MY SOUL TO KEEP
"Reunion That Transcends"
Gabrielle felt like crying.
Unfortunately, since she was currently nothing more than a bodiless essence trapped in a large gem, crying wasn't really an option. And she was tired of screaming. Well, not tired, really, since in her current state she didn't experience things like exhaustion or hunger. Bored would be a better word. Besides, all of her screaming hadn't done any good while she was in Salmoneus' possession. And, now that she was under Caesar's control, there seemed little point, as the Roman obviously knew she was in there and wasn't likely to do anything to release her.
Quite the contrary, in fact, was the frightened Bard's guess.
Looking out from beneath the hooded cloak she was wearing, Xena's icy blue eyes narrowed and a grim expression clouded her lovely features when she spotted Caesar's flagship docked in the Alexandrian harbor. Of course, she had known that her ex-lover would be here ever since she had boarded the Roman ship, but until she had seen the reality of his presence confirmed, a part of her had hoped he would be long gone by the time she arrived.
She had enough to worry about without Caesar complicating things. And, if she could count on the treacherous Roman for anything, she could definitely count on him to complicate things.
Especially where the Warrior Princess was concerned.
Of course, there was also that other part of her which longed to settle the score with Caesar once and for all. But she knew that for Gabrielle's sake, she had to stay focused on her task and return the Bard's soul to her body before any final reckoning with the wily Roman.
As soon as the vessel docked, Xena, Tara, James (in Gabrielle's body), and Athene's owl made their way toward the gangplank. But just as the quartet reached it, James stumbled and reached out for the railing to steady himself.
"Are you all right?" Tara whispered.
"I've been in here too long," James panted. "Just give me a minute to collect my strength and I should be able to make it to the dock."
Xena, concerned by the delay, approached and gazed thoughtfully at the owl, which was gasping for breath and visibly struggling to maintain his grip on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"We're drawing unwanted attention," she hissed, glancing at a handful of soldiers who were looking in their direction. "Can you make it?"
"I think so," James managed to croak out, nodding the Bard's head slightly. "Let's hurry."
The Warrior Princess reached out to help her/him, but, instead, as his spirit was forcefully expelled from the Bard's body, Gabrielle's hands got tangled in Xena's robes and pulled them off as the seemingly lifeless body toppled to the deck.
"Hey! You're not a man!" exclaimed one of the nearby soldiers.
"I'm not a lady, either!" Xena snarled, drawing her sword and plunging it into the startled Roman's chest. "Tara! Get Gabrielle's body to the palace while I keep these imperial dogs busy!"
The young warrior looked at the advancing Romans and paused. She was about to suggest staying to help when she saw a feral grin spread across the face of the Warrior Princess and realized it was the Romans who would need help. So, she nodded and then slung Gabrielle's body over her shoulder and charged down the gangplank, kicking an unfortunate guard in the face without missing a step on the way, and headed for the shining white palace of the Egyptian Queen.
Once clear of the docks, she set the Bard's body down, removed the black robe, and then proceeded by supporting the body with one arm around her shoulders and the other around her waist, dragging her along and singing bawdy songs so that people would think they were just drunken foreigners. She ducked into a darkened alleyway as a squad of soldiers raced by her, heading for the docks with swords drawn.
She almost felt sorry for them.
Meanwhile, Xena's sword sang merrily as it whistled through the air, with the tune becoming quite a bit darker when the blade struck flesh and cleaved through bone. Although, Xena noted with perverse satisfaction, the occasional chunk and thud did add a nice backbeat to her symphony of destruction. When the deck beneath her feet grew slick with blood and entrails, she deftly flipped backwards, her sword spinning around her like a buzz saw, and landed on the dock...just in time to face the oncoming squad of angry Romans Tara had avoided.
"Bring it on, boys! My juices are barely moving," she called, flipping the sword around with one hand and motioning the confused soldiers forward with the other. Before they had time to react, however, she yanked the chakram from her belt and spun around and hurled it at the sailor about to jump down on her from the railing of the ship.
The deadly disk sliced his throat open and he plunged into the Nile, dead before he even hit the water. It then careened off the main mast of the ship and returned to her hand before the soldiers on the dock could make a move.
"Xena!" gasped the leader of this squadron. "Fifty gold coins to the man who brings her down. One hundred and fifty if she's taken alive."
"That's a lot of money," the Warrior Princess nodded, advancing and taking out three men with a slash of her sword, a well-placed kick to the head, and a curled fist to the jaw. "Pity none of you will live to see it." She then flew into them like a demon from their darkest nightmares and her sword continued its terrible, but disturbingly beautiful, song.
Caesar scowled as two soldiers rushed into the rooms he was using as his base of operations. He could see by the looks on their rugged faces that they did not bring him good news. One was of the palace garrison and the other was from the ranks of the soldiers securing the city from the angry Egyptians. The two men practically ran each other down trying to get to his table.
"Hail, Caesar!" they both said, striking their chests and raising their arms in salute.
"Hail me. What news do you bring, man?" he asked, fixing his brown eyes on the city guardsman.
"My lord, the Egyptians are attacking in earnest and, despite all our preparations, the walls of the city will be breached before the sun sets tomorrow evening," he stated anxiously.
Caesar nodded thoughtfully and then looked to the other man and saw that his expression had become almost sheepish. "And you, Sextinus, what news have you?" he inquired.
"With the news of the Egyptians' imminent attack, mine seems hardly worth mentioning, great Caesar," he replied.
"You thought it worthy of my notice a moment ago," the Roman leader pointed out. "Out with it, man!"
"Word from the docks is that some woman is making short work of our soldiers. From the descriptions, my guess is it's Xena," he added.
"Of course it's Xena! Of the two reports, I would judge yours the most crucial, Sextinus. After all, Xena is already within the gates of the city, while the Egyptians won't be here for another day at least," Caesar noted. "Best order the men to pull back, before we lose any more to the damned woman. Let her enter the palace. She wouldn't dare attack me while we're both guests of Cleopatra. She may be a barbarian, but she holds herself to a certain code of honor. Thanks, no doubt, to your civilizing influence, eh?" The Roman grinned and his fingers closed around the pulsing gem in the pouch on his belt. "Bring me any sailors who survived the initial attack at once."
"Yes, great Caesar," Sextinus said, saluting and making his exit.
After waiting a few moments for further orders to be issued, the other soldier inquired, "And what should we do about the Egyptians, great Caesar?"
The Roman looked up, appearing distracted by the question. "Do? Why, do what you can to prevent them from entering the city, of course. Now, return to your post and carry out my orders."
"Aye, great Caesar," the man nodded. He then saluted and left, with a curious, disturbed look on his face.
Alone, Caesar removed the pulsing gem from his pouch and gazed thoughtfully into its depths, marveling at the two lights in its core and enjoying their silent dance through the stone's interior. "The question, my little friend, is whether or not Xena knew you were here. If she did, her presence is, of course, understandable. But," he continued, standing up and pacing slowly over to the window, which afforded him a marvelous view of the great harbor, "if she didn't, why come here? What is she after, hmmm?"
Then, his dark eyes fell on the magnificent library and a cruel smile curled his thin lips.
Autolycus sucked in his breath and remained absolutely motionless as the Roman leaned on the ledge of the window below which he hung from his grappling hook. Finally, he heard Caesar withdraw to the room's interior and call for his guards. The King of Thieves carefully, and as silently as possible, hauled himself back up to the roof and looked down at the harbor, scanning the busy area until his keen eyes spotted the familiar form of the Warrior Princess approaching the palace.
Although he wasn't sure exactly what significance the gem held for Xena, he knew that he had to let her know that it was in her greatest enemy's possession as quickly as possible.
He turned to return to the palace's interior and saw a dozen of Rome's finest, swords drawn, faces grim, standing behind him.
"Caesar would prefer we take you alive, Grecian dog," the biggest of the centurions spat, "but he said he would understand if something unpleasant were to befall you in the attempt."
"It must be nice to work for such an understanding tyrant," Autolycus quipped, casually uncoiling rope from his grappling hook, which was still secured to the palace's facade. "I hope he'll be as forgiving when he learns you've allowed me to escape!" The thief leaped backwards and braced his legs to strike against the wall of the palace, hoping he had judged the distance from the roof to Caesar's window correctly.
When he instead flew into the room of the Roman commander, landing hard on his back and looking up into the faces of Caesar and several large, armed soldiers, he knew his math needed some work. "Well, go ahead, say it," Autolycus sighed, slowly sitting up.
"Nice of you to drop in, Autolycus," Caesar said without smiling.
The thief groaned as the soldiers hauled him to his feet and began to pummel him in the face and stomach with brass-covered fists.
Autolycus had definitely had better days.
First, he had been accused by Cleopatra of stealing the unusual gem that Caesar had given to her. Then, he had been captured while spying on the Roman, beaten practically senseless by his soldiers, stripped of his clothing and, more importantly, his lock-picks and other tools of his trade, and tossed into a dark, damp, cell deep below the palace of the Egyptian Queen. Then, taking no chances with the resourceful thief, the Romans had secured his hands and feet to the stone wall with heavy chains.
But even in this desperate situation, the familiar smirk spread slowly across his bruised and battered features and he suddenly gagged as if choking on the bone of a fish or fowl. A few seconds later the hooked tip of one of his lock-picks appeared between his lips and, turning his head, he spit the tool out and deftly caught it in his manacled right hand.
Humming a hauntingly familiar tune, he set to work on the rusty lock.
Salmoneus wandered the halls of the palace asking everyone he encountered if they had seen any sign of the Amazon, Rasilla. But no one had seen the foreign woman since the night before at dinner.
Except for one old servant who recalled seeing the striking woman headed for the kitchens just after dawn.
He thanked the old woman profusely and rushed off to question the kitchen servants, a growing fear gnawing at the pit of his gut.
The kitchen staff did remember seeing the woman in question go off with Lord Caesar after the two had spoken quietly for a short while and so, Salmoneus hurried to locate the Roman to find out what he knew of his friend's whereabouts.
Caesar looked up when Salmoneus entered and favored the merchant with a half-smile and a curt nod. "What can I do for you, Salmoneus?" he asked, rising and placing his hands very deliberately behind his back as the merchant extended his hand.
"I'm looking for Rasilla. The kitchen staff told me she went off with you early this morning, but no one has seen her since then," the Greek explained, the apprehension in his voice very obvious.
"Yes, we had a pleasant chat about her village and she expressed a desire to see Rome some time. Last I saw of her she was heading off to the Nile for a swim in its bracing, life-giving waters," the Roman replied.
"Is that safe? I'm sure I saw crocodiles in the water when we arrived," Salmoneus stated. "I remember thinking that their skin would make a very attractive material for traveling gear and even footwear and made a mental note to myself to inquire about the possibility of acquiring several carcasses from Cleopatra before I left."
"Rasilla is a strong and capable woman," Caesar began.
"Don't I know it!" the merchant grinned.
"I'm sure you do. What I meant, however, was that she would hardly be foolish to go swimming if there were crocodiles present," he finished.
"Right. She may be a stranger, but she's no idiot," Salmoneus agreed.
"Of course, crocodiles have been known to lie in the tall reeds which line the river and take even the most cautious natives unawares," the Roman added thoughtfully. "They may be slow and clumsy on land, but in the water, they are quick and deadly. Still, I'm sure Rasilla will turn up eventually."
"I hope so. Say, I couldn't help but notice what a hit that gem I sold you was with the Queen. I hope you'll remember me when you get back to Rome. I've been thinking of visiting your charming city myself. I hear the streets are lined with stalls and the money practically leaps out of the purses of travelers," Salmoneus said wistfully, his blue eyes glazing over with longing.
"I give you my word that I will remember you when I once again walk the streets of my beloved Rome, my friend," Caesar promised. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I must prepare for the coming battle."
"Of course...battle??! What battle?" squeaked the merchant, suddenly alarmed.
"Oh, some of the locals resent my making Cleopatra the Queen and have gathered some forces together to assault this city," the Roman said airily, glancing at the map spread out on the table. "It's nothing to get worked up over."
"Are you sure?" He saw the dark eyes of the Roman glare at him and shrugged. "Of course you're sure. You're Caesar. I don't suppose leaving by ship is permitted..."
"I'm afraid the harbor has been blockaded by their ships. They may not have enough naval strength to openly challenge us in a battle, but they've got enough of their damn fishing boats clogging the harbor to make it next to impossible to leave."
"`Next to impossible'? Then, it might be possible for me and Rasilla to escape, er, leave on a ship?"
"Nothing is impossible, if you apply yourself and have the will to power necessary to accomplish what others would never even dare to attempt," Caesar said, his eyes getting a faraway look in them. "But I wouldn't suggest trying it. Go and find Rasilla and then make sure you both remain in the confines of the palace, for your own protection, of course."
"I can do that," Salmoneus nodded as he exited the rooms of the Roman.
Xena stalked though the corridors of the palace, reluctantly following the Egyptian guards who had firmly insisted that she accompany them to the presence of their Queen. They had refused to answer her questions about the whereabouts of Tara and Gabrielle, and Athene's owl had apparently flown off during the fight; he was probably with James, wherever he was. Her escort paused before a huge set of double doors decorated with the crests of Upper and Lower Egypt and, bowing reverently, pulled them open.
The Warrior Princess smiled her familiar half-smile when she saw the beautiful Egyptian Queen seated on her throne, Cleopatra was wearing what were obviously robes of state and two large, dark-skinned men fanned her with peacock feathered fans. At her feet sat a serving girl, wearing a costume identical to that which Gabrielle had worn while trying to protect the Queen from Joxer's deadly brother, Jett. The sight of the familiar garments brought a lump to her throat and renewed her determination not be distracted from restoring her beloved Bard's soul to her body.
"Xena, what a marvelous surprise!" Cleo grinned, rising and moving to embrace her. But seeing that she was splattered with gore from her recent battle, she halted and then a mischievous glint lit her dark eyes. "I was just about to enjoy a relaxing, hot bath. And, no offense, but you look, and smell, like you could use one, too. Care to join me?"
Xena had dealt with enough royalty to know that it wasn't merely a suggestion and, since she needed to keep on the Egyptian Queen's good side, especially if she were involved with Caesar, as the rumors held, she nodded and smiled her most disarming smile. "Of course, majesty. I apologize for entering your presence before having had the opportunity to clean myself up, but your guards gave me little choice in the matter."
"They were merely following my orders. I could hardly risk you running into Caesar, now could I?" she chided, leading her guest out of the receiving hall.
"I would never disgrace your hospitality by shedding the blood of another of your guests, Queen Cleopatra," Xena assured her as they walked through the corridors of the palace. She noted that Cleopatra seemed to be taking an unnecessarily circuitous route, no doubt to avoid any possibility of the pair blundering into Caesar.
"I've no doubt of that. But the same faith does not extend to Caesar," she confided. "He considers himself a law unto himself alone and not answerable to any others. Including Queens of the Nile."
Xena nodded and the pair of women entered a large, steam-filled room dominated by an enormous marble pool filled with warm water. Several topless servant girls were already present, attending to another of the Queen's guests.
"Xena, I would like you to meet Captain Nebula, master of the Leviathan," Cleo said as a servant helped her off with her robes, revealing that she was wearing nothing but a girdle of white cloth beneath the heavy garments.
"Xena...Hercules has told me of you," the pirate said thoughtfully.
"And he's told me of you, as well," Xena smiled as a servant helped her out of her soiled leathers. "A pleasure to finally meet you, Captain."
"And it's my honor to meet the famous Warrior Princess," Nebula returned.
As Cleopatra and Xena entered the water, the latter couldn't help but notice a striking similarity between the Queen and the sailor, but realized that when both of them were dressed in their regular clothing, with their hair done differently, the resemblance probably wouldn't be great enough that anyone would actually mistake one for the other.
"The water is perfect," Xena sighed, feeling her muscles relax. She hadn't realized how tense she'd been until the knots dissolved in the tepid bath.
"And so is the company," Cleo said, moving next to the Warrior Princess. "Except that it is a bit crowded. You may leave us," she said to the servants, who immediately got out of the bath and left the room. "Much better. Nebula, come and scrub my back as I do the same for Xena."
The pirate's teeth flashed and she eagerly obeyed.
"That's really not necessary..." Xena began.
"I insist," Cleo countered. "Now, turn around and just close your eyes and let my fingers work the stress from your body."
Xena knew that refusal was not only pointless, but wouldn't help her standing with the beautiful Queen, so she turned and involuntarily tightened when the Egyptian's fingers began to caress her broad shoulders.
"It won't do any good if you don't let yourself loosen up and enjoy it, Xena," the Queen scolded playfully. Xena nodded and did her best to relax. "Ah, much better." The slender fingers of the Egyptian forced themselves into the muscles of her upper back and worked back and forth until the cords of iron finally turned to sturdy planks of wood and then, at last, to silken ropes.
Meanwhile, Nebula's hands moved up and down Cleopatra's back, the heels of her palms pressing into the soft flesh of the ruler and bringing moans of delight from the latter.
After a while, the Queen announced, "Now, change positions. I will do Nebula and Xena will do me." All three women turned around and Xena and Cleopatra reached out their hands and began to scrub and massage the backs in front of them. "Gently, Xena, gently. You're not wrestling a warlord to the ground, you know."
Xena scowled and concentrated on lightly caressing the Queen's ebony back. "Much better. A bit harder, though. I'm not made of glass. Ah, now you've got it. Perfect."
As the massaging continued, all three women slowly formed a circle, so that all of their backs could be attended to at the same time. Then, Nebula and Cleopatra began to lean into Xena, their bodies brushing against the naked flesh of the Warrior Princess, and their faces turned toward hers, mouths slightly agape. Xena deftly avoided the inviting mouths but realized that someone's hands were beginning to explore more than her back.
She was about to make a hasty apology and exit the bath when the doors burst open and Tara exclaimed, "Major coolness!"
"Who is this child?" Cleopatra demanded, backing away as Nebula did the same.
"This is Tara, Queen Cleopatra," Xena said, relieved and disappointed at the same time. "She is traveling with me for the time being."
"And what of Gabrielle?" inquired the Queen, watching with growing annoyance as the young warrior shed her clothing. Then, she saw the hard, firm body and the silky smoothness of the skin and some of her displeasure vanished...only to return with a vengeance when the girl ran and jumped into the bath, screaming: Cannonball!
All three of the older women were unsurreptitiously soaked, but the Egyptian was the only one who seemed to mind.
"It's been, like, ages since I've had a decent bath," Tara exclaimed, surfacing and spitting water from her mouth like a decorative fountain.
"I've no doubt of that," frowned Cleopatra, moving away from the exuberant child.
Nebula, however, moved closer and then suddenly began to splash the newcomer with joyous enthusiasm.
Seeing Xena heading for the side of the bath, Cleopatra quickly moved to intercept her. "Gabrielle?" she pressed, endeavoring to keep the alluring Warrior Princess from exiting just yet.
"It's a long story, majesty," Xena replied, welling tears bringing out the vivid blue of her eyes. "One I would much rather tell in private."
"Oh, don't be rude and deprive the rest of us from your tale. It's been years since I've heard a good story," said a mocking, familiar voice.
Xena turned and saw Caesar standing in the doorway and the tears were immediately replaced by flames of rage.
After having been expelled from Gabrielle's body, James drifted alongside as Tara half dragged, half carried Gabrielle's body through the streets of Alexandria. Regaining some of his energy, he shot ahead and, zipping through solid walls and closed doors, finally found what looked like a warehouse that was deserted. Exiting the large building, he quickly found Tara.
The owl, who was barely hanging on to Gabrielle's shoulder, suddenly turned its head toward Tara and said, "James says to turn left at the next alley we come across. He's found an empty warehouse where we can rest."
Tara, upon reaching the warehouse, made quick work of the crude lock with her sword and dragged Gabrielle inside. "What is this place, anyway?" Tara asked the owl as she examined the large space. The room had only the one door they had came in and had no windows. Peering around in the gloom she could see that the room was filled with indistinct objects covered by coarsely woven cloths. Jerking off one of the cloths she exposed a simple wood box roughly the height and width of a person. "Who would have a warehouse to store boxes?" she idly asked the owl as she moved over to another cloth. When she pulled this one away it revealed a sarcophagus highly decorated in gold and gems. "Wow, now that's a box!" she exclaimed in awe.
"That's not a box, that's a sarcophagus, love. The rich put their dead in them to entomb them. This must be a warehouse where they store these things till they're needed." The owl spoke very tiredly.
Tara, with a smile on her face, quickly placed Gabrielle in the plain wood box and covered it with the cloth without placing the lid on the box. "Look, I gotta go find Xena. You and James stay here and guard blondie till you're both rested up. Then come find us." And, without another word, Tara ran out, shutting the door behind her.
"Bloody impulsive human!" the owl shouted at the closed door. "Well, at least Gabrielle's body should be safe here. So long as the Egyptians don't have a sudden need for coffins. While I get some much needed shut eye, mate, why don't you go see if you can find Xena and that impulsive girl?" the owl suggested with a half-stifled yawn.
"Right!" After passing through the closed door, James suddenly wondered just how was he supposed to find them. Hovering in the alleyway, he closed his eyes and tried to extend his senses...And was nearly blinded and deafened by the sensations of all the passing life in the streets!
The bard could feel men and women as they moved past and off in the distance. He could even feel the slow movements of the crocodiles in the river. "Well, this is an interesting side benefit of being a shade but it's also getting me nowhere," he said to himself.
Suddenly, he received some very strong impressions. The smell of leather hit his nose and a feeling that he could only describe as a razor sharp sword covered in soft black velvet; a sensuous feeling, but with an underlying feeling of danger just beneath the surface. He could almost hear the sound of Xena's chakram cutting through the air. "That's Xena, all right!" he smiled.
Opening his eyes, James saw that he was moving through buildings and across streets. Finally, after passing through a building where a family was just sitting down to a meal and clearing a wall, he beheld Cleopatra's palace. Passing through the wall, he had brief glimpses of life there; servants cleaning and preparing meals, and a depressingly large amount of Roman soldiers milling about.
Reaching a wall, he started to move through it but hesitated when he felt the impressions of the clicking of locks and smells that brought to mind large amounts of dinars for some reason. Wondering what that was all about, he took a deep breath (one he didn't need, being nothing but a spirit) and strode through the wall.
If James had still been alive, the sights that greeted him would have caused his heart to explode. Xena and two other women were in a large steaming bathing pool, washing each other. After several moments, he remembered that he was a gentleman and, with a considerable amount of will power, managed to turn his back on the scene.
But he did extend his other senses to the utmost. Turning his shade senses to the first woman, he started to receive the sensations of standing on a rolling deck. He could smell the sea and, listening, could "hear" the sounds of a ship creaking. Turning his mind to the other woman, he could feel the sensation of silk sliding over his skin. He could smell the scent of sandalwood and could "hear" the sounds of voices shouting joyously: Cleopatra!
`Cleopatra!' his shocked thought rang out in his head. James was strongly tempted to turn and get a good look at the woman. After all, it wasn't every day that you got a chance to see one of the most powerful women in the world bathing. As he was fighting the urge, he suddenly received another impression coming near. A sensation of down and dirty fighting, the smell of campfires, the sounds of street fighting. At the same time he reached the conclusion of who it was, Tara threw open the doors and came in.
The next several moments were a triumph of his will and something that James regretted for the rest of his "life." He successfully fought the urge to turn and stare at the bathing pool filled with beautiful women.
He had just about decided to try and find his way back to the owl and Gabrielle's body when he felt a chill come over him, as if someone was walking on his grave. Extending his senses, he "smelled" the sharp tang of blood. He could "hear" the screams of victims of war. The mental image of a steel fist in a leather glove came to him. Turning to face the door, he saw as Caesar entered the room.
Almost immediately, he could "feel" the sensations of a roaring fire coming from behind him. "That would be Xena's anger I'm feeling," he said to himself.
Worried that Caesar's forces had found Gabrielle's body, he willed himself toward the warehouse. Suddenly, his enhanced senses "felt" faintly the feeling of warm sunlight. He could "smell" the scents of wild flowers in the air. He could "hear" the sounds of joyful laughter...and it was coming from Caesar!?!
"What the Tartarus!" He started to move toward Caesar to try and figure out what was giving him the strange sensations when he heard Athene's owl faintly calling through the link they had.
"James! I need you! Here! Now!! They're taking the bloody box Gabrielle is in! They're not even bothering to uncover it and look inside. They're talking about a body they found near the river's edge. I think they plan on using the box for that body, mate. You've got to get here and move Gabrielle before it's too late!"
James hesitated for a brief moment, wondering if Xena was going to be all right with Caesar, but then realized that there was little he could do in any case and that his first priority was Gabrielle's body's safety.
Salmoneus was getting more worried by the minute.
He had left the confines of the palace, by sneaking past Caesar's guards disguised as a servant with several others, and then followed along with those men when he heard them talking about the remains of some poor soul the crocodiles had gotten. He followed the men to a large building, which he quickly recognized as a warehouse for the numerous coffins and sarcophagi that these people used in their elaborate burial practices. They chose a rather plain one made of sandalwood, which seemed heavier than it should to the fitness-challenged merchant, and set off for the shores of the Nile.
None of them noticed the strange owl that flew awkwardly after them.
"I thought I smelled something rotten," Xena said, her anger boiling just below the surface as she stared at the Roman. "Why don't you get undressed and join us? You could use some cleaning up."
"Unlike you women, I've no time to frolic about in the water," Caesar replied. "But I am interested in hearing this story of yours."
"I think we've already shared too many stories with each other," the Warrior Princess said off-handedly. She then climbed up out of the pool and began to dry herself with some towels.
Cleopatra sharply clapped her hands and a servant girl rushed in and knelt by the edge of the bath. "See that Xena gets some fresh clothes and that her old outfit is cleaned and polished."
The servant nodded and then waited until Xena had finished drying herself before leading her from the room.
"A pleasure, as always," Caesar said with a half-smile as she walked by him. She nonchalantly flipped her wet hair around and struck him in the face and then exited the room before he could do anything but sputter angrily. He started to follow her, but was halted by Cleopatra's voice.
"A moment, if you please, Great Caesar." The Roman turned and watched as Cleopatra stood up and walked majestically out of the bathing pool. As the water cascaded down her naked form, she approached him and said quietly, "I'm sure I need not remind you that you and Xena are both my guests. I have secured the word of the Warrior Princess that she will not harm you so long as that state remains. I now ask for your word not to harm her."
"You wound me, Queen Cleopatra," the Roman replied, dramatically placing a hand over his heart. "I would never do anything to dishonor the gracious hospitality you have extended to myself, and Rome. I give you my word that I will not harm Xena so long as we are both guests of your beautiful self." He bowed slightly, took her damp hand in his and pressed his lips to it.
The Egyptian Queen smiled. "Are you sure you won't change your mind and join us?" she asked, the seduction plain in her eyes.
"Alas, no. For, if I'm to secure your place on the Egyptian throne, the rebels must be dealt with in short order. And none but Caesar can do that," he said with mock-solemnity.
"Of course, Great Caesar. Another time, then. After this unpleasant business is taken care of," she suggested.
"I look forward to it." He nodded to the women in the pool and then turned and strode from the hall. And, even though she saw that he had gone in the opposite direction from that taken by Xena, Cleo knew that sooner or later the two of them would meet when she wasn't around to cool their tempers, and then things would really get complicated.
"So, that's Caesar, Julius Caesar, huh?" Tara grunted from the water. "He's not so big and bad."
"Don't underestimate him, child," Cleopatra warned, turning and walking over to the towel rack. "Caesar's power lies in his willingness to do whatever he deems necessary to secure his place in history, to fulfill his destiny and rule the world, not in his physical abilities. He is a brilliant, and ruthless, man. Perhaps more dangerous as an ally than as an enemy," she confessed, "but, for the time being, he and I, Rome and Egypt, need each other. So, I must demand the same pledge from you that I did from Xena: That you will not harm him while he is a guest in my house."
Tara shrugged. "Sure. Whatever. I've got no beef with the guy," she said, floating on her back and slightly kicking her feet. "Just make sure he keeps his word to Xena."
Cleopatra nodded, but knew that would be more difficult than the child realized.
Autolycus, finally free of the manacles which had bound his hands and feet to the wall, approached the door and was annoyed to discover that the lock was placed too far down from the barred window for him to reach without an extension to his lock-pick. "I'd hoped to avoid this," he sighed, gritting his teeth. He then reached around and up inside his butt, gently forcing his fingers forward until they touched the device he kept hidden there for emergencies such as this. Slowly, and painfully, the extension, a number of metal bars, hinged together in such a fashion that they could be arranged in any angle, emerged. He hastily cleaned it off with some straw that served as the cell's only bed and then fastened the lock-pick onto its end and extended it out of the window, guiding it down through a series of minute alterations until it made contact with the door's lock.
Ceasing his humming, he listened carefully for the tumblers to fall into place.
As soon as Xena was dressed, in an azure dress festooned with garnets and other gems, she set off to find Salmoneus and get the stone which contained Gabrielle's soul from the merchant before he sold it to one of the locals. Instead, rounding a corner which lead to the main hallway of the palace, and the only exit out into the city itself, she nearly collided with Caesar as he and several soldiers were making their way back into the palace.
"Xena, I must say that dress looks charming on you. Much better than those musty old leathers," he smirked.
"I prefer the scent of the leathers to the stench I'm smelling now. Maybe next time someone offers you a bath, you should take them up on it and do your soldiers, and the rest of us, a favor," she replied coolly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've promised not to kill you and I've got business in the city."
She started past him, but was caught up short when he asked, "Looking for Salmoneus?" She turned and saw his smug smile and knew that, as she'd feared, he was going to make things complicated. "It won't do you any good if you find him. He's already sold the gem which contains little Gabrielle's soul...to me."
Before his guards could prevent it, her fingers shot forward and stabbed at two spots at the base of the Roman leader's throat. Then, the soldiers leaped forward, swords drawn, but Caesar, who had fallen to one knee, waved them back angrily.
"Leave Gabrielle out of it. She's already suffered enough because of our feud. This is between you and me. It always has been," Xena said softly. "Give me the gem."
"Give me...some credit...Xena...I'm not...stupid enough...to carry...it around with me," he gasped, blood beginning to trickle from his nose. "Kill me here...and you...not only...break your...word to Cleopatra...but you'll...never find the gem..." He dropped to all fours and the blood began to form a puddle on the marble floor as it drained from his nose.
Reluctantly, Xena reached out and tilted his head back and then restruck the pressure points with the tips of her fingers. Caesar coughed violently, spitting up a bit more blood, and then climbed awkwardly to his feet and wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand. He just smiled at her, although she was pleased to see the anger he tried to hide flashing plainly in his brown eyes, and then wiped his hands on one of his soldiers' tunics. "So as not to...break our vow to Cleopatra...I propose that we meet at sundown on the docks. There, I will give you the gem, after we settle things between us once and for all," he said, quickly regaining his composure and strength.
"Fine. Just make sure you bring the stone," Xena snarled. She then turned and stalked back into the palace.
"Of course I'll bring it," he chuckled, removing it from the pouch on his belt. "I never go anywhere without it."
Inside the gem, Gabrielle began to scream again.
Moving along at a fast clip, James almost missed the intersection where the Egyptian servants had just passed through with the box with Gabrielle inside. The only reason he realized that they were the ones he was looking for was because of the overweight, strange looking servant following behind them. His beard was not in the Egyptian style. As a matter of fact, he looked a lot like Salmoneus. As he stood in the intersection wondering if it was indeed Salmoneus and why he was dressed as an Egyptian servant, he heard the sounds of wings flapping furiously.
He had just started to turn when he felt a very light sensation, as if a slight breeze was blowing, as Athene's owl flew right through his spirit form.
"Bloody splinters from Charon's boat! What do you think you're playing at, standing in the middle of the walkway like that?!" the owl cursed as it flew through him.
With a thought, James started moving and managed to keep up with the owl. "Looking for you and Gabrielle's body," he told the owl.
"Well...the...body...is...still...in... the...box...those...servants... are...carrying," the owl wheezed as it kept flying.
With a thought, James dashed ahead and willed himself into Gabrielle's body. He was well rested after being out of her body for a while but still not strong enough to make her move without the owl being in contact with her as well. Concentrating with all of his will, however, he managed to move Gabrielle's mouth and issue out a low moan.
The Egyptian servants, being a superstitious lot, immediately dropped the crude coffin and started to back away from it.
Suddenly, the owl landed on the coarse cloth that was covering James/Gabrielle, causing it to settle down on top of him/her. Even through the cloth, as soon as the owl's talons touched Gabrielle's shoulder, James could feel the ability to move her body return. Abruptly sitting up with the cloth still covering her was more than the already frighten servants could take. He could hear their shouts of "Osiris and Horus protect us!" as they ran screaming away.
Reaching up with one hand, James pulled the cloth from away and felt as the owl did a slight hop/flight and then settled back down onto Gabrielle's bare shoulder. "Well that should cause a rise in the attendance at the temples, don't you think?" he asked the owl. Looking around, the bard could see that they were very close to the banks of the river.
Suddenly, he heard Salmoneus' voice behind him. "Gab...Gabrielle? What are you doing here?"
Rising up out of the box, James turned to face him, noticing that they were the only two people now anywhere on the banks of the river. "I'm not really Gabrielle. Well, not completely. It's a really long story," he stammered. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm looking for a lovely Amazon woman by the name of Rasilla. I heard that they had found a body near here and I was afraid that it might be hers," Salmoneus finished with his voice cracking slightly.
James started to reply to Salmoneus when the owl's talons suddenly dug into Gabrielle's shoulder. Looking quickly at him, he noticed that he was staring at something behind Sal.
"We're deep in the Nile without a paddle now, mate," the owl croaked.
James turned to look in the direction that the owl was staring while Salmoneus, after getting over the shock of hearing an owl talk, turned at the same time.
Standing several feet away from Salmoneus was the figure of a man. Well, it had the body of a man. It was only when you reached the top of the form that you realized that instead of a human head it had the head of a...
"Dog!" Salmoneus' shocked voice squeaked as he fainted backwards.
"Not a dog. A Jackal," James said. "I would not be mistaken if I were to think that I was in the presence of Anubis, Egyptian God of the Dead, would I?" he asked the strange being standing in front of him.
"You are not the rightful soul that belongs in that body!" the deep baritone voice of Anubis rang out. Lifting his hand, Anubis held up a blazing Ankh and once again James found himself hurled out of Gabrielle's body.
Looking up from the ground where he gently floated after being thrown out of Gabrielle's body, he spoke to the Egyptian God of the Dead, "It's not what you think. I wasn't possessing that body without the owner's permission. Someone stole her soul and I was just moving her body until we find out where it is and replace it."
"You are not a child of the Nile." It was spoken as a statement, not a question.
"No, none of us are," James said, gesturing at the passed out Salmoneus, the owl, and himself.
"Then you do not concern me. Does Hades know that you are out and running about?"
"Then, that is his problem. Not mine. Just do not inhabit the body of a child of the Nile." So saying, Anubis sank into the ground and was gone.
"Great boils on Ares' butt, that was close!" the owl swore.
"Yeah. I wonder what he would have done if I was a child of the Nile?"
"Trust me, mate, you don't want to know."
"I'm going to take advantage of being thrown out of Gabrielle and go see if I can find this Amazon that Salmoneus was talking about. She may be one of the renegades that Xena was telling us about."
The owl nodded tiredly. "I'll stay here and keep watch over these two. Be ready to come running if I call."
James looked at the fallen Salmoneus and the still standing Gabrielle. "Will you be all right while I'm gone?"
"Yeah. I think that all of the natives are still running from here after you did that ghost rising up out of a coffin bit."
Moving along the banks of the river, James felt a kind of tickling in his mind. Pausing, he suddenly received the sensations of moving through water, the smell of mud and blood and the impression of a cold, ancient mind. Closing his eyes, he let the feelings pull him along until he felt himself stop. Opening his eyes, he found himself eye-to-eye with what had to be the great granddaddy of all crocodiles. With a shock, he scrambled up out of the ground he had drifted down into and stood staring at the great creature. The fact that it followed his movements, even though he was in spirit form, did not go unnoticed.
"You arrrre a strangerrrr herrrrre," James heard in his mind.
"Yes. I'm looking for a woman. I was told that she might have been killed by one of your kind," he said.
"Sheee is herrrre but not killed by one of my childrennn. Sheee was thrown in dead. We preferrrr to kill our own food."
Without any warning, an image was thrust into James' mind of a Roman Centurion throwing a young woman's body into the river.
"Follooow meee. I will take you to where her body lies after the young ones finished playing with it."
Following along on the bank, James watched as the massive crocodile swam slowly down the river. "What are you? I was told that only very special animals could see me."
"I am the firrrrssssttt. I am as old as the riverrr. My kind only call me `the ancient one.'"
Noticing that the crocodile had stopped, James looked to where he was staring. It was not a pretty sight. The once proud and beautiful Amazon lay tangled in some reeds by the side of the river. Her legs had been torn off by what he assumed were the young ones the old crocodile had told him about, but it was obvious even from where he was standing that what had killed her was a thrust through the stomach; a terrible wound which could only have been made by a human-forged weapon.
"Why are you helping me?" James asked the Ancient One.
"Tired of seeing the animals that walk on two feet throwing their dead into the riverrrr. Blame my childrenn for killing when it is they who do ittt."
"It's a good thing Salmoneus isn't here to see this. It would kill him. I will see to it that someone comes here and takes her body out of your river. Can you promise me that none of your young ones will touch the body until I can do this?"
The crocodile looked at him and James could have sworn that the permanent smile on his face became even more sinister. "The young ones will not touch the body or that of any of the animals on two feet that come to get ittt but I want the one who threw herrrr into the riverrrr."
Once again, the image of a Roman Centurion flashed into his mind and he felt a smile of my own begin to appear on my spirit face and he had a strong feeling it was just as sinister as the crocodile's. "Agreed!"
Floating back to where Salmoneus and the owl were, James could hear the owl just finishing his explanations to Salmoneus. "So, let me get this straight: Gabrielle's soul was stolen by the tribe of my Amazon woman, I mean the Amazon Rasilla. It was then placed into the gem I sold to Caesar, and James, who died a while back, is now moving Gabrielle's body until you can get Gabrielle's soul back?" the merchant said with a near hysterical note in his voice.
"That about sums it up, mate," The owl replied from his location on the shoulder of the still standing Gabrielle.
"I see. I've gone crazy! I'm probably still back at the clearing with the Centaurs and I'm delusional with a fever or something!"
Drifting into Gabrielle's body, James opened her eyes to look at Salmoneus. "Sorry, but this is really happening."
Sal gave a little cry and jumped back. "Don't do that!" He peered at Gabrielle closely. "So that's you, James, in there?"
He nodded his/Gabrielle's head.
"Did you find the body that was supposed to be out there? Is it... Rasilla's?" Salmoneus asked fearfully.
"I've never met Rasilla, but I believe so." He started to describe the body to Salmoneus and any doubts as to who the body was, were cleared up as Salmoneus started to cry.
"Why did she have to go for a swim in the river?" Salmoneus wailed.
"She didn't. She was killed with a weapon of some kind and then a Roman officer threw her body into the river."
The owl turned his head to look at him. "How do you know that?"
"Well, the weapon bit is obvious from the wounds on the body and, as for the Roman throwing her body in the river, I found an eye witness who told me."
"An eye witness who not only could see you in spirit form but could also talk to you? I'd like to meet this person, mate."
"Trust me. You wouldn't," he told the owl.
Noticing an Egyptian moving alongside the banks of the river pushing a cart, James watched as he suddenly let out a cry and, leaving the cart, ran to the gate in the wall that separated the river area from the city. James was just about to draw the owl's attention to this when he saw and heard the gate slam shut. Salmoneus, giving out a little yelp, ran over to the wall and held a brief conversation with someone on the other side.
After a few moments Salmoneus walked back over to where James and the owl were waiting next to the coffin. "They've sealed the city! They're afraid that the rebels will try and attack through the river area and they won't let us back in."
"Well, this is bloody marvelous!" the owl swore. "What do we do now?"
Walking over to the cart that the Egyptian had left in his haste, James pushed it over to where the coffin rested and placed it on the cart. "I have a promise that I have to keep. I'm going to go and get the body out of the river and place it in this coffin."
"What then?" Salmoneus asked.
Looking up in the late afternoon sunlight, James pointed at a large structure just outside of the city's walls. "What's that place?"
"I think it's Cleopatra's brother's tomb. They're going to seal it up in a few days," Salmoneus replied.
"We'll go there, then. The rebels won't desecrate the tomb, so we'll be safe there. I can leave you to watch over Gabrielle's body and the owl and I will go look for Xena."
"Just where are we going to find Xena?" the owl asked.
"We'll try the warehouse where Tara left us. She should've found Xena by now and told her where we were. Salmoneus, you go the tomb and wait for us. I have a feeling that any guards that were posted there have probably been pulled back to protect Cleopatra's palace. But if not, don't let them see you."
"Wouldn't it be easier if I just went with you guys?" Salmoneus asked nervously.
"No. I'm going to go get Rasilla's body and you don't want to see her like that."
Being reminded about Rasilla's death, Salmoneus lowered his head sadly and started to walk slowly toward the tomb without further protest.
Reaching the body, James gently lifted it and placed it inside the box and covered it with the cloth. He could feel the owl grip his/Gabrielle's shoulder painfully and, looking up, saw the Ancient One drifting near the riverbank. "That's my eye witness," he told the owl.
"Great Mother of Hera! That's the biggest, most dangerous animal I've ever seen!" the owl swore softly.
"Thank Youuu." James could hear the deep voice reverberating in his mind and, by the tightening of the owl's talons, knew that the owl heard it as well.
"Have you found the animal that walks on two feeeet that dumped the body in my riverrr?"
"No, but my guess is that he's probably on one of the Roman ships, with his master, Caesar."
"Hisss masterrrr Caesar? Who is that?"
"He's sort of like the Roman's version of an Ancient One. They do what he tells them to do."
"Thenn it would be by his command that the body wasss thrown into my riverrr?"
With a slow graceful move the massive crocodile turned and started to swim down the river. "I will handle the animal that dumped the body into my riverrr and his Ancient One myselfff," the great beast's mental farewell rang out.
The owl and James silently looked at one another for a few moments. Then, with a slight shudder, the bard grabbed the handles of the old cart and started to push it toward the tomb in the lengthening shadows of the evening.
Reaching the tomb, James was slightly surprised to find it completely empty. While he had thought that with the rebels attacking most of the guards would have been pulled back to protect Queen Cleopatra, he thought at least one guard would be left behind to protect the tomb.
Hearing a noise, he whirled around and saw Salmoneus stepping out from behind one of the massive pillars that made up the front entrance.
"There was only one guard. I knocked him out and placed him inside." the merchant said with pride. Spotting the coffin, his features once again became sad and depressed. "I have to see her one last time. So I know that she's really gone."
James carefully pulled the cloth back from the body, exposing only her head and shoulders, allowing the cloth to hide the horrible wound in her stomach and her missing legs. Salmoneus walked over and looking down at her in the deepening gloom of the evening said, "Farewell, my proud Amazon beauty. I will miss you!" Then, bending down, he gently smoothed her hair from her face and kissed her cold lips.
Cleopatra was beginning to regret being Queen.
She had known from her earliest childhood that running a kingdom was a difficult and largely thankless task; her father, Ptolemy IX, had taught her that much. But he had failed to impress upon her what a delicate balancing act the art of politics really was. And, the Egyptian Queen was discovering that she wasn't very good at it. Caesar had practically taken over since making her Queen and she found herself sympathizing with her rebellious countrymen to some degree. The sooner the Romans were gone, the better for her, and for Egypt. The trick was to get them to leave without jeopardizing her relationship with the powerful, and dangerous, Caesar.
Assuming any of them survived the inevitable attack by the rebels, of course. The latest word was that they would be within the main city by sundown and probably breach the walls of the palace itself by morning. There would be no halt to the fighting once they gained the city, she knew. Not until she and the Romans were either dead or captured.
"Lord Ra," she prayed, gazing at the sun as it hung low in the sky, "if this is to be my last day as the Queen of your beloved land, let me conduct myself with honor and do justice to your people. But if it is within your power, allow me to continue as queen and I swear to make Egypt the envy of the world."
Just then, a cloud drifted in front of the sun, blocking it from view and casting a shadow across the palace and Cleopatra was afraid she had received the answer to her prayer.
Xena was sitting in the garden, wolfing down some food--She hadn't realized how hungry she was until a servant had asked her if he could bring her something to eat--when some of the Queen's personal guards approached and asked her to accompany them to Cleopatra's chambers. Noting that she had a couple of hours until sundown, she agreed.
The Egyptian Queen looked up and smiled when Xena entered. And, this time, she did embrace her.
"The dress looks lovely. I hope you approve," Cleo commented, walking around her.
"Not much good for fighting in, but it's comfortable enough," Xena replied, tugging at the gown's collar.
"Well, so long as you're my guest, there will be no fighting, so the outfit is perfect," the Queen said, reaching out to adjust the way it hung off the Greek's chest.
"About that..." Xena began.
"I know that you and Caesar have a history, Xena, and I respect that. But if it weren't for him, I would be dead and Egypt would be in the hands of priests and viziers, determined to keep her isolated from the rest of the world. Even at the cost of her own destruction," Cleopatra added. "Rome is the master of the world, whether we like it or not. And, like a hungry beast, it must either be fed or conquered. Egypt doesn't have the strength to conquer it and so we must feed it with gold and with grain and pray that it will not devour us anyway."
"I understand that, majesty. But once you hear what I have to say, I hope you'll understand why I must confront Caesar, despite my pledge to you," the Warrior Princess said, her blue eyes filled with determination.
"Tell me, Xena, and then I'll determine whether or not the situation is such that the breaking of your word is justified enough for us to remain friends," she said thoughtfully, but with an air of noble severity.
Xena nodded. "It began with Gabrielle and I traveling through a forest on our way to..."
"Excuse me, have you seen my clothes?" Autolycus asked, tapping the Roman on the shoulder.
"Wha--How did you--Unh!" the soldier grunted when the thief struck him in the jaw, spinning him around and laying him out cold.
The King of Thieves looked thoughtfully down at the unconscious guard, noticing the resemblance in both appearance and build and quickly stripped him of his uniform and then dragged him into the cell he had just escaped from. There, he chained the man to the wall and gagged him with a piece of his own tunic, in the hope of preventing knowledge of his own escape for as long as possible. He then put on the hapless guard's clothing and locked the door to the cell.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that was me in there," he said, looking in through the door's window.
As he was walking down the corridor, he spotted his clothing, tossed in a corner, and retrieved it. "Don't those idiots know how delicate silk is?" he growled, trying to smooth out the wrinkles. "These stains will never come out!"
He checked to make sure his grappling hook and spring mechanism were still working, tucked the outfit beneath his borrowed uniform, and then made his way out of the dungeon, thankful that the Romans had posted only the single guard. Emerging into a hallway with which he was unfamiliar- -Having been unconscious when he was taken to the dungeon--he quickly gained his bearings and set off in the general direction of Cleopatra's quarters, hiding his face and avoiding any soldiers he came across.
Rounding a corner near the Queen's rooms, he suddenly spotted Nebula and a young woman he didn't recognize walking toward him. She clearly wasn't an Egyptian; he could tell that both from her features and from her attire. In fact, her clothing reminded him of something Xena might wear. And, he realized, she did strike him as a sort of "young Xena," or at least a wannabe. Still, he didn't want to take any chances on being caught again before he'd had a chance to tell the Warrior Princess what he knew of Caesar and the curious gem, so he kept his face to the wall as the two women walked by him.
Noticing that their hair was damp, he figured the baths must be close by and cursed his luck that he'd missed them bathing.
"He can't be that arrogant, Nebula," the girl said as they passed him. "No one is that arrogant."
"Just wait, Tara," the pirate laughed. "He makes Narcissus look positively humble."
"So, when do I get to meet him?" Tara inquired.
"I'm not sure where's he got off to--Well, I have a pretty good idea, actually--but he'll probably be back soon. Unless he gets caught by the tomb's guards, of course," she grinned.
"Is that likely?" her companion asked.
"Not if you believe all the stories you've heard, or listen to him describe his daring exploits personally," she replied. "You'd think he was responsible for every theft in Greece to hear him tell it."
As the two women continued on, Autolycus wasn't sure if he should be flattered or insulted. His ego eventually made him opt for the former.
Reaching the door to Cleopatra's rooms, he checked to make sure no one was around and then slipped inside.
Xena, dressed once more in her battle gear, walked alone out to the docks as the sun sank beyond the far horizon. She could hear the sounds of the Egyptian rebels as they continued their attempt to breach the walls of the city, but they were of little concern to her at the moment. When Gabrielle's soul was restored she would worry about them, she knew, but not before. She would not abandon her beloved Bard for the sake of battle or revenge. Never again.
As she approached Caesar's flagship, she saw the Roman standing at its railing, holding the glowing gem for which she'd come. But before she could reach him, a dozen armed soldiers rushed from the shadows, blocking her way and quickly surrounding her.
"What's with the crowd? I thought this was going to be a private party," she called, drawing her sword.
"You know how much I appreciate an audience," he replied.
"Yeah, but you said it would be just you and me," Xena pointed out, keeping the soldiers at bay with the point of her sword.
"I lied," Caesar shrugged.
The Egyptian rebels were caught completely off-guard.
They were so intent on breaking through the wall of the great city that by the time they realized a substantial land-based army was approaching from the East, it was too late to do anything but make a stand at the base of the city wall. As Mithridates of Pergamus and his forces, whom Caesar had sent for before even reaching Alexandria, closed in on the rebels, Caesar's own forces, along with those Egyptians loyal to Cleopatra, emerged from the gates of the city and caught the rebel army in a deadly pincer.
Well, most of Caesar's forces joined the battle.
The Roman commander himself and a dozen of his finest soldiers were busy elsewhere.
"Now, Xena," purred Caesar from his vantagepoint on the deck of his flagship, "you know that my skills as a warrior lie in the area of tactics, not actual combat. It would hardly be much of a battle if it were between you and I alone. I readily admit that. The thing is, we're not going to fight, here or anywhere else. Instead, you're going back to Rome with me so that I can publicly execute you to make up for the humiliation I endured when it was discovered that you had escaped."
"You didn't bring enough soldiers to take me alive," the Warrior Princess stated.
"Oh, you'll come willingly enough. The soldiers are just here to keep you from trying anything stupid. If you refuse to allow yourself to be secured with chains and transported to Rome, I will drop this stone into the Nile and Gabrielle will remain trapped in it forever." He held the stone, using only two fingers, out over the railing to illustrate his deadly seriousness.
Suddenly, an ear-piercing cry cut the darkness and a figure in black and green swooped out of the rigging and snatched the glowing gem from Caesar's surprised hand.
"I've got it, Xena!" Autolycus shouted, landing on the dock and retracting his grappling hook with a flick of his wrist.
"Get out of here and keep it safe while I clean up this garbage," Xena said, a wolfish grin spreading across her features as she spun her sword around in her hand. "It shouldn't take me long."
"Have fun!" Auto smirked, leaping over the heads of the advancing soldiers and quickly disappearing into the shadows.
"Oh, I will," Xena replied, fixing her eyes on Caesar's. "Believe me, I will."
"Don't just stand there like particularly stupid-looking statues!" the Roman commander shouted, pounding the railing of his ship angrily. "KILL HER!!!"
As the soldiers closed in on her, two of them suddenly pitched face-first onto the wooden dock and in the flickering torchlight Xena could see a small, curiously shaped daggers sticking out of both their backs. A moment later, Nebula leaped in beside her, two more of the tiny knives in her hands.
"You didn't think we'd let you have all the fun, now, did ya?" she grinned, hurling the daggers and dropping another pair of Romans.
"`We'?" Xena questioned, burying her sword in the chest of a soldier while simultaneously kicking another in the throat and punching one that tried to rush her from behind square in the nose.
Imitating the Warrior Princess' famous war cry--And pretty badly, too, it should be noted--Tara rushed from beyond the flickering circle of light created by the torches and immediately engaged a soldier.
"It's been too long since we've fought alongside each other, Xena," the young woman smiled, ramming the pommel of her sword into the soldier's temple and then ducking a sword thrust and kicking out with her right foot, catching the surprised Roman in the gut and knocking him into the water. "It feels right."
Xena nodded and blocked a flashing blade with her sword and, grabbing the man's wrist, dropped to her back and launched him over her and into the faces of two of his fellows who were just climbing back to their feet, leaving all three sprawled on the dock. "Yeah, it does," she agreed.
As the three women gleefully mopped up the remaining Romans, Caesar cut his ship's mooring lines and allowed the vessel to drift away from the dock. "You may have the gem, Xena, and Gabrielle's body, but do you have the knowledge necessary to restore her soul?" he called out.
Xena looked up from the fighting--Well, from the moaning and dying, really--and saw that Caesar was making an exceptionally lame bid to escape. She was about to launch herself into the Nile and swim over to his ship when she suddenly realized that it was much brighter than it had been. A sick fear gnawing at her gut, she turned and saw that the Great Library was on fire and burning out of control.
"Not again," growled the Warrior Princess. "Is there some plot to rid the world of knowledge I should know about?" She gave Caesar one last glare and then rushed off to help the Alexandrians save their beloved library, with Tara and Nebula in tow.
When Pontius hit the cold water of the Nile, his first thought was revenge against the girl who had knocked him into the river. But as he surfaced and began to swim for the dock, he suddenly felt a movement in the water, as if some enormous object were in it with him. He looked around but couldn't see anything unusual, so, he reached up for the dock, intending to pull himself up and finish the battle.
Unfortunately, something in the water had other plans.
Before he could haul himself out of the river, he felt something grab his leg and jerk it, hard.
Hard enough that it caused him to lose his grip on the wet wood and plunge back into the Nile. There, he found himself looking at the biggest crocodile he'd ever seen. And, worse still, it had his foot in his mouth.
The Ancient One regarded him with cold, slanted eyes, but Pontius could almost swear he saw anger burning in their depths. Then, the crocodile readjusted its grip, taking almost his entire leg in its mouth, and suddenly began to spin around until the leg simply tore free. The beast swallowed it with a single gulp and then grabbed the torso of the doomed Roman before he could recover from the shock of his lost limb.
The Ancient One held him relatively gently in his great jaw, waiting for the man to drown, slowly and painfully, before devouring the rest of him.
When Caesar attempted to guide his flagship back to the dock, he found that it refused to answer the helm. Puzzled, since there was a heavy wind blowing in that direction, he realized that not only was the ship moving as if being towed, but there was an odd splashing noise he'd never heard before. Curious, he made his way to the stern and looked over and into the dark water.
He saw a definite wake, but one that was oddly formed for a ship, as it seemed too wide and tended to curve and twist. Then, looking closer, he saw an immense tail waving back and forth, propelling the ship, and he realized with horror that a monstrously huge crocodile was beneath his vessel, actually had the ship on its back, and was carrying him away from the harbor.
Unfortunately for Caesar, when the Egyptians blockading the harbor entrance in their fishing boats saw their glorious library burning, all thoughts of Rome and Cleopatra had vanished and they had made all speed in to help save their national treasure. In fact, they were so determined to preserve the library that they completely ignored the flagship of the Roman commander as it was dragged slowly past them and out into the Mediterranean.
Despite all of their efforts, the Great Library could not be saved. When the dawn finally broke on the weary firefighters, two things were beyond doubt: The library was a total loss, except for a few scattered fragments and some works of no interest to the Warrior Princess; and Cleopatra was the undisputed Queen of Egypt, following the surrender of the rebel forces. The victorious Romans were concerned about Caesar's disappearance, and likely would have arrested the Warrior Princess, at the very least, were it not for Cleopatra's refusal of them to do so.
For a new Queen, she was surprisingly unafraid to challenge Rome's might, at least with Caesar temporarily out of the picture. The Romans felt sure that once their commander returned--And they knew he would soon return--the haughty Queen would sing a different tune. But for now, they bowed to her insistence that Xena was innocent of harming Caesar and as confused as they were about his absence.
As Xena, Tara, Nebula, and Autolycus sadly surveyed the ruins of the magnificent storehouse of knowledge, the King of Thieves approached and said softly, "Seems like we've been here before." Then, he removed the glowing stone from the pouch on his belt and handed it to her. "You keep this. It's too much responsibility for me."
Xena accepted the gem and immediately felt the warm presence of her beloved Bard within it. "I'll find a way to get you back where you belong, Gabrielle," she whispered. "By Zeus, I swear I will!"
"I might be able to help with that," Cleopatra said, joining them. "Even though the scrolls containing the knowledge of how to unleash the powers of the Ankh of Osiris were destroyed by this unfortunate fire, I was taught the secret arts as a child, as are all the Pharaoh's children, and I may be able to perform the necessary ritual from memory."
"Then, all we need is Gabrielle's body and the ankh and Gabrielle will be restored!" Xena said, breaking into a wide grin and kissing the glowing gem.
"No need to worry about Gabrielle's body," Tara informed them. "I hid it in a real safe place and left Athene's owl guarding it."
"What safe place?" Xena questioned, fearing the worst.
"Some warehouse filled with coffins and stuff. Don't worry," the young woman added. "She's tucked nice and neat into one of those boxes."
"A lot of people died in the battle and in the attempt to save the library," Cleopatra pointed out. "I suggest you take us to this warehouse, before her body is discovered when they attempt to use the coffin you placed her in."
"Sure thing. It's not that far from the palace," Tara said brightly.
"You just better hope that her body is still there," Xena warned.
"Lighten up, Xena. The kid meant well," Nebula said. "And, it's not like someone would actually fail to notice a body is already in the coffin. The worst that could happen is that they decided to bury her. In which case, we just dig her up. Believe me, I'm no stranger to digging."
"You make her sound like a thing," Xena hissed. "She's not. She's a person. And I don't appreciate all this talk of digging her up."
"She was just trying to look on the bright side, Xena," Autolycus stated, walking with his arm around the slim waist of the pirate.
Xena just growled low in her throat as they followed Tara through the streets of Alexandria.
Gabrielle was happy for the first time in many days.
Ever since she had "awakened" inside the gem, her life had been a sort of nightmare. But one that she couldn’t wake up from, no matter how hard she tried. She had decided rather quickly that the other entity in the stone with her either couldn't or wouldn't hurt her. She wasn't sure which, but she felt it was the latter. In fact, in some strange way she couldn't explain, or really understand, she came to believe that it, whatever it was, was as much a prisoner as she was.
The Bard just wished it were better company.
But all of her fears and misgivings disappeared once she felt Xena's strong hands--She also knew they could be gentle, when they had to be--close around the stone. She concentrated on letting her companion know that she was inside and alive, so to speak, and the Warrior Princess seemed to have understood, as if she'd somehow "heard" her. And Xena spoke quietly to her, reassuring her that all would be put right and that those responsible would pay. And Gabrielle felt hope again. Hope that she would once more feel the sun on her face, rain in her hair, the ground beneath her feet; the sound of children at play, of birds singing, of her own voice; the smell of a forest after a rainstorm, of meat cooking over a fire, of flowers in the Spring; the taste of fresh bread, of a good wine, of cold milk in the morning; and the sight of people, of animals, and of someplace else, somewhere--Anywhere!--other than this maddening prison, where everything was viewed as if through a glass darkly.
As Xena, Autolycus, Tara, Nebula, and Cleopatra approached the warehouse, they could see Egyptians busily carrying off the more plain coffins of wood in great numbers to provide a resting place for those who passed on to the Other Side during the night. The Warrior Princess glared down at Tara and her fist closed protectively around the gem.
Before they reached the entrance, however, Athene's owl flew down from the roof and landed lightly on Xena's shoulder.
"G'day, love. Tartarus of a night, wasn't it?" the bird said sadly.
"Where's Gabrielle's body?" Tara demanded, fixing angry eyes on the owl. "I left you here to keep it safe."
"Without so much as an `if you please,' I might add," the owl said irritably.
"Where's her body?" Xena said softly, but her voice was full of menace and her eyes were lit like bonfires.
"Now, now, nothing to get all worked up over, love," the owl said quickly. "We had to move her, that's all."
"To where?" Xena demanded.
"We got caught outside the city gates when we went with Salmoneus to find Rasilla's body--"
"Rasilla's dead?" exclaimed Autolycus, glancing back at Nebula and Cleopatra, who both looked as surprised as he was by the news.
"Killed by a soldier and dumped into the Nile, mate," the owl nodded.
"Who was Rasilla?" Xena demanded, suddenly suspicious.
"An Amazon friend of Sal's," Auto explained. "Well, sort of. We think she was just using him, but until you showed up and told us what happened to Gabrielle, we couldn't figure out what for."
"You think she was one of the renegades who stole Gabrielle's soul?" Cleopatra inquired.
"One of their band, I'll bet," Xena nodded. "Did she wear a necklace of black rock?"
Nebula nodded. "Not very pretty, either. Mean anything?" the pirate asked.
"Just that whoever's responsible hasn't given up," Xena said with a strange look in her eyes. "Now, where did you put Gabrielle's body?"
Approaching the building that had been built to house the body of the late Pharaoh, they saw Salmoneus, wearing Egyptian clothing and sitting dejectedly beside the tomb.
"Salmoneus, what's the matter? Is Gabrielle's body all right?" Autolycus asked, rushing over and kneeling beside the long-faced merchant.
"Huh? Oh, hi, Autolycus," he said, his red-rimmed eyes struggling to focus on the face of the thief. "Rasilla's dead. Caesar had her killed and then dumped into the river. But the worst part is she was in on the theft of Gabrielle's soul. She was just using me and I was too blinded by her beauty and flattered by her attentions to realize it. Am I a loser, or what?"
"Hey, Sal, now, none of that talk," Auto admonished, reaching down and helping him to his feet. "She might have started out using you, but I'm willing to bet that part of the reason Caesar killed her is because she wanted to back out of whatever deal they'd made, and that was no doubt due to your influence."
"You really think so?" Sal asked, his blue eyes lighting up.
"Sure I do. After spending some time with you, how could she not have learned a little about nobility and trust and caring?" the King of Thieves asked. "You taught her some new concepts."
"And they cost her her life," the merchant said miserably.
"But they might have saved her from spending eternity in Tartarus," Auto pointed out desperately.
Salmoneus nodded thoughtfully. "You know, she taught me a few things, too," he said with a knowing wink. "For instance: Have you ever--Xena! Xena's here. Right here." He glared at the smirking thief. "I see you got the gem. I had no idea what it was or --"
"Where's Gabrielle's body?" the Warrior Princess demanded, noting how distressed the merchant looked.
"Inside, lying on top of a sarcophagus," Salmoneus explained quickly. "I've gotta tell you, the first time I saw James inside her, I nearly--"
"The first time you what??!" Autolycus demanded, glancing over at Xena.
"I saw James inside her...Oh. Oh, no! No! Not like that!" Sal assured him. "Didn't you know that James had been expelled from the Underworld?"
"Obviously not, or I wouldn't have almost dropped dead just now," Auto drawled.
"There'll be time for explanations after Gabrielle's soul is restored," Xena sighed, pushing past the men and into the tomb's interior.
She found herself in a hallway lined with beautifully painted walls depicting scenes of an idyllic life, or maybe an afterlife; she wasn't sure and she didn't much care at the moment. At the end of the corridor was a large room containing several sarcophagi. And, lying on top of one was the body of her beloved Bard, still mechanically breathing, but otherwise showing no signs of life.
The gem in her hand seemed to jump a bit at the sight.
"These are my brother's servants and slaves," Cleopatra said, looking around at the coffins. "They who served him in life will continue to do so in death."
"Not much of a retirement plan," Autolycus quipped.
"My brother's body lies in the next room," the Queen continued, frowning slightly.
"Along with all those treasures he's taking with him," the thief sighed.
Cleopatra nodded and then walked through the painted archway and into the final resting-place of her late brother. She returned a moment later carrying the golden ankh. "Let us begin. I have much to do this day, this first true day of my reign as Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt," she said proudly. "Place the gem above Gabrielle's head, please."
Xena did so, whispering to it as she walked over to the sarcophagus. "Soon, Gabrielle, things will be back to normal and then we'll get on with our lives, as soon as we've dealt with those murderous bitches who did this to you," the Warrior Princess promised. She stepped back and joined Auto, Sal, Tara, and Nebula.
"Is James here?" Autolycus whispered as Cleopatra began chanting as she held the Ankh of Osiris out in front of her with both hands, aiming it at the stone.
"He's here, mate," the owl said, landing on his shoulder. "He says hello."
"Can he hear me?" Auto asked quietly, noting that the precious stones set in the ankh were starting to glow from within as the Egyptian continued to chant.
"He can hear you fine, mate. It's you lot who can't bloody see or hear him," the owl chuckled.
"Hey, buddy, I'm sorry the Elysian Fields didn't work out--He did go to the Fields, right?" Auto inquired awkwardly.
"Of course he went to the bloody Fields! Why would he 'ave ended up in Tartarus, he wants to know?" the owl relayed.
"Hey, I was just trying to be thoughtful. Anyway, I'm sorry the Fields didn't work, but I'm sort of glad to have you back, in a manner of speaking. The old XenaVerse just wasn't the same without you, my friend," he said softly.
Suddenly, the entire chamber lit up as the Ankh of Osiris flashed brilliantly, blinding all of them momentarily.
Floating silently in the tomb, James had watched as Cleopatra began her chant. Noticing that the owl and Autolycus were whispering among themselves, he had drifted over and, with the owl translating what he said, joined their conversation. He had just been about to have the owl tell Autolycus how much he had missed them all, in reply to the thief's comment about how the XenaVerse wasn't the same without him, when a brilliant flash of light had flared into existence behind him.
He had started to turn to see what had caused the light, when he had suddenly been caught by a force like a giant hand and dragged out of the chamber and into the one where Cleopatra had said her dead brother lay.
James had opened his mouth to scream for help from the owl when, with a particularly violent jerk, he was slammed down into a box and everything went black.
As soon as Xena's eyes had recovered from the bright flash of light, she looked down hopefully at Gabrielle's body only to stifle a sob when she realized that the Bard's body continued to breathe mechanically and showed no signs of her companion's spirit having returned to it.
"It didn't work!" Xena's voice rang out in the stillness of the tomb as she glared at the still blinking Cleopatra.
"I don't understand it. I know that I remembered the correct spell. A spell to reunite a body with a spirit," Cleopatra said with a look of confusion.
Xena started to move toward Cleopatra. "Well, you must have gotten it wrong. Try again!"
Tara, stepping between the two women, yelled out, "Quiet! What's that noise?"
Now that it was quiet, everyone could hear coming from the other room of the tomb sounds of something moving. A rasp as if something was being dragged on rough stone and then a meaty thump. Rasp, thump, rasp, thump. All eyes turned toward the entrance of the other room and saw standing in the doorway a roughly man shaped figure completely wrapped in white bandages. The only features of the figure to be made out were the two glowing eyes.
"P-P-Ptolemy?" Cleopatra gasped.
The mummy shook its head violently and then, slowly shuffling its feet, moved until it was standing near Xena.
Xena glared at the mummy for a moment and then a look of utter horror passed over her face. "Gabrielle?" she asked quietly.
The mummy again shook its head. The thing then pointed at Xena's breasts and made a slashing gesture with its hand.
"Wow. I guess the dead don't get much!" Autolycus' whisper boomed in the silence.
Tara, after throwing a disgusted look at Auto, looked at Xena and then the mummy. "Xena, I think it wants your breast dagger."
Xena, with a raised eyebrow, watched as the mummy made exaggerated movements with its head showing that was what it meant. Taking a deep breath, Xena concentrated for a moment and with a slight pop her dagger flew up out of her cleavage and into the air. Catching the dagger, she handed it over to the mummy hilt first. Under more normal times she might have smiled at the various looks of lust, envy, and amazement she was getting, but at the moment all her attention was on the mummy and what he was going to do with her dagger.
"Hey, owl! James is a stiff, this guy's a stiff, why don't you get James to ask him what he wants?" Tara yelled at the owl.
The owl, still sitting on Autolycus' shoulder, glanced to where James was standing while the ceremony was going on but didn't see him. Turning his head to look for him he stopped and then turned back to look more closely at the mummy.
The mummy looked at the dagger for a moment and then, raising the dagger to its head, it carefully cut the bandages that covered its mouth. Opening its now free mouth, it blew out a cloud of dust and herbs and said, "Bloody Tartarus! This is disgusting!" Its voice was deep and with a slight Egyptian accent.
The owl promptly fell off of Autolycus' shoulder and, landing on the floor behind Autolycus, he started to laugh. "Hoot, hoot, hoot, James, you end up in the, hoot, hoot, strangest places! Hoot, hoot."
The mummy turned to look at the laughing owl. "Laugh it up, feather ball!"
Tara walked around and around the mummy, reaching out and poking it and feeling the bandages. "This is so disgusting, so gross, so...so cool!"
The mummy glanced at Tara as she made one of her rounds around him. "I'm glad you two are enjoying this!"
Cleopatra, shaking off the shock she was feeling, pushed Tara out of the way. "You've got to get out of there!" she ordered imperiously to the mummy.
"I'd love too! I have tried you know! I'm stuck in here."
"No, you don't understand. If any of my people see you like that, they'll think that you're my brother back from the dead. They'll declare you king!"
"King James of the Nile. It has a nice ring to it, you must admit," James said while reaching up and stroking the mummy's chin. Seeing the dangerous frown on Cleopatra's face, he quickly said, "Look, I was just kidding about the king part but I really am stuck in here. I want out of here as badly as you want me out. The echo in here is killing me."
"Echo?" Tara asked as she bumped Cleopatra out of the way.
"Yeah, it's all hollow in here. No brains or organs in the body. I can even feel a scarab beetle moving around in my chest region," he said as he moved the mummy's hands up to thump the chest area.
Tara turned a slight shade of green. "You're kidding, right?"
Cleopatra, with an evil grin, told her, "No, it's part of the Egyptian burial ceremony. The priests tease the brain out of the body through the nose with a long thin hook and then they remove all of the organs from the body to store them in jars."
The owl began to laugh again, but this time at the look on Tara's face. Then, he suddenly stopped laughing and, flying up off the floor to land beside Gabrielle, he looked up at the mummy/James with fear in his eyes. "You've got to get out of there now!"
"Haven't you been listening? I can't!" James told him with frustration obvious in his voice.
"Are you forgetting what tall, dark and deadly told you about being in the body of a `child of the Nile?'"
Tara looked at the owl and then over at the mummy. "Who's tall, dark and deadly? Xena?"
"No! They are referring to me!" A deep booming voice came from behind Salmoneus and Autolycus.
Turning slowly, both the thief and the merchant were stunned when they saw a 7-ft. tall figure with the head of a jackal standing behind them. Autolycus, turning his head to ask Salmoneus if his friend was seeing what he was seeing, watched as Sal, with a slight "Whoops," slid to the ground in a faint.
Autolycus briefly wondered to himself, `Would it help if I were to yell out: Sit! Stay!' He quickly thought better of it when he saw the glowing eyes of Anubis glance his way. With a last look down at the passed out merchant, the King of Thieves slowly edged around the sarcophagus and moved to stand beside Cleopatra, Tara, Xena, and, of course, James trapped inside the mummy's body.
"I warned you not to reside in the body of a child of the Nile!" Anubis angrily growled out, pointing at the mummy.
"It's not my fault! I was minding my own business when I was sucked into this body and trapped here. Just ask her!" he said, pointing at Cleopatra. "It was her spell that stuck me in here!"
Anubis turned his gaze to look at Cleopatra and she quickly dropped to one knee and lowered her eyes to look at the ground. "Mighty Anubis! I am sorry! I was only trying to reunite my friend's spirit with her body and I accidentally caught James with the spell. He is speaking the truth. It is not his fault that he is in Ptolemy's body."
Anubis glided toward the sarcophagus without moving his feet and looked down at Gabrielle's body. "Daughter of the Nile, you cannot help this one. Her soul was trapped inside the gem by a high priestess and only that high priestess or another of her faith can remove the spell."
Anubis glanced over at Xena who was holding Gabrielle's lifeless hand, stroking it gently. His eyes softened with compassion. "I am sorry that my daughter of the Nile nor myself can help you." Xena, without taking her eyes off of Gabrielle's still form, just nodded her head showing that she had heard the Egyptian God of Death. Anubis then turned to look at the mummy again. "As for you, you must leave that body! Return it to where it was awaiting eternity and I will free you from it!"
Nodding the mummy's head, James turned and, as fast as the body would go, headed toward the other room where its sarcophagus was located, the owl flying ahead and Anubis gliding behind, followed by Cleopatra, Tara and Autolycus. Xena remained behind, holding Gabrielle's hand and trying her hardest not to break down and cry.
Reaching over and picking up the glowing gem, she whispered to it, "I promise you, Gabrielle, that we will find the Priestess that performed this spell and make her remove it, even if it takes forever." Xena felt a pulse of warmth come from the gem as if Gabrielle's spirit was trying to comfort her.
Inside the inner tomb area where Ptolemy's sarcophagus was located. James had just crawled into the gilded box. With his friends gathered around the box and with the figure of Anubis standing at its foot, he suppressed a shiver of fear. `This is like the funeral that I wasn't present at the first time,' he thought to himself.
The owl landed on the side of the sarcophagus and peered at the foreboding form of Anubis. "Well, let's get this show on the road! Poor James is getting a real case of the creeps waiting."
Anubis just ignored the owl and started to intone words in ancient Egyptian.
Cleopatra was surprised that she could only understand a few words of it but was just relieved that her brother's body wouldn't be walking around anymore.
The owl moved closer toward the end of the sarcophagus where Anubis was standing, cocking his head slightly as if he were trying to memorize the words that Anubis was reciting. That is, until Anubis raised one eyebrow without missing a beat of the spell. The owl then leaned back and tried his best to look innocent.
Autolycus split his time between looking at the mummy in the coffin and then looking at Anubis and, finally, looking at the treasures that were stacked in the corners of the room. Glancing at Anubis, he caught the God raising an eyebrow at him and slightly shaking his head. Autolycus suddenly tried his best to look innocent as well.
With the last note of Anubis' spell still ringing out in the closed space, James suddenly snapped free of Ptolemy's body and soared out of the sarcophagus.
Autolycus glancing up at the sudden quiet saw that the owl and Anubis were now staring at one corner of the room. "Is James out?"
"Yeah, he's out, mate," the owl told him.
"Is he okay?"
"Well, he's shaking like a leaf, but other than that, he's fine."
"Wow! What was it like to be inside the dead guy?" Tara asked the empty space the owl was staring at.
The owl ruffled his feathers for a moment and then, turning toward Tara and Cleopatra, said, "Well, I'm not going to use the exact words that James used while there are ladies present but the gist of it is, he didn't like it!"
Anubis let out a dry chuckle that reminded Cleopatra of the sound of the wind sighing over the sand dunes and said, "This James must be a storyteller to know such different and varied curses." Then the fearsome God of the Dead sank slowly through the ground until he disappeared from sight, still chuckling.
Returning to the main room where Xena and Gabrielle were, Nebula saw Salmoneus peek over the side of the sarcophagus that Gabrielle was still laying on. "Is he gone?" Sal asked nervously.
"He's gone," she told the anxious merchant.
Salmoneus straightened up to his full height and brushed his clothing down. "Well, what do we do now?"
All eyes turned to look at Xena.
Xena wanted to scream, to cry, to be held, or just kill something.
The Warrior Princess wasn't feeling much like a warrior at the moment, having just been told by Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead, that the only person who could restore Gabrielle's soul to her body is the person who took it in the first place. She was feeling a little overwhelmed, and worried for the first time since the whole nightmare began that it might never end; that her beloved Bard might remain trapped in the stone clenched tightly in her fist forever. She looked up and into the faces of her friends and saw all of them looking to her for answers, looking to her for the solution, waiting for her to pull the magic out of her ass and put things right again.
Like she always did.
‘Just once, it would be nice if someone else could save the day,' she thought ruefully. But looking at the expectant faces of her friends, she knew that today wouldn't be that day.
Then, she felt the gem in her fist pulse with warmth and remembered who she was doing all this for and vowed to herself that she would succeed, or die trying.
"We'll go back to Greece and this time I won't stop looking until I find those renegades, even if I have to search every inch of land between Athens and Therma, and then I'm going to force that priestess of theirs to restore Gabrielle, no matter what it takes," she stated. "Let's get back to Alexandria. I'm sure people are beginning to wonder what happened to their new Queen."
"I-I'm sorry, Xena," Cleopatra said quietly, matching the pace of the Warrior Princess as she walked from the tomb.
"It's all right, Cleopatra. I appreciate the effort, and so does Gabrielle," she added, taking the Egyptian's hand and placing it on top of the stone in hers. "See?"
Cleopatra felt the warmth of the stone and wondered why she hadn't experienced this sensation before. Then, she understood that it was Xena's presence that allowed her to "communicate" with Gabrielle and knew that the former warlord and the Bard had a connection much deeper than she had thought. "Good luck, Gabrielle. I'm so very sorry I couldn't return the favor you once did to me and save your life in kind." The gem grew warmer to her touch and she smiled up at Xena. "I will, of course, make sure that the Leviathan is fully stocked with food and water so that you can get going as quickly as possible."
"Thank you, majesty," Xena replied as the group made their way toward the city gates.
Everyone was so preoccupied they failed to notice that Autolycus had lagged behind and paid no attention when he rushed up to join them.
Cleopatra, accompanied by various state officials who were quite upset that the young Queen had run off without telling anyone, stood on the docks next to the Leviathan. As a dozen slaves loaded the ship with bags of food and barrels of water, the Queen said her good-byes to her guests.
"May the Gods speed you back to Greece, where, I hope, you will find those responsible and make them undo this terrible thing. Let us make sure your next visit will be more pleasurable," the Queen purred, her dark eyes confirming the seductive tone.
Xena, long since used to the flirtatious Egyptian's manner, smiled and replied, "I hope my next visit will be solely for the purposes of relaxing and spending time with a friend." She briefly embraced the Queen and then made her way onto the ship.
"Good luck with the whole ruler thing, Cleo," Tara said brightly, shaking the Queen's hand enthusiastically before boarding the ship.
"Captain, it was a joy to meet you. I do hope you'll be able to visit again in the future," she said, leaning forward and lightly kissing her cheek.
"Oh, the winds might blow me back this way again sometime," grinned the pirate. "You never can tell." She joined Xena and Tara on her ship and quickly took to supervising the storing of the supplies, barking out orders to her crew and to the slaves.
"Salmoneus, I thank you for demonstrating the pyramid-power concept and I trust our little partnership will prove fortuitous for both of us."
The merchant jiggled the bulging purse hanging from his belt and nodded. "I'm sure it will be. Oh, and I'll let you know how the crocodile accessories thing flies," he promised, flinching when two of the dreadful beasts' carcasses were carried past him and onto the ship.
"And, my friend, I am sorry for the loss of Rasilla."
Salmoneus nodded quickly and then rushed aboard.
Autolycus stepped up with Athene's owl on his shoulder. "Been a real pleasure, love, er, Queen Cleopatra," the owl said. "Well, not a pleasure exactly. Been more like a big headache, really. But it had its good times, too, love. Can't recall any at the moment, but it must've. What?" The owl looked over at empty space. "Oh, right, mate. James says he's sorry about the whole possessing yer dead brother thing and hopes the next time he'll have a body of his own."
"I hope that, too. Then, he can join me in the bath properly, instead of just lurking and peeking," she replied, flashing a knowing smile.
The owl just looked over at where James was and laughed so hard it nearly fell of Auto's shoulder.
"Okay, okay, enough. You and the spook take a hike so I can say goodbye to Cleopatra in a manner befitting the King of Thieves," Autolycus growled, shooing the bird away.
"What're you gonna do, mate, steal a kiss?" chuckled the owl.
"None of your business, you flying rat-trap. Now, clear off." He watched as the bird flew to the railing and then turned to the beautiful Queen. "Well, Cleo, it wasn't exactly the way I planned it, but at least we got to see each other again," Autolycus said with a slight shake of his head. "Too bad you and Cheezer were hooked up or I would have made you remember what a real man can do for you, sweetheart."
"There's always next time, Autolycus," the Queen replied, favoring him with a deep, sensuous kiss.
"Yeah, but by then you'll be saddled with all the responsibilities of a Queen. No, Cleo, this was it, our last chance, and we blew it, baby. But we'll always have...er, that place where Joxer's brother tried to kill you," he said awkwardly.
"Yes, we'll always have that," Cleopatra agreed with a toothy grin. "Good luck, Autolycus, and I'm sorry the trip wasn't more profitable for you."
"I'll bounce back, baby," he smirked, but with a definite sorrowful look in his brown eyes. "Don't worry about me." With that, he sauntered up the gangplank and onto the Leviathan.
The crewmen, eager to be back in familiar waters and resume their pirating ways, quickly cast off and the proud ship raised sail and sped toward the Mediterranean.
"I'm going below to try and get some rest," Xena announced, looking wearier than they'd ever seen her. "Don't wake me unless it's an emergency." She waited for them to nod in understanding and then made her way below decks.
"Poor kid, she's really bummed," Autolycus commented softly.
"Everything will be all right," Tara said suddenly. "You'll see."
"Sure it will, Tara, but that's the future. Right now is what I'm worried about. I've never seen Xena look so...beaten," Auto said.
"She's tougher than even we think, mate," the owl assured them, fluttering to the King of Thieves' shoulder.
"Oh, I know that. It's just too bad that she has to be, ya know?" Auto asked. The owl nodded in agreement. "Say, what am I? A bird sanctuary! Get off of me, you moth-eating nuisance!" He again shooed the owl off of him.
"I wonder if that counts as an emergency?" Salmoneus asked, pointing at something approaching them from the great inland sea.
They all looked to where the merchant was pointing and saw what looked like the remains of Caesar, Julius Caesar's flagship floating toward the Alexandrian harbor. But it looked far different from the last time they'd seen it. The once magnificent ship was now barely more than a dozen pieces of wood held together by the Gods only knew what as it looked as if something had taken enormous bites out of the vessel. And, Caesar himself looked little better. He was wearing only a loincloth, which they assumed was all that remained of his once fine apparel, and his body sported several prominent cuts and abrasions.
As the two vessels got closer, they could see the emptiness in his eyes and the incredible straining of tired muscles as he used a makeshift oar to propel his craft.
"My vote is no," Auto said, shaking his head. "Let's let her sleep. She's got enough to worry about without learning that Julie is alive and well, more or less."
The others agreed and watched the slow progress of the Roman until he was out of sight.
The journey back to Greece went quickly and without notable mishap, thanks to Nebula's expert piloting and her iron-fisted command over her crew. Once, they'd spotted a fat Cretan vessel, loaded with all manner of plunder, on its way to the Grecian mainland that the pirate's crew had desperately wanted to engage. But Nebula had forbidden it and then dared any of them to challenge her command. None of them dared and they continued on, making even better time than before, until they reached the port of Pydna, a few days ride Northeast of Mount Olympus.
"Good luck, Xena," Nebula said, clasping the warrior's arm and holding it tightly as some of her crew carried the still form of Gabrielle off the Leviathan.
"Thanks. Same to you," Xena replied stiffly before walking over and kneeling beside the Bard's body.
"Tara, when you're tired of running your legs off on land, look me up and I'll show what a life of adventure can really be!" she cried, hugging the young woman to her.
"Cool! I just might do that, Nebula," she grinned.
"Salmoneus, you take care of yourself and the next time you want a ship to fetch some of these monsters from Egypt for you..." she said as her crew carried the dead crocs from the ship.
"Yes?" Sal said anxiously.
"Find another one!" laughed the pirate.
"I don't understand why you're picking on me," Autolycus complained to the owl sitting on his shoulder. "What have I done to deserve this?"
"Do you really want to know?" Nebula asked, smiling.
"James says it was a hoot--Very funny, mate!--meeting you and looks forward to seeing more of you in the future," the owl said.
"Why? Didn't he see enough of me in Cleopatra's bath?" the pirate asked with a coy smirk.
Once more, the owl nearly fell off Auto's shoulder with fits of laughter.
"So long, Nebula," Autolycus said, shooing the owl away and leaning in to kiss her. "Maybe we can do it again sometime."
"Mmm, I'd like that," she nodded. "We made a good team."
"The best. See ya around, gorgeous!" he grinned, stroking his mustache with a flourish and then flipping onto the docks and bowing deeply.
The beautiful pirate waved farewell and then she and her crew sailed off in search of adventure and treasure, but not necessarily in that order.
A few days later, the weary travelers at last reached the XenaVerse complex at the foot of Mount Olympus. As soon as they arrived, exhausted and ready for a good night's sleep, they were greeted by Lissla, Tina, Mike, Julie, Buffy, and the rest of the Xenites who informed them that a party was being thrown to welcome them home.
"I'm not really in the mood for a party," Xena said. "Not tonight. I need to get some sleep so I'll be rested enough to--"
"Well," said Liss, cutting Xena off and dragging her by the arm into the temple of Hephaestos, "you've at least got to see this before you go to bed!"
The Warrior Princess was dangerously close to decking the enthusiastic Xenite when she looked up and saw a statue made of some golden metal. A statue with a face and figure which she recognized as being familiar, but which she couldn't quite place.
"What in Tartarus is that?" she demanded, shaking loose of Lissla and walking around the thing. "It-It almost looks like...James."
"It is James," a voice confirmed as a scarred figure with a lame leg hobbled from the inner temple. "In more ways than one."
As James was about to enter the temple of Hephaestos behind the rest of the weary adventurers, he had paused for a moment as his eyes caught sight of a very beautiful Amazon walking toward him in the hallway. The nagging thought that he should have known her distracted him from entering the temple for a moment before he placed her face. "She's that Amazon that I keep forgetting her name. The one that welcomed me when I first arrived at the XenaVerse complex. The one that gave me Autolycus' clothing to take to him when all that Hope nonsense happened!" Realizing that he had uttered that out loud, he quickly clamped a hand over my mouth before remembering that he was in spirit form and she couldn't hear him.
The Amazon had almost reached him when a woman's voice yelled her name from one of the intersecting corridors, "Hey, Troya, wait up!"
"Troya. Her name is Troya. How could I keep forgetting such a lovely name?" he berated himself aloud, confident now that she couldn't hear him.
The other woman cleared the intersection and he could see that she was another Amazon. One he remembered vaguely from one of Lissla's many parties.
"You going to Hephaestos' temple and see what all the excitement is about?" the woman asked Troya.
"You better believe it! Lissla has been alternating between grinning like a fool and sniffling like she was about to cry and we are finally going to find out why."
The two Amazons were about to enter the temple when Troya suddenly stopped at the doorway and turning back she looked around as if searching for something.
"What's the matter?" the other Amazon asked her.
"Just for a moment, I thought that I could sense James here," Troya said sadly.
"Can't you just let it go? He's dead. Probably having a ball in the Elysian Fields right now," her friend replied, putting an arm around her shoulders.
"It's just that he was so cute. I had hoped that we could get together someday and then he died so suddenly and I didn't have a chance to tell him how I felt," Troya unhappily replied to her friend.
To say that James was stunned would have been putting it far too mildly. He was so surprised by the revelation that he forgot to concentrate and, leaning on the outside of the temple wall, he fell through it into the interior of the temple. Starting to get up off of the floor, he was shocked when Troya and the other amazon entered through the doorway, stopped, and shouted, "James!!"
Noting that they weren't even looking in his direction, he turned to see what they were staring at and saw that it was him!
A shining gold and silver statue of him standing on a pedestal in the center of the temple, to be precise. Forgetting for a moment about the two Amazons behind him, James floated over to where Hephaestos stood with his back to him, showing Xena and the rest of his friends the statue.
Xena turned and looked fully at Hephaestos. "Why?"
"Athene asked me to make a statue of James, perfect in every detail, as a monument to the mortal who saved her from Barney and Dahak."
Forgetting everyone, James floated past Hephaestos to look over the statue up close. From the shoulder length hair, to the 'Ares' styled beard, to his clothing, it looked exactly like he did at the moment he helped Gabrielle rescue Athene. The only thing that was different was that the statue had in one hand a simple shining metal staff and the other hand held a rolled up scroll.
"It is not every day that I make a monument for a departed mortal and have that mortal's spirit show up to view it," Hephaestos' voice rang out behind him.
Whirling around, James saw that the Smith of the Gods was looking directly at him, winking. "I forgot for a moment that the Gods and Goddesses could see and hear me!" James replied sheepishly.
With a bright flash on either side of him, Aphrodite and Hades made an appearance. Hades moved forward and looked first at the statue and then at James. Turning to glance back at Hephaestos, he asked, "Is the statue perfect in all details?"
Aphrodite, putting an arm around her husband's waist, replied, "Perfect in all details. If you get my drift."
Hades frowned slightly at Aphrodite and then turned to the bard. "I think that you just might be able to enter the statue and use it as a body, James."
Without a second thought, James entered the statue.
Everything went black for a moment and then, blinking his eyes, he looked down from the pedestal at the astounded faces of all his friends. Even the sad and usually stoic Xena had a look of surprise on her face.
Dropping the staff and the metal scroll, he hopped off of the pedestal and landed on floor of the temple, causing a loud crack as his weight broke the marble of the floor. Hearing a loud gasp, he looked up from surveying the damage that he had done to the floor to see Troya standing at the back of the room with her hand to her mouth.
"James, is that really you?"
"It's really me, in the flesh, uh, I mean in the metal." He grinned and felt as the metal muscles moved and formed the grin on his face.
Troya stood still for a moment in shock and then, letting out an Amazon war cry, she ran the few yards between them and leaped up into his arms.
Lissla turned and looked at Hephaestos. "Now, this is a reason for a party! Is he waterproof? I mean, if we get him into the hot tub will he rust?"
Hephaestos, with a slightly insulted look on his face, replied, "Of course he's waterproof! That's my finest alloy he's made out of. He's nearly indestructible in that body!"
Aphrodite, walking up to where I still had the amazon Troya in my arms, added, "That means he won't bend or break, no matter what you two love birds try!"
Troya let out an embarrassed giggle and buried her head in James' metal chest. "Wow! You're all warm and cozy," she breathed as she ran her fingers up and down his chest.
"Will you stop that. You're tickling me." James chuckled.
Suddenly aware that he was holding a beautiful Amazon woman in the middle of a temple surrounded by his friends, he felt heat rush to his face.
"Will you look at that! The gold of his face is turning a dark copper color as if he was blushing!" he could hear Tara yelling out.
Glancing up, trying to give Tara a nasty look, he watched as Xena, with her head slumped down dejectedly, quietly slipped out of the temple.
‘I promise you, Xena, that starting tomorrow I will help you find the priestess and we will get Gabrielle back for you,' James silently vowed. Glancing back down at Troya, who still showed no signs of wanting to get out of his arms, he added, `Tomorrow. But for right now, I'm going to party.'
As if sensing his thoughts Lissla, pushed her way to stand beside him. "Let's take this to the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace and have a real celebration!" Lissla looked over at the two Gods and one Goddess. "Um, you're all invited as well, of course."
Hades allowed a slight smile to lighten his dour looks. "For myself, I thank you for the offer, but I don't think so. I need to get back to the underworld." And so saying, he disappeared in a flash.
Aphrodite walked back over to her husband and, putting her arm around his waist again, said, "You know that I'm always ready for a party, but I think that me and Heph are going to have our own little private party." Aphrodite gave a lewd wink to the group and then, pulling Hephaestos' head down, gave him a searing kiss as they both disappeared in a brilliant double flash.
Autolycus, linking his arm through one of Lissla's said, "Did someone mention a hot tub?"
Autolycus was definitely enjoying himself.
The King of Thieves was sitting in the largest hot tub in the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace, the home he shared with Lissla, Tina, Mike, Charlotte, and other assorted Xenites when he was staying in the XenaVerse complex. Looking down at Tina and Lissla, who were snuggled on either side of him, he began to wonder why he wasn't here more often.
Then Tina and Mike got into one of their infamous pun-laden exchanges and he remembered. The King of Thieves sighed good-naturedly and gazed around him. There was Charlotte, demonstrating something he'd only seen in an ancient Indian manuscript to a small crowd with the eager assistance of her alter ego, Feklar. Tara was chatting with Julie, but she looked a bit nervous to Auto and the thief wondered what could be causing that. And Salmoneus was pitching handbags made from the skin of crocodiles to a fairly large group of Xenites, with limited success--Few were willing to touch the bags, let alone purchase one of the smelly things.
He glanced over to where James, resplendent in his new metal body, and the Amazon Troya were actually trying to have an intimate conversation in the midst of the drunken revels of almost the entire XenaVerse and, catching his friend's eye, mouthed, "Why don't you two get out of here and go back to your room?"
"Do you think anyone would notice if we left?" came James' silent reply.
"I don't think anyone would notice if Zeus leveled this entire complex with lightning bolts!" Auto shouted back, his voice barely audible over the punning, drinking, laughing, and other various and sundry noises which were standard fare at most P-N-P parties.
"I see your point!" James yelled. Then, he looked around, searching for someone and the King of Thieves knew instinctively who it was.
"She left almost as soon as we got here," he informed the bard. "She just grabbed the biggest bottle of wine I've ever seen and left without a word to anybody."
James nodded. He and Autolycus both knew from bitter experience that sometimes people just have to drink themselves into a coma. "See you in the morning, then," he mouthed.
Autolycus nodded his head toward the two women at his side and then let his gaze wander around the room to the myriad of beautiful Xenites, Hestians, Amazons--Fewer of them than usual, he noticed--and extras. "Not bloody likely!" he grinned, stroking his mustache with a flourish.
James just laughed and, with his arm comfortably around the waist of the beautiful Amazon, quietly left the pub.
And, just as Auto had predicted, nobody seemed to notice, which struck the thief as a bit off, seeing as how James was one of the folks whom this party was being thrown for. Then, a gorgeous extra--Probably one of the Amazonian extras judging from her bikini-clad build--began to massage his aching shoulders and he forgot about everything except the pleasure her fingers were bringing his weary body.
Xena tipped the huge bottle up and let the sweet, rich wine run down her throat, hoping the alcohol would numb the pain and fear she felt in the pit of her stomach. On the nightstand next to the bed, the glowing gem that currently housed Gabrielle’s soul pulsed frantically, but she avoided looking at it, instead concentrating her gaze on the darkest corner of the room. She stared into the blackness until she realized that it was the blinding light of day compared to her soul.
"I can't do it, Gabrielle!" she shouted, hurling the empty wine bottle at the wall and shattering it into a thousand glittering shards. "Not without you! It doesn't make any sense without you!" She turned and grabbed the stone and held it close to her face, letting her tears fall onto it. "I need you, Gabrielle. I need you to remind why I do the good things I do. Why I don't just gather an army and make the world a better place by force. Why I should care about anyone...except you."
"Now, that's what I've been waiting to hear for a long time," Ares purred, flashing into existence at the foot of her bed. "I can restore Gabrielle's soul, Xena, and I will...if you'll join me again."
"ARES!" Xena hissed, holding the gem protectively. "Anubis himself said that only the person who imprisoned her could release her."
"Who are you going to believe: some foreign God or me?" Ares asked. Xena just stared at him, although her body did tend to sway drunkenly. "Oh, right. Forget I asked. Anyway, what Anubis actually said was that your little friend could only be released by someone of the same religion as the person who imprisoned her. Who do you think these Amazons worship? Certainly not my sister, Artemis."
"I have a pretty good idea who they worship, Ares," Xena replied, wishing she hadn't drank so much. "And it isn't you."
"Fine. Believe what you want. But I can restore Gabrielle, Xena," he sneered. "All you have to do is ask. Consider it a favor."
"No, thanks. You're not one to give anything away, not without a steep price demanded later," she said, shaking her head. "And you've never done anything for me out of the goodness of your heart before--If you even have one! Why would you start now?"
"Ow. Now, that hurt, Xena. After all we've been through together...and, don't forget, I was right about Dahak. If you'd destroyed his temple like I told you to--"
"You wouldn't have joined him and fought against me and your fellow Olympian Gods?" the Warrior Princess finished for him.
"Exactly. Now, what do you say: Will you join me again or do you plan on turning Gabrielle there into a particularly gaudy fashion accessory?" he chuckled.
"Ares, even if I believed you could restore Gabrielle--And I don't believe you can--I wouldn't trust a back-stabbing coward like you to keep your word and do it!" she snarled, pulling herself up off the bed and facing the angry God.
"Careful, Xena, don't forget who you're talking to," he threatened, but there was the slightest trace of fear in his dark eyes.
"How can I forget someone like you, Ares? You've been banished from Olympus, your godly powers have been severely limited, and, to top it off, you're one of the stupidest excuses for a God I've ever had the misfortune to meet! We are through, Ares! Finished! Game over and you lose again!" she roared, the familiar, wild grin spreading across her mouth. "So, take your empty promises, and even emptier threats, and clear out of here before I kick your sorry ass all over this room!"
"This isn't finished, Xena! I'll be back and, someday, somewhere, something will happen which will leave you no one to turn to but me," he promised, glowering dangerously at her. "And you'll call on me because you'll have no other options left. And when that day comes I'll remember this night, Xena. I'll remember it and make you get down on your knees and beg me for help."
"If that day ever comes, Ares, I'll run myself onto my sword before I'll ask for your help," she assured him.
"We'll see, Xena. We'll see," he chuckled as he began to disappear in a cloud of silver flashes and blue smoke. "I've got all of time on my side."
"Apparently you'll need it to learn what the word ‘no' means," she called after him.
Alone again, except for the glowing gem in her hand, she smiled to herself. "I did it, Gabrielle! No--We did it! I could feel you, inside me somehow, giving me the strength I needed to reject his offer," she said softly, crawling back into bed. "Thank you, my dear, dear friend. I swear, Gabrielle, that we will get through this and you will have your body back! Soon, my friend, soon."
Xena fell asleep with the warmth of the stone caressing her cheek and a smile on her face for the first time in many nights.
Inside the gem, Gabrielle finally felt some small measure of hope again.
After James had died, Joxer claimed his room for his own. But having a roaming nature like Xena and Gabrielle, he rarely stayed there for any length of time. Having heard that Hercules and Iolaus were protecting a town from a trio of warlords, he had recently left to join them and offer his 'mighty' services in help.
Before going, he left standing instructions to Lissla that anyone who was in need of a room for the night could use his place and left the doors unlocked for that reason.
Moving as carefully as he could, James eased out of the bed that still contained the peacefully sleeping Troya and moved over to a large mirror that was hanging on the wall and lit several candles. Examining his new metal body in the full-length mirror, he marveled at the handiwork of Hephaestos.
The golden metal that made up the 'skin' of the body was light enough that anyone seeing him at a distance would just think that he had a very healthy bronze tan. Raising his hands, he ran his fingers through the silver metal hair. The hair was made up of individual strands of silver wire as fine as any human hair and, as he was assured by Troya last night, just as soft. The silver metal made him look older than he really was but Troya reassured him that it added a dignified air that she loved. Continuing the visual exploration of his new face, James examined the eyes that were staring back at him from the mirror. They were a deep golden color, much darker than the body and he could see silver highlights in them. "Never has the term, 'his eyes had a glint of steel in them', been more true," he silently chuckled to himself. Finishing the examination of his face, he looked at the neatly trimmed, short, Ares styled beard. Considering the dislike that Ares was currently held in, he wished for a moment that he could shave it off. But since it was of the same Hephaestos silver metal, he knew that any blade that he tried to shave with would probably shatter on contact with it.
Looking away from the mirror to the window, James noticed that it was still several candlemarks till dawn. "Since the Gods don't sleep, I might as well go and tell Hephaestos properly how much I appreciate this body." Closing the metal body's eyes, he concentrated on freeing his spirit from the body and traveling to the Smith's temple. A feeling of great pain, as if something was tearing inside of himself, caused him to instantly stop his attempts.
"Ouch!" Opening his eyes, he quietly told the image in the mirror, "I guess I've kind of bonded to this body and I am in here to stay." Moving silently, he gathered up his metal clothes and dressed. `I guess that I'll have to go and visit Hephaestos' temple the old fashioned way,' he thought to himself. Grabbing a scroll that was laying on a small desk in the room, he quickly wrote a message to Troya telling her where he was going and, walking back to the bed, gently kissed her forehead and left the scroll on the bed where she would find it upon awakening. Grabbing a cloak from the closet as he exited, James started down the corridor toward the temple.
Feeling a slight tingling sensation on his right side as he walked, the reborn bard looked out of the corner of his right eye and saw the God of War silently keeping pace beside him. "Ares. What do you want?" he quietly asked him, so as not to disturb the rest of the sleeping XenaVersians.
"I like the new body. So much better than that frail human body you had before. You know that this one is almost impossible to destroy? Oh, a God could destroy it, of course, but nothing mortals could come up with can touch it." Ares spoke in a normal voice.
"Okay, Ares, you like my new metal body. Is this just a social visit, then?" James asked sarcastically.
Ares continued as though he had not spoken. "And what a great fashion sense you have. Hair, beard, and clothing in my image. I'm touched! Why didn't you go for the sideburns and the earring and finish the tribute? Afraid that the rest of these mortals wouldn't understand your devotion to me?"
Sputtering slightly in anger, James replied, "I am not devoted to you! I despise the thought of war and all those who die in the senselessness of it all and, personally, I think that you're the biggest slimebag I've ever met!"
James stopped and turned to face Ares face to face. The God folded his arms across his chest and nodded his head patronizingly. "Of course. Then why this look?"
Reluctantly, James continued, "However, I do think that you have a good fashion sense and, at one time, when I was alive, I thought that maybe by copying your dress style I could attract Discord's attention."
"Discord?! Why didn't you say so? I could arrange for you two to get together. If you're willing to do me a favor."
"Not interested any longer. She was just an infatuation. I've found true love now and her name is Troya! I don't ever want to owe you any favors! What could you possibly want from me anyway?"
"Well, let's see...a warrior made out of Hephaestos' metal that can't be destroyed by mortal weapons? Why would the God of War be interested in that?" Ares sneered.
"Forget it! Not interested! You have about as much chance of getting Xena back as you do of having me join you!" James hissed at him. Turning, he started back down the hall.
"Be a real shame if something were to happen to that Amazon Troya," Ares said before the bard could move more than a pace away.
His body moving so fast that it even caught Ares by surprise, he had the God of War by the throat and was lifting him up off of the ground. "Think about this, Ares: If anything happens to Troya, you are going to have a warrior that cannot be destroyed by mortal weapons taking a tour of destruction of all of your temples. I may not be able to hurt you, but I can and will destroy all of your worshipers and your temples."
Ares, raising his hands in a gesture of ‘just kidding,' said, "No reason to get upset!" and then disappeared in a flash of light.
"Jerk!" James hissed before continuing to Hephaestos' temple.
Reaching the temple, he made a silent `thank you' to the God and picked up the metal staff and scroll that he had dropped there last night. Hearing a noise behind him, he turned and found Hephaestos standing there.
"I am glad that you like the body James. Is everything working all right with it?"
"Perfectly! I can't tell you how thrilled Troya was to find out that the taste buds on my tongue actually worked. She was overjoyed when I was able to taste her strong Amazon wine."
Realizing how that sounded, James could feel his face start to blush again.
Hephaestos just laughed and said, "Well, anything I do, I do as perfectly as I can. Enjoy your body, James. It can run forever without getting tired. You don't need to sleep or eat."
With a flash of light, Aphrodite appeared. "Hephy, when are you coming back to bed?" she purred. Noticing James standing there, she raised an eyebrow and said, "And what are you doing here? I would have thought that that Amazon babe would still have you tied down. Literally."
Quite sure now that his face was a bright red, James stammered, "Just came back here to gather up my staff and the scroll and tell Hephaestos thank you again for the body."
Aphrodite, with a grin, replied, "Okay, you've told him. Now, take your staff and get back to your Amazon babe. It's not nice to wake up and find your lover gone."
James nodded at her and left the temple at a run. Behind him, he could hear Aphrodite giggle and then tell Hephaestos with a purr, "That goes for you, too. I was lonely when I noticed you were gone.
End of Part Two