Disclaimer: The characters Xena: Warrior Princess belong to Renaissance Pictures and I have no claim to them what so ever. Everything else is of my own invention and no copyright infringement is intended.
Authors Notes: There will be several subsequent chapters. I will always respond to feedback (positive or otherwise) and appreciate anything you, as the reader, has to say. You can contact me at email@example.com . I hope you enjoy this; This has taken a lot of time, creative effort, and herbal tea. Many thanks to my wonderful beta, Danrio.
Her fingers trailed the outer rim of her left ear as she pushed the newly cut strands of blonde back, away from her light face. She shivered in spite of herself, not feeling the cold in the room yet responding to it even as the sweat gathered in her clenched palms. It felt like a fever, making her icy cold and burning hot at the same time. She shook out her fists and stretched her aching fingers, willing the circulation to return to the digits as she slid them over the familiar contours of her body. Soft leather, the sort one sees on cowboys in the movies, a burnt red set that fit like second skin, yet the bra-like top and odd skirt she had worn so many times over the last decade seemed foreign to her. It made the hair just that much more surreal and the whole charade just that much more believable. It was real, wasn’t it? She wasn’t just standing in the middle of her husband’s home office in her old gear, like some crazed fan or a woman on the edge of insanity, was she? She was perfectly sane. Perfectly.
She checked her items over and over again, ignoring the doubt and apprehension welling, threatening to ruin her faith in what she was about to attempt. Bag, belt, boots . . . sais . . . It did not seem as if anything were missing, but she searched again and again for some minor detail, one small piece, that she had somehow over looked. Even with a week of planning she felt like something would go wrong. Finally, she could find no more reasons to stall. She couldn’t keep pretending that this was packing for some trip, simply worrying about forgetting the sun block. She shut her eyes tightly, wrinkling the delicate lids and fluttering out the lashes, tinted white at the tip by the sun, and succumbed to reality. This was it; There was no turning back.
“Gabrielle?” She said, quietly, imploringly, “I’m ready.”
Gabrielle tossed in her hammock, the background of storm and lighting manifesting the torment of her dreams. The boat around her creaked loudly, bracing itself against the sloshing water, ready to break like a mere toy in the hands of an eager child. The crew was scrambling about on the upper decks, attempting to use the erratic winds to reach the port before things got any worse while (despite the din above her) Gabrielle was sound asleep and dreaming of things she did not understand. Her eyes moved rapidly, pieces of her growing hair falling onto her scrunched brow, and her mouth moved in soft imitations of speech as she came closer to consciousness. One of the crewmen headed down into the ship to awaken the rest of the men and any passengers and immediately went to help the only woman on the ship.
“Hey, you’d better get up!” He reached for her but before his hand could even touch her shoulder she jerked awake and wielded one sai, pointing it menacingly at the crewman’s chest. She was panting and appeared delirious; the man backed away, hands in the air. “Hey, whoa! I only came to warn you!” He took several more steps without lowering his arms, his eyes never leaving Gabrielle, and explained, “There is a bad storm and we are not far from the port; you should get your things together, that’s all!” She stared at him through savage eyes, showing no sign of wanting to put the weapon down until he finally turned and ran as though fleeing for his life. When his footsteps no longer echoed down into the room, Gabrielle dropped the sai and breathed heavily, trying to calm herself. It had not been the man who had frightened her; she had seen him several times over the relatively long journey. It was something altogether different that had caused her to wake with such rage: The same dream had tormented her again: darkness, screaming, Xena’s voice somewhere off in the distance, never being able to find her in the dark clouds. Gabrielle shook off the remnants of sleep and pressed her palm to her forehead as if trying to press the very remembrance of the dream from her head. Her mind was racing, trying to distract her, and her entire body was shaking as it had every time she had woken from that restless state. The night had been void of real sleep and she was feeling it then in the aches of her body, the fog in her head, and the blunt pain in her abdomen but she tried to ignore all of it as she begged her limbs to operate. The ship rocked violently and without her usual control and balance she was thrown from the hammock, onto her stomach, and slid several feet across the slick wooden floor. He few possessions lay strewn around her and moved out of her reach as she got up, trying to collect them. She grew frustrated in her attempts and had more trouble collecting her things than before, jumping after a bag of dried food stuffs and missing by several feet.
She crawled on her belly like a snake to retrieve a few scrolls that had rolled into the corner of the room, but two slipped out of her grasp before she could get the others into her sack. After several more minutes of scrambling, she had gotten everything but a bottle worth only a few dinars, so she gave up on it. Cradling Xena’s ashes in her ‘free’ hand, Gabrielle stumbled out of the room and latched onto the railing that led upward. Her feet slipped on the sea-splashed steps and she fell into the walls several times before she made her way onto the deck, where she was greeted by piercing wind and ample sea spray. She suddenly felt seasick watching the panicked crew and punishing waves and found herself swallowing down the urge to vomit that had not plagued her in years. She braced herself and took a deep breath before pushing off the side of the ship, launching herself into a full run. Her eyes were firmly locked on the main sail shaft until she hit it, wrapped her arms around the base, and lowered herself to the floor. With her sack’s straps, she tied herself to the pole then covered her face with her coat. She would simply have to wait until they were brought close enough to land and then swim, if necessary. Until that time she would wait, watching the men attempt to save the doomed vessel. Even if they got to port, the storm was set to destroy that as well. A cry came from high above Gabrielle and she thought a god was calling down to them all.
Everyone responded to the cry, throwing themselves into some sort of purposeful action and, without moving from the pole that held her, Gabrielle lifted the coat and tried to peer over the side of the ship, catching a glimpse of the small port she had not seen for nearly a month. Her chest shook with the beating of her heart; she jumped up, freed herself from the pole, and rushed over to the side of the boat. The waves throttled the comparatively small ship and several men waiting for the boat along the shore watched in fear as it came closer to its destination. The bow arced and looked as though it would plunge right into the sea, choosing its death before the strike of lightning or last smashes of water could, but it bobbed once more, heading instead toward life for itself and the crew. Gabrielle could make out the men standing on the docks with thick ropes in their worn hands, ready to aid them. As the ship turned in a painful slant, everyone held their breath and prayed silently to whatever god it was that they thought would help them. The ship evened out and steered itself right between the two sections of dock. The ship was going to make it.
“Yes . . . yes!” Gabrielle ran to the other side of the ship to assist the three crewmen who were trying desperately to pull out the ramp and lead it to the courageous men who had stayed to help them. She joined a blonde-haired man whom she did not remember seeing on the trip and the four of them lowered it before they had even reached the dock . It scrapped, wood on wood, as the ship finally came to a violent stop. The three sides of the dock just barely held together while keeping the ship in and there was a unified ‘Hooray!’ from most of the crew when they realized they were not going to die at sea after all. But the more experienced crewmen knew they still had to get off and quickly find higher ground before the sea ravaged the shore; many of the older crew members did not expect to ever see the ship again.
“Come on, we’ve got to get out of here!”
Scattered voices mixed together as Gabrielle was let off the ship first. She smiled at the three men who she’d helped and nodded in the direction of a small foothill. “That tavern!” She yelled over the screaming wind and jumbled voices, “We can go there!” Many followed her toward the small homes of the port village where they were spared some of the harsh wind’s attacks. But, to their dismay, the short buildings offered little protection against rain. Drops came down like arrows, slashing at the group as they dashed for the tavern. Many broke off, stopping between houses and in alley ways, unable to keep up or go on. Gabrielle led the remainder of the pack to the edge of the town. “We’ll have to run through the open! Are you ready?!?” She shouted back to them, but was not sure that she was heard until several men pushed themselves to run beside her. They nodded to her and at the last house, they were ready for the worst.
Hail was pelting down fiercely as soon as they left the safety of the village for the open air. The tavern was only a short distance from the village border, but it seemed like miles for those running for the broad doors with ice ravaging their exposed skin and rain dragging the blood all over their bodies. With each stinging slash, they began to wonder why they had not also stopped back in the village, but they all knew the answer immediately; the shore line was rapidly disappearing behind them and that deserted place would be flooded in less than an hour. They moved forward, suppressing the pain of their bodies, and Gabrielle soon clutched the door handle in her shaking, wet hands. She struggled to open it, but it was locked. Her face grew pale and the men who reached her side feared they had been wrong to follow her. “Give me your sword.” Gabrielle said, turning to the man closest to her. He pushed his long, matted hair out of his face and, after a moment of consideration, pulled his weapon from the ruined sheath at his side and handed it to the strange woman. “Thanks,” she said, taking it with a quick and unintentionally covert grin. She reversed the sword and slammed the hilt into the door handle, dislodging it and throwing the door open with the first gust of wind. She ducked in, the men following behind her, and surveyed the room with the stranger’s sword still in her hand. The men hurried as far from the door as they could, but Gabrielle stopped only a few steps from the entrance. Tables and chairs had been abandoned where they sat, cards and betting chips still on some of the tables, and many drinks still sitting where owners no longer were. “Even in a really bad storm, no one would leave this way . . . ” It was as though the people that had been in the inn had just suddenly vanished. The blonde, long-haired man agreed with Gabrielle. “Even if they were fleeing, the sort of men that come through here would have taken their things with them.”
“Yeah, and they wouldn’t have left their drinks!”
The men laughed at a young sailor who was taking a swig from on of the ownerless mugs. Gabrielle picked up one herself and sniffed it. Her eyes widened and by reflex, she sent a sai flying at the young man. It shattered the mug, fell to the ground, and the liquid made a strange bubbling sounds on the floor. “Hey, what’s the big deal?” The young man marched over to Gabrielle and picked and took the mug from her. “Go ahead,” she said, as he put the mug to his lips and began to tilt it, “I hear poison and ale are very good together.” His face filled with horror and he dropped the mug which clattered to the floor, spilling its contents over his boots. Two puddled of ale began to turn a dark purple as whatever was in the drink ate away at the floor. “This all is not normal.” Gabrielle projected her voice around the room, turning so that the entire group heard her clearly. “The people that came here did not just suddenly run away because of the storm . . . ” She paused, picking up a mug, and continued, “They were poisoned.” She tipped the mug and the liquid fell in a straight line, sizzling after only a few seconds on the wood . “I don’t know about you,” the blonde man said as he took his sword back from Gabrielle and turned to the other men, “But I don’t like my ale that strong.” Gabrielle put down the mug and questioned the apparent leader. “What happened?” He picked up the mug and sniffed it, swirled the contents, and put it down again with a disgusted look. “There’s hemlock, all right, but with something else too; a delayed poison. It wouldn’t have killed anyone right away but it would make ‘em sick. That’s probably why no one is still down here, they would have left so as not to let on their condition . . . But where did they all go? They wouldn’t have just blindly headed out in the storm.” Gabrielle thumbed one of her belt loops and thought as the other men began to talk worriedly. She turned over the possibilities in her head and stared at the hissing floor. Her gaze gradually fell upon the long-haired sailor and she laughed. “What’s so funny?” He asked, not particularly amused. She shook her head with grim realization.
“This is an inn . . . ”
“Seventeen bodies, Gabrielle; all dead. Nothing was even stolen. They are just all lying in their beds. I think it’s safe to say we’re the only ones here now.” Gabrielle was sitting downstairs in one of the discarded chairs, shaking her head at the news. “I don’t get it. I understand that the killer must have wanted to rob them . . . but why go to all the trouble of poison? Why do all this when he could have just picked them off one by one in their rooms? He was obviously good enough to get away without a trace . . . And why in a storm?” The young man addressed the older one that had helped Gabrielle discover the first few dead men. “It’s perfect! This tavern is so well placed, the only shelter from the storm for a good distance . . . ” The room shook with the winds outside as though the storm was hearing their discussion. The shutters rattled as though they were held by boards, and the cold poured through the hole the door handle had left. Gabrielle listened to the young man and nodded in agreement. “It does make sense. Like a wolf waiting for the sheep to come to him.” She stared at the floor while other problems and possibilities jumped into her mind. She spoke softly, almost to herself, with a words tinted with regret and emotions ready to break the surface. “But this is still the work of someone who had a purpose.” She paused, palming her head, “I just can’t put my finger on it.” Everything seemed so familiar. She wished Xena were there; she would have put it all together. “Xena would have gotten this by now.” She pounded her thigh with the remaining frustration that hadn’t come out from her mouth or in her expression until her thoughts were gently intersected by the blonde man’s voice.
“Excuse me, Gabrielle?” She looked up at the older man with dreary eyes. “Yes?” Words seemed stuck in his throat as he shuffled his feet, perhaps looking for the correct phrase. “Perhaps this person was not really after money or some sick pleasure.” His hands danced as he spoke and Gabrielle found herself following these more than his words so much, in fact, that she had a delayed reaction to his remaining words. “Maybe he was after you.” When what he had so bluntly proposed finally registered, Gabrielle sat up, fully alert. “Why would someone be after me?” Her heart raced and suddenly everyone around her looked like an enemy. The pirate’s grizzly expression made her fearful and she stood, hand ready to retrieve her sais from her boots before he so much as thought of wielding his sword. “Now, now, I’m not accusing you of anything, Gabrielle. It’s just...” He took a step closer and she took a step back, her hands grabbing her sais and pulling them out before another foot fall could resonate on in her presently oversensitive ears. She pointed the tips at him. “Don’t come any closer!” He put his hands up and Gabrielle remembered the crewman that had woken her earlier; she felt embarrassed and lowered her weapons. “Whoa, Gabrielle, what have I done?” She put the sais back in her boots and had begun to apologize to him, but he stopped her. “No, no Gabrielle. It’s all right, really! I know that you must be very worried for your safety. If the rumors are true, then your fear is justified.” She stared at him, puzzled, trying to decipher his words. She was looking for the good nature behind his well-intentioned statement, but found only more suspicion. “What do you mean by that?” He lowered his hands and did not look directly at her, saying only that he had heard things about Xena; he had heard of her death. Gabrielle’s heart was suddenly yanked about at the mention of the warrior princess. He said it so lightly, as though it would mean little to her. “Yes,” she said, “Xena is dead. But what does this have to do with the murders in this tavern?” He sighed and rubbed his hands together nervously and Gabrielle grew impatient. “Well, what is it?” she begged, “Tell me, is it something about Xena?” He looked at her, a sadness in his eyes, and explained. “The soul of someone like Xena may not be accepted into the after life...” Gabrielle shook her head, “No. Hades already agreed to judge her again. She is in the Elysian Fields,” she retorted, sure of herself and of Xena’s fate. “Is she?” He said, a new look in his eyes that worried Gabrielle. He came closer to the bard and looked straight into her eyes. “Gabrielle, the things she did were terrible! Even if she redeemed herself in this lifetime, there is a far greater force at work here, one that is very much against Xena’s admittance to the Elysian Fields...” Gabrielle’s face showed her confusion at the stranger’s words, and she asked a question he had prepared for. “But, how do you know so much about Xena? And what is it that you think it keeping her in Tartarus?” “Oh, no, no, no, Gabrielle...” He said, a wicked grin on his face, “She’s not in Tartarus.” His face changed, the familiar look of a god overtook his smug face, and Gabrielle gasped as the features aligned themselves.
“She’s not in the Elysian Fields, either, thanks to me.” Ares laughed. “You think I’d just let her die like that?”
Ares laughed like a mad man, throwing his head back and watching Gabrielle with increasing amusement. The men around him jumped back, talking excitedly. They straightened their swords, fussed over their shirts, and anyone who owned a medallion proudly displayed the icon. “Ares, god of war!” They cried, many falling to there knees behind him, but he ignored their display, concentrating on Gabrielle as if the others weren’t even in the room.
“I made sure that miss “redemption” wouldn’t completely screw things up for all of us by preventing her soul from passing on in this life.” “So where is she, Ares?” Gabrielle glanced at the men bowing in fear and awe. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders, a gesture which made Gabrielle’s pulse quicken and her blood rush angrily through her like a rough current in too small a stream. “Somewhere in between, I guess.” He said, tossing his fingers in the air with the wispy notion in his voice. “She has to figure the rest out on her own. I just gave her the chance to fix her mistake.” “Mistake?” Gabrielle approached Ares, less afraid of him than of the fake pirate, and asked, “What mistake?”
“Helping that little brat.” He said in disgust, spitting to one side. Gabrielle grimaced and then it dawned on her who he was referring to “You mean Akemi?” “Yeah,” he said, lowly, “That little bitch was the worst thing to happen to Xena... besides you.” Gabrielle smiled inside at his words and the layers of emotion in his tone, but the joy faded as Ares continued, “She wasn’t supposed to die, you know.” Gabrielle’s face brightened with a mix of confusion and curiosity, but she did not interrupt him. She knew that, sometimes, it was best to let him go on; sometimes even he slipped up and let on something he had not intended too. With her soul mate on the line, she wasn’t about to give Ares any chances to get to her. He watched her, knowing the gears were whirling behind those green orbs but not quite sure of what thoughts were coming up just beyond his reach. He gripped the hilt of his sword firmly and acted as though he weren’t intimidated by a mortal woman. “Xena wasn’t meant to die because she wasn’t the one who was responsible for the torture of all those innocent souls.” Gabrielle’s eyes flickered with the thoughts behind them and, for a second, Ares caught some of the emotions she was struggling to conceal. “Xena did what was right, Ares.” She said, more for herself than him. “Oh, really?” he said, almost laughing, “Then why do the Fates tell me that it was the wrong thing?” “The Fates?” Gabrielle said, her voice betraying her curiosity completely, “You mean you’ve talked to the Fates?” She recalled another time she had seen those three mysterious women, just before her near-death at the temple of Dahak. The faces of those detached beings came to her then and she demanded Ares tell her what they had told him. “Well, like I said, it wasn’t Xena’s fate to save those souls.” Gabrielle weighed what he had said, taking it with as much pessimism as she could because she knew that his words could not be taken at face value, especially when it sounded too good to be true. “You mean she was not responsible for the death of those people in Japa?” Ares shook his head, “And I bet you can guess who is.” Gabrielle immediately placed her hands to her chest, “Me?” She said, hundreds of possible fears coming to mind.
“No!” he shouted, frustrated with her, “Why is it you two always blame yourselves? Is it some sort of complex you do-gooders develop?” He spun around and threw a ball of flame across the room, not-so accidentally hitting one of the men who was listening in. The man screamed, jumping up, and ran out the door into the storm. Ares turned back to Gabrielle as the other men followed suit, preferring the rain, hail, and wind to attracting the god of war’s wrath upon themselves. She suppressed laughter at their misfortune and tried to think more on what Ares had said. “Then who?” she said, focusing on her boots. Gabrielle thought of all the people that had tried to bring Xena down and immediately thought of Callisto and several warlords, but none of them would have been enemies of Xena at the time of Akemi’s death. Beyond that, most of them hadn’t lived long enough to be a threat. She touched her chin gently and brushed her hair back. She thought that, perhaps, there was someone that Xena had failed to tell her about; it had happened before. She had never even heard of Akemi until that monk had sought them out. And in that thought, she realized the answer was right in front of her.
Gabrielle blurted out her name before her mind could sensor it. From Ares’s expression, she knew that she was right. “Oh, yes. The good little girl, trying to avenge her family deaths!” He took a singsong tone that made Gabrielle remember why he was the god of such a horrible thing. “You mean that the Fates charge Akemi with the deaths of those people?” She shook her head, not able to believe it. “Why?” Ares smiled; it was as though he had prepared for their entire encounter. “Xena had killed ten times that many by her own sword by the time she even met Akemi. You think that the gods were suddenly going to decide she needed punishment? Redemption? We don’t really care about that crap.” He took his sword from the sheath and twirled it harmlessly a few times. “Now what Akemi did goes against everything we do care about.” He stopped and looked up to see if she was following and Gabrielle’s expression was all he needed to continue. “She was the one that made her father the way he was. He was supposed to die a year later at then hands an assassin sent by a rival from the north, but she disrupted Fate.” The sword flew over a table and slammed into the wall, lodging itself deeply in the board. His eye brow arced. “See a theme here?” Gabrielle drummed her skirt in disinterest and Ares clipped his humor short. “She was responsible for the 40,000 souls because, had he not been the dark lord, those souls would have died peacefully.” “But,” Gabrielle interrupted, “What does all of this have to do with you? With Xena?” He shook his head. “You really are blonde. Xena died for those souls under the impression that she had redeemed herself. But, in reality, she had redeemed Akemi.” Gabrielle understood where he was going with his slow explanation and her eyes widened. “And so Xena was never really redeemed and she died before she could be! But...” She thought about the dead men upstairs, “What about them?” She pointed upward, “You did that, didn’t you?”
Ares inclined his head a little and pulled out a chair for Gabrielle. “I needed several souls to come in at once to keep anyone from noticing that Xena’s was... missing. And I had to make it look like I had nothing to do with it, so I used a rare poison made from an ivy to kill them.” He walked over to the wall and yanked his sword out, his back facing Gabrielle while he rolled it around in his hands. “I’ve got too many temples in this area to go screwing it up with mass murders of my followers.” He said Gabrielle couldn’t help but be wary of what he said, but she did remember how all the men had immediately known who he was. “But, Ares, then why don’t you know where her soul is?” “Well, because...” his voice got very low, almost so Gabrielle could not hear him. “I lost her...”
For a moment, he seemed like a little child being scorned by his mother for losing his hat, but then he mocked offense and laughed at her assumptions. “Oh, I’m hurt, Gabrielle, real hurt. You think I’d totally lose my favorite play thing?” Gabrielle nearly lunged and would have, had she not remember whom she was talking too. “Ares, how is she supposed to get back here if you don’t even know where she is?!?!?” She was starting to doubt that he was telling her the truth. “You mean to tell me that Akemi is really the one who needed redeeming, Xena’s soul is loose somewhere, and this all means what to me?” He opened his hand and a scroll appeared, long and thin. He handed it to Gabrielle he explained as she unraveled it. “There are people called the Sumerians, ancient people who were thought to be wiped out ages ago. They have spells that can send you into the life that has the correct loom in the future so you can bring your future self back here and save Xena. ” Gabrielle looked over the map and found a small area that said ‘Mesopotamia’ in red lettering. “But, Ares, why can’t I just use the mendhi to go forward in time?” He smacked the table and his fists grew red again. “Because then you will be the person in that life! You’ll just come back here as you! You, of all mortals, should be able to understand that!” Gabrielle was so confused by Ares but she tried to latch onto some of what he was saying. If it would bring back Xena, she would do anything. “You mean I have to bring the future me... with me?” “Yes!” He said, a bit relieved, “Because the loom is undamaged in her time, she is able to travel from life to life safely. She can locate Xena and bring her back from wherever she went when I freed her soul.” Gabrielle nodded, slightly more aware of what he was saying, and stared at the map again.
She stared at the map and tried to remember if she and Xena had ever traveled to that land before but something else was plaguing her. “How can I be sure there’s not an assassin waiting for me there? How am supposed to believe that you’re not just trying to kill me so that you can bring Xena back and she’ll be vulnerable... just the way you like her?” His eyes got very large and he put his arms up in protest. “What do you mean? That region is perfectly safe!” “Right,” she said, searching his not-so-innocent expression for whatever he was trying to hide. He didn’t say anything else and she grew fed up. Gabrielle threw the map at him, picked up her sack, and went to leave. “Ares, I’ll find a way to save her or move on without Xena. I don’t need your help.” For a moment, even she was convinced of her convictions and she turned toward the door, fully intending to leave him there despite knowing he might be telling truth or be able to help her. Realizing that his last chance was slipping through his fingers, Ares was ready to give her what she wanted. He let Gabrielle nearly reach the door before he called after her.
“Look, you can believe me or not, but Akemi seriously messed with the loom of fate. If Xena doesn’t come back...” He eased back into the chair and pushed the sword into the floor. “None of our future selves will ever come to be.” She turned to him slowly, wondering if what he was saying was just another one of his attempts to snare her. Sure enough, he had the same smug expression she was familiar with; his “checkmate” grin. He was using up his reserves and Gabrielle feared that he had been telling her the truth after all.
“What does that mean, Ares?”
She turned back to him and adjusted the straps on her sack, her eyes displaying her now completely unbalanced nerves.
He had her.
“That’s right, Gabrielle. If Xena does die before we can find her, existence as we know it will cease to exist. And that means you’ll never see Xena again... In any life.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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