Disclaimers are in Part 1
Chapter V : Switch
The tall warrior sat her golden horse on the shore of a lake, contemplating the sheer cliff rising before her. Roughly forty paces up its face perched a temple, hewn into of the rock and reached by a narrow path that wound and twisted crazily all the way around the mountain.
Though fall was fast asserting itself with frequent storms and bad weather, and the ground was squishy from recent rain, it was actually a rather nice day, with the sun peeking through a canopy of clouds. Its rays made dazzling highlights in a pair of eyes the color of a clear winter sky, that held a distant expression as the dark-haired woman nudged her mount closer to the foot of the path.
"Well, here we are, Argo," Xena told her mare in a soft voice. "I guess the only way is up." Considering, she added, "Not for you, though, girl. I think you'd better stay down here. Because I'm taking the direct route." She jumped out of the saddle, and bounced lightly on her feet to re-settle her armor, already looking for handholds on the rocky wall. Argo snorted and rolled an eye at her.
"Don't give me that look," Xena reproached gently, "I don't have the patience to take the long way round." And I have this terrible feeling that I'm running out of time. She took the mare's head in both hands and pulled it close.
"If I'm not back in two hours," she advised solemnly, "start sending out search parties."
Argo flicked an ear and pulled out of her grasp to start inspecting the grass growing at her feet, unconcerned.
"Don't worry too much about me, though," the warrior added dryly, and gave the war-horse a pat, before she put her hands on the rock in search for a good place to start climbing.
At any other time, the climb would have been a cakewalk. But Xena had traveled for almost two whole days without stopping, and the nights before that, her sleep had been less than refreshing. If she had stopped for a minute and allowed herself to face it, the warrior would have had to admit that she was at the end of her reserves, both physically and emotionally.
Thus perhaps it wasn't much of a surprise when a wave of dizziness came over her while she was hanging suspended under a little ledge, both feet scrabbling for a hold on the treacherous rock. She let herself hang motionlessly, eyes closed, and concentrated every fiber of her being on not letting her fingers slip.
Steady, Xena, steady. You're three thirds there, you can go all the way. It's only a few more paces. Just need a breather, that's all. No problem.
But she could not stem the wave of uncharacteristic panic that threatened to engulf her, nor clear her mind of the image of a white dove with a broken neck.
The sun had not yet risen when Gabrielle woke. She could tell as much by the utter darkness surrounding her. During daytime, the cavern was dimly lit by a shaft of light coming through the short tunnel that was the cave's entrance. If a hole in the rock halfway up a mountain with no path leading to it and no visible handholds could be considered an entrance.
The bard suspected that she was alone, having found out that whatever Mrtva was, she evidently did not need to sleep. The fortune teller had left the day before, just after... the young woman's mind shied away from the memory. She swallowed the bile that threatened to rise again. There could not be anything left in her stomach, after she had thrown up practically all through the night. What little sleep she had been able to get had been slow to come and fitful.
An empty feeling in her mind and a strange inner pull confirmed her suspicion that Mrtva was not here - whatever had been done to her, it had given the bard an awareness of the witch that transcended her normal senses. Oh, the woman was somewhere - in fact, Gabrielle could have pointed a finger straight at her, so strong was that new sense that would let her find the other woman across any distance - but Mrtva was very far away. The bard grimaced in disgust at the feeling of need that enveloped her as a result of the witch's absence. A feeling that was replaced by a raving frenzy bringing her blood to boil as soon as the witch was near. Dionysus and his Bacchae would have been awed. But for Gabrielle, it was scary.
Her gaze flicked to the darker patch in the back of the cavern. She knew now what lay behind that dark tunnel, though she would have preferred to find out in some other way. Try as she would, the memory of the previous day was etched into her mind, and would not stay suppressed for long.
A visibly excited Mrtva led her along that tunnel at sunset, once again using that trick of applying pressure to cause pain. In her eagerness, the witch put a lot more force into her grip on the bard's hand and arm than strictly necessary. Gabrielle had to bite her tongue repeatedly to keep from crying out in agony. She refused to give the other woman that satisfaction.
After a brief trek up a slowly narrowing passage that curved sharply and irregularly, Mrtva ushered the subdued bard into another cavern, bathed in a warm, dancing light from torches liberally scattered along the walls. The flames burned fitfully in the stale air and ate up enough of it to make breathing laborious. Some sort of incense wafted through the chamber, and Gabrielle could never be sure whether it was the lack of fresh air or that heavy, heady aroma filling her nostrils that made her feel light-headed and weak. All of this didn't bother Mrtva at all, of course.
The chamber was somewhat smaller than the other cavern, and must be directly above it, judging from the turn and slope of the tunnel leading here. This place was much dryer, and lacked the splendor of the Stalactite Chamber, as the bard had come to call it. It did have its own kind of beauty, though, featuring more of the colorful and intricate sandstone formations she had seen on the outside. Roughly in its center lay a large stone slab, of a slightly different texture and color than the surrounding rock. It seemed to serve as some sort of altar, because a crimson cloth was spread atop it. On it were placed a sacrificial dagger, a silver chalice filled with a thick, bubbling liquid, an unlit torch and a wide bowl made of clay. A large, deep-barreled drum sat on one narrow end, and a chandelier set with several candles burned on the other.
Dazed by the fumes and lack of fresh air, Gabrielle struggled only faintly, as Mrtva dragged her towards the altar. So dulled was her mind that she hardly felt any apprehension at all as Mrtva made her climb onto the altar and strapped her wrists down with strips of leather. That done, the witch strode around to the drum and started beating it in a slow, rhythmic beat that reverberated through the bard's entire being.
An ecstatic, distant look on her face, she intoned in an eerie, singsong voice.
Water to find us
Air to entwine us
Earth to subdue you
Fire to undo you
Spirit to bind us
Mrtva repeated the words over and over, singing herself into a frenzy, the drumbeats coming ever faster. Gabrielle felt her body responding to the rhythm picking up, her heart pounding in beat, her breath quickening. Even after the witch stopped beating the drum, the pounding seemed to go on, picking up cadence and whirling like a tangible thing all around her. The bard hardly followed what Mrtva did next, but it seemed to involve the chalice and its vile-smelling, sickly green contents. The sting of the fumes rising from it were faintly reminiscent of the drug Mrtva had used on her during the abduction. Before she knew it, the liquid was held to Gabrielle's lips, bubbling like boiling pus under her nose. She turned her head, wrinkling her nose, but the witch simply pulled her around by her hair, tilted her head back and poured it down the reluctant bard's throat.
It tasted positively awful. The stuff stung her tongue before having fully touched it, and Gabrielle spat and spluttered frantically, trying not to let any down her throat. Mrtva expertly pressured a spot under her jaw, forcing her to swallow. The bard made a face as the witch released her and took the chalice away from her mouth. Then she did a double take, smacking her lips a little. This wasn't so bad after all! In fact, she could not remember anything as tasty... She practically snatched the chalice from the Mrtva's hand, who had taken a deep draught for herself...
After that, things were a blur. Gabrielle dimly remembered, as soon as Mrtva had swallowed her portion of the liquid, of being somehow aware of the fortune teller in a way that made her shudder to the core. There was a depth of evil in the witch that Gabrielle would never have thought possible, an evil sprung from profound jealousy and bitterness, and, buried so deeply it was hardly perceptible, sadness and pain. While she was thoroughly repulsed by what she sensed in Mrtva's twisted being, she was perversely and inexplicably attracted to her on some other level that she couldn't quite grasp. It frightened her more than anything.
She flexed her left hand experimentally, and winced at the sharp stab of pain in her wrist where Mrtva had twisted it. There didn't seem to be anything broken, but the joint was badly bruised and painful nonetheless. Her stomach was roiling something awful from that vile potion, and probably would for a while yet. Curse that fortune teller!
I've got to stop thinking of her as a fortune teller. That sounds entirely too human for what she is. Hades, anything I can come up with sounds too mild! I'm sure Xena has some choice titles in mind for her. I may be the storyteller in this, but she sure is the expert on colorful language! Gabrielle allowed herself a moment of visualizing her dark warrior friend. Xena, I know you can't hear me, but this would really be the time to put that brilliant plan of yours into action. I don't know exactly what she has in mind for me, but if she needs my heart, she probably doesn't mean for me to get it back. She sighed. I just wish I could have told you... how important you've become for me. Maybe now I'll never get the chance... The bard had to chuckle suddenly as a stray thought crossed her mind. And whatever you do in my behalf, don't you go climbing any sheer cliffs or anything as foolish. The shortest path isn't always the best or fastest. You taught me that!
Taking slow and steady breaths, the warrior hung suspended thirty feet above the ground, with nothing but jagged rock beneath her. The closest foot- or handholds that she could see could only be reached by sacrificing her grip on the rocky ledge, at least with one hand. She might have swung a leg over that ledge and pulled herself up, but it was all she could do at the moment to hang on. Argo was there below, a golden shape the size of a mouse, blissfully searching the ground for choice patches of grass. So this is what I get for not following my own advice... I believe I told Gabrielle once why it isn't always a good idea to pick the shortest path...
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, digging deep into herself to tap those secret energies she knew must be there. This was the time to use them, when the life of her bard was at stake. She just could not let any harm come to the woman that meant more to her than anything else in the world, including her own life. Gods, I try never to ask much of you, you know that. But if I ever even did one thing right in my life, please hear me and let me find the strength for this! Not for my sake. For hers. Please allow me to help her!
The warrior reopened her eyes, willed her head to clear, and her muscles to respond. Too stubborn to acknowledge her failing strength and the overwhelming odds against her, she scanned the ledge above her, finding a jagged overhang about three feet above and to her left. If she could just hook her foot over that... Some god must have been listening, because by some incredible feat of willpower, she managed to gather momentum by swinging her body back and forth a few times, before giving a mighty heave, releasing her hold with one hand, and feeling her leg hook securely onto the ledge.
After that, pulling herself up onto the ledge was routine. Xena flopped onto her back, gasping for breath and fighting the spots still dancing before her eyes, and sent a curt, warrior-style "thanks" up to whoever was listening.
She found herself almost directly beneath the temple that loomed monumentally on the face of the rock, strangely out of place up there on the mountain. It was almost as if some god had put it up there on a whim and then forgot all about it. But the Lady of the Night was known for her somewhat queer tastes. While the warrior was slowly recovering her equilibrium, she started thinking about a way to attract Nyx's attention. She had not had much contact with that particular goddess. Well, she would find a way.
Even if it meant dealing with mortals, the Goddess of Night was grateful for the pretext to leave this ridiculous gathering. They really werent getting anywhere by watching the one who called herself Mrtva hewing away at the Warrior Princess sanity and wreaking havoc in the mortal realm. And Nyx had begun to suspect where that infernal creation had escaped from. She would have to have a talk with her grandson about this. But another force seemed to have an interest in the matter, and that was one even a goddess as ancient as she did not dare anger. So she would do that ones bidding and help the warrior where she could, though personally, she rather thought the bard stood a better chance against this particular foe. The Lady of the Night was not particularly partial to doing favors to mortals, but having Atropos scissors poised above you was more than enough reason to go against your preferences just this once, no matter how strongly Zeus objected.
In any case, it was a safe bet that the other gods at the gathering did not know who was calling on Nyx, with their attention riveted the bard and Mrtva, who was at this very moment starting the occult ceremony known as the Binding. Most gods frowned upon this, but a few of the more seedy characters really got a kick out of that kind of thing. For example, by that evil smirk on the Goddess of Discords face, Eris was very much with Mrtva in this. And while the Goddess of the Night herself had a certain affinity for the darker things in life, black magic was definitely not in her portfolio. She knew that one like Mrtva had no place in the mortal realm. The being's presence in the waking world upset the universal balance. Balance must be maintained. Nothing else was important.
Now, for this mortal, who was about to do a very stupid thing, meaning to compel rather than ask Nyx for an appearance. Under normal circumstances, such presumptuous behavior would have to be punished. Perhaps a way could be found to get back at the impertinent fool and still get this unfortunate issue resolved...
The inside of the temple was sparingly furnished. Light filtered in through oblong windows on both sides of a set of bronze double doors leading to a landing outside. Where it touched down, bright lances painted the stony floor, bathing the inside in a dim golden light. A walkway lined by columns led up to an altar set on a dais at the far end of the spacious chamber. The whole temple had been hewn out of the very rock of the mountain it sat in, and it showed in the way its features seemed to melt into one another, almost giving the impression on having formed naturally.
There on the dais, shrouded in partial darkness, reflecting light sending blue flashes across dark hair, knelt Xena, one arm resting upon the altar, the other holding her dagger, which she held poised above her wrist, a defiant light in those intense blue eyes. She raised that gaze to somewhere above the altar as she became aware of the slight shift in reality that seemed to announce most gods' presence. Sure enough, the air there shimmered and coalesced into a female shape that floated down to stand beside the warrior on the dais. As her form solidified, it was easy to see that Nyx was not amused.
"You know well it is not permitted to threaten with suicide on a sacred altar, mortal," the Goddess of the Night stated coldly, fixing the warrior with a flat stare from eyes blacker than night.
"Yeah, well, sorry 'bout that, Nyx. Couldn't be bothered with protocol just now. No time." Xena met the goddess' glare unflinchingly. "I need your help. Bad."
"And you think after what you've just pulled off here, that I will give it to you freely?" Nyx raised an eyebrow, and crossed her arms in front of her.
"Listen, Nyx, I needed you to get here on the double because I'm running out of time! My friend is in some grave danger, and I mean to get her out of it before she gets hurt. But I can't do it by myself. You've gotta help me."
The goddess had to concede the woman was no coward. With grudging respect she acknowledged the warrior's defiant stance. Xena wanted Nyx's help desperately, but was too proud and stubborn to ask properly. But of course it would never do to let the mortal know. She let her expression darken. Her mind had been made up from the beginning, of course, but it would not hurt to let the impertinent warrior stew for a bit longer.
"You are not making your situation any better, woman. I am very upset with the way you have forced me to come here. And instead of dropping humbly to your knees begging for my forgiveness, you make demands. You are lucky I have not blasted you into oblivion. But go on the way you're going, and I might do just that!"
Even with this very real threat, the warrior did not even flinch. She muttered stubbornly, "I SAID I'm sorry, okay? What else do you want? It's not for myself I'm asking this."
"It is not?" Nxy said, her stare piercing the warrior's glacier blue gaze, and the hint of a knowing smile playing around her lips. "You might have fooled me, mortal."
That did seem to throw the warrior off balance, just a little bit. Xena's pupils narrowed for an instant before she spoke, her voice carefully impassive. "That's as it may be, Nyx. Fact is, there's a monster running loose who's got my friend, and I mean to stop her." Her voice picked up an angry intensity as it dropped to a hissing whisper. "And Hades kiss my boots if I don't pummel the Nine Hells out of the goddamned bitch before I'm through!"
The Lady of the Night almost forgot herself and chuckled at that heartfelt statement. The nerve of the woman, to speak such in the presence of a deity! In spite of herself, she was beginning to enjoy this little discussion. But the warrior was right, time was indeed running out for the bard. Nyx would have to cut this short.
"Listen, warrior. It seems we have a common interest here. I will help. What is it that you want?"
"For a goddess, you are remarkably slow-witted," Xena muttered so quietly that Nyx didn't think she was supposed to hear. Addressing the goddess, the warrior said, "well, I thought you could just, you know, whisk me to where she is..."
The goddess chose to ignore the affront, trying not to actually gnash her teeth. Curse Atropos, curse her bumbling grandson, curse Mrtva, curse this mortal! Well, at least she would have the satisfaction of putting the warrior in a very uncomfortable position - while giving the woman the help she had promised. Brilliant!
"That is not in my power. Gabrielle is very far. You might not survive the trip. There is however, another thing I may be able to do..."
Her stomach was still giving her hell when Gabrielle saw the sun's rays peek through the entrance. There had not been any more sleep for her, just more throwing up, shivering and sweating at the same time, and that empty yearning in her mind. She felt so cold that she thought her bones would burn to a crisp if she breathed too deeply.
The young woman got to her feet awkwardly, and took a few painful steps to alleviate the burning ache in her joints. She swooned, and grabbed one of the natural pillars for support. Oh, Hades, of all the times to start running a fever!
The bard paused suddenly, a strange giddy anticipation rising in her. She was coming to eagerly await that feeling, and dread it. It meant that Mrtva was close. The ritual was about to continue. Soon now... soon they would be one.
"Are you serious?" Xena asked incredulously. The goddess only nodded.
Nyx's suggestion had caught the warrior off guard. It sounded completely insane, and she wasn't at all sure if it was a good idea. But the Lady of the Night was right about one thing. It seemed the fastest way to get her hands on Mrtva, and it would certainly be a surprise move. The most important thing, though, it would get Gabrielle far out of harm's way.
Part of her, anyway.
"And you're sure it'll work? I mean... Will I still be... me? Or ..."
Nyx cut her short with a gesture. "You will be you, but you will be in the body of your friend. It will certainly be different from what you're used to. You will have to be very, very mindful of that body's limitations."
"But what about Gabrielle?"
"It will be the same for her, of course, worse maybe because it will hit her unprepared. She will handle it, though. You are the one who is going to be in grave danger. Danger you might not be able to get out of."
Xena shrugged. "Yeah well, it's gotta be done... looks like it's gotta be me." The warrior looked at Nyx and hesitated, concern overriding her stubborn defiance for the moment. "Will... will you make sure she's all right? Please?"
Nyx looked at the woman before her for a long time, appraising her. Xena never turned a hair under the goddess' scrutiny, though she was boiling with impatience inside. "Very well," Nyx finally said, "I will see to your friend."
"Thanks," Xena said, frowning thoughtfully. "Now... I have one more question..."
The goddess raised an eyebrow. "More questions, warrior? You are pushing it."
"Just one. I'm sure you're not doing this for nothing. So, what's it gonna cost me?"
The Lady of the Night gave a little shrug. "No cost to you, mortal."
It was Xena's turn to raise a dark eyebrow, giving the goddess a suspicious look. "No cost, Nyx? Why? Where's the catch?"
That earned her a flat stare. "That need not concern you. Let's just say I have a very compelling reason."
Wisely, the warrior shrugged and held her peace.
"So," Nyx said, "shall we get on with it? Your friend's situation will not get any better if we drag this out."
"Thought you'd never ask," Xena muttered under her breath. she stuck out her chin and raised her head at the goddess. "I'm ready."
Chapter VI : Swish
Blood... blood... blood rushing through her veins, searing hot. She could feel it course through her body, every single drop leaving a burning trail inside her. She was a bard no longer, she was the Vessel. There to give life... there to merge with the Other.
Gabrielle was kneeling by the stone altar, one arm resting upon it, the other holding the sacrificial dagger to her wrist. Her eyes were glazed over in a mad frenzy, brought about by the effects of that potion and the aroma of the incense burning thickly.
Mrtva was similarly kneeling, facing her across the altar, both elbows resting on its surface, holding in her hands that same silver chalice they had drunk from the day before. The pounding of the drum still throbbed in her ears, even though the witch had not touched the instrument today - the rhythm just seemed to have become part of her being.
Something tickled in the back of the young woman's mind, something about the wisdom of attempting suicide - or seeming to - on a sacred altar... she could not put a finger on it.
It did not matter, however. All that mattered was the creature opposite her, who was watching the young woman's every move while speaking a prayer in some unknown language that sounded harsh and sinister to Gabrielle's ears. As she spoke the words, the air above Mrtva wavered and a sense of dread washed over the bard as she felt that strange shift in reality that announced the presence of a divine being. An ominous presence flickered briefly into existence, a face that filled Gabrielle with the deepest horror imaginable.
For she had seen it before, or would in the future, she was not sure which. A red face distorted by hatred, a horned head, eerily familiar. The demonic apparition stared at the bard for an instant and was gone, leaving behind the empty echo of a wicked laughter.
"Well, girl, what are you waiting for?"
Mrtva's rasping, sibilant voice almost made her jump out of her skin. Frozen in shock by the apparition, Gabrielle had lost track of the ritual. Chagrined, she bit her lip and hurried to place the sacrificial blade against her skin. It would not do to anger the Other.
By the gods, what is happening to me? I want this... I can't fight the urge to please her. Oh gods, help me!
Suddenly everything started whirling before her eyes. The world winked out for the blink of an eye, and came back, still spinning. Gabrielle felt nauseous. She was still kneeling, but the altar was a different one. The walls of the cave were no longer there, replaced by the smooth walls of a man-made chamber. The bard found herself looking into a pair of intense dark eyes across the altar from her. Eyes of a stranger. It was too much. She put her hand to her forehead, and fainted dead away.
Meanwhile, Xena was staring in mortified fascination at a sacrificial dagger she was in the process of pulling lightly across the tender skin of a wrist that was not her own, drawing forth a light steady flow of blood. She seemed to have some considerable trouble breathing, as if an iron band constricted her chest. Her pulse was racing irregularly. She still felt dizzy from the exchange, as Nyx had said she would. In fact, the goddess had predicted that she would probably faint, something the warrior had no intention whatsoever of doing. I'm damned if I give you that kind of an opening, witch. Must... hold... on! And she did, barely, by one of her incredible tricks of willpower.
As she fought to adjust to this new situation, a thought occurred to her - Nyx had not mentioned if or how she was going to restore them both to their own bodies. Trust a god to get you into all kinds of fixes!
Mrtva was holding a silver chalice underneath the cut wrist, catching the blood as it trickled down from the wound. Her eyes, pulsing bright red, held a mad, distant expression. She was murmuring something in a strange, guttural language while she waited for a small puddle of the bard's lifeblood to gather at the bottom of the vessel. Xena watched the dark liquid flow, mesmerized and unable to act for the moment. Her mind raced. What was being done here? Should she act to prevent it, making the witch suspicious, or was it better for now to just play along and try not to let her catch on? If she let this continue, would some irreparable damage be done to the woman she loved? Had such damage been done already? If she interfered now, would she have the strength to fight that woman? Something had obviously been done to this body that made Xena feel extremely weak and giddy, not to mention that strange, out-of-place feeling of wild ecstasy. And the shock of the transfer still left her in a stupor.
When she saw Mrtva bring the chalice to her lips to drink of Gabrielle's blood, something snapped. Xena lurched forward with a barely controlled movement, and sent the chalice flying from the witch's hand. It clattered noisily to the floor, the blood oozing out and seeping into the rock. No part of my bard will ever go to you, bitch, I swear, the warrior thought fiercely. Zeus, I hope it's not too late, though... gods, don't let it be too late!
Mrtva was staring at her, a mixture of indignation and shocked wonder written on her face.
"How dare you..." Her voice was the screech of metal against metal. "After all I've done for you, you betray me. I am very displeased with you, my sweet."
My Sweet? Gods, what has been happening here?... I swear If you've harmed her...Okay, think quick, Xena... she doesn't seem to have caught on something is amiss with Gabrielle... maybe I can talk my way out... yeah, right. Like I'm the one who has the way with words... well nothing for it. Here goes...
Trying to put on a mortified expression, she said, "I'm sorry... I don't know what got into me..." Still dizzy, she did not even have to fake the shakiness of her voice.
"Well," the witch said, penetrating her with an evil stare, "your little stunt has ruined the flow of the ritual. Dahak is displeased. I will have to find a way to appease him... "
Who in the Nine Hells is Dahak? The name sounds sinister enough... Haven't heard of a god by that name though... Well, let'im come!
Xena bowed her head meekly - hiding the angry fire that had suddenly come to her eyes. "I am sorry... I know you only do what you must. I stand ready for my punishment." The words chafed with her, but at the same time seemed to come from somewhere deep down. Oh Gabrielle, what has she done to you? Will you ever be yourself again after this?
The first thing Gabrielle noticed upon regaining consciousness was the fact that her head was clear although it hurt a little, and the sick feeling in her stomach gone, while her muscles felt as if she had just climbed a mountain. The second was that Mrtva seemed to be far away. The third was that while she could still sense her, she did not feel the empty craving to be near the witch that she would have expected.
Through closed eyelids she was aware of a weak diffuse light from her left. It was colder than she remembered. Hades, I don't think I ever passed out this way before.. Did I dream that, or was I really somewhere else there? Do I dare open my eyes?
Curiosity got the better of her, as was to be expected, and she carefully cracked open her eyes, blinking a little at the sunlight streaming in from a window many paces off. Sensing a presence close by, the bard turned her head and found that same pair of dark, long-lashed eyes she had looked into before fainting, in an eerily handsome woman's face. Only now she realized they weren't the eyes of a mortal.
She was in the presence of a goddess.
Properly humble, Gabrielle tried to sit up, murmuring words of devout admiration.
"What... who... uh... where... how...?"
"That's four questions, mortal," the goddess said, sounding a touch amused. "I am Nyx. You may have heard of me." Her lips quirked.
"Forgive me," the bard said, swallowing against the strange sound of her voice in her own ears. She must be getting sick. "I feel a little... strange. Different somehow. How long have I been out?"
"Only a few moments. It is no wonder you should feel strange. Listen, bard, this is going to take some adjusting to. I agreed to stay here and get you on your way, so that is what I shall do." Nyx glared at her darkly. "But I will not tolerate from you what I just had to listen to from that warrior. She is lucky I had no choice about the matter."
"Xena...? What are you talking about? Is she here? ...If I may ask."
The goddess gave her an odd look. "Yes and no. Do not be confused, you will be made to understand."
"Please... Xena... is she all right? Where is she? And how did I get here?"
"Your friend has put herself into a very dangerous situation to get you here."
Something dawned on Gabrielle then. She knew Xena. If her friend had been making deals with the goddess, it could only mean one thing.
"She traded places... Oh gods, she didn't... but she did, didn't she? Does that mean she is in the hands of that witch now? Right where I was before I came here?"
"Precisely. But it is only her spirit that went there to take the place of yours. Her body remains here."
"Her body is still here? But how...?" Realization struck the bard, as she hesitantly raised an arm and looked at it. A large, long-fingered hand, a muscular forearm wearing Xena's ornate gauntlet. It almost made her faint again. "Name of the Gods... Whatever possessed her to do such a thing?"
"You are taking it better than expected," Nyx said dryly. "Your big friend wanted you out of there at all costs, but since it isn't in my power to take her there physically, she agreed to resort to the next best thing. So I exchanged your souls while your bodies remain in place."
Gabrielle considered for a moment, then she squared her shoulders resolutely and looked the goddess full in the eye.
"Okay, I want you to switch us back!"
Nyx gave her a look.
"Please! I mean it. Xena's in much worse danger from Mrtva than I am."
At that, the Goddess raised an eyebrow. "From what I've witnessed, Mrtva means to rip your heart out. That sounds dangerous enough to me."
Gabrielle took a breath to steady herself. "She can still do that, and you know it. As for Xena, it won't just be her death. Mrtva is out to undo her very soul. She said as much. I don't know how she is doing it, but she seems to be succeeding, and I can't let that happen."
The Lady of the Night smiled. "You are a very courageous young woman. This warrior should thank all the gods she can think of that you are her... friend." A knowing gleam came into her eyes as she saw Gabrielle react to the little hesitation. "But I will not change you back now. You will have to find your way there physically if you want to get her out of this. In my opinion, you have a much better chance against Mrtva than your big tough friend, so you might as well use this body's superior capabilities to get you both out of this. Besides, the warrior may now know where she is, but you are the only one who knows how to find that place. You have made the journey there, she hasn't."
"But I was drugged senseless. I don't remember a thing!"
"That doesn't matter where you'll be going. And besides, it also seems you have acquired a... shall we say rather unique awareness of Mrtva's whereabouts." Nyx drew herself up, looking sinister. "We have wasted enough time! Listen, and listen well, for I shall only say this once."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm listening."
"Have you heard of the Mirrors of Phantasos?" When the bard shook her head, the goddess went on. "There were five of them made, a very long time ago. They are powerful tools that enable you to physically travel the Realm of Dreams, and they give you great powers there, if you know how."
"So that's how she was doing it," Gabrielle breathed, "I never suspected it had to do with that ugly mirror she has."
Nyx chuckled dryly. "That 'ugly mirror' you refer to is one of the most dangerous artifacts ever made. If she really has that, as I've suspected for some time now, she is certainly not to be trifled with. I hate to think what she will be able to do once she discovers all of its powers. Combined with her own abilities, that would truly be devastating."
Coming from a goddess, Gabrielle thought, I suppose that statement is bad news indeed. And now I guess it is I who has to beat her somehow, with Xena up in that cave with Mrtva. That was a very stupid thing you did, Warrior Princess!
"Can you tell me more about her?" the bard asked carefully. "I mean, she can't be human, I've figured that much out for myself. So what is she?"
Nyx hesitated. "No, I cannot," she finally said. "What I can tell you is that she has certain powers of the mind, especially over people with evil in them, or going through emotional torment." The Lady of the Night gave her a meaningful look.
Oh, Xena, couldn't you have found some other way to do this? You can't begin to suspect the danger you're in, my love! Oh gods, she'll tear your soul to pieces!
"Okay. Tell me what I have to do."
"Your only chance to reach Mrtva quickly enough is through the Realm of Dreams - by the same route she took you. You will have to get hold of one of the Mirrors to do that. It is very dangerous. Mortals die so easily in that world, and those that do so quickly are the lucky ones."
"It can't be any worse than losing her," Gabrielle said quietly. "Nothing could be worse torture than that. So where do I get that Mirror?"
There was compassion in Nyx' gaze as she nodded. "Very well, bard. As I said, there were five of them made. Two have been destroyed in some sort of magical explosion, one is kept locked away in the Underworld, and one remains here in the mortal world, at the Oracle of Delphi."
"That's four," the bard said slowly.
"The whereabouts of the fifth are unknown, but it is rumored to be the most powerful of them all. It has been lost for a millenium, give or take a century. So, for you it's a ride to Delphi, or a trip to the Underworld, Tartarus, more specifically. The Oracle is just under a day's ride west from here. There is a way into the Underworld about halfway there through a deep gorge. Your choice."
"Time is short, I suppose," Gabrielle thought aloud, "but I don't think I should be as daredevil as this body's normal inhabitant. Mrtva must be through with whatever she was doing to me," She shuddered, "so the ritual will continue tomorrow. That should give me some time.... How do I use the mirror once I have it?"
"One of the rules about the Mirrors is that they work differently for everyone. Each person has to discover anew how to unlock all their secrets. All I can tell you is that you open the portal to the Realm Of Dreams by touching the surface of the mirror, and you close it by touching the frame. But mind your body parts as you close it! You do not want an arm or worse caught in the other realm when the portal closes."
"Makes sense," Gabrielle said, and shuddered.
"Well," Nyx said after a while, "I have told you all I can. You will be on your own from here. Good luck. The warrior's horse is down by the lakeshore, by the way."
Without waiting for an answer, the goddess flickered, and disappeared.
"Oh, and be careful what you dream, there." The words echoed hollowly through the chamber after Nyx was gone.
"Great. Juust great," Gabrielle murmured. She moved around an arm experimentally, fascinated by the way Xena's muscles flexed and rippled under her command, and by that feeling of latent power in those strong limbs. It would take some time to adjust and get the feel of this body. Better take good care of it, the bard thought, you would be terribly upset with me, wouldn't you, if I messed up your reflexes, or something? A fond smile came to her lips that she couldn't have stopped if she had tried, to be replaced immediately by a frown of concern.
"Okay... no sense in wasting any more time... hang in there, love! I'm on my way!"
The nightmares came again shortly after Mrtva had hauled her to another chamber and left her there. Xena had just collapsed by the base of a stalagmite, stomach heaving, feeling as if a white-hot fire was burning her bones from the inside. Despite her struggles against Morpheus' calls, she was out cold and sleeping within seconds.
She was the warlord. Blood - none of it her own - liberally smeared her battered armor as she guided her mount through the remains of the smoldering village, face stony, hiding the emotions warring inside that cold cold heart. Women and children had died today. Innocents. Part of her screamed at her guilt in this. Another part stamped down firmly on such foolish emotion. This village was well positioned strategically. It would make a great addition to her bases of operation. Too bad about the fire. Sacrifices had to be made. Needless now to worry about whether it had been an accident, or one of her men.
Her gaze flicked to where a handful of ragged, trembling people were huddled together. Those were the survivors of the fire. Three women, an old man, a little boy and a barely nubile blonde girl, who looked up at the warlord from eyes blacker than night. There was not a shred of fear in her gaze, just a dull pain, and hatred. Focusing her eyes once more on the path ahead, Xena rode on, feeling the girl's stare follow her.
I should have killed her then, came a stray thought that didn't seem to be her own. I should have killed her when I had the chance.
Her men were sorting through the debris in search of loot, but she didn't pay them any heed. She just wanted her tent, and one of those young handsome recruits to play with. Gory battles always seemed to get her juices going. She smiled coldly to herself. She could have them all. There wasn't a single man in that whole army who wouldn't die to cater to her every whim. Ah, the power! This was her calling.
NO!!!! No, it's not me, her mind protested vainly. I must wake! This is the past... I've found my way... haven't I?
The warlord turned to get another look at the girl. She was no longer there. In her place stood Gabrielle, looking at her accusingly.
"Gabrielle... I'm sorry."
The bard made no move, just continued to gaze at her.
"It's the past, don't you see? And it never happened that way, I swear..." Oh god, what am I doing...? It did happen exactly that way, and she knows it... I'm lying... oh no!
Without a word, Gabrielle turned and walked away.
"Don't go," Xena whispered, stricken. "Please forgive me. I love you, Gabrielle."
The bard turned to look at her briefly once more, shook her head, and continued to walk away silently. There was an air of finality about her stance that was unmistakable. Gabrielle would not come back.
No battle, not even the most desperate stand, could have unsettled the mighty warlord. But now, she just slumped in her saddle, and buried her face in her hands.
"Pitiful, just pitiful."
The all-too-familiar, grating voice behind her and the sudden irrational fear creeping up on her made Xena whirl in her saddle.
"You," she said flatly, stamping down on the rising panic. "It figures."
Mrtva cackled. "I am touched at how glad you are to see me, warlord. That was quite a trick you and the little brat pulled on me - you actually fooled me for a while there!"
Okay. So she knows. I should have realized she'd find out, after the way she's been intruding into my dreams... I'm losing it. I need to stay focused... have to keep her away from Gabrielle!
"What have you done to her, you bitch? I swear if you've harmed her in any way I...."
The witch's shrill laughter cut her off. "You what, silly? Just what do you think you could do to me? I've got you right where I want you, warrior. Want a demonstration?"
Moments later Xena was off her horse, backing away from the witch and gasping for breath as a wave of pure, primeval terror engulfed her out of the blue. All she wanted was to get away from this monster as far as possible. But only for the blink of an eye, before her iron will reasserted itself. With an almost physical effort she managed to stop her retreat and straightened, forcing herself to look Mrtva fully in the eye.
"You'll have to do better than that, witch," she growled.
Mrtva paused for an instant, something unreadable flashing across her face, but then she just giggled louder and clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, you are so delightfully stubborn. I haven't had this much fun in ages! It will be a pleasure feeding off you as I finish using the little wench's body for my purposes."
Suddenly the dream was over, and Mrtva was gone. Xena did not wake, but the remainder of her dreams were just ordinary nightmares.
As always when riding the tall war-horse all by herself, Gabrielle felt awkward and lonely. The fact that Argo had taken one look at her and seemed to know immediately that this wasn't her accustomed rider did not make it any easier to bear. Just one long flat stare out of a big dark eye, and the mare had snorted, shaken her head, and gone back to her grazing. Well, at least in this body she was more at home on a horse than she had ever been before, and even managed to make her golden mount respond to her commands, after a few incredulously rolled eyes from the war-horse.
Now that they were on the road, faithful Argo seemed to sense the urgency, for she fairly flew across the plain, stretching powerfully under the saddle and snorting with exertion. Froth flew from her mouth in little flakes, lathering her straining shoulders.
"Good girl," the bard murmured, patting the horse's sweaty neck, "I promise I'll make this up to you somehow."
With the mare going all out and the two of them traveling through the remainder of the day and the following night, they made very good time and reached the vicinity of Mount Parnassus just before daybreak the following morning.
When she slid out of the saddle, she felt her knees buckle, and barely caught herself before she fell down. "Gods Xena, you are exhausted. What have you been doing to yourself," she murmured. Then she chuckled dryly. "Dumb question Gabrielle. You know how she gets... she must have felt pretty powerless... I'll bet that drove her up the wall with frustration. And now I went and rode the night through without allowing her to rest. Duh! Not that my body will feel any better to her." Gabrielle thought about how many times the warrior had gone for days without sleep, and had never let her fatigue show. It was a comfort to know that this body did feel it too, and a wonder to her that Xena always managed to look as if she had just had a good night's sleep.
She removed Argo's gear and gave the mare a brisk rub before she turned her loose in the meadow, going so far as to hug the arched neck. "Thank you girl," she whispered into the sweat-matted mane.
Considering briefly, Gabrielle decided that her best course of action would be to first allow this body some rest. She realized that time was short, but she could not risk going any further when walking upright and thinking straight was becoming a challenge. She spread her bedroll in a sheltered space between two rocks, removing her breastplate, boots and gauntlets but not bothering with the rest, and promptly went to sleep, her last thought being that there would be no watchful ears to guard her sleep this time. She was too drowsy to be really worried, though. Her sleep was deep and dreamless.
Waking up was nothing like she was used to. Usually, the warrior had to call her at least twice, and then she would slowly, slowly drift into a state of semi-wakefulness that enabled her to drag herself out of her bedroll and prepare some tea. On occasions, Xena had even had to use cold water to get her to stir.
It was a novel experience to be instantly awake before she had time to open her eyes. In fact, this body seemed used to lying unmoving for a few moments, eyes closed, all other senses fully alert and scanning the surroundings for threats. Gabrielle's - no, Xena's - eyes snapped open and she sat up, feeling reasonably refreshed and rested. From the position of the sun, it was early afternoon. She hadn't slept all that long, but it had done wonders.
Stretching a little to remove the kinks in her muscles, she contemplated the great mountain before her. Mount Parnassus. What a place for stories! If only she had more leisure now. But time was short. She made her way up the slope to the dwellings of the clergy, and taking advantage of her now rather imposing stature, stopped the first person she saw, a young novice.
"You," she rapped, and the girl froze, eyes wide. Gabrielle felt bad, seeing the fear in those eyes, but only for an instant. "I need to see the Head Priest."
Mutely, the girl nodded and quickly led the way to the Oracle's abode. Arriving there, she curtsied hastily and scurried away. Gabrielle had to smile. Now she knew what it felt like to strike fear into people just by looking at them. It felt... nice, she decided with a wicked little chuckle.
The cleft in the rock that was the source of the Oracle's wisdom was quiescent today, and only a tiny wisp of the intoxicating fumes could be seen snaking up from the depths. The Pythia's seat on top of it was unoccupied.
The Head Priest was there, greeting her. "Xena. It's been a while. To what do we owe the honor of your visit?" His lips quirked a little, leaving Gabrielle unsure about how exactly he meant those words. She let the question pass.
Thinking quickly, she decided to keep her little secret for now. Putting on her best intimidating warrior voice, she said, "I need something from you."
The Priest raised an eyebrow. "The Warrior Princess needing advice from the Oracle?"
Getting smart with me, huh? You'd better watch it, man... "It's not advice I'm looking for. I need the Mirror of Phantasos."
The priest's jaw fell open at her words. Regaining his composure, he said haughtily, "what makes you think I will give that to you?"
Gabrielle drew herself up, putting on a menacing glare, and watched the man flinch. This was fun! However, she thought that maybe bullying wasn't the right tactics with this high-ranking clergyman. She took a breath, and said evenly, "There is trouble abroad. I can only fix it if I have that mirror." She did not take her eyes off the priest's, who in turn appraised her with outward calm. Quietly, fervently, she added, "this is very important," and willed the warrior's intense blue gaze to do the rest.
It was a long time before the priest spoke, and the silence began to weigh heavily on the bard, though she knew for certain that it didn't show in that calm warrior's face. "I never liked you," he said bluntly, "but from what I've heard, you've turned around. And you know, looking at you, I can almost believe it."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.
"However," the priest continued, "I can't help you with this."
The second eyebrow joined the first.
"Not because I don't want to." From his tone Gabrielle couldn't tell if he did want to, either. "The Mirror is no longer here. We think it has been stolen."
"Stolen? When was that?"
"Oh, maybe three or four weeks ago. One morning the door to the chamber where it's kept was ajar, and the Mirror was gone. The funny thing is, there are quite a few valuable objects in that room, but nothing else has been taken."
"Any trace of the thief?"
"Well, a novice has been missing since. Very peculiar, that." He shook his head absent-mindedly.
The priest frowned in puzzlement. "You see, this young girl had broken her leg a while back. She used a crutch to help her walk. We found the lower half of that crutch - severed with such a clean cut that I can't imagine what kind of a blade could have made it. This was tough wood - a sword or some such would have left the edges frayed. Nobody has been able to figure it out."
"How much do you know about the Mirror?"
The priest gave her another considering look, before answering. "It was given into the care of this temple long before my time. The priests and priestesses here have been closely guarding the fact of its very existence ever since. All we know about it is that it is somehow connected to the Realm of Dreams, and that it is very dangerous." He paused and looked suspiciously at the warrior before him. "Just how did you learn of the Mirror's existence?"
Gabrielle shrugged, feeling the muscles of her back rippling under her leathers with the movement. "Call it a freak accident."
The answer did not seem to satisfy the priest, but he made no further comment. Gabrielle was anxious to leave, chafing at the delay this was causing her. She thanked the priest curtly and made her good-byes, glaring at a few servants and novices for good measure as she made her way back down the mountain. Watching them scatter before her made her feel better. Marginally.
"Well, seems I'm going to Tartarus after all," she told Argo as she strapped their gear onto the mare's back. "Can't say I'm all that thrilled."
Xena was shocked to see how exhausted this body really was. Gabrielle even seemed to be running a slight fever.
Well, first things first. I'd better take good care of this body. Wouldn't want to give it back in bad shape. So I guess I'd better go easy until I figure out a way out of this. And it seems she's not feeding you as she should either...
She had just woken up from a deep sleep that had somehow been more exhausting than anything. She knew there had been a Warlord Dream, but the memory was fuzzy. That's weird, she mused. All the others are still in my memory as if they had happened moments ago... I know this one was by far the most terrifying, somehow, but... Gods, I'm slipping. This isn't good. I just hope Gabrielle is able to keep her wits together better. She has to!
Scanning the surroundings before moving or even opening her eyes the way she was used to was a chore. This body had never been one to wake easily, and with the fever and the ordeals it appeared to have gone through, it felt more like a boneless lump of wet clay than anything else.
But she managed, and discovered to her faint relief that she was apparently alone. Relief that turned quickly into apprehension as she ran the possibilities through her mind as to what the witch might be doing, and to whom. The warrior hoped Mrtva wouldn't be able to find Gabrielle's dreams the way she found hers.
Now that she was here in the body of her best friend, the idea of switching bodies did not seem so brilliant anymore. She would have to relearn a lot of things until she would be able to fight the way she could when in her own body. She doubted if she would have enough time for that.
She was now essentially helpless, being forced to just stay put and hope for somebody to get her out. That chafed, even - or perhaps especially - if that someone was the woman she loved and trusted. There was no doubt in her mind that Gabrielle was even now finding a way to come for her. At least Gabrielle now had a powerful body with lightning reflexes. Not that it had done Xena much good so far against Mrtva.
Gods I need to stop this fretting! I'm sure she'll be fine. Mrtva never did seem to have the same effect on her that she had on me. Now what I should do is probably try and get every minute of sleep that I can. If only Mrtva... A loud rumble in her stomach told her Gabrielle's body did not fully agree. She could not suppress a weak chuckle. Oh yeah. And food. I could have thought of that.
Food, however, was nowhere to be found, and so she settled down as comfortably as the pebbly ground allowed, and forced herself to calm. A nagging fear of what dreams awaited her this time kept her awake, though.
"Gods, Xena, how do you put up with all this stuff?" Gabrielle muttered as she struggled with a buckle of the armor that had come undone. It was on her back, and the scabbard and sword kept swinging around in the most annoying fashion, pushing the catch out of the reach of her struggling fingers just when she was about to snap it closed.
A faint blush crept to her ears as she remembered the foolish maneuver that had brought this about. Feeling incredibly energetic all of a sudden and light-headed with lack of sleep, she had attempted to vault into the saddle after a brief stop for a drink, the way Xena did it all the time. This body remembered the move well enough, but her mind had barged in and tried to control the action, and she had ended up jumping straight over Argo's back, scraping her back against the saddle and loosing the catch in the process. What was more, the bump against the horse's side had added to her forward momentum, sending her stumbling forward onto her knees and drawing a disapproving snort and an angrily rolled eye from a prancing mare.
"I swear this has got to be the most annoying piece of junk the world has ever seen," she ranted and tugged at the breastplate in hopes of pulling the offending buckle within her reach. Argo tossed her head and laid her ears back.
"How did you ever manage before I was there to help you with those?" That gave her pause. Her mood dropped a few notches, and while she lost herself in dark and fearful fantasies of what Mrtva might be doing to her beloved just now, her hands absently slipped around to her back from another angle and effortlessly snapped the catch into place.
Shaking her head and staring at her hands in puzzled wonder, she mounted Argo in a more sedate manner and covered the last few leagues to the gorge that would lead her into Hades' Realm.
The crack that she had been directed to was more like a thin cleft in a rocky region just north of the route that had led her to the temple. At its end it was about half a pace thick, broadening towards its center only to narrow again at the far end a dozen paces away. Noxious fumes rose thinly, and an unnatural heat wafted from the crack. There was a clear space around it where nothing grew and even the dusty ground seemed duller than elsewhere.
"Well, that certainly looks inviting," Gabrielle told Argo as she slid out of the saddle, mindful of that buckle. She contemplated the fissure. It looked just the right width for her to work her way down bracing herself against the walls on both sides. But she could not see the bottom, and that made her a little uneasy. The length of rope Argo carried was not even going to reach halfway down.
She picked up a pebble and dropped it inside. Cocked her head and listened intently. Moments passed. Nothing. She tried again with a larger pebble, with the same result. She swallowed hard and took a shuddering breath.
"Oh, lovely. Juust lovely. I know Xena does this all the time..." she chuckled wryly, "so I guess I'd be strong enough. And if anything goes wrong here... She will just have to make do with my body... I guess she got the short end of THAT deal... ha ha ha... I'm not really being very funny, huh Argo?" The addressed party waggled an ear and shook her head. The bard preferred not to think about what would happen to Xena if something did go wrong.
"Okay girl, you wait here until I get back, okay?" She kept talking to Argo as she relieved the golden horse of her gear, gave her a thorough rubdown and turned her loose to graze. The gear she hid away as best as she could between the large rocks that lay scattered around the area.
That done, the bard checked to see if the chakram was securely fastened, removed the sword and scabbard from her back as it would hinder her on the climb down, and tied it to her waist instead. She crouched down by the crevice. Steeling herself, Gabrielle scooted forward on her backside until she could swing her legs over the edge, and peered down once more at the sheer walls of the cleft curving down into dark, fathomless depths.
"Gods Xena, I hope I can do this... You know I'm terrified of heights, don't you? And I'm not too comfortable in tight spaces either..." She sighed. "This should be a piece of nutbread. Let's go before I have time to change my mind!" A sudden image of herself caught by Mrtva's dark magic and putting that knife to her wrist just before the body switch took place, however, made her forget every thought about changing her mind. Bracing her arms and legs against one of the sheer walls and her back against the other, she started her slow descent down into the bottomless gorge, bug style.
"Well, so far it's been easy," she murmured once when she took a break wedged firmly between the two planes of rock. She was barely out of breath, even though the crack of light from above was now only a tiny slit to her eyes. There was something to be said for regular exercises, she decided. The bard resolved never to gripe again when Xena seemed to go overboard with her daily drills.
As the day wore on, the light from above became obliterated by the oppressing darkness of the chasm, with no trace of any bottom in sight. Still Gabrielle doggedly descended into the depths. One way or the other, she was going to Tartarus. The heat was steadily increasing, and soon the bard in the warrior's body had to concede that her limbs did seem to feel a little numb and tired, and hot. Presently, the bard became aware of a soft red glow coming from somewhere far below. The heat was stifling now, and with it came a sulfuric stink that threatened to overpower Gabrielle's senses.
Even more disconcerting, the distance between the walls that the bard had been so nicely braced against seemed to be widening gradually. If this continued, very soon she would not have enough leverage to hold herself in place. Experimenting, she tried to crawl back up a little distance, which worked fine. Her relief lasted only until she realized that going up was much harder than going down, and that she would never make it back to the top.
With a sinking feeling, Gabrielle contemplated her choices. She could try climbing back up, and would with reasonable certainty end up plummeting into the depths. She could continue to ease her way down, and if she was lucky, the walls would not go too far apart for her to hold on to, but she would probably slip soon because she was rapidly weakening, so she would probably end up plummeting into the depths. Or the distance between the walls could broaden to the point where she could no longer hold on, and she would end up plummeting into the depths.
Which, she mused, was where she wanted to go anyway, and as fast as possible. No sense in wasting any more of her precious energy, or time, right? The Underworld was down there somewhere, and it would matter little which state she was in when she got there. Unable to think clearly with the suffocating fumes and the heat and her weakness, what she did next seemed to be the logical decision.
She relaxed her leg muscles, giving up her hold, and let herself plummet into the depths.
The one who called herself Mrtva was not pleased. Not only had the pure soul she so desperately needed been whisked away from her, but this trick the warrior had pulled on her seemed to have somehow weakened her grasp on Xena's dark soul. She hoped the warrior had not noticed how close she had come to overpowering Mrtva in that last dream. She would have to be more careful around the stubborn bitch in the future.
She released her hold on the young man whose dreams she had invaded. There wasn't much to be had here. He was a weakling. She snickered at the memory of his reaction when the object of his erotic fantasies had suddenly turned into a putrid corpse and reached out a rotting hand to tear his heart from his chest. She had not let him wake, but soaked up his fear greedily, along with most of his sanity as she took him spiraling deeper into her intricately crafted nightmare. He hadn't quite died, but his mind was sucked dry. He would never think a coherent thought again.
Wiping her mouth after feeding was just a mannerism, but the one who called herself Mrtva found strange glee in the gesture. It was so very human. She was not nearly sated. But not to worry. There was half a world full of sleepers, just dying for her to come to their dreams. She cackled hysterically at her own wit. Literally dying for her! Yes!
And when the time came, she would tear that warrior's mind to shreds so small there wouldn't be anything left for Hades to send to Tartarus. The mighty Warrior Princess would float in eternal nonexistence, never to be born again. Served her right for thwarting Mrtva's plans!
But first, to find the little runaway bard and make her hers once more... this time, for good.
Her mad laughter echoed through the Realm of Dreams and startled Morpheus from his sleep for a second. He looked around groggily, shrugged, and promptly went back to sleep.
By midday Xena was sure she would go crazy. The immobility that came with the slight fever and being effectively kept prisoner in this cavern, and the fact that she had no idea where either Mrtva or her beloved bard were, threatened to blast her tenuous hold on sanity to smithereens. She had tried getting up and pacing nervously, but this body had soon protested with aching muscles and dizziness. So she had laid back down on the hard ground, feeling light-headed, and counted the drops of water dripping from the stalactite overhead onto her thigh.
At count three hundred fifty-six, she caught herself chewing fingernails, and mentally slapped herself as she contemplated the destruction her teeth had worked on the bard's slender fingers. A good thing Gabrielle didn't play the harp the way some other bards did!
Deciding that the cavern's walls were entirely too close for comfort, the warrior turned bard made her way to the mouth of the cave where the mid-afternoon sun shone brightly and much hotter than she was used to. She sat down in the opening overlooking the strange outlandish landscape, and hugged her knees. Head resting against the sandstone wall at her back, she closed her eyes and let the sun's rays warm her.
She could not continue this way. If she could not find something worthwhile to do, she was sure she would end up throwing herself down into the depths of the canyon. She let her eyes wander over the bizarre rock formations around her. Trying to climb out of this place was not an option in her present state, but it couldn't hurt to memorize the general layout of her surroundings. It kept her occupied for about two candlemarks. By then she knew every twist and turn of the winding canyon below, and every outcrop of rock or arching natural bridge within her line of sight, as if they were old friends.
A few of the rock formations looked like people, and she found herself actually giving names to some of them - the Gossips, for three high pillars reminiscent of three women in dresses talking; the Cook, because that one made her think of the rather fat man that used to help out her mother at the Inn; Mylady, complete with a fancy hat. One she dubbed the Bard, for the red-gold color of the topmost layer of rock where the head would be. Then she realized what she was doing.
With a frustrated little growl, she started banging her head lightly against the rock behind her in a slow steady rhythm. She did not stop until little stars began dancing before her eyes. Do something. Do something. It couldn't be that hard.
Well, there was something she could do, though the idea made her shiver uncontrollably with cold terror. Mrtva was out there somewhere, quite possibly looking for Gabrielle. There was a chance that the witch would come to Xena in her dreams - if she went to sleep. Or maybe Xena could even find a way to actively seek her out. If she could keep Mrtva occupied, perhaps Gabrielle would be safe from the witch. It was worth a try. So, shoving her fear down as far as it would go - which wasn't very far, to be honest - Xena resolutely shifted to a more comfortable position, and closed her eyes. Confident that she was doing something to help her friend, she managed to go to sleep quickly despite the residual fear that still gnawed at her heart.
...to be continued
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