The air in front of Xena shimmered announcing Aphrodite’s arrival.
“Sometimes it really sucks being the goddess of love. First you feel the pain, then you just start to feel the joy, then; BAM! You’re back in the pain again. Xena, what happened?” she said, seeming to notice Gabrielle’s lifeless body in Xena’s arms for the first time.
Xena looked up at the goddess.
“It was that bastard, Yama,” she replied, a little of her fire and strength returning. “He just couldn’t stand to be a loser.”
Aphrodite was standing looking at Gabrielle, an expression of non-comprehension on her face. She eventually appeared to hear what Xena had said.
“Who is Yama?” she asked.
“You met him. He’s that swine-dropping of a god who sent you packing from the Japa underworld.”
“Well you know what gods are like, you just can’t trust ‘em.” Aphrodite seemed oblivious to the self-deprecating nature of her remark.
Although Xena felt an intense hatred for Yama and blamed him for what had happened, her years travelling with Gabrielle, learning from her quite different perspective on life, had shown her that it is rare for events to be completely one-sided. Her own part in the current situation now stabbed at her heart.
“It’s my fault, Aphrodite,” she said quietly.
“What?” she said, “But you just said…”
“Yes, I know,” said Xena impatiently, “but it was my idea to manipulate that bastard into sending me back, my idea to make a wager with him for my resurrection and my idea to use…” her voice faltered as she looked down into her best friends frozen face, “…Gabrielle to help me win it. If I hadn’t been so selfish she would still be alive.” Her voice tailed off to nothing.
Aphrodite sat down on the ground in front of Xena and showed, yet again, that there was more to this deity than first met the eye.
“Xena,” she began, “before you came back, Gabrielle was already dying, day by day, inch by inch. You know that. You felt it. You must also know that having you back restored her spirit.”
“But look at the cost, Aphrodite. And Gabrielle didn’t even know what I was asking her to do.”
“And do you think that it would have been any different if she had known?”
Xena paused. She knew in her heart that it wouldn’t have been different. Gabrielle would have, and did, give her life willingly to protect her friend. Not that it made Xena feel any better about what had happened. She gently stroked Gabrielle’s cheek with the back of her fingers.
“Xena!” Xena jumped at Aphrodite’s exclamation and looked up at her.
“Well, I just thought… I could go and find Gabrielle; her soul must be somewhere in the underworld. Then we can work out a way to, you know, bring her back.” The end of Aphrodite’s little speech sounded considerably less confident than the beginning.
“Except that she’s not in your underworld.” countered Xena, “Yama took her soul with him back to his.” However, cogs had started turning in Xena’s mind.
“But,” she continued, “you can go there and find her, you know the way. And while you’re doing that I’ll work out a plan. With what I know about the Japa underworld, there must be some way to do it.” With that, Xena gently lowered Gabrielle’s head onto the grass and stood up flexing her legs, which had gone to sleep curled up underneath her.
Aphrodite was having some doubts.
”Umm… Xena, you know I’m not exactly Miss Popularity over there. If you recall I all but got slung out on my derriere last time.”
“I know, but you don’t have to stay for long. Just find Gabrielle, let her know we’re on the case and come back. They won’t have time to do anything.”
“Well, OK. I suppose so. Do you want me to tell Gabrielle anything specific?”
Xena thought for a moment but realised that what she wanted to say would fill several of Gabrielle’s scrolls.
“No.” she said finally, “Just go… and tell her I… we love her.”
Xena paced back and forth running over alternatives in her mind. She knew that she had covered the same ideas, and the same patch of grass, several times but she was a long way from giving up.
She didn’t know how long she had been there. She had watched Draco’s henchmen wake up and slowly get to their feet. They had lifted the still unconscious form of Draco himself onto the back of his horse and had moved off. Xena had no idea whether or not Draco was still alive, and if she was truthful, she didn’t much care. There had been no sign of the other men that Draco had been about to signal to; presumably they had slunk away quietly when they saw their warlord leader get whacked by Yama.
The sun was getting low in the sky when Aphrodite returned.
“About time,” said Xena impatiently.
“Well, pardon me for breathing,” retorted Aphrodite tetchily.
“I’m sorry, Aphrodite,” said Xena, “any joy?”
“I’m afraid not, that’s why I’ve been so long. After my previous visit they must have put up some defences or something. I can’t even get in.”
“Oh!” said Xena, clearly disappointed. “I haven’t faired much better either. Even if we did find her and we could get in, I know of only one way a soul can be resurrected from the Japa underworld, the way that I was, and I doubt that Izanagi would be very cooperative.”
Aphrodite was about to ask who Izanagi was when Xena continued speaking with a new, optimistic tone in her voice.
“The way I was…” she mused to herself. “Of course!” She walked up to Aphrodite and grasped her by the arms. “The way that I was going to be.” Xena looked directly into Aphrodite’s eyes looking for a glimmer of understanding.
After a pause, Aphrodite said:
“OK Xena,” her eyes wide and perplexed, “you should know, I was never any good at cryptic puzzles.”
“No, no, it’s simple,” explained Xena, which really didn’t help Aphrodite much at all. Xena continued:
“The Fountain of Strength!”
Aphrodite raised her hands, palms upward and shook her head.
“On Mount Fuji!”
Aphrodite shrugged her shoulders.
Aphrodite’s mouth took on the shape of an ‘Oh!’ and she waited for the next instalment.
Xena, by this time, had resumed her pacing mumbling to herself and making random gesticulations with her hands.
Aphrodite gradually realised that she wasn’t going to be treated to any further explanation unless she asked.
“And?” she prompted.
Xena stopped mid stride, looked at Aphrodite in bewilderment and said: “And what?”
“Duhh! Fountain of Strength, Mount Fuji, in Japa… and?”
“Oh!” said Xena, realising that there was no reason that Aphrodite should know. “It is an enchanted spring where, if the ashes of a fallen soul are sprinkled in it before the second sunset after death, they will be resurrected. Gabrielle was going to resurrect me that way but…”
Aphrodite had finally joined up the dots between Xena’s explanation and the story that Gabrielle had told her some days ago by the campfire.
“Yeah, yeah,” she interrupted, “I got that part of it from Gabby.”
“You did?” said Xena, glancing down at her friend’s body, and then remembering that Aphrodite and Gabrielle had had a least two conversations recently, before Xena had returned.
Xena resumed her pacing but now she was talking out loud.
“So all I need to do is to get Gabrielle’s ashes to Mount Fuji and into that spring before…” she looked to the sun, seeing it dipping below the tree tops, “…tomorrow sunset.” Her shoulders dropped a little echoing the drop in tone of her voice and she stopped pacing again to look directly at Aphrodite.
“No problem, honey.” said Aphrodite with a broad grin. “Step aboard Aphrodite Travel, your ticket to the land of the setting sun.”
“Let’s not leave it that late,” said Xena. “I’d prefer the rising sun.”
After the euphoria of devising their plan to resurrect Gabrielle the previous afternoon, the evening had then been difficult. A funeral pyre had to be built and Gabrielle’s body placed on its top.
As the flames had roared skywards, even though Xena knew that Gabrielle wasn’t really in there and that this was simply a step towards getting her back again, it still tore at her heart. She chastised herself again for having put Gabrielle through this but slowly, as she thought of her friend and of what she would likely have said, the seeds of her own forgiveness started to grow. She had done everything for the best of intentions and had not once considered that she would not be able to protect Gabrielle from harm.
As the flames had begun to die down, Xena had set her blanket down as near to the fire as she could and lay down. She had drifted in and out of sleep, punctuated with a variety of shocking dreams all involving Gabrielle dying in some way, usually at Xena’s hand. By the time that dawn broke, Xena was glad that the night was over.
Aphrodite shimmered in holding a small urn with a lid that was held in place by a sturdy-looking clasp. Together, and in silence, Xena and Aphrodite gathered up Gabrielle’s ashes into the urn, although Aphrodite seemed to be having a little trouble dealing with it all. Xena didn’t mind. Although she was very appreciative of all the help that Aphrodite was giving, and was more than a little surprised at how the usually shallow god had displayed a deeper and more sensitive side to herself, this was her best friend and she was happy to complete the task herself.
“Xena,” said Aphrodite, “I’ve been thinking.”
Xena bit back the almost automatic put down that would normally have followed such a comment from her. Under the current circumstance, Aphrodite deserved more respect that that.
“Mmm?” she said inquisitively.
“When I take you to Japa, I don’t think I should hang around.”
Not quite sure what to make of the statement, Xena just looked at her and raised her eyebrows.
Aphrodite realised that her comment might have given the wrong impression.
“Not that I don’t want to help you or anything…” she stopped as she could see that this wasn’t helping explain what she meant. She tried again.
“It’s just that, when Yummy, or whatever his name was, arrived I could sense his presence somehow; a strange god in our realm I suppose. In which case, it’s likely that they can do the same with me in their realm. And I don’t want my presence there to cause any problems for you.”
Xena was quite impressed with Aphrodite’s forethought.
“You’re right. The last thing I need is a bunch of homicidal gods on my back. If you can just get me near to Mount Fuji you can leave straight away. I can take it from there.”
After a short pause, Aphrodite said, somewhat pathetically:
“You couldn’t draw me a diagram or something, could you?”
“What?” exclaimed Xena, and then sighed expansively as it dawned on her, yet again, that there was no reason that Aphrodite would know Japa at all.
Xena set about describing where Japa was in relation to Greece and then scoured her own memory to try to position Mount Fuji within the island. Finally, she gave as detailed a description as she could manage of the dormant volcano itself.
Eventually they were ready to go. Xena had tried to anticipate everything she might need. She had retrieved her chakram from Gabrielle’s horse and, remembering that Mount Fuji was quite high so it was likely to be cold up there, she collected a blanket and put on her large greatcoat for protection against the wind. And of course, the urn with Gabrielle’s ashes.
“Aphrodite,” she began, “you’ve got to get me reasonably close to the mountain. I want to make sure I don’t run out of time.”
“No pressure then!” Aphrodite replied, “Look Xena, I want this to work out as much as you do, but this isn’t exactly easy y’know.”
“I know,” said Xena, trying to relax, “and I know you’ll do your best. Come on, let’s do it.”
She mentally ran through her checklist one last time and held out her arm for Aphrodite to take hold. The two figures shimmered and disappeared.
To give her her dues, considering the sketchy information that Xena had been able to provide, Aphrodite did remarkably well. They reappeared in Japa with Mount Fuji large and imposing off to the south.
Xena took a moment to gather her bearings and looked around to see Fuji-san in the distance. ‘Not too bad,’ she thought.
“Go! And thank you Aphrodite.” she said.
Aphrodite squeezed Xena’s arm saying, “Good luck,” and vanished again.
Feeling suddenly very alone and conscious of the enormous burden of responsibility that rested solely on her shoulders, Xena looked again at the mountain, estimating the distance. She guessed that she had maybe three hours trek to reach the mountain and then she had to find the spring again, although she felt that she could remember enough of the terrain so that she would be able to find it quite quickly once she got there. She glanced up at the sun and any feelings of confidence she had took a heavy blow. Having left with Aphrodite an hour or two after dawn she was stunned to see the sun, not in the East where she expected it, but rather it was already well on its way down the sky into the West. From her previous experiences of being transported with gods, she had assumed that godly travel would be more or less instantaneous, but in this case it apparently wasn’t. Making a mental note to discuss the fact with Aphrodite at her next opportunity, Xena reassessed her task and the amount of time available to her. This was going to be cutting it close. She should still make it before sunset as long as there weren’t any hold ups, either natural or supernatural. Stripping off her greatcoat and stuffing it into the sack she had brought, she set off at a steady run, directly towards the towering bulk of Mount Fuji.
Needless to say, the direct route was anything but a straight line. With a myriad of gullies, rocky outcrops, impassable thorn bushes and raging streams to deal with, Xena found her progress towards Mount Fuji agonisingly slow even though she was pushing herself as hard as she dared, very conscious of the distance she still had to cover and the climb up the side of the mountain at the end of it. She was becoming more and more concerned that her time margin was getting smaller and smaller.
Some time later, after scaling one of the higher outcrops, rather than try to find a way around it, she stopped at the top to take a drink from her water skein and survey the route forwards. She was heartened to see that, not far ahead, was a forest and beyond it, as far as she could tell, was the mountain’s foothills. What she didn’t know was that this was the forest of Aokigahan whose legends of monsters, ghosts and goblins were the stuff that story tellers would use to frighten little children, and a fair number of grown ups too. Oblivious to all such legends, Xena stowed her water skein and, ignoring the heavy feeling in her legs, set off again.
Yama, on the other hand, knew all about the legends; after all, he’d had a hand in creating more than a few of them. As Aphrodite had feared, he had indeed sensed her appearance in the Japa realm; in fact, knowing of Xena’s resourcefulness, he had been half expecting it and had been watching out for it. Since discovering her presence he had been monitoring Xena’s progress, initially wondering what she was planning but very quickly guessing what it was once he saw the direction she was heading. He therefore had made one or two visits to Aokigahan forest himself.
Xena entered the forest and slowed a little while she took stock of her surroundings, ignoring the protests from her legs as they were asked to change their rhythm. The tree canopy was quite dense so no direct sunlight reached to the forest floor. In general, it was gloomy inside the forest with little in the way of colour to brighten the outlook. There was no track, at least where Xena was there wasn’t one and she had no intention of wasting time scouting to the left or right in the hope of maybe finding one. Relying on her own inbuilt sense of direction she pressed on, weaving around trees and dense patches of undergrowth, occasionally snagging a foot on a part-buried root as fatigue crept deeper into her legs. She had, by this time, been running for the best part of three hours.
Some distance into the forest, as she scanned ahead trying to pick out the route with least obstacles, she noticed that there seemed to be a particularly dark area up ahead. As she looked she thought she saw a small movement; perhaps a deer she had thought as she kept up her pace. Suddenly, as she got closer to the darker area, the shapes of the tree trunks, branches and bushes resolved themselves into a variety of arms, legs and bodies; and lots of them.
Xena slowed to a stop, taking in the sight of these strange creatures. She had seen nothing like them before. On average an individual would have come up to Xena’s breast line and in build she would have described them as strong and wiry looking. More worrying were the claws and sharp teeth that they all carried, which, along with their small, piercing eyes and rather large, pointed ears, gave them a distinctly aggressive and feral appearance. Now that Xena had stopped they were starting to move about in an agitated manner, a few starting to creep forwards.
‘This is Yama’s work,’ she thought. ‘Apparently he knows I’m here.’
Tiredness and despair washed over Xena. Her thoughts reflected her feelings.
‘This is hopeless. I can’t win against this lot. Besides, I’ve run out of time; there’s no point.’
“I’m sorry, Gabrielle, I tried,” she said out loud in a weak voice, closing her eyes, her head and shoulders drooping. The goblins started to advance en mass; they were only about thirty paces off.
As Xena closed her eyes, the memory of Gabrielle throwing herself in front of her to protect her from Yama’s fireball flitted through Xena’s mind. Her eyes snapped open and she spun around to see the ghost that had appeared behind her holding it’s hand on her shoulder. She lashed out with her arm, which passed straight through the ghost, but to her surprise it seemed to do the trick; it disappeared. She turned back to face the goblin hoard.
“But I’m not finished yet and I don’t have time to play nice,” she snarled menacingly, curling her lip, adrenalin temporarily washing away her fatigue. Xena unhooked her chakram from her belt and with a glance at it she whispered:
“I’ve missed ya baby,” and threw it, apparently way off to the right of the advancing goblins. As a consequence, once they had seen its wide trajectory, they ignored it and focussed again on Xena. The chakram struck a large tree trunk that deflected its course at right angles so that it was now heading directly for the left end of the front rank of the goblin mob.
Eight goblins at the front of the mob didn’t even see what sliced through their throats. Others, slightly behind, watched the chakram pass in front of them, ricochet again off another tree to their right and return to Xena’s waiting hand. They then watched their eight comrades collapse to the ground in front of them.
Xena broke into a wicked grin as she re-hooked her chakram, unsheathed her sword and yelled:
“Come on then, you bastards, let’s see what you’ve got.”
Several of the goblins at the rear of the group, presumably the weaker, less brave – or perhaps the more intelligent – didn’t like this turn of events and started melting away back into the forest. A sizeable number though were left and, at Xena’s taunt, gave out a spine-chilling shriek and charged.
With the distance between them down to just a few paces, Xena let out her own warbling cry and sprang high into the air and over the entire group of charging goblins to land a few paces behind them. With little ceremony or finesse Xena’s sword cleaved its way through a number of the goblins before they even had a chance to stop and turn around. Several more were given the same treatment as the mob stumbled about trying to regroup but ultimately getting in each other’s way. Their numbers now seriously diminished the remaining goblins retreated several paces to take stock.
Xena couldn’t tell which, if any of them, was in charge but somehow they seemed to decide on a new strategy. Gradually the remaining goblins spread out, encircling her. Once they were in place, they moved, slowly now, in for the kill, claws extended ready to slash whenever Xena’s attention was directed to the opposite side of the circle. Xena unhooked her chakram again, this time with her left hand. This caused some hesitation amongst the goblins but as Xena made no move to throw it, they resumed their approach.
Xena stood still, turning her head from side to side to maintain vigilance. The first goblin made his slash as Xena was looking the other way. Its claws raked down the side of her leather tunic, slicing easily through the tough ox hide. Fortunately, it wasn’t close enough to penetrate through to Xena’s skin. The attack was the trigger that Xena had been waiting for; she started to spin with her sword and chakram held out to her sides at roughly goblin neck height. As she span, faster and faster, she moved in a widening spiral, gradually moving further from the centre of the circle of goblins and closer to them.
It was all over in a surprisingly short period of time. The goblins clearly had no idea how to handle this whirling dervish of sharp blades. Within a few spiral rotations, Xena had decimated the goblin mob. A few had panicked and run off, the rest were either dead or disabled and were crawling away into the forest.
Xena stopped and surveyed the wreckage; she was surrounded by a variety of goblin body parts; fingers, hands, jaws and a few complete heads. She bent to grab a handful of leaves to wipe clean her chakram and sword, anxious to get back on her way. With this extra delay she was now seriously worried about time, or the lack of it. She guessed that, by now, the sun would be getting low in the sky and she hadn’t actually reached the mountain yet. She dreaded getting out of the forest and seeing the sun again since that would show her just how little time remained. She wouldn’t admit it to herself but deep inside she had a growing fear that the sunset would beat her to the Fountain of Strength after all and that she would have lost Gabrielle forever.
After running again for only a relatively short period of time Xena noticed that it was getting brighter up ahead and within another minute she emerged from the forest edge to be presented with the towering bulk of Fuji-san directly in front of her. The ground at her feet was already rising gently, in fact, once the adrenalin in her system had dissipated after her fight with the goblins, her weary legs had told her, in no uncertain terms, that she had been running up a gentle incline since leaving them.
She stopped and scanned the tree line and horizon to her right estimating that she had only about two hours before sunset. Taking another quick drink of water, she looked out over the rising side of the mountain, judging which direction she needed to go. From her previous visit to the Fountain of Strength she knew that it was located on the western side; she remembered sitting with Gabrielle to watch the sun set behind the distant horizon. With legs protesting at being asked to start moving again, Xena began a diagonal climb up the mountain and to the west, pushing herself to her limits to keep up the pace.
Progress was slow as the incline took its heavy toll but, keeping herself focussed with memories of Gabrielle, Xena pressed on as height as well as distance was gained. Soon, she started to notice patches of snow hidden from the sun in nooks and crannies on the mountainside as the temperature slowly dropped as she climbed. Eventually she turned left to start climbing more directly up the slope now that she had reached the western face.
With her legs screaming with every slow step, Xena trudged up the mountain slope, grateful that, as a dormant volcano, its sides were reasonably even presenting her with little in the way of obstacles to overcome. It came as a pleasant surprise when suddenly she reached the sizeable plateau that she recognised as her destination. The ground here had a thin covering of snow, no longer confined to just the shady spots and the air was decidedly cold. Removing her greatcoat from her sack, Xena slipped it on over her shoulders and headed towards where her memory told her the spring should be.
The sight of the vaguely familiar low rock wall, that she remembered surrounding the small pool at the bottom of the spring, brought a surge of excitement; a feeling that was instantly replaced by one of apprehension as four samurai warriors seemed to grow out of the ground in front of it. The leading warrior spoke quietly:
“Lord Yama sends his regards.”
“You can’t touch me. Yama is forbidden to harm me,” replied Xena, hoping that these warriors counted as an extension of Yama himself and were therefore subject to the same terms of their agreement.
“Oh, our intention is not to harm you Xena, we will simply prevent you from putting the ashes you carry into the Fountain of Strength.”
Xena glanced behind her to see the sun an hour or so from sunset. She looked back at the four warriors standing patiently, watching her carefully.
‘So, Yama has guessed my plan,’ thought Xena, frustration now being added to her fatigue.
She noticed that the samurais were not bearing katanas or other bladed weapons. Two held bos, long, slender staffs that looked like they should have had spear points on their ends but were devoid of any cutting or stabbing edge at all. Another carried a nunchaku, two short pieces of wood connected by a chain and the leader carried a tonfa, a short, handled club with a ‘t’ piece attached at one end.
On a good day she would have fancied her chances against them, especially since they were not intending to kill her, but today, with her legs now feeling like tree trunks and, she admitted reluctantly to herself, feeling generally pretty tired, she knew she would have little chance against four of them. All they needed to do was to prevent her from reaching the spring until after sunset.
She turned and walked away from them, out of sight behind a tall, scrubby bush that somehow made the best out of the arid, dusty ground in which it had rooted, nourished, no doubt, by the occasional melting of snow.
Xena pulled the sack off her back and fished out her water skein. She drank greedily from it knowing that preserving its contents for a later time was now irrelevant. She took out the small urn containing Gabrielle’s ashes and held it carefully in her two, cupped hands.
‘One way or another, Gabrielle, I’ll see you again soon,’ she thought as she prepared herself for her assault on the warriors.
Repacking her sack she ensured that the urn was safely surrounded by soft materials and then strapped it onto her back again. She unclipped her chakram knowing that, even with the element of surprise, she would be lucky if it would take out one of the samurai; they looked far too capable for it to be effective as an offensive weapon.
Taking a deep breath she closed her eyes. ‘If you can hear me, Eli, wish me luck.’
She threw the chakram hard and high into the air where it split into its two yin-yang halves, each veering off in quite different directions. She turned and walked back around the bush towards the samurais, seeing them standing in much the same positions as when she had left them a few minutes before.
“Well boys, I don’t have a lot to lose it seems. I hope you’re all ready to be sent to Yomi.”
The leading samurai smiled.
“Whether you manage to kill one or two of us is immaterial, our future is not what is at stake here,” he said without a trace of emotion in his voice.
“Maybe not,” retorted Xena, “but the future for one of you at least is going to be very short.”
The samurais heard the faint swish of the descending chakram at the same time as Xena. Quickly picking up its flight they dodged it easily, watching it ricochet from the rock face back towards Xena. The second half of the chakram, however, found its mark amongst the distracted warriors, cleanly removing the head of the nunchaku-carrier. It too then deflected from a rock, caught up with and merged with its twin, reforming the single, circular chakram, and flew back to Xena’s waiting hand.
To Xena’s mild surprise, the three samurais still standing showed no reaction to their comrade’s departure from the field of battle. Unfortunately it confirmed to her that she was up against not only competent fighters but also dedicated and completely committed servants. There would be no more easy wins in this fight.
Drawing her sword, she approached the samurais slowly. They fanned out presenting Xena with the prospect of having to fight on three fronts. As she came within range of the warriors with the bos she flipped into the air to her left, intending to drop in behind the warrior on that side. Unfortunately she underestimated the weakness in her legs and didn’t gain enough height so the warrior was able to whack her heavily on the thigh with his bo, knocking her off balance. She landed heavily, a muffled groan being forced from her lips as her overused legs absorbed the awkward impact with the ground. A blinding pain, emanating from the bo impact, shot up her right leg as it collapsed underneath her and she dropped onto one knee. The samurai’s bo followed her down rapping her soundly across the lower back producing another sharp bolt of pain, this time from her left kidney. Pushing herself away into a sideways roll she put some distance between her and the warriors who, fortunately, didn’t seem particularly interested in following up with more punishment.
Xena gingerly eased herself to her feet, gently massaging her right leg and left kidney with their corresponding hands.
‘Reminder to self,’ she thought as she looked sideways at the samurais, ‘be more specific with the definition of ‘harm’ when taking out the next agreement.’
She started another, slow approach towards the warriors who, once again, fanned out. This time, as she got close, she twisted and span around to her right swinging her sword to try to catch the warrior to her right on his back. Again, her tired and aching legs let her down. Her move was too slow giving the warrior time to jab his bo into her midriff. She doubled over, partly in pain but also to try to lessen the impact of the blow. The central warrior stepped forward and swung his tonfa in a vicious uppercut, catching Xena cleanly under the chin and propelling her several paces backwards to land heavily on her back. The world around her kept spinning and she heard all kinds of odd roaring and whooshing sounds. Slowly they quietened down and the world stopped going round at breakneck speed.
Xena rolled slowly over and clambered up onto her hands and knees, spitting out a large gob of bloody saliva.
‘I think that’s enough,’ she thought to herself.
She hauled herself onto her feet, picking up her sword on the way and steadied herself. The world threatened to start spinning again but a few deep breaths helped to settle it down. She looked at the samurais, squinted her eyes and curled her lip.
“Got you right where I want you,” she mumbled, a numb and aching jaw making a mockery of her taunt.
Raising her sword she twirled it once around her hand and charged.
Deflecting the bo to her right with her sword, she turned inside the bo to her left and laid out the warrior with a heavy blow of the sword’s pommel to his temple. Completing her turn to face the central samurai, he jabbed his tonfa into exactly the same spot that the bo had found on her previous attack. This time she was in no position to bend to minimise the blow and all of the air in her lungs exploded through her mouth. A bo struck her across the back of the neck and the darkest of nights suddenly descended on her.
Gradually Xena became conscious of her surroundings again. She opened her eyes a fraction to see the samurais grouped together again; two standing, the other two lying at their feet. The two upright warriors were looking expectantly at her and, as they saw her eyelids flicker and open, the leader smiled at her and held something out in his hand. Xena opened her eyes fully and lifted her head only to be rewarded with a searing pain that spread from the middle of her shoulder blades through her skull to finish somewhere behind her eyes. She closed her eyes again with a deep frown while she got to grips with the pain and then opened her eyes to look carefully at what the samurai was holding. It was the urn.
“No!” The word crawled from Xena’s lips as she shifted her weight and reached out her right arm, an action that produced another searing pain shooting through her shoulder blades.
“You fought well, Xena. A worthy foe but you really had no chance,” said the samurai again with no emotion in his voice. “But now it is over.” With that he unclipped the clasp on the urn and removed the lid.
“No!” Xena couldn’t hold up her arm any longer and it dropped to the floor. Her eyes though were fixed on the urn.
The warrior held his arm out to the side and gradually turned the urn upside down, shaking it slightly all the while. The ashes, as they floated from the urn, were whipped away in the brisk wind, across the mountain’s flanks.
“No!” Xena’s voice was little more than a whisper.
The urn empty, the samurai dropped it to the floor, closed his eyes tightly and said:
“My lord, it is done.” With that all four warriors melted back into the ground. Xena was alone once more.
“Bastards!” said Xena with a snarl as she slowly, painfully eased herself to her feet and limped over to the pool at the bottom of the Fountain of Strength. Her heart skipped a beat as she reached the pool; it was bone dry. There was not a drop of water to be seen. Looking up to where she remembered the water cascading down she noticed the circular plate set into the rock alongside it. Another memory arose; as she had arrived to begin her battle with Yodoshi months ago, she remembered that he was pulling his sword from the deep slot in the centre of the plate and shortly after that the water had begun to flow. Taking up her own sword, she reached up, wincing, and inserted it into the slot. Nothing happened. She twisted it and the centre of the plate turned. She heard the sound of bubbling water above her head so she stood back and waited for the cascading flow to begin.
In a short time the small pool at the bottom of the cascade had filled with the flowing water. Carefully she cupped her hands and scooped up some of the colourless liquid. Smelling it carefully and finding nothing suspicious about it, she sipped from her hands. Like a cool, refreshing shower on a hot, sticky day all of the pains and fatigue in her legs and body washed away leaving her feeling completely revitalised. The cuts and grazes all over her body healed and new, healthy skin covered them.
Standing up straight for what seemed like the first time in an age, she looked around for her bag and saw it not far from where the samurais had been standing when they left. She walked over and picked it up, carrying it back to the Fountain pool. Opening it she took out the water skein and held it over the pool. Grasping it in both hands she ripped it apart letting Gabrielle’s ashes fall into the pool. She dipped the skein into the pool to wash off any that were sticking to its wet inner surface. The ashes dispersed across the surface of the water, some sinking to rest at the bottom of the pool. Her heart pounding with anticipation and unsure of what should happen next, Xena waited.
Minutes passed, lengthening into an hour and still the ashes on top of the water floated there impassively, giving no hint of anything likely to happen. Xena sat quietly on the edge of the pool looking out at the sun, which was now very low in the sky. At first, she had been excited, looking for a sign that the ashes were going to somehow recombine and turn back into Gabrielle’s body. After a while she had started to pace back and forwards in front of the pool, going over, again and again, the steps she had taken to get here, trying to work out if she had done anything wrong. Unable to find anything she had then begun ranting at the spring, demanding an answer as to why it hadn’t worked. Eventually she had calmed down and, with a new ache growing in her heart, she started to realise that, for whatever reason, Gabrielle wasn’t coming back.
She sat watching the sun sink still lower. Her heart felt heavy as if it was an effort to simply keep beating. She thought about the last time that she and Gabrielle had been here, but with their positions reversed. That time it had been Gabrielle left sitting on the pool’s edge as Xena had faded away forever. She remembered clearly how the conversation had gone when she had asked Gabrielle not to pour her ashes into the pool.
“The souls are free,” Gabrielle had stated not understanding why her friend couldn’t now be resurrected.
“Free from Yodoshi's grasp,” Xena had said sadly, “but for those souls to be released into a state of grace, they must be avenged. I must stay dead.”
“But if I bring you back to life...”
“Those souls will be lost forever.”
Gabrielle had been desperate and had objected:
“Xena, that is not right. I don't care. You are all that matters to me.”
“Don't you know how much I want to let you do this,” Xena had replied, her voice heavy, “but if there is a reason for our travels together it was because I had to learn from you enough to know the final, the good, the right thing to do. I can't come back.”
Xena remembered Gabrielle’s tortured decision to do as her friend had asked and her final words at that moment:
“I love you Xena. How am I supposed to go on without you?”
As tears trickled from Xena’s eyes, she murmured quietly to no one in particular:
“I don’t think I would have been that strong.”
It took Gabrielle quite some time to sort out the kaleidoscope of images and sounds that she retained since Yama had gatecrashed the discussion with Draco. She recalled, quite clearly, his appearance and the shocking dismissal of Draco and his men, with their flight and subsequent crumpled landing some distance away. She could also remember, almost word for word, the argument between Yama and Xena along with her rising sense of threat in the confrontation. Yama’s aggressive action, therefore, had not come as any surprise to her and her split-second reaction to put herself in harms way to protect Xena had been an instinctive act. She remembered the thought flitting through her mind as she had made the move: ‘This is going to hurt.’ The subsequent thump in the back knocking her off balance and the warm glow across her back had consequently come as a surprise at first, that had quickly been replaced by another memory of similar feelings from some months before while on Mount Fuji in Japa.
Her memories after that point then got a little fuzzy and fragmented. She could recall looking up at Xena and seeing her non-Xena features soften, change and solidify into her real features, features that then seemed to merge with a loud yell of denial and a feeling of excruciating pain through her back and chest. The next fragment of memory was an odd, dizzying disorientation, the nearest similar experience to which was a time when, as a young child, her father had surprised her from behind and scooped her up and turned her upside down. On that occasion she had burst into giggles at the thrill. This time, however, the sensation was far from pleasant. An image following that had helped explain what had happened; she saw, briefly, Xena holding her own limp body. Recalling these, she knew that she had been killed.
Gabrielle looked again at the flimsy bars of the cage around her. They looked as if she should be able to simply bend and twist them out of the way but, as much as she had tried venting her anger against them, they had proved to be completely immovable; clearly some form of godly power was also involved. Now, with her anger spent, she was resigned to the fact that nothing she could do to them would affect them, let alone enable her release.
Over the last… however long it was (the passage of time here was impossible to track) she had seen Yama on several occasions, each time he had either ignored her completely or he had treated her to abuse of one kind or another. She had come to the conclusion that he was taking his anger out on her because of how Xena had tricked him over this challenge – whatever it was. She still had no details, only the guesses and assumptions that she had been able to make during the two days that she and Xena had been together. Without knowing for sure, she guessed that the challenge had been part of Xena’s plan to get herself resurrected. At least that part, she comforted herself with the thought, did seem to have worked out. ‘Pity I couldn’t have stuck around to enjoy it too,’ she added to herself wistfully.
Gabrielle’s spirits had been recently buoyed up when she had suddenly started hearing some of Xena’s thoughts about her.
‘So, it’s true,’ she had thought, ‘the dead can hear the thoughts of the living.’
Xena’s thoughts had been full of hope and determination and she had caught thoughts that seemed to link her with Mount Fuji. From that she guessed that Xena was heading for the Fountain of Strength with her ashes. However, the latest thoughts she had caught led her to believe that Xena must have failed for some reason.
Through the bars of her cage, Gabrielle looked out at Yama who was standing over a large table. He seemed to be poring over some charts or maps; Gabrielle couldn’t make them out from where she was over in the corner of the room, some ten paces from the table.
Determined to try to find out whether Yama knew what was going on Gabrielle said:
“Yama, I know that you and Xena had made some sort of arrangement, but I don’t know what it was.”
Yama looked up and walked towards the cage. Gabrielle steeled herself just in case his response was another of his painful ‘lessons’.
“You should know,” replied Yama with a sneer, “that your Xena sacrificed you to resurrect her own mortal skin.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our wager was that she could trick someone into killing her and then, a short time later, have the same person give their life to save hers. She obviously had you lined up as the sacrificial lamb all along.”
‘So that was it,’ thought Gabrielle, not believing for a moment Yama’s interpretation. ‘Now it all fits. I already know that Xena wasn’t supposed to use someone who knew her and I’ll bet that she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the wager either; that’s why she couldn’t tell me anything. And Draco was supposed to try to kill her and she knew that I wouldn’t let that happen.’
Gabrielle decided to play along with Yama to keep him talking, even if it meant she had to put up with more of his gloating.
“You mean that so-called friend of mine traded my soul for hers?” she said, feigning shock.
“That was her plan, obviously. Good friends were you?” Yama sneered again.
“I thought so,” said Gabrielle sadly. “Just goes to show how you can misjudge someone.” She let her head drop dejectedly.
Yama seemed pleased that he had caused Gabrielle more suffering and he turned to return to the table.
Before Gabrielle could follow up with another question, a loud crack filled the room that made her start, and she noticed that Yama too seemed to be startled. Two gods that Gabrielle didn’t know, in fact she hadn’t seen any other gods at all since her arrival, had appeared in the centre of the room.
“What is the meaning of this, Ame-no-Koyana?” exploded Yama looking decidedly flustered. “This is my private study, you are not permitted here.”
“Konohanu and I are here at Izanagi’s personal instructions,” replied Ame-no-Koyana without a trace of apology.
Gabrielle had no idea who the names referred to or who they were in the godly hierarchy.
At the mention of Izanagi’s name Yama seemed to deflate somewhat and asked more reasonably: “So what is your purpose here?”
“A short time ago a warrior’s ashes were placed into my Fountain of Strength but the resurrection did not take place,” said Konohanu. It was the goddess of Mount Fuji’s responsibility for ensuring that the Fountain of Strength bestowed its gifts upon those who visited it.
Gabrielle’s heart, if she had had one, almost burst from her chest in anticipation of what would happen next.
Yama looked briefly surprised but quickly recovered his composure.
“And this is of concern to me because?” he bluffed.
“Don’t play the innocent, Yama, you know as well as I do that the only way that can be prevented is if the warrior’s soul has been detained. And the only gods who have that power is Izanagi and you.”
“Perhaps the warrior’s soul is not in our realm?” suggested Yama unconvincingly.
“Or perhaps the warrior’s soul is incarcerated in a spiritual cage behind us,” roared Ame-no-Koyana re-entering the argument.
“That soul is in the cage because I have determined that it is destined for Yomi. I have that right,” argued Yama.
Ame-no-Koyana turned and looked carefully at Gabrielle. She had the odd feeling that he was looking, not at her, but into her. She unconsciously moved her arms across her body as if to try to conceal herself.
Ame-no-Koyana turned back, his voice now shaking with barely controlled rage.
“Yama, you have gone too far this time. Your previous fiasco, convincing us that you had a foolproof way to persuade Xena to reincarnate into an emperor’s daughter, as we wished, turned out to be nothing more than a pandering to your damned wagering. You then had the dishonour to try to fix the wager so that you would win. Now you have deliberately condemned a blatantly pure soul to Yomi purely for your own selfish reasons of revenge. Have you no honour at all?”
Yama didn’t respond. He simply stared blankly at Ame-no-Koyana realising that he was going to come out of this whole business with absolutely nothing.
“You will release her immediately,” commanded Ame-no-Koyana.
Yama waved an arm.
“As you wish,” he said disinterestedly. The cage disappeared, as did Gabrielle’s soul a split second later.
“Now,” finished Ame-no-Koyana, “Izanagi wants to speak with you.”
Lost in her thoughts, Xena was staring blankly at the sunset when a frantic splashing, accompanied by a spluttering, sounded behind her. She whipped around to find a naked Gabrielle sitting in the pool.
“Gabrielle!” she exclaimed with a mixture of disbelief and delight.
Gabrielle brushed the water from her face and turned to look at Xena. A broad smile breaking out on her face.
“Xena!” she yelled in reply. She stood up in the pool and immediately wrapped her arms around herself as the icy wind chilled her wet body.
“By the gods,” she said, her teeth starting to chatter, “you’d think, with all the powers they have, they could have made the water warm.”
Xena couldn’t help smiling at the flippant, yet pragmatic comment.
“Or at least resurrect me with some clothes on,” she continued with mock annoyance, suddenly seeming to notice her lack of attire.
Xena picked up the blanket that she had ready and said happily:
“Come here you.”
She helped Gabrielle step out of the pool and wrapped the blanket warmly around her. Opening her greatcoat she pulled Gabrielle inside it and hugged her, rubbing her back through the blanket.
“I thought I wasn’t going to get you back,” said Xena, a slight hoarseness in her voice.
“You nearly didn’t,” replied Gabrielle. “I think we both have a lot to tell each other.”
They sat side by side on the rocky edge of the Fountain pool, Gabrielle hunched up inside the blanket against the cold and Xena holding her warmly against herself with her coat enveloping them both. They looked out to the Western horizon where the sun was making a valiant effort to keep shining its light into the world as it slipped slowly out of sight. Its efforts were not in vain as a stunning display of red and gold shone from the high, wispy clouds.
“What a beautiful sunset,” said Gabrielle.
“Yes it is,” replied Xena, finding herself wishing that the moment would last forever.
Gabrielle pulled gently away from Xena and turned to look into her face.
“You’re not going to fade away on me this time, are you?” she asked with a half smile, remembering the previous time they had sat together in almost this exact spot.
“Not a chance,” Xena assured her. “Not this time nor any other time.”
Gabrielle relaxed back into Xena’s embrace with a contented “Mm!”
As the last sliver of sun dipped behind the distant hills, Gabrielle piped up again:
“Xena,” she said, “can we not do the dying thing again – at least for quite a while anyway?”
Xena smiled, “I’ll drink to that,” she said, “besides, I’ve lost count,” she chuckled.
Gabrielle luxuriated in the gentle shuddering of her friend’s body.
“Maybe we should go back to the farm,” she said, “and keep our heads down for a while. Keep out of trouble.”
The two friends were quiet for a moment, mulling over the prospect.
“By the way,” continued Gabrielle, “you promised that you would collect the firewood.”
Xena closed her eyes and smiled to herself. “I did!”
Thanks for reading.
If you have any comments at all, even if it's "Yeah, I read it", I would be delighted to hear them.
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