Xena was trying to remember what she had felt. She had felt. How impossible. The Daybringer had walked up to them and said, “now”, nonchalantly, and she had felt as though someone had stuck a funnel into her back and was pouring her full of thick gruel until her skin felt like it could not contain it. Then a buzzing started just behind her breast bone, that began to sting, stinging and growing and the pain was almost more than she had ever had to bear, but then it had started to turn into colors in her mind. Violets and yellows and no pain at all. She’d closed her eyes to better see the colors. Then in an instant, she reopened her eyes and there was blue-gray sky, there were scrub trees and dark red rocks. Verigon stood next to her clenching and unclenching his fists, looking at his hands like they were going to crawl up his arms.
“Look…at…this. “ Then he looked around. “This is it.” Verigon put his hands on his hips. That made him notice something about his hips, precisely, they had nothing covering them. He looked at Xena. The brown shrouding was gone and nothing had replaced it.
“Where are we?” Xena asked.
“Xena, you are naked.”
“Where am I naked at?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Some mountain somewhere. Ouch!” A pebble had hit him on his newly sensitive head. He and Xena turned to see Crom sitting on the rocky ground and jabbing his finger toward a rock just a few steps away from him, pointing to a jumbled pile of fabric.
“Oh,” Verigon headed toward the pile, “what’s the matter with your voice, Crom?” He was answered with a hamster-like squeak. “Well, it may come through later.” Verigon started sorting through the clothes and handed them out in what he thought was the appropriate dispensation. As he started to put on his trousers he looked out across the valley. “We will be guided, but we must get off this mountain. Why were we delivered to this desolation? A thousand hells! We’ll freeze before we get to the portal.”
Xena took the proffered clothes and began putting them on. Her garment was a long smock-like dress that hung to her feet. The rough cloth felt itchy but amazingly sensual. “The portal?”
“Kuuksk will needs a portal to access and escape the earthly realm.”
“How do you know what he’ll do and where he’ll do it. Does he report in? Is he from your hell?”
“Kuuksk doesn’t need our hell. He doesn’t need us.”
“Whose god is he?”
Verigon looked up, as if finding the information. “He was a so-called lesser god with no real affiliation to any peoples. Lucifer called him an impshit wannabe. Oh look, shoes, this is good. Here. Come on, Crom.”
Crom had put on his shoes, then made a sweeping gesture around them and shrugged his shoulders questioningly. *squeak?*
“Come on, come on” Verigon motioned them to start walking down the mountain. “It’s easy enough to find out where we are. Besides, Oio can find us, and if we get off course, we are certain to hear about it.”
“How did Kuuksk get to be so powerful?” Xena asked as she walked down beside the Intercessor. The cold air against her face felt like a gift.
“Oh, he didn’t get to be powerful, he was power. And since he stayed on the outskirts of other gods, he went somewhat unnoticed, and when he was noticed, he was mocked”
“How do you know so much about him?”
“Xena, excuse me for saying, but it’s rather patronizing of you to assume that because we are from the netherworlds we do not educate ourselves.”
“How powerful is he? What can he do?”
Verigon didn’t answer right away but kept trudging downward. Alas, floating would be so much easier. He decided his answer. “You’ve killed gods.”
“You have fought with gods.”
“Imagine that those gods did not have limits to their powers. That they could not only throw a bolt of lightning, they could fill the whole sky with one fireball and strike every inch of the ground with a million lightning bolts and then do it all again by blinking their eye. And…”
“I can’t kill a god like that.” Xena stopped. “This is a fool’s mission.”
“Possibly. But Oio told you about the Census?”
“Yeah, I won the god vote.”
“You did. The assumption is you have the Greatpower with you.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“Nevertheless, the Greatpower is something Kuuksk must bow to. It is his only rein. It is how we know of his plans, it is how we know how to find him.”
“Well can’t the Greatpower stop him?”
“The Greatpower only is, it cannot do, it can only be.”
“”Forgive me if I step on your beliefs, Verigon, but that doesn’t sound particularly ‘great’.
“It doesn’t need to.”
“OK, forget it.” Xena sat down on the mountainside.
“But, Xena,” Verigon began to get ready a persuasion speech until he saw that Xena was ripping half the fabric off from the bottom of her smock. She wrapped the fabric around her head so she retained some warmth from it but had some more mobility . They all seemed to have very strong flesh bodies. The Daygiver did need to brush up on placement but his corporeal manifestations were impressive.
Gabrielle’s heart pounded like a drum in her chest, as she bounded up the mountain behind the village. It was still the blue-gray dark before dawn, and she had to partly feel her way up the steep slope. The long grass was slippery with cold dew, and when she lost her footing, there always seemed to be an outcropping of rock to slam into. Still, she was getting farther up the mountain and turned to see if her pursuers were gaining on her. A couple hundred feet below her, the villagers had stopped climbing. Two of their torches had advanced slightly further than the rest, but turned to rejoin the main group. The pursuit was over. Gabrielle looked further down to the village. She could see several torches, presumably in the hands of the women and children that had not taken up the chase to drive the demon woman away. That’s what someone had called her, “demon daughter of a demon bitch”.
Gabrielle sat down on the grass. The men that had been chasing her were moving fairly quickly down the mountain. Perhaps she would be safe now. She almost wished she were a demon, then she could have taken care of those hogs herself. She would not have been driven from her home. She would be with her herd moving them to the shelter of the north pasture. No, on thinking, the sheep would not do well with a demon. But maybe then she would have had the power to see into the afterworld and find what had happened that had left her alone on a ship how many years ago. To see how a bond that was supposed to connect across worlds and through the millennia had become unbound, unwoven and disintegrated into dust.
Well, the hogs had left of their own accord, or at least not of her accord. The men of Hiratha had stood a somewhat safe distance away from her house, calling for her to come out. Gabrielle had heard the call, and even though she was afraid of the animals outside, she knew she had no choice but to step out and meet whatever came, for that was the way she must live always, every day to find her way to do what must be done, till the end. When Gabrielle fearfully opened her door this time, the hogs turned docilely, walked out of the yard, took a left turn and moved as one to the edge of the seacliff , not missing a step as they trotted off the edge and into the ocean. Then, with hardly a pause, the crowd had advanced with their own wild roar.
Now, she sat as the sun started to appear from the deep shade of the mountain. The torches below became harder to see in the daylight. But she could make out a cluster of them, all in the village and all moving. They were all moving toward…toward… “Oh gods, oh gods.” Gabrielle covered her mouth with both hands. The torches and their carriers (she knew many by name), had moved to the far corner of the village. To the hut. Three men walked into her hut. Gabrielle’s throat and chest constricted and she felt like she was suffocating. Then her fear was painted out in front of her, like a living picture.
The men ran back out of the house and the people nearby backed away. Then a curl of white smoke came out of the front door and between the window shutters. More and more smoke. Then a few flames licked out. Stones don’t burn. Parchment burns. The smoke billowed out of the house and rose up into the brightening sky.
The people turned to go back to their homes. Gabrielle moaned from a pain, more than fear or anger or grief, it was the pain of tearing away the last comfort from a human soul.
A steady drizzle fell on the three travelers from hell as they trudged steadily on their journey to the portal. After they had come down from the mountain and walked into the first small town, they realized they had no money and their reconstituted bodies were hungry and needed food, tired and needed a bed and silly-looking and needed better clothes. Verigon had held his hands flat in front of his chest, closed his eyes and an imp had immediately appeared, thrust a small jingling leather bag at him, pointed north, smiled a sickening smile and disappeared. “Handy,” was Xena’s observation.
Since then they had eaten, slept and had marginally better clothes (there must have been a budget crunch in the afterworld). Xena had ignored any of the impractical women’s garb available at the bazaar, and seemed content with warm trousers, a heavy brown shirt and a furskin coat.
She adjusted the coat around her throat to protect against the cold wind that came up from the west. “We are getting closer to the ocean.”
Verigon nodded, “The portal could be there.”
“We could move a lot faster if we had horses.”
Verigon shook his head, “If wishes were horses…”
“I’d have a horse.”
They kept walking.
“Father it is not right!” Eyan’s hands were shaking and his face was turning a mottled red. “She did not do anything wrong. She has helped us all for years!”
“Quiet! You don’t understand. Those beasts were sent to reveal her true nature. She was trying to lull us to sleep and then she would have brought the plagues on us.”
“How do you know?! How do any of you know?!”
Arranel walked up behind her son and put her hand on his back. “Eyan, calm down. Think about this. You know she isn’t like us.”
“Of course she isn’t! She lives to help people! She sees things other people don’t see.”
“There!” Denis shook a finger in his son’s face. “There! People are not supposed to see what can’t be seen.”
“Who says, father! Who makes these laws! They make no sense! I am going to take her some food.”
Eyan went over to the bin by the table and pulled out some vegetables. Denis walked up behind them and struck the food out of the boy’s hands. “Eyan.” He spun the boy around, grabbed him by his shoulders and shook him. “Eyan, look at me!” Eyan looked up at him with angry brown eyes. “I’m your father.”
“Yes, Father, I know.”
“Then you know what that means.”
Eyan knew what was coming next.
The travelers sat finishing their dinner in the third inn on the third night of their journey. They had walked far and long into darkening skies until the rough road had become too difficult to navigate. The place seemed to be on the rowdy side and Verigon wearily thought that he might see many of these faces sooner rather than later, only with gray-jellied skin and despairing eyes. Well, no, he wouldn’t, he reasoned to himself. If Xena failed and Kuuksk succeeded, there would be no here, there or other where. If Xena succeeded, he wouldn’t have to go back to submit to Oio’s whims and spend eons surveying for the Disruptive Dead. His beingness had forever changed, even if for non-being. Crom as well. His sub could speak again, but really still squeaked quite a bit. That was neither here nor there with Verigon, but sometimes Xena had to walk several paces away and then return, after a symphony of, what one hoped, were involuntary squeaks.
And would Xena succeed? He could not read her at all. Now she was looking half-lidded at a couple of miscreants missing each others’ heads with ham-handed punches, arms swinging loosely and wildly. One misdirected punch accidentally sent the serving girl to the floor. Xena flinched, then looked down for a moment. When she looked up again, her face was impassive, but Verigon could see the muscles in her neck standing out.”
He continued to study her with something close to appreciation. Completely new feeling. Xena’s appearance certainly had taken a turn for the beautiful since returning to the flesh. The nothing gray hair was a soft dark brown and her skin was tan and seemed to cover an amazingly structured woman. “As they were“, that was the Daygiver’s job. Why would she choose to give up herself again?
Xena pushed deliberately back from the table and stood up. “I’m going to the room.”
“Good sleep then, Xena.”
“Well…” she looked a little confused. “Thanks Verigon.” She turned and went up the stairs at the back that led to the sleeping quarters.
Verigon turned his mug in his hand. This “ale” was very, very good. “Crom, do you notice anything changing about me, or changed?”
“What, you mean as in everything?”
“Well no, but I feel odd.”
“Verigon, you…you…it’s ridiculous OK, what kind of odd? Fleshly? Feely? Humany?”
“No, no. I feel…cordial.”
Dorothea stirred the cauldron over her firepit. A rich fish stew bubbled inside, filling her farmhouse with the smells of sweet vegetables and spices. She was wiping her hands on her apron when someone knocked tentatively at her door.
She hobbled over to the door. Her hip was really dreadful today. Must be a very big storm coming.
She opened the door to Eyan, holding his cap in his hand, his eyes shifting nervously away from Dorothea’s. “Eyan, come in dear!” She slipped her hand around his arm, the gesture seemed to settle him down as he concentrated on helping her back to a chair at the table.
“Have some stew with me Eyan, it’s just finishing.”
“Um, I shouldn’t, I mean it’s for you, and uh...”
“Eyan, do I look like a behemoth? I can’t eat all that.”
“Well, ok, then, a little, thank you.”
“Wonderful. Could you please serve us? My hip is just aggravating me today. The bowls and spoons are over by the basin.”
Eyan served and brought two steaming bowls to the table. They both took their first bite slowly.
“Where did you get the fish. There hasn’t been a catch in days.”
“So I hear. Gabrielle helped me cure these a couple of months ago.”
“Father thinks Gabrielle is the one who made the fish leave.”
Dorothea took another bite, looking into her bowl. “Eyan, there is a bad storm coming.”
“Skies were clear this morning.”
“Take care, son.” Dorothea looked up at him with warm gray-blue eyes. Her face was worn with her years, but softly and sweetly, by smiles and gentle concern. Her silver hair was in a loose bun and a couple of tendrils curled loose, still rebellious.
“Our boat is the best in the bay. We can take any storm, head on,” Eyan defended, although he didn’t know what the conversation had to do with Gabrielle.
“I’m afraid this is not any storm.” Dorothea put down her spoon and pushed back from the table and folded her arms. “Why did you come here, Eyan?”
“I don’t know. I thought you… My dad won’t let me take food up to Gabrielle, and I knew you…I thought you…”
“That you knew her and maybe could…”
“Eyan. I want to explain something to you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I know, I mean I know about the pigs.”
“Eyan, I think you want to help Gabrielle, don’t you.?”
“I told my father, I told him I wanted to just take her some food. He wouldn’t let me.”
“We must not lose her, Eyan.”
“Dorothea, she is just in the caves she isn’t lost, she just
“We must not lose her.”
Eyan looked at the gray-haired woman in exasperation. She must be getting batty. Well, she was the oldest woman in the village. “I just want to take her some food!”
“We must save her.” Dorothea shifted back to the table and continued to eat her stew. After a couple of moments, Eyan started on his again. He had thought Dorothea would help him, but now he was only confused and just a little nervous. Something wrong seemed to be going on.
It was early morning. Xena, Verigon and Crom stopped as they topped a low hill and saw a gray, white-capped ocean stretching out to infinity on either side and in front of them.
“A day away,” Xena said softly. She had been turning the mission over and over in her mind.
The mission they had sent her on was to kill, in some undetermined way, a god who was more than a god, who was about to break free of the Greatpower and destroy all things living and past living. If this Kuuksk could break free of this “great power”, how was she supposed to kill him? She’d had major difficulties with Athena, and forget about Yodoshi. But if they thought she had a chance and no one else did, she might as well go this way as any other. She thought she better start getting a little more information.
“Where is this portal you keep talking about? You said when we reached the ocean it would only be a day’s journey. Have you heard from one of your impguys? Do you know where we’re going yet?”
Verigon started walking down toward the sea below. “Hiratha.”
“It’s a little village north of here. We will probably be there by tomorrow midday.”
“Why are we going there? Is Kuuksk there?”
Well, and well. The godskiller was still coming. Nevertheless, there should be plenty of time. It's just that he had to be so careful. But who better to spin the delicate web that must be created than he? None. He must delay the godskiller, create some diversion in the portal and take the Golden One away finally as his time arrived. Let them see a hint of his power, contained as it would be, it would be a treat to watch the mortals struggle against his smallest whim.
The travelers arrived at the inn at Traka. Loud but congenial voices surrounded them as they walked into the tavern. Verigon was anticipating his next ale as they sat at a table. Damnation that was good stuff. The owner came up to them, leaned forward putting his hands on the table.
"Strangers! Welcome! We have everything and more that you could ever need. Pick your poison."
"Ale." Verigon said eagerly.
"Same here." Xena said, scanning the room, as usual.
Crom was looking toward the door. "Can we sit outside?"
The innkeeper raised his substantial eyebrows. "Company irritatin' you, my man?"
"Well no. I just saw that table out there by the lake and I thought it looked kind of pretty in the moonlight."
Verigon swung his head to look at his sub-Intercessor in astonishment. "Pretty in the moonlight?"
"Sure, the moon just sort of sparkles on it. It's beautiful, Verigon."
The innkeeper stood up and put his hands on his hips. "Beautiful it may be, but that table is reserved for only one person. The woman who saved my brother's life."
Someone shouted from the table next to them, "Travus no! Oh gods, don’t get him started on that story again!"
"I'll tell it if I want to, Luch. So, you see..." he settled onto the empty chair, "about a year ago my brother was running the shop for me and two spawns of hell came in and wanted our gold, everyone's gold. They held a knife to his neck and had started to draw blood. Everyone was pretty scared I guess. Couldn't move. But my brother said when that man raised that knife, this one-eyed woman seemed to snap and flew across the room. Knocked both of those guys to tartarus and back and she didn't get a scratch on her."
"I don't think they were necessarily from hell..." Crom started defensively.
"Crom, Crom, you are missing the point." Verigon hurried to interrupt. "But what does that have to do with the table by the lake, sir?"
"Oh, well, this woman wasn't here a lot, but when she was, just when we closed, she would always take her her drink and her food and sit at the edge of the lake, looking out across it. We’d close up and she’d still be there. Of course, she’s as mad as a mother weasel, but if she saves my brother, my business and my customers in one night, she can sit anywhere she wants, and in comfort, too."
Xena had been listening to the story with interest. "Why does she sit there? Do you know?"
"Don't know why. Doesn't fish. Watched her a couple of times. When she was through sittin', she stripped down and swam across."
Now Verigon was curious. "That lake is big. Does she swim all the way across?"
"Mmm, and back. So sir, " he said addressing Crom, "since I can't seat you at the table of honor, what will be you have the honor of drinking?"
"Mead. Thank you."
Xena was looking at the outside door thoughtfully. The story brought up something familiar to her.
Verigon grabbed her shoulder and gave it a little shake. "Well, Xena. Looks like other heroes have risen from the women of the world. Can't expect to have kept all the glory, right my friend?"
Xena screwed up her face. "Glory. Not glory. Sounds like the woman is mad."
"Ah, but she saved lives. I'll bet the same was said of you."
"Absolutely. And worse."
Verigon rubbed his hands together eagerly. Soon the ale would arrive.
Denis rushed through the door, startling Arranel who sat at the table sewing her son's trousers. Eyan sat on the floor by the firepit , wrapped in a blanket.
The fisherman took off his cap and tossed it on the table, walked quickly to his wife and kissed her with a loud smack on her cheek. "They're coming, Nellie! They'll be here tomorrow!"
"Who's coming, dear? And please shut the door, Eyan will catch a cold."
Denis looked at his son. "Son, where are your clothes? We need to be ready well before dawn!"
Arranel went around her husband and shut the door in exasperation. "Denis, you haven't told us what or where or anything."
"Fish! Fish, Nellie!. Armand 's cousin from up north rode down to tell us. He saw them this evening. He says there are fish filling the whole ocean as far as you can see in any direction! They are swimming here."
Arranel looked at her hands, put down her work and began to rub her fingers against each other nervously. "That doesn't sound normal, Denis. Something sounds wrong."
"Wrong?! I don't think so. This is the gods answer to us, that we have cleansed our village and we will be rewarded. The demon woman drove the fish away, they couldn't help that, but now they are able to make it up to us. And we'll be ready. Oh!" He grabbed his hat back from the table. "I have to get the nets ready. Eyan, get your pants on and come help me!" He was out the door.
Eyan and his mother looked at each other.
"Mother, she's not a demon woman."
Arranel sighed and picked up her handiwork again. "Let me get these ready. Your father will be waiting. At least fishing is easier on your clothes than sheepherding."
"Dorothea says a bad storm is coming."
Arranel stopped sewing again. "She did? I hope not." The needle started moving again. "Your father's boat is the strongest in the harbor. He has come home from every storm the gods have thrown at him..." Eyan joined in to finish the family joke, "...with fish and its tale."
"Ok, Mother, but I need my clothes. Father's waiting."
"He can wait for a son that isn't indecent."
Xena bolted upright as a shutter banged open in their room in Traka. Lightning lit up the small area revealing Verigon sitting up on his floor mat. Crom's blanket-covered form in the corner was moving restlessly. A mist of water hit her face, even though she was across the room from the now-open window. Thunder boomed as more lightning flashed. She smoothly slipped out of bed and moved to the window. She had to squint her eyes almost shut against the stinging rain. Lightning flashes were cascading through the sky, highlighting broiling clouds that hung almost to the ground as they raced along driven by the freezing wind. It was a spectacle she had never seen before.
She pulled her head back into the room and closed the shutters. Her hair had quickly plastered against her head and her face was dripping.
"A fine morning, eh Xena?" Verigon's asked. "I think it's almost morning. It looks like we will need to wait until this passes."
Xena didn't answer. She still faced away toward the closed window.
She turned and graced the Intercessor with a dazzling smile of glee.
"Verigon! He's afraid!"
"We have a chance! Let's go!"
"What?! We'll either be blown into the ocean or struck by lightning!"
"I would say very likely."
"I would say that evidence points to the contrary, Verigon. Your all-powerful goatbutt of a god seems to have a rein on him."
"Well, he is possibly still is bound by the Greatpower, but he is destined to break free."
"But he isn't free now, he's stuck with puppet -show tricks."
"This cyclone is hardly a puppet trick."
"But it's not the end of the world either. Let's go. Come on, Squeaker."
Crom had been listening to the conversation from his bed on the floor, with his blanket pulled up around his nose. "Verigon, are you going to let her mock me?"
The lead Intercessor stood up and started to gather his pack. "She is not mocking you, Crom, she is accurately defining you. Now get ready."
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