. I can’t live without you. Why should I go on living?" Her imprecations were met with an assuring, loving gaze. "It is not your time. You must continue without me. I came to warn you of a great danger. Aidan has again developed terrible powers. He is an abomination, and has learned how to return from the dead. You must leave quickly. He will tempt you, Gabrielle, but you must not weaken. I must go now, but remember what I have said, and remember that God loves you, Gabrielle." The image of Xena faded as the words trailed off. Gabrielle bolted upright as if stung by a wasp. Her gasp of recognition startled Autolycus. "Gabrielle, are you okay? Have a nightmare?" Gabrielle shook her head. "I saw Xena, or at least somebody that looked a lot like her." Autolycus saw the anguish in her bleary-eyed face. ‘Sure you did. Let’s just try and get some sleep okay?" Gabrielle nodded and tried to fall back asleep. The shock of seeing the love of her life lingered on. Drowsily she got up from her bed. Failing to heed Archangel Xena’s warning, she decided to find out what Aidan knew, and why exactly he was so dangerous now.

Aidan sat in a perfect lotus position on the floor. The strange star like marking on his forehead glowed with energy. The room was very quiet as he felt his body slowly rise off the ground. He heard a knock at the door. "Come in, I have been expecting you, Gabrielle." Gabrielle gasped as she entered the room. She watched as Aidan’s body hovered strangely in the air. His third eye Chakra shone brightly, illuminating the darkened room. After recovering from her initial surprise, she sat down in a similar lotus position. Aidan drifted down from the ceiling and alighted on the floor in front of her. His eyes opened wide. He grinned and clapped his hands quickly together. "Excellent. You are ready, Gabrielle." Gabrielle seemed mystified by the remark. "What do you mean?" Aidan got up and went to grab his large duffel bag. He removed several items from it. "Don’t worry, I understand completely what you’re feeling. Do you think I know nothing of loss? Why do you think I ever developed these powers?" Gabrielle was quizzical. "Do you know about my dream-about Xena?" Aidan nodded and smiled. Gabrielle looked at Aidan intensely. "Listen. I know that you somehow found a way to return from the dead. What I want to know is, can you bring Xena back?" Aidan grinned with unrestrained glee. "Of course I can. Are you sure she wants to return to this reality? Perhaps she is better off where she is." Gabrielle pointed her finger at the Guru. Her voice was low and measured. She spit out the words, "I don’t care! This isn’t about what Xena wants, or what’s good, or what’s right! Look at all the good we’ve accomplished over the years…and this is how I’m rewarded? What’s the point of it all? I have nothing left to lose. You tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it!" Aidan knelt beside the highly agitated woman and whispered in her ear. Gabrielle nodded and smiled. Together they walked outside into the bright moonlit night.

"Gabrielle, you do understand what it is we’re doing, right?" Gabrielle thought for a moment before answering. "I think so…yes…if that’s what I have to do to get Xena back, then so be it." Aidan smiled slightly and nodded. "You see, the ritual we’re about to perform…well…your God might consider it…blasphemous." Gabrielle responded quickly to the caution. "Nothing like that matters anymore. Eli has abandoned me…all the Gods seem to have disappeared. Even my old enemy Ares is nowhere to be found. Maybe we really are alone." Aidan avidly agreed. "Exactly Gabrielle. That is what I have been trying to explain. We create our own destiny, indeed our own reality. There is no such thing as right and wrong. An intelligent man-or woman, creates his or her own moral universe." They walked together through the empty town. Aidan stopped by a farm to search for something. He found a young goat and carefully stole it away with him. The ominous sounds of wild animals could be heard in the distance. The streets were empty at this time of night . The air was cool and electrically charged . Their destination was the cemetery. Gabrielle carried with her the urn containing Xena’s ashes and a shovel. Aidan walked with the goat, a strange book, and a large black candle. They made their way deep into the eerie cemetery to avoid detection. They finally stopped by a newly dug grave. Gabrielle pushed the shovel hard into the ground.

Xena the Archangel pleaded with Michael. "You must allow me to help her! She doesn’t know what she’s doing! I can’t communicate with her unless she’s dreaming!" Michael looked down at Xena from his golden throne. He gazed out onto a magnificent marble floor. To his left and right high-ranking Archangels sat in solemn attendance. His tone was severe. "Xena, have you stopped to consider that this might be a test of your resolve- and hers? You must allow Gabrielle to choose her own path. Not you, nor I, nor anyone may interfere. If she follows Aidan, and chooses the path of evil, her soul will be damned forever. For your part, you must realize that you take orders now from God. This love you have for Gabrielle is a personal love, not an Angelic love. It is a remnant of your former self. Let her go Xena. Let her choose for herself!" Xena could not bear to watch the proceedings. She realized Gabrielle’s only hope was if somehow she could find a way to talk to her. Xena departed from Michael’s chamber, leaving the gathered Archangels to discuss her fate.

After a period of difficult digging Gabrielle’s shovel hit solid wood. She stopped to see what Aidan was preparing. He had outlined a pentagram on the ground. In its centre, the white goat was tethered to a stake. He began reading aloud from the mysterious occult book. The words were unfamiliar to Gabrielle, spoken in a bewildering language. Overhead, the clear night sky was deadly still. The full moon shone down brightly, illuminating the dark practice. The scene was completely unnerving to Gabrielle. She wondered if there was some other way to accomplish her goal. She brushed the dirt away from the revealed coffin, and put down her shovel. "Aidan, are you sure there’s no other way to do this? This doesn’t seem right." Aidan smiled with an expression of serene composure. "Gabrielle, don’t worry yourself. This body you have dug up, this person has no other use for it. In time it will degrade and disappear. Why not put it to good use-while its still fresh? Imagine all the good that Xena could accomplish, while in her new body!" Aidan spoke with the persuasive confidence of a revered Holy man. In her present distressed state, Gabrielle could not oppose him. They now worked in concert to their desired end. Gabrielle removed the deceased body from the coffin. It was a woman who had died but a night before, from some unknown illness. She looked to be thirty years old, of average height with lustrous dark hair. She was strikingly beautiful, even in deathly repose. Her name was Samara. The body was dragged into the centre of the pentagram. It was carefully placed underneath the struggling goat. The black candle had been lit and placed upon her chest. Gabrielle retrieved the urn carrying Xena’s ashes. A bright ray shining down from the moon reflected off the polished urn. It caught Gabrielle’s attention. She watched as the image of Archangel Xena appeared to shine in the moonbeam. The image was faint, but Gabrielle could barely make out the figure shaking her head furiously, trying to warn her. The momentary vision gave Gabrielle reason to pause. She again questioned the morality of the act she was about to perform. Unable to convince herself otherwise, she continued along the dark path.

Autolycus slept soundly. The cooled night air made sleep come easily. A cry, as if from an injured animal wakened him suddenly. Groggily he looked over to Gabrielle’s bed. Seeing it empty, he dashed over to Aidan’s room. He cried out loudly into the street, "Gabrielle! Are you out there? Aidan? Where are you guys?" Grabbing his clothes on the run, he paused briefly to comb his hair. Even in an emergency, good grooming was important, thought Autolycus. He gazed into the mirror appreciatively, speaking to himself. "Gabrielle, where are you? I’ll never forgive myself if something ever happened to you. Don’t worry, I’ll find you." Suddenly a ghostly image appeared in the mirror. Autolycus stared in utter disbelief. The figure of Archangel Xena drifted in and out of focus. It seemed to wave frantically at him. "Xena? Is that you? Where are you? Do you know what happened to Gabrielle?" The image only nodded slowly, and pointed to the doorway. Autolycus understood the image’s gesture. "Is Gabrielle in trouble?" Xena was able to mouth the word "yes". The mirror again was filled only with Autolycus’s reflection. He bolted from the door with great haste.

Aidan chanted loudly from the mysterious book of spells, "Iss Mass Ssarati Sha Mushi Lipshuru Ruxisha Limnuti! Izizanimma Ilani Rabuit Shima Ya Dababi! Dini Dina Alakati Limda! Alsi Ku Nushi Ilani Mushiti! Ia Mass Ssarati Iss Mass Ssarati Ba Ids Mass Ssaratu!" The words were terrible and strange, as they echoed loudly through the cemetery. The clear night air began to change. Wisps of dark cloud gathered above them. Gabrielle was galvanized by the ferocious power coursing through her. Her eyes burned with fiery determination. She listened carefully to Aidan’s words, then began to recite them herself. A full-fledged storm had now gathered above them. The dark clouds rumbled with thunder. The air was kinetic, as Aidan yelled at Gabrielle, "Now, take your knife from its sheath, and slay the beast! Do it! Do it now!" Gabrielle raised her knife high in air. The sharp blade shone brightly in the moonlight. Again the reflection of Xena’s image appeared to Gabrielle. Again she failed to heed the warning. She hesitated momentarily as she watched a figure approaching, yelling loudly, "Gabrielle, no!" A furious rage seized her at that moment. Abandoning all that she had known and learned and hoped for, Gabrielle plunged the knife deeply into the neck of the goat. The hot red blood burst out forcefully. She then grabbed the urn containing Xena’s ashes and filled it with the flowing dark fluid. Aidan continued to chant as lightning began to crash loudly around them. Gabrielle poured the wax from the black candle into the mixture of ash and blood. Autolycus had finally arrived on the scene. He was aghast, and grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders. "Gabrielle what in God’s name are you doing?" Gabrielle pushed him away forcefully. "This is not in any God’s name anymore! I’ve had it with these so-called Gods, who preach love and forgiveness, but leave only pain and emptiness! Well let me tell you something! I’m taking a page from the Holy Book of Xena. She always told me to rely upon yourself, not Gods! So that’s what I’m doing! Now go away!" Autolycus was dumbfounded by Gabrielle’s terrifying zeal. He could only watch on as the inevitable dark ritual concluded. Gabrielle handed the bloody urn to Aidan. The magician slowly poured the bubbling, thick mixture onto the corpse. It seemed to absorb directly into the flesh on contact. Gabrielle joined hands with Aidan and continued the chant with him. The corpse glowed with a preternatural, otherworldly light. At that moment a bolt of crashing lighting shot into the wet body. Both Aidan and Gabrielle were sent flying high into the air. For several minutes, Gabrielle was dazed. The preceding events had physically and emotionally drained her. In a half awake state, she crawled over to the blood soaked body. She was astonished to see the chest move slowly up and down. She moved up to the face, wiping the dirt, blood and ash from it. Ever so slightly, the eyes opened. Gabrielle stared in great wonder and trepidation. Her vision was obscured by a torrent of tears and rain. She gazed down into the dark, chocolate eyes of this now living person. The body gasped with a sudden rush of shocking realization. Gabrielle felt a gentle hand reach up to brush away her tears. A barely audible, beautiful voice whispered softly. "Gabrielle, what have you done?"

To be Continued.

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