Having spent a considerable amount of time attempting to calm the two missionaries and convince them that she wasn't a witch, Gabrielle finally had the camp to herself again. Well, except for the Warrior Princess who was doing her best to avoid the blonde's scowling.
"I am distinctly unamused." Gabrielle proclaimed as she flung the tent open searching for something.
"We'll just have to be more careful in future. Come on, the sun will be up soon. Nobody is expecting you again until tomorrow night, so you can spend all day snoozing." Xena lay back and patted the bedroll beside her invitingly.
Gabrielle finally located her elusive prize and held it aloft triumphantly. "Yes!!" Inordinately pleased, she upended the wineskin, intending to wash herself off with the water contained within. The warrior winced as Gabrielle's expression slowly changed from gleeful to crestfallen. The wineskin released a thick dribble of red ooze into Gabrielle's awaiting palm, before being dumped unceremoniously to the floor. Wiping her hand on the side of her skirt the bard complained, "I guess I wont be getting this off any time soon..." and began picking dried flakes of blood from her body.
Her misery was interrupted as a loud gurgling echoed in her ears. Casting a glance at her stomach she noted, "Xena, we're out of food and there's barely any left in the village. If we don't get to the bottom of this soon..." Her voice trailed off with a look of worry.
"You'll die of thirst before you starve to death. Unless you want to get all nostalgic and take up your old Bacchae habits again..." Xena suggested, winking and pulling her hair aside to offer her neck.
"Don't tempt me" the bard warned, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"Do you think you can last another day or so?"
"I'm not sure. I can already feel myself desiccating..." With a loud sigh, Gabrielle lay down on the bedroll, bade Xena goodnight and closed her eyes.
Her sleep was far from restful. After much tossing and turning she pried her eyes open to see Xena propped up on one elbow facing away from her - vague scratching noises coming from beyond. Sitting upright and running a hand through her hair, she asked quietly "What are you doing?"
Xena jumped, clearly startled at the sound of her lover's voice, and replied, "I was hoping I wouldn't wake you..." a blush colouring her cheeks.
"You can still blush? Come on, hand it over, I want to take a look at that."
Thoroughly embarrassed, Xena put down her quill and surrendered her blue scroll. Gabrielle watched her with amusement as she pulled the blanket up over her head in shame. The bard cleared her throat and began to read aloud:
"Oh man, it's happening
it's wicked it's neat,
skipping through flowers and not eating meat.
Pursuing the vibes and the runes and the moon,
hello sun, hello clouds, I think I'm a spoon."
As two blue eyes peeked tentatively out from underneath the covers, Gabrielle wrinkled her nose - trying for all she was worth to stifle a grimace. Xena deduced that her partner was obviously not in the least impressed with her artistic talents, and snatched the scroll back with a pout.
"I couldn't think of anything to rhyme with moon, okay?!" she snarled, tossing the scroll to the far side of the tent as she lay back on her side, shoulders hunched and facing away from Gabrielle. She sensed the bard reach out to touch her and jerked away, obviously hurting. "I have needs too, you know...It's not like your poetry was anything to write home about..."
"And what exactly do you mean by that?!" Gabrielle blurted, stunned at both Xena's odd behaviour and rude dismissal of her talent.
"Well listen to my story 'bout Gabrielle?" Xena uttered with an audible sneer.
Granted, it wasn't the most evocative of rhymes. Unless you were asking Joxer. It evoked plenty of feelings in him. "That doesn't count. I was...enchanted, cursed...that wasn't me talking it was Aphrodite's influence...and you know how eloquent she is!"
"Hmph! Well what about after we left Ulysses at Ithaca?"
"What about it?" Gabrielle honestly couldn't recall doing any appalling work after Ithaca. Sure, there were a couple of embarrassing angst ridden pieces that she'd wasted no time in tearing up for fear that Xena might find them, but other than those - nope, she was truly at a loss. Until Xena, unrelenting, piped up again.
"The flu? The migraine I had for days? Let me see...
'I heard that you
were feeling ill,
headache, fever and a chill.
I just came round to restore your pluck,
'cos I'm the bard who likes to f...'"
"Alright! Alright! Point taken." Gabrielle's face reddened at the memory and she lay back down. Staring at the canvas roof above her, she tried desperately to bite back any unhappy thoughts that threatened to stray into her head.
Xena lay brooding, her pride in tatters. She knew she was no wordsmith, but Gabrielle of all people might have had the decency to cut her a little more slack. She resolved to tear the blue scrolls to shreds come morning and stick to what she was good at - kicking butt. Until she realised that was no longer an option and a frustrated growl resounded through the tent.
*This is a stupid argument. Why are we even having it?* the blonde thought, and then bit her lip, realising that Xena would hear. As if the warrior wasn't moody enough while she was alive, it would just be Gabrielle's luck for Xena to transform into a temperamental artist after death.
"You might have told me." Xena offered, peering over her shoulder.
"You might have let me...it's hard to confess undying love when your intended is rutting in the next hammock."
Xena felt the sharp stab of pain filtering through Gabrielle as the scene replayed in the blonde's memory, and she caved. Rolling over she reached out her hand, hoping the bard would take it. "You did that funny little dance...and stripped off out of that weird white uniform - you really knocked the wind out of my sails."
Gabrielle grinned and interlaced her fingers with Xena's, shuffling closer and nestling up to the warrior. "I had to get my point across somehow. If I'd waited for you to make the first move I'd have died of old age..." They lay in silence for a while before Gabrielle offered, "Your poem isn't bad, it's just a little - off the wall. I've never read anything quite like it before. It's...quirky. You could start a whole new trend. Give Virgil a run for his money."
Xena smiled and pulled Gabrielle closer. "Thank you. I'm sure you know this, but...I didn't mean to be mean." The warrior watched as her partner's gaze softened. "Sun's coming up. Get some sleep." Without another word, Gabrielle placed a soft kiss to Xena's collarbone and promptly nodded off.
Gabrielle awoke the next day just as the sun was dipping down over the horizon. Starving and unable to bathe, she trudged grumpily towards civilization to look for Dael. Shortly after entering the town she sensed a lot of fear and upon hearing raised voices, she bolted towards the marketplace. She pushed her way through the gathered crowd to discover the source of a woman's anguished wailing. As she neared the front she could clearly make out the hanged lifeless forms of her missionary pests, Caleb and Yousef.
"Now there's something you don't see every day." Xena remarked, folding her arms with interest.
*What?* Gabrielle's brow furrowed in confusion. Given the number of slain people they had encountered in their past travels, she hadn't noticed anything particularly out of the ordinary with the scene.
"Someone kneeling in front of a gibbet..."
*This is no time to be flippant.* the blonde asserted, before heading off to help the traumatised and snivelling villager woman to her feet.
"Well, I guess your secret's safe with me again." Xena remarked, wiggling her eyebrows lasciviously.
Gabrielle eyed Xena incredulously. *Then why do you suppose they're dead? Obviously their mission failed last night and someone isn't happy about it*
"Or...their mission was an unexpected success...then again it could just be suicide."
Xena dramatically averted her gaze from her partner and brushed imaginary dust from her arms. "Well, it could be your curse. They both saw you naked and you know what happens to people who..."
*Xena, I'VE seen me naked and I'm still breathing!* Gabrielle interrupted, before beginning to wonder if her days were numbered too.
With the help of a few stunned townsfolk, Gabrielle set about collecting firewood and building a couple of funeral pyres. Xena didn't miss the evident discomfort in the blonde; after all, it wasn't all that long ago that she'd had to build Xena's funeral pyre. The warrior decided that she would try and infuriate the bard to take her mind off the job, and any unpleasant memories that went with it. She motioned towards the hastily constructed pyres as the dead missionaries were placed atop them. "You're getting pretty good at this. If you ever tire of life on the road you could go into business!"
Gabrielle glanced up at her, and then back towards the gathering crowd. *You're not funny...*
"Of course, you know what you're going to have to do, don't you?" she noted with a gentle nudge to Gabrielle's side.
*Oh no. No way Xena - I'm absolutely not doing it.*
"You have to. As a mark of respect and all. Anything less than the full package would be an injustice. All of these people are looking to you to lead the ceremony! Get going!" Xena ordered with a playful slap to Gabrielle's behind.
*I'm tone deaf! Besides which I don't even know the words!!!*
"That's okay - I just made them up so they sounded foreign. Who'll ever know, right? You know the tune well enough, Go FOR ITTTTTT!!" Xena hollered with gusto.
Gabrielle cleared her throat and began warbling the melody of Xena's infamous funeral dirge. After a few garbled sounds, the nonsense began to flow effortlessly from her mouth until she reached the end of the sorrowful tune and the villagers began to disperse. Once they were alone again, she turned to her partner and said, "That wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. And all that time I thought you were being meaningful..."
Xena smirked conspiratorially down at her and whispered, "You don't fool me for a second. I know that was "Anything Goes" in Chinese..."
"So where do you suppose the good Reverend Kane was while everyone else was busy honouring his men?"
"Well, he's either died of old age, or I'd say we've found the source of our problems..."
After practically having to break down Dael's door to rouse him from his slumber, they made their way back through the emptying streets to the stakeout spot from the previous evening.
Several hours later, Gabrielle was growing increasingly weary of Dael's furtive glances and flirtatious comments. She complained about the cold, about being dirty, and about her numb rear-end before deciding not to bother even trying to keep up the small talk with her new admirer.
*That's it. I'm not speaking another word. I've run out of polite ways to discourage him.*
"If you don't, I will..." Xena warned.
With a sigh, Gabrielle turned to Dael and instructed him about silence and concentration, and the importance of never taking your mind from the task at hand. After all, they had a job to do. Intent on impressing her by any means possible, Dael trained his keen eye on the one remaining occupied tomb - and that was what he was going to do for the rest of the night.
Xena watched as her
partner gathered a small pile of twigs and reeds together and began twisting
them around each other, her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth in
*What do you think?* Gabrielle finally asked as she examined her creation from several different angles.
"What's it supposed to be?" the warrior puzzled, curling up her top lip in confusion.
*It's a stick man! I'm going to make some more and take them back to Greece.*
"Yeah, you could give them to the Amazons to hang up in the forest, scare intruders away..."
*You obviously don't appreciate great art.*
"Well, it's freaky Gabrielle! It looks like it's been nailed to a wheel!"
The blonde yawned loudly, ignoring the overdramatic shuddering from her tall companion. Without averting his stare from the tomb below, Dael spoke. "I've got everything under control here Gabrielle. Why don't you take a nap? I'll wake you up if anything happens."
"Don't worry, I'll wake you if he nods off himself." Xena assured her, the dubious expression disappearing from her friend's face. As Gabrielle lay back and closed her eyes, the warrior added with a smirk "Or if he tries to look up your skirt..."
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably in her sleep. Something was getting on her nerves, but she couldn't quite put her finger on the source of the irritation. Wiggling her back to try and get more comfortable, she exhaled loudly before taking off after a bunch of vigilante penguins she'd been tracking. Xena waited for her to settle down again before resuming tickling the blonde's abs. She had to do something to pass the time...
"Gabrielle..." Dael whispered. "Gabrielle!"
Now here was a dilemma. The blonde warrior was clearly going to be difficult to rouse, but he feared touching her in case she attacked him upon waking. He gently shook her shoulder and scampered a few feet backwards when she growled "Don't shake that beak at me!" If only they had any water he could throw it over her. Glancing back down at the tomb, he realised there was no more time to waste, and steeling himself, approached her again. As he reached toward her, Xena pinched her side just enough to wake her.
"BUH!!!" Gabrielle shot upright instantly and began rubbing her side. "Ow! What did you do that for?!" she scowled at Dael accusingly.
"I didn't do anything! I couldn't wake you! I thought you'd want to know, we have lift-off." He gestured to the tomb.
She yawned and rubbed at her bleary eyes before concentrating on the scene unfolding before her. In the midst of the flickering torchlight, she could just make out a figure, heaving its way out of the final tomb. Tugging on Dael's sleeve, she scrambled down the hill.
From her new vantage point she could see the dirty bandages flapping loosely around the mummy. This was by no means a recent departure. The figure wobbled uncertainly for a moment, before turning away. Its gait remained awkward, but it moved with purpose. Keeping the monstrosity within their sight, Gabrielle and Dael followed stealthily behind the creature, while Xena stomped along unseen beside them.
Dael's legs were burning from walking for so long, but he didn't offer this information. Gabrielle was clearly having no problems. The dark sky eventually began to glow with an orange tinge, and a fine layer of mist emanated from the ground. The town was now far behind them and the dirt track they were on seemed to head into the middle of nowhere.
Just as Dael thought he could take the throbbing in his calves no longer, he stumbled and stepped on a twig - snapping it loudly underfoot. He turned to Gabrielle, his face ashen white, hoping that he hadn't just doomed their mission. They both held their breath and turned their gazes towards their quarry. The mummy did not appear to have noticed at all, and continued on its way. Gabrielle stamped on another twig to test the water, again getting no response from the walking pile of bandages. Shrugging, they followed once again, keeping the beast in their sights but not bothering to be quite so cautious about it.
As the sun rose higher in the sky and the Earth began to warm, Xena slapped Gabrielle's thigh. The blonde looked at her questioningly, the shock evident on her face.
"Bug." Xena explained. Before long, both Gabrielle and Dael began swatting absently at their bodies, figuring the increasing morning heat was bringing out the insects. "I see you have an itch." Xena noted with a grin.
*Don't distract me...*
Already suffering from more bites than she was comfortable with, Gabrielle soon became very distracted as a dense cloud of gnats came buzzing towards them. Trying to shield her eyes from the miniscule flies, Gabrielle spotted an opening in the mountains up ahead where they could shelter. Grabbing Dael's arm, she urged "Come ON!!!" and ran off at breakneck speed, overtaking the almost robotic mummy who paid them no heed whatsoever.
Once inside the cave, she advised Dael to try and stop scratching, as he'd only make the irritation worse. From here the three of them watched as the mummy headed towards two guards stationed outside a cave further along the mountain. One of the guards turned and pulled out a large set of keys. He quickly opened the gate at the cave's entrance and escorted the mummy inside. He returned within a matter of seconds, securely closing the door behind him.
"My brother is in there isn't he? What do we do?" asked Dael, unable to disguise the fear in his voice.
Gabrielle's mind raced as she agonised over which course of action to take next. A hand came to rest on her shoulder as a soft voice suggested, "I think you should let me go and take a look around. Scope the place out. It can't hurt to know what you're in for right?"
Gabrielle nodded her agreement, thinking fondly *My secret weapon, huh?*. Dael frowned at her, wondering what she was nodding at so vehemently. She caught his eye and began flicking her head from side to side in a violent twitching motion.
"Tourette's Syndrome." she said, as if this explained anything. "It flares up when I get nervous." She heard Xena's snort of laughter as the warrior rose and winked at her.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"
*And that would be what precisely?* Gabrielle wondered, as her friend headed down the path towards the guards.
Xena strolled forwards, very aware of the eyes trained on her backside as she walked, and passed straight through one of the guards as she entered the complex. The guard shuddered, the colour draining out of his face. His colleague turned to him and in a barely concerned tone asked "What's the matter with you? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
Xena returned having
assessed the interior layout of the cave. She explained, "Okay, this is big.
There are a series of tunnels leading to a central chamber that's laid out like
some kind of temple. Kane is in there with more mummies than you can shake a
stick at, plus a whole lot of evil minion guys. They've got Yaz trussed up on
an altar, but I don't think they're going to kill him.
I found a set of scrolls laid out that someone's taken a lot of time and care translating - it wasn't any language I've come across before. The goal is to raise the evil goddess Ulrika and unleash hell on Earth, yadda yadda yadda...but before they can do that they had to release a few nasty plagues - which explains the locusts, blood, gnats and so on, and the walking dead must outnumber the living."
*With the number of people who have fled town since this whole thing started, that wouldn't be too hard to accomplish...are you included in that equation?*
"I don't think so. I'd have to be carting my carcass around with me to qualify, and last time I checked? It would have been impossible to distinguish from a Pompeii pony..."
Xena took Gabrielle's arm and led her to the mouth of the cave. "Look." she instructed, pointing out that the daylight was beginning to wane again. Shielding Gabrielle's eyes before the blonde could stare at the sun she continued, "They can't perform the ritual until the sun is almost completely eclipsed. We don't have much time. The first thing we have to do is dispatch those two guards without raising any alarms."
*Do you have a plan?*
Xena looked at her lover imploringly and asked simply, "Close your eyes."
"No! Don't tell me what to do!" Gabrielle insisted - out loud.
Dael had moved to the cave entrance to crouch next to Gabrielle. He grew suddenly uneasy, wondering whom on earth Gabrielle was arguing with, when Xena materialised next to him and began to stalk menacingly towards the guards. As they raised their weapons, she reached upwards, clasped her head between her hands, pulled it off and threw it directly at them.
One guard fainted dead away, as the other stood shaking violently, eyes transfixed on the head that was hurtling towards him - hair flying in all directions and a loud "ALALALALALALA!!!!" ringing in his ears. Instinctively, he reached up and caught it, but on taking a swift glance downwards at the banshee's grinning face, he shrieked and hurled it away from him, forgetting his duty and choosing instead to run for his life.
"Ah, that would be Xena?" Dael guessed. A distinctly queasy looking bard covered her mouth, trying for all she was worth not to throw up as her eyes followed the trajectory of a longhaired object that was currently curving through the air towards her. Xena's head landed snugly in her lap, and after a moment, she winked mischievously.
"Hello lover." She rumbled sexily at the horrified blonde.
Gabrielle regarded her with disbelief and stated with utter conviction "I see you have many more skills. You are disgusting."
"Worked like a charm didn't it? Oh come on, you never had this problem with Orpheus! We decapitees are an oppressed minority!"
"Give me strength..."
"Give me a kiss!"
"Fuck off...I'm not kissing you. You're headless."
"I'm also dead but you still have sex with me. There's a word for people like you, you know..."
"Weird..." Dael muttered, rubbing at his eyes and wondering if he was dreaming.
Xena's body approached, retrieved her head and fused it seamlessly back onto her neck. She extended her hand to Gabrielle, who was looking considerably relieved, and pulled her upright. The blonde lifted Xena's hair and examined her neck suspiciously before stepping back and folding her arms across her chest.
Glad to be out from under Gabrielle's scrutiny, Xena strolled towards Dael and took the opportunity to properly introduce herself. "Hi. I'm Xena. Late Warrior Princess, more Lately Poet, and Gabrielle's big hunk o' burnin' love..."
Dael blushed furiously as he began to reach for Xena's extended hand, and then visibly flinched as she firmly grasped his forearm.
"And you're right young man," she continued, "Her hair does look nice. Could do with a good trim though..."
The pair of them gazed thoughtfully at the young blonde, who was far too busy tugging at her waistband in an attempt to dislodge any errant creepy crawlies to notice their admiring gazes. Dael grew fearful as he wondered just how many of his spurned advances this unusually strong woman had been privy to. Xena returned her attention to Dael, his wistful expression not lost on her. Slapping him butchly across the shoulder, she stated simply "Sometimes? You can lead a horse to water, but that doesn't make it a duck."
Anxious to change the subject, he diverted Xena's attention with something that had been bothering him. "Hey, if you're dead, how come I can feel you?", indicating his numbing appendage with a nod. "And what about that guard guy who threw your head?"
Xena let go of his arm and winced at the memory. "Remind me not to do that again - I got an awful case of motion sickness..."
Gabrielle moved closer, frowning, and with an almost accusatory tone demanded to know "Yeah, how come they can feel you?" The bard was clearly not happy about it.
Xena shrugged, the picture of innocence. "Don't look at me - ask the writer."
Confused, Gabrielle shook her head and uttered "I'm sorry, the...?" Slowly, something dawned on her as she turned and focussed on a small rectangular piece of glass in the distance. "Okay, why can they touch her?"
"Who is she talking to?!" Dael asked Xena, completely bewildered. The cave was clearly empty bar the three of them. The behaviour between the two women so far had been strange enough, and he was growing more nervous by the second.
"Sssh!" Xena told him. "I want to hear this!"
Jay looked at her computer and explained. "I had to have her materialise to pull off that last stunt. For a brief time, other people experience her as they could when she was alive. It took a maximum burst of energy for her to do that and the effect will wear off any minute now. So don't worry, you'll have her all to yourself again."
Gabrielle turned back to Xena, eyebrow raised. "Hmmph! Sounds like a half-assed explanation to me.... how long has she been there anyway?"
"The whole time." Xena grinned sheepishly.
"The whole...THE WHOLE TIME?! Is there anybody who hasn't seen me naked?!" Gabrielle stormed up to the monitor, whipping her Sais out of her boots and tapping on the glass menacingly with one of them. "Don't you give me that smug look! You know you're living on borrowed time!"
Jay narrowed her eyes and retorted, "You want a chastity belt? Is that what you want? Cos I can do that you know! Try me! Or would you have preferred I left you moping around on your own in Japan? Huh? Damnit Gab, give me a break - I've been stuck on this part for months!"
Gabrielle backed off, uncertainty clouding her features as Xena piped up impatiently in the background, "Are you two going to stand there and bicker all day, or are we going to go and beat this eclipse?" Gabrielle jogged back to the warrior, casting a warning glance over her shoulder. Xena sighed, "Fine. Thank you!" She motioned for Dael to join them as they headed out of the cave, seconds before vanishing from his sight.
"Is she still there?" he ventured.
"Who? Xena or the writer?"
"Well, Xena I guess".
"Oh yeah. Live an' kickin'. Or...not."
Dael tied and gagged the unconscious guard, as Gabrielle removed the guard's set of keys. Xena stuck her head through the door to check the coast was clear, and then nodded for Gabrielle to continue. The blonde systematically tried every key, trying not to rush and drop them, until she succeeded in unlocking the door.
They moved quietly through the dank torch-lit corridors until they reached a hall brimming with mummies, and gasped at the sheer number of them. Keeping to the shadows, they watched the creatures wandering about aimlessly, their tatty, greying bandages hanging loose and occasionally revealing patches of dried wrinkly skin.
"Looks like doggy snacks..." Dael observed with distaste. "I wonder if one of them is my dad?"
"Don't think about that." Gabrielle whispered. She crouched in a niche opposite Dael and motioned for him to be silent. Knowing that there was no other way to get beyond this hall, she scanned the room for any useful ledges or roof beams but came up empty. "They don't look so tough...we have to find a way through them."
Dael's resolve strengthened and without warning he charged into the hall, punching the bodies left right and centre in a valiant attempt to make it to the other side. Gabrielle lurched forward, until a strong arm around her waist pulled her back out of sight. She gritted her teeth as the bandaged mass suddenly became more animated, aware of the intruder in their midst. Their attention focussed on the young man and they swept towards him, guttural humming noises coming from their dusty throats.
Dael flew into a panic as the realisation suddenly hit him that his fortunes had changed for the worse. There were too many bodies around him to knock out of his way. He could no longer clear a path and began to hyperventilate. Cadaverous arms reached for him, pulled at his legs and yanked him to the ground - completely unaffected by his screaming. The wet sucking noises of his own body parts being removed was the last thing he heard as he was slowly and methodically torn limb from limb.
"There goes another..." Xena remarked dryly.
"I feel nauseous." Gabrielle whimpered. "Deceptive little buggers aren't they? There has to be some way I can immobilise them..."
Xena tapped Gabrielle's waist as a suggestion. "Oh yeah..." the blonde remembered, blushing. She removed the chakram from her side, kissed it and muttered quietly "Alright baby, show me what you can do!" hurling it into the room. She watched it fly and rebound off several surfaces sending sparks flying in its wake. It hovered in mid flight, splitting into two pieces and continued its journey of destruction - ricocheting with abandon, severing mummy heads, legs and arms with every bounce. Gabrielle took stock of the room's occupants and noted there were still many to get through - although the dry carnage was coming along nicely.
Xena glanced at her lover - obviously impressed. "Total bodily dismemberment, eh? Nice going! You don't want to risk them pulling themselves along the floor with their teeth. They might give you a nasty nip!"
"They're already dead. This doesn't count as wanton violence. They wont feel a thing."
"Oh yeah? Then explain the crick in my back from when you threw me onto that horse in Japan."
"You're lucky I could lift you at all. And here's me thinking you were off enjoying tea and cake with your little ho..."
"Do I detect a hint of jealousy?"
"Hell no. She's not sewn to you by the short and ethereals is she?"
"I love it when you talk dirty..." Xena rumbled, biting a nearby earlobe.
Gabrielle carefully watched the Chakram's flight path, her eyes following it back and forth, ears listening intently to the sound of it whirring, slicing and dicing. "I told you not to distract me!" and with this last remark she reached up and caught it safely on its return journey. Leaping up from her position, she backhanded Xena across the stomach and said "Come on!" with a big grin before running to the door on the opposite side of the now empty room.
As Gabrielle raced towards the central chamber, her ears detected a muffled squealing sound. Heart pounding, she burst into the room. Yaseen was tied down on the altar, blindfolded and struggling. A large diamond was hanging above him, directly underneath a small opening in the roof through which Gabrielle could make out the last of the fading daylight. Around the altar were five thick stone pillars that reached up to the ceiling, each pillar guarded by a priest.
Kane loomed over the young boy, bedecked in splendid robes and a manic grin on his face. He began slicing his way through Yaseen's arm with a large sacrificial dagger, collecting the free flowing blood in a decorated chalice. Taking a hearty gulp of the liquid he then dipped his fingers into the receptacle and splashed Yaseen's blood over the diamond.
*So that's the Zythum stone huh? I thought they meant it was a piece of rock...* Gabrielle remarked.
Kane whirled around, apparently able to read minds now, and fixed his glare directly onto the blonde. His face had transformed from the wizened old man she had seen before, into a younger, stronger version. It might have been an improvement but for the ugly lumps appearing all over his face and the horns sprouting unattractively from his forehead.
Gabrielle watched as magnified solar rays shot through the hole in the roof and struck the diamond, sending intense beams of light straight towards the five pillars. The priests wrung their hands in eager anticipation as each beam began to etch incantations onto the stone. Gabrielle was not about to let them chant.
"IMPUDENCE!!! Who is this woman?" Kane roared, eyes turning a ghastly shade of milky white.
"Gabrielle of Poteidaia, who the hell are you?" she answered, stepping forward and hurling her chakram.
"I am ULRIKA! Ka! Ka! Ka!"
Gabrielle covered her ears as his demonic voice echoed painfully around the room.
"Lord of all darkness and suffering! I will reign down unspeakable anguish on..." Kane ceased mid-rant and watched in horror as the weapon flew directly past him, struck one pillar and ricocheted off it onto another. He covered his ears to try and block out the interminable clanging that the metal instrument was making as it slowly wound its way further down in a spiral motion, destroying the incantations as soon as they appeared. As the pillars were methodically transformed to piles of useless dust, he glowered at the blonde infidel.
She reached up and caught her weapon on its return flight, and paused to blow the dust off it. Regarding him with a completely non-plussed expression, she noted, "Sacrifice of the innocents, raising of hell gods...quite frankly it's nothing I haven't seen before - and to be honest? You're not very good at it."
"Destroy her!!" he ordered the speechless priests, absolutely enraged.
"Uh-oh..." Gabrielle breathed, as more men that she could take on alone advanced menacingly towards her. Before she had the chance to reach for a weapon, her arms were pinned to her back from behind, preventing her from being able to move a great deal. She tried in vain to elbow her captor in the ribs, but didn't have enough space to deliver a satisfactory blow. She struggled in frustration as her attackers closed in on her, until a familiar face appeared between her and certain doom.
With a nod towards Gabrielle's feet, Xena instructed "Let's kick some ass!"
Taking the hint, Gabrielle swung her legs up with as much force as she could muster, given her awkward position. Xena simultaneously leapt off the ground, grabbing Gabrielle's feet on her way and spinning into a somersault. With the added momentum, Gabrielle was flung backwards through the air in a seemingly impossible flip, her unsuspecting captor swept along with her. As the blonde landed safely, the man behind her smashed down onto the floor, writhing in agony as pain shot through his back.
Quickly realising that her would-be murderers were not about to fight her one at a time (as they had so conveniently done so in the past), Gabrielle ditched any thoughts of hand-to-hand combat and beckoned to her lover. Finding herself surrounded, she took Xena's outstretched hands, launched herself off the cavern floor and allowed the warrior to spin her around - giving the impression that gravity was not an issue for the nimble blonde. Not having a war cry of her own, she merely cackled gleefully, booting minions in the face with each pass until they were effectively disabled, clutching at their chests and gasping for air.
She dusted herself off as her gaze fell onto Kane. A single blinding beam of light had engulfed him, tearing a high pitched scream from his lungs. The zythum stone finally shattered in mid-air, and the preacher crumpled helplessly to his knees. Gabrielle raced towards the altar and cut Yaseen loose from the ropes that were binding him. "Are you okay?" she asked the pale, weakened boy, removing the blindfold.
With a slightly confused expression, he murmured, "I'm a little queasy, but...I'll live. Did you find Dael?"
"He didn't make it did he?" Yaseen deduced, squaring his shoulders, determined not to cry in front of this legendary warrior woman.
"I'm afraid not." she replied, rubbing his arm in an attempt to comfort him.
After he shuffled down from the altar, they warily approached Kane's immobile body. His face once again wore the lines of old age, only now he also had craters in his forehead where the horns had receded. Leaning over him, Gabrielle asked, "Is that it? Shouldn't he be...I dunno, jumping up, grabbing me around the throat and trying to throttle me to death right about now?"
The preacher's eyes flipped open suddenly, causing her to lurch backwards in shock. Instead of attempting to strangle her, he feebly asked, "Please help me - is it bedtime?"
On their way out of the temple, Xena directed Gabrielle to the scrolls she had found earlier on. They decided to confiscate and hide them in case anybody else got any smart ideas. The scrolls would be pretty useless now without the pillars and the zythum stone, but it didn't hurt to be careful. With Yaseen's help, Gabrielle rounded up her assailants and dragged them back into town to await trial. Kane was no threat to anybody anymore, having been reduced to a senile, dribbling old man who couldn't do anything for himself.
Thankfully, some things had returned to normal since the destruction at the temple. They once again had running water and had already begun replanting the crops. She wasn't usually one for accepting much in the way of thanks from people they'd helped, but this time Gabrielle had no intention of turning down a hot bath. She'd never felt so filthy in her life. Well, maybe except for that time with the cannibals, and she relished the thought of a good long soak. Eying Xena mischievously, she proffered, *Care to join me?*
"Excellent work. Sew her back up."
Gabrielle sat clasping her cheeks in despair, her mouth lolling open and vacantly staring ahead of her. If anyone had seen her, it would have made a really cool painting, she mused. She'd never sat still for this long in her life and didn't think she could take it much longer. A loud snore burst forth from the limp warrior in the chair next to her startling the bard back to awareness. Slapping her hand down on a muscular thigh that didn't belong to her, she watched as the dark haired woman sprang awake with a jolt.
"Wha....? Oh. How are you doing?" Xena mumbled, rubbing her eyes.
"I feel wonderful." the blonde lied.
"I'll be the judge of that...How long have we been here?" The warrior yawned loudly and stretched her arms.
"Why? Don't tell me you're pruning...How exactly did I get here?"
"Well," Xena began sheepishly, turning to face her friend with a solemn expression on her face, "I had to alter your molecular make-up, disassembling your atoms and rearranging them into pure spiritual energy - thus enabling you to accompany me."
"YOU WHAT?!!!" Gabrielle panicked, the blood draining from her face in terror.
"Just kidding. I hid you under a bush. There's a caterpillar crawling up your nose as we speak." Xena grinned.
The bard merely eyed her partner suspiciously.
Xena gave it one last shot. "You fell down a hole?"
"Forget it, I don't think I want to know...Tell me again why we're here."
"Red tape. A load of bureaucratic bullshit I imagine. They get to tick a load of boxes and decide if I'm good enough for you."
"That doesn't sound good..."
"Lemon drop?" Xena passed a jar of pale green confectionary to the blonde. "I have a feeling they're addictive. Last time I was here I worked my way through a whole jar while I was kept waiting." She waited until Gabrielle had popped one into her mouth. "Most unpleasant side effect though. When I got back to you I spent the night peeling the top layer of skin off my tongue while I was waiting for you to wake up. Lethal." Gabrielle winced at the sharp taste and the prospect of a shredded mouth.
"We've remade you. Cloned you."
"Have you ever noticed how every time we kiss, I get my leathers back? Scandinavia...Japan...you're like my portable wardrobe."
"I liked that red kimono. It looked really good on you. Although you were walking kind of funny while you were wearing it." Gabrielle noted with a smirk.
"Ah, my thighs were sellotaped together. Akemi was trying all sorts to win my favour and she just wouldn't take no for an answer. It's a good thing you turned up when you did..."
"Why, so she could stick needles in my back and cause me searing agony?"
"It's a Queen. She'll breed. You'll die."
Gabrielle was momentarily distracted by these words, which could so easily have been referring to herself.
"I love your tattoo." Xena offered with a lascivious smirk. "I kept telling Akemi you were my betrothed and I had to protect my maidenhood at all costs...I don't think she believed me."
"Must be all those rampaging teenage hormones. Was I that bad?"
"You were insatiable..."
"Insatiable huh? Can I have another lemon drop?" Gabrielle asked huskily, sending a shiver through the warrior.
"On your birthday. If you've been good." Xena relinquished the jar.
"Minya still has your whip right?"
Xena glanced between the tv set that was bolted to the far wall and her partner who regarded it with a quizzical frown, but had so far resisted asking for an explanation.
"How about a game of Truth Or Dare?"
"Do you know how much fun it isn't playing Truth Or Dare with a woman who can read your mind?"
Xena merely raised an innocent eyebrow.
"I, er...slept with Ephiny" the bard confessed, wrinkling her nose and waiting for the angry recriminations that never came.
"I know. It's okay. I was dead. You were beside yourself with grief..."
Gabrielle exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
"I can't believe the hussy slept her way to the throne!"
"I like her." Gabrielle nodded towards the screen. "Brown leather, long dark hair...she reminds me of you."
"You can blow this ship before it reaches earth - and kill 'em all."
Xena was almost incredulous until those last three words reached her ears.
"Is it true that a decapitated head can continue to see for twenty seconds after it's been cut off?"
"Yeah. There's not much to tell though. A few muddy boots was all I could see through all that fog."
"I thought you were dead?!"
"Yeah, I get that a lot..."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged knowing grins before their names were called out and they headed towards the interview room together.
They walked into the office to see two men with a huge pile of files spread across the desk in front of them, all liberally peppered with "Post-It" notes.
"Good afternoon ladies. I am Mr Truman, this is Mr Sparks. Please, wont you take a seat?"
Xena nodded at Gabrielle, who was feeling increasingly apprehensive. They sat down next to each other and the warrior took Gabrielle's hand in her own, the bard visibly relaxing in response.
"Can I offer either of you a hot drink?"
Both women politely declined, preferring instead to get straight down to business.
"As you know, we're here today for your final assessment. The interview is being recorded should any party wish to request details at a later date. For the record would you both state your full names please?"
"Xena: Warrior Princess of Amphipolis."
"Gabrielle: Battling Bard of Poteidaia."
"Thank you. Gabrielle, for your information we'll explain exactly what is going to happen here today. Xena has previously been notified of the situation so she'll have to bear with us. You know the basics of the situation. Xena's soul is housed temporarily in your body due to a loophole she has managed to exploit. However, we cannot allow this to continue unmonitored. She has been serving a...probation period, if you will, ever since you left Japan. Now, as you had no say in the matter, we need to ascertain whether she has been a help or a hindrance to you. If we find that this situation simply isn't practical, other arrangements will have to be made. We will need to ask you a few questions before the final decision is made. Please, would you begin by telling us how you made Xena's acquaintance?"
"Well, one day my village was attacked by warlords. All of the women were rounded up. We were going to be taken as slaves. I tried volunteering to go with them if they would set the rest of the women free - but they just laughed at me. What can I say, I was naive. Then this woman turns up out of nowhere - in her underwear no less - I still can't figure that one out - and kicked seven shades of sh..."
"Ahem!!" spluttered My Sparks, indicating the tape recorder whirring happily away on the desk.
"Oh, sorry. Xena appeared and effectively dispensed with the bothersome interlopers, leaving us free to go back to our lives."
"I see." Mr Truman uttered scratching his nose. "Mr Sparks?"
"That's a very swashbuckling tale Gabrielle, but you said you were free to return to your life is that not correct? Clearly your life didn't include Xena before this moment, so something must have happened to change that. Would you care to elaborate?"
Xena shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Forgive me for asking gentlemen, but isn't all this in the files?"
"There are some details in your files, but the purpose of this assessment is to evaluate your usefulness to Gabrielle." Mr Sparks sneered. "Gabrielle is alive, therefore we do not have files on her - we need to make an informed decision after hearing events from her viewpoint. I hope I have made myself clear?"
"Crystal." Xena replied through gritted teeth. Stealing a glance at her partner, she noted a strange expression on the blonde's face. If she weren't mistaken she'd almost take it as mischievous.
"Gabrielle, tell us what happened after you were freed from the warlords."
"Xena put her clothes back on, and I ran away from home."
"And why was that?"
"I was bored out of my skull, doomed to a life of insipid sex with a local farm boy..."
Xena leaned to the side and whispered "Insipid?" with a quirky grin on her face.
"Trust me - once was enough!" Turning her attention back to her interrogators, Gabrielle continued. "Basically, I wanted out. Xena turned up, gave me a glimpse of another life and I went for it." Gabrielle softly rubbed her thumb back and forth across the Xena's palm, sending bolts of adrenaline straight down the warrior's spine and to her groin. "Plus she had great legs..."
A fountain of coffee cascaded out of Mr Sparks mouth at that final remark, and the tape recorder had to be stopped while Mr Truman slapped him forcefully across the back in an attempt to ease his choking.
"Give me strength..." Xena muttered to herself.
Taking a large swig of water, Mr Sparks finally settled down and set the recorder running again. "So, once you had ingratiated yourself into the life of this warrior woman, what effect did that have on your quality of life? Feel free to spare us the bawdier details."
"I was free to discover myself. Make my own mind up about things. I didn't have to adhere to any preconceived ideas that would have been forced upon me if I had stayed at home. I travelled the world with Xena, saw amazing things. I learned a lot. Of course, there was a fair amount of angst too, but I wouldn't change any of it. If things hadn't happened exactly as they did, I wouldn't be who I am today."
"That sounds...lovely." Mr Sparks grunted.
"Can you tell us specifically how Xena was a benefit to your development?" Mr Truman ventured.
Xena's face was turning a raging shade of beetroot in fear of what Gabrielle might come out with next.
"She taught me everything she knows. A lifetime of wisdom."
"And now that she's dead?"
"Obviously the things she can do to assist me in the physical sense are limited, but she's developed new skills. Things I would never have thought of. Since I know everything she knows, I don't need her to do certain things for me anymore. Which is just as well since she can't - what with being dead and all. Having said that, she's very adaptable and has proved that she can still aid me in other ways. She can be a great source of information, an effective deterrent, invaluable in a fight, an invigorating treatment for stress..."
"Yes, quite!!" Mr Sparks interrupted. "Gabrielle, why do you think we should let Xena stay with you?"
That was the cruncher. She stared at him thoughtfully for a while before bowing her head, crestfallen.
*I'll die without her*.
Xena blinked, having picked up this thought that was obviously not meant for anyone to hear. She squeezed the bard's hand tightly indicating her support, although Gabrielle did not look up. Moments later Gabrielle steadied her gaze and addressed the two officials.
"Mr Truman, Mr Sparks. I am aware that given the information I have imparted to you, you are probably of the opinion that I am more than capable of successfully continuing my current ventures without Xena's help." She took a deep breath, stole a glance at her lover and finished. "My reasons for wishing Xena to remain with me are entirely selfish. I have nothing more to add."
"Thank you Gabrielle. Would you both step outside for a few moments please?"
"What happens now?" Xena asked.
"We review your files. If the outcome is positive, you get to stay together."
"And if it isn't?"
"You have an hour to say your goodbyes."
Part 5 - Conclusion!