The young man placed a wet cloth on the old priest's head. He smiled weakly in return.

"Thank you, my son."

The young man returned the smile.

"No thanks needed. Get some sleep."

He turned to Asima, who stood at his right.

"Let's go."

Asima nodded. They left the room. Xena and Gabrielle waited outside.

"He'll be all right Ayman." said Xena. "Don't worry."

The young man sighed. He sat down in a chair, shaking his head.

"I-I just don't understand...Bashshar is one of the gentlest, most loving people I've ever known! Why would they do this to him?!"

"Power." Xena said flatly. Her eyes were cold. "Lepidus will do whatever's needed to get what he wants. And if there's any way he can take out Octavian, he'll use it."

Xena rolled her tongue in her mouth. Her eyes narrowed in thought.

"Since Bashshar doesn't know the whereabouts of the Chalice, I'll have to find out some other way..."

"Any guess where the chalice would be, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.

"Well, according to the story I know, a rival of Ptolemy the Thirteenth and Cleopatra was going to use the Chalice of Sekhmet against them. But Ptolemy's cousin got his hands on the Chalice and fled Egypt, in order to save Ptolemy, Cleopatra and the Egyptian people. My understanding was that he disappeared somewhere outside the kingdom of Axum."

Xena turned and walked over to the door. She looked outside.

"And with him disappeared the Chalice. Neither was ever found."

A moment of silence. Xena turned to Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle, come with me. Let's go into town and see about getting extra supplies. Plus we've got to find out about the Chalice's whereabouts."


Xena turned to Asima and Ayman.

"We'll be back in a bit."

Asima nodded.

"Okay, Xena."

Xena and Gabrielle walked over to a large crowd of people. In the middle of it stood a man, who was extremely upset. His eyes scanned the crowd of men and women before him.

"First, our priest Bashshar is beaten up, and now another of our priests has been kidnapped!! The Romans have gone too far!! We must demand justice!!"

The crowd shouted out their approval.



Xena and Gabrielle pushed through the crowd, exiting the front of it. Xena approached the man.

"What do you mean a priest has been kidnapped??"

"It happened earlier today. Not long after you brought back Bashshar, we've learned that another of our priests, Anwar, had been kidnapped. A disciple traveling with him made it back to the village, badly wounded. They had been attacked by several men. It's a miracle he survived the attack."

Xena's eyes narrowed. She drew closer to the man.

"Take me to him."

The man led Xena and Gabrielle down the street, towards a hut. They entered it. A woman inside it turned to the man.

"Who are these people?!" she asked, somewhat annoyed. "I have to tend to Duqaq!!"

"These are the people who rescued Bashshar. They wish to speak to Duqaq about the attack."

The woman shook her head.

"I don't know. He's very weak-"

"Please." asked Xena. "We have to. It's extremely important. The lives of many people depend on it."

The woman paused for a moment.

"All right. Follow me."

They followed the woman into another room. On the bed before them lay a young man. He had been severely beaten. Bandages were wrapped around his mid-section. They were dark-red with blood. Xena approached the young man, and knelt down beside him.

"Duqaq..." she said softly. "Duqaq, can you hear me?"

The young man groaned. He turned towards Xena.

"W-W-Who are you...?"

Xena smiled.

"A friend. I want to know who attacked you, and where."

The young man let out a pained sigh.

"T-They...they were not from around here...Their dress, their appearance..."

"What do you mean?" asked Xena. "Were they Romans?"

"N-No. T-T-They all wore their hair tied in the back of their heads....T-They had-had slanted eyes....T-They carried long swords...T-T-Their dress...I-I've never seen it anywhere before...T-They asked-asked about the-t-the Chalice of Sekhmet...W-We didn't know where it-it was....They then beat us...One of them stabbed me, t-then they took A-Anwar..."

Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. Xena then turned back to the young man.

"Where did they attack you, Duqaq?"

"A-About a-an-hour west of here..."

Xena nodded.

"Thank you Duqaq. Rest now."

She got to her feet. Xena turned to the man and woman.

"Thank you."

She then turned to Gabrielle.

"Let's go."

Xena and Gabrielle left the room, and then the hut. Xena growled in frustration. Gabrielle turned towards her.

"What is it?"

"We've got a new player in town."

Gabrielle grimaced.

"Great...."she muttered in disgust. "That's all we need."

"C'mon. Let's get some supplies. We've got to head out after these new attackers."

"M-My lord, Lepidus-t-this woman was too powerful!! She's like nothing I've ever seen!! She and her companion were incredible fighters!!"

Lepidus rose from his seat. His gray eyes narrowed.

"Describe this woman and her companion to me, Marius."

"The woman...she was tall. Long black hair, ice-blue eyes. Dressed in leather-"

"Xena...." Lepidus growled.

He drew a knife. With a loud, angry cry, he threw it. It barely missed Marius's head, burrowing into a wooden support pole behind him. Marius's face drained of color.

"...gods..." he gasped.

Lepidus paced back and forth, his brows knitted in anger and concentration. A few moments of tense silence passed. He grimaced, shaking his head.

"Huh...and Caesar claimed he crucified them...what a crock...."

He turned to Marius.

"Leave my tent. Wait with the others for further instructions."

Marius saluted his commander. drawing his right fist to his chest. He turned and left. Lepidus turned to the soldier next to him.

"Have Marius and those four other dogs executed. I will not tolerate failure among my men."

The soldier saluted Lepidus, then left the tent. Lepidus turned to another soldier.

"So, Clatus. It seems Xena and her companion, Gabrielle, are after the Chalice of Sekhmet as well."

"She's a formidable opponent. What do you suggest, sir?"

Lepidus gazed off in the distance. He growled.

"We do whatever it takes to find that Chalice. I won't have those Greek bitches stop me from claiming what's rightfully mine."

Xena and Gabrielle continued down the long dirt road. Suddenly, Xena's eyes narrowed.

"Hold on."

She released her horse's reins and walked on ahead to a clearing. She stepped into it. The sight that lay before her made her grimace with extreme disgust and anger.

"Gods..." she growled.

"Xena, what is it?"

Gabrielle released her horse's reins and walked over to where Xena stood. Her eyes widened in horror. She let out a sharp gasp.


She turned away abruptly from the gruesome sight before her. The headless body of a man dressed in a black robe lay there on the ground, partially submerged in a huge pool of blood. His head lay off to the side, partially hidden by some grass.

"By...the... gods..." Gabrielle whispered harshly.

Xena lay a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.

"So much for trying to find the priest alive." she said stone-faced, trying to maintain some sense of composure. But her sapphire eyes churned with dark fury. "Let's get out of here."

The two women began to walk back to their horses. Suddenly, Xena stopped in her tracks. Gabrielle turned towards her, frowning.

"Oh no. Not again."

Xena smirked in disgust. She instantly drew her sword.


They spun around. Four men leapt from beyond the trees, landing in front of them. They drew their swords. They all had dark hair and slanted eyes. They each had long swords. Xena snarled at the men.

"Come and get some." she hissed.

The four men let out angry cries, attacking the women.

One lunged at Xena. She somersaulted over his head. As soon as she landed, however, another man surged forward, swinging at her. Xena blocked the blow with her own sword. The first man turned and wasted no time lunging at Xena again. She leapt into the air sideways, slamming both feet into the man's face. He flew through the air, crashing into the ground. The momentum of the kick sent Xena once again flipping through the air. She landed on her feet, and the second man attacked her again. There was a brief, but violent parry. Xena found an opening and lunged at the man. But he quickly dove out of the way, rolling along the ground. Xena spun towards him. The man leapt up from the ground, ramming his foot into Xena's chest. She flew through the air, crashing into the ground. In less than a second, the man was over her, bringing his sword down at her. But Xena blocked the blow, ramming a foot deep into his side. She felt several ribs crack. The man flew back through the air, slamming into the ground. Xena hastily got to her feet.

At that moment she heard a sword cut through the air. Without thinking, she spun to her right and blocked the oncoming sword. At that same instant, Xena felt a foot slam into her side. Pain exploded from it. She flew through the air, crashing into the ground again.

A form-

A form flew at her-

Again, Xena blocked the blow. Again, the savage collision of metal. With a harsh cry, Xena rammed her foot with all her might into the man's groin, then his chest. Spread-eagled, the man flew back through the air, into the ground. Xena rose to her feet again-

And another form flew at her. The second man.

She ducked under the arc of the sword as it swung through its deadly path. Xena had enough. She quickly drew a knife and buried it in the man's side.

A fist-

A fist slammed into her face with brutal force.

Blood exploded from Xena's mouth. She hit the ground harder this time. Stunned, her sapphire eyes looked upward. The human form spun around and thrust its weapon down at her. She rolled to her right, her sword tight against her chest. The enemy's sword buried itself tip-first into the ground. As Xena rolled belly-up she let out a piercing cry, swinging her sword up and to her right. It ripped into the man's belly. Blood and intestines exploded forth. The man let out a gurgled cry and dropped to the ground, dead.

Xena quickly rolled onto her knees, ready. And as she expected, the first man was already rushing at her, sword drawn back. In a sweeping arc, the man swung at her. Xena blocked the blow, the horrific collision of metal echoing through the air. With a savage cry, Xena leapt forward, ramming her left fist into the man's face. His nose snapped, blood exploding from it. He was hurled back through the air, his sword flying out of his hands. He fell to the ground. Xena flew at him.

The man, incredibly, sensed this and lifted his foot into the air. Xena could not stop herself in time. As she collided belly-first with his foot, the man grabbed Xena's hands, flipping her over his head. She landed hard on her back in a cloud of dust. Both combatants rolled over, getting to their feet. With lightning speed, the man whipped out his own fist. It smashed into Xena's face, whipping her head to the left. Blood erupted from her nose. He got in another blow. This one whipped her head to the right. More blood. He thrust out a foot. It connected solidly with Xena's chest. She flew through the air and slammed into the ground. The man wasted no time. He leapt at the fallen form-

And Xena thrust out a foot. It connected solidly with the man's jaw. Blood and several teeth burst from his mouth. He flew off to the side, hitting the ground face first. No sooner did he hit the ground did the man feel a weight on him. Then he felt iron fingers jab the sides of his neck. His eyes dilated in incredible pain. He was rolled onto his back, and he peered into the wild blue eyes of an enraged Warrior Princess. Blood streamed from her nose. Her face was twisted in hideous fury. Letting out an enraged cry, she drew her fist back-

And stopped. Her eyes narrowed into slits.

"Don't... move." she hissed.

Gabrielle ducked the oncoming sword. As it cut past above her, she rammed a foot with punishing force into her attacker's side. She felt and heard some ribs crack. The man flew back into the grass.

Gabrielle turned around-

And another sword came down at her. Fast.

With not even a thought, Gabrielle blocked the blow with her sais. The shock of the violent collision tore through her body. Gabrielle thrust out a foot, burying it in the man's groin. The man's eyes bulged out of his head. She delivered another kick to the chest. The man flew back through the air, slamming into the ground.

Gabrielle heard the rustling of grass behind her-

And she somersaulted backwards into the air, landing behind her attacker. The man wasted not a second. He spun around, swinging his sword at her savagely. Gabrielle leapt back. The man lunged at her. Gabrielle rolled out of the way.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the second man get to his feet. The first man lunged at Gabrielle again. Gabrielle leapt into the air, slamming both feet hard into the man's face. There was a loud crack as his jaw snapped. He sailed back through the air, crashing into the ground. The momentum of the kick sent Gabrielle flying back into a somersault. She landed on her feet and turned-

A form-

A form flew at her-

And Gabrielle leapt into the air again. As the man passed her underneath, Gabrielle whipped out an arm, burying one of her sais in the man's neck. Blood exploded from the wound. He collapsed onto the ground and lay motionless.

Gabrielle landed on her feet-

And another form flew at her…the second man.

Gabrielle leapt out of the way. But she wasn't fast enough.

A sharp, burning pain erupted from her side. Gabrielle cried out in agony. She rolled along the ground, and clutched her side. Gabrielle felt hot blood rushing from it. She turned to see the man charging at her again, letting out a harsh cry. Suddenly, he went limp-

And crashed face-first into the ground. Gabrielle saw Xena's chakram sticking out of his back. Gabrielle looked up to see Xena kneeling over another man, her arm extended into the air. Xena's eyes grew wide with fear.


She got to her feet and rushed over to the bard in an instant, kneeling by her. Xena examined the wound closely. Gabrielle grimaced.

"Gods, it hurts-"

"You're gonna need some stitches, Gabrielle. You're lucky though. It's not that deep."

Xena grasped Gabrielle's head and kissed her on the forehead. The Warrior Princess closed her eyes in relief.

"Wait here." she said softly.

Xena got up and ran to her horse. She got out a bag, and ran back to Gabrielle.

"Lay on your side." she requested.

Gabrielle obeyed. She looked out towards the man Xena had been kneeling over a minute ago. She saw him struggling to move.

"That guy's still alive, huh?"

Xena looked towards him. She grimaced in hatred.

"Yeah. I put the pinch on him. He won't be moving anywhere for a while yet."

"I killed the other one."

"Uh-huh. That bastard's the only one alive."

Xena looked back down at Gabrielle's wound. Her eyes narrowed with feral intensity.

"I should just slit his throat." she growled.

"No Xena." said Gabrielle. "We've got to take him back with us."

"That's the only reason he's alive."

Xena carefully and delicately began to stitch Gabrielle's wound. The bard groaned in pain. It tore through Xena's heart. A tear rolled down her cheek.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle." she whispered, her voice trembling.

"Just go on Xena." said Gabrielle, gazing at her friend in pain and pity. "It's not your fault."

Xena soon finished. She cleaned the wound.

"Can I sit up?" asked Gabrielle.

"Yes. Lean on this tree trunk behind you."

Xena helped Gabrielle to a sitting position. She leaned back against the tree trunk. Xena kissed Gabrielle on the forehead again. She placed a hand on the bard's face.

"Wait here." she said softly.

Xena got up and walked over to the fallen man. She knelt over him, and displayed her most fearsome warlord face.

"Now for you, you son-of-a-bitch."

With a harsh cry, Xena jabbed her fingers into the man's neck again. His eyes dilated in incredible pain.

"This is a new pinch. I just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You've got thirty seconds to tell me who you are and who else is with you. Otherwise, you're gonna die a very ugly death."

The man struggled through the pain. He glared at Xena with defiance. She leaned closer to his face, clutching it with iron fingers.

"Talk, damn you!!"

The man's eyes narrowed. He smirked defiantly at the Warrior Princess. He knew his time was running out, but he refused to talk. The man's eyes rolled into the back of his head. Xena snarled in disgust. She released the pinch. With a deafening cry, Xena rammed her fist hard into the man's face, knocking him out. She glared at her captor.

"You and me aren't done by a long shot."



Xena looked out the window of the prison cell, hearing the angry cries of the people outside. She turned to the man. He sat there, stone-faced, in chains. He gazed off into the distance.

Xena walked in front of him. Her eyes narrowed.

"Eventually, I'll get the information I want. One way or the other. Everyone's got their breaking point."

The man looked up at her, a dark, icy sneer twisting his features. Xena walked up to him, kneeling in front of him. A cold smile appeared on her face.

"You're pretty tough. But I've dealt with tougher. And you're not afraid to die. But I'll tell ya this..."

She leaned in closer, her brilliant blue eyes boring deep into his brown ones. She grasped his hand.

"When I'm done with ya..." she hissed maliciously-

And snapped a finger. She twisted it. Hard. The man grimaced slightly, biting down on his lip. Blood trickled from it. Xena twisted it more. She moved in closer, seeing the agony in the man's eyes.

"Yer gonna wish I had killed ya."

She released him. The man sat stone-faced, but the look in his eyes told Xena she made her point.

"I'll be back." she purred icily.

She left the cell, closing it behind her. Xena turned to the three men guarding the prisoner.

"Post guards, and have him watched at all hours. He's extremely dangerous. And I know he's not alone. Have guards watching from the outside as well."

"Yes, Xena." answered one of the men.

She left the prison. A large crowd of angry men and women stood outside, screaming their hatred at the prisoner within. Xena pushed through the crowds. She walked on a bit, and entered a small house. Asima was inside. She turned to Xena.

"He's secure?"

"Yes. And Gabrielle?"

"She's all right. Ayman's giving her food."


Xena walked into the next room. Gabrielle sat in bed, eating soup and bread. Ayman sat beside her bed. The pair looked up. Xena walked over, sitting in the bed alongside Gabrielle. She placed a hand on her leg.

"How're you doing?"

Gabrielle shrugged.

"Okay. A bit hungry. This lentil soup's helping."


Gabrielle's face darkened.

"Those guys are tough."

Xena sighed. She nodded solemnly.

"I know."

She looked outside the window.

"In fact, I'd say they're among the best fighters I've ever encountered."

"They look like they're from Chin."

Xena turned back to Gabrielle. She raised an eyebrow.

"But they're not. Gabrielle, I've never seen them before. Their dress, their bearing and weapons...I've traveled to many parts of the world, but these men are from a land I don't know of."

Gabrielle's eyebrows went up.

"Now that's a first."

Xena smirked.

"Well, there's always a first time."

She looked up at the ceiling and sighed.

"Right now, I'm more concerned about the fact that both these men and the Romans are after the Chalice. This is going to be a pain in the ass to deal with."

Gabrielle smirked.

"In other words, business as usual."


Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

"Here we go again."

"Are you sure, samurai??"

The man lowered his head.

"Yes, Lord Hashiyama. Two women beat them. Mioshi managed to write this in his own blood before he died."

Hashiyama lowered his head, his brow furrowed. A few moments of silence passed.


He nodded slowly, and looked up at the samurai.

"I'm impressed. These women defeated four of my best samurai, killing three of them. Not an easy feat."

Hashiyama chuckled, smiling in admiration.

"Huh. Worthy adversaries. It's been a long time."

"What about Katsuhiro, my lord?"

The smile slowly disappeared. His face grew grim.

"He will commit suicide, as ordered. But you must go check and make sure it is carried out. Otherwise, you must kill him yourself, Nagashi. Set out there now."

The samurai bowed low.

"Yes, my lord."

He turned and left. Another samurai approached Hashiyama. He was tall, rugged and muscular. Scars ran down his arms. One ran across his face. His dark hair was streaked with gray. A stony, feral impression was etched into his features. Hashiyama looked up at the samurai.

"Kurgawa, guard the perimeter. Kill anyone who strays too close."

The samurai's dark eyes settled on Hashiyama.

"Yes, lord."

He turned and walked off. Hashiyama gazed up at the moon.

"Soon....soon I will obtain the power of the gods. Then I will conquer Nippon, and afterwards, the world."

Nagashi looked up into the starlit sky. The bright moon shone down upon the sleeping village.

From atop a tree, he used a looking glass to peer into the prison cell. Katsuhiro lay with his back to the window. Nagashi then took out his crossbow, and screwed the looking glass onto it. He lifted the crossbow and aimed-

Suddenly, he heard a metallic whooshing sound. His eyes darted to the left-

And a silver disk tore through his crossbow, splintering it into a thousand pieces. Nagashi immediately leapt from the tree, drawing his sword. He crouched into a fighting stance. His eyes darted left and right-

And then he spotted her…a female form, hooking the metal disk onto her leather skirt. She stepped into the moonlight, her hard alabaster features set in cold determination. A feral smile came to the woman's lips.

"Nice try." she purred. "But I can't have you killing my prisoner."

Nagashi snarled at Xena. He rushed at her, swinging his weapon. She effortlessly somersaulted over him. Xena drew her chakram. Nagashi turned and swung at her. Xena blocked the blow with her chakram and rammed her foot hard into Nagashi's chest. He flew back through the air, his sword flung out of his hand. He crashed into the ground. Xena rehooked her chakram and ran at Nagashi. He quickly got to his feet. Xena executed a whirling kick. Nagashi ducked. He swung his own foot at her. Xena blocked it. Nagashi then threw a flurry of vicious punches at Xena, who managed to block them. Xena threw her own hard right. Nagashi dodged it, and rammed a fist hard into Xena's stomach. She grunted in pain. Nagashi threw a vicious left. The fist hit Xena's face, whipping it sharply to the left. Blood exploded from her mouth. He threw a right, but this time, Xena blocked it. With a harsh cry, she rammed her fist into his face. Nagashi's head whipped back, blood erupting from his shattered nose. Xena grabbed his shoulders and head-butted him twice in the face for good measure. He staggered back, blood and several teeth falling from his mouth. Finally, Xena thrust out a foot. It tore into Nagashi's side. There was a loud crack as several ribs snapped. Nagashi flew back, crashing back-first into a well. He slid to the ground.

Xena approached him. Nagashi weakly lifted his head. He stared at Xena in disbelief.

"S-She-demon..." he gasped, blood spurting from his mouth.

Xena displayed another feral grin.

"Ya got that right."

Nagashi sneered at Xena.

"You won't get information from me."

He slapped himself in the side of the neck. His eyes crossed, and he fell onto his side. Xena ran over to Nagashi, kneeling down. She examined his hand. A tiny dart was in it. Xena felt for Nagashi's pulse. There was none. Xena snarled in frustration.


She got to her feet, running off to the prison. A guard saw her approaching. Xena stopped before him.

"Open up. I want to check on the prisoner."

The guard nodded. He opened the door. Two more guards inside got to their feet.

"He hasn't moved, Xena." said one of the men. "Nothing unusual has happened."

She gazed at Katsuhiro's still form. Xena's eyes narrowed.

"Really. Open this up."


The guard walked over, opening the cell. Xena walked over to Katsuhiro. She turned him over. Xena snarled in anger.


Katsuhiro lay still, eyes half-open. Blood flowed from his mouth. The guards rushed into the cell. Xena knelt down, examining him. She grimaced.

"Son of a bitch...he broke his own windpipe."

She stood up, growling with rage. Xena turned and stormed out of the cell.

"Xena, a-are you sure?" asked Gabrielle.

"Yes." Xena replied firmly. "We don't have a choice. You're going to have to check on Lepidus's men while I check on these guys."

"I'll go with Gabrielle." said Ayman.

Gabrielle abruptly turned towards Ayman.

"Not a chance."

"Gabrielle, I was once a soldier. I can defend myself. And besides, you're still healing."

"I'm okay."

"Sorry, but I agree with Ayman." said Asima. "I'd rather he go with you Gabrielle."

Gabrielle turned to the Warrior Princess.


Xena placed a hand on the bard's arm.

"Gabrielle, I'm with them on this, I'm afraid. I wasn't crazy about you going alone."

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.

"Oh really?? And what about you??"

"Gabrielle, I can take care of myself."

"Maybe, but those guys are really tough. Even you had a hard time putting them down."

Xena leaned close to Gabrielle, her face full of determination and confidence.

"Gabrielle, I can handle it."

Gabrielle smirked.

"Uh-huh. Well, you can't stop me from worrying a little."

Xena smiled. She placed her hand on the side of Gabrielle's face.

"No I can't." Xena said softly.

She paused a moment, then continued.

"All right. Get some rest. We've got a busy day ahead of us."

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.

"Practice what you preach, Xena. You're not a machine. Besides, you're not gonna get any information out of two dead men."

Xena sighed.

"I know that. But first I've got to prepare a little for my journey. Then I'll hit the bed."

Gabrielle got up from her bed.

"I'll join you. No point in my lying around feeling sorry for myself."

"Gabrielle, I can do that-"

"Xena, I'm not a child. And what if no one were around? I've gotta keep that discipline level up. I'll do my own preparing."

Xena gave Gabrielle an affectionate smirk.

"Okay. If you insist. C'mon."

Xena rode on quietly down the dirt road. She had been on it for over an hour. The early morning sun shone upon her head. Her thoughts were on Gabrielle. She had gone off with Ayman to check on the strength of Lepidus's army. Even though she knew Gabrielle was more than capable of taking care of herself, Xena wasn't too thrilled about not being with her.

But given the situation, there was little choice.

Xena soon reached the area where she and Gabrielle had fought the men before. She rode off past the small group of trees the men first came from. After entering another clearing, she dismounted. Her sharp eyes spotted tracks. She knelt by them, examining the direction from where they came. Xena got to her feet, taking hold of her horse's reins.

"C'mon Argo."

She followed the tracks for a while. They continued on over several hills. After walking for a while longer, Xena spotted another group of trees. She patted the horse's face affectionately.

"Stay here."

She ran off. Soon, Xena hurried through the group of trees, and entered another clearing. She noticed that this one was by a cliff. Xena walked over to the edge of it. Far below her was a river.

Suddenly, Xena felt a presence. The hairs on her neck stood on end. She instantly drew her sword and turned around. Her brilliant blue eyes darted left and right.

"C'mon out." she snarled. "Show yourself, or I'm coming after ya."

A few moments passed. Xena's eyes darted to her left-

And out stepped Kurgawa, armed with a long, heavy sword. His features were cold and grim. Xena turned to face him. She saw the muscular, heavily-scarred arms and face. Xena knew at that instant this would not be an easy battle. She knew right away that this was a seasoned warrior.

Kurgawa's dark eyes narrowed. A predatory smile formed on his face. Xena narrowed her own eyes and returned the smile.

And then they rushed at each other.

With a furious cry. Xena swung her sword at him. The two blades collided savagely, sparks flying. Both warriors began to parry. Xena thrust her sword at Kurgawa swiftly, repeatedly. Yet he effortlessly blocked every attempt. Kurgawa then executed a whirling kick. Xena ducked. She then thrust her sword at him hard. With lightning speed, Kurgawa blocked the blow and rammed a foot into Xena's side. She flew through the air, crashing into the ground. In less than a second, Kurgawa was swinging his sword down at her. Xena rolled out of the way at the last instant. The blade burrowed into the ground. With a savage scream, Xena rammed both feet with punishing force into Kurgawa's side. She felt a rib crack. He flew back through the air, crashing into the ground.

Xena was up and at him in less than a second. She swung her weapon down at his head-

And met with nothing but grass and dirt. The blade ripped into the ground.

In that same instant, a vicious, burning pain erupted from Xena's right side. She grunted loudly in agony, leaping back. Xena saw Kurgawa completing the swing of his sword from the ground. She saw blood erupt from her side.

Kurgawa instantly rose and flew at her-

And swords clashed again.

Kurgawa rammed a foot into Xena's side. And this time, Xena felt her own rib crack from the blow. Horrific pain exploded from it. Xena let out another loud grunt. She flew back, falling to the ground yet again.

Kurgawa's sword plunged down at her like a lightning bolt.

Xena shifted fast to one side. The blade grazed her right arm. Blood erupted from it. Black fury overwhelmed her. Letting out a furious cry, she rammed her left fist with all her might into Kurgawa's face. Blood exploded from his nose. He flew back through the air, slamming into the ground again.

Xena drew her knife. She leapt at Kurgawa-

Only to have his booted foot smash into her jaw. Blood erupted from Xena's mouth, along with a tooth. She flew off to the side, hitting the ground hard. The knife flew out of her hand into the grass. Stunned, Xena rose to her feet-

And a fist smashed into her face. Her head snapped back. More blood erupted from her nose and mouth. Xena staggered back-

And a whirling kick. This one hit Xena solidly in the side of the head. She flew through the air, crashing face-first into the dirt.

Pain tore through Xena's skull. Stunned, she felt warm blood flow freely from her mouth and nose. She felt herself begin to slip towards unconsciousness. But Xena shook it off with heated rage.

Then she felt it. A presence. Approaching her rapidly.

Not even thinking, she swung out her right foot. It connected solidly with something. She heard a loud grunt. Xena turned, opening one pale blue eye. She saw a figure fly back through the air, slamming into the ground. The figure lay motionless.

Xena looked up, wiping the dirt from her eyes. Then she saw it. Her sword. Xena quickly crawled over to it. She grabbed its handle and got to her feet.

She turned towards Kurgawa. He had just risen to his.

The two warriors charged at each other, screaming their battle cries. Swords clashed violently. The two began to parry again.

Xena spotted an opening, and snuck in a quick swipe at his side. Blood burst from the wound. Kurgawa grunted harshly. They parried again, and this time, it was Kurgawa who found an opening. The tip of his metal blade tore through leather and flesh. Blood burst from Xena's side. She grunted harshly, moving back. Kurgawa pressed on. He lunged at Xena. She somersaulted over his head, ramming her foot forcefully into the back of it. Kurgawa stumbled forward, tripping over a rock. He fell to the ground, hitting his head hard on another rock. Stunned, he rolled onto his back-

And Xena's sword plunged down at him. Kurgawa rolled off slightly to his left. Her sword burrowed tip-first into the ground. Blood erupted from his right shoulder.

Kurgawa had enough.

With incredible speed, he reached up, grabbed Xena's hair, and rammed her head-first into the hilt of her own sword with a resounding crack. Xena's head snapped back, her eyes rolling up into her head. As she staggered back, Kurgawa drew a knife and whipped it across Xena's stomach. Blood erupted from it. Xena dropped hard to the ground, and Kurgawa was on top of her. He pinned her left arm down and plunged his knife towards Xena's heart. Incredibly, she grabbed his wrist. Both warriors locked eyes-dark brown meeting ice-blue. Xena slowly increased pressure on Kurgawa's wrist. Soon, Kurgawa grimaced in pain as the vice-like grip began to crush his wrist. He released the knife. It dropped into the grass. With a savage cry, Xena rammed Kurgawa's wrist into his own face. His head snapped back. More blood burst from his mouth and nose. Stunned, he released Xena's left wrist. With unbelievable strength, Xena threw him far off to the side. She quickly picked up the knife, and threw it at him. He easily dodged it.

Xena got to her feet. But the damage was done. Blood flowed from her stomach and other wounds. Her head throbbed painfully. She was probably suffering from a concussion. She began to have double-vision. It was difficult for Xena to remain steadily on her feet. Her broken rib was moving on its own. It was becoming increasingly agonizing to breathe.

Xena was certain now. This was one of the best opponents she had ever faced. Very few men or women had inflicted this kind of damage on her before.

Xena reached for her chakram, and threw it at Kurgawa. He hastily lifted a large rock. The chakram deflected off it, ricocheting off another and back towards Xena. She instinctively reached out and grabbed it.

That proved to be a mistake.

A rock hit Xena in the face with brutal force. Fiery pain blasted through her face and skull. She flew back, hitting the ground. Xena opened her left eye-

And saw Kurgawa flying at her, knife drawn.

She whipped out a foot. Kurgawa collided chest-first with it. Xena grabbed Kurgawa's wrists, flipping him over her head. He flew over, landing on his back in a cloud of dust. Xena grabbed her chakram, hooked it to her skirt, and leapt towards her sword.

Xena rose to her feet. Kurgawa was ready. They charged at each other again.

Xena took a vicious swipe at Kurgawa. He somersaulted over Xena's head, landing behind her. A half second later, he swung his sword at her. Xena, incredibly, turned and blocked the blow. They parried again, the savage sounds of colliding metal echoing through the countryside.

Suddenly, Kurgawa spotted an opening. He whipped his sword at Xena's abdomen. It ripped through leather and flesh. Blood exploded from it. Xena cried out in pain. He followed with a savage kick into Xena's side. A loud crack as another rib snapped. Xena's eyes bulged in agony. She staggered back.

Kurgawa attacked Xena relentlessly. He added one wound here, another there. Xena knew she was in trouble. Kurgawa was winning. And Xena was losing her strength. She had to do something. Fast.

Kurgawa lunged at Xena. She leapt into the air, whipping out a booted foot. It hit Kurgawa's jaw. Blood and several teeth exploded from his mouth. The samurai staggered back. Xena attacked like a woman possessed. She found an opening, and took a vicious swipe at his mid-section. Blood blasted out of the wound. Kurgawa grunted loudly in pain, staggering back even further. Another well-planted kick, and Kurgawa's sword flew out of his hand. Xena had enough. It was time to end this.

She lunged viciously at Kurgawa. Impossibly, he spun out of the way and grabbed Xena's blade. He slammed his right fist into Xena's face. Her head snapped to the right, blood exploding out of her mouth. She flew back through the air and slammed into the ground again-

And once more, a sword came down at Xena. Her own.

She rolled out of the way as it burrowed into the ground. Xena drew a knife and buried it in Kurgawa's side-

And something hit her face with horrific force.

Xena's face snapped to one side. She felt airborne. Then, the brutal collision with hard earth. Xena moaned in agony. She felt her left eye begin to swell shut. She looked up, seeing a figure staggering towards her.

Xena rose to her feet. But she wasn't fast enough. Her injuries were too serious-

And she paid the price. Another fist rammed into her face. The blow sent her reeling, towards the edge of the cliff.

Kurgawa executed a flying kick. It hit Xena solidly in the chest. She flew back through the air and slammed into the ground yet again. Both figures slowly, and unsteadily, arose.

Kurgawa pulled the knife from his side, eyeing Xena. Her blue eyes were glazed and dilated. Kurgawa saw his chance.

He threw the knife-

And it buried itself in Xena's side.

Xena's eyes bulged open in agony. She staggered back. The familiar veil of unconsciousness began to overwhelm her. And this time, she was powerless to stop it. Xena's eyes rolled back into her head-

And she fell off the cliff, plunging towards the river below.

Part 3

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