DISCLAIMER: While this FANFIC does use characters from X:WP and H:TLJ, which are, of course, the sole property of MCA Universal and Renaissance Pictures, it also includes real people from the XenaVerse Mailing List. The premise is that all of the members of the XML live in a complex of buildings on the slopes of Mount Olympus. But Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, and the rest of the characters from the universe of H:TLJ and X:WP interact with them on a regular basis. Also, this will eventually include SPOILERS for several 2nd & 3rd season X:WP episodes.
Also, I did not write this entire epic by myself; James Davis is equally to blame. But for the sake of continuity, I have edited all of the 40+ installments into 3 chapters. Some minor rewriting has also been done to preserve the narrative voice throughout.
Oh, and it's rated the same as the television show: PG14 for suggestive language and mild violence.
MY SOUL TO KEEP
"The Golden Soul Be Broken"
Xena sensed that something was wrong.
She kicked her heels into Argo's side, spurring the magnificent mare on even faster in an effort to reach Gabrielle before the feeling of dread within her, her conviction that the Bard was in grave danger, could be realized. She cursed herself for leaving her companion alone while she had taken the horse and scouted the area around the campsite one last time before turning in for the evening.
The Warrior Princess had been unable to shake the feeling that she and the Bard were being followed. But despite all her attempts to ascertain who it was, no matter how many times she jerked her head around at a blur of movement caught out of the corner of her eye, or turned suddenly and charged into the brush, she had found no trace of any pursuit.
So, she had taken Argo and made a final sweep of the area, finding nothing, as she half-expected, but was then suddenly struck with an overwhelming feeling that Gabrielle was in danger.
In her eagerness to get back to the Bard, she didn't notice the shadowy figures in the trees above her until they dropped down in the path ahead of her, causing Argo to rear in surprise. Xena used the horse's backward momentum to flip herself back down the trail. She landed with her feet planted firmly on the ground, sword drawn, and appraised her attackers.
They were women, Amazons from the look of them, but the headdresses they wore were unfamiliar to the Warrior Princess, indicating that they were not of any tribe she knew. And that meant trouble for Gabrielle, the Queen of Ephiny's tribe.
"Nice night for a walk, ladies," Xena drawled, edging around Argo, but keeping the half-dozen Amazons in clear sight. "But it's a lousy night to die. Why don't you just go back to wherever you came from and let me by, huh?"
The six Amazons said nothing as they spread out, attempting to surround the former warlord, the blades of their swords reflecting the sparse light of the sliver of moon hanging low in the starry sky.
"Not the chatty type, I guess," Xena shrugged. "Suits me." As one of the women walked past Argo, Xena suddenly put a finger to her lips and whistled. The mare kicked out, catching the startled Amazon in the side and knocking her into the thick trunk of a tree. She didn't get up. "Whoops. Didn't mean to make the odds any worse for you gals," Xena grinned wolfishly. "Are we gonna dance all night or should I get this party started?"
The five remaining Amazons closed on her.
She smiled and hurled her chakram as she raised her sword to block several quick thrusts by her attackers. The round disk bounced off a tree, struck one woman in the back of her head, ricocheted off another tree, hit another Amazon on the cheek, and finally careened off a third assailant, hitting her on the temple, before returning to Xena's hand.
The raven-haired beauty caught the chakram and, in one fluid motion, clipped it to her belt and sliced her sword across the belly of one of the two remaining Amazons.
"Just you and me now, sweets," Xena purred as her last victim's strangled cry faded into the stillness of the night. "Still wanna fight, or can we talk about this?"
In response, the Amazon rushed forward, screaming, and lashed out, her sword flying for the Warrior Princess' throat. But Xena parried the strike with her sword and caught the Amazon in the gut with her boot as they closed with each other. She then brought her sword arm down in a chopping motion and drove her elbow into the other woman's forearm, causing her to drop her sword, and possibly breaking the limb.
Xena's fingers suddenly flew out to the base of the Amazon's neck, stabbing at pressure points near the jugular.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she said as the woman collapsed to her knees. Xena tore off the mask and saw that the woman's dark eyes were bulging in surprise. Her attractive face was covered in bright paint, mostly red with black, green, and white streaks, in a pattern that Xena instinctively knew to indicate a warrior; which meant she was part of a war party. But the Warrior Princess was unaware of any current tribes being at war with anyone, let alone with the tribe of which Gabrielle was Queen. "You have thirty seconds to tell me why you attacked before it kills you."
But the Amazon looked back at Xena with eyes that burned with hatred and bit her tongue to keep from crying out. When blood started to cascade from her nose and she began to lose consciousness, Xena's fingers flew to the exact same spots and the woman gasped as she sucked air into her lungs.
Before she could do anything else, though, the Warrior Princess' right fist struck her in the jaw and laid her out cold.
Xena then jumped onto Argo and raced back towards their camp, fearing the worst, but praying to the Gods that she wasn't too late.
As over a dozen Amazons stood guard, one with a mask crowned with straw painted red as blood stood over the form of Gabrielle. The Bard had put up a good fight, one worthy of an Amazon Queen, but in the end, the greater numbers of her foes had proved too much for her and she had been knocked unconscious. There were a few new cuts and bruises on her face and back, but other than that, she appeared to be all right.
The Amazon standing over her was holding a large gem in her hands and chanting. And, as she chanted, the stone, which had been dull yellow in color, began to glow from within, and a golden light illuminated the garish mask of the woman holding it.
Suddenly, with her familiar war cry cutting through the night like a sword shearing through soft flesh, Xena charged into the camp astride Argo, scattering the Amazons momentarily.
Spotting the one standing over Gabrielle, Xena leaped from the horse, flipping over and over in the air before landing a few feet from the stranger, causing her to cease her chanting in mid-word. Before the Warrior Princess could attack, however, several other Amazons rushed in between them.
As Xena fought with them, and the others who jumped in to take their place when the first had fallen to her fury, the one with the glowing gem made her escape. She ran into the woods, where the group's horses were secured, leaped onto her dun-colored mare and gave a piercing cry before riding off.
Back in the camp, the remaining Amazons abruptly broke off their fight and disappeared into the darkness.
Xena was sorely tempted to follow them, but she happened to look over at Gabrielle, to make sure she was all right, and noticed that, even though her breasts rose and fell with life, the color was gone from her face and figure. She looked like a statue carved of dull wax, but breathing all the same somehow.
Hoping it was merely a trick of the dim light of the campfire, Xena rushed over and took the Bard's hand in her own.
A terrible look covered her face when she felt how cold the hand was, like a dead thing, and how limp. She double-checked to make sure Gabrielle was indeed breathing and then tried to wake her up.
"Gabrielle? It's okay, I drove them off. You can wake up now," Xena said gently, caressing the Bard's still cheek and brushing the strawberry blonde hair from her face. "I saved you."
But the figure in her lap did not respond, other than to continue to inhale and exhale mechanically.
The King of Thieves entered the dockside tavern and approached the bar. "I'm Autolycus," he said, reminding himself not to add his titular. "I'm supposed to meet Captain Nebula here."
"'Ave a seat, lad, and I'll send the captain word you're here," the scruffy man replied.
"Thanks. Oh, and have one of your wenches bring me a beer," Auto added as he turned and walked over and sat down at a table near the back, where he could see everyone who entered the seedy establishment.
A few minutes later, when a shadow fell across him, he pulled a coin from his purse and set it on the table without taking his eyes off the entrance. "That should cover it," he said.
"That won't even come close," replied a sultry female voice.
Autolycus looked up and his eyes practically popped out of his head when he saw a beautiful, dark-skinned woman with long black hair and large brown eyes standing next to his table. She was wearing a silk shirt, left daringly open and tied around her slim waist, and tight breeches made of a dark material that hugged the curve of her hips.
"Sweet mother of Zeus!" he exclaimed. Then a cloud fell across his face. "Oh, sweetheart, believe me, I'd love to, but I've got business, rather urgent business to attend to, or I'd be all over you like harpies on blind Phineus' feasts."
"Excuse me?" the woman replied, drawing herself up haughtily.
Autolycus' mouth dropped open as this maneuver caused her barely contained breasts to swell even more. "Please, lady, have a heart! I've got to catch a ride with this scow owned by Nebula or I'll be blowing the score of a lifetime. Not that you wouldn't rate a close second, or third, possibly, but money is money, baby. So, clear off before this Nebula arrives. I need to have a clear head to deal with him. You know how these sailors are," he added in a confidential whisper, "all salt and no pepper, dull as dishwater and uglier than Cerberus. The only thing they can do with half a degree of skill is sail. Oh, and belch. I hear they're quite good at belching."
The woman suddenly belched more loudly than Autolycus had ever heard and his face lost its color as she said, "Like that?" He nodded. "By the way, my name is Nebula, Captain Nebula."
"Mine's mud," the King of Thieves sighed, lowering his head and banging it onto the wooden table.
Gabrielle screamed an endless scream.
Somehow, she was inside the gem that the strange Amazon had run away with. She was aware of her surroundings, or rather, of the gem's surroundings, and knew that it was in a leather sack.
And that she wasn't alone in the gem. There was another presence inside of it. Not really a personality, not anything she could communicate with, or even identify, but something that was nevertheless familiar in a way she couldn't put her finger on.
So to speak.
As the Amazons rode across the countryside after their attack on Xena and Gabrielle, they were suddenly confronted by a band of Centaurs. In their haste to escape the fury of the Warrior Princess they had accidentally blundered into the horsemen's lands. But it wasn't the nature of the raiders to apologize to anyone, especially not to Centaurs, whom they loathed more than their traitorous sisters.
So, they fell on the band of Centaurs and a furious battle followed, resulting in losses on both sides before the outclassed horsemen fled into the woods for reinforcements. In fact, the battle resulted in more than the loss of life for the Amazons, although it was hours before their leader realized that the pouch containing the gem had been torn loose during the fight and left behind.
When Xena walked into the XenaVerse complex carrying the apparently lifeless body of the Bard, despite the fact that many of her Xenite friends approached and offered to help, asked what was wrong, what had happened, etc., the Warrior Princess ignored all of them. Instead, she strode to the garden of Athene, past the grave of James, past the newly rebuilt library, through the archway and down the hall to the temple of Asclepius.
She pushed past the attendants and the others waiting in line and entered the inner recesses of the shrine, where the God himself stood ministering over a man with a broken leg. He looked up and frowned slightly at the interruption. "I'll be with you shortly. Please, go and take your place in line with the others," he said quietly, laying his hands once more on the man lying on his altar.
Xena stood silently in place, her only sound was a sniffling noise as she tried to keep from crying.
Asclepius sighed and then finished with the man and helped him down. The moment he was clear of the altar, Xena walked over and laid Gabrielle's body on it. "Help her," she choked out, wiping the tears from her eyes as if they were stinging her.
"There are others who were here before you who also require my skills," he explained. "Please, take your place in-"
"HELP HER!!!" Xena screamed.
Asclepius nodded and then looked closely at the Bard. He carefully examined her eyes and held his face close enough to feel her breath. He listened to her heart pumping steadily and then drew back in surprise.
"What's wrong?" Xena demanded.
"My child, I can't help her," he said sadly.
"You're the God of Healing. So, heal her!" Xena commanded.
"But, Xena, there's nothing I can do for her. Let me explain," he added quickly, sensing another outburst from the distraught warrior. "The problem is that, physically, there's nothing wrong with Gabrielle."
"What are you talking about??! Look at her. Look at her! Does she look healthy to you?" Xena asked.
"Of course not. But it's not any physical ailment that's produced this condition. Her soul is missing," he said softly. "And I can't help you to get it back. This is the work of a powerful evil force. You would be better served to consult with my aunt, Athene."
Without a word, Xena scooped Gabrielle up into her arms and exited the temple. She returned to the garden and, ignoring the protestations of the owl perched beside the entrance, kicked the library doors open and entered.
Most of the shelves were still empty of scrolls, as the Goddess of Wisdom was just beginning the process of at least trying to replace the ones lost in the recent fire. But Xena paid them no attention. She walked to a large table and gently laid the body of her companion down on it.
"ATHENE!" she yelled as the owl flew in and landed on a nearby shelf.
"I tried to tell ya, love, that me mistress is gone. She's off collecting replacements for her lost scrolls," the owl explained, eyeing the still form of the Bard. "What's wrong with yer friend?"
Xena shot the bird a murderous glance. "She lost her soul to some evil force. Now, unless you can help me get it back, I suggest you leave me-"
"Hold on there, love!" the owl interrupted. "As a matter of fact, I just might be able to help you."
"I'm in no mood for games," she warned.
"No game, love," the owl replied, flying down to the table and peering at Gabrielle's colorless face. "Hmmm, looks like an attribute theft gone bad to me. Anything special about your friend?"
"Too many things to name," she replied, looking down at the Bard fondly.
"I'm sure that's true, love, but I was referrin' to attributes of a more specialized nature. Does she have the gift of prophecy?"
"She claimed to once, but I've yet to see any evidence of it," Xena shrugged.
"Was she ever given any abilities or rights by another person? Like a right of inheritance, or succession, perhaps?" the owl inquired, lowering his round head to the Bard's chest.
Xena suddenly nodded. "She was given the Right of Caste by the dying Princess Terreis, sister of the late Amazon Queen Melosa. And, the people responsible for this were Amazons."
"Did you see anything unusual when you found her, love?" the owl asked.
"I think I interrupted some sort of ritual or ceremony. There was a woman standing over Gabrielle, holding a gem and chanting. Then, just before she got away, I noticed that the gem was glowing."
"Just as I thought, love," the owl announced. "A botched attribution theft, resultin' in the pilferin' of not only the right you mentioned, but your friend's soul, too."
"Great," sighed Xena. "So, you can fix this, right?"
"Me? No, er, that is to say, maybe," he hastily amended when he saw the blue eyes of the other flash with anger. "But I'm goin' to need that gem. And a book of spells and incantations." He looked about sadly at the empty shelves. "And for that we'll have to go to the great library at Alexandria."
"In Egypt?!" frowned the Warrior Princess.
"I'm not talking about the one in Virginia, love." When Xena just glared at him, he quickly added, "Forget it, love. That crack won't make any sense for over a thousand years."
"Fine. I'll get the gem back. You keep an eye on her body," Xena ordered, turning and walking out of the library.
"Me??!" squeaked the owl. But the Warrior Princess was already gone.
"Me it is, then," the owl shrugged.
Autolycus stood at the bow of the Leviathan, which he had to admit wasn't as bad as he'd heard, but still worth nowhere near as much as he'd been forced to pay for passage--Of course, he grudgingly admitted, if he hadn't insulted the captain, it might not have been so costly; to both his pride and his purse--and breathed deeply of the fresh sea air.
"See, it's not all that bad," Nebula said, joining him.
"It definitely has its good points," he agreed, gazing at the beautiful pirate. "How soon before we reach Alexandria?"
"A few days more. What's wrong, bored with my company already?" she asked in a teasing voice.
"Hardly," he answered, thinking, not for the first time, that the captain reminded him of someone, but he couldn't place whom. "I just want to be sure I reach it before they seal Ptolemy's tomb."
"I don't need to ask the King of Thieves why that would be, do I?" she laughed.
"Hey! You don't need to say it like that," he said in mock-scorn. "Besides, at least I'm not a pirate."
"I prefer the term ‘freebooter,'" she grinned.
"I'll just bet you do," nodded the thief, glancing down at her alluring figure.
"That's ‘bootER,' Autolycus, not ‘bootY,'" she emphasized.
"Oh. Anyway, just for your information, I was personally invited to attend the funeral rites by Queen Cleopatra herself," he stated. "She's a very close friend."
"Sure she is. And I'm Poseidon's God-daughter," Nebula chuckled, walking away.
"She is," whined the King of Thieves.
"Whatever you say, your majesty," the pirate snickered, heading up to the bridge, to check her charts and make sure they were on course.
"She is," groused Autolycus to himself.
Salmoneus couldn't believe his luck.
Here he'd been, walking along, minding his own business, on his way to catch a ship to cash in on what might very well turn out to be the deal of a lifetime, when he'd noticed this leather bag lying on the ground. He'd looked around, to make sure no one was in the area who might legitimately claim it, and then picked it up and opened it.
His eyes had nearly exploded when he saw the large, oddly luminous, gem within it.
And that's when the Centaurs showed up.
"What are you doing in our lands?" demanded the leader of the heavily armed party.
"M-Me?" Sal stammered, discreetly shoving the sack into his robes. "I'm just passing through on my way to the coast. I didn't notice any signs or warnings to..." His voice died in his throat as the Centaur leader calmly pointed to a large sign hanging from a tree, which clearly stated that these were Centaur lands and that trespassers were forbidden. "Oh, that sign. Yes, I did see that one, but I thought it was referring to those lands over there." The merchant pointed vaguely away from the clearing he was standing in. "I didn't realize it referred to these lands as well."
"He seems harmless enough," remarked one of the Centaurs.
"They don't get much more harmless than me," Salmoneus assured the band. "If I may be so bold, I am practically famous for how harmless I am. Really. Ask anyone. Ask Hercules. Ask Xena. Ask-"
"You know Hercules and Xena?" the leader inquired skeptically.
"Know them? We're like that," he said, trying to wrap his middle finger around his index finger, but being unable to because of the numerous rings he wore. "Well, we're close. Really close. And they'd be mighty upset if anything happened to me, let me tell you."
The leader regarded the merchant for a few minutes, making Salmoneus slightly uncomfortable. Finally, he asked him, "Have you seen any Amazons around here?"
"Amazons? I wish! I've seen tramps and settlers and farmers and warriors, but not right around here," he added quickly, when the horsemen bristled at the thought of warriors on their lands. "I saw the warriors far from here. What was the original question again? Oh, right, Amazons. Nope. No Amazons. Sorry. Say, I thought that war was over..."
"Apparently it isn't. Last night some Amazons trespassed onto our lands and then attacked a group of my people. They fought in this very clearing," the Centaur leader explained.
Salmoneus looked around him uneasily. "Right here. Right in this very spot. What do you know about that. Well, it's been nice chatting with you, but I've got a ship waiting for me."
"Pelipius will escort you out of our lands," the leader stated. A younger horseman trotted forward, eyeing the merchant warily.
"That's really not necessary," Salmoneus replied nervously. "I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself."
"I insist," the Centaur leader said with a forced smile.
"Oh. Well, if you feel that strongly about it, who am I to reject such a friendly gesture?" Sal shrugged.
"See that he arrives safely at the human city and then return to us," the leader instructed Pelipius. "And be careful. None of us are safe if the Amazons are intent on breaking the peace between us."
As Salmoneus and the young Centaur walked towards the Northeast, and the rest of the band headed West, neither group was aware they were being watched.
Rasilla was furious. First, she had allowed the Warrior Princess to defeat her--And, to make matters worse, she had actually survived the encounter, unlike her sisters, who had met a glorious and honorable end at the hands of their enemy--and then had caught up to High Priestess Kerai and the others only to learn that the Snare Stone had been lost in an unexpected battle with some of the hated horse-men.
It had fallen to Rasilla, of course, the disgraced one, to return for the stone. She had done so, arriving just in time to witness the round man finding it first. Then, before she could kill him and take the stone, the Centaurs had arrived and one of them had left with the robed one.
The Amazon followed them discreetly, using the natural surroundings to advantage, as she and all her sisters were taught to do from the time they were old enough to walk, so as not to be discovered. Thinking back, Rasilla was shocked at the way Xena had seemed aware of them, and had almost caught sight of them the day before. The Warrior Princess was truly as formidable as her sisters had warned her she was.
Rasilla cursed Xena again for denying her a warrior's death as the pain in her arm swelled up again--The limb was badly swollen and an ugly shade of purple and the Amazon feared it had been fractured--and then watched in dismay as the Centaur and the round man joined up with a small band of travelers, all heading for the port. Having no other choice, for to return without the stone would mean her death, she followed them to the city on the edge of the sea.
Xena sat staring at the remains of the campsite. She could almost see herself and Gabrielle getting ready for bed the night before, and the Bard teasing her about being paranoid and then laughing as Xena galloped off. The Warrior Princess shook her head to clear the images and then dismounted and carefully examined the bodies of the attackers for some clue as to who they were and what they wanted with Gabrielle. But after searching the dead Amazons, the only curious thing she discovered was that each of them was wearing a necklace with a black stone tied to it.
The stones were clearly volcanic and Xena began to get a very nasty suspicion about what was going on, and her fear for the Bard's life increased as she crushed one of the porous rocks in her fist.
She stood up and remounted Argo and then followed the rather obvious trail left by the Amazons until she came to a clearing in what was clearly marked as Centaur lands. There, the trail was lost amid the signs of a battle. And, as if that weren't bad enough, it looked as though at least a dozen Centaurs had since tramped through the area, destroying what little evidence might have remained to indicate the path taken by the Amazon survivors.
Xena snarled in frustration and wheeled Argo around to face the band of Centaurs who had quietly approached while she was occupied.
"Greetings, Lorantes," she said, addressing the Centaur leader.
"Greetings, Destroyer of Nations," he replied with a hint of a smile. "I know what brings you to our lands, but I cannot help you. We lost the Amazons' trail after they murdered some of our kinsmen. The fiends seemed to have simply disappeared, as if the very earth opened and swallowed them. I wish it were so, but I feel in my bones that they'll be back. And with a bloody vengeance."
Xena nodded. "You know that that these weren't members of Ephiny's tribe," she stated, watching Lorantes' eyes carefully.
"I know that the bodies we recovered were not wearing the regalia common to that tribe," he countered.
`The old prejudices do indeed die hard,' Xena thought. Aloud she said, "If you see any sign of them, or are lucky enough to capture one alive, send word to the complex on the slopes of Olympus and I will hear of it and return. It's very important that I speak to one of them."
"I will honor your request, though I don't understand it," Lorantes replied. "Farewell, Xena."
"Thanks," Xena said, and then kicked her heels into Argo and headed back toward the XenaVerse complex to plan her next move and to check on Gabrielle's condition, hoping it had miraculously improved, but knowing in her heart that it hadn't.
The city of Alexandria lay on the banks of the mighty Nile like a pearl shining in the mud. The city was beautiful, with the white stones of which it was constructed catching the rays of the omnipresent sun--Whom the locals worshiped as the God Ra--and reflecting them back to the heavens. And, the Palace of Cleopatra was the largest, shiniest building of all.
"Looks like you weren't the only foreigner invited to this funeral," Nebula observed, pointing to several ships docked in the harbor. Ships which flew the banner of Imperial Rome. "And, if I'm not mistaken, that's Caesar's personal standard." She indicated one ship, which, while not larger or more imposing than the others, conveyed a sense of majesty.
"Great," sighed Autolycus. "That won't complicate things at all."
"Are you talking about your score, as in theft, or your score, as in the Queen of Egypt?" Nebula snickered.
"Both," snapped Auto. "And stop implying that my friendship with Cleopatra is a figment of my imagination."
"Sure," the pirate replied, heading up to the wheel to personally guide the ship into the dock. "Just as soon as I see her walk out here and give you a big hello hug."
"I'm really going to enjoy seeing you eat crow, or albatross, or seagull, or whatever you sailing types eat when you're wrong," he grinned, nevertheless praying that the Egyptian Queen would remember him after all this time.
Letting out a deep sigh, James reached down and picked up a small stone and, without even looking, tossed it at the lake and listened as it skipped ten times before sinking. In the world of the living this would have been a good rock skipping record. Here, however, it was just another example of perfection. "Gods be damned! I'm really starting to hate this place. Nothing ever changes but the time. The people here don't even change their minds," he screamed out into the peaceful quiet. Not bad, James. Put that to some music and it might make a good tune. What am I saying? Of course it would be perfect. In this place it would have to be,' he thought sourly to himself.
Walking over to a large rock beside the lake, he deliberately threw himself down hard on it, trying to cause himself some pain. Anything to relieve the never-ending perfection of the Elysian Fields. The rock, however, just flattened out like a large waterbed, gently cushioning him. It was almost enough to make a grown man cry.
The first couple of weeks here had been fun, but the fun quickly ended when James realized that there were no challenges to be had here. Want to climb a mountain? Go to the foot of a mountain and start to climb and you found the mountain literally shrinking to make it easy. Want to go fishing? Hold your hand out over any body of water and the fish of your choice leaped out of the water into your hands.
"There is no challenge here! This is boring!" he screamed out again. He knew he would not disturb anyone since the sound would only travel a few feet and then disappear. `Can't have anyone bothered by noise in the land of perfection, now, can we?' he thought bitterly.
Suddenly, James felt a presence behind him and, turning, he saw Hades, God of the Underworld, appear. "Are you enjoying your first day in the Fields?" Hades asked with a slight look of worry on his face.
"What do you mean my first day? I've been here for months! And, to answer your question, no, I hate it here! Do you know that when I talk to people here that I had talked to the other day, they don't remember me? It's like their memories get erased over night!"
Hades held up one hand. "That's because their memories do get erased over night." The dour God paused when he saw the look of confusion come over James' face. "All right, I'll tell you a secret that no mortal has ever known about the Fields. A long time ago I realized that no matter how enjoyable I made the Fields, sooner or later everyone here would get bored. I mean, we are talking about eternity here. So, I made it where everyone's memories would get blanked over night. That way each day would be like the first time you arrived here: fresh, new, and exciting. I also made it where everyone felt a sense of great peace and relaxation." Hades paused and regarded James with an expression of great sadness.
"So, why doesn't it work on me?" he asked him.
"Well, that's what I'm here to discuss with you. It seems that when Strife cut your lifeline, he caused a major problem. You see, every God or Goddess has an area of expertise, and they're not supposed to go out of it. The cutting of mortal lifelines is the exclusive job of the Fates. No other God is allowed to cut the lifelines. Now, if Strife had stabbed you with the knife, for instance, you would have been completely and correctly dead. But by cutting your life line..."
"What? I'm not really dead?"
"Not exactly, no."
"So, I'm alive?"
"Not exactly, no."
"So, what am I, exactly?" he yelled at the God of the Underworld, the frustration apparent in his quivering voice.
"You are kind of undead. Your spirit isn't inside a body like it should be, but you don't belong here either." Hades shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, can't I just go back to my body?"
"No. Your body was destroyed in a cave-in and has been buried. It was really a lovely ceremony, I'm told."
"I'm touched. Really, I am. Can I take over someone else's body?"
"No, not without their permission. And no one will be able to see or hear you when you return to the world of the living. You're a ghost as far as they're concerned. They might catch a glimpse of you out of the corner of their eyes or see you for a fraction of a second in a mirror or reflected in water, but that's all. You might try to talk Morpheus into letting you enter their dreams and talk to them that way."
"How about someone who recently died? Can I take over that body and use it?" James asked hopefully.
"No. A body would have to be specially treated for you to be able to use it, and, even then it would need some kind of link to a God or Goddess to keep it from falling apart. It's possible that an artificial body could be made for you in time, but that's not really my area of expertise and I'm not sure it would work anyway."
"Well, how long am I going to be an undead?"
Hades stroked his chin with one hand. "I don't know. I asked that question of the Fates when they advised me of your condition and they said that they could not recreate your thread, since it had already been created, and that they cannot cut your thread, since it was destroyed by Strife. So, if I understand them correctly, you are now immortal, except for the unfortunate fact that you're not really alive, of course," Hades said with a frown.
"So, what do I do now?"
"Well, the first thing is you'll have to leave the Fields. You don't belong here and, in time, the perfection and sameness of this place would drive you crazy."
"So, I guess I'll go look up some of my old friends. Even though they won't know that I'm there," James said sadly.
Hades nodded and then disappeared.
Turning his face toward the 'sky,' he could feel himself start to drift upward, back to the world of the living.
Rising rapidly through the earth, James made several swallowing movements before he realized that not only did he not have ears to pop from rising rapidly, but he also did not have a throat, in the physical sense, to swallow with. `Old habits die hard I guess,' he thought to himself.
Reaching ground level he saw that he had come up in Athene's garden, next to his grave. He bent over and read the inscription on the marble headstone: Here lies James. He was a friend, a bard, and a hero. He died saving his friends and the world. He will be sorely missed.
"Gee, I'm really touched," he said aloud, and, this time, without any sarcasm. Hearing approaching voices, he turned and watched Lissla and Buffy approach the doors to Athene's library.
Suddenly, Lissla grabbed Buffy's arm and whirled around to face him.
"What?! What is it?!" Buffy cried to Lissla.
"Just for a moment, I could swear that out of the corner of my eye I saw James standing at his grave looking down at it!" Lissla said with a shudder.
"Come on, James' death was sad, but even if he were to come back from the dead, I would think he'd have more interesting places to haunt than here," Buffy reassured her friend.
James smiled to himself and thought, `Actually, no. I don't have any other place I would rather be than here.'
Lissla shook her head one last time and then turned back toward the library doors. "Where's Athene's owl? I wanted to ask him about that new drink he was telling me about a few days ago."
"Yeah, he was going to give me a new recipe for roasted dove, too," Buffy said as she gave the new library's doors a shake.
"Guess nobody's home right now. We'll just have to try again later."
James watched as his two friends walked off together and then decided to try the library himself. Walking up to the doors, he stood there for a moment before remembering that he was a ghost and no longer had to wait for doors to open. Stepping through the shut doors, the late bard paused for a moment, enjoying the new construction smell of the library. `Well, at least my sense of smell isn't gone,' he thought to himself.
Suddenly, he noticed what appeared to be Gabrielle's dead body lying on a large table in the middle of the library. Rushing over, he noticed that Athene's owl was propped up against one of Gabrielle's shoulders and had his eyes closed. As James moved closer, the owl's eyes abruptly flew open. "Bloody son of a bloody Bacchae! Is that you, James? What in bloody Tartarus are you doing here?" the owl demanded.
Shocked at the bird's language, James reached out and tried to cover Gabrielle's ears, but his hands passed right through her head, just as his body had through the library doors earlier.
"You needn't worry about her hearing me, mate," the owl said sadly. "First off, following Xena around all these years, she's probably heard worse language than that anyway, and, more importantly right now, someone has stolen her soul. So, she can't hear me anyway."
"Hey! I suddenly realized that you can see me. But Hades said that no one would be able to see or hear me."
The owl cocked his head and looked directly at the late bard. "He meant normal mortals. The Gods and Goddesses can see you of course. Seers, mystics, prophets can see you, too, mate, and us special animals that have connections to the Gods can see you. I'm not just some old barn owl, you know!" the owl said, ruffling his feathers indignantly.
"Sorry, I should've guessed," James replied, trying to calm the angry bird.
"Why aren't you down in happy land right now?" the owl asked, moving away from Gabrielle's shoulder to peer up at him.
"You mean the Elysian Fields? Hades tells me that I am unique. That I am the first person to be killed by having my lifeline cut by someone other than the Fates. So, I'm a glitch in the system. No one wants to take responsibility for me, so I've been cut loose to fend for myself."
"Gee, that's rough, mate. Didn't you like the Fields? I mean, I can't believe Hades would have kicked you out of the Fields if you wanted to stay," the owl said sympathetically.
"No, I hated the Fields. Do you know that everyday, everyone in the Fields loses their memory?"
"Yeah, I do, actually. It's good to be friends with the Goddess of Wisdom. Did you meet anyone interesting to talk to down there?" the inquisitive owl asked.
"I talked to Terreis a few times and Perdicus four or five times, the dweeb."
The owl glanced back at Gabrielle's body and inquired, "Why do you call him a dweeb?"
"Well, since his memory was erased everyday, I don't hold the fact that he always asked the same questions of me over and over again against him. But everyday he would tell me how much he missed his wife, Gabrielle, and then, before the day was over, I would see him chasing after other women. It made me sick to think that he has a beautiful woman like Gabrielle and he spends his time in the afterlife chasing other women." James shook his head angrily and then glanced down at the soulless body on the table.
"Speaking of Gabrielle, I take it Xena is out hunting down whoever it was that did this to her and is going to make them undo it?"
The owl nodded his head in a kind of rolling motion and said, "That's the plan. I'm supposed to guard her body 'till Xena gets back. It's kind of unnerving being this close to Gabrielle and not having her tell a story or talking, though."
"Well, to take up some time, why don't you tell me some of the juicy gossip that's been going on while I was dead and in, as you put it, happy land?" Even though he no longer got tired or needed to lean on anything, James leaned on the side of the table (being careful not to lean so far over that he would fall through the table in his ghost form) and listened as the owl began to gossip about everyone and everything at the XenaVerse complex.
Cleopatra was pleased but suspicious.
While it was true that she and Autolycus had parted on the best of terms, she couldn't help but think that the timing of his arrival for a visit was a little too convenient, considering his profession. The tomb of her late brother had been filled with all manner of treasure, as was the custom of her people, to make his time in the Afterlife as comfortable as possible--Personally, she would have preferred him to be as UNcomfortable as possible, but the demands of millennia old custom dictated differently. And, even though guards had been posted to prevent the looting of the tomb, until after the body was sealed within at least, she knew that if Autolycus had set his larcenous sights on that treasure, all the guards in the world wouldn't keep it safe.
With these thoughts in mind, she waited at the top of the stairs that led to her palace and watched him approach. She had forgotten how handsome he was, in a roguish sort of way. Unlike her other guest. Caesar had a cold, austere beauty to be sure, but it was the power he represented which attracted the Egyptian Queen most. And she held no illusions that the same wasn't true for the haughty Roman in regards to herself.
She wasn't sure what to make of the woman accompanying Autolycus. A commoner, obviously, but there was something about her that the Egyptian Queen found alluring, and almost regal.
"Cleopatra!" Autolycus grinned as he reached the top of the stairs. Noticing the burly guards standing nearby, with very large swords, he paused before her, unsure whether to kneel or embrace the Queen.
"Autolycus, how good to see you again," she smiled, exposing the perfect teeth behind her sensuously full lips. "What a pleasant surprise." She glanced meaningfully at the ground and Autolycus took his cue and knelt before her, grabbing Nebula's arm and dragging the pirate down beside him.
"Surprise? I thought you said-Ow!" Nebula hissed when he pinched her.
"Thank you, your majesty," he smiled, bowing his head slightly. "When I heard of the death of your brother, I felt it my duty to be with you in this, your hour of grief."
Nebula and the Egyptian Queen looked at him, with very confused, and nearly identical, expressions and then looked at each other. "I am Nebula, captain of the Leviathan," the pirate said. "So, it's true, then, you really do know this cutpurse?"
"A pleasure to meet you, Captain. And, yes, Autolycus and I are old friends," Cleopatra replied, gesturing for her guests to rise. "Come, join me in my garden, where we can enjoy some cool drinks as we talk."
"Told you," smirked the King of Thieves to Nebula as they followed the Egyptian Queen into her palace.
When the trio reached the garden, they found it was already occupied by Caesar and a couple of his personal guards. Julius Caesar was a striking, handsome man, but his features were tinged with a definite cruelty, which made him appear a bit less attractive than he was. In particular, his eyes had a glint of unmistakable malice. His auburn hair was close-cropped and framed his angular face neatly. He was sitting on one of several low benches and holding a golden goblet in one of his hands. In the other, he held an object which made the King of Thieves practically trip over his own feet when he saw it.
Before Salmoneus and Pelipius had parted company, the Centaur, having noticed the merchant discreetly check to make sure that a small leather purse and its contents were still safely on his person whenever he thought the horse-man wasn't looking, had pointedly asked, "What is this hidden thing you carry?"
"Thing?" Salmoneus had replied innocently. "What thing are you talking about?"
"The object in the leather pouch tied close to your heart," Pelipius had stated. "And do not lie to me, human. I have dealt honorably with you and brought you safely to this port as I was instructed."
The merchant had sighed heavily and pulled the pouch from its hiding place and emptied the glowing gem into the palm of his hand.
"Did you steal it?" the young Centaur had asked.
"Of course not! Well, not exactly," the older man had amended. "I found it...on the road...right before I entered your lands. Yes, that's just what happened. I looked around, but there was no one to ask if it belonged to them, so I kept it."
"So, you lied to Lorantes when you told him that you didn't know you were on Centaur lands!" the horseman had exclaimed angrily.
"What??! No! No, I didn't. I realize it might have sounded like that, when I was telling you exactly what happened, but that's only because I now know that I was, in fact, on Centaur lands. But when I found the pouch beside the stream-"
"A moment ago you claimed to have found it by a road," the Centaur had pointed out.
"Did I? I meant stream. Definitely a stream. And one that was clearly not in Centaur lands."
"The nearest such stream is over a day's journey from our border, yet you just said that you found it right before we discovered you," Pelipius had cried, exasperated and confused by the slippery details of the even more slippery man telling the story.
"Stream? Who said anything about a stream? I said I found this by a road. Yes, a road which runs near, but never actually crosses into, Centaur lands," Salmoneus had explained. "Satisfied?"
"Satisfied that humans are more devious than ever and glad to be rid of you and returning to my own people," the Centaur had snorted. He had then turned, swished his tail into the air angrily, and galloped off.
Salmoneus had replaced the gem and pouch and then gone to verify which ship he would be on and what time it was scheduled to set sail.
Rasilla, her arm now hurting more than ever--She was positive from the swelling and the pain that it was broken-- had watched this final exchange from a safe distance, her dark eyes glowing almost as much as the stone when it was revealed in anticipation of getting it back to the High Priestess. She had followed the strange, round man with the intention of killing him at the first opportunity, but her heart sank when she saw him board a large ship that appeared to be in the midst of preparations to set sail.
Biting back her rage, she had scribbled a hasty note to her Amazon sisters and then attached it to the leg of a dove and released it, knowing the bird would return to their hidden village. Then, she had stealthily snuck on board the vessel, wondering where this maddening fellow would lead her next.
Xena kicked open the doors and entered the library, startling the owl, which had been perched beside Gabrielle's body. She had a strange look in her frosty blue eyes, an unfamiliar aura of defeat that the owl noticed immediately. "Didn't get the gem, did ya, love?" he asked, although it almost sounded more like a statement.
She glared at him and then bent her head next to that of the Bard. "No. Those cowardly bitches have disappeared without a trace," she barked.
"There might be another way, love," the owl said softly. The Warrior Princess' head snapped up and her bloodshot eyes conveyed both a warning that this had better not be a joke, and a wild hope that it, whatever it turned out to be, worked. "It is a bit of a long shot, so I don't want to get your hopes up too much."
"What?" she demanded.
"There's an ancient talisman which, legend has it, allows you to not only communicate with the dead, but to actually transfer their souls into lifeless bodies," the bird explained. "The Pharaohs and their Viziers used it to animate mummified bodies to act as guardians over their tombs. But now that Egypt has gotten itself all civilized, the Queen has decided to bury the talisman with the body of her late brother, to prevent anyone from ever using it to work evil."
Xena nodded in understanding. "I get it. We can use this whatzit to restore Gabrielle's soul to her own body. But, won't we need the gem which contains her soul in order for this to work?"
"That would be the ideal situation, no doubt about it, love," the owl nodded, hopping up closer to her. "But it might be possible to have this Ankh of Osiris--That's what the thing is called--draw yer friend's soul from wherever it is and return it to her body. But, like I said before, love, it's a bit of a long shot. And, we have to get to Alexandria before the ankh is sealed in the tomb forever."
"Don't worry, friend, we'll get there. And, if the tomb is sealed, I swear by every God in the cosmos, I'll tear it down with my bare hands if I have to, to get that...thing!" she vowed, picking up Gabrielle's body and heading for the exit. "Come on! I'm going to need your help!"
"Be right with you, love," called the owl. As soon as Xena was gone, he turned to the shade of James, who had been standing and listening to the entire exchange, and asked, "You coming, mate?"
"I might as well," replied the late bard. "Since you're the only one who can see and hear me, I want to stick close. Besides, I might be able to help, what with my new abilities and all."
"Oh, yeah," the owl drawled, flapping its wings and heading towards the exit. "You'll be really useful in a fight. Or if we need someone to help carry supplies. You'll be in-bloody-valuable, mate!"
James silently followed the annoying bird.
The owl flew a short distance and landed on a tree limb and waited till Xena was out of earshot. Turning back to look at James, he whispered, "You know, mate, you could be a lot of help if you wanted to."
"In what way?" the bard asked.
"Think about it, mate. You're a soul without a body and Gabrielle here is a body without a soul. You could enter her body and move it around," the owl explained quietly, as if talking to a child.
"I couldn't do that!" James exclaimed in horror.
"Oh, I don't mean permanently or anything like that!" the owl snapped back and then lowered his voice again. "I mean, think about this trip Xena's about to make. What if she runs into some problems? She can't fight and worry about Gabrielle's body at the same time, mate. You were trained to use the staff. You could help defend Gabrielle's body 'till we find a way for Gabrielle to return to her own body."
At the same time they both realized it had gotten very quiet.
Turning to look in the direction that Xena had been going, they saw a very angry looking Warrior Princess standing a few paces away. Gabrielle's body lay gently leaning against a tree a few feet farther away. "Who are you talking to?" Xena growled at the owl.
"Who? Me? I don't know what you're talking about, love," The owl replied nervously.
Xena took two very long strides and was next to the owl in a heartbeat. "I have two words for you: Pillow stuffing."
The owl made several gulping noises and looked back at James. Xena followed his line of sight but couldn't see anyone. "Look, I don't know if my 'pinch' will work on an owl, but I'm willing to risk it. Are you?"
The owl took several steps along the branch away from Xena and started to talk rapidly. "You remember James? Well, it turns out that when Strife killed him he didn't do a good enough job. So, Hades kicked him out of happy land, er, I mean the Elysian Fields, and James is now wandering around with nothing to do, looking for a body to use."
"Hey! Hades didn't kick me out of the Fields! He told me if I wasn't happy there to spend some time away from the Fields," James corrected, insulted that someone might think he had been kicked out.
The owl looked his way again and Xena, starting to turn to see what the owl was looking at, stopped herself. Looking out of the corner of her eye, she frowned when she saw James. "Is it true that you could take over Gabrielle's body so you could make her move and fight if necessary?" she asked, keeping him in sight by not looking directly at him.
The owl stared at where James was standing and then turned to look at Xena. "He says that he doesn't think it's such a good idea." The owl jumped at the cold glare Xena gave him. "Hey, he said it not me!" The bird looked away for a moment and then turned back to Xena. "James wants to point out how upset Gabrielle gets when anyone touches her scrolls. How is she going to feel when she gets back and finds out that someone has been inside her body?"
Xena turned to face in what she hoped was James' general direction and haltingly spoke, "James, the owl is right. I need your help. I can't risk something happening to Gabrielle's body before we get her soul back. If you won't do this for me, do it for her. Please!"
Normally, an owl's beak cannot smirk but as the owl himself had already pointed out, he was not an ordinary barn owl. The owl turned to Xena and, with a smirk on his beak, said, "James says that wasn't fair since you know he would do anything for Gabrielle. He also says he'll give it a try."
Walking over to where Xena had placed Gabrielle's body leaning against a tree, James tried to merge with her body. Xena saw Gabrielle's eyes jerk open and her body start to move but then the eyes closed and she slumped back down against the tree. "What's the problem?" she asked the owl.
"James doesn't have enough power on his own to move a strange body around." The owl, seeing the desperation in Xena's eyes, spoke again, "Hang on, love, maybe I can help!" Flying over to Gabrielle's body the owl gently landed on her shoulder. Within a few moments Gabrielle's eyes opened again and her body carefully stood up. Xena watched as Gabrielle's hands moved to touch her strong abs and then started to move upward. The Warrior Princess loudly cleared her throat as the hands reached the bottom of Gabrielle's top.
"Whoops. Sorry about that. It's kind of strange trying to get used to this body," James said.
Xena could feel tears start to come to her eyes. The voice was Gabrielle's. The face was Gabrielle's. But Xena knew that the soul inside was not Gabrielle's. "Are you okay in there, James?" Xena finally asked after getting her emotions under tight control once again.
"Yes, it's just a little odd seeing everything from this angle. I was a lot taller than Gabrielle you know."
"How is the body doing?" The owl sitting on his/her shoulder asked.
Before James could answer, his/her stomach let out a large growl of hunger.
Xena let a small sad smile appear on her face. "Well, at least we know her body is still acting like Gabrielle's," she said. The former warlord walked over to Argo and fished a chunk of bread and cheese and handed it over to James. "Here, eat this as we ride. We need to get going."
`Great!' James thought to himself. `I'm inside the body of a beautiful woman and I'm going to have to hold onto another equally beautiful woman and ride a long distance. This would probably kill me, if I weren't dead already!"
The owl as if sensing his thoughts turned to look at him with another smirk on his beak and said, "Well, at least you can't say you're going to be bored, mate."
Caesar was extremely pleased with himself.
When he had left Rome, chasing after Pompey for his betrayal, he had merely been the last member of the defunct First Triumvirate. But now, with the deaths of Crassus and Pompey--The first at his own order, after having been tricked by Xena into executing him in place of the Gaul Chieftain Vercinix; and the second at the hands of the boy they were about to bury, who had murdered his former ally in an effort to curry favor with him--he could return as dictator, if not Emperor. Caesar felt certain that with the riches from both Egypt's treasure houses and granaries he could convince the Senate to bestow that honor on him at least.
But Rome was far away and there were still battles to be fought and wars to be won before he could return and claim the accolades due him. Wars that the beautiful Egyptian Queen would help him fund with pretty baubles like the one he held in his hand.
As Cleopatra and the two newcomers approached, Caesar looked up and graced the Queen with one of his most charming smiles. "Ah, there you are. I trust you don't mind that I showed myself in and helped myself to some wine," he said it as statement.
"What's mine is yours, great Caesar," the Egyptian responded.
"Just as what is Egypt's is Rome's, Queen Cleopatra," he returned, rising and kissing her hand.
"Of course. This is Autolycus. And this is Captain Nebula," Cleopatra said, indicating her guests.
"Caesar, Julius Caesar," the Roman replied, pressing Nebula's hand to his thin lips.
"You honor me, sir," the pirate said, blushing.
"On the contrary, it is I who am honored by the company of two such beautiful women," he stated. "Autolycus...the King of Thieves himself. You do travel in some prestigious circles, Cleopatra." There was sincerity in his voice but his cold eyes betrayed the scorn of the comment.
"You've heard of me?" Auto asked suspiciously. He knew that the Roman and Xena were not on good terms, to put it mildly, but wondered if his feelings for the Warrior Princess would extend to her friends.
"I make it my business to know things, Autolycus. Especially about my enemies and their associates. But we are both guests of the beautiful and gracious Queen of Egypt, so I'm prepared to overlook your unfortunate choice of friends for the time being and extend my hand in...shall we say, respect, if not friendship," he said smoothly, holding out his hand expectantly.
The King of Thieves stared into the calculating eyes of the Roman, then glanced over at the two guards and their large, sharp swords. "Just because you betrayed a close friend of mine, then crucified her, broke her legs, and left her for dead is no reason for us to hold any ill feelings for one another," Autolycus said with deadly seriousness, taking the Roman's forearm and squeezing it as hard as he could.
"My sentiments exactly," replied Caesar, also applying as much pressure as he could to the thief's arm.
Nebula and Cleopatra watched for a few minutes and then glanced at each other and rolled their eyes. "Men," sighed the pirate.
The Egyptian nodded and then picked up the pitcher that was sitting on a nearby bench and splashed its contents onto the two men. "Whoops," she smiled, winking at Nebula.
Autolycus and Caesar broke off their "handshake," sputtering and discreetly massaging their limbs.
When the two Roman guards started forward, hands on the hilts of their swords, ready to draw them, Caesar shook his head and waved them back. "Not one for subtlety, are you?" he remarked, looking up and smiling coldly at the Egyptian.
"I thought you would have figured that out when I had myself delivered to you rolled up in a carpet," Cleo responded with a laugh, enjoying the shocked expressions on the faces of her guests, especially that on the usually reserved Roman.
Xena walked up the gangplank of the ship--She had the disturbing feeling that she'd been on this same ship dozens of times in the past, but the name was unfamiliar, as were the captain and crew, for the most part--and stopped short as a familiar figure stepped from behind a burly sailor.
"Hello, Xena," said the young woman with tightly braided hair as black as that of the former warlord. Her outfit was made of dark cloth, with brightly colored scarves wrapped around her waist and thighs. Xena noticed the addition of a silver-pommeled sword to her ensemble since their last meeting.
"Tara," the Warrior Princess breathed. "You've got some nerve, I'll give you that. Did you hear about Gabrielle and figure you could take her place as my companion?"
"I heard about Gabrielle and figured I could help," Tara corrected. "I'm not here to try and replace her, Xena. I know I could never do that. But I did think you might want some help, or just a friend to talk to. If I was wrong, I'll leave."
Xena looked into the eyes of the girl and saw a younger version of herself, just as she had when they'd first met. But she also saw that Tara had changed since leaving them after they had returned the Urn of Apollo, she wasn't the same warrior wannabe who had briefly joined she and Gabrielle; she was now a warrior in her own right, if not yet in the same league as the Warrior Princess. "No. Wait. It would be nice to have a woman to talk to again," Xena said with a smile.
Tara grinned and then her mouth dropped open when she saw Gabrielle, with an odd looking owl perched on her shoulder, step onto the ship behind Xena. "But I'd heard...I thought..." she started, but then her voice just refused to work anymore.
"Let's go below and I'll explain everything," suggested Xena, with the barest hint of a smile.
Tara nodded dumbly and followed the Warrior Princess and the Bard to the cabin they'd booked.
Salmoneus, who wasn't terribly fond of ships to begin with, was outraged when he discovered that he not only didn't get a private cabin, but he didn't get a cabin at all. Instead, despite the outrageous number of dinars he'd paid, he got to sleep in a flimsy hammock, surrounded by the other poor souls who'd been bilked out of their money, in one of the crowded storage holds. Of course, it could have been worse, he decided, looking around him at the squalid conditions, he could have been forced to sleep topside, with nothing more than a thin blanket between his delicate back and the hard wood of the deck.
As he tossed and turned in the uncomfortable hammock, he was unaware of the figure creeping stealthily through the darkness, a knife held in its hand, but awkwardly so.
Rasilla stood over the slumbering merchant and raised the knife over him, fighting against the pain in her limb. Then, she let out a small gasp and the blade's handle slipped from between her numb fingers and clattered to the floor.
Salmoneus twisted around and opened his eyes. "What is it? What's--Oh! You're hurt!" he exclaimed, noticing the ugly purple swelling on her arm. He struggled out of the hammock, with no little difficulty--He was actually forced to flip the hammock completely over, dumping himself on the floor, in order to finally escape--and grabbed his traveling pack. "I've got some salve in here that might help ease the pain," he mumbled as he dug through his satchel. "Here it is." He held up a vial of liquid with the words "Sal's Miracle Salve" written on its label. He opened it and poured some into his hands, and then, noticing that several of his fellow passengers had been awakened by the commotion and had gathered around him, he started his pitch as he applied some to the woman's arm.
"This wondrous lotion--made from ingredients collected from all over the known world; and some of the lesser known parts, too--is absolutely guaranteed to alleviate any minor cramps, aches, muscle spasms, blood clots, aneurysms, and pain caused by sprains, breaks, and dislocations. In addition," he added, making note of the numerous women in his audience, "it will ease the pain of those pesky 'monthly visits’ that no one appreciates. Oh, and seasickness. It also helps soothe the stomach during long, unpleasant sea voyages." He looked over and into the dark eyes of the woman whose hand he suddenly realized he was holding. "Feeling better?"
Rasilla nodded, her mind whirling in confusion that this man, this creature she'd been taught to hate and fear, was helping her. "It feels much better," she replied.
"I'm glad," he smiled. "Did you hear that, folks? Her arm, which, mere moments ago, was in a state of burning agony, now feels much better. So, how many of you would like to purchase some of this marvelous mixture for your own aches and pains? Come on, now, at only five dinars a bottle, it's a steal. And, because we're all in the same boat here, literally, I'll make you folks a special deal: Two bottles for twelve dinars."
Several people stepped up, dinars shining in their hands, and purchased some of the snake oil while the others returned to their blankets or hammocks, depending on how much they'd paid.
"Thank you. Thank you. An excellent decision, madam, you can never have too much of a good thing. Thank you. Oh, if I told you what was in it, I'd have to kill you," he joked as the last of the customers accepted their vial of swamp-water and soured cream. He then turned to the woman and noticed her outfit for the first time. "An Amazon, huh. Well, that explains the arm. I'm Salmoneus, by the way."
"I am Rasilla. Thank you," she forced herself to add.
"No need to thank me. But just between you and me, you'd better see the ship's doctor about that arm as quickly as possible," he whispered.
"I can't do that...I sort of...stowed away," the Amazon confessed.
Salmoneus regarded her thoughtfully. She was beautiful, underneath all that dirt and grime, and had obviously had a rough time of things recently. He felt the weight of the new dinars in his purse and poured several out into his hand and then handed them to her. "Just give these to the captain in the morning and I'm sure he'll be more than happy to overlook your oversight regarding when the fare was to have been paid," the merchant smiled, pressing the coins into her hand and then continuing to hold it as he stared at her.
"I-I couldn't..." she began, trying to hand the coins back to him.
"I insist," he replied, regretfully removing his hand from hers, leaving her with the coins. She nodded and placed the coins in a sack tied to her slender waist. "So, why the urgent need to go to Egypt?"
"Egypt?" she questioned.
"This ship is bound for Alexandria, Rasilla. Don't tell me you stowed away on the wrong ship!" Salmoneus exclaimed.
"No. This is the right ship," she assured the merchant. "I just didn't realize that Alexandria was in Egypt."
He shook his head. "You don't get around much, do you?" he chuckled.
"Not really, no. Which is why this trip will be so good for me. It will give me a chance to see more of the world beyond the village of my sisters," she replied with a curious smile.
Tara was beyond confused.
The young woman listened as Xena related the horrible circumstances of the theft of Gabrielle's soul, occasionally glancing over at the obviously very much alive Bard, and then began to understand when the Warrior Princess told her the unusual circumstances of her friend James' death and how he was now inhabiting the body of Gabrielle, with the assistance of the mysterious owl. But, Tara, it turned out, had some good news for the weary former warlord.
"On my way to join you I ran into a young Centaur named Pelipius who told me of the strange man he'd escorted to a nearby port," she began, her dark eyes sparkling. "It turns out this man--A merchant of some kind; I think he said his name was Slimonus, or something like that--"
"Salmoneus," Xena stated, looking over at James/Gabrielle and smiling.
"That could've been it," Tara nodded thoughtfully. "Anyway, it turns out this guy, whoever he was, had this gem which, like, glowed or something." Xena was paying full attention now. "He claimed to have found it outside of Centaur lands, but Pelipius seemed to think he was lying about that, and was sure that he'd found it at the site of a battle between the Amazons who stole Gabrielle's soul and his people."
"You said Pelipius escorted the man to a port. Did he know where he was going?" Xena inquired desperately.
"That's the way cool thing about the whole story," the young warrior beamed. "He was bragging about catching a ship to Alexandria because he'd received a personal invitation from the Queen of Egypt herself to come and, like, sell some weird hat or something. Pelipius didn't exactly understand the details." She watched happily as the expression on Xena's face changed from defeat and despair to one of hope and anticipation.
"You're sure about this?" the Warrior Princess asked eagerly.
"I got it straight from the Centaur's mouth," Tara replied.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle's body and smiled, not at the bard who was presently inhabiting it, but at the Bard whose soul was somewhere with Salmoneus, on its way to Alexandria. "This just might turn out to be easier than I'd thought," she grinned, flashing that familiar smile for the first time in many days.
Autolycus listened absently as Caesar, Nebula, and Cleopatra made polite conversation, but he couldn't take his eyes off the object in the Roman's hand. It was about a foot long and made of solid gold. It was basically a cross with a loop at the top--What the Egyptians called an "ankh," he understood, and it represented life or the afterlife, maybe; he wasn't really sure--which was encrusted with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and onyx gems. It was worth a fortune in and of itself. But the King of Thieves reminded himself happily, it was simply one of many such pieces about to be sealed in the late Ptolemy's tomb.
"Take this, for example," Caesar said, holding the ankh up in front of him. "To the Egyptians, it is a charm with mysterious powers, something to be feared or possibly exploited. No offense intended to present company, of course."
"Of course," replied Cleopatra, somehow maintaining her hospitable air of mild indifference.
"To the fair captain, as to all women, it is an object of great beauty. Something to be possessed, so as to accentuate their own beauty, to let the world know that they are beautiful and therefore own beautiful things," the Roman continued, ignoring the flushing faces of both Nebula and Cleopatra.
"But to Autolycus and myself, this is simply a means to an end. That end being to increase our own material worth, of course. We're men of the world, the King of Thieves and I, too well-traveled to be taken in by stories of magic and mysticism, and too practical not to see the inherent value of this piece. Too jaded and cynical, perhaps, to recognize it's beauty or mystery," Caesar said wistfully, gazing at his golden reflection in the face of the handle. "Don't you agree, Autolycus?"
"Well, I don't know about that, Julie," the thief drawled, enjoying the scowl that flickered across the Roman's face at the corruption of his name. "I've been over a sizable chunk of this great big ball of mud, same as you, but I've seen some things that made me question just how much we human beings can understand about the world, let alone do actually understand about it."
"Surely, you're not going to sit there and tell me with a straight face that you believe any of the ridiculous stories about this trifle. If you give any credence at all to that superstitious mumbo-jumbo, I'm afraid I might have to reconsider the reports I've heard regarding your brilliance and instead note you as foolish and emotional as a woman," Caesar said sharply. He then casually sipped his wine as all three of his companions glared daggers at him.
"Caesar, perhaps you would permit me some time alone with my new arrivals," Cleopatra said through tightly gritted teeth.
Realizing he might have pushed the Egyptian Queen a bit too far, he nodded and stood up. "Of course, Queen Cleopatra," he said, tossing the ankh to Autolycus. "I've some other matters to attend to this afternoon, as it happens. I'll see all of you for dinner this evening, I trust."
"I'm looking forward to it already," Auto mumbled.
"Of course," Cleo said quickly, kicking the thief's shin. "Until this evening, Great Caesar."
"Until this evening, Queen Cleopatra, Captain, Autolycus," he inclined his head slightly to each of them, kissing the ladies' hands, and then turned and strode out of the garden, followed by his two guards.
On his way out of the palace he accidentally bumped into a round man wearing brightly colored robes, accompanied by a beautiful woman in the traditional garb of an Amazon, knocking him down the steps and scattering the contents of his pack. Ordinarily, he would have continued on without a second thought as to the man's condition, but his keen eye spotted some jewelry among the junk--Some of it cheap trash, to be sure, but a few rather elegant pieces, too--and it struck him that one way to make up to Cleopatra for offending her would be to buy her a pretty bauble from this exotic-looking merchant.
"Don't just stand there like eunuchs, help him!" he barked at his two guards as he himself went to the man's aid, elbowing Rasilla aside and helping him to his feet. "Are you all right? I'm afraid I didn't see you."
"Huh? What? Oh, yeah, I'm all right, I think," Salmoneus replied, placing one hand on his back and arching it until it popped loudly. "There. That's better."
"I'm so relieved. I noticed some trinkets among your possessions that looked quite nice. Are you by chance a merchant?" Caesar inquired.
"Why, yes, yes, I am. Salmoneus, Salesman to the Gods--Not really, of course, it's just part of my sales' pitch, you understand--at your service, sir," the older man said in his most oratory manner. "What can I interest you in today?"
"Salmoneus...from Greece?" the Roman questioned, raising one eyebrow in surprise.
"Ah, it's nice to know my reputation has preceded me...I think. Then, again, you can't always trust everything you hear about a person. There are lots of reasons for people to make up things, you know. What have you heard, exactly?" the merchant asked sheepishly.
"Only that you are renown for your ability to obtain that rare item which no one else can supply," Caesar replied, gazing thoughtfully at the man's companion.
"That you can believe," Salmoneus assured the Roman. "It's things like `All Salmoneus sells is overpriced junk,' and `Salmoneus would sell his own mother for the right price' that you have to be wary of."
"Caesar, Julius Caesar," he smiled, bending and kissing Rasilla's hand.
"Caesar??!" gulped Salmoneus. "Julius Caesar??!"
"Is something wrong?" Caesar asked innocently.
"Not unless you think there is. Well, we'd better get going. Don't want to keep the Queen waiting, you know."
"That reminds me," said Caesar, looking back at the merchant. "I was hoping you could help me. I might have made dear Cleopatra a tiny bit upset and I thought some nice jewelry might be the perfect way to apologize. What do you think?"
Even though his self-preservation instinct was urging him to get away from the ruthless Roman as quickly possible, his nose for a large sale was holding it down and kicking it, trying to get it to shut up. "I just happen to have some pieces you might be interested in," he said smoothly, setting his pack down and rummaging through it. "And, so that you can see them in the right setting, so to speak, the lovely Rasilla will model them for your pleasure."
"I will??!" the Amazon exclaimed.
"That would be divine," nodded Caesar.
Salmoneus handed several items of better than average craftsmanship and worth to the woman and she somewhat reluctantly put them on. Caesar frowned as he stroked his chin thoughtfully.
"I was hoping for something a bit more unusual. Don't you have anything more...unique?" he questioned.
Salmoneus reached into his robes and, to Rasilla's horror, pulled out the sack with the Snare Stone. "It just so happens that this little beauty recently came into my possession," he said, dumping the glowing stone into Caesar's hand. "I haven't had a chance to get it appraised yet, but I figure it must be worth at least 500--"
"It's stunning. A stone truly worthy of being worn by a Queen. I'll give you a thousand gold pieces for it," the Roman said, his eyes intrigued by the pulsing lights within the heart of the stone.
"Sold!" snapped Salmoneus.
The Amazon ground her teeth in frustration and cursed herself for allowing her emotions and curiosity to interfere with her sacred mission. She also cursed Xena again, for not granting her an honorable death, just for the heck of it.
Rasilla didn't know what to do.
She watched as Caesar walked off, admiring the gem he'd just purchased, with no idea that it contained the soul of the Amazon Queen, Gabrielle, wondering how to get it back and how to return with it from this strange, faraway land to the village of her sisters. Her companion--Had she begun to think of him as a friend? She shuddered at the thought, but could not divest herself of this nagging affection she had developed for the gregarious merchant--was happily counting the gold which Caesar's men had just returned with and handed over to him.
The Amazon couldn't understand the man's obsession with money--And yet, she reminded herself, he had parted with some of it willingly enough when she had needed to secure her position on the ship in order to get medical attention for her arm; she glanced down at the cast made from lime, sand, and water, with some hair from the tail of a horse added to help give it stability, and realized that her arm no longer hurt. Actually, she couldn't understand the obsession the entire world, outside of her village, had for money. What use was it? Could you eat it when you were hungry? Could it protect you from the cold? Could it save you from the blade of an enemy? Could it comfort you when you were lonely?
It could do none of those things--Well, she could almost picture Salmoneus snuggling up to a pile of gold, but that was beside the point--and yet, all people seemed to need and want it. She disgustedly realized that it was just as her Queen had warned them: The men and women beyond our village are too lazy to do things for themselves and have to pay others to do them instead. If we need something, a blanket, or some food, she had told them, we either get it ourselves, making or hunting it, whatever the case may be, or we ask one of our sisters if there is anything we can do in exchange for the item, if she possesses it, or to secure her help, if we need it. We do not buy and sell, using worthless bits of stone. We are self-sufficient unto ourselves and reliant on no man from the outside for anything. Remember that, my sisters, when you travel beyond the confines of your home, and let that knowledge protect you.
But Rasilla had not remembered. And now she was at a loss as to how to complete her sacred mission.
She dumbly followed the merchant, lost in her thoughts, until the pair was escorted into a beautiful garden, safely located within the walls of the grand palace, where three people were seated on low benches, laughing and talking.
"Salmoneus!" exclaimed Autolycus, rising to greet the merchant with a hearty handshake. "What brings you here, my friend? And, who is your lovely companion?" he added, twirling his mustache with a flourish.
"I sent for Salmoneus," Cleopatra announced before the newcomer could respond. "My cousin, Princess Anuket, told me of him, and of something he called `Pyramid Power,' and I was intrigued enough to send him money for his voyage here so that I could learn more of this magic."
"Some people really do get invited here, then?" Nebula smiled at the thief.
But the King of Thieves' attention was wholly occupied by the merchant's companion. "I am Autolycus, the King of Thieves, and I am completely at your service, my lady," he said gallantly, lowering his lips to her hand. "Do with me what you will."
Rasilla's dark eyes sparkled. "The King of Thieves, you say. Surely, that is an exaggeration, made for a lady's benefit," she replied, batting her eyes alluringly.
"I assure you that I am the greatest thief living in the world today," he replied. "To prove it, I will steal your heart."
`I have another item in mind, my swaggering friend,' the Amazon thought to herself. Aloud she said, "I fear my heart already belongs to another." She glanced down at Salmoneus and smiled.
"Well, then, set me another task to prove the truth of my claim," Auto joked, dropping the chivalrous pretense.
"I might just do that," Rasilla replied. "Later."
Nebula scowled inwardly at the Amazon. Not that she had any ideas about herself and the King of Thieves, other than some more mutual satisfaction, with no strings attached, of course. But there was something about the way the stranger seemed to be playing both Autolycus and the merchant like finely tuned lyres that bothered her. Being an expert on the art of playing men to get what she wanted, she had immediately recognized the skill in the other, and she wondered just what it was that the Amazon wanted.
Salmoneus and Rasilla joined the others and, after the introductions were completed, the merchant remarked, "I bumped into Caesar on my way in. What's he doing here?"
Cleopatra explained that he had arrived in pursuit of Pompey, after his former fellow triumvir had escaped following the defeat of his army in Pharsalus and fled here, thinking to get help from her late brother. But in a bid to secure his own position as Pharaoh by gaining Caesar's good graces, Ptolemy had had Pompey killed the minute he landed. Unfortunately, the remains of Pompey's army and those Egyptians loyal to her brother had then surrounded the city, preventing help from any landward source, but had been unable to secure the harbor, allowing Caesar and his legions to gain access to Alexandria itself.
"This certainly doesn't strike me as a city under siege," Nebula remarked, having besieged more than a few cities during her pirating career.
"Oh, but it is," Cleopatra assured her. "When Caesar declared me undisputed Queen of Egypt, following the death of my brother, many of my people were not, and still are not, happy about it. They fear that in my gratitude to the Roman I will give away all of Egypt's resources and power, making it just another Roman vassal."
"I would guess you have other plans?" Autolycus said with a smirk.
"Indeed I have, my friend, but this is hardly the time or place to discuss them. I, for one, am very interested in hearing about your friend Salmoneus' idea to harness the ancient power of the pyramids for the benefit of an individual," the Queen replied.
Salmoneus smiled and reached into his satchel and removed a strange object made of eight rods, four of which formed a square and four of which extended up from each of the square's four points and joined together, giving the whole the appearance of a hollow pyramid. He placed the thing on his head and then began, "The way it works is..."
Xena looked over at Gabrielle--`No!' She had to remind herself. `Not Gabrielle, just James in Gabrielle's body'--and noticed that she/he looked exhausted. Considering that they had just spent the past few hours doing nothing more strenuous than talking, the Warrior Princess found this odd, and a bit disturbing. "Are you all right, James?" she asked.
Tara, too, looked over at the body of the Bard and her expression betrayed what James could not see for himself.
"I'm not sure," he replied with Gabrielle's voice, although it cracked weakly. "I just suddenly feel so..." The Bard's body suddenly lost its color and toppled forward, off of the bench she/he had been sitting on, startling the owl perched on her/his shoulder, and causing it to fly off.
Xena sprang forward and caught the seemingly lifeless body of the Bard before it could hit the floor of their cabin. She was relieved--If that's the right word--to find that the body in her arms was still breathing, but in the mechanical fashion it had previous to James' possession.
"James?" Xena questioned, looking around as she laid Gabrielle's body on the bunk.
"He's still here, love," the owl answered, feeling quite tired himself all of a sudden. "This possession business must take more out of both of us than I thought it would. I need a bit of a lie-down, love. And James needs to recharge his battery, too, so to speak."
"You might as well relax. We won't reach Alexandria for another day at least," Xena said, almost pleased to have Gabrielle's body free of James' spirit for a while. She hated to admit it, even to herself, but she was beginning to get royally creeped out by the whole thing. Of course, the idea of spending any more time with the apparently lifeless body of the Bard wasn't really high in her wish list, either.
She looked over at Tara, who was trying to make herself comfortable on the bench--Without much success, she noted with a discreet smile--and was suddenly very grateful for the younger woman's company. Not that she could ever take Gabrielle's place in her heart, but if things should turn out badly...
Xena banished the thought with a silent curse. No! Gabrielle would be fine. They would get the gem from Salmoneus and then use the Ankh of Osiris to restore her soul to her body and the two of them would hunt down the Amazons who did this and make them sorry they were ever born.
The Warrior Princess stretched out her legs and leaned against the wall of the cabin and fell asleep with a contented smile on her lovely face.
At first, James found that being inside of Gabrielle's body was a little strange. Colors seemed a little brighter and he noticed things that he normally wouldn't have. Like how beautiful the forest was in the afternoon light. But it was when he saw the ship that he knew something was definitely different. All of his life family members used to joke that he must have been related to Poseidon because of how much he enjoyed the sea, but now that he was a spirit and in Gabrielle's body, the sight of the ship at the wharf made my/Gabrielle's stomach churn. `Poor Gabrielle! If this is how she feels when she gets near water, it's a wonder she ever travels by ship,' he thought to himself.
James suddenly made the realization that even though Gabrielle's soul and mind were absent, her body had certain things "hardwired" into it, and a dislike of ocean voyages was one of them. As he climbed the gangplank to board the ship he could hear Xena talking to someone on the main deck. The voice was not one that he recognized but the bard still had a sense of foreboding come over him. He wasn't sure if it was him or Gabrielle's body reacting until he reached the top of the gangplank and saw the young woman talking to Xena. The stranger was definitely someone James had never met before, but Gabrielle's body was reacting as if faced with an enemy. Her heart rate sped up, her breathing quickened and he could feel a sense of slight hostility come over the body.
The owl on James'/Gabrielle's shoulder could feel that something was wrong. Looking first at the young woman and then twisting his head to look at him, he spoke in a very low whisper, "Something tells me, mate, that Gabrielle and that young lady must have had some dealings with one another in the past."
"Yeah," James whispered back. "And, whatever it was, Gabrielle's body holds a memory of it, and not a pleasant one, I think."
Later, sitting in one of the cabins on the ship, James was still trying to make sense of Gabrielle's bodily reactions. After the first initial hostile reaction toward the young woman, Gabrielle's body settled down and he had a vague sense that Gabrielle had called the woman a friend, but at the same time she did not fully trust her. It was when the woman named Tara, while talking to Xena, had reached over and touched the Warrior Princess on the arm that the reactions from Gabrielle's body needed no explanation. It was a surge of anger and jealousy, plain and simple. James saw the owl on his/Gabrielle's shoulder turn and give him a wink with one of his large eyes to show that he picked up on it as well.
Suddenly, James felt a great sense of exhaustion hit him. A feeling as if he had been carrying a huge weight around for a long time and had just put it down. The kind of feeling that left your muscles shaking in relief and tiredness. He could barely hear as Xena asked if he was all right.
Turning his head to ask the owl if he, too, felt it, James suddenly found himself expelled from Gabrielle's body and watched as it took a nose dive toward the floor, only to be saved by Xena's quick reflexes. After listening to the owl's explanation to Xena and watching as the owl, Xena and Tara decided to get some rest, he decided to take a "walk" around and see what was going on top side. After all, he didn't need to sleep, only to get out of Gabrielle's body for a while.
Drifting over the deck, James neared two scruffy looking sailors who stood looking out to sea. "I tell you, did you see the women that came on board?" one with a scar where his left eye should be whispered to his friend.
"Oh, yes, I did to be sure! The best sight to hit these old eyes in all my travels on Poseidon's seas. Pity the captain gave orders to let them be," said the other scruffy sailor, who had that permanent squint to his eyes that you get from staring too long out at the water.
"Well, the way I be seeing it is, we haves our fun and throw their bodies overboard and tell the captain that the land lovers fell overboard on their own. Who's going to be the wiser?" Right-Eye, as James came to think of him, said.
"Yeah, and maybe we can get the cook to fry up that owl on the sly, as well. They taste just like chicken, you know."
Deciding that these two had about as much chance of taking Xena and Tara by surprise as Joxer had of being declared "Warrior of the Year," James wasn't very worried. But he thought he should be getting back and warn them just in case. As he sank through the deck to return to the cabin, he heard the lookout yell: Ship ahead!
Hearing the lookout shout, James stopped his downward trend and, reversing direction, rose till he was level with the lookout's position high up on the main mast. Glancing over at the lookout he was surprised to see that he was just a boy. Noting the direction that the boy was looking at, James strained his eyes to see what he saw. Well, he would have been straining my eyes if he still had had a body, that is. Far off in the distance there was just a tiny speck on the horizon.
"Tartarus, Lad! You've got great eyes there!" James said to the boy. He of course could not hear the bard's shade and made no reply.
Deciding that Xena and the rest of them would still be resting James made a snap decision to travel to the other ship and see what was going on there. With a mere thought, he started himself flying over the sea.
Glancing down, he watched as dolphins unknowingly raced him as they traveled just beneath the surface in the same direction that he was going.
`I could get used to being nothing more than a spirit form!' he thought joyously as he reveled in the sudden sense of freedom.
Reaching the other ship all to soon, he bid farewell to the dolphins and examined the ship closely. "Oh, Tartarus!" he exclaimed. "It's a Roman ship. This is not good!" When he saw a Roman Centurion standing at the stern of the ship, he knew that it was much worse than simply "not good." Moving over till he was standing right beside the Centurion, James watched as a common Roman foot soldier walked up and saluted the officer.
The Centurion ignored the soldier for a moment and then turned to face him. "You know, I grew up with Brutus. We trained together, we fought together. Now Brutus is serving in Rome and I am stuck out here in the middle of the Gods forsaken sea! What went wrong in my career, Trillius?"
The Roman soldier shook his head. "I have no answers for you, Malacus. Ours is not to question why..."
"But to do or die. Yes, I know all that. I just don't know why Caesar insists that all ships should be inspected before they enter Alexandria. No one would be fool enough to attack it while he was there! This is a job for a fisherman not an elite Roman Centurion! You have something you wish to report?"
"Yes, sir! The lookout has reported sighting a ship ahead."
"Give orders to the captain that we are to overtake it and inspect it for enemies of Rome. Just like all the other times we have done this. Not once have we found any enemies, just drunken fishermen and sniveling merchants. Just once I would like to run into some worthy opponent to fight," the Centurion sighed, dismissing the soldier with a negligent wave of his hand.
Realizing that this could be a problem, James made all haste to get back to their ship and report to Xena.
Arriving back in the cabin of the ship where Xena was waiting, he was momentarily surprised to see the two sailors that had been plotting to attack Xena and Tara lying unconscious on the floor. Quickly moving over to Gabrielle's body he slipped in and tried to make it move.
The owl had been sleeping quietly when the two horny sailors had snuck in and tried to capture Xena and Tara. The sailors had been beaten senseless before he could even fully wake up. He started to feel bad about it but then he realized that not even Tara had awaked during the brief fight. That was how quickly Xena was able to handle it. He was watching in amusement as Tara woke up and Xena was explaining what happened when out of the corner of his eye he saw Gabrielle's hand start to twitch. "James is back, ladies," the bird announced. The owl flew over and landed on James'/Gabrielle's shoulder and the bard suddenly found it easy to move Gabrielle's form. "We could have used your help a little while ago with these ruffians," the owl said into his/her ear.
"Yeah, right! Like Xena needed any help with this lot," he snorted. "However, we do have a problem!"
"What?" Xena said while moving toward him.
"There's a ship out there filled with Roman soldiers coming this way. Their job is to keep enemies of Rome from entering Alexandria. It seems that Caesar is there right now," he explained and then shrank back from the look in Xena's eyes.
The owl, upset by the look in her eyes as well, tried to change the subject. "The first thing we need to do is to get these boat scum out of here. James, take over their bodies and move them out of here. Place them somewhere on deck and if anyone finds them they'll think they passed out from being drunk."
"I can't move someone without their permission. Hades told me that."
"Hades doesn't know as much about spirits and possessing bodies as he thinks he does, mate. You can move a body without their owner's permission as long as they're unconscious. Sort of like they were sleepwalking. I'll help you!" the owl finished as it landed on one of the sailor's shoulders.
With one last look at a stony faced Xena, James carefully placed Gabrielle's body down on one of the benches and entered one of the sailor's. Opening his eyes, he looked in the direction of Tara and Xena and said, "You owe me big time for this! This body is disgusting!"
"Oh, how bad can it be?" Tara asked as she bent down to help him up. Getting a whiff of the sailor's body odor, she gasped, "On the other hand, if the inside of his body is as bad as the outside, we do owe you big time."
As James guided the scummy sailor's body up on deck he heard Tara say, "I've got a plan to get us through this Roman blockade, Xena, but you're going to have to control your anger for it to work."
Xena watched Tara dig around in her bag looking for something for several minutes and then finally asked, "Are you going to tell me what this plan is or not?"
Tara, with a triumphant snort, pulled several long black cloaks from her bag and threw one to Xena. "I'll tell you when James gets back. For right now, just put on the cloak."
Xena held up the cloak and looked at it. "This thing is huge! where did you get it?"
"I saved a merchant from a bunch of punks and he insisted that I take these cloaks as a reward. They're way too big for me but they do make excellent cover for long cold nights." Xena put on her cloak and practically disappeared inside the garment. "Perfect!" Tara said.
Hearing a sudden frantic scratching on the cabin door she leaped to her feet and, stepping over the body of the sailor with a scar where his left eye should be, threw the door open wide.
Athene's owl came flying in and landed on one of the low benches. "James told me what those sailor scum were going to do! Can you believe it?! They were going to eat me!! Thought I would taste like chicken!! Me! Athene's personal owl, tasting like chicken? You humans are such ... such ... animals sometimes!" the owl angrily ranted.
Tara looked around and asked the owl, "Is James back yet?"
The owl stopped his ranting and looked around with surprise. "No, not yet, love. Wait a minute. There he is now."
Tara, watching the owl, looked to where the bird was intently staring: At the last sailor on the floor. Suddenly the owl jerked his head to the side and stared at a point near the far wall. Turning back to look at Xena, he said, "James wants to know what you did to that man."
Xena's voice came from the depths of the cloak. "To him? Nothing. He and his friend snuck in here. I leaped to my feet and punched the first guy in the face knocking him out cold. That one turned to run for it and ran into that low beam there and knocked himself out. Why?"
The owl turned back and looked at the far wall for a moment. "James says that one has wet himself." The owl let out a hooting noise and Tara realized that the owl was laughing. "James wants me to ask you if you think this guy is any relation to Joxer?"
Tara, never having met Joxer, looked curiously at the dark lump in the corner that was Xena.
"James, just get this guy out of here, will you?" Xena's unamused voice rang out. Suddenly, the sailor in question sat up on his own, took one look at the dark cloaked figure sitting a short distance from him and let out a high pitched squeak. Leaping to his feet, he turned to run and promptly knocked himself out again on the same beam and fell to the floor landing right back in the same position he started in. The owl turned to look at Tara and they both quietly looked at each other for a moment. When the sailor started to moan and move again, Tara made a motion to knock him out again.
"No, love! This time it's James," the owl shouted as he flew over to land on his shoulder.
Opening the disgusting sailor's one good eye, he looked at Tara. "What's with the cloaks anyway?" his voice croaked out as he cradled the sailor's aching head.
"It's my great idea. We pretend to be members of a religious sect. The Romans wouldn't detain or search a religious sect," Tara finished proudly. Tara could hear the owl's hooting laughter begin again and, glaring at him, she yelled, "What?!"
"You haven't had a lot of experience with Romans have you?" The owl asked.
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"He means that the Romans have no respect for any religions other than their own. That story wouldn't stop them from searching or detaining us," Xena's voice came from the corner.
"But that does give me an idea, love," the owl said. "The Romans may have no respect for other religions, but they do respect seers or mystics."
"Let's get Mr. Hygiene out of here before we go any further with the planning. Okay?" James asked the owl. The owl nodded his head. "Be back in a few minutes," he said over his other shoulder as he opened the door and left the cabin.
Tara sat on one of the benches looking dejected. "I really thought the religious order idea was a good one." Xena, her thoughts on Gabrielle and Caesar, did not answer her. Hearing a noise at the cabin door, Tara leaped to her feet and opened the door and peered out. Seeing the owl sitting on the floor of the corridor, she opened the door wide. The owl flew in and landing on one of the benches began to hoot with laughter again.
"You know, that James is pretty sharp. He snagged a bottle of wine from the ship's mess and when we ran into one of the crew, he would sing this old sea shanty about Aphrodite and a mermaid at top volume. We took Mr. Hygiene, as James refers to him, and dumped him with the other sailor. But before he did he poured the bottle of wine over both of them. If any of the crew find them before they wake, they'll just think they're drunk."
Tara leaped several feet in the air as Gabrielle's body suddenly sat up. The owl obligingly flew over and landed on James'/her shoulder.
"I took a look around before coming down. The Roman ship is almost here. I think I heard enough over on it to carry off the owl's idea about pretending to be a seer," he said as he adjusted Gabrielle's clothing.
"By the way," the owl suddenly spoke up, "where did you learn that song you were singing up there?"
"I have no idea. It just suddenly sprang into my head," he replied.
As the Roman ship came alongside the other ship. Malacus, one of Roman's finest Centurions--At least he thought so--was standing at the boarding planks, waiting for the sailors, whom he viewed with contempt, to secure the boarding lines.
`Nothing this time but more sea scum and pathetic fishermen,' the Centurion thought arrogantly to himself. Suddenly, he noticed the sight of two figures wearing long black cloaks and one female dressed as a warrior standing on the deck of the other ship. Having standing orders to always be on the lookout for a particular woman warrior, Malacus narrowed his eyes and stared intently at the warrior. `Nothing but a mere child. Certainly not the famous Warrior Princess I was ordered to watch for,' Malacus thought, dismissing Tara as not being a threat or important. He turned his attention to the two figures dressed in the black cloaks that the teenager was standing between. The cloaks made it hard for Malacus to determine anything about them. He could not even determine what sex they might be. The Centurion's eyes widened with surprise as the rocking of the other ship caused one of the cloaked figures to shift slightly, revealing a owl sitting on its shoulder. `This could prove to be interesting!' he thought.
As the Roman officer strode across the planks linking the two ships, James could feel his/Gabrielle's stomach tighten with worry. Without even looking, he knew Xena was tensing, ready to attack if this charade did not work. The Centurion spent a few moments talking to the captain of their ship. Fortunately, Xena had already warned him not to say anything about us, and paid him handsomely for his silence. Finally, finishing with the captain, the Roman strolled over to stand in front of the trio.
In front of James/Gabrielle, the bard realized with a sinking feeling.
"What do we have here, then?" the Roman asked, looking down his nose at her/him.
"We are seers traveling to Alexandria to see the mighty Caesar. traveling with us is our bodyguard," he said, making a motion toward Tara.
"How did you know that Caesar is in Alexandria?" the Centurion asked as he rested his right hand on the hilt of his sword.
James could feel the owl on his/Gabrielle's shoulder shift and he quickly responded to keep the owl from making a smart remark to the dumb question, "We are seers. We know that your name is Malacus and that you bear some jealousy toward a friend named Brutus because of his position in Rome while you are stationed on the sea."
Malacus' eyes widened in surprise. "Why do you seek an audience with Caesar?"
"We seek to warn him that someone very dangerous to him is journeying toward Alexandria." James thought that with Xena heading toward Alexandria that it was a completely truthful prophecy.
"I will have your things moved to our ship. We will get you there far more quickly than this reject of a fishing boat," Malacus decided in a loud voice. Turning to look at the cloaked form of Xena. "Why does your friend here say nothing?"
"The only time he acts is when there is extreme danger to important people like Caesar. That is why he is here: To prophesy that Caesar is in danger." Again, James thought to himself that it was a perfectly true prophecy: If Xena gets close to Caesar, he is going to be in extreme danger.
The Roman tried without success to peer into Xena's hood one last time before deciding that it was not worth angering a seer to see what he looked like. Turning to leave, he suddenly stopped and, with a thoughtful look, he turned back toward James/Gabrielle. "Can you tell me my future, Seer?"
James started to think furiously, trying to make up something to say, when all of a sudden he felt a cold feeling come over him and he could hear his/Gabrielle's voice speaking. "You will loan a dagger to a close friend. A burning fire will die. You will find wealth and power but history will remember you not!"
The Roman stood looking at her/him for a moment and then smiled. "Wealth and power? Hmm, I can live with that. Who cares if history remembers me or not. Thank you, Seer," he said as he bowed to her/him.
A short time later found the trio camped out in the Centurion's luxuriously outfitted private cabin. He had decided to bunk with the enlisted men so as to give them privacy to perform their seer's duties. He also gave orders that they were under no circumstances to be disturbed by anyone for the rest of the voyage.
"Where did you come up with that Centaur poop you told him, mate?" the owl asked as soon as we were alone.
"I have no idea where it came from. It was just something that popped into my head," James shrugged.
"Well, at least this will all be done sooner now," Tara said as she examined the large cabin.
"Said the cook as he dumped the eggs from the frying pan into the fire," the owl replied.
Xena, sitting on the one large bed that was in the cabin, said nothing. Her mind was filled with thoughts of Gabrielle's soul, Caesar, and what lay ahead in Alexandria.
Nebula was more than a little annoyed.
Autolycus had spent the entire evening shamelessly flirting with Rasilla, who had done everything she could to encourage him, and seemed to have forgotten that she was even alive. And, Caesar had been so busy trying to get Cleopatra to even look at him, that he'd neglected her, too. Even Salmoneus seemed so taken in by the Egyptian Queen's beauty, and so put off by the disinterest of the Amazon, that he had barely said two words all evening. From what Autolycus had told her of the merchant as they were preparing for dinner, she gathered that was probably some sort of a record.
She had just about made up her mind to return to the Leviathan and sail back to Greece without
the arrogant thief when Caesar suddenly stood up and took Cleopatra's hand in his and, even though the haughty Queen still refused to look at him, announced, "Dear Cleopatra, I did you, and your guests, a grave injustice this afternoon when, in a jesting mood, I allowed a joke to progress beyond the bounds of polite conversation. I am truly sorry if I inadvertently offended you, any of you, and, to prove my sincerity, I humbly offer this small token of my esteem and affection." He pulled the glowing gem from a leather pouch on his belt and held it up.
Cleopatra glanced over with a rebuke on her lips, but when she saw the stone in the Roman's hand, her face broke into a wide smile. She snatched it out of his grasp and then leaned over and kissed his forehead.
"Does that mean I'm forgiven?" he asked, rising and gazing into her beautiful eyes.
"I forgave you the moment you left the garden, Great Caesar," she replied, staring into the depths of the golden gem. "It is to my friends that you owe the real apology."
"Of course. Nebula, my beautiful captain, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive a larkish exercise taken too far," he said, looking over to where the pirate sat, alone and obviously annoyed.
"Apology accepted," she smiled over at him. "Just see that it doesn't happen again, or I'll have you drawn and quartered and then keel-hauled for good measure."
"Point taken. Autolycus, I-" he began.
"Please, no more. If I hear one more word, I'm likely to throw up the delicious meal we just enjoyed," the thief warned. "For the sake of our lovely hostess, however, I formally accept your apology, despite its blatant insincerity."
"Do you presume to call me a liar?" Caesar demanded, turning to face the outspoken thief, his face flushing with anger.
"I didn't presume any such thing, Julie. I just stated it. And, if you missed it the first time, here's the score: You're a big fat liar. You couldn't care less what Nebula and I think of you. The only reason you apologized was to make Cleopatra happy, and you know it," Auto snapped. "So, save the righteous indignation for another audience. One that gives a powdered pig's ass what you think."
"I see that your unfortunate association with Xena has had an adverse reaction, resulting in an inability to accord your betters with the respect they deserve," he said, barely controlling his anger.
"You leave Xena out of this! I'll have you know that I was a rude, loudmouthed boor long before I ever met Xena!" he shouted, thinking that hadn't come out exactly the way he'd meant it to.
"I don't doubt that at all," Caesar chuckled.
"Boys, before this actually escalates into fisticuffs, perhaps we could remember that we're all adults here and behave accordingly. Autolycus," Cleopatra said, looking directly at the thief, "I think you now owe Caesar an apology. And I mean a sincere one, my friend."
Autolycus scowled and then mumbled, "I'm sorry."
"For...?" the Egyptian Queen prodded.
"For calling you a liar and insinuating that you're nothing but a two-faced politician," he added.
"And you thought my apology was insincere!" Caesar roared, his laughter catching the King of Thieves off his guard. "Autolycus, we might never be friends, but, by Jupiter, man, I've never met anyone who dared to talk to me in such a manner--Save the Warrior Princess herself--and you do have my genuine respect for doing so."
"I guess that's better than a dagger in the back, but neither will buy me a warm drink on a cold night," Auto quipped, smiling.
"Don't be too sure about that. My good graces can buy a person a great deal. Just ask Cleopatra. They bought her the undisputed rule of all Egypt," he stated, once more looking into her dark eyes.
"Assuming that the hostile forces surrounding the city are defeated," Auto added. Caesar just smiled at him.
Then, everyone began talking among themselves again, as if the entire, heated, exchange had never taken place.
"Am I to understand that Caesar and Xena don't like each other?" Rasilla asked the thief quietly.
"Oh, baby, is that putting it mildly! They hate each other with a vengeance!" he assured her. Then, he spotted Nebula getting up. "I need to go talk to someone."
"Hmmm? Oh, of course. I didn't mean to monopolize your company," she replied, but her thoughts were elsewhere.
Autolycus hurried over and stood in front of the pirate, blocking the exit from the dining hall. "And just where do you think you're going?" he inquired, raising her chin to look at him when she lowered her eyes.
"Back to Greece, so you and your new friend can get better acquainted."
"By Zeus, woman! You're jealous!" he chuckled.
"Am not. And you needn't be so happy about it. I'm simply disgusted that you can't see that Rasilla is just using you, and Salmoneus," she said.
"For what?" he asked, still smirking.
"Not what you'd wish she would!" she shot back. "As to what exactly she is up to, I don't know. But I do know that she's more interested in Cleo and I than either of you."
Autolycus' smirk slipped a bit. "Really? How can you be sure?" he inquired.
"Spent too much time alone at sea, have you?"
"No, you idiot! I've just known plenty of Amazons--Not like that!--and I know that they're not terribly fond of men as a general rule. So, she must want something from you or she wouldn't give you the time of day," Nebula explained. "And, you would have realized that yourself, if your enormous ego hadn't gotten in the way of your common sense."
Auto nodded. "You're right. I must have looked like a real moron."
"You did. But a cute moron," she smiled.
"What say we blow this shindig and head back to my room for a bit of dessert?" he offered, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
"They should be serving dessert in here in a bit."
"Not the item I've got in mind."
"You don't think we could convince them to add it to the menu?"
"Not if we want to keep this party from turning into an orgy."
The two walked off without so much as a backward glance at the others.
Salmoneus watched them go and then was pleasantly surprised when Rasilla approached and smiled at him sweetly. "I thought your friend would never leave me alone," she sighed, sitting next to him.
"But ... I thought you ..." Sal began, confused.
"I was just being polite because he's a friend of yours, sweetie."
"You don't like that? How about foofy-bear?"
"I think I prefer sweetie. But that's not the point."
"Oh? And just what is the point?" she asked, leaning into him and batting her eyes.
"Point? What point? Who said anything about a point? Why are we still talking?"
"Good question. Let's say good night to our hostess and then go to our room."
"`Our room'??!" Salmoneus exclaimed.
"Cleopatra offered to let me have a room of my own, but I declined. She understood."
Salmoneus nodded eagerly, hoping that he understood, too.
Cleopatra and Caesar were talking quietly when the pair approached them and waited to be recognized. "Oh, Salmoneus and Rasilla...What happened to Autolycus and Nebula?" the Egyptian asked.
"They left a few minutes ago. I don't think they'll be back this evening," Salmoneus grinned.
"Ah, and I take it that you two are also leaving for the night?" Cleo inquired.
"Yes, but unlike Autolycus and the captain, I thought it would be rude to leave without thanking you for the wonderful dinner and the delightful conversation," the merchant replied. "So, thank you and good night." He grabbed Rasilla's arm and drug her from the hall as she laughed and waved farewell to the two rulers.
"Interesting people, these friends of yours," Caesar commented. "But I dare say they have the right idea. Shall we?" He stood up and offered his arm to Cleopatra and she smiled and stood up, accepting the proffered limb. Together, the pair made their way to the lavish quarters of the Egyptian.
Caesar could hardly believe his ears.
The Roman had gotten up early, as was his custom, leaving the beautiful Egyptian Queen still sleeping peacefully in her bed, and stolen to the kitchens to order a meal prepared for him. He was a firm believer in the importance of a good breakfast, considering it the most essential of all meals. As he sat in the garden eating his food and reading over the reports of his subordinates, he had been surprised to see Rasilla enter the area and glance over her shoulder suspiciously before joining him.
She had then proceeded to tell him the circumstances that had led to her being in the Egyptian capital and his meal had been forgotten.
"It would have been better had I learned this news before giving the gem to Cleopatra," he sighed.
"Of course, Caesar," the Amazon nodded, "but I didn't know of your own hatred for the Warrior Princess until after you had done so. Can you not ask for it back?"
Caesar glared at her incredulously. "Hardly. You saw the way she was looking at it last night. Besides, I would never do anything so uncouth as to ask for the return of a gift."
"Perhaps you could steal it from her room and she would think it lost," Rasilla offered.
The Roman smiled. "Or that another had stolen it."
Autolycus rolled over and slowly sat up, being careful not to disturb the beautiful pirate who was still soundly sleeping next to him. Although he wasn't a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, he had always been one of those people who found it next to impossible to sleep past sunrise, no matter how late he'd stayed up the night before. Or no matter if he hadn't got much sleep even after going to bed.
So, the King of Thieves rubbed the sleep from his eyes and, after getting dressed and then making sure that Nebula was adequately covered with the bed's blanket, set off to find the bathing chamber. He knew, given Cleopatra's fondness for baths, that there would be one somewhere in the palace, he only had to find it.
"It's probably close to Cleo's quarters," he said to himself as he padded through the empty corridors. "Now, if I could just remember where they are, I'd be all set." Spotting one of the palace's many servants, he asked, "Pardon me, my good woman, but can you tell me where the Queen's chambers are located?"
"Of course, sir," the old woman replied and then proceeded to give him directions.
It was only after she had disappeared around a corner that he realized he should instead have asked where the baths were. "Oh, well, if I'm lucky, perhaps the Queen will join me," he said hopefully.
As he rounded the corner leading to the hallway in which the Queen's quarters were located, he saw Caesar slipping out of the room the old servant had told him belonged to Cleopatra. Of course, since they had more than likely spent the night together, he didn't find this odd in and of itself. And, he naturally assumed that the Roman was being cautious so as to avoid waking up the Queen.
Still, there was something about the Roman's attitude as he stole away that made the King of Thieves suspicious. So, Autolycus decided to follow him. But just as he was passing by the door to Cleopatra's chambers, he heard a cry coming from within and crashed through the doors to find the Egyptian Queen standing at her dressing table, wearing nothing but the flimsiest of robes.
"Very funny, my friend," she said when she saw Autolycus. "Now, be a good boy and hand it over or I'll have you thrown to the crocodiles." The smile on her lovely face told Auto that she was just joking about the last part.
"I don't know what you're talking about. Hand what over?" he inquired.
"A joke's a joke, Autolycus, but I want the gem and I want it now," she said, the smile slipping from her face.
"Gem? You mean the gem Caesar gave you last night?" he asked.
"You know darn well that's the gem I mean. Now, hand it over, before I forget we're friends and lose my temper," she said, clearly frowning now.
"But, Cleo, sweetheart, I swear on my brother's grave that I didn't take it," Auto said earnestly. "With all the treasures just lying there, waiting for me to grab them in your brother's tomb, why would I bother with that gem?"
"Because you're greedy and you saw how impressed I was with it and you were jealous that Caesar had given it to me," she blurted out.
"Jealous? Me? Of that Roman poster boy for betrayal? Not in a million years, baby," he snorted. "Speaking of which, I just saw that sneaky centurion slipping out of your room right before you cried out."
"You're not actually delusional enough to think he stole it, are you?" the Egyptian scoffed. "He gave it to me, for the love of Isis! Why in the name of the sphinx would he turn around and steal it from me?"
"He's a class Alpha creep, Cleo. He doesn't need a reason to do anything rotten," Auto shrugged. "After seeing how you reacted, maybe he figured it was more valuable than he thought."
"I'm trying to be reasonable about this, Autolycus, because you're a friend, but if you don't return my gem and apologize for your little prank, I will have no choice but to ask you to leave Alexandria," she stated, her dark eyes flashing with an intensity which clearly told the thief that she was beyond listening to reason. He knew that the only way to convince her that he didn't steal it was to get it back from whoever had. And, despite the incomprehensibility of it, his money was still on Caesar.
"Fine. I'll need a couple of hours, but you'll have your gem back," he said, somewhat sadly. He turned and walked out before she could say anything further, and to avoid seeing the obvious hurt in her eyes.
Salmoneus absently reached over and felt for Rasilla, only to discover that he was alone in the large bed. But even though he couldn't recall much of the previous night--Which was odd, because he'd barely had any wine--he did have the pleasurable memory of the Amazon's strong arms carrying him to bed. Again, he found this rather odd--But definitely enjoyable!--since he'd had only a glass of wine at dinner and then a small glass once he and Rasilla had gotten back to their room. Normally, he was able to hold his liquor much better.
The merchant lazily crawled from bed and hurriedly got dressed, intending to locate both the Amazon and some breakfast.
Rasilla smiled when Caesar triumphantly displayed the gem to her. The pair were in a little-used part of the palace, where the crafty Roman had arranged to meet with the Amazon after securing the gem. "Quickly, give it to me, and then I will catch the next ship back to Greece," Rasilla said, holding out her hands expectantly.
"I'm afraid there's been a change of plans, my dear," the Roman said smoothly, holding the gem back, out of her reach. "I've decided to keep little Gabrielle's soul with me for the time being. I know that sooner or later Xena will come looking for it, and I want her to come to me. And, when she does, that will be the end of the legendary Warrior Princess."
"No!" hissed Rasilla, drawing the knife from her belt. "We had a deal. I must have the gem to restore my honor and to free our Goddess. So, if you will not give it to me willingly, I will simply kill you and take it from your cold fingers."
"Now, now," cautioned Caesar, backing up slightly. "There's no need for violence. Once I've destroyed Xena, you can have the gem and do whatever you want with it. Throw it in the ocean, bury it in the great desert, or use it to release your ridiculous Goddess, for all I care. But for the time being, I must insist on keeping it with me."
"I think not. Besides, Xena will die when our Goddess is freed. I give you my word that her own hatred for the Warrior Princess rivals that of yours and that her first action will be to kill her and Gabrielle," the Amazon promised. "So, give me the gem and I will be on my way to do what must be done, to do that which will ensure the death of our mutual, and greatest, enemy."
She stepped forward, poking the Roman's belly with the tip of her blade.
Suddenly, a spear point erupted from her chest and she looked down in horror and then tried to bury her knife in Caesar's gut, only to have him casually knock it from her hand. "I tried to be reasonable, Rasilla," he said, holding her up by the shoulders as her knees turned to jelly beneath her, "but you left me no choice. Fortunately, I was prepared for such an eventuality. I am always prepared for any eventuality, as you would have learned yourself, had you not spent your life in some damn backwater Amazon slum." When he saw that her eyes had glazed over in death, he released her shoulders and then brushed his hands together as he stepped over her body, careful to avoid treading in the widening pool of blood.
"Get rid of this garbage," he ordered the centurion who had run her through. "Then, clean this place up and forget what just happened."
"Aye, Great Caesar," the man replied, saluting. "I shall feed her to the crocodiles in the Nile and, if any discover her remains, they will think she was attacked while swimming. She was, after all, a foreigner and obviously not familiar with the dangers of the river."
"What was your name again?" Caesar inquired, halting in mid-step and turning to face the soldier.
"Pontius, Great Caesar."
"Mark my words, Pontius, a man as devious as you will go far in this world," he said with a smile. Then he reached out and clamped his iron fingers around the man's throat. "Just see that you don't rise at my expense or I'll rip your guts out and hang you with them! Is that understood, soldier?" The man in his grasp could only nod, and that just barely. "Fine. Now, get to work. And, in the future, just do what you're told and don't bother me with the details."
Caesar let go of the centurion's throat and stalked off, leaving him on his hands and knees, gasping for air.
End of Part One