Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.


This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath and demonic possession. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story contains many spoilers for Season Four of Xena,WP, especially the episode Devi. There are some spoilers for other Seasons of Xena as well, but nothing big.

This story is part Three of Hope Full, but can be read as a stand-alone story as well.

Please feel free to send comments, burnt or otherwise. Belobris@aol.com



By WLMcCord, (Bill the Semi Bard)(c)1999 (Revised 8-23-2000)

Book Three: Devi's, Demons and Deceits

Chapter One: The Call of Far Away Places

The short woman with hair the color of beaten copper and the tall dark warrior-woman leading the golden mare strode down the road away from the castle of King Melos. They walked along silently for a time, just enjoying the warm sun and watching the scenery as they moved.

Finally the tall woman spoke. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmmm?" The short woman poked her staff at a hovering dragonfly without looking at her friend.

The woman known throughout Greece as the Warrior Princess hesitated and her petite companion glanced up at her. She squinted and stopped walking. "What is it, Xena?"

The warrior stopped too and the golden mare she was leading came to a halt and made a questioning whicker. Xena stroked the horse's muzzle absently and spoke. "I, um, I'm glad you managed to repair your green top. I just wanted to say I was sorry, again..."

"Xena, that's over," said the bard kindly. "I'm not mad any more and there's no harm done; I came back didn't I?" She looked curiously at her friend. Xena was staring at the ground, showing no signs of moving on. "Was there ... something else?"

"I, uh, just wondered..." the warrior said and stopped.

"Wondered what?" Gabrielle leaned on the staff, watching her more curiously.

Xena looked uncomfortable. "Just ... well ... I wondered ... how come you never tell me your stories any more?" Her voice was almost plaintive.

The bard looked at her in surprise and the golden horse Argo snorted as if she were shocked.

The big warrior rushed on. "You always used to be so full of stories ... you'd be bursting to tell them and would always, you know, recite them to me as we traveled. Now you never even tell them in public anymore ... you didn't even seem to want to tell one to princess Alesia the other day."

Gabrielle pulled back her hair and gazed at the white fur on the end of her amazon staff for a moment before speaking. "I thought you were sorta just, well, um ... tolerating me," she said at last. "You know how you were always teasing me about my stories and telling me to leave you out of them ... I finally figured I shouldn't bother you with them anymore..."

Xena looked disappointed. "I-I thought you knew I WAS teasing," she said in a small voice. "I loved your stories, Gabrielle. They are some of the best times I remember about our travels together..."

The bard smiled and the expression lit up her face. "Thank you," she said modestly, a faint blush on her cheeks. "But really, Xena," she continued, "I don't have any new stories to tell. We do everything together. We've been traveling and sharing our adventures for so long that I'm living the stories I used to tell for my own enjoyment ... I guess I just ... sorta ... ran out of new tales to tell and I got tired of retelling the old ones. Sorry."

"Oh," said the warrior. "I guess that's true now I think about it ... still I wish..."

"You know what," said the bard suddenly, interrupting her friend. "Maybe we need to travel somewhere new for a change; somewhere different from Greece. Somewhere like the kingdom of Chin or someplace."

"Definitely not Chin," said Xena. She looked uncomfortable. "I don’t think I ever want to go there again."

Gabrielle nodded. "I understand; too many memories. Besides, I didn't mean let's go to Chin, I'm not that fond of the place myself. And I certainly don't want to go back to Britannia..."

At the mention of Britannia both she and Xena shivered involuntarily. Then the bard's face brightened. "Hey! Here's an idea; how about India? We've never been there!"

"India? Yer kiddin', right?" The big warrior rubbed at a bruise on the arm that she had gotten climbing the vine out of a canyon with the little princess on her back.

"No, I'm not kidding. I hear that it is about as different as we could find. I'll bet you even know how to get there too!"

"Yeah," said Xena wryly. "You go east about as far as Chin. I don't think so."

"Oh, come on, Xena! Why not? I bet it'd be fun!" The bard almost danced with excitement and the warrior regarded her in surprised pleasure. "Let's do it. Let's go to India! Please?"

Xena hesitated and Gabrielle plunged on. "We'd get away from Greece and the same old things for a while. No more Ares, or Olympian gods, or Caesar, or feuding warlords. Think of the new things we could learn and see. I hear they sleep on beds of nails and keep snakes in baskets there. There'd be new sights and sounds, a whole different culture, the ... the new kinds of FOOD!" Her green eyes sparkled.

"Yeah, food. I wondered when you'd get around to the important part," Xena grunted and her friend grinned sheepishly.

"Well, you know how I like my food," the bard giggled.

"Yeah, on the plate and plenty of it," Xena smirked.

"All right, smarty," Gabrielle grinned, "but I also hear they have all kinds of mental disciplines there too, sorta like Lao Ma taught you. There's Yoga, the Kama Sutra, meditation..."

"Yoga?" The Warrior Princess teased. "You mean yogurt? We got that here in Greece; you talkin' about food again? And uh, I don't believe the Kama Sutra is in exactly the same class as meditation, although it CAN get you relaxed after a while..." she said slyly.

"Well, see there?" Gabrielle was eager. "We should learn it then ... gods know we could get stand to get relaxed..."

"BwaHahaahaahaaaaaaa!" She stopped as Xena exploded into a deep belly-laugh.

"What's so darn funny?" The bard sounded cross as she stared at her chortling partner.

"N-Never mind," snickered the warrior, gasping for air. "I was just picturing you getting r-relaxed w-with the Kama Sutra ... Oh, haw haw hawww!"

As Xena went off again, the bard narrowed her green eyes and gripped the staff in a way that suggested she was going to bounce it off someones head in another minute.

Noticing this, the big warrior hastily made a concerted effort to calm down. "S-Sorry ... heehee ... Ahem!" She wiped tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "So, um, t-tell me more about this, uh, India idea..."


Chapter Two: I Remember You

The bard glared at her friend for a moment, but then continued on about the wonders both real and imagined that they might see on such a trip. As they walked the two women bantered back and forth with Gabrielle enthusiastically going on and on and Xena cheerfully poopooing everything she said.

Despite her outward show of disdain, as the bard chattered Xena found herself beginning to think about the trip as a real possibility. Even as traveled as she was, she had never been to India and it did sound interesting. Besides, she thought watching her animated friend, this was the first thing that Gabrielle had seemed truly excited about since ... Xena considered ... since the bard had been going to form a Hospice with Najara. And look how that idea had immediately gone to the dogs, she thought sadly.

Gabrielle had seemed to go into a funk after she had found out the truth about Najara. So much so that she had become almost hostile during the battle for the city of Actus. Xena still remembered how angry the bard had been when the warrior had tried to tell her about the vision that Alti had shown her of their future deaths by crucifixion. The young woman had flatly denied it could be true and refused to listen.

She was so angry in fact, that after Actus she left Xena and went home to Poteidaia for a visit with her family. Thus she had not been there when that business with Joxer and Meg and Autolycus and the baby-king-key had come up. Oh, Xena had handled it all right, but she had felt alone and unhappy without the bard at her side.

Gabrielle had come back afterward in a better frame of mind and the relieved Xena had decided they should just travel around a bit with no particular destination in mind. Then the next thing they knew they had become embroiled with the savage Horde again and barely escaped with their lives.

No, not the Horde, Xena corrected herself absently; they called themselves the Pomira. Despite their savage looks, they were very human warriors whose values were not so different from her own. During that whole time, Gabrielle had seemed distant and preoccupied, saying inappropriate and strange things. It had even been her idea to commit them to try and rescue the girl Pele from the Pomira. Against Xena's better judgment, she had agreed.

Carrying out that plan had almost caused a war between the city folk and the Pomira when the bard and warrior had rescued the girl and returned her to her true family in the city. Thank the gods that it had finally come out all right, although Xena still felt as if she personally had failed there. She had been forced to kill Milo the Hunter in the fight at the city gates. But he gave me no choice, she thought with both anger and sadness. He was exactly what I used to be; bigoted, angry and Hades on a chariot in a fight; killing him was like killing myself.

The death of Milo had so depressed the Warrior Princess that she had wanted only to sleep for a time. She overslept a number of days after, sometimes well into the morning. She would tell Gabrielle to wake her at the usual time if she didn't get up, but the bard kept letting her sleep in. The last day especially was the worst.

Xena had wanted to get up at first light to trap a warlord before he broke camp. The warrior had been so miffed to find she had been left yet again to oversleep, that she stole Gabrielle's beloved green top while the bard was bathing. She ripped it into strips for a rope to tie up the warlord when she captured him and made sure the bard knew it.

The petite woman was not happy of course and the episode had set off an all day squabbling match between the two friends. This was further complicated by the presence of the captured warlord, the bumbling Joxer, a little runaway princess and the interference of Aphrodite. After Xena had snippily implied that Gabrielle was only good for washing dishes, the bard had stormed off vowing never to return. They only got back together once both had finally apologized for treating each other with contempt rather than friendship.

Xena was startled out of her reverie by Gabrielle. "Well, What about it?"

Frantically the warrior tried to recall what she had been asked. "Uhhh ... well..." she temporized.

"Come on, Xena..." begged the bard. "Lets just DO it, huh? Let's just GO. Why shouldn't we? We don't have any missions to perform right now. It's been so long since we did something just for fun ... whatta'ya say?"

"I say 'It's getting towards evening and we should find a place to camp,'" the big warrior said, gazing about. "There, that looks like a possible spot. It's forested; there should be a coverlet back among those trees where we can hide our campfire from the road. Let's check it out."

"But what about India..."

"Gabrielle, let's just think about it, okay?" Xena refused to commit herself. "We don't have to leave tonight, do we?"

The bard was disappointed, but shrugged. "No, I guess not..." She sighed. "Okay then, let’s see what these woods have to offer in comfort besides more sticks and stones to lie on and Bacchae sized mosquitos for company."

"Gabrielle..." Xena's voice was unhappy.

"I'm kiddin', okay?" The petite woman grinned. "The Athens palace it ain't, but it's what we got. It'll do for tonight."

Xena smiled and gripped her friend's shoulder and the bard covered the hand with her own for a moment, then she pulled Argo past Gabrielle toward the trees. It was when her back was turned that the bard's face suddenly twisted into a glare. The petite woman's eyes narrowed and her face went dead. For a moment it was as if a beautiful mask had been lifted to reveal a universe of pure hatred underneath. Then the expression relaxed and the bard looked normal once again as she followed the warrior and the horse towards the stand of trees.


Chapter Three: Night Camp and Inner Sadness

The woods had indeed proven to hide a good campsite. After making camp, the two women had eaten a filling dinner of jerked meat, mushrooms and cheese all cooked into a bubbling stew. Along with black bread and a salad of greens the bard had found while gathering firewood, they washed the food down with cold clear water from a nearby stream. After cleaning the cooking utensils Gabrielle had scribbled on a scroll by the firelight while Xena worked on repairing some seams and cuts on her leathers. Finally the bard rolled up the parchment and put her pens and ink away with a yawn.

"G'night, Xena." The small blond rolled into her blanket near the fire and relaxed for sleep.

"Night, Gabrielle. Pleasant dreams," Xena smiled. She began sharpening her sword as she usually did before going to bed. In the past few years she had so often needed it instantly upon awakening that she never put off doing the job till morning any more. Besides, it gave her a quiet time to reflect over the day’s events.

Gabrielle had seemed so happy today that it had come as a surprise to Xena. Uneasily she admitted to herself that the fact she was surprised that the bard was happy, was also a surprise. Her sharpening stone stopped in mid stroke as she thought uncomfortably about it. When had she started taking it for granted that her friend would not be happy? Gabrielle had always BEEN happy ... before. Before Dahak and Hope and Caesar and a dozen other things had changed her; taken away her innocence and left her sadder but wiser.

"Admit it, Warrior Princess," Xena thought with sorrow, "you fall into that category too."

She stared at her sword and sharpening stone as if she had never seen them before. She realized she wanted the old Gabrielle back, wanted her very much indeed. The Gabrielle that was so full of the joy of experiencing new things and places; the Gabrielle who was always laughing, smiling and telling stories. Could India possibly restore her?

"But she's gone," thought the warrior sadly. "I slowly killed her in a dozen ways. First when I took her to Britannia and both Caesar and Dahak got ahold of her. Caesar, the bastard, had her tied on a cross and we just barely saved her; but Dahak ... what that monster did to her..." Her eyes filled as she remembered Gabrielle floating over the altar in the demon's fiery grasp.

"She lost her blood innocence and even got pregnant by the demonic-scum..." Xena ground her teeth in rage. "When she gave birth to his daughter, she saw it as her hope for redemption. Then when she felt she had to lie to me about Hope's death to keep me from killing the little monster, she died a little that day..."

The warrior stared unseeing at the darkness. "As if that wasn't enough, just as things started to return to normal, that whole thing in Chin came up. We both made mistakes then ... big ones, but the worst was yet to come."

Xena closed her eyes in pain. "I blamed her for Solan's death when it was Callisto and Hope's fault. What was I thinking? SHE didn't kill my son, they did." The warrior pressed both hands to her face. "Then she gave her own daughter poison because I had said to ... that little bitch Hope deserved it, but oh, Gabrielle, you didn't deserve to have to do that and you died a little more..."

Xena's lips trembled and her breath was a sob. "Then, gods forgive me, I-I let Ares get to ME with his hatred and I tried to drag you to d-death behind an amazon horse and when that didn't finish you, I was going to throw you off a cliff into the sea."

The Warrior Princess opened her eyes and found her vision blurred by tears. She wiped at them furtively, glancing at where Gabrielle was wrapped in her blanket by the fire. As far as she could tell, the bard was asleep. The big woman looked up at the sky full of stars. Somewhere nearby there were night blooming blossoms that perfumed the air and she breathed deeply of their calming scent.

"Then came the miracle, Gabrielle, when my dear dead Solan came back to life long enough to take us to Illusia. There we managed to fight through our hatred and came back home healed." She thought back to when she and Gabrielle had frolicked in the warm waves on the beach and smiled softly for a moment.

"Everything seemed okay for a while, until I took you to Rome when I went up against Caesar again. You shouldn't have had to make that decision about Crassus on the spur of the moment, Gabrielle." The warrior stared at the guttering campfire. "Besides, that bastard Caesar knew who he was and chose to let him die in the arena, but you blamed yourself for it all and died some more..."

The fire snapped and the sleeping bard stirred but didn't wake up. Somewhere in the bush came the faint squeal of a mouse as a hunting owl silently swooped down for dinner. Elsewhere came a faint noise in the undergrowth as some small animal moved about its business. The leaves high in the trees rustled in a light breeze and a nut fell clicking to the ground as it hit branches on the way down. Absently the warrior's mind noted all the varied sounds, catalogued and dismissed them as no threat.

The Warrior Princess sighed softly. "After Crassus' death, when you talked in your sleep, I began to see just what I had done to you. Then I set it up so that you could go to the temple of Mnemosyne to forget everything including me if you chose to..." she blinked back sudden tears. "But you fought through that too and came back to me again ... thank the gods."

Xena grimaced. "Then when that bitch daughter of yours returned and Ares joined Dahak, you threw yourself and Hope into the volcanic pit to save me. When I thought you were dead, it almost destroyed me, but I found you again, Gabrielle."

The warrior looked at her hands. "Gods, I was SO happy to see you alive; even despite Alti's vision of our deaths. I thought all our troubles were over, but then it all started again. First it was Caesar trying to invade Greece, then there was that Shark Island Prison thing and then came Najara, damn her." Xena felt of her lower right jaw where a tooth was missing. "And now here we are ... we almost split up thanks to this whole stupid business with Aphrodite and that bratty little princess."

Xena frowned unseeing into the dark starry sky. "India ... maybe we SHOULD go see someplace new again." She slid her sword back into the sheath and yawned as she glanced around the quiet camp one last time. Then she snuggled into her own blanket and lay looking toward her sleeping friend as she began to doze off. Her last thoughts before falling asleep were, "Yeah, India ... why not?"


Chapter Four: A Taste of Freedom

As if she had been under water and was coming up for air, Gabrielle felt herself rising to the surface. Up, up she floated, until ... she blinked. By the gods! She had blinked! She could feel her eyelids go down, then back up. Something soft red and golden glowed in her vision; the campfire burning low. She ... she could see! Sounds of the night jumped into almost painful clarity in her ears. She could hear crickets! In the brush was a faint crackle of some small animal foraging. She could hear Argo somewhere cropping some grass as a late snack and ... she could hear Xena breathing deeply as she slept nearby.

Now, the bard could feel the cool night air on her skin ... Oh, Zeus! She had forgotten all the feelings. Grassy humps under her ground sheet, something she had used to hate, but now she found it almost sensual. The scent of the charcoal from the low smoldering campfire and the sweet smell of earth and night air was like some rare incense as she breathed it in gratefully.

"Xena," she thought suddenly. "Good gods, you fool! Don't just lay here sniffing the breeze! You gotta warn Xena about Hope! Get up, get UP!"

Gabrielle pushed herself up with heavy forearms, struggled to get to her feet. Somehow she made it and swayed with the unaccustomed feel of making her muscles move for herself again. Hope had been in control of her for too long. She took a step towards the sleeping warrior ... and her foot caught in the tangle of her blankets. She fell with a clang into the nearby camp supplies, sending Minya's frying pan flying. The painful landing knocked the wind out of her.

"Xena-" she managed to gasp out, but she didn't need to. At the noise of her fall, the tall warrior was already out of her blankets in a half crouch. Sword at the ready she spun about looking for enemies. Seeing none, she turned to her struggling friend.

"Gabrielle?" She was concerned. "What is it? Are you all right?" The big woman moved towards the gasping bard, looking worried.

"Xena," the bard wheezed, trying to get her breath, "It's me..." Then came the swirl of darkness closing in around her mind as her daughter emerged from deep inside of her again.

"No, you don't, mother," the insidious darkness that was her daughter Hope whispered in her brain as it clamped down on her vocal cords. "That's not the plan!"

Gabrielle wanted to scream, kick, and thrash, but lost control as Hope pushed her down inside of herself once again.

"No, it's not fair, noooooo," she screamed silently to no avail. Outside her body Xena helped the trembling bard to her feet.

"Gabrielle, what's wrong," she asked with worry. "Are you all right?"

"Watch this, mother dear," said Hope's snide thought inside the bard.

She collapsed against the warrior, crying wildly, "Where am I, where are they? Oh, Xena, stop them; if the priests sacrifice Sarafin, Hope will be loose from her cocoon!"

Xena pulled the sobbing bard against her and cuddled her tenderly. She spoke in a soothing voice. "Gabrielle. Come on, Gabrielle. Sarafin isn't here, she's safe back in Poteidaia; we saved her and Hope's dead! That was all months ago." Tenderly she stroked the bard's hair. "You were having a nightmare and I think you were walking in your sleep as well..."

"Nightmare? What?" Firmly in control, Hope spoke through Gabrielle's mouth, pretending confusion. "Oh, by the gods! It ... it was a d-dream? The temple, the sacrificial pit. It was so real. Or ... is this the dream?" She looked around sobbing wildly and trembled convincingly against the large woman who held her with tenderness. Inwardly, Hope was laughing with pleasure; Gabrielle watched it all take place as she had so many times now since Hope had taken control of her body that night in Poteidaia and felt sick.

"Shhh. Shhh." Xena held her close with comforting arms and laid her chin on the blond's head. "I gotcha, I gotcha. Yer okay. Don't cry, yer awake now. A dream can't hurt you."

"Oh, Xena," Hope sniffled, snuggling closer and allowing her sobs to slow. "You are so g-good to me. I-I don't know what I would d-do without you."

"Damn you, Hope," groaned the submerged bard. "You are so smug."

"That's right, mother dear," whispered her daughter with black joy, "and I'm in control again, so you may just as well relax and enjoy the show."

Outside, Xena smiled and spoke gently. "Gabrielle, I've been thinking and I've made a decision. If you still want to, I think the India trip is a great idea. Tomorrow we'll pick up supplies in the next town and start right out. Okay?"

Hope allowed herself to smile tearfully up at her enemy. "Really? We can? Oh, Xena, that would be so great." She hugged the pleased warrior. "You ARE good to me and we'll have a wonderful time ... I just know it."

"I'm sure we will," smiled the warrior, ruffling her friend's hair. "Do you feel like trying to sleep again? It's still hours till dawn."

"I think so," murmured Hope, faking a yawn. "Could I sleep next to you? I-I'd feel safer I think..."

"Sure," Xena said. "Here, come on. Bring your blanket over by mine."

In frustration Gabrielle watched from inside as Hope moved her body around, getting the blankets and snuggling down next to Xena, back to back. On that side of the fire lay Minya's fallen frying pan and the cook knife. The blade gleamed dully in the glow from the embers.

"Ohhh, mother, look at that..." purred the Hope thought, "It would be soooo easy. Once she's asleep ... swickkkk! Across the throat with the cook knife and it'd all be over ... and we could watch her dying eyes as she realized it was sweet little you that had killed her!"

Gabrielle was terrified, but quelled her fears, knowing that Hope was just trying to torment her. "Sure, go ahead," she thought-said disdainfully. "Then it WILL be over and I won't have to listen to you play your lousy little head-games any more. Go on; finish it. Then I won't have to go to India with you and watch you pull more of your crap."

"Oh, no you don't," said the darkness, disappointed. "You are NOT getting out of this that easy. I haven't done nearly enough to either of you yet and India might be a very good place for stuff to happen in."

"Whatever," thought the bard, pretending disinterest to hide the relief she felt. She continued trying to keep her daughter's mind off of killing Xena. "By the way, why did you bring up India anyhow? What was the point of that?"

"It was 'cause when Xena asked me why I didn't tell stories anymore, I had to change the subject quick," Hope grumbled. "I'm no good at making up those stupid tales that you like; I've got more important things on my mind. I just said the first thing I could think of to distract her ... and she's so dumb she went for it."

"Clever you," Gabrielle mentally snorted. "You don't like to tell stories, but LYING now; you're sure GOOD at that. Your father certainly taught you well, didn't he?"

"Oh, shut up," snarled the daughter of Dahak and the bard subsided, grateful that her ploy had worked. Hope grumbled for a bit more then quieted down. As she drifted off into sleep Gabrielle couldn't help but be a little excited at the prospects of the trip ahead.

"India..." she thought, surprised at her own eagerness. "We've never been there before ... and maybe, just maybe I can find a way to get loose while Hope is distracted..."


Chapter Five: Stresses and a Victory

It was dawn and the woods were cool with dew and the smells of woody things. Birds were already rustling breakfast and singing industriously as they found the various worms, bugs, berries or seeds that they loved. In the camp too, the occupants were busy. Xena was doing her morning exercises and the bard was cooking some eggs and leftover jerky and greens into an omelet for two. Argo was alternately rubbing her back against a tree and nipping up a tasty patch of tender new grass she had found.

As the bard stirred the eggs and ingredients in Minya's frying pan, it seemed she was completely engrossed in her work, but nothing was further from the truth. Inside her was a constant struggle as Hope mocked and tormented her mother with words, mental images and ugly thoughts.

"So, mommy," snickered Hope, "how did you like the way I stuck it to Xena the other day when I had her convinced you were leaving over her tearing up that stupid green top of yours?"

Gabrielle refrained from answering. Gone was the optimism of last night when she had gone to sleep dreaming of India. First thing this morning it had started again with Ho+ !!E@0@1oؼ\PYjPpPĆIc=MiWbIߡqiF{wTU$sYvi-!CdqHQ3jbZ=2MSj

W Maegashira 14 E Maegashira 15
<Ũ燼2p}xB.m"Ð0f}"ֆNCu+k\ȍOh&]bpe and completely unaware of the pain and suffering going on just yards from her.

"I asked how you liked it when I had Xena convinced you were leaving for good. Ya think it hurt her?"

Gabrielle groaned. "Do we have to do this, Hope?"

"Well, unless you'd rather I shut you down for a while..." sneered her daughter.

Gods, no, the bard thought to herself. You've had me cut off so much lately I sometimes don't know what month it is, let alone what day.

"All right, all right..." she thought to her daughter. "I doubt it hurt her, she's pretty tough..."

"Pfui! She was bothered, I could tell. I thought it was as funny as a Centaur mounting a sheep. When I left, she got that hurt look on her face and her voice was trembly too. I could'a died laughing..."

"Hilarious, you're a riot," thought the bard scathingly, although deep underneath she knew that Hope's angry leave-taking HAD hurt Xena. The big warrior was very sensitive where Gabrielle was concerned.

Hope was not pleased. She wanted a better reaction from her mother. She was silent as she thought for a while, and then grinned to herself. "Ya know mom," said Hope slyly, "it's too bad that old googoo-eyes Joxer left us back in King Melos' city yesterday. It might have been interesting if he was along too. That big dummy has the hots for you, ya know."

Gabrielle was startled out of her complacency. "Oh, get real," she snapped. "He's just a friend. He's got a heart of gold and a brain of mush and he'd trip over a thought if he ever had one."

"Sounds like love. Maybe I'll seduce him for you mom," Hope giggled. "Then after he's well hooked, I'll break up with him. See if I can drive him nuts too ... Serve him right for not hanging around for my child's dinner that time. I wonder if he's suicidal?"

"HOPE!" Gabrielle's thought was furious. "You would defile me, us ... defile yourself, by doing such a thing with a-a, an innocent fool like Joxer?"

"Well, truth be known I wouldn't want someone like him slobbering all over me ... an Ares he's not. But if it bothers you that much, maybe it's worth a try next time we see him..." Hope chuckled nastily.

Gabrielle was about to retort with a blast of anger, but suddenly realized that this was just what Hope wanted. Focus, 'Brielle, focus, she thought desperately. Remember what Xena always says ... if you lose your temper, you lose the battle; you can't think straight.

"Fine," she thought-spoke as calmly as she was able. "Go ahead and do him ... you will anyway if you want to. Besides," she made her thought purr, "I always sorta wondered what he'd be like in the bedroll ... and I haven't had any for quite awhile. Come to think of it, he IS kinda cute..."

"Cute? Joxer? CUTE?" Hope's thought-tone was incredulous. "That pasty-skinned moron? You have GOT to be kidding!! By the gods, mother, after having a lover like Ares you think I would stoop to a lowlife little wimp like Joxer?"

"Why not?" Gabrielle made her thoughts whine. "He likes me you say ... probably treat us real nice ... and that big broken nose of his; I always thought that was really his best feature ... he does have a cute mouth and he HAS got big feet; you know what they say about a man with big feet having a big..."

"Why, mother!" Hope's thought was shocked.

Gabrielle plunged on, getting into the part with relish. "Come to think of it, I did happen to see his, um, billy-club once, and it was more like a MACE! A two-handed mace at that! Believe you me, I think he could take on Argo! He ought to fill us very nicely..."

"Mother, you are sick-sick-SICK," roared Hope with horror. "You shut up right now, or I'll put you back in your box for good!!"

"But Hope, he's..."

"No, buts! Shut UP!! Be quiet, right now! One more word and you're grounded! I MEAN it!! Yer too disgusting to talk to this morning." As her daughter continued sputtering in outrage, Gabrielle wisely kept her piece.

"Xena," she thought to herself with satisfaction, "I LOVE you. Thank Zeus for the wisdom and strength you taught me. By the gods, I'm beginning to think I can get through this nightmare after all."

"Gabrielle!" Hope and her mother looked up in surprise. Xena stood before them, covered with perspiration from her workout. The warrior pointed at Minya's frying pan; the egg-omelet was a blackened and scorched mess. "What in Tartarus are you doing to breakfast? Isn't char-broiling more for steaks?"

"Oops!" Hope stammered. "I-I was thinking of something I wanted to write, and I guess I wasn't paying attention ... s-sorry."

"I'll say you weren't," said the warrior, shaking her head. "You know, I used to think you were a good cook, but the way you burn things nowadays," she scratched her damp head and grinned, "I'm beginning to think you got too close to the flames in Dahak's pit."

"Xena, it's all my fault..." Hope gulped, trying to make the warrior think she was unhappy, "now there's nothing for breakfast..."

"Don't worry about it." The tall woman wiped sweat off her brow and raised a muscled armpit for a sniff. "Whoo! I'm for a quick dip; I wouldn't want to eat this close to myself right now anyway. We can get lunch and dinner in the next village 'cause we'll be buying supplies and staying the night there."

"Staying the night? How come?"

Xena winked. "Because as I recall from my maps, that's where we gotta turn off for the trail to India."

She took the fry pan; scraped the mess into the fire and tossed it aside. "Come on, lets get a bath and then we'll get going..." she started off for the stream, then looked back at the bard and clapped her hands. "Well, let's go, slowpoke; we don't have all day! India awaits us! But first, I'll race ya to the water!"

With a laugh she sprinted off and after a moment of mental cursing, Hope followed.


Chapter Six: Travels With My Daughter

Many weeks of travel and adventures later, the two women and the golden mare came down the rough mountain trail. Some six days before, they had left Gar, the old mercenary. The crusty soldier had bid them farewell and happily gone on his way towards his home after their encounter with the strange and evil entity Aiden. After Xena had slain Aiden, the demise of the creature had freed them all from it's mental grasp and allowed them to escape the compelling make-believe world it had created, but it had been a near thing. Now the big warrior woman was limping just slightly as she led Argo and Hope/Gabrielle noticed.

"How's the leg, Xena," she asked. "Still bothering you from where that big bandit cut it before we met Aiden?" Does it hurt, she thought hopefully.

The warrior stopped and sat down on a boulder by the side of the road, took off her boot and shook it out. "Nope, I'll be just fine once I get this rock outa here," she grinned. After she dusted the bottom of her foot, she examined the faint mark across her knee where a sword cut had been. "Scarred over nicely, thank you. No ill affects, even from your sailor hands doing the stitching."

"Ha, ha. Next time you need first aid, do it yerself, X-Na!" (I should'a used the big stitches, Hope snarled to herself.)

"Hey, I'm kidding, Scab-brielle," grinned the Warrior Princess, referring to the skin disease her friend had contacted once while they were searching for Argo in a swamp. "You don't have sailor hands. Even if they were blue rock, which they almost were, I'm sure they'd be soft and gentle with your fungus fetish."

"Thanks for nothing..." grunted the bard. "At least I'm over that now, thank the gods. Zeus, do I hate swamps." She took a water skin from Argo's saddle, uncorked and drank a swallow, then poured some in her hand for the big horse to snuffle up. "Here, want some?" (Here, Xena, you drink after the horse, snickered Dahak's daughter.)

"Thanks." Xena took the skin without noticeable worry over being last and drank a swallow, then shook it with an expert hand. "Gettin' towards empty. We'd better find a spring soon or get down outa these mountains, or we could be in trouble; we've only found one clear stream since we left Aiden's cave." She put her boot back on and stood up, stamping her foot. "Ah, that's better. Let's get going. Hopefully we can be outa this pass by nightfall."

The bard nodded and they started off again over the rocky trail. As they went, Gabrielle broke her inner silence to speak to her daughter.

"Hope," she thought. "About Aiden; you knew right away what he was and you could have shrugged off that dream-world of his anytime ... why didn't you? Why did you let it go so far? You almost let me ... let us, get turned into one of those blue statues of his."

Dahak's daughter was smug. "I played along with him because I wanted to see what he had in the way of power; see if maybe I could get some of it from him. That 'Good Draining' thing he did could come in useful, mommy."

"Of course," thought Gabrielle disgustedly, "I should have known that's the kind of thing you WOULD do. You know, one day you are going to walk into that kind of trap and find that you can't just shake it off."

"Pfui," her daughter thought a spitting noise. "Remember who my father was, mommy; I'm pretty much a half-god like Hercules, remember? Aiden was just some strange mortal creature. I'm not that easy to take!"

"You mean you'd like to think you aren't," mind-growled the bard.

"Pfui," Hope thought again, and then spoke aloud, surprising her mother with her words. "Hey, Xena, look! Oh, isn't it beautiful?"

The big warrior looked up and grinned, "I guess you could say that," she admitted.

Indeed it was. The bare and rocky mountain trail they were on had made an abrupt turn around a rock face. Spreading out before them was a vast sun-splashed green valley-plain with a river running through it where boats sailed. In the center of the valley on the riverbanks stood a large and prosperous looking city. The walls and buildings were of an orangish-yellow stone the like of which the three Greeks had not seen before. It seemed to shimmer in the hot sun and they could see roads and farms and dwellings spread out for miles around the metropolis where thousands of people lived and worked and traveled. As the two women who were three gazed around at the lush valley at least two of them were taken by the peacefulness and exotic beauty of the scene.

"Look there, Xena," cried the bard pointing excitedly. "They're plowing the WATER!" Indeed, there were strange flooded square areas along the river where men and oxen toiled with plows in the water just as if they were working fields. "But they can't be; what can they be doing?"

"Well, strange as it seems," said the Warrior Princess, "they ARE plowing the water, or actually the mud under it," she amended. "They're planting rice, I think. I've seen 'em doing that in parts of Chin, too."

"Huh, plowing the water," grunted the petite redhead. "I never would'a figured that out. Yer sure 'bout that?"

"S'truth," smiled Xena. "This is definitely India we've reached now and things ARE different here, remember?"

"I guess ... not that different though. Look at that city. We can sleep inside tonight, maybe even have a bath," whooped the bard. "About time too. A hot tub and sleeping in a bed again will be quite a change from cold mountain streams and these darn rocks."

Xena put an arm around her friend and smiled, her striking blue eyes tender. "You know, Gabrielle, I'm glad you brought up coming to India," she said softly, hugging the bard.

Hope was surprised, for once didn't seem to know what to say. "Really, w-why?" She was so shocked she stuttered.

"Because it is beautiful and different and..." the warrior looked thoughtful, "and because I have a feeling that this trip is going to be good for us; really good. For the first time since Alti showed me that vision of our deaths, I feel at peace. I know, you don't believe in the vision and that's okay. But I just feel like we are going to learn so much here that's new and beneficial for us ... thanks for suggesting this trip, Gabrielle. And-and thanks..." Xena blushed faintly, but went on, "...thanks for being my friend."

"Uh, you're ... welcome," said Hope hesitantly as Xena hugged her again. Inside, as Xena hugged them, Gabrielle was surprised to feel a tiny glimmer of something like pleasure and maybe even longing coming from her daughter. Even as she noticed it however, Hope's thoughts returned to darkness and disdain so that Gabrielle wasn't even certain of what she had felt. She resolved to pay closer attention to what her daughter was feeling during times of closeness with Xena and others. The submerged bard had always felt that there had to be some good in her daughter. After all, Hope had shown a mother's love and pride in her hideous son, the Destroyer, and had always seemed to seek Gabrielle's affection. If there was any possibility of Hope's turning from evil, her mother wanted to encourage it. It might be the key to her own freedom as well. If only she could end this horrible possession and be in control of her own body again.

Outside, Xena grinned, taking Hope/Gabrielle's hand. "Okay, enough of this mush. Come on, let's get going!" Hand in hand the two women and the golden horse quickly negotiated the rocky trail down into the valley.


Chapter Seven: Into the City Lights…

Crossing a field to a road leading to the far off city, the two friends, one enemy and the horse began to see other travelers. Caravans laden with goods and rich people with guards went here and there and mingled with small groups of travelers in ones and twos like themselves. As they went they passed a group of people traveling the same direction they were going. The group consisted mainly of men, but there were a few women as well.

The people would walk several steps and then as a group they would all throw themselves full length upon their stomachs with their hands outstretched ahead of them in the dust. In less than two seconds, they would arise and walk several more steps before throwing themselves down again. It seemed to be some kind of ritual and it looked exceedingly strange to the three Greeks and the horse.

"I wonder what they're doin'?" Hope glanced covertly at the people as they passed. "Should we ask 'em?"

"Gods, no," Xena muttered in a low voice, "one thing I learned traveling, was never to question strange things I saw unless I was ready to get into an argument or a fight. It's probably something religious in nature and they'd either get mad or ignore us as heathens."

"Zeus, that's gotta be uncomfortable," marveled Hope as the group hit the ground in unison and began getting up again, "not to mention getting dirt and grit in all yer unmentionables..."

"You could be right," smiled the warrior. "In fact I think that's part of the idea ... to show you can take any amount of discomfort in the name of what you are doing ... whatever it is..."

At their normal walking speed the two women and the horse soon outdistanced the group. This was hardly a feat of speed as the bard observed, since the two of them and Argo weren't falling down every few steps.

The travelers reached the outskirts of the city at nightfall and sought out an inn. There they also stabled Argo, paying a good price for her upkeep for the next week for they did not want to have to lead the golden horse through town wherever they went. The big palomino mare seemed quite content to stay at the stables, especially as Xena promised to visit her every day and also paid for extra feed and a daily brushing by the stable hand.

At the inn the two Greeks who were three had a hot cooked meal of strange food and drink, some of which was so spicy that it made their eyes stream tears. That night they had hot baths and slept under a roof for the first time in weeks. The beds were made of wicker with thick cushions and pillows stuffed with goose down and were heavenly, but best of all there were no bugs climbing over them in the night.

The next morning early, the two/three went into the city to see the sights, a definite change from business as usual for them. They had no mission to perform, no one to find, nothing to deliver; no reason to be there other than enjoyment and they found this both strange and delightful. As they walked about they took in all the strange sights, sounds and smells. They listened to the background chatter of the strange liquid language and music, and marveled at the bright colors that seemed to be painted on the wall surfaces everywhere. Gabrielle found to her surprise, that Hope seemed as excited as she and Xena were at the sights and she squirreled that information away to look at another time. Right now there were new things to see aplenty for all three.

Here were men twisting their bodies with awkward but apparently comfortable Yogic positions in the middle of the square. On this side were a row of baskets where men in turbans sat playing squealing tunes on strange pipes that made snakes come swaying up out of the containers. A gaggle of women dressed in strange flowing clothes of vivid silky colors passed laughing and giggling at the two foreign women, one in conservative seeming Grecian dress, the other wearing men's armor and weapons.

Stopping to stare at one of the men doing Yoga who was in a horribly contorted position, ankles crossed behind his head, the bard remarked, "Now do you see why I do Yoga every day?"

Xena snorted with derision. "So you don't end up like that?"

"Xena, he's a MASTER," Gabrielle said in an awed tone. "I can only hope to achieve that kind of power."

"Don't get me wrong..." the Warrior Princess said condescendingly, "the gods know I've done stranger things, but Yoga's just not me."

The copper-haired young woman shook her head at her friend’s tone. "Well, when yer crippled and old and I'm doing headstands, I'll remind you of this."

"I'll bet you will..." agreed the warrior sarcastically. "Come on, something over there smells good to eat; let's check it out."


Chapter Eight: The Greek Tourists and the Magician

Everywhere the two women walked with the teeming populace through the sun-baked streets they passed small stalls with sizzling smells of strange foods and spices that filled the nose and tempted with mouth-watering promises. The two Greeks bought various strange foods at these booths and sometimes grimaced at tastes the natives seemed to relish. More often they smiled and bought more to carry with them and nibble as they went on looking at the goods for sale.

There were many other unfamiliar sights to see as well. Small monkeys ran and climbed everywhere in the trees, on buildings, in the streets and no one paid heed. Cows too wandered here and there and held up traffic when they stopped for no reason in the center of a crowded street. No one shooed them off or seemed to care and the two Greeks took a clue from the populace and did nothing either. When this happened, as it often did, they sought a different route with others who didn't wish to wait for the animals to move.

Passing through an alley they saw a man. He lay snoring on a bed of nails with no seeming discomfort and passersby paid him no heed. Unable to control her curiosity, Hope crept up and felt of one of the nails and winced at the sharpness she found. The man was sound asleep and noticed nothing, but Xena pulled her away anyhow. Once again on a main street, they found themselves in a marketplace with throngs of people and places to buy things.

At last they came to where a crowd was gathered near a building and worked their way to the front. Here was a bearded street magician in a green robe and a lovely young woman in a flowing dress.

"Good people," he shouted, "prepare to be astonished as I send my brave assistant Maya into the land of the spirits!" With the rest of the crowd, Gabrielle looked on with excitement, but Xena looked openly skeptical.

With a shout, the man threw a rope into the air and to the amazement of the crowd it formed a straight line upwards into thin air and stood there quivering from the coil at the bottom as if alive.

"Xena," gasped Hope, "how is that possible?"

The equally amazed warrior took a guess, "I, uh, suppose the coil at the bottom supports the rope?"

The street magician apparently overheard her, or anticipated the question uppermost on all minds in the crowd. "Come," he said loudly. "Any skeptics are welcome to join me and prove it's but an illusion..."

The bard pushed the surprised warrior forward. "Here's your woman," she shouted with a wide grin.

Xena glowered at her, but stepped up on the stage. She drew her sword and poised herself. "Oookay, since you ask..." she said, indicating the quivering rope. The magician shrugged and inclined his head with a knowing look.

The big woman swung the sword with a grunt, neatly severing the rope at about waist height. The bottom piece immediately collapsed, but to Xena and the crowds surprise the top part remained quivering in the air as if tied there. The magician smiled. "Satisfied?"

Embarrassed, Xena stepped back from the dangling rope into the crowd and put her sword away. Hope/Gabrielle grinned at her and the warrior elbowed the bard soundly in the ribs. Meanwhile, the magician spoke again. "Come Maya, up you go. Let's not keep the spirits waiting."

The young woman grinned and grasped the rope and began pulling herself strongly up. The rope trembled a bit, but easily held her weight. As she went the green robed magician kept up his patter. "There she goes, people. Up to that land beyond this earthly vale, a place known only in songs and legends ... a region completely uncharted by humans..." his voice dropped to a whisper, "until now."

The girl had reached the top of the rope and was hanging there. She smiled and waved merrily at the gaping people below. The magician raised his hand. "Wish her luck, folks," he called.

Then he waved his hands and shouted a mystic word. With a puff of smoke, the girl was gone from the top of the rope! The crowd gasped and even Xena looked impressed. The empty rope continued to stand in the air and quiver. The magician turned to the crowd and smiled.

"Ladies and gentlemen, if it is true that seeing is believing ... then you have just witnessed a miracle ... but please, don't take my word for it. Ask her yourself..." He looked up and raised his voice, "Maya! Return to us!" The crowd gazed upwards in rapt attention for her return, but only the rope stood there quivering in the air.

The magician appeared puzzled. "Maya," he repeated louder. "Return to us!"

Once more the crowd looked up in expectation. For a moment it seemed they were to be disappointed again, then something fell from mid air to the ground; it was a human arm! Suddenly the sky began raining severed body parts! Another arm, two legs, a torso, a head. They fell onto the stage clumping and thumping like some ghastly fruit from a dying tree.

"Maya," shouted the magician. "By the gods, what's happened?" He began grabbing up the body parts and throwing them all into a large wicker basket sitting there.

The Warrior Princess whispered to the bard, "Don't be scared; those are just pieces of a dummy..."

"And not a very good one at that," murmured the small red-blond woman, covering her smile with a hand.

On stage the magician gave a commanding look at the crowd. "Wait," he shouted, "there's still a chance that I can save her, but I will require complete silence." The horrified audience held it's breath, but the bard and the warrior were now skeptical; Xena nudged Gabrielle with a knowing look at the basket. The magician closed the lid of the container full of body parts. He shouted another word of power and the lid flew off of the basket and the young woman began rising out of it completely whole again.

Hope suddenly spoke to Gabrielle and her thought was intrigued. "Hello ... now this is odd, mother. This woman has changed. Can you see the colors outlining her?"

Gabrielle, looking with her daughter's vision could indeed see a pinkish shimmering like faint sparks around the woman. "What is it," she asked in wonder.

"Shhh. I don't know, just watch..." thought the daughter of Dahak. "This could be interesting..."


Chapter Nine: A Touch of Pink

On the stage the act continued. "Thank goodness," the magician said, putting on a relieved look for the crowd. "For a minute there I thought something had gone wrong..."

The young woman's head was bowed as she rose from the basket, but when her face was revealed, there was a hideous sneer upon it and her eyes were glassy white. She hissed like a snake and leaped from the basket toward the magician with her fingers curved into claws.

The man looked truly surprised and fearful at the sight. "Maya," he cried. "What's wrong? This isn't part of the act." The woman hissed again and picked up two swords from a rack of magical props. They were heavy and she should have had trouble holding them, but they seemed to be light as feathers to her. They clashed as one in each hand, she began spinning them back and forth in a deadly ring of steel and advanced on the man as he fell back in alarm.

"Neat," chuckled Hope to her mother, "I think she's possessed! She'll make tossed salad out of him with those swords."

"Possessed?" Gabrielle thought in horror. "You mean something has taken her over, like ... like..."

"Yeah, just like I did you, mommy," bubbled her daughter. "I wonder who or what it is? This could be really intense."

Meanwhile, outside, Xena instantly took in the situation and realized that this was no longer part of the act. Drawing her sword, she flipped up onto the stage with a battle cry. As she landed the woman turned, swords still twirling and moved towards her instead.

"Be careful," shouted the terrified magician. "Something's gone wrong."

The warrior back-flipped away from the deadly ring of spinning steel, grabbed a heavy melon from a nearby venders stall and hurled it at the woman. The melon seemed to explode into a million chunks as it met the swords in midair and slowed down their motion not at all.

"Yeah, oh YEAH," chortled Hope to her mother. "Come ON, Maya! Get her!"

Just then Xena cracked her whip around Maya's waist and yanked her so that she spun out of control towards the warrior. When she was fully wrapped up in the whip, the Warrior Princess gave a battle cry and yanked it the other way, causing the other woman to spin like a yo-yo and fly through the air to demolish a food stall with her body.

"It's over," exclaimed the submerged bard with relief. "She's gotta be out cold from a hit like that."

"No way," whispered her daughter with a bubbling giggle. "Watch her..."

Hope was right; the impact should have incapacitated any normal human, but with a sudden hiss the woman smashed her way out of the ruins of the stall and began twirling the swords as she advanced on Xena again. The big warrior was ready and did a spinning leap-kick forward which catapulted the possessed woman backwards toward the magician who had been gaping at the struggle all this time.

"Abba, help me..." he screamed as his flying assistant smashed into him. He was staggered backwards and the woman hit the ground on her back. Instantly she went into convulsions, arms and legs flailing as a screeching whine like rusty nails on stone clawed its way from her throat. Xena, the magician and the crowd watched in stunned horror, not understanding what was happening. Hope on the other hand was running forward.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle thought in a panic. "You don't know how to help her..."

"Shuddup, mommy," snarled the daughter of Dahak. "I don't care about helping her ... I wanna see this closer!" She ran right up and kneeled beside the screaming, vibrating woman and watched raptly. "This is great," she said, "I could make your body do this too, you know, mother." Slowly she reached out toward the contorting woman.

"Hope, don’t!" Gabrielle cried out. "It might be catching…"

"’Shuddup,’ I said," Hope sneered and touched the vibrating assistant.

At that moment, it was as if a hot pink light erupted from the magician's assistant. Vaguely human in form, but like pink smoke it flew up into the air and whipped around the area like a screaming cyclone, making the crowd duck and cry out in terror. Then it hovered back over the assistant and Hope/Gabrielle for a moment before seeming to vanish into thin air. But the submerged bard knew better, for the pink light was inside her now!

Not only that, but it had been pulled there by the darkness that was inside of her; by the darkness that was Hope, her daughter and the daughter of Dahak.


Chapter Ten: Nightmare in Pink

"Gotcha," thought-grinned Hope, as she pushed the hot pinkness down next to her mother. "Now, whattaya got that I WANT?"

The pinkness swirling around Gabrielle seemed to consist of all fangs, desires and hungry appetite. An appetite for praise, for fulfilling it's own desires, for tawdry symbols of worship and above all, for power over all beings who were somehow in it's rabid estimations, lesser than it ... and it seemed somehow, female. The bard was aware of all this and at the same time somehow distantly sensed what was going on outside as well. Hope was asking the magician's assistant if she was all right and Xena and the magician were both there too.

The pinkness swirled around and seemed to become aware of her for the first time. "I be Tataka! You will submit," it raved. "Submit or Tataka HURT you!"

"I don't THINK so," thought Gabrielle to the swirling pink mist that seemed to surround her. "In case you haven't noticed, you're the one in trouble here, not me. Uh, I mean I'm in trouble too," she amended, "but you're in MORE trouble, or at least as much trouble as I am ... I mean, I don't even have a body right now ... well, I do, but..."

The pinkness seemed to purr. "You not want submit to Tataka? Good! Tataka LIKE hurt you!" It seemed to somehow form claws and Gabrielle felt a sudden fear. At that moment the Hope blackness swirled around the pinkness and somehow seemed to effortlessly contain it in chains of darkness. Suddenly the thing that called itself Tataka was afraid.

"Let Tataka go and she not hurt you..." the pinkness said experimentally testing the bonds.

"Shuddup and don't cause me any trouble," snarled Hope. "I'm a little busy right now; understand?" And Dahak's daughter suddenly applied pressure in some manner and the pinkness wailed.

"Ooooo! Stop! Stop! Tataka be good, please not hurt Tataka, oh greater demon..."

"Good," snickered Hope. "Now stay there and be quiet till I'm ready to deal with you ... Oh, and don't bother her either," she said indicating her mother. "She's mine and no one torments her but me!"

"Yes, mistress," sniveled the chained pinkness.

"Later, mommy," chuckled Hope as she swirled away, blocking off all of her mother's outside senses.

Dammit, thought the bard, mentally rolling her eyes. I was hoping she wasn't gonna do that again for a while. Well, at least I have company this time.

"And you are..." she thought-asked the pinkness.

"I be Tataka," said the pink mist as if that explained everything.

"Nicely cryptic, but not very informative," Gabrielle thought-sighed. "What are you?"

"I be not 'what', I be Tataka, great goddess of lustful desire," the pinkness said proudly.

"Really," said the bard ironically, "not much of a job description. If you're this great goddess, how come yer trapped in here with me?"

"Tataka was tricked," said the pink mist angrily. "Was kicked out of woman's body I took, by the Devi who pretends to be street magician. Then big black demon grabbed me when I try to take your body."

"Why try to take MY body anyway? Why not just fly off and find someone else?"

"Warrior woman be cause of Tataka being cast out; she fought and Tataka lost good body of Maya because of her. Tataka want revenge on warrior, but she be too tough for normal host to fight, so Tataka get sneaky. Thought to take warrior's friend; for always, friend not fight as hard against friend."

"Revenge," thought the bard with disgust, "it always seems to come back on those seeking it and people like me get stuck in the middle." Something struck her then. "You said the street magician is a Devi," Gabrielle asked curiously. "What's a Devi?"

"Devi be a demon ridder," the Tataka pinkness swirled a bit trying Hope's chains for weakness. "When warrior woman knock me into him, Devi call his power and cast Tataka out of nice body she took; not fair! Then big black demon grab Tataka; again not fair to little nice demon like Tataka!"

"Oh, so now yer a demon, not a goddess after all," said the bard.

"No, Tataka is goddess," said the pinkness unconvincingly. "Who you? Minor demon big black demon capture like poor Tataka?"

"I'm no demon, minor or otherwise," said the bard. "My name is Gabrielle and what you call the big black demon is my daughter, Hope ... and she's more of a-a half-god."

"Half-god? Gabry-el be the concubine of a god?"

"No," snapped the bard. "I'm not anybody's concubine, thank you very much!"

The pinkness was curious. "Where you and daughter from, Gabry-el? Tataka not hear of you before."

"We're not from around here," Gabrielle thought-sighed. "We're from Greece, if it matters."

"Grees? Where that," said the pinkness. "Is near Sunnupttra Grotto?"

"I don't know," said the bard, "it's far to the west of here, near the Aegean Sea ... many months travel away."

"Ahhh," said the pink mist. "That why Tataka never hear of this Grees; that be long way from here ... long way, yeessss..."

Gabrielle wasn't sure, but she thought she could sense a certain craftiness that suddenly underlay the pink mist's demeanor. Hope, she thought, you'd better be careful with this Tataka, or you could land us both in big trouble.


Chapter Eleven: Of Demons and Deceits

Suddenly Hope was there and Gabrielle and the pink mist that was Tataka could see and hear to the outside again. The bard was surprised at the changes from the last time she had been able to see. They were still in the city square, but the street magician and Xena were nowhere in sight. The bard of Poteidaia was alone and the crowd was encircling her all around. They were jostling and pushing and attempting to reach her and the volume of noise was frightening and the foreign accents hard to understand. The faces were not helping either, because some looked awed, some looked frightened, some seemed in shock and some seemed almost panicked.

"Well, that's just about IT," Hope snarled with anger. "To Tartarus with it; I'm gonna blast 'em all." She began looking about. "Where are some weapons I can start mind-throwing?"

"What? Who?" Thought the bard in confusion. "What's wrong, Hope?"

"Xena's gone, Eli's gone, Maya's gone, and even the priest is gone! All these smelly peasants are starting to crowd me! They all want something and they're tryin' to touch me! Me, the daughter of Dahak, and I don't like it!" Hope dodged aside from a burly one-eyed man who tried to touch her. "That's it! I'm gonna start kickin' some butt..."

Suddenly the chained pinkness spoke. "Please mistress. No hurt them. These be simple people. Let Tataka have control for little while ... Tataka know what be do with these people. Please? Please, great black mistress?"

Again, Gabrielle sensed the underlying current of cunning in Tattika's thought and was worried. "Hope," she thought-spoke, "I don't think that's a good idea..."

"Quiet, mommy," said her daughter disdainfully. "I can handle this. Okay, Tataka, I'm gonna let you have control for a while ... lets see what you can do ... and remember ... if I don't like what I see you doing, I'll punish you and take back over."

"Yes, mistress Hope," came the meek answer.

The daughter of Dahak did something with her mind and the black chains holding Tataka vanished as if they had never been there, which indeed they had not except mentally. The pinkness flowed around as if stretching now that it was free again, then "moved" somehow to assume command of the bard's body. Gabrielle and Hope watched curiously as Tataka smoothly took control. Meanwhile the crowd had encircled them chanting the same few words over and over. The bard thought she could recognize the word "Devi" among them.

Tataka had Gabrielle's body raise her hands and the throng quieted somewhat to listen. "But I'm not what you think I am," she said to the crowd, "I'm not a Devi." The crowd began milling about, fawning on her, taking up the chant once more.

"What's she up to," thought Gabrielle worriedly. "How come she talks differently now?"

"Who knows; shuddup and watch," said the daughter of Dahak. "I wanna see this."

As mother and daughter watched, one man in particular came forward from the crowd. He was the big burly man with one blind eye who had tried to touch Hope before. He was chattering about her driving out the demon from the woman and being a Devi. "Praise her," he said bending low, "praise our Devi!"

When he came up from his bow, he shouted with astonishment for his damaged eye was whole again. "I can see! Look! Look! I can see you," he cried as the crowd went wild. He drew a huge curved blade and placed it point down to the ground in front of the small blond. "You did it! You cured me! Your servant and defender, Devi; my sword for you!"

"Tataka did that," thought Gabrielle in amazement. "She healed him? Healing is good! Maybe she's not ... evil?"

"No way, mommy," her daughter thought disdainfully. "He did it himself; two dinars says he was never blind. Can't you see that red light all around him? He's another demon, working with Tataka!"

"What? How?" As she looked carefully Gabrielle found she could see a faint red glow around the huge man.

"It's obvious, mom. She's got a real team working. I'd bet she's done this sorta stuff lotsa times before. These demons probably all hang together for the easy pickings. Look, there comes another one ... and another." Now there were two more of the large warrior types who proclaimed their swords to protect and defend the "Devi". To the bard's somehow enhanced vision, both had a dim red light surrounding them.

Outside, Tataka, surrounded now by the three other demon "guards" smiled and chatted with the thronging people, blessing them and touching their outstretched hands as she moved among them. The crowd moved with her, chanting and calling for more miracles. Looking out of her eyes as Tataka moved her head around, Gabrielle could see everything in a curious kind of tunnel vision. She found that it was not quite the same as watching when Hope was in charge and the bard's part of her mind wondered what the difference was. As they moved, she caught occasional glimpses of an older Indian man in a blue robe on the outskirts of the crowd. He was staring at the scene and an expression of dislike was on his face. She studied him as best she could in glimpses and wondered what he was angry about, but then Hope broke her concentration.

"Wow, this is great mommy," her daughter chuckled. "They all love me! This is almost as good as being worshiped by those fools in father's temple."

"Not everybody loves you, it seems..." said her mother. "I wonder why that man is looking so sourly at us?"

"What man? Let me see..." said Hope sharply. "Oh, him? I thought he was gone. He's that priest guy who gave Eli a hard time about bringing evil with him to the town; harmless old geek."

"He gave Eli a hard time? Hope, I've never even seen this man before and who's this Eli you mentioned?" Gabrielle thought confusedly. "And by the way, where's Xena?"

"Never mind," thought her daughter with disdain. "It all happened right after Tataka got here while you were closed down..."

The submerged bard was angry. "It was you that closed me down, remember. You know what? I'm not just some old oil lamp you can light or blow out anytime you want..."

"Shuddup!" Hope snapped. "It all takes too long to explain..."

"And whose fault is that..."

"Eli is Devi who cast Tataka out," Tataka suddenly thought-interrupted with a snarl. "Your Xena get him away when priest start trouble. Devi must be killed, so he not threaten us. Priest must be killed too; if he suspect Tataka is here he may try exorcise us..."

"Oh, to Tartarus with this!" Hope cursed. "You've had your fun, Tataka, but I can do what you are doing here just as well. Give me back control now."

"Sorry mistress Hope," purred the pink thought. "You give Tataka control; Tataka not want give back yet!"

There was a stunned thought silence for a moment, and then the Tataka pinkness began laughing unpleasantly.

"Uh, oh," thought Gabrielle half worried and half tickled at the same time, "looks like the boot's on the other foot, Hope. I tried to warn you..."

"No WAY!" Dahak's daughter roared incredulously. "Give control back to me this instant you little pink piss-ant of a demon, or I'll HURT you! I'm in charge here..."

"No," said the pinkness. "Tataka be in charge; you give control to Tataka. According to Magical Treaty of Sunnupttra Grotto: When first demon Possessor give control of host to second demon, only way control can be get back is if second demon Possessor agree. All agree to be bound by treaty; no one can break. Tataka NOT give back host! Nyahh!"

"WHAT?!!" Hope was incredulous. "I didn't know about this Treaty of Sunni-poopoo whatever-it-was..."

"Is tough," snickered the pinkness. "Rules be rules. Tataka in charge now, and Tataka STAY in charge! Big black Hope demon can bite bubbles in bath water," and she sent a crude mental picture to go with her words.

At this rude image, Gabrielle giggled in spite of herself. She realized she was enjoying the exchange between Hope who had held her captive for so long and Tataka who now seemed to hold Hope in the same way.

"RULES? Rules mean nothing to me," thought-bellowed Hope. "I'm the daughter of Dahak! I'm not going to just punish you, Pinkie! Now I'm gonna destroy you!"

"Take best shot," said the pink mist, seeming to form claws, "Tataka not go without fight, mistress."

Gabrielle caught a feeling of joyful cunning from the pink mist again and tried to speak to her raving daughter. "Uh, Hope, I don't think..."

The Hope blackness ignored her and began gathering itself, swirling about like a tornado. As if the bard had a body that could be physically affected, Gabrielle was thrust aside somehow by a wind where there was no wind, a solid wall of water where there was none. She sensed rather than felt her daughter hurl herself at the Tataka demon, ravening for the kill.

However, the pinkness and the blackness did not even seem to touch, but there was somehow a blinding flash of discord. Gabrielle was somehow flung about. She felt as if she were inside a ringing temple bell and smelled a nasty color of green, which caused her thoughts to spin madly ... then she knew nothing more.

Chapter Twelve: When Demons Fight

Outside, the Devi stumbled and almost fell to her knees, but the large self-proclaimed defender caught her before she could go over. The crowd around her shouted questions and surged about. The other two guards drew their swords looking for enemies and for a moment it looked as if there might be bloodshed. Suddenly the crowd quieted again as the Devi raised her hands.

"I be all right," she said in a croaking voice like a knife scraping stone. The people in the crowd nearest her stared at the change and even the three Defenders looked uncertain. The Devi coughed and cleared her throat.

"No, really, I'm fine. Really." She said in the loving low voice the people had come to expect. The Defenders relaxed a tad and the crowd milled about uncertainly.

"What happened, Devi," called someone from the crowd. "Are you all right?"

"A bug flew into my throat and I had to cough, that's all. I'm fine. Thank you for catching me, Ravi." She laid a hand on the large guards arm, and smiled a beautiful smile. The formerly one-eyed man shivered as if he were a dog who had been petted by its mistress.

"Praise our Devi," he shouted. "Praise her!" The crowd took up the chant and the Devi smiled graciously as they moved on.

As they went through the streets, the Devi spoke in an undertone to the burly guard. "Now let's go to the next market square over, when we get there, help me leave the crowd. For now, I need to meet Xena alone."

"Yes, Devi. You will be all right?"

"Oh yes. She is my ... friend, after all. You can meet me tomorrow where we stay ... oh, and gather a crowd and bring them along as well."

"Yes, Devi." The man nodded. "You have but to command."

The short woman with the coppery hair smiled. "In the meantime, Ravi, once the crowd departs, I have something I need you and the others to do..."

"Yes, Devi. We need to move quickly then?"

The woman considered. "No. Tonight will be soon enough and darkness hides many sins. There is this priest ... you know the one?"

"I saw him; I know where he may be found."

"Good," said the petite woman smiling again and waving at the crowd. "He needs to be raised up so that all who see him can benefit from the wisdom he provides. You understand?"

The large man grinned and bobbed his head. "I hear and obey, Devi."


Chapter Thirteen: Lost Hope

Gabrielle felt as if she had been shattered into a million tiny pieces and was now coming back together. Painfully. It seemed dark where she was. For a moment she could not recall what had happened, then she remembered. Hope had attacked Tataka and there had been this ... disruption.

The bard tried to look around but could see nothing. Was she still trapped inside her body, or was she now in control again? She couldn't seem to feel her body. Was she blind; deaf as well?

"Mother..." came a ... voice? No. It was a thought. She recognized it. It was Hope, but her daughter's mental voice had never before felt so weak.

"Hope? Are you here? What's going on? I can't see..." A flickering light(?) began to build like one small candle in a huge cavern. Gabrielle could see something now in the darkness; a dark shape like a small woman huddled on the 'floor' of the cavern.

The submerged bard-thought moved forward. "Hope? Is that you? What happened?"

"Tataka..." said her daughter. "She ... She's still got control. I don't understand why. I am ... was ... much more powerful than she ... I handled her so easily before ... now I feel ... drained somehow."

"By the gods," Gabrielle exclaimed as a light dawned for her.

"What?" Hope sounded tired and irritable.

"The Treaty of Sunnupttra Grotto," said her mother. "I thought Tataka was too confident..."

"What of it ... some stupid rules," Hope snarled weakly. "I don't follow ... the rules..."

"Hope, sometimes its better to follow the rules." Gabrielle thought grimly to her daughter. "Remember what Tataka said? No one can break the magical treaty. All are bound by it."


"No buts, Hope," Gabrielle's thought was bleak. "I tried to tell you to be careful, but you stepped right into it. You did just what Tataka wanted, and now look at you..."

"Mother of big black demon be smart." There was a sudden swirl of pink and Tataka was there. "She knows to listen when others speak. Too bad big black daughter not as smart as mother Gabry-el."

"Tricked me..." Hope's thought was weak.

"Yesss. Tataka trick Hope mistress into attacking!" The pink mist swirled happily. "No Possessor can break magic of the treaty, all be bound by it; otherwise, any bigger demon who not want small demon like Tataka in control, they just take over. Not with treaty. Our treaty stop fight between all Possessors; now all work together. Plenty host around for all."

"I didn't know ... about your ... treaty ... shouldn't affect me..."

"Matter not," the pinkness that was Tataka seemed to smile. "Big magic we worked. Any Possessor go against treaty, be drained of power and will die unless original Possessor let them have the host ... or let them free." The pinkness laughed and Gabrielle somehow felt cold.

The pinkness whispered joyfully, "...and Tataka not let Hope mistress have body back, or go free. Hope mistress will die and Tataka keep body of Gabry-el ... from now on."

Tataka swirled away laughing and the diminished Hope darkness seemed to shiver. "Mother..." it moaned. "Help meeee..."

"Hope..." Gabrielle's answering thought was sad. "Look what your hatred has done to us. You're dying and I'm still imprisoned in my own body. Oh, you've had your revenge on me all this time, but it won't do you any good if you cease to exist. It's Tataka who has won and you even helped her. Congratulations; your father would be so proud."

Her daughter’s only reply was a soft keening of pain.

"Hope," Gabrielle cried, suddenly frightened she would be left alone with this Tataka creature. "Hope, please ... you'll be all right. How many times have you survived before? You can fight this. Fight it!"

The blackness that was her daughter was somehow less than it had been. It seemed to be fading away taking with it the small light that had been there. Hope spoke and her thought was barely a whisper. "M-Mother ... dying ... sorry I ... made you ... hate me..."

Gabrielle felt as if a great lump of sadness was filling her. "Oh, Hope," she gasped, "I don't hate you. I could have loved you ... If only you hadn't gone Dahak's way ... killed Solan ... caused so much evil..."

Her daughter's thought was fading fast with the light; there was an unintelligible thought jumble, then a last few clear words. "M-Mother ... I love ... youuuuu..." then the darkness was complete and there was nothing.

Gabrielle couldn't believe it. "Hope? HOPE!!" Her thought was a scream, but her questioning thoughts were met by only blackness and silence and she felt cold. She had daily prayed for her daughter to be gone from out of her for almost a year now, but a strange emptiness began settling in on the bard. Hope, she thought desolately, now that you really are dead and gone, the strange thing is, despite everything you did ... I'm sad. I feel like crying, but I can't.

In the all-pervasive darkness of her own mind, Gabrielle floated in a pool of sorrow. Oh, Xena, she thought miserably, you are my only hope for freedom now ... and you don't even know what's happened.


Chapter Fourteen: Problem for a Warrior Princess

It was after dark and the two women were back in their room for the night. All around them were the muted noises and smells of the vast city full of people all crowded together in one spot. To the two travelers, used to sleeping so often in a lonely camp in the wilds it was somehow both comforting and annoying at the same time to know there were so many people crowded so close by. Xena sat on the bed with the bard behind her, the bard massaging her big friend's tight back.

"Agh! Ouch!"

"Sorry; should I stop?"

"No, it's all right; I need it..." Xena groaned again theatrically before continuing. "Thanks Gabrielle; I think I strained myself a bit during that new spin flip I used on Maya this morning ... just keep on, please. Now, where was I?"

"Telling me about Eli..." said the bard, with a lopsided smile that the warrior didn't see.

"Oh, yeah ... so, I got this guy Eli away to a safe spot and talked to him a little bit," said the Warrior Princess. "He's tricky, but nice enough, I guess." She snorted in derision. "He tried to hypnotize me into telling him about you..."

"No kidding," said the bard, squeezing a knotted muscle; her face behind the warrior was tense but her voice betrayed nothing. "Why me, in Zeus' name?"

"He thinks yer a Devi ... that's some kinda healer, I guess, and he wants to be one himself; thought maybe you could show him how to gain that power ... Oh, yeahhh ... that's great..." Xena groaned in relief as Gabrielle's strong fingers continued working methodically. The warrior woman grinned and went on in a teasing tone. "Maybe you are a Devi after all..."

Instead of laughing, however, the short woman's voice was questioning. "Maybe I am..." she sounded thoughtful and her fingers stopped moving.

The raven-haired warrior looked over her shoulder at her friend in surprise. The strawberry-blond stared back intensely, her face aglow. The big warrior felt uneasy at her friend's expression and looked it, but said nothing.

"Xena," the bard spoke in awed tones, "SOMETHING happened to me and I've been trying to think of how to tell you..."

The Warrior Princess gazed cautiously at her. "What...? What happened?"

"I did it," the petite woman sounded proud. "Xena, I healed someone! A man came to me; he had lost his eye. Xena, I brought back his sight!"

"Gabrielle..." Xena now looked skeptical.

"I can't explain it..." the petite woman said, "but it was REAL, Xena, and there were others..."

The warrior woman simply stared as her friend went on with a questioning look on her face. "I wondered... I know that you had a spirit inside you once..." she clasped her hands. "What does that feel like?"

"Gabrielle..." Xena spoke carefully. "There are good spirits ... and bad, but they're smart and sometimes you can't tell one from another."

The bard shook her head in a negative gesture. "Whatever this was, it wasn't bad, Xena ... how could it be? It was ... beautiful!" The small woman looked radiant and cupped her own cheeks with her fingers. "I HEALED! That is ALL I've ever wanted to do, that is all I have ever DREAMED about doing..."

Since when, thought the warrior confusedly to herself. Whatever happened to you wanting to be the best Bard you could be; or the one who would make the world stop fighting; stop revenging? What's happened to you?

A strange expression came over Gabrielle's face as she stared into midair. She walked to the balcony door and gazed out at the city. "Now that I have this ability ... I think I understand that power..." her voice became awed. "The power to control life ... and death..."

The warrior's eyes widened, then narrowed and her expression was guarded as she watched the young woman who seemed to be almost strutting around the candlelit room.

Chapter Fifteen: Xena’s Suspicions

It was morning in the city and the rising temperature promised another hot day in the sun-drenched land. Exotic birdsong filled the air and competed with the chatter of the small monkeys clinging to and squabbling in every tree. The rising hum of the populace going about its business mixed with the noises of nature awakening. Inside the room the two women shared, the gaudy painted plaster walls of the room shown with the warm dawn light of India. It was a peaceful and drowsy beginning to a morning already promising to be lovely and full of beauty. Unlike the bard, the Warrior Princess was up and dressed already and had been since long before dawn.

Now Xena stood in the middle of the room and stared at her sleeping friend's back and her expression was full of doubt and mistrust. She had long wrestled with these feelings before falling asleep with exhaustion a few hours before. Then she had a nightmare of Gabrielle's face covered with a bland mask from behind which issued low animal-like noises. In the dream she had reached out and lifted the mask and underneath was a gaping hole full of fangs and writhing squid tentacles.

The warrior had awakened shaking and covered with a sheen of night sweat. No matter how she tried, she had not been able to get back to sleep. She had risen and dressed and pondered till dawn began to show outside. Now finally she seemed to have come to a decision. She nodded to herself and relaxed slightly and her expression became neutral.

Catlike, she approached the bed where her friend lay and stopped several feet back. She shrugged her worry-tight shoulders and neck in a vain attempt to get the tenseness out and loosen up. Then she cleared her throat softly and spoke. "Gabrielle ... you asleep?"

"Not any more." When the young woman answered and rolled over, her voice was so clear that it was obvious she had not been asleep and Xena knew it. Gabrielle stretched and pretended to yawn as she turned and the warrior frowned. "What's up, Xena?"

"Us," she said shortly, "at least we should be ... come on, get up ... we'll go do some yoga, get something to eat..." She watched her friend closely as she mentioned the exercises. "We can be on the road by noon..."

The bard looked surprised. "Yoga," she repeated. "We're gonna do yoga? As in you and me?" She looked hard at the warrior for a moment, then got up from the bed and spoke in a teasing tone. "Okay! Who are you and what have you done with Xena?"

"Ha, ha," the warrior said sourly, refusing to rise to the joke. She looked hard and determined; ready to spring into action at the blink of an eye.

The petite woman's expression was searching, then her eyes narrowed. "I know what yer doing," she said slowly approaching the bigger woman. "Yer checking to see if I'm the same Gabrielle as always!" She threw up her hands and her voice was irritated. "Admit it Xena! You're afraid the power I have is bad..."

"When it comes to special powers I've learned you can't be too careful," the Warrior Princess said softly, never taking her eyes from the bard.

The small woman relaxed; she grasped the warrior by both arms, squeezing for reassurance. "And you're right," she said reasonably. "Relax. I bet ... I bet it was a fluke!" She smiled beautifully and began walking toward the outside balcony that led to the stairs down from their room. "Most people have probably forgotten it by now." Her voice was calm and cheerful and normal and the warrior felt her fears suddenly lessen. This was Gabrielle; bard of Poteidaia, her best friend and companion; how could she have thought otherwise?

Xena hesitated, then followed her out. "We-ell, maybe yer right..." she said, sounding sheepish as she joined her friend outside.

As they reached the edge of the balcony however, a man's voice called out loudly. "LOOK! There she IS! The DEVI!!" Stunned, the two Greeks looked down to see a vast crowd of people on the ground below. All had their faces upturned to the porch and as the two women became visible the throng began to chant over and over. "Devi. Devi. DEVI! Praise her, praise her, PRAISE HER!!!"

Xena stared at the chanting crowd, then glanced at Gabrielle. The young woman's green eyes were sparkling and she looked to be thoroughly enjoying the adoration. The warrior's face closed with suspicion and determination again, then without another word she left the bard on the balcony.


Chapter Sixteen: The Hunger of Tataka

Inside the bard, the pinkness spoke to Gabrielle. "Ah. Warrior woman be leaving. Good. Now Tataka can join her worshipers. Gain power. Eat strength. Grow big again!"

"Is that what this is all about?" Gabrielle's thought was filled with disgust. "Power?"

"Of course, Gabry-el," said the pink mist. "Tataka must eat to become powerful; grow big. Worshippers feed Tataka with love, serving, and praise. Tataka gain strength."

"That is so disgusting," thought the submerged bard furiously. "Feeding on false worship..."

"Why is disgusting?" The pinkness was puzzled. "Gabry-el must eat to remain strong when she has body, yes? So must Tataka." She waved, seemingly at the throng in general, but actually signaling to Ravi and the other two Defenders to escort her into the crowd.

"Of course Gabrielle must eat ... uh, I mean, I must eat," thought the bard, "but I don't trick people into worshipping me as some kind of-of deity to do it..."

"Tataka is hunter of food, so is Gabry-el, yes?" The pinkness nodded as the three Defenders approached.

"I am not," snapped the bard before she stopped to think.

"Hope-mother not hunter?" The pinkness laughed. "What be this, then?" A sudden vision somehow floated in front of the bard's minds eye.

It was a vision familiar to her; her hand with some red berries in it reaching toward a trembling rabbit. She heard a voice, her own voice saying, "Here, bunny bunny bunny! Get the nice berries..."

The vision vanished. "That was Gabry-el hunting, no?" Tataka chuckled.

"But ... but, that's not how I eat..."

"How 'bout this, then?" Another memory vision replaced the other. Her hand holding Xena's chakram and sawing her bloody way through the body of an eel on a flat rock. She could smell the fishy rankness of the eel, feel its slime, was aware of beads of sweat forming on her upper lip from the heat of the day. Then the memory faded away and Tataka spoke with amusement. "Maybe Gabry-el not hunt, but Gabry-el eat other creature, yes?"

"All right, all RIGHT! I hunt! I eat! I'm still different from you," Gabrielle seethed. But then she was struck by a sudden idea. "Tataka! How ... how did you get those images? They are out of my memories. I haven't thought about them since you've been in me. How could you get them and show them to me?"

She was interrupted as the burly man whose eye had been 'healed' approached and bowed low. "Devi. Your Defenders are here."

"Dear Ravi," said Tataka fondly. "You have gathered many people to worship me; you do good. Was other part of Ravi's mission accomplished last night as well?"

"Yes, Devi. The priest has been well and truly raised high by his neck and the wisdom that his bulging dead eyes and protruding tongue will teach is clear. He will trouble you no further."

"The Defenders HUNG him?" Gabrielle was horrified. "Why, Tataka, why? He did nothing to you..."

The pinkness purred. "He was anointed holy man; dangerous to Tataka and other demons. Ravi and other Defenders no can touch him directly, but rope from hand of Defender can touch, yes. Then to hoist him up be easy."

"Oh, gods, how murderous she is," Gabrielle thought sadly to herself. "This is worse than having Hope in control of me. Hope didn't have killers outside aiding her..."

"Tataka not murderous," said the pinkness smugly. "Tataka must defend self against these people." She indicated the crowd around them. "They would try hurt Tataka if they know she here."

"Damn you! You did it again," swore the submerged bard with wrath. "How do you read my private thoughts?"

As the three demon Defenders escorted 'the Devi' into the throng of admiring people, the pinkness said, "No mystery, Gabry-el. Tatatka say a keyword and that cause host to think of it. When host think of keywords while Tataka be watching, Tataka can then unlock and follow the thought-path to the memory."

"What? Keywords? What are you talking about?"

"Like before when keywords 'Hunting' and 'Eating' spoken they open a thought-path in Gabry-el's mind; Tataka can follow. Is trick Tataka use to find things needs know from host. Take much skill, but Tataka have many skills! Is powerful goddess, yes!"

That's how you get your information, is it, Gabrielle thought to herself with anger. I wondered how you knew some of this stuff before. Hope could never do that. Guess I'll have to guard my thoughts a bit more carefully around Tataka.

"Foolish Gabry-el not bother to guard," sneered the pinkness. "Tataka can see her thought-path as if sun shining."

"Can you follow my 'thought-path' now, you slimy..."

"Tsk, tsk! That very graphic image! Mother of dead Hope have vivid imagination, but Tataka think such a position be impossible even for goddess to achieve..."


Chapter Seventeen: The Demon and the Power

The petite woman was making her way through the crowd, smiling, waving, and stopping to touch people who came crying for healing. On either side of her and ahead stalked her Defenders, whose fierce looks and ready swords kept anyone from approaching too closely unless the Devi signaled them. In each case when she touched someone, they were affected. If they were in pain, they ceased hurting. If they were diseased, they were cured. If there was nothing wrong with them, they shook in ecstasy at her touch. Men, women and children came and fell to their knees calling her praise and blessings as they were healed.

Gabrielle watched it all in wonder; as a man staggered away calling the Devi's praises anew, she mind-spoke. "Tataka. I don't understand. You are healing these sick and hurting people. Maybe you are doing it for your own ends, but you seem kind enough. How can you be afraid they would harm you? Why should they?"

"Mother of dead Hope, not understand. When healing, Tataka also eats hole into spirit of those healed. Leaves cyst of Tataka behind."

"What? A hole? A cyst," moaned Gabrielle in dismay. "What do you mean..."

Tataka's thought was proud in an almost motherly way. "Yessss. When cyst hatch some year from now, a new minor demon come out and plague host with afflictions; illness, disease, bad bones, madness. Matter not what be the ailment; minor demons be creative."

The bard listened with horror as Tataka went on thoughtfully. "Some few time if host have too much goodness, minor demon cannot affect. Then must try kill host so as to escape find another host."

"By the gods," Gabrielle sobbed, "having Hope in me was horrible but she only wanted to torment Xena and me. This is a thousand times worse, being the vessel for the evil that harms all these people ... Oh, if I could only die..."

"You can stay or the spirit of Gabry-el can will self to die," said the pinkness pleasantly. "Either way, Tataka keep running her body till it grow old and fail!" Her mental voice grew smug and Gabrielle felt more depressed than she ever had before. "For Tataka, this be win/win situation."

Ravi and the other Defenders had been pushing their way through the crowd, but suddenly he ducked his head to her. "Devi," he said softly, "there is the man Eli. He is with the warrior woman."

"Xena!" Gabrielle felt as if her heart had leaped. Eagerly she peered past Tattika's eyes. There. Xena and the man called Eli were at the edge of the crowd. If only she could get some word or thought to the big warrior.

Outside, Tataka spoke in an undertone to the burly Ravi. "Go. Find a pack of the Dogs of Harrying and have them slay Eli or chase him from town."

"It will be done, Devi." The man made a gesture to the other two Defenders, who nodded. They eased into the crowd in three directions and were gone like smoke in the wind.

As Gabrielle watched in anguish, Xena said something to the magician, then turned and hurried away down a side street. The man looked after her, seeming worried. A few minutes went by while the bard mentally chewed her fingernails and watched the man watching the crowd whenever Tataka had her head turned that way. The 'Devi' was speaking to the crowd, saying something about pearls of wisdom being needed, but the bard was too anxious to listen. Where had Xena gone? Had she realized something was wrong with her small friend, Gabrielle wondered hopefully. She had complete faith in the warrior whom had so many times saved her in the past.

Maybe she knows what's going on! Maybe she has a plan to free me from Tataka! Maybe she's gonna swoop down on a rope and rescue me from the crowd and the Defenders so she can perform an exorcism. Maybe ... maybe I'm fulla beans, she thought disgustedly. Get with it, 'Brielle. Xena doesn't have any more clue about Tataka than she did about Hope being here.

She went back to watching the man called Eli. What IS Xena doing then, she thought. Why is HE just standing there? As she watched impatiently, she saw Eli look down suddenly at a spot on the ground some ten feet away from him. Because of the crowd, she could see nothing of what was there, but Eli appeared at first startled and then afraid. Then he bolted away into an alley as if a Harpy were chasing him.

As the man cleared the alley mouth and dashed out of sight around a corner, Gabrielle for a moment caught sight of a small black shape running on four legs before it too entered the alley behind the man. A dog; a BIG dog! There was another, and they were both chasing Eli! What the...

"Ah," said Tataka, "the Dogs of Harrying have come!"

"Dogs of Harrying," thought the bard fearing the answer. "What are they?"

"They be street dogs taken by minor demons," smiled the pinkness. "They chase their prey until they either catch and slay it, or chase it from this town. The Defenders fetch them on Tataka's order to chase this Eli."

"Dammit," thought the bard furiously. "Is there nothing this pink bitch doesn't have a finger in? Oh, Xena, be careful..."


Chapter Eighteen: The Floating Magician

As Gabrielle seethed inside her own body, a small round man in rich looking robes came through the crowd carrying a woven basket. Another man, less well dressed was preceding him and shouting. "Make way. Make way for the master merchant, Jotinn of House Komarr. Make way."

The crowd parted obligingly and the merchant and his servant came up to bow before the Devi. The richly dressed man said, "I have the honor to be Jotinn, head merchant of the House of Komarr."

"And do you need healing, merchant Jotinn," asked Tataka kindly.

"No, bless you, Devi," the man turned to the crowd and shouted, "I come to praise our Devi and give this basket of rare pearls! Yesterday she healed my daughter of her sickness." The crowd cheered as he bowed again and handed her the basket and fell to his knees before her. "Bless you Devi, praise you, bless you," he intoned and the throng took up the cry while Tataka held up the basket of pearls and falsely smiled Gabrielle's loving smile upon them.

Gabrielle felt nauseous and angry. "You've killed a piece of his daughter's soul and now you take reward for it," she thought furiously as the merchant and his manservant backed away into the crowd calling her praises. "You are a monster, Tataka, a monster!"

"Yesss, Tataka thinks Gabry-el is right; Tataka be a monster. But why that be bad? Why be you hate me," the demon asked sounding perplexed. "You friend Xena was monster, yes? Were not thousands slain for her will, yet you LOVE her."

For a moment, Gabrielle was stunned speechless at this; then she rallied. "It-It's not the same and you know it," her thoughts screamed. "Xena gave up her life of evil for one of atonement! She is a hero who will stop at nothing to do right and help people, no matter the pain, no matter the cost to herself!"

The bard's thought trembled with loathing. "But YOU!! You feed on the souls of men, women and children; innocent sufferers! They come to you for help, and you pretend to heal them and leave them with a demon inside them! You promise them hope and healing and then leave them WORSE OFF THAN THEY WERE!" Her mental voice rose to a shriek at the end.

"Yesss, all that be true," thought the pinkness, as she ran the bards hand into the pearls and let them run with musical clicks back into the basket. "These be soooo lovely. What be Gabry-el point? Why you no like Tataka?"

The submerged bard's outraged thoughts sputtered to an end; she simply could not think straight at the lack of understanding shown by the demon's question.

Suddenly from a side alley a man in green robes ran full speed looking fearfully behind him; it was Eli. The fleeing magician ran full tilt into the petite woman and charomed backwards off of her like he had hit a solid wall. Strangely, the small woman barely seemed to notice the impact. The basket of pearls did not fare so well however and the contents sprayed into the air like an explosion of hailstones.

"My pearls," cried the Devi as the street magician landed on his back amidst the horde of rolling and bouncing white beads.

Xena shot through the alley right behind him, but came to a stop and spun around in a crouch to face a pack of snarling dogs that were pelting after her. However, instead of throwing themselves on her, the dogs skidded to a halt at the alley entrance and stood panting for a moment. The Warrior Princess stood ready to fight, but the dogs seemed to have lost interest. With a whine, they slowly turned about and trotted back into the alley. In moments it was as if they had never been there.

Breathing hard, the big warrior slowly turned and took in the scene. The milling crowd, the magician on the ground, the pearls still rolling helter-skelter and last of all, her friend. The small woman looked from the magician to Xena, who stared back stolidly, eyes narrowed. Suddenly, Eli scooted forward onto his knees in front of Gabrielle, clasping both hands together as if in prayer.

"Save me Devi! The demons have me," he cried rolling his eyes in terror. "Please free me ... pleeease..." He trembled all over as he beseeched her aid. The bard stared at him as if confused, but suddenly the groveling man began to rise up, but not to his feet. Still on his knees his entire body began lifting into the air! The crowd gasped with wonder and fear as the magician rose to at least five feet into the air still in a kneeling position. His arms were spread wide as he floated and he looked as if he were in ecstasy.

"Bless you, bless you Devi," he whispered in a voice which the entire crowd could nonetheless hear. "Bless you ... bless you ... thank you Devi, bless you..." Still calling her praises, he was lowered back to the ground still in his original position.

Slowly, as if stunned, the magician got to his feet. His voice was awed. "She did it, she healed me..." His voice raised to a shout. "She lifted me up! You saw! Praise the Devi, praise the Devi!"

The bard backed slowly away from the magician and came to Xena's side. "What's going on here," she asked, bewildered, but the confused warrior had no answer.

Meanwhile, Eli ran through the crowd shouting, "You witnessed it," he cried. "I'm freed again," he shouted. "Praise the Devi," he crowed at the top of his lungs. The throng picked up and echoed the magician's call. "PRAISE THE DEVI," they howled in concert.

The two women looked at each other warily. "Xena..." the bard spoke hesitantly, "I didn't DO anything ... I didn't heal him. I felt nothing..."

The big woman gazed at her small friend with speculation, but did not speak as the crowd continued the chant the magician had begun. "PRAISE HER! PRAISE THE DEVI!"

The warrior and the bard watched as Eli worked his way deeper into the throng and then with one last shout, vanished, almost seeming to pull the chanting crowd around him like a curtain.


Chapter Nineteen: Tataka's Confusion

The two women stared at each other, then Xena spoke but Gabrielle shook her head and cupped a hand to her ear. The tall woman was irritated, but raised her voice to be heard above the crowd. "I said, 'I'll be back.' Right now, I wanna find Eli and see if he knows what in Tartarus just happened." She hesitated. "Can you get back to our room all right?"

The bard looked around the crowd, then nodded. "I'll be all right, here come Ravi and the other two Defenders..."

"Oh, goody," said the warrior sourly. "I'd sooner leave you with Joxer than those hoof-headed idiots..."

"Xena," said the bard placatingly. "They mean well and they won't let anything happen to me. I'll be fine."

"Yeah, yeah. All right, I'll see you back at the room tonight..." Putting a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, the warrior squeezed it quickly, then turned and made her way into the crowd as Ravi and the other two came up.

"Your servant, Devi..." the burly man said, bowing.

"You failed to chase this Eli out of town or to slay him..." said Tataka shortly beneath the crowd noise. "Why?"

"The dogs had him, Devi, but the warrior woman interfered..."

"Never mind," snapped the petite woman. "There will be another time. Take this basket and set someone to pick up my pearls, then find me a tailor." The woman plucked at the fabric of the short blouse. "I need to dress more fittingly; this ugly green is NOT my color."

"It shall be as you say, Devi."

As the big man hurried away, inside Gabrielle's body, the pinkness that was Tataka was confused. "What be going on?" she asked Gabrielle for the fourth or fifth time. "What be happening? How did magician float? Him have not such power. Tataka have not such power."

"Don't look at me," Gabrielle said half angrily, "yer in charge here, not me." But a sudden thought struck her. Hope! Hope had been able to move things with her mind, causing weapons and such to float; perhaps...

"But that's not possible, Hope is dead," she thought with a burst of sadness which caught her by surprise.

"That right," Tataka agreed, surprising her again, "Gabry-el's big black daughter be dead, so it no be her. Yes!"

"Damn you," Gabrielle thought furiously, "Stop pulling that mind-reading trick and stay out of my private thoughts!"

"It okay, Gabry-el ... Tataka need to know what happening, but you not know either ... This no good. This Eli cannot be just street magician; he be Devi or sorcerer. Either one be dangerous to Tataka; Eli must be killed soon as possible."

At this point Ravi came up holding the basket full of pearls, bowed and handed it to her. The small woman smiled radiantly. "Ahhh. So lovely; these will enhance my beauty as nothing else can." Her voice hardened. "Now clear me a path through this mob of fools."

The three Defenders quickly began pushing and cursing and elbowing people aside and the Devi followed, smiling and waving to the crowd.


Later, the Devi came out of a prosperous tailors shop. The petite woman now looked almost totally different. Gone were the bard's normal green bodice, brown skirt and boots; they were being carried by the burly Defender Ravi along with Gabrielle's staff. The Devi was now clothed in sandals, a yellow wrap-around sari, and adorned with dozens of strings of pearls crossing her chest and hips. She tossed an orange shawl over her golden hair and smiled. "This is better," she said. "Closer to what I wish to look like. Now if I get my hair done..." she mused.

The burly Defender stepped up. "What should I do with these, Devi?" He indicated the cast-off clothing and staff. The small woman took the staff and twirled it experimentally.

"This I will keep for now..." she decided. "Xena would not believe I was her dear Gabrielle if I got rid of this foolish stick ... it is too much a part of her..."

"And the clothing, Devi?"

"Is that what it is," sneered the small woman. "They are not fit even for wash rags. There," she pointed to a trash fire that was burning nearby. "Put them there ... I have no use for them."

The man nodded and tossed the boots and clothing into the fire where they quickly began smoldering. The Devi stood and faced the fire, eyes wide open against the smoke with a dreamy half smile on her face.

Inside herself, Gabrielle watched her old comfortable and familiar clothing being consumed by the flames and fought a horrible lump of welling sadness which would have choked her if she had use of her own throat.

Tataka watched her watching and purred with contentment. "Gabry-el not be sad. Her old clothes not be fit to adorn this young strong body; now she look every inch a Devi with gold and pearls and pretty pretty yellow."

Gabrielle said nothing. The bard knew that whatever she said, Tataka would mock her with it. Knowing that the demon was facing the flames and her burning clothing so that her victim could watch and feel even more disembodied. She told herself to look away, to ignore it, but somehow could not. She watched the last outward ties to herself disappear and cursed the demon while mourning the loss.

Disappointed at her victim's lack of outcry, Tataka finally turned away from the flames and walked back to the crowd. She took up a place on a small stone platform where speakers and holy men sometimes harangued the crowds. There she sat comfortably, in an awkward seeming pose with her arms spread and held out to her sides and forward with hands palm up. The three Defenders stood about on guard, and members of the crowd came up and offered her presents and gifts, which she accepted with a fixed smile full of pride.

So engrossed was she in the adolation, that Tataka never noticed a pair of deep blue eyes watching her from far back in an alley as she sat imperiously receiving her offerings from the masses. The blue eyes were calculating. They narrowed and took in every detail. They held an air of distrust.

Cold as ice, Xena blinked slowly and watched her friend ... and her face was hard.


Chapter Twenty: Deceits Seen Through

The Warrior Princess stopped outside the door to the room where she and Gabrielle were staying. Looking about hurriedly, she pulled a small metal cylinder of a bottle from her bodice and made sure the cork was tight. Then she secured it loosely between her armor and her leathers. Then she spent some moments of experimentation to determine that it would stay put unless she relaxed her torso in a certain way, which would cause it to fall out. Nodding to herself, she then slung a water skin over her shoulder and settled it into place. Last, she took a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly through her mouth. Putting a hand to the door latch, her lips tightened for a moment, but then her face assumed a neutral expression and she opened the door.

Entering their room, the warrior looked around and stopped as she saw Gabrielle admiring herself in the mirror. Besides stands of pearls draping her hips, chest and waist, on her beautiful hands and arms were rich looking rings and bracelets. Her eyes and brows were heavily made up and accentuated in an Indian style and her red-golden hair was pulled up short under a small crown of gold and pearls. She tilted her head this way and that in the mirror, then she noticed the warrior staring at her and turned looking sheepish.

"That bad, huh?" She took the crown from her head and grinned disarmingly.

The warrior simply looked at her.

The petite woman gave a short laugh. "Okay, it's a bit much, I know ... but what can I do?" She plucked at a strand of pearls and giggled. "These are all gifts from people that I healed. How can I refuse that?" She removed the crown and handed it and a cluster of pearls to the warrior. "Besides, Xena," she spoke plaintively. "The more that I dress like them, the more that they seem to turn to me, for my help..." she looked like a little girl afraid of being punished. "I mean, underneath all this, I'm still me..."

The warrior forced a laugh. "Hah! Thank goodness ... for a moment there you had me worried..." She fumbled with the jewelry and almost dropped it and her eyes widened as a small metal cylinder fell clanking from her bodice and rolled towards the bard.

The small woman bent and picked it up; looked at the warrior with puzzlement. "What's this?"

Xena looked uncomfortable. "A little insurance I took out..." she hesitated then shrugged and went on. "Sacred water from the Ganges..."

"Insurance..." the bard's voice grew cool. "Against what ... against, ME?"

"Gabrielle..." Xena sounded embarrassed.

"Against my being a DEMON?"

"That's ridiculous," the warrior said unconvincingly.

"Is it," the small blond said drily. "Why ELSE would you have it ... as a TEST?" She shook her head with irritation. "Fine! You wanna TEST me? Lets DO it!"

The bard uncorked the bottle with an angry gesture and held it up. "Let's see if sacred water eats through my SKIN, shall we? Huh?" She splashed liquid on her face, chest and hands. "Am I sizzling now? Am I burning? Am I still evil incarnate, Xena?" Her voice trailed off with a sob.

"It was NOT a test," growled the warrior. "It couldn't be. Ganges water only burns demons in the hands of a priest or exorcist!"

The petite blond looked shocked and uncertain as Xena pulled out a full wineskin and shook it as she spoke. "I took ALL the holy water 'cause I knew that Eli wouldn't leave town without some!" Angrily she tossed crown and pearls onto a table and dropped the water bag onto the floor.

The bard's own anger seemed to melt away and she looked sad. "I'm sorry," she sniffled wiping at her eyes. "I know you have doubts about me, and I tell you that this power is good ... that it's my calling, and-and instead of being happy for me, y-you think that I'm evil..." her voice faltered and trailed off.

"Gabrielle..." Xena said helplessly. She took a step forward and put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Eli told me about the pictures of the demons in the temple ... there was one that looked like..."

"Eli! Pictures?" The bard interrupted with anger. "You're taking the word of a street magician over MINE?"

"It's not that..." the warrior began.

"Why is it so hard for you to accept, Xena? I do not HURT people, I HEAL them..." Gabrielle's voice broke as she covered her eyes. Tears began running down her face and she sobbed.

"N-now don't c-cry," Xena's voice trembled, "don't cry now." The big warrior gathered the bard into her arms and pulled her head against a muscled shoulder as the warm tears flowed down her chest. She kissed the top of Gabrielle's blond head and rested her chin gently on it as she tried to comfort her.

"Shhh. Shhhh. It's all right," she whispered into the blond hair. "I'm sorry ... sorry..."

"Oh, Xena..." sniffled the bard. "I c-can't stand it when you don't trust me ... I love you, Xena."

"You know I love you too, Gabrielle. Come on, don't cry anymore. Please. You'll ruin yer eye-makeup-stuff."

"Y-You believe me then," said the bard, looking up with a tearful smile. "You don't think I'm e-evil?"

"Nah! Not fer a minute and I'm happy fer ya findin' this power," smiled the big warrior, mussing her friend's hair. "Really! To Tartarus with Eli and his suspicions; he can hide from his shadow in that dead priest's temple from now on if he wants to. Come on, Gabrielle ... you hadda busy day. Lets get you to bed so you can rest; yer gonna have a lotta healing tomorrow too if today was any indication."

"Thanks, Xena," whispered the bard, hugging her hard. "You're my best friend in the whole world."

"Right back atcha," The warrior said hugging her back. They smiled at each other for a moment, then Gabrielle turned and went towards the door to the hall.

"Where ya goin'," asked the Warrior Princess lightly as she unsheathed her sword and got out her whetstone for the nightly sharpening.

The small woman opened the door and looked back. "I just wanna tell Ravi and the other Defenders to stand down ... you know, since we're turning in for the night."

"Ah," smiled the warrior. "Good idea. Let 'em rest."

The bard nodded. "I won't be a minute," she said and went out of the room, closing the door behind her.

As the bard went out of sight however, Xena lost her smile. Her blue eyes narrowed as she stared at the closed door and her face turned grim. Finally she began sharpening her sword, but her eyes flickered nervously about the dim room, from hall door to windows to balcony door and back again as if looking for enemies.


Somewhat later, the room was dark except for the moonlight casting silver rays across the floor. Soft breathing came from the bed where Gabrielle lay asleep. Xena however, was not in bed. She stood tensely at the door into the hall with her ear pressed to it in an attitude of listening. She had stood thus for a long time since the bard had fallen asleep.

Now suddenly she tensed at the door as she heard something. Then her shadow moved noiselessly across the floor through the pool of moonlight to the balcony window. Xena took one last look back at her sleeping friend and her face was expressionless in the silver light. Then the warrior stepped out on the balcony and glided to the edge to peer over into the silent street. For long minutes she patiently waited and watched, then a flickering shadow moved below and there was a flash of moonlight on a naked steel blade. She nodded to herself grimly. It was Ravi; the Defender was headed toward the alley and had his sword in hand.

After the burly man had gone into the alley, the Warrior Princess silently leaped off the balcony. She did a double flip in midair before landing in the street with a soft thud and ran quietly following the big man. They were two noiseless shadows in the silver light, moving like ghosts through the sleeping town, Ravi about one hundred yards ahead of the following warrior.

The hulking Defender never looked back as he headed straight towards the temple where Xena had left Eli hiding that night. "Oh, gods, Gabrielle," hissed the grim faced warrior as she speeded up. "It looks like Eli was right about the pearls and the crown and Tataka and everything. But if he IS right, how in Tartarus am I gonna get this Tataka-demon out of you?"


Chapter Twenty-One: Pretences Abandoned

The night breeze moved the curtains in the room listlessly as Xena reentered through the balcony door. The moon was now low in the sky and the room was dark. She stopped just inside and listened cautiously. She heard the sound of the bard's light breathing from the bed and approached cautiously, but there was no reaction from her sleeping friend. She lit the lamp and set it on the small bedstand and stood studying the small woman for a moment. Then shrugging, she stepped forward and softly whispered, "Gabrielle..." There was no response.

"Gabrielle..." she said louder and shook the small woman's shoulder lightly.

"Uhhh..." The bard made a protesting sound with her eyes closed and stirred.

The Warrior Princess spoke a bit louder, "Gabrielle! Wake UP!"

The bard's heavily made-up eyes flew open and she turned her head quickly to face the warrior, then blinked. "W-What ... what is it," she asked sleepily.

The Warrior Princess glanced over her shoulder as if worried and back again. "Eli's been attacked..." she whispered sharply. "If I hadn't shown up and scared away whoever did it, he'd be dead by now ... or worse..."

Gabrielle's face was confused. "He-He's alive?" She spoke softly as she sat up in the bed.

Xena continued to whisper. "Barely. I need you to come and heal him," she went on watching Gabrielle's face closely. "If he dies, so does our best chance of finding out who's behind all this..."

The petite woman got smoothly out of bed. "Take me to him..." she said in a decisive voice. She held the shawl around her as if cold and went towards the door to the hall. "I should probably tell Ravi," she said as if a thought had struck her. She opened the door, muttering, "...might need to send out a search party." She raised her voice. "Ravi ... RAVI!"

Instead of Ravi, however, one of the other self-proclaimed Defenders stepped forward. "Forgive me, Devi," he spoke with a thick accent, "but Ravi's not back ... may I offer you a service?"

The small woman was surprised. "He's not ... back? Hmmm ... thank you..." The bard closed the door and turned to face the warrior, a calculating look on her face.

"So ... Eli's hurt, is he, Xena?" Her voice was cool and she turned her back.

Xena's face went grim as she dropped all pretenses. "Not as bad hurt as RAVI is ... TATAKA," she hissed.

As the Warrior Princess watched, trying to be ready for anything, a low pulsing growl issued from her friend and her head shook from side to side. Suddenly the small woman spun around to face the startled warrior and in spite of herself Xena gasped at the change. Her friend did not seem small anymore. Her teeth were clenched in a carnivore grin and her lovely green eyes were wide and staring with the presence of something alien and hungry looking out.

The warrior woman stood ready, but again the small woman caught her off guard as she spoke. "Soooo ... then it's a good thing that I sent backup along with Ravi," the small woman sneered.

Xena's eyes widened at the words and their implication. Then she spun on her heels and darted out the balcony door followed by the sound of Gabrielle's laughter gone mad.

As the Warrior Princess vanished, Gabrielle spoke with triumph to the pinkness. "You know you didn't send any backup, Tataka. You sent Ravi by himself to kill Eli, but Xena finished off Ravi and she'll be back with Eli to cast you out. She's onto you now, and you may as well give it up. Why doncha just leave me and save yerself the trouble?"

"No, Gabry-el," hissed the pinkness. "Xena has found out too late. When she come back, she be dead too." Aloud she spoke, "Sankar, Patniak! Come here!"

The two remaining Defenders entered the room. "Your command Devi?"

Tataka stripped off a string of pearls. "Take these and go to the poor section of the city. Hire some thugs; about twenty men who will do anything we tell them for money. With them we will locate Xena and Eli and finish this farce once and for all. Go."

"It shall be done, Devi." The two Defenders left the room with the strand of pearls.

"Now we see, Gabry-el," purred the pinkness. "When Tataka be finished, Xena will not dare attack ... and if she do, she be dead."

Gabrielle said nothing, but her thoughts were spinning with turmoil and worry for her friend. "Oh, Xena, whatever your plan is, hurry," she thought desperately, "the odds are about to get even longer."


Chapter Twenty-Two: The Devi Who Fled

In a small wood outside of town, Xena leaped in front of Eli and the running magician skidded to a stop, almost slamming into her. He looked mussed and overheated and panic strained his features. "Xena..." he said weakly. "I-I thought for a minute you were one of them..."

The warrior raised and eyebrow and spoke coldly. "I THOUGHT we had an agreement. I saved your life, you save Gabrielle's."

The magician looked fearfully this way and that. "I-I can't do it; believe me, I want to help you ... but I can't."

"Then there's no other choice," Xena was firm. "We have to have an exorcism."

"Exorcism?" The street magician whispered the word as if he were afraid it might bite him.

The big raven-haired warrior spoke with conviction. "It's either that or kill her..." Her voice fell to a harsh whisper, "and I WON'T kill Gabrielle."

"Ha-ha!" The magician laughed weakly. Then his voice cracked in panic, "I can't do an exorcism..."

The warrior curled her lip. "Then I'll do it..."

"You?" Eli managed to compress so much disdain into one three-letter word that it seemed hang in midair like a bad smell.

Xena frowned and her words were cutting. "If you don't have the guts, I'll have to." The magician drew back as if she had threatened to punch him but she continued calmly. "What do I need to know?"

"Umm. Uh." Eli stopped and pulled himself together; when he spoke his voice had steadied and deepened. "You need an icon ... from Gabrielle..."

Xena regarded him. "...and what would that be?"

Eli gazed at his hands for a moment. "Something that is ... familiar to her, to the old Gabrielle; something from before when Tataka took her. It should be small and portable, but must be something she has touched or handled many times and is distinctive to her true inner self..." he hesitated. "And more Ganges water; you have to touch her with both icon and water at the same time ... that's all I know, but that should do it ... I think."

"All right," the warrior drawled. "Thanks." She turned to leave, but then stopped and stood facing away from him. "Eli..."

The man watched her uneasily. "What is it?"

"It's your choice, but just remember this," the Warrior Princess looked over her shoulder and caught his eye. "Once you start running, it's almost impossible to stop and it'll never really end. Before you do that, it's better to make a stand and die trying than to be looking over your shoulder all your life for enemies ... and remembering when you failed."

Eli stared at her and his face was pale; he trembled. She nodded and left then with a long easy lope that took her away from the troubled man and back towards the city ... and her friend.


Chapter Twenty-Three: A Time to Die

They were standing in the street near the room where she and Xena had stayed. Tataka watched with pleasure and Gabrielle in fury, as the two remaining Defenders directed the small gang of thugs in harassing the frightened crowd.

"First, I eliminate Xena..." smiled the small woman parading in the yellow sari and orange shawl, "then Eli won't have a prayer..."

"Dammit, Tataka," cried Gabrielle furiously. "Why are you doing this to these people? You KNOW Xena isn't hiding anywhere in this crowd..."

"Ahhh, but Xena be a hero," smirked the pinkness, looking down to examine her bare toes and fingers. Not only had the nails been painted red, but the tips had as well, making it look as if the ends of her hands and feet had been dipped in blood. Satisfied, she continued. "Xena cannot keep from coming to Devi Gabry-el when she put these little people be in danger. When she do, Tataka have her."

"And you think these crummy ruffians you've hired will be able to take Xena?" The bard's thought sneered with disdain.

"Their job be to draw Warrior Princess here, so Tataka can kill her," shrugged the pink mist.

"And you are so sure she can't kill me," seethed the submerged bard. "Don't bet on it Tataka; to free me she WOULD kill me ... and believe me, if it would kill you too, I would be glad to pay that price!"

"Gabry-el not understand," chuckled the pinkness. "Tataka can leave at any time just before Xena strike. Blow that kills Gabry-el not affect Tataka at all, except lose good host."

"Then why does Eli worry you so much," the frustrated bard screamed. "Even if he is a-a Devi; why does he worry you so?"

"Him can cast out Tataka..."

"So what?" Gabrielle groaned hopelessly. "What's the big deal? If you want to you can just come back and take me again, right?"

"Ahhh, but Possessor can no come back to same body if cast out or exorcised," thought the smiling demon. "Different Possessor could take Gabry-el, but Tataka never again can have her ... and Tataka LIKE Gabry-el's body. No want to lose. So, kill Xena, then kill Eli and Tataka keep you ... forever!"

"Damn you, oh, damn youuuu..." sobbed the bard.

At that moment several frightened women flung themselves at her feet begging the Devi for mercy from the thugs. Tataka smiled and her voice glided like a snake slowly swallowing a mouse. "Forgive them, I know they're rough, but we're all in danger until we find Xena..."

"EeeeYippp!" There was a war cry and a sudden thud as the Warrior Princess came catapulting down from the balcony into their room and landed behind the possessed woman. The peasants drew back fearfully as the pearl enshrouded Devi growled like a mad dog and turned quickly towards her foe.

"Looking for me?" Xena inquired archly.

"Hahh! Not anymore..." the petite blond drawled calmly; she made as if to move forward but the tall warrior woman pulled out a small metal vial in one hand and popped the cork with her thumb. In the other hand she held one of Gabrielle's favorite goose quills for writing.

The small woman threw back her head and laughed like she had heard the funniest joke in the world. "Oh, eee-yes! An exorcism," she cried with delight. Her voice dropped. "Really, Xena ... don't you think that's the pot calling the kettle ... black?" On the last word the small woman unleashed a kick, which caught the warrior by surprise. Her red-painted foot dashed the metal container out of the bigger woman's hand and it fell to the ground, the contents spilling out to be gobbled quickly by the dry dirt.

The warrior gasped and looked shaken at the loss of her weapon. "You want me out?" The demon's smile was sly. "You're going to have to kill this SWEET little body to do it ... and I don't think you can..."

The Warrior Princess' face hardened with resolve. "WATCH me," she snarled, unleashing a tremendous kick that caught the smaller woman in the stomach and propelled her backward to land on the hot coals of a nearby fire pit. There were sizzling noises as she rolled unhurriedly to her feet and poised dancing on the glowing embers with no apparent pain. Slowly doing a bump and grind with her hips, she sashayed off the fire pit towards Xena.

The warrior stalked forward, rage making her face a mask of hate. "I'm warning you, Tataka. Get out while you still can!"

The demon laughed and came closer. "Ohhhh, and give up this face? And this firm, young, body? FAT CHANCE!" Tataka grabbed Xena's head and licked up her cheek. There was a bacon frying noise and the warrior screamed in pain and threw the laughing woman away. On the side of her face was a rashy red wet spot as if acid had been where the demon's tongue had touched.

Now the small blond and the Warrior Princess traded a flurry of punches and kicks but it was apparent that Xena was outclassed by the demon driven body of her friend. Gabrielle had always been in fine shape from all her walking and staff fighting and her possessor was making the most out of her strength. Xena was hurled back and forth across the square smashing into food booths and displays of pottery. It was brutal and had to hurt but each time she came back somehow. Finally the warrior princess landed spraddled over a vacant bed of nails with the demon jumping on her back and trying to drive her down onto them.

"I think your time in this place is over, Xena..." laughed Tataka as she smashed down with both feet yet again on the hapless warrior's back.

"Think again," snarled the warrior, arching her back convulsively and throwing the smaller woman off. The two women traded more blows and threw each other all over the square with no real results. But if one were watching closely, Xena seemed to be tiring. They faced off again and the aching warrior held herself ready to go, but the smaller woman was doing a snakelike dance, swaying back and forth on her red painted feet and hissing like a cobra.

"Give Gabrielle back!" Xena spoke through her teeth as she stalked forward.

"No!" The possessed woman sneered swaying lasciviously in place.

Suddenly she charged out of mid-dance step but the Warrior Princess was not caught off guard. There was a brief whirlwind of movement when they came together that ended with Tataka/Gabrielle being slammed onto the ground on her back. The big woman whipped out her sword and held it at her now helpless friend's neck.

But then Xena's face fell as she realized that she had won. Up till now she had been focussed solely upon winning the fight. Now to free Gabrielle, her best friend in the world, she had no choice but to kill her. Xena's face looked as if it was etched in granite. She would do what was right, no matter how hard or what pain it might cost her. She swallowed a sob and her face hardened with resolve.

Inside the body of her friend, the demon saw Xena preparing for the final thrust and realized she could not win. "Good-bye Gabry-el; it time for Tataka to go. You be fine host! If you no dead after, Tataka mebbe come back and take you again. Now I release you."

With those words, Gabrielle suddenly blinked and found herself looking directly out of her own eyes without the filter of another mental presence for the first time in a long time. Above her, she saw her friend raising the sword in both hands for the killing blow.

"X-Xena ... Oh, Xena ... Xena..." she sobbed. Then she saw that it was as if she had slapped the warrior in the face with each repetition of her name; saw the tears shining in her friend's blue eyes.

"Yessss, Gabry-el," hissed Tataka inside her. "This good! Xena wavers; she know it be you speaking. Say more and Tataka can stay with you; Xena not be able kill you!"

Gabrielle felt a calmness wash through her as she knew what she must do. She willed herself not to speak more. "Kill me, Xena," she prayed silently. "If you love me, kill me and set me free from this torment." She fastened her gaze on her best friend's wet blue eyes, wanting them to be the last thing she saw in this world. "I love you, Xena," she thought proudly. "Kill me."

"Gabry-el be a fool," snarled the demon. "Tataka go now." But as the pink mist that was Tataka began to swirl to leave, there was a vast bubbling rush of blackness that seemed to appear out of nowhere inside her head, which seized the demon and held it fast.

"Oh, no you don't, you pink scum-bucket! If mom dies, you're gonna die too. Give me control or we'll ALL die right here, right NOW!"

"HOPE?" Gabrielle's thought was dazed. "But you're dead!"


Chapter Twenty-Four: The Devi, the Demons and the Deceit

Inside of Gabrielle, she and Tataka were stunned at the unexpected reappearance of Hope. Outside of their body, Xena raised the sword two-handed and a rising animal scream was torn from her throat. Tears of remorse coursed down the cheeks of the warrior as she prepared to plunge the killing blow into Gabrielle.

"Mistress Hope take control, Tataka gives it," screamed the pinkness. "The control belong you, but let Tataka go, before Xena strike!"

Outside, Xena's sword was at full extension in both hands and the blade began to come down, but a male voice shouted, "NOOOOO!" Startled, the warrior halted the blow.

"Eli?" Gulped Gabrielle.

"ELI?" Raved Tataka.

"Yeah, Eli!" Chortled Hope.

"Let me try and save her," Eli shouted from across the square and Xena stared as if she had seen a dragon.

Inside, Tataka began to struggle but Hope held her fast. "Nope! You ain't gettin' outa this, Pinkie! I know yer little secret now. Like you said, 'If a Possessor is cast out by Devi or exorcism, it can never come back to the same body again.' We're gonna have Eli get rid of you!"

Gabrielle's thoughts were jumbled. Too many changes, she thought confusedly. I feel like I've been on Henbane again. "Hope, you were dead. How did you..."

"Later, mom, right now I gotta get the ball rolling."

"What do you mean..."

"I mean, we want Eli to think Tataka is still in control, sooo..." Smoothly Hope took over control of Gabrielle's body again. One hand dug at the dirt while Xena was gaping at Eli and came up with a handful. Before the warrior could react, Hope had flung the dirt into Xena's face. Momentarily blinded, the warrior recoiled as Hope rolled to her feet and kicked the sword from her hand. Grabbing up the sword, the small blond charged towards the startled Eli snarling like an enraged dog.

"What are you doing," gasped Gabrielle as her daughter charged forward at the stunned magician. "You're not going to hurt Eli are you?"

"Have a little faith in Xena, mom," said Hope sardonically, "I do. You oughta know she won't let that happen." And indeed from behind them came Xena's war cry. Just before they could reach Eli, Xena slammed into them, causing them to all plow into the magician-Devi. As all three hit the ground, suddenly there were two sharp clicks inside Gabrielle and her body went numb as the Warrior Princess pressed the nerves in the bard's neck.

"Ahhhh," sighed Hope. "So predictable. Tataka. As Possessor, I hereby give you control of this host according to the Treaty of Sunnuptraa Grotto."

"What," screamed Gabrielle. "Are you crazy? What are you doing?"

"Why, whattaya mean," asked Hope, sounding confused. "Oh, dammit, you mean I made a mistake again?"

But it was too late; Tataka had assumed control at once and attempted to cause Gabrielle’s body to leap to her feet and escape or attack. But the pinkness found for the first time that the supple body of the bard would not obey her and Eli was reaching for her.

"What happen? Tataka cannot move this body now," screamed the pinkness inside.

Hope chuckled and Gabrielle said, "You can forget about that, now. Xena has cut off the flow of blood to our brain and we have only seconds to live. Now Eli can cast you out while we are helpless. Good job by the way, Hope."

d "}-#MB2;_V}N4`{(t"82%#YG15*F*s7SRqA0u[{5V8 K:Z&qt& f-Hu#ƹqrF4P0PH[$h͹=PBٵ+`h͛hZ8O6Fr9wMϥ:ٌeF !!TjDH̔o8 ߝ"wDyǩW(Py+ v@efqYYArk,<^]gTnM@`J,u/†Q]T&N-k$)1`<2׽JK&Vk?z;`kEV;f'Y=eLߛyCpV[Ӿ9`D45H=!׆6p&+=5_%*9-ҡFCGTn^spard once more, holding the man's robe. Her voice was a weak whisper of its former volume. "The power that you seek ... is ... a ... lie..." she hissed as she sank back to the ground.

The magician turned away with a look of agony on his face. "I've failed..."

Xena grabbed the man and pulled him back; her expression and voice were frantic. "Eli, don't you believe her ... she's going ... she's DYING!"

As if in shock he stared at her. "No..." he whimpered.

"Eli..." Xena shook him and her voice broke with emotion. "Find that power and you SAVE MY FRIEND!"

The street magician stared at her and a calmness seemed to fill his face. He opened his arms and gazed at the sky for a moment and when he spoke, there was no pride or arrogance in his voice, just a quiet entreaty. "Abba, help me..."

Then he reached forward to the now quiet form of Gabrielle and placed a gentle hand upon her head.

For a long moment nothing happened, then the small blond went into hideous convulsions, arms and legs flailing, entire body bouncing up and down as a screeching whine issued from her throat! Inside Tataka fought to stay as she was chased by small golden sparks from one end of Gabrielle's body to the other while Hope and her mother were pummeled by her swirling, snarling flight. The demon tried in vain to hide but at last was ejected and a hot pink light erupted from the small woman to fly into the sky shrieking and howling with rage and pain as it went. Eli and Xena watched the flight in awe.

On the ground, blood ran from her nose and Gabrielle began to choke in the last throes of Xena's nerve pinch. The warrior gasped and dug her strong fingers into the bard’s neck, popping the paralyzed nerve pathways open.

The bard stopped convulsing and lay sobbing for breath instead. As Eli watched with awe and the beginnings of acceptance, the small woman reached a red tipped hand to his. Gabrielle, in control again for one short moment, held his hand lovingly and tried to thank him. She had not the strength and dropped her hand away tiredly. She rolled her eyes up to Xena and her lips mouthed, "I love you," just before Hope took over again.

With aching muscles, Xena pulled her friend's head and shoulders onto her lap and cradled her as best she could. "It's all right, it's all right," the warrior sobbed, her face twisting and breaking like skim ice on a pond. "Yer gonna be all right." She bent and kissed Gabrielle's forehead with love and then looked at the magician with reverence and gratitude.

As for Eli, the delighted smile on his face was like the sun bursting through the clouds on a dark day. As he had always hoped and prayed, he was indeed, a Devi!


Chapter Twenty-Five: Twilight Musings and a Promise

It was evening in the city; the cool shadows were lengthening as the sun withdrew from the hot land. The twilight was settling in and the monkeys and parrots squabbled one last time in the trees and rooftops before readying for sleep. In the streets, the people moved towards home and supper. On the balcony of their room, the two friends sat quiet and the sweet breeze swirled the curtains and seemed to withdraw the harsh heat of day. Xena sat sharpening her sword by the railing and Gabrielle lay back on a reed couch. Inside her, mother and daughter both lay quietly looking out of her eyes and savoring the sounds and smells of other people’s dinners and lives wafting on the soft breezes.

"Hope," the bard thought quietly.

"Mmmm?" Her daughter's thought was somehow without malice for the first time that Gabrielle could remember.

"I had given you up," Gabrielle's mental voice was soft. "When you and Tataka fought that first time, I thought you were dead."

"Wouldn't be the first time for you, mommy," said her daughter offhandedly. "What about it?"

"I ... guess I deserved that..." the bard thought sadly. "Never mind."

Her daughter surprised her. "Look mom, I-I'm sorry I said that." Hope sounded truly contrite. "I take it back; I don't want to fight right now ... it just gets to be a habit, needling you I mean." She was silent for a moment. "So-so what did you want?"

Gabrielle mentally smiled; "Apology accepted. I was curious and I wondered ... what happened? Tataka seemed to think you would die for breaking the Treaty of the Grotto, yet here you are ... again."

Hope's thought was playful. "Yeah, I always seem to be doing that don't I? Throw me in a river, poison me, push me into a pit of flames, stab me through the heart, now this ... nothing seems to work." Her mental voice turned bitter. "Bound to be a bit discouraging for you..."

"Hope, please..."

"Sorry, sorry. I said I didn't wanna fight and I don't." Hope's thoughts were calm again. "Truly mom, I'm not sure why I survived this one. Dad wasn't anywhere around, that's for sure. In fact, didn't we hear that Hercules tangled with him awhile back and banished him back to ... where-ever?"

"Yes, I think we did," Gabrielle agreed. "So, you have no idea why you survived?"

"Probably because I'm a half-god, not just a demon like Tataka." Hope shrugged. "When I felt the shock of colliding with the magic that protected that pink so-and-so I was able to pull back just a tad and keep from going fully into it. It was sort of a psychic meat-grinder that chewed up souls."

Her daughter gave a mental shudder at the memory of her near escape. "Even so it mangled me pretty good and I had to rest 'cause I was no match for Tataka after that. When she said I would die, I decided it would be good to let her think I had, till I recovered. So I sorta hid myself in your memories and rested." Hope sounded uncomfortable. "I-I had to let you think I was dead, so Tataka would think so too. I'm ... sorry."

"Don't be sorry; it worked, and we're rid of her," Gabrielle mentally smiled, "that's what really counts."

"I guess so," Hope seemed to shrug. "Anyhow, I just kinda hung out and kept spying on what all Tataka did and said, trying to find my way around that damn treaty somehow ... and I finally did. End of story."

"Not quite," Gabrielle said. "Here’s something I couldn’t figure out at the time. When Eli ran into Tataka and spilled her pearls, was that you that raised him up in the air?"

"Oh, yeah," Hope giggled. "That was me."

"Why?" The bard was curious.

"Well, two reasons..." the daughter of Dahak said thoughtfully. "One: to see if I was recovered enough to be able to use my powers and two: to keep Tataka off balance so she couldn't hurt Eli. I wanted him for the exorcism later, see?"

"Well," said her mother. "I guess that does kinda wrap it all up. Thanks for explaining it to me."

"Yer welcome," Hope said almost shyly. "Mother..." her thought was somehow, pensive. "When you thought I was dying this time ... did I hear you say that ... that you could have loved me?"

Gabrielle thought of denying it, but then mentally shrugged. "Yes, I said it."

"Did-did you mean it?"

The bard hesitated. "Hope ... as you were fading out, you said you loved ME ... did YOU mean it?"

"Tit for tat, mommy. I asked you first..." Hope said lightly, but under the bantering thought tone, the bard sensed something else; a longing want perhaps?

Gabrielle felt a small flame begin to build somewhere deep inside her. A flame she had thought was long dead; a flame of love for her daughter, despite it all. She mentally took a deep breath and plunged. "Yes, Hope. I meant it and I still could love you if you changed; stopped being evil, doing evil." With a passion that surprised even her, her thoughts seemed to cry out. "Oh, you could be GOOD, Hope; you could if you tried."

Her daughter's thought was hesitant; almost shy. "I-I don't know, mother. Sometimes listening to you in here wishing Xena love and-and her out there, showing me ... uh, I mean you, affection ... I feel like I maybe could, but..."

Gabrielle felt as if her heart was beating faster, her pulse pounding, as if she were holding her breath ... but that's silly she thought... I can't feel those things in this state I'm in. "But what, Hope?" Her thoughts trembled. "Just say it..."

"Mother. It-It's Xena ... I told you before, she hates me. She has tried to kill me almost ever since I was born, and ... she fixed it so that I never knew you..."

The bard interrupted her quietly. "But she protected you at first, Hope. When the Knights of the Pierced Heart would'a killed you, maybe even killed me, she fought them; she saved you!" Gabrielle sighed. "But when she thought you were evil ... oh, the gods know, I don't always agree with Xena's methods ... but she always does what she thinks is right..."

"Oh, yes," thought her daughter bitterly. "She certainly does. She killed my son because she thought it was right; my poor son, my pride and joy. He loved me, mom, really loved ME ... and-and because of her he accidentally killed me ... his own mother, and died knowing it."

"Hope ... remember. You killed Solan! He was her only son and you killed him..."

"I know mother," Hope's thought was soft; sad. "It-it seemed right at the time ... now it all seems so long ago. I sort of remember it ... but it was before I was reborn through the cocoon ... I changed somehow then, but..."

Gabrielle mentally sobbed. "Never mind all that! It doesn't matter now! Oh, forgive, Hope, forgive. Don't you see? Only then will you be free to live ... to love and be loved..."

"L-Love...?" For the tiniest moment, Gabrielle thought she had won. Her daughter's thoughts were open; bewildered; somehow soft. Then, it was as if a door had suddenly slammed shut. "No. NO! I can't forgive Xena, mother, I CAN'T! She drove you away from me, took your love from me, forced you to try and kill me, not once but three times! She killed my son and through him she killed ME! If I hadn't found my way to you when I was dying, I would be dead now!" Hope's mental voice seemed to break with emotion. "She even tried to kill YOU, mother! She would have, if not for that whole Illusia thing. How can I forgive all THAT? How can YOU?"

The bard's thoughts trembled as she answered. "Xena and I settled our differences in Illusia; we each realized that hate only hurts the hater. That's over and has nothing to do with this..." Gabrielle whispered. "Oh, Hope, please ... please? Won't you just try? Try love over hate..."

"No, mother..." her daughter thought bleakly. "I don't want to hurt you anymore. I-I lov ... c-care for you and forgive you, but ... there can be no peace between Xena and me till ... till one of us is dead."

"Oh, Hope..." Gabrielle's thought sobbed.

"No, mother ... I'm sorry." Her daughter withdrew, leaving Gabrielle looking out of her own eyes at the warrior sharpening her sword by the balcony rail. As she watched, wishing she could cry, Xena looked up from her work. When she saw the bard was looking at her, she smiled faintly and spoke.

"Ya know, I'm sorry yer old clothes got burned, but I think I could get used to you in this yellow sari outfit ... ya know it shows off yer abs just as well as the green one did."

"Oh?" Hope fingered the material over Gabrielle’s breasts. "D'you like it?"

"Well, not really," Xena grinned, "you gotta admit, it IS kinda loud!" She snickered. "All that yellow combined with yer hair makes ya look like a big sunflower ... but, next to that pitsy pearl outfit Tataka had you in, it looks GREAT!"

"Thanks so much, X-Na!" Since you like it so much, guess I'll be wearing this outfit from now on, then, Hope smirked to herself.

"Think nuthin' of it, Scabby." Xena chuckled, then smiled tenderly. "I'm glad to have the old you back, Gabrielle."

"I'm glad to be back, Xena..." said Hope softly. "I plan on being around for a long time yet..."

As the warrior turned her attention back to her sharpening, the daughter of Dahak smiled coldly and whispered, "and I'll be with you, right up till the end..."

To Be Continued in Book Four of Hope Full, The Crossroads.

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