The Soul of the Sword
(Sequel to: Homeward Bound)
By Phantom Bard (J. Nakamura)
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction and is offered for non-profit entertainment. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. The characters and concepts from the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, including Xena, Gabrielle, Varia, Cyane, Ares, Yodoshi/Eater of Souls, etc., are the creations and property of MCA/Universal, and Renaissance Pictures. No malice is intended towards these characters or concepts. I would like to express my thanks to the creators of this outstanding production for sharing them with us.
This story contains depictions of violence, (bloodshed, dismemberment, and beheading alert), angst, corpses and cadavers, (and how some of them got that way), mental anguish, questionable decorating practices, all natural foodstuffs, some really bad and other mostly good characters, a female pair of whom really, really like each other, perhaps a bit more than was depicted in the TV series. Of course everything is presented in good taste as always. If illiterate or in doubt, ask a friend to read it for you. If this story is illegal in your jurisdiction, remand yourself to the authorities you read it.
This story is a sequel/continuation of my earlier tale, "Homeward Bound", and is conceived as being the second episode in a hypothetical seventh season according to my conjectures.
Note: My beta reader is currently in hell, so I corrected thnigs mysefl, uhhh, mostily .
"Last week on Xena: Following Xena's death in Japa, Gabrielle had become the surviving Warrior Princess. Accompanied by Xena's ghost, she returned to Greece, bearing a blessed katana from Japa, the chakram, and an urn containing Xena's ashes. Gabrielle journeyed to rejoin the Amazons, only to find them preparing for their last battle. In a night raid against their enemies, Queen Varia was struck down. Gabrielle enlisted Aphrodites aid to install Xena's soul in the body of the brain dead queen, restoring her to life. Reunited at last, Xena and Gabrielle executed a plan to defeat their enemies and foil the plot of the God of War. Their victory was marred, however, by the changes Gabrielle had undergone since returning from Japa."
"Xena Xena?" I mumbled through the cocoon of sleep that still shrouded my mind.
My fumbling hand searched the mattress next to me, and her absence brought me to wakefulness. For a drowsy moment I had thought she was only a ghost again. Then consciousness brought back the harsh memories of yesterday's triumphs and heartbreak. The numbness of sleep still tempted me with its shallow sanctuary; forgetfulness threatened by nightmares. I stared at the walls in indecision as my mind slowly cleared.
Bright sunlight was prying through the gaps in the slats that screened the window, daring me to rise and shine. It was not soft early light, but the light of late morning. Muffled voices and the sounds of a wagon being clumsily unloaded sifted through the shutters. The crash of a crate followed by curses were probably a repetition of what had first awakened me. The noises of the village allied themselves with the invading light in calling me to engage the world. I pushed myself up into a sitting position and looked around. I didn't sense Xena's presence in the hut, but she'd always been an early riser. I guessed she'd wanted to start the first morning of her new life with the sunrise.
The dim room still retained many of its shadows, and I noted the melted remains of last night's candles. Atop the small table lay the hardened bread crusts, shriveled rinds, and uneaten fruit from a late night snack. At least we'd finished the cheese. Its moldering would have contributed to the staleness of the air, and encouraged flies. Actually, Xena had eaten most of our snack. My appetite had vanished with the discovery that I had bludgeoned Varia and not even known it. Suspecting I'd become a monster just didn't promote my delight in food, only my thirst for the wine.
Eventually I sighed and dragged myself out of bed and over to the nightstand by the window. I poured some tepid water from a jug into the small basin, and rinsed my face and hands, then washed out my mouth. Propping the shutters open to admit light and air, I emptied the basin onto the ground outside. I watched the trickle as it snuck across a foot of dusty soil. The dark trail of its wandering had left a question mark before sinking into the earth. How very appropriate, I thought.
I was feeling subdued and probably teetering on the borders of a state of shock. Too much had happened the last couple of days. Too much had happened the last couple of years. It wasn't as though I'd really achieved a comfortable equilibrium after Xena had died in Japa, but I had adjusted to being accompanied by her ghost. I had accepted the loss, and resigned myself to feeling incomplete, while I hoped and searched for a way to bring her back. I'd also been searching for my own center and direction.
Now I'd managed to return Xena to the world of the living, but in Varia's body, leaving us both with another adjustment to make. She felt different in my arms, my head tilted at an unfamiliar angle when we kissed, her scent was different, and her eyes were brown. At least she sounded like Xena, and in the dark, or with my eyes closed, I saw her as she'd always been. I had come to be able to recognize her by some sixth sense that blessed us as soulmates. I doubt Meg, Diana, or Leah could have fooled me now. In part, it was my guilt at having rendered Varia brain dead, but there was more. Feeling Xena and seeing Varia upset me on some deep level, as if I'd bitten into an apple and tasted a pear. Still, I was thankful to finally have such fruit on my plate.
Raising my eyes, I took in the view of the village. The questionably fresher air was clearing away the shadows of memory and sleep, helping me focus on the present. A handful of Amazons were out doing various chores or gossiping. It saddened me to see so little activity and so few Amazons left. It just seemed too quiet. Once the village had been comfortable for over three hundred. In the seemingly endless wars during the last three years, the population had dropped to thirty warriors.
One thing that needed to be arranged was the return of the civilian population. They'd sought safety in the surrounding countryside. Perhaps their presence would make the village seem more like home. On the other hand, I realized, there would be monumental grief for the reunions made impossible by so many deaths. Almost everyone had lost someone, a parent, lover, or friend, and it would be a sad homecoming for most. It had certainly been less than joyful for Xena's ghost and me when we'd arrived.
I turned away from the window and sat back down on the bed, lacing up my boots. As an Amazon queen, I had to project an ever-ready appearance, and so I slipped the sais into their loops along my calves and strapped the katana across my back. I'd grown to find its presence comforting. When I wore it, I felt less touched by the horror of battle, and I was less preoccupied with doubts about myself. Any relief was welcome.
I left the chakram behind, packed away in a traveling bag. Although I'd carried and used it until last night, now with Xena back, carrying it didn't feel right. It was yet another thing for us to discuss. I assumed she'd want it back, and much as I liked it, the chakram had always been her unique weapon. I figured I'd return it later, as a symbolic welcome back for my reincarnated soulmate. The thought made me smile.
In the meantime, I had so much to do. Yesterday I had tricked Ares into destroying our enemies, and today I would begin my joint rule of the Amazon nation with the young Cyane. It felt tainted and ill omened to me. After all, I'd pretty much murdered my predecessor, and the other Amazons didn't know the truth about Varia's death. Maybe I was still in a state of shock, but I knew I'd have felt far worse about it in the past. I grabbed some of the leftover fruit and left the hut. I wanted to find Xena.
The sunshine warmed me, but the air wasn't sweet. The breeze was polluted by all the death nearby. The stench fed my dour mood, assaulting my sense of smell and weaving a pall that hung over the village. There were all those heads on pikes in the ritual clearing, and all those bodies on the trees along the road. All those trophies would have to go, I decided. I mean, what about the children? Should they have been subjected to such grisly visions while they were adjusting to the losses of their family and friends? Would they not be plagued with nightmares, returning to live in their "dead stinky village"?
In the margins of the streets and common spaces lay the headless bodies of Apollo's soldiers, slain yesterday in battle. I noticed that the corpses were already beginning to bloat. Oh great, I thought. They still outnumbered us five to one. I tried to decide which was less work, a mass grave, a mass pyre, or moving the entire village. Soon the cadavers would "pop" and start leaking fluids. The resulting miasma could give rise to a pestilence. What a wonderful way to start my rule as an Amazon queen.
I was gnawing on an apple when I noticed Cyane across the street. She was standing in front of the barricade Ares' soldiers had hidden behind, prior to yesterday's battle, instructing four young warriors to dismantle it and salvage the wood. I sidestepped a cadaver and crossed the street to join them.
"Queen Cyane, good morning," I said, clasping her forearm in greeting, "have you seen Xena?" The "good morning" was reflexive, "questionable morning" being melodramatic.
"Hi, Queen Gabrielle," she said with her usual smile, "I saw her headed for the sparring grounds. Half our warriors badgered her all through the morning meal for instruction, and she finally gave in. I think she was more pleased than she appeared though."
"Oh, well that makes sense." I remarked with a slight smile. Knowing Xena, she probably wanted to explore how Varia's body differed from her own, searching for any changes in her capabilities. "I guess I'll go make sure no one gets injured."
Cyane's good-natured laughter followed me as I headed away down the street. Was she oblivious? I was so tempted to just grab my soulmate and flee the village, leaving Cyane with the corpses and cadavers. I was giggling about it before I realized that in the past I would have been depressed, horrified, and guilt ridden, if not sick to my stomach.
The path from the village to the practice ground led downhill, through some woods, and into a clearing to the west of the village. It was less than fifty yards away, and before I'd covered half the distance I heard Xena's battle cry, and a grunt as a body hit the ground. I hastened my pace. A few steps later I heard the clash of swords and another body landing, this time in the underbrush. A few curses carried from the fighting in the still air among the trees. I heard my soulmate's laughter.
It was a typical Xena scene that greeted me when I finally arrived at the clearing. Xena, in Varia's body, airborne, yelling her battle cry, and landing feet first on two Amazons. Her sword was still sheathed so I guessed the clash of blades had been her blocking one warrior's blows with another's sword as she manipulated an attacker's wrist. I counted eight fallen warriors on the ground or starting to get to their feet. Most of them sported fresh bruises and grim expressions. Another four were still standing, trading blows with Xena. I supposed they'd been at it for a while. It was past the second candle mark after the morning meal.
When they saw me standing at the trailhead, the warriors broke off, saluting as they bowed, a chorus of, "My Queen", rising from them in greeting. This would take some getting used to. I resisted the impulse to roll my eyes.
"Uhh, please, continue with your practice." I told them, but Xena had already started towards me. I could tell she'd been enjoying herself, a slight sheen of sweat making her skin glow in the sunlight. She was smiling, but I know her too well not to see the worry and concern in her eyes.
"How are you, my queen?" she asked, becoming serious when we were close.
"Happy to see you, especially since you're so joyful from getting to kick butt," I replied, "I can tell you've missed it the last couple years."
She gave me a lopsided grin and didn't even try to deny my assessment. I guess if I'd been a ghost all that time I would have reveled in a good meal. Xena, of course, reveled in a good sparring match. She'd moved to hold my elbows and gaze into my eyes. I felt the familiar effect of her proximity, warmth, security, and what I can only call a connection of souls.
"Gabrielle, are you ok after last night?" She asked quietly, with a genuine depth of concern. To be honest, I was a little surprised that I hadn't awakened paralyzed with remorse and half way down the road to an ulcer. Then again, I'd reacted to the bodies hung on the trees along the south road as being immature rather than abominable.
"I guess I've partially shut it off for a while." I told her honestly. She received this claim with a questioning expression, an intensified gaze and a raised left eyebrow. I felt obligated to elaborate. "I just can't wallow in that guilt and be of any use here my people need me, and I have to find out what's wrong before I can figure out what to do about it."
"We'll figure it out," Xena reminded me, "and we'll find out what to do about it." She sighed, and I saw sadness in her eyes, "I know you've had to do so much alone the last couple years, but I'm here now. We'll get through this together, Gabrielle."
"You're right, Xena," I told her, smiling, "we've been through so much. We'll figure out what's going on and make it right. I guess I'm still sort of shocked to have you back especially in Varia's body." I looked her over appreciatively.
"I have you to thank for that, Gabrielle, and I've been getting used to being in here. Varia was in really good shape. I didn't feel as stiff this morning, although her left ankle is a little touchy when I land on it. Must be residual damage from taking that arrow from one of Morloch's traps."
"Looked to me like you're adapting pretty well. I bet those warriors think so."
She actually blushed slightly, smiling, and then she became serious.
"Actually, Gabrielle, I wanted to, uhh, try something." She said, fidgeting with nervous uncertainty, "Remember when I said that since Japa you've become a much better fighter?"
I was becoming tense; sensing what she was up to. It was another of her plans that had probably been simmering since she'd mentioned her observations last night.
"You want to spar with me, right Xena?"
"Umm, yeah, if you don't mind." She was uncomfortable asking this because it touched on something deeper than just my new fighting skills. "I mean, I want to see how much you've improved maybe I can even get a sense of why."
"Well, ok, I guess. How about we start without weapons?" I asked, not quite trusting myself. After all, I'd killed Varia in the dark when I should have seen her coming, and I certainly shouldn't have been oblivious to the fact until Xena had told me she'd seen it.
"Sure. We'll start barehanded, and we'll take it slow at first, ok?"
I nodded and started removing my weapons. Xena removed Varia's sword from her back. We walked to the center of the practice ground, the Amazons backing off to give us space. They were watching us like hawks, muttering among themselves as I began to stretch and loosen up. Xena was already heated from her earlier bouts and simply shook herself and jogged in place, waiting for me to finish my preparations. She was about five feet to my right when she attacked without warning, aiming a right side kick at my head.
My shock and surprise didn't stop me from ducking, and I heard her foot whistle past my ear. The murmur of outrage from the watching warriors barely registered as I turned, snapping myself upright and slamming my left palm into the back of her thigh while her foot was still in the air. I was moving faster than she had expected. The blow threw her off balance and I counterattacked, launching my body into the air. Time seemed to expand and slow when I fought, and I could see her trying to recover her balance as I twisted, airborne, my trailing right foot snapping out to connect with the back of her head. The momentum of my flying roundhouse kick actually caused her to flip head over heels onto her back. She landed at the same time I did, but I was still on my feet. It was simple to just bend my knees, lowering my body and snapping a punch into Xena's stomach. I could as easily have aimed the punch for her throat and killed her. This fight was over in less than five seconds.
I had backed off, allowing her to catch her breath. The punch had been solid, connecting with Xena's solar plexus, and it had incapacitated her for a few moments. Finally she rolled onto her knees and got back to her feet. She was looking at me with such a mixture of shock, admiration, hurt pride, and residual pain that I had to laugh.
"That's for the sneak attack, Xena," I told her flippantly.
Behind us the Amazons were silent, staring at us like they'd seen a seven headed dog chasing a five headed cat. Xena had spent the morning knocking them silly. I think the fact that she looked like Varia had made that easier for them to accept. These young warriors didn't really know me, except through stories as the Warrior Princess' sidekick and mostly absent Amazon Queen. They may have known that Varia had beaten me, when I had challenged her years ago over Eve, and that even with Ares' training she couldn't beat Xena. I had just taken down both their legends.
Xena had recovered, dusting herself off and taking a few deep breaths.
"Nice moves." She remarked, as a feral gleam came into her eyes. "How about double or nothing, my queen?" She asked, as she scooped up her sheath and drew her sword.
I just shrugged and walked over to my weapons, sliding the katana from its scabbard. The moment I laid my hand on it, I felt a cold concentration grip me. It was as if my emotions shut down, to be replaced by an all-consuming focus. This was the first time I'd faced an opponent without the adrenaline surge of battle, and I was aware of every change.
"Xena, maybe this isn't such a good idea." I said with effort. A part of me was looking forward to bloodshed. Perhaps it was the sound of my voice, or the expression on my face that drew her attention. She paused a moment and looked at me closely.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. I'll take it easy on you. I know you haven't been working with the sword nearly as long as I have, but you've learned a lot very quickly. Also, I've been analyzing your moves. Remember I've been able to just sit and watch every time you've used that sword."
"Xena, that's not what I mean."
"Come on, Gabrielle. We'll go slow to start off with, if you're worried."
I was facing my soulmate, and we were just sparring, but below all the magnified sensations of the world around me, I felt a presence. It whispered in my inner ear, speaking to my soul. If Id had to put its first message into words, I would have translated it as, "Merge your spirit with mine, warrior. Together we shall conquer, bringing victory and the spilling of our enemy's blood." It told me many other things too.
I felt exhilarated and repulsed at the same time. Somewhere inside me was a presence that regarded this "sparring match" as a contest to be decided by death. Once drawn from its saya, the soul of the sword had no concept of anything less than all-out, total commitment to victory. It had been so through over three hundred years of bloody warfare in those violent eastern islands. Many a warrior had wielded that sword, and it had outlived them all. It had become as constant as war itself. In Japa they called its virtue gaman to endure. To endure to the eventual mastery.
The blade shone like a mirror, flawlessly polished, unblemished from its contact with other weapons through the centuries. Along the cutting edge, the yaki-ba, the line of tempering appeared slender, hazy, and wavelike. It could cut through an enemys blade or armor and still slice the flesh beneath so cleanly that a wound might not be felt.
"Whenever you're ready, my queen." Xena said, spinning her sword on her palm.
She was so confident, and why not? For twenty years, countless enemies had died by her sword. Long ago she'd gotten so good that she didn't need to kill anymore. I'd often seen her knock out an attacker with the pommel or the flat of her blade. I hadn't even put in a full year of practice. But inside me something wanted this contest, and took it very, very seriously. That something spoke to me of its past and its promised destiny.
The katana's history had begun when a doomed and wandering star had fallen in the courtyard of the Hakimon Temple. Unlike most of the blades from Japa, refined from ores or iron sands, this daito had been slowly forged from almost pure meteoric iron. Some unknown master smith had folded the steel again and again, then laminated layers of hard and soft steels together, and finally tempered the cutting edge to perfection. Such a blade would neither bend nor break, and it would hold a fine edge for years. The secrets of its making, performed as a final act of love for a life long craft, had never been repeated, and with the anonymous craftsman they had died. And with his death, the sword absorbed its first soul. Single-minded, dedicated to perfection, and with the patience of almost seventy-years' practice focused on a single act.
The spirit within the katana was as sharp and perfect for its task as the cutting edge it presented. It had accumulated spiritual power down through the years. It awaited the distant day to come when, as in legend, it would wield itself and suffer no human hand.
Xena had taken a position six feet ahead of me, facing me in a guard position. Her Amazon sword was held diagonally, pointing upward across her body, her elbows and knees partially bent. The stance conferred mobility and committed her to nothing. She could react strongly to a threat from any quarter. Her face was neutral, expressing no readable intent, a warriors mask. I knew she was taking this more seriously than shed let on. Like shed said, shed been able to just sit and watch me.
I let myself sink into the haze of focus. Time slowed further and I sensed what lay behind appearances. I could hear her heartbeat, faster than someone looking at her would have guessed. I saw the thin sheen of sweat on her face, heard her swallow, and saw the emotion behind her mask. It was apprehension. I waited for the turning of her breathing, when her lungs were empty, just before she began to inhale.
There was no distance. I brought the katana into contact with Xena's blade, sliding the back edge down its length, and easily stepping away from her answering thrust. As she began to withdraw, I turned my wrists and the katanas tip clipped her cross guard. Not with enough force to disarm her this was more subtle. Just enough to ruin her timing. For a heartbeat I sensed that she was overbalanced, and then I lunged as she withdrew.
Though we were both moving in the same direction, but my stance was wider than hers. When Xena had regained her center of gravity I was still advancing. The katanas tip nicked the flesh at the hollow of her throat. Somehow I found the strength to suppress the presence within me that wanted to bury the blade in her neck. Then I withdrew as Xena made a powerful blocking stroke, knocking my blade to the side. She probably didnt even feel the cut yet.
Instead of meeting the greater force of her blow, I allowed my blade to tilt, shedding her sword away and down. I counterattacked with a backhand stroke while her weapon was out of position, forcing her to back flip out of range. The entire exchange had taken less than four seconds, and to me, time collapsed even further. The Amazons watching us appeared frozen. Xena looked like she was moving underwater. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck start to tingle.
Xena regained her footing and focused on me. I flicked my eyes to the right and watched as Ares appeared in a sluggish flash. I'd never noticed how it created flickering shadows, the way lightning will, even in daylight. It was bizarre. Hed come to watch the contest. I backed away from Xena and regarded him as he finished materializing. When I disengaged from our combat, time seemed to hasten, returning to its accustomed rate of flow.
"Didnt like the new body, Xena?" Ares asked her, a grin pasted across his face. "Taking it out on Gabrielle?"
Xena stared at him, obviously unhappy at the interruption.
"No and no," she declared with annoyance, "shes doing fine, Ares."
"Better than fine," I told them, "youd be dead, Xena."
She looked at me, puzzled. I guess she hadnt felt the cut on her throat yet.
"Youve gotten very good, Gabrielle, but I dont think we did anything definitive." Xena said.
"Check your throat," I told her quietly, "I still had six inches of thrust left in my stance."
At first she just looked at me like I was bluffing, but she slowly raised her left hand. When she brought it away from her throat there was a small stain of blood on her fingers. It was still strange to see Xenas expressions, of shock and surprise quickly replaced by determination, on Varias face. It was obvious to me that she wanted a rematch, and shed be even more wary and focused next time. Ares' laughter brought us back to the present.
"First blood goes to the Amazon Queen," he declared. The surrounding Amazons wore expressions ranging from disbelief to pride to bewilderment. I was their queen, but so was Varia, and no one had ever beaten the Warrior Princess. Ares waved his hand toward Xena and her cut disappeared. Then he laughed again before assuming his position as referee, and commanding, "Continue the match."
"I think not," I remarked, moving towards my gear and sheathing my sword, "this isnt a spectacle like some village dog baiting, thanks for the interest."
"Sure it is," Ares snorted, "you just need the right incentive to bring out the beast."
"Ares, there is nothing you can offer that will make me really try to hurt Gabrielle." Xena claimed.
"And I just got Xena back." I told him. "Its way too soon to take a chance on losing her again."
Ares just grinned. "How sincere and touching. It would almost be heartwarming if you werent both such killers."
His comment hit me, the harsh reminder bringing my guilt crashing down like a tidal wave. My breathing hitched, and I felt the tears of remorse starting, threatening to overflow. I hadnt meant to kill Varia any more than Id meant to kill Korah. This was not how I wanted my sister Amazons to discover my accidental killing of their queen. I stared daggers at the God of War.
"Gabrielle, thats not such a bad thing," Ares reasoned, "especially for a warrior."
Xena and I both just looked at him, daring him to say more.
Ares spread his hands in a gesture of innocence, contradicted by the wolfish grin on his face. He looked back and forth between Xena and I, obviously about to present some devious plan. I just couldnt wait to hear his latest inspiration for us. I sighed.
"Ive been thinking," he began, contemplatively, "that theres been an unhealthy level of what, chaos?" He mused. "In the position of Favorite of the God of War, that is. What with Xenas death, her resurrection in Varias body and of course your own increased abilities." He had turned to leer at me as he said the last.
"What are you thinking, Ares?" Xena asked, her curiosity veiled by her more obvious impatience.
"Glad you asked, Xena. I think we should continue your little tournament."
"You want me to fight Gabrielle for the dubious honor of being your right hand?"
"Not exactly." Ares said, smirking as Xena raised an eyebrow.
Well here it comes, I thought, now well see what kind of plot his devious little mind has hatched.
"I think perhaps its time for the succession I had contemplated a few years back."
Xenas expression darkened dangerously as she pondered and then realized what he was getting at. She narrowed her eyes at him.
"Xena, I think weve all seen that your student has surpassed you. Shes proved her skills with tactics as well as practical mayhem." Ares reasoned, oozing sympathy that fooled no one. " I think one last trial is in order, and then Gabrielle can take her place as the new Favorite of the God of War."
"Ares, Im not really interested," I told him, "doesnt that count for anything? You need someone devoted to your cause, a willing worshipper, not someone whos been tricked or coerced into serving you, right?"
"Gabrielle, Im not offering you a job, like butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Im offering you the chance at a title, a destiny and I can offer you more." He was smiling broadly now, and I felt we were finally getting to the meat of this exchange. "I can offer you something that I think might inspire you to serve willingly."
"When centaurs fly, Ares. I mean, what? Youre going to offer me the power to rule the world according to my sense of right and wrong? Or is it the leadership of your army, again? Or wait, let me guess. I know, how about, we unite the known world, creating an empire stretching from Britannia to Japa."
"Brilliant ideas, Gabrielle. I knew you could be a girl after my own heart." Ares mockingly agreed. "Sounds like a reasonable plan for an ambitious Amazon queen. It's certainly the next logical step after assuring your succession here, and the return of your champion. Congratulations on your coup, by the way."
I stared at him like he was drunk or insane. The Amazons appeared confused by his last statements. Xena was eyeing him with malevolence and impatience. He actually giggled. Somehow Id always found this expression of his mirth unfitting.
"Heres the deal, Gabrielle. You fight my champion. The winner becomes the Favorite of the God of War of course, the loser dies."
I thought he was finished and I started to answer, but he held up a hand to stop me.
"And, if you win, as my Favorite I cannot withhold my favor. In other words, I will use my powers to, say put Xena back into her own body."
I stared at him in disbelief. Xena exploded.
"Why you weasely, conniving, back stabbing, sorry assed excuse for a god! How dare you promise her something you cant deliver! You cant bring back my body any more than anyone else could! No one could do that. Your offer is as empty as the air. Come on, Gabrielle, we dont have to listen to any more of his dimwitted chatter."
Ares let her rant, the Amazons cowered, and I tried to hide a smile. I think he relished the opportunity to get under Xenas skin no matter what the response, just so long as there was one. He favored her with an indulgent smile.
"Actually, Xena, now that you're alive, I can change your appearance into anything I want. You can have your old body back, I can turn you into a chicken if youd prefer," he claimed, pausing to laugh at his own joke, "or let you remain as Varia. Of course, Gabrielle will probably always be uncomfortable with that. Well, maybe not as uncomfortable as when you were in Callistos body ."
Now we were both staring at him.
"I see, you have some doubts?" Ares asked, as if our disbelief surprised him, and then he made a gesture.
A flash enveloped Xena. When it subsided she stood there, my Xena, my soul mate. She was the same as shed been before we left for Japa, dressed in her brown leathers and bronze breastplate. Even her old sword was strapped across her back. I felt her familiar presence and it was real. Xena was examining herself, seeing the bracers on her arms, drawing her sword and staring at it. She looked at me, the question in her eyes, and I nodded to her just before tears blurred my vision.
I practically leaped across the space separating us and crushed her in a hug. The sound of her sword clattering to the ground came to my ears as her arms wrapped around me, and she rested her chin on my head. I closed my eyes to blink away the tears, and I laid my head on her chest. She felt right in my arms. All my senses were filled with her presence. Gods, how I had missed this. I tilted my head up to look into the blue eyes I loved, and then I leaned in to kiss her. Our lips touched.
The flash enveloped us and I felt the change in her. I broke the kiss and opened my eyes. I was holding Varias body. I gazed into her eyes, seeing her uncertainty. I offered her my reassurance that Ares words were unfounded. She was still Xena, still my soulmate, and I leaned in to kiss her again.
"Well?" Ares asked from behind me.
"No." Xena said without hesitation.
I turned away from her to face him and I made my decision.
"Yes. And if I win, you will restore Xena to her body, and Ill be the Favorite of the God of War, just as I have been a queen of the Amazons."
Xena grabbed me and spun me around to face her. She was aghast at my decision, but her shock hadn't robbed her of the ability to speak.
"Gabrielle, no! You dont know what it means to be the Favorite of the God of War. He'll command your obedience as well as give you his favor. Dont do this just to get my old body back! Id rather stay in Varias body than see you become what I was."
"Xena, my challenge has been accepted." Ares crowed. "Its Gabrielles choice, and she has accepted the stakes for the combat of succession."
Xena looked at me with heartbreak in her eyes. Shed been down this road, and trying to climb back up from its depths had cost her life more than once. All her years of atonement had stemmed from renouncing the ambition for power that he had nurtured. Now she perceived that my recent changes had opened the gateway to that same path for me. I think she believed some influence from Japa had corrupted the good in my heart so that I could accept service to Ares. Added to that was the fact that I was doing this for her, and unspoken was the suspicion that I found her unacceptable in Varias body. I could tell she was crushed.
"Dont worry, Xena," I tried to reassure her, knowing how lame it sounded, "this will work out. I have a plan." In hindsight I suppose I was guilty of hubris.
She just shook her head and looked away. Finally she whispered a last warning.
"Gabrielle, that's how it always begins. He offers something you want, but you'll soon find the price is too high. His demands will just continue, and you can never satisfy him. In the end you'll either hate yourself, or you'll become a monster like I was. And that's if he doesn't trick you outright at the start."
I wished she could give me her support without reservation, but I realized that with her past that was just too much to ask. I tried to capture her eyes and get her to smile. Xena's pain and foreboding were too deep. I could tell she felt like she was losing me again, so soon after our reunion among the living. Perhaps she was remembering Varia, and suspecting I had already become a monster. I also wondered how far ahead she was looking. Was she seeing a future in which we would be forced to stand on opposite sides of a battle line, drawn by the greater good? Would she be able to oppose me then, or I her? Was she thinking that one day I might use those "six inches of thrust I still had in my stance"?
"I summon my champion for the combat of succession." Ares declared gravely.
He raised his arm and gestured to the far end of the practice field. It seemed that a wind blew in from beyond our world. The blue whirlpool appeared as he opened the vortex. I hadnt seen it in years. I recollected the last time, and I knew whom he had summoned.
She leaped from the other dimension where we had once fought, her appearance unchanged after almost thirty years. Her breasts were still threatening to escape the confines of her battle dress. She was armed as I had first seen her in Demeters temple, with spear, sword, and daggers. Her blond hair was braided and pulled back just as I remembered, and her blue eyes were cold.
"Mavican," he addressed her, "I offer you another chance to prove your worthiness of a great destiny."
"Oh, Ares, am I to have a second chance to destroy Xena?" She asked, as if she were being offered fantastic sex. She seemed inappropriately aroused by the prospect.
"I am offering you the chance to become the Favorite of the God of War," Ares told her, "if it is your destiny. But you must defeat the top contender for the succession."
She was practically drooling at the prospect, staring at the Amazons, glancing at me with a twisted smile, and searching for my soulmate.
"Where is she?" She finally asked him; still expecting her opponent would be Xena.
"Actually, some things have changed." He told her, amused by her assumptions. "You are to fight Gabrielle."
"What?" She cried out in disbelief, quickly giving me a disdainful look. "She couldnt fight her way out of a sack."
"As I said, some things have changed. Youve been away for quite a while, Mavican, and Gabrielle has recently proved herself superior to Xena."
Mavican rolled her eyes at Ares, then started laughing. "This is too rich. Well, ok then, lets get this over with so we can roll around and plan a war."
I regarded her with the same casual attention one might give a fallow field or a ditch. What an idiot, I thought, her overconfidence will get her killed really quickly. Its a wonder she survived her adolescence, she certainly never outgrew it. She hadn't changed a bit, I realized, but I had. I silently thanked Ares, for she was nothing less than a gift.
"You are to duel to the death," said Ares, addressing us both, "and the winner will become the new Favorite of the God of War. You must remain on this field of battle, but you are free to use any of your weapons or your enemy's weapons. No one else may interfere. Well, thats it for the rules. Lets begin."
Time slowed and my preternatural focus deepened as I drew the katana, laying aside the scabbard. When I turned back to face Mavican she was already closing the distance between us. She was covering the fifteen paces with the celerity of a large dog belly deep in snow, her spear poised, her face eager. I let her come.
The sun glimmered on the spear point coming towards me and I spun. The head slipped past my shoulder, and I felt the shaft against my back. She had just started to withdraw it when I snapped my blade down, hewing off the front three feet of her weapon not two inches ahead of her left fingers. As it fell away I repeated the motion, slicing the shaft again, just ahead of her trailing right hand. Though she may have been surprised, she reacted immediately, dropping the remains of the spear and back flipping away from me.
I had to give her credit. I had rotated the katana with my wrists and lunged at her with the blade facing up. Instead of impaling her through the chest, I merely sliced open the bodice of her dress, cutting the flesh above her sternum. Continuing the attack, I spun on my left heel and extended my right arm, reaching for her with the blade. The katana sliced an arc that included a two-inch deep section of flesh above her hipbone. She had barely regained her feet after her back flip, but her right hand was over her shoulder, drawing her sword.
Mavican was no longer wearing that confident, and disdainful expression. I could feel her anger, surprise, and deeper, her growing fear. Now her blade was free, and she began a back swing, preparing to aim an overhead blow at my head. I had brought my katana back to a guard position. Mavican leapt forward wholly committed by the momentum of her attack. I knew she expected me to block her swing, meeting her force with mine. Instead I tucked and rolled past her to her right. Her blade slammed into the earth behind me. My blade shot upward, entering her body above her right hip, piercing her kidney, but stopping short of exiting below her ribs. The blade hissed as I withdrew it.
Mavican was turning to face me again, raising her sword and spraying blood from the wound in her back. She couldnt see it. The attack had been so quick that she may not have even registered it. As she finished turning, I rose to my feet facing her, the katana held vertical, close to my right side.
She swung at me, aiming a backhand blow with her sword at chest level. This time I met her, taking the blow on the back edge of the katana, low on the blade. I turned at the waist, stretching my arms and raising my wrists, forcing her sword up and away. The block was my back swing. I turned my wrists to extend the blade horizontally, and then I unwound. The movement started with the twisting motion of my hips, the rotation driving my back and shoulders. The motion continued, whipping down my arms until it ended with the katanas blade, a silver blur in the late morning sunlight, almost invisible.
The motion ended with my shoulder pointing at Mavicans torso, my arms only slightly bent, and the blade pausing just under her right armpit. I bent my straightened right leg, sliding my leading left leg back and returning my sword to a vertical guard position.
Mavican had felt the blade pass completely through her torso, from armpit to armpit, severing her ribs and spine. For some moments she remained standing, motionless, defeated, her destiny vanishing like a feeble dream. She had never had a chance. Just before the upper part of her body toppled into the dust and her lower body collapsed, I saw a single tear roll down her cheek. She had never made a sound.
Time began to resume its normal flow. I became aware of the sounds around me, and my other senses resumed their reporting. I saw the Amazons still frozen, staring at Mavicans corpse, barely breathing. Ares was staring at me with a look of disbelief. Xena was looking at the ground and I could tell she was horrified by what had happened. I smelled Mavicans blood, the weakening flow still pumping from her slowing heart, and heard a wet hiss as the last air escaped her opened lungs. She hadnt died all at once. The distant singing of birds in the woods behind us was so incongruous that I almost burst out laughing. Then I discerned the delicious aroma of a stew being prepared for the noon meal in the village. I could feel my stomach preparing to announce my hunger.
I turned away from Mavicans remains and sought a rag to clean my blade. I couldnt talk to anyone just yet, and they must have sensed this, for no one approached me. Even Ares was silent. I guess hed hoped for a longer contest, underestimating me as Xena and Mavican had. I couldnt blame them. In my six years with Xena I had become a competent warrior, but I had never been a prodigy, for I had hated fighting. Since Japa I had become perhaps the best living warrior in the known world. Certainly the best with a sword. I found a rag and wiped Mavican's blood off the katanas blade.
"Ares," I called out, without turning towards him, "restore Xena to her body."
I guess he wanted to set a precedent. He was now my God, and I was his Favorite. He must have felt he needed to establish a pecking order. I was in no mood for it.
"I am the God of War," he declared, proclaiming the obvious while closing in on me from behind, "and I do not take orders from a mortal who is my Chosen! You will do my bidding and I will grant you my favor!"
He was four feet behind me when I whirled on him. The point of the katana unerringly finding the hollow of his throat. I saw the indentation the tip made in his immortal flesh, and to my amazement, I saw a drop of blood spring forth. I was speechless. I had rarely seen a god bleed; I hadn't thought it was possible now. No one believed another Twilight could happen. He recoiled from the blade, obviously having felt the cut. His hand went to his throat, and when he withdrew it and saw the blood his expression was one of dismay and fear.
Ares began backing away from me, backing right into Xena who had started to approach us. He slammed into her, but paid her no notice. Finally he conquered his shock.
"You can make me bleed!" He sputtered, "How is that possible? I am a god!"
Behind him, Xenas eyes grew as wide as saucers. The Amazons were petrified. Their queen could assault the gods. Finally I conquered my shock.
"Restore Xena to her body!" I demanded, staring him down through narrowed eyes. "And take the remains of your champion with you."
He was shaken, and I could tell he wanted nothing more than to disappear. Maybe he was confused by what had happened, but he wasnt too confused to play a final trick. He turned towards Xena and made a gesture. Again, a flash of energy surrounded her, and when it faded she was restored. Then Ares immediately vanished in a flash of his own, and I could have sworn I heard the echo of his laughter. Of course he left Mavican's cadaver.
I looked at Xena, familiar as my own body. She was examining herself again, but more superficially this time. Then she looked up and saw me. I looked back into her eyes, the eyes I loved, but now they were cold. There was a harshness in her features I had only seen on a couple occasions when her darkness had slipped out. Now she reveled in it and was comfortable with it. It was her way, and she seemed to have never known any other. Ares had restored Xena alright. Hed restored Xena the warlord, Destroyer of Nations, Lion of Amphipolis, cruel, murderous, heartless, and pathologically ambitious. Hed restored the evil Xena I had never known.
She regarded me like a prey animal, and all she saw in return was my seething and limitless anger. I felt the sword rising on its own, challenging her. Xena moved towards me; stalked might have been a better term. A few paces away she drew her sword.
"Amazons," she said it like a challenge, "what do we do with Amazons?"
She leapt towards me swinging her sword in a wide forehand arc. I was definitely in no mood for this. I returned her stroke with the katana, shearing the blade from her sword and leaving her holding the hilt. She glanced at it in amazement before disdainfully tossing it aside, a wicked smile blooming on her face. It was obvious that she wanted my blade, and she was confident enough that she thought she could take it.
I had backed off several paces, fighting the bloodlust that possessed me. Xena strode towards me, trusting her reflexes to evade any kind of attack I could make. She didn't seem to recognize the katana from Japa, but it didn't matter. What was important was that she had no knowledge of me, our years together, or the years following her death. She was at a distinct disadvantage here. I let her advance.
When Xena was two paces away she attacked, trying to kick the katana from my hand, and slam her palm into my face at the same time to distract me. She had no idea how fast I could move, or that I had observed her for six years. I shifted my body to the side, her palm strike only brushing my hair, while I slammed the back edge of the katana across her shin. As she withdrew her foot I read the momentary flash of pain on her face. I whipped the katana across her other shin, again using the back edge of the blade. The pain in her shins hobbled her. Then I lunged at her, the katana thirsting for her blood.
My stance shifted forward and at the last moment I turned my wrists. The steel kashira at the butt end of the hilt slammed fist deep into her abdomen, knocking the wind out of her with an audible "ooomph". I snapped my wrists upwards, striking her under the chin with both fists wrapped around the hilt, dazing her. Finally I drove a hook punch into her temple, and she dropped. For a moment Xena tried to lift herself, and then she collapsed, losing consciousness.
"Take her." I commanded my Amazons. "Strip her and bind her in the meeting hall with every piece of rope in the village. She'll kill you all if she escapes, just as she did with your sisters in the north."
I reached down and snatched the breast dagger from her cleavage, and also removed the small daggers she carried in her boots. The Amazons hastened to follow my orders, binding Xena's wrists and ankles with bowstrings until they could reach the village. They lifted her and began carrying her off.
"Try to treat Xena gently, but be on your guard, she's not the Xena you know." I shouted after them, adding, "And I want warriors from the village to remove Mavican's remains."
I sheathed my sword and rearmed myself, but I didn't follow them back to the village. Instead, I walked to the far end of the practice field where the vortex had appeared. I found a large rock, next to the stream that ran past the village, and I sat down to think. The morning's events had left me dazed, and finally the feelings were beginning to catch up with me. Almost nothing had gone like I had thought it would when I had walked down the path to the practice field, to meet my soulmate. The whole bizarre collage of unexpected incidents, piled one atop the next, had exploded so quickly that I'd been carried along by inertia.
I had confirmed what I had begun to suspect; that I could outfight Xena. Then Ares had butted in, and I'd been all too eager to trick him into returning Xena to her body. I had intended to become his Favorite, like I had been the Amazon queen. Mostly absent and off doing what I wanted. I would spend most of my time working to counteract what he demanded I do during the times when I served him. I had agreed to his challenge, and I had viciously slain Mavican. Then Ares had tricked me by restoring the evil Xena, ensuring our separation. And I had defeated her almost effortlessly. It seemed that the spirit in the sword had enhanced my abilities to the point of near invincibility. Not even a god was safe from its bloodlust. I began to appreciate just how powerful a spirit it was.
I pondered the sword. Its bloodthirsty spirit had spoken to me. Though I had started out resisting its influence, somewhere inside I had listened. There was no doubt in my mind that the sword had both a physical and a spiritual presence. How else could it slay both mortal enemies and the evil spirit Yodoshi, while in the hands of my soulmate's ghost?
Xena had said these swords carried the soul of a warrior within them. Yet a soul was built and altered by what it touched. In hundreds of years of war, surely this sword's soul had witnessed all the darkness of many lifetimes. It had been touched by Yodoshi's dying spirit and the unrepentant Xena as well. It had long resided with the betrayer, Akemi. It had become the most perfect instrument for killing, not even respecting divine blood. Most terrifying of all was how hard I'd had to resist the impulse to slaughter my own soulmate.
I drew the blade and held it, and again the spirit within the steel spoke to me. In its forging it had consumed the heart of the elderly smith, for he had given it the love of his craft. But the katana, or swords, of Japa were created in pairs, the daito, or long sword, and its matching tanto, the dagger. The smith had not lived to forge the katana's companion. No living smith could have attained to the lost smith's mastery, and none had even attempted forging another blade from the celestial ore of Hakimon Temple. The soul of my sword had never known its mate. Alone for over three hundred years, it had turned to the only purpose it knew, bloodshed and destiny. For a human soul, enduring such loneliness would have been unimaginable.
A part of me wanted nothing more than to destroy it, but for the present, I realized that I had to keep the sword. With the evil Xena nearby, I had no choice. It was my duty to guard the Amazon Nation from her predations. Would my duty as an Amazon queen force me to spill her blood? Would a conflict of love and loyalty trap me as it had trapped Akemi? And afterwards, would I follow the soul of the sword, and become a Destroyer of Nations?
Worse yet was the possibility that Xena would somehow escape with the sword. With it she could become the Conqueror, empress of the known world. In many ways, Xena and the katana were a good match, both driven by a dark destiny, willing to shed blood, and living for their purpose without love. They would certainly embrace each other, and civilization would tremble. She would become an invincible evil that not even a god would be able to control.
By Hades corpse breath, Ares couldn't even control me. I had threatened the God of War, and he had feared me. With the katana I could assault the gods. The Dragon of Protection could preserve me against their fireballs. Even without the chakram, I could probably kill them faster then Xena had during the Twilight. Unlike Xena, I was protecting no child. I seemed afflicted by ambition, as Xena had been, but I didn't need Ares for my plans, and I could kill him if he got in my way. Ares must have been terrified. His past history with me was nothing like what he had once shared with Xena. I had always opposed him, and lately I had outwitted him. The thought of me allied with my lover against him must have been a nightmare to the God of War, and so he had separated us. It was a brilliant tactic, but the strategy would backfire on him.
I knew this Xena's heart. She wasn't ready to change her ways. That was years in her future. Without her own desire to change, even Hercules wouldn't be able to help. I wouldn't be able to reform her, but I might let her think I was willing to try. I'd seen the vestiges of Xena's darkness for six years, and she had told me her history. I knew how to use her against Ares, and I knew what I wanted from him. I began to formulate a plan.
I sat for a long time on that rock, worrying my plots and examining the possibilities, while the stream's musical whispers and the songs of birds went unnoticed. Eventually it was my hunger that brought me back to the world, my stomach grumbling in protest at my neglect. The positions of the shadows told me I had been sitting for over a candle mark, but my legs held no stiffness. It was just another of the many changes in the "new and improved" Gabrielle. Before I resheathed the katana, I made it an offer it couldn't refuse the soul of a god, slain by its edge in battle. In return, peacetime would bring me peace.
I walked back across the practice field, noticing Mavican's corpse had been removed. At the time I wasn't concerned by my lack of remorse. I remember assigning that feeling to the list of indulgences I couldn't afford, and I inscribed her name below Varia's. The path back to the village was deserted and peaceful. I hastened along, hoping some of the stew I'd smelled earlier was still available.
A surprise awaited me upon entering the village. No, they hadn't managed to remove all the dead soldiers. As I came out of the trees, I saw all the warriors lined up, with Cyane at their head. When they saw me they dropped to one knee, saluting with their forearms crossed over their chests. A chorus of, "My Queen", breaking the stillness. This was going to take some getting used to. I returned the salute.
"Please, all of you, continue with your duties," I told them, "and uhhh, thanks."
They started to move off, eyeing me surreptitiously, as they tried to find things to do. I knew I'd have to talk with them at some point, before the rumors and gossip ran completely out of control. From our first meeting, I'd perplexed or astounded these warriors, and I suspected I was upsetting them.
In the meantime, I needed to speak with Cyane, and I motioned her over. As she approached, I noticed some changes in the village. There were no pennants or flags flying, and all the clotheslines were gone. Cyane was subdued, no longer laughing.
"Cyane, I guess you've heard what happened this morning?"
"My queen, it was reported that you twice defeated Xena, and bested the champion of the God of War." She replied, shifting nervously as she stood before me.
"Uhhh, yeah." I agreed, "But there's more. We need to talk. By the way, is there any food left?"
"Of course, my queen." Cyane said. "You will be served in the royal chambers."
"A bowl of stew in the mess hall would be fine," I told her with a smile, trying to put her at ease.
"By your command, my queen," Cyane said. Her deference was beginning to grate on my nerves.
"I think we can dispense with the formality, Cyane. I'm still Gabrielle, you know."
She scrutinized me, as if she wasn't convinced. Obviously she knew I was supposedly the God of War's Favorite. I sighed, preferring to be regarded as a friend.
"Look," I told her, "yes, I defeated Xena and Mavican, but Ares tricked me and restored Xena as the old Xena the evil Xena from before I met her. Now I have to find a way to control her until I can get Ares to change her back. I need your help. I need everyone's help."
"Of course, Gabrielle. Just tell us what you want us to do. You 're our queen."
The irony wasn't lost on me. I had returned to the Amazon Nation, hoping to find a clue on how to resurrect Xena. Within two days I had fulfilled my goal, usurped the position of queen, defeated our enemies, and become Ares' Favorite. It was horrible.
"Well, first I need to eat, and I'll tell you what I have in mind. Then I need to talk to Xena."
The stew was delicious, and eating three bowls of it helped convince Cyane that I was still Gabrielle. It didn't stop her from sitting and shaking her head in disbelief as I outlined my plan. She would have to learn fast, especially about how to deal with gods, if I was ever to leave her in charge of the nation. It was still my goal to travel with my soulmate when this crisis was solved. I thought it would be good for her to accompany me when I spoke to Xena, and so she trailed after me when I went to the meeting hall.
The sight that greeted me there was so incredible that I burst out laughing and had to sit down. Tied to a post at the center of the room was my prisoner. She was literally tied with every rope in the village. Xena's head was visible and that was all. Her body was entirely encased in ropes, to a thickness of three feet she was at the center of a five-and-a-half-foot ball of string. Now I understood the absence of clotheslines and pennants. I'd never seen Xena so mad. Even Cyane was laughing.
"We followed your orders to the letter, my queen." She reported, giggling.
"So I see. Commend the warriors for their service to the nation's security." I managed to say, before giving in to another fit of laughter.
"You think this is so funny?" Xena hissed, "You just wait till I get out of here. I'll kill you all."
"Then you will never 'get out of here'," I told her, "because I am certainly not going to allow you to kill any of us. The only reason you're alive at all is because I think you might be useful in helping me kill the gods and rule the world."
The shock on her face was priceless.
"You're bluffing." She spat. "Amazons have no desire for conquest. You only defend your own lands against invaders."
Instead of answering her I smiled, and called on my patron god.
"Ares," I yelled, "your Favorite calls for the presence of her god."
He appeared in a flash on the far side of the room, well out of my range, I noticed, and he stared at Xena before cracking up. Xena didn't fail to notice the wide berth he gave me, raising an eyebrow as she realized he was actually staying out of weapons range.
"Well, Xena, that's very becoming. Guess you let ol' Gabby get the drop on you, huh?"
"What do you mean?" Xena yelled. "I don't know her. And I'm your Chosen. What are you doing answering a summons from an Amazon? They're Artemis' people."
"Xena, things have changed a lot while you've been away. Gabrielle's my Chosen now, and Artemis has been dead for years." Ares informed her. Then, as if he couldn't resist, he added. "Don't go anywhere, Xena." Again he giggled at his own humor.
"That's right, Xena," I added, looking at her as if she were a dimwit, "while you were dead these last couple years, I've become the Warrior Princess, and now I've taken your place. You have no destiny anymore, unless it's in aiding me in my conquests."
Ares almost had an orgasm when he heard that. I turned to face him fully, ignoring Xena for the moment.
"Ares, I think that very soon I'll have a plan completed. Maybe I'll start with Corinth."
I'd said it as a dig at Xena, knowing it was one of her few failed campaigns. A wide smile spread across Ares' face, and I smiled back.
"I called you mainly so you could see that I had no trouble subduing your ex." I told the God of War. "Even at her best she was no match for me. I will give you the victories she could never deliver."
"You're off to an excellent start, Gabrielle," Ares said, "call me when you're ready to attack."
"Ares," Xena called out, sounding desperate, a tactic I was sure, "she'll betray you. She plans to kill the gods and rule the world with her Amazons."
I noticed he hadn't come near me the whole time, and so had Xena. She was trying to estrange us and regain his confidence. How very predictable. I chuckled.
"Xena," I sighed, "even you know better than to waste a resource. What greater resource could there be than the favor of a god? I only kill those who are of no use or have proven themselves untrustworthy. You have far more to worry about than Ares ever will."
That shut her up, but she'd said her peace, and Ares glanced nervously at me before vanishing from the meeting hall.
"You think about my offer," I told her, sounding too much like the God of War for my own comfort, "I'll come back for your answer unless I change my mind after your little outburst, and decide you'd be better off flayed or broken on the wheel."
Cyane and I walked out of the hall and into the sunshine. We got all the way to my hut before bursting out laughing.
"Oh, by Hera's tits, Gabrielle," she giggled, "I can't believe you did that. You played them against each other. Now Ares is thinking twice about everything, and Xena's wondering what she's missed."
"Well, that was the idea, Cyane." I told her happily. "I didn't know if Xena would warn him or not, but he feared that anyway. Yeah, it worked out as well as it could."
"So when are you going to tell Xena the rest?"
"I think she needs some time to think and worry. I'll go talk to her again late tonight. When the guards go to feed her, ask them to whisper a little among themselves about attacking Corinth with firebombs and plague rats oh, and a poisoned water supply."
"Yes, my queen." She said, but this time there was laughter in her eyes.
It was late that night when I finally went back to talk with Xena. As expected, she was alert and couldn't hide her anticipation as I approached. I realized how raw she was, how her later experiences had given her a subtlety she couldn't have mustered at her present stage. Her current arsenal depended on ruthlessness, intimidation, and seduction. It was informative for me to understand just how far she'd come. She wasn't the Xena I had known, but then, I wasn't the Gabrielle she would meet.
"Come to gloat?" She asked, obviously trying to provoke me. It had no purpose unless she thought she might be able to incite me into releasing her and dueling with her.
"Actually, Xena, I've come to tell you some things," I said quietly, "things you've forgotten because of a trick that's been played on us both."
"You're the one playing the tricks here," she claimed, "you'll say anything to get what you want. We're more alike than not, you know. We're both warriors, destined to be conquerors, and we're both killers."
"Actually, Xena, at this point we're nothing alike." I told her sadly. "One day we will be, or rather, once we were."
"That's another thing," she said, trying to hide her interest, "Ares said I'd been away a long time and things had changed. If you're his Favorite and I'm not, then I guess I have to believe him so what's your version?"
I took a deep breath. I had to sound as sincere and convincing as possible. I knew she'd never believe a word I said, and that was acceptable, provided she thought I believed it.
"It's been about thirty-five years since you were the Destroyer of Nations. In those years you turned from evil and sought redemption by serving the Greater Good. It began when you tried to destroy Hercules and failed. You became a hero. We traveled together for six years. You have a grown daughter named Eve. You died in Japa, east of Chin, and I had managed to restore you to life, but in a different body. Ares restored you to your own body, but at an earlier age. You have no memory of your more recent past. You don't even know me."
At first she stared at me like I was insane. Then she began to chuckle. Finally she was laughing hysterically. I walked over to her and stroked her cheek and for a moment she held her breath.
"Were we lovers?" She asked, looking into my eyes, seeking an advantage.
"Yes, and so much more." I whispered, as a tear slid down my cheek. I turned away from her and walked out of the meeting hall. Behind me she was silent.
That night I slept fitfully, waking often, and plagued by dreams of bloodshed. I was more alone than I'd been with Xena's ghost, and I was wracked with doubts. In trying to resurrect Xena, I had begun a slide down into darkness. The changes that had begun slowly over the years, as I'd become ever more a warrior, had accelerated pell-mell with the influence of the soul of the sword. Now I'd lost the best part of my soulmate. I'd traded the spirit I loved in a new body, for the body I loved with a soul I could only pity. I had killed twice, once without even knowing it, and a second time for the sake of a contest. On top of that, I had accepted the position of Ares' Favorite. If this were what it meant to make one's own fate, then I'd have been better off with the loom still unburned. Or better still, living the life of a simple village girl in Potidaea. At least then, my heart would still have been my own, even if no one appreciated it.
Finally I got out of bed and dressed. I slipped out of my hut, and into the silent village. At first I wandered aimlessly, lost in thought. Then my senses were drawn by a disturbance. I stilled myself and followed my inner vision to the meeting hall. Within the room I could hear faint sounds. It was Xena, and she was up to something. In perfect silence I entered the hall, passing the guards unnoticed and entering the main chamber.
Xena had managed to pull the post she was tied to out of the floor, even though it had been sunken four feet into the dirt. I was amazed. The ropes alone must have weighed over a hundred pounds. She was on her side, unsteadily rolling towards the table that held her weapons and clothes. I guessed she hoped to knock a blade to the floor and use her teeth to cut through the ropes. I just shook my head. She was still Xena, even if she was the evil Xena.
I walked back to the guards.
"You two. Come with me." I said sternly, watching them jump when I spoke from behind them. They followed me into the chamber with torches, and saw the escape attempt in progress. I had to give Xena credit. She already had a dagger in her teeth and she was sawing at her bonds. It hadn't taken her long.
"Did you really think you could escape?" I asked her, and at first she only laughed.
"After what you told me, I realized you're either insane or more manipulative than I am. Probably both. Either way I could only lose by staying here, so I had to try to escape. You're a lunatic. You and all your people are going to die if you try to take Corinth. You don't have nearly enough soldiers for that. I know because I tried. Besides, I figure Ares will get rid of you soon enough anyway."
"Gag her," I commanded, "and hang her from the ceiling with three side lines so she can't swing."
"Yes, my queen." The contrite guards responded, saluting nervously. Xena just started laughing as I left.
This was no good. In spite of my knowledge of Xena, some every hopeful part of me had wanted to reach her when I told her of our past. I'd had a subconscious motive. She had no ulterior motive with me, except maybe to kill me and take the sword. Her old words, "trust no one", were still her guiding wisdom. Furthermore, I needed her to distrust me, and I couldn't afford to indulge my sentimentality. I had to stick to the plan.
I wanted her back, and I could think of only one way. I waited for the morning, thinking it through again and again. In the end I had to believe my plan would work. The groundwork was laid, the pieces were on the board, and the only one missing would be provided by Ares. I knew what a threat that piece was, and I knew I could kill her. I could even see it serving the Greater Good. Just before dawn I finally slept.
Like the day before, I awoke alone. For a moment I didn't recall the past day's events. I would get up and find Xena, in Varia's body, in the mess hall having breakfast, or maybe on the practice field sparring with the warriors. Then it all came back to me, and I dreaded the sunlight sneaking through the window screens and what the day would bring.
Poor Xena, I thought. After all her efforts at atonement, she was back to her dark self. That bastard Ares had set her up, to undo all the good she'd achieved, if she ever got free. If she escaped now and somehow later reformed, the added burden of guilt could cripple her. The idea of Xena trying to face a second roster of evil deeds, when she wouldn't forgive herself for her original darkness I couldn't even consider it.
I thought about how much different she was, and I thought about her words. I actually was more manipulative than Xena was, at least as she was then. As I was now. And why was I like this? I understood that the sword influenced me when I used it. The emotional coldness, the slowing of time, and the flawless sword technique, all these came from associating with its spirit. There was a more subtle effect as well. The soul in the sword seemed to be driving me towards a destiny as a conqueror.
But there were other changes in me that had nothing to do with the sword. The mental focus, the night vision, the reflexes, the tactics, and the fighting hand to hand were all new. Even my lack of seasickness had to have a cause. I knew the dragon tattoo had protected me from Yodoshi's attack, and Xena's lessons had taught me to extend my senses. Still, there had to be another reason. I was a much better warrior, more decisive and confident, quicker, and much stronger. I was stronger in mind, body, and will.
Only one source I had encountered could increase strength. The Fountain of Strength. I replayed my memories of that time, and realized I had swallowed its water. I had swallowed more of it when Yodoshi hit me than I had delivered to Xena in my kiss.
So there were three influences that had changed me. The dragon protected me, the water gave me prowess, but it was the sword that made me a killer. It was the only one of the three with its own desire to conquer. It had used many warriors in the past, and now it sought to use me. If I attacked Corinth, or any other city, I would somehow prevail, for I shared the sword's destiny. It was a gut feeling, but I knew it was true. Now I had no doubts that my plan would succeed. I would conquer on this day. It was my destiny.
I forced myself up, splashing my face with water, then dressing and arming myself. I went to the mess hall and ladled gruel out of a caldron, consuming the tasteless mass without enthusiasm. By nightfall, I promised myself, Xena and I would share a long bath and an overdue chat. I wanted her help in defeating the enemy who would follow Ares.
In the center of the village I found Cyane with several warriors, and I brought them with me to the meeting hall. I ordered them to lower Xena and put her on a cart. She was to be delivered to the practice field.
"Leave the gag on," I told them, "I don't want to hear anything she has to say."
I stalked out, leaving Xena to assume whatever she would. Probably that she was to be executed shortly. That could be useful. When I got outside I rounded up all the other Amazons and told them that I was taking Xena to the practice field. I would send back the warriors who would drag the cart with Xena in it. If anyone else besides me came back up that path, they were to flee for their lives. I commanded them to obey or I would execute them myself. An empty threat if I wasn't the one who returned.
In a quarter candle mark the cart with Xena in it, still gagged and bound in the ball of rope, was ready to move. I told Cyane what I had told the others, and left her in charge, wishing her luck if the worst came to pass. Then I chose six warriors to pull the cart, and we headed down the path to the practice field.
The wheels creaked on the hardened dirt, lending an ominous atmosphere to our grim procession. The mood contrasted with the pleasant day. A breeze rustled the leaves in the trees above us, competing in our ears with the calling of birds. The sun was warm but the air wasn't hot. Such a lovely day for a blood bath, as someone I once knew had said. Too soon, it seemed, we arrived at the field, and I had the warriors park the cart at the trailhead and set chocks against the wheels. Then I bade them return to the village.
I waited long after I could no longer hear their footsteps, surveying the field and settling my mind. I ignored the muffled protests Xena made through her gag. I did my best to put her out of my mind entirely. When I felt as ready as I would ever be, I called on my patron god.
"Ares, God of War, your Favorite calls for your presence."
He appeared almost immediately, still a safe distance away.
"Gabrielle, why are you calling me?" He asked, while examining Xena and the cart.
"Ares," I said calmly, "I have a proposition for you."
"What do you mean, Gabrielle?"
"I suggest another challenge, double or nothing."
"I guess I'm not following you," he admitted, squinting slightly and furrowing his brow. Behind us Xena tried to talk through her gag. We both turned towards her.
"Xena," I asked, for Ares' benefit, "will you ally yourself with me in my conquests?"
She furiously shook her head "no", still urgently trying to speak.
"She's useless to me, Ares." I told him, shaking my head. "In fact, I have less than no use for her as she is." I could see he understood my position. She was a snake I could neither keep nor set free.
"I propose that you choose another champion to contest with me for higher stakes. If your champion wins, then they'll become your Chosen warrior. Of course, I'll be dead if I lose. Otherwise, I'll have to kill Xena as a threat to me, even though she could still be of value to you. The other side of the coin is, if you agree to this contest, I will never seek to threaten your power." I drew the katana as I said the last, making sure the sun reflected off the blade and into his eyes. Before I let the reflection shift away, I was standing only three feet in front him, and I saw him gulp.
"And if you win?" He asked, maintaining his composure.
"If I defeat your champion, you must change Xena back. I want her in her own body, and I want her soul to be as it was when she lived in Varia's body yesterday."
"That's all?" He asked, laughing. I sensed his laughter was tinged with nervousness.
"No, Ares, actually there is more. I will no longer serve you as Favorite. However, I will also be so filled with gratitude that I will probably never have an interest in seeking your life with this sword."
Superficially, I had told him that whether or not he agreed to the contest I would not try to kill him, but if I won I would have a real reason for not seeking his death. As devious as Ares was, I knew he would always doubt my promise not to seek his death if he didn't agree to the contest, and left me alive as his Favorite. I expected that if I lost both Xena and I would be dead, for his champion would never spare her. I had to win. He would gain something whether I won or lost.
"You know I won't choose anyone as easy to defeat as Mavican?" He warned me.
"Ares, I don't even care if you choose a god."
Silence surrounded us as he digested my words, and slowly a smile grew on his face.
"Agreed, Gabrielle, double or nothing. In a quarter candle mark I will return with my champion." Ares declared before vanishing.
The echoes of his laughter faded and I walked back to where Xena waited in the cart. I reached up and removed her gag. At first she sputtered, spitting out a few fibers, and restoring the moisture to her lips.
"You're insane," she accused vehemently, "no doubt about it, you've signed our death warrants. I can only hope you lose."
"You haven't seen the enemy," I calmly told her, "and believe me, she hates you way more than I do. You'd better pray I win, or you'll really get to deal with crazy."
"Another enemy I don't remember making, huh?" Xena asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Well, Xena," I said, looking at her tied up, "I guess all you can do is yell out a warning if it seems appropriate. Although at best you may only have a chance at helping decide who kills you later."
"You really believe all that stuff you were spouting last night, don't you?" She asked, a pitying look on her face.
"Yes, I do and so does Ares."
I walked away from her and started stretching and loosening up. Unless I missed my guess, Ares would be back shortly, and there would be an immediate attack. I would have been very surprised if he chose anyone but a god. They all hated me, with the exception of Aphrodite, but there was one who bore me the bitterest hatred. I was sure Ares would choose wisely.
The God of War returned right on time, appearing twenty feet away with his characteristic flash. I leaped into motion as soon as I saw him materialize. His champion announced her presence with a pair of explosions, which shattered the ground right where I had been standing, raining Xena with clods of dirt. Disembodied laughter filled the air, conveying the dementia it was born of. It was followed by a powerful, hate filled voice.
"Gabrielle! After all these years I'm free to hunt you down again. Ares explained some of the changes to me. Artemis is dead, Xena won't defend you, and the Amazons are all but destroyed. Soon I will kill you, and I'll have everything I wanted."
I hadn't stopped moving the whole time. It was a good thing too, because as soon as she shut up the explosions resumed, tracking me across the field. I yelled back at her as I ran.
"For a goddess you really make no sense at all, Valesca. You want to kill me because I was named queen of the Amazons instead of you, but you don't want to rule the Amazons. You hated Artemis because you say she abandoned the Amazons, but you want to destroy them. Now you won't even show yourself, you coward. You're a mess!"
The explosions stopped. A couple seconds later she appeared in the center of the field, about thirty feet ahead of me. Who said gods are smart? I had baited her into giving me a physical target I could attack.
My sense of time slowed as I drew the katana. Its spirit spoke to me and I listened, for the stakes were high. She raised her hand to direct a lighting bolt at me. I swerved to my right, watching as her hand tracked me in slow motion. I saw the bolt emerge from her fingertips, jumping towards me. I leaped to the left, and as I rolled away I heard it raking the ground behind me. She really was an idiot. Those lighting bolts were much easier to dodge than one of Ares' fireballs would have been. Their pathway was visible from the moment they left her fingers. I think they required more of her energy too, tiring her faster as well. All the older gods threw fireballs, including the minor ones like Strife and Discord. Even one of Nemesis' arrows would have been tougher to evade.
Valesca continued to throw lighting bolts at me, and I continued to dodge them. Though my serpentine course increased the distance, I was closing on her. In my hands the sword called for her blood. I was watching her movements slow even more. She was so consumed by her desire to hit me that she didn't even question how I could move so fast. Yes, she really was an idiot. Divinity was wasted on her. Thank the gods she'd never become queen of the Amazons. I had closed to twelve feet when she finally managed to clip me.
I had ducked under one of her lightning bolts, but a spidery branch caught my left shoulder. The impact was like being struck by a strong wave. It knocked me off balance and I had to recover into a shoulder roll. I could feel the dragon blazing with light on my back and calf. There would be no denying my destiny. When I regained my footing I was only six feet away from her, forcing her to step back and draw her sword. For the first time, a look of doubt crossed her features. She was so easy to read.
Valesca's sword had hardly cleared its sheath when I forced her to defend against a quick stroke from the side. She barely managed to stop my blade, and a stronger stroke would probably have sheared it off. I pressed the attack, striking at her from above and both sides, watching her grimace with the concentration of matching me stroke for stroke.
"I can keep this up all day, Gabrielle," she bragged, "how long can you?"
"Long enough to kill you, Valesca." I told her.
"I'm a goddess, Gabrielle. You can't hurt me with a sword."
Obviously Ares hadn't told her everything. Somehow I didn't think his omission was purely for my benefit. I don't think he liked Valesca either. She was a nutcase, had no loyalty to the other surviving gods, and she wasn't family. She was a mistake.
She swung her sword in a horizontal arc at my head, her first real attack. I ducked below her blade and slashed her legs just above the knees. Her shriek of pain was one of the most gratifying sounds I could imagine. Now my sword had tasted her blood. She staggered away and I followed, keeping the pressure on her with a rain of blows.
"How can you cut me?" She screamed, her voice revealing shock and fear. "Have you become a goddess?"
"I'm going to make order out of chaos, Valesca," I told her, mocking her self-given title, "my order." I hadn't answered her question. Every doubt I could foster within her was to my advantage.
She was still shaken by the wounds I had given her, and my claim was the final distraction. It broke her concentration and led to her defeat. Before her doubt could change to anger, I attacked her as fast as I could, the katana almost invisible with its speed. She quickly became confused. My blade sliced deeply into her left upper arm, causing her to jerk away by reflex. Now she was out of position and I sliced her belly, not quite deeply enough to spill her entrails. I saw her stance and guard opening, her sword arm extended from her body.
"Disarm her", I heard the sword command.
I whipped the katana from right to left and watched as her forearm, still holding her sword, fell to the dirt.
"Now join me in our destiny, my warrior", the presence within me spoke.
Without hesitation I reversed the blade's direction, and cleaved her head from her neck.
The ground began to shake, and a rumble like distant thunder shook the air. Her corpse began to crumble to dust; the resulting motes incandesced as they rose into the sky. Then for the last time I heard her disembodied voice, a bloodcurdling scream of hatred, pain, and defeat. It reverberated, and then it was gone. The spirit in the sword had claimed a great victory, and the world returned to its normal speed.
I walked back across the field, returning to where Xena lay captive in the cart. Having just watched me kill a goddess, she was silent. I could see her calculating, wondering if it would be worth joining me after all.
Ares was waiting several yards away, nervously shifting from one foot to the other. He was eyeing me with a mixture of admiration, uncertainty, and fear. It was bizarre to watch the emotions parade across his face. I approached him only after I had recovered my scabbard and sheathed the katana. It was a relief to feel its influence fade, even a little, as I slung it on my back. For a while we just stared at each other. Finally I spoke softly, the words meant for his ears alone.
"Ares, thanks for not telling Valesca the secret of the katana."
He looked at me and finally let a smile cross his face. When he spoke it was only for me to hear.
"Gabrielle, Valesca called herself the Goddess of Chaos. You know I have always sought to create order true, we've differed on the approach to that goal, but chaos? Really, who would want that?"
"So I guess you're willing to change Xena back, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. You see, Gabrielle, a world with you and Xena in it is a much more interesting world than it could ever be without you. Yes, I'll honor the terms of our contest."
For a moment we regarded each other, having reached a kind of understanding, but there was still something else I had to ask.
"Ares, did you agree to my challenge because I told you I'd have to kill Xena if she remained evil?"
He didn't answer me. But he did wink. Then he made a gesture towards the ball of rope that held my soulmate. I saw her enveloped in a flash. Before it faded, he was gone.
"Gabrielle, what in Tartarus am I doing in all these ropes?" Xena yelled at me, unmistakably irked by her situation. I couldn't help but giggle at the expression on her face. As I looked at her, my Xena in her own body, I felt a presence inside me, but this one was warm, familiar, and welcome. The soul of the sword would have deadly competition for the soul of its warrior and the achievement of its destiny.
"It's a long story, Xena, and I promise I'll tell you all about it, but first, let me get you out of there. I like you much better in leather."
Finally she smiled at me. "A long story, huh? Well, aren't they all."
"Yeah, seems like it, but at least this one will have a happy ending which reminds me, back at the village I have a present for you."
Epilogue: "When we'd returned to the village that first day, the Amazons followed my last order and started to flee. I'd made the mistake of falling behind Xena on the path, and they saw her first. I had to chase them down and explain everything. It helped to be quicker and stronger. Later, I gave Xena my ring the one with the s-curve in the center, which I had inherited from her in Japa. I don't miss it, I tell myself, uhhh, really, I don't.
According to our deal, in trade for the blood and soul of a goddess, the sword had allowed me to renounce its influences in peacetime. Xena wanted her Gabrielle back, so I stopped wearing the katana. Though I was never the same as before Japa, I lost that sense of destiny, the cold bloodedness, and the supernatural deadliness. If anything, I was a better version of myself. Of course, we spent long periods debating how to rid the world of the threat of the sword. She helped me planning the defeat of that enemy, the powerful and obsessed spirit within the katana.
Our greatest fear was that somehow Ares would come to possess it. The fruits of such an allegiance would be a world forever consumed in slaughter, for it would use and then dispose of the God of War. The soul of the sword sought no order, only conquest and bloodshed. It was committed to a violent destiny unfettered by human hands, foretold in an ancient legend of Japa. But its destiny had brought it to us, and the occidental mind was an unfamiliar wild card in its history. In over three hundred years, no warrior had ever sought to lay it aside before. As its influence faded over the first days and weeks, I felt other concerns more strongly.
One scar I shall always carry is the death of Varia, which occurred unknowingly at my hands. Because of the unusual circumstances, her soul entered our spirit realm, but her body was never officially honored with a pyre. Unlike the time I accidentally killed Korah, I was in no hurry to confess my crime. Been there, done that. I was the queen now, and the nation needed me more than it needed another sad and upsetting revelation. What I could do in Varia's memory was to rule the Amazons with all my heart and soul. There is one other thing I do in her memory. Each year so far, and perhaps for the rest of my life, I go at night to a clearing in the woods, two candle marks south of the village. There, on a certain night, I light a memorial pyre. As before, Xena stands by watching, honoring the fallen queen with the presence of her body.
It's been three years since I won my Xena back, body and soul. My heart has found its permanent home. Together we can look at the recovering Amazon Nation with pride; pride akin to any of our greatest achievements. The thousand dinars I had brought back from Alexandria helped in the rebuilding, as did Xena's "many skills".
With the return of the civilians, and the addition of many new sisters who have joined our ranks, the village is becoming populous again. We have enjoyed three years of peace, a welcome respite from the constant battles of the three years before. After the defeat of Apollo's army, and the return of Xena, it was almost as if the fate of the nation took a turn for the better. It seemed as if we were under the patronage of a god again. As expected, he's never answered our questions on the matter with anything more than a smile or a wink. Still, it would be in the interest of the God of War to assist in the restoration of a nation of warriors, for sooner or later there would be war. And of course, his prodigal Favorite, Xena, lives here now.
The nation has become our home, such as we have, for we still find a need to travel together as the seasons turn. At those times Cyane rules alone, rather than as my counterpart in our joint rule. She is increasingly self-confident and capable. We have also noticed and encouraged several younger Amazons who have shown drive and leadership potential. In my dreams I have seen many chairs at the council of queens. One day they shall rule a strong Amazon nation.
I mentioned the need Xena and I have for travel. Together we conduct much of the nation's business with the outside world. But there is another reason we travel. It was our way for many years, and it is still in our blood.
Finally, after many debates, we took a trip to visit Virgil. We'd decided that we needed his skills. He was still smithing and writing his epic poems, and becoming a hero in his own right. Being a hero, he was willing to aid us. Together we called for Aphrodite, and with her assistance, we entered the forge of her late husband. Within his sacred furnace, Virgil heated and shaped the steel I had brought. Though he didn't literally make us a plow, he did disperse a spirit of war. Now our horses will never wear out a shoe, for they are forged from the celestial ore of Hakimon Temple."
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