The Warrior, The Witch And The Nightmare
- Part 4 -
(Disclaimers are in Part 1)
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 (final)
Chapter VII : Mirror
"What in My name were you trying to pull off here, Xena?" a male voice asked dangerously.
The tall woman groaned. Everything was dark. She could not make out where she was, but from the way she was hurting all over she deduced that she must be alive. Though how that was possible, she couldn't begin to fathom.
She seemed to by lying on her back on a smooth, hard surface that was just a tad too hot to be truly comfortable.
"I can't see," she croaked past a throat that was swollen tight from dehydration.
"Try opening your eyes," the voice said without much sympathy.
"Oh." Blue eyes flickered open, and blinked a few times to try and work some moisture back into them. She was parched.
"Could I have a drink of water?" she rasped, still trying to bring her surroundings into focus. All she could make out was a soft reddish light, and the silhouette of a tall figure looming over her.
"As a matter of fact, you can't," the voice boomed. "Not unless you answer My question, warrior."
"Whaaa... Hades!" The figure before her finally came clear. She scrambled to a sitting position, and winced as her aching body protested the movement. Her head felt stuffed with wool, and she could not form the words for a reply.
"Well?" Hades crossed his arms in front of his chest and continued to glare at her.
Ah yes. She had it now. Trying to save Xena, who had traded bodies with her, that's what she was doing. She cleared her throat before speaking. Swallowing was painful. "I came down here because I need to talk to you. I'm not... um... I mean, am I dead?"
Hades chucked mirthlessly. "Hardly. My harpies snatched you out of the air or you would still be falling. There is absolutely no way I'm going to put up with you in my realm before your time is here!"
"I'm sure Xena has no intention of joining you there anytime soon," Gabrielle said heatedly.
"Xena has no intention...?" Hades squinted at her. "You're not Xena, are you? You're that little redhead bard! How did you get in there?" His gesture took in the warrior's body sitting before him.
"Blond. And it's a long story," Gabrielle said. Seeing his scowl, she quickly amended, "I'll make it quick." She proceeded to give him a brief outline of the latest events, including Nyx's little trick and the bard's failed attempt to get hold of a Mirror of Phantasos on Mount Parnassus, and her subsequent journey down the bottomless crevice.
"And now you want mine," Hades surmised.
"That... uh... was sort of the idea, yes," Gabrielle said tentatively.
"Do you know that this thing is extremely dangerous?" When Gabrielle nodded slightly, he continued. "And so is the Realm of Dreams, if you don't keep your wits about you. Especially for people with a creative mind and an imagination as vivid as yours." He snorted. "I'm sure that warrior would have a lot less trouble where that is concerned."
"Why, I think I've just been complimented," the bard said with a small grin, not quite daring to call down a god for slighting her friend.
Hades gave her a tightlipped smile. "Be that as it may. In any case, if it's the Mirror you want, as far as I'm concerned, you can have it. And good riddance!"
It took a few moments for the words to sink in. "I can.... you mean, you're giving it to me? Just like that?"
"That is what I'm doing." He nodded gravely.
"But why? Aren't you supposed to make a big fuss and get all worked up about how mortals can't be trusted with that kind of power, and shouldn't be allowed any artifacts this unpredictable - something like that?"
Hades shrugged. It was hard to tell if he was still smiling, or just baring his teeth at the bard. He reminded Gabrielle of a little boy told by his mother to apologize for stealing nutbread. There was no time to be puzzled at his strange behavior, however.
"Just take the damned thing and find that... creature, " he growled sullenly. He snapped his fingers, and a hand mirror much like the one Mrtva had used appeared in his hand. The frame was made of the same dark wood, and the same shimmering, dark sort of eye-shaped stone was embedded in the leather-wrapped handle. Instead of the bird's claws and batwings she had seen on the other one, however, this one was wreathed with what looked like fins and squid tentacles. The eyeballs were there, though, looking almost lifelike in their carved relief. Looking slightly nauseated, Hades held it away from his body as if afraid it might jump him.
Gabrielle gulped as she gingerly accepted the artifact from him. The mirror was strangely cold to the touch, and seemed slightly sticky for some reason. She experienced a strange warble when she brought it up to get a better look, as if the thing somehow resisted being moved in a certain way. When she tried to turn it over to look at the back, she couldn't. Apparently it could be moved around freely in all directions, even turned upside down sideways, but the surface of the mirror refused to change its orientation. She put it on the ground, and it sat there on one edge, the flat side still upright.
"How weird," she murmured as she picked it up again. Her fascination and curiosity outweighed her trepidation for the moment, as she continued to experiment.
"'Weird' doesn't begin to describe it," Hades put in dryly, watching the bard turned warrior yank and pull trying to twist the mirror around, but to no avail.
"A little impractical when trying to carry it, isn't it? I guess I should be glad it's so small." The bard chuckled a little nervously.
"Well, just see that you put matters back in order, will you?" He paused and gave her another smile, this one looking genuine, for a wonder. "And try to get your own body back, okay? I like it better on you."
He chuckled as he watched the blush creep up her neck. "Be careful, little bard," he said. The next moment, Gabrielle was alone.
"Now what made him say that," she murmured to herself, shaking her head in puzzlement as she contemplated the magical device in her hands. If one didn't put into account the fact that it wouldn't fall over no matter what, the thing looked just like an ordinary handmirror, albeit a singularly ugly one. Its surface was slightly dulled, and Gabrielle somehow could not quite bring her own image into focus - as if the mirror refused to yield a clear rendition of anything within the Waking world.
"Well, now that I got you, I guess I might as well get this over with," she told the mirror. "And the fact that I'm talking to you at all is indication enough that I'm losing my marbles," she added as an afterthought.
Remembering Nyx's instructions, she sat the mirror on the ground before her, and gingerly poked a finger at its smooth face.
With a metallic buzz and a great big whoosh, the little mirror expanded outward and upward to form into a portal similar to the one that Mrtva had used to abduct her. The carvings around the frame seemed to have somehow come alive, the tentacles writhing in a slimy, reddish tangle, while the naked eyeballs were riveted on her, swiveling to follow her every move. Gabrielle shuddered.
"And I'm supposed to touch that in order to close the portal? Ugh! Just lovely," she muttered with a distasteful look at the pulsating mass.
Looking through the gruesome frame, Gabrielle could see the chamber she stood in through a haze of swirling colorful translucent mists. It was hard to believe that just walking through this would put her in a different world.
Taking a breath, she drew Xena's sword, though what good it would do her she could not begin to imagine. "Okay, here goes," she said resolutely. "Hang in there, Xena, I'm coming!"
With a silent prayer to whatever God might be listening, the bard stepped through to the other side.
If going to sleep had been relatively easy, seeking out the witch proved to be somewhat more of a challenge than Xena had anticipated. The more she tried to will herself into the warlord dream, the more it evaded her, leaving her in frustratingly banal dreams of fishing, hunting, and shopping, of all things. In one dream, however, she was holding Gabrielle in her arms and kissing her deeply, both of them restored to their own bodies. Though more than half afraid the bard would turn into that infernal Mrtva again, the experience was nevertheless sweet, and left her feeling strangely empty, and deprived.
Before she could dwell on how much she missed her little bard, she found herself in another dreamscape, unable to break out of her normal sleep though aware in the back of her mind that she had to, somehow, that there was something she was supposed to do. But then again, it probably wasn't important.
This one took her back to her past, to a time long before, when another woman, however briefly she had known her, had made such a difference in her life. Lao Ma, who had so easily seen through the tangle of hatred and bitterness that had grown around the warrior's heart, who had seen what Xena could be rather than what she was. That woman had saved more than just Xena's life, and there was a debt engraved forever in the dark warrior's soul.
Visions of her exotic-looking mentor faded and gave way to a dreary, empty-looking landscape. It took the warrior a while to realize what it was exactly what made this place seem so depressing. The sky was a gray, drab color without any clouds nor sun visible. Though a little different in hue, the ground was just as nondescript. Except for herself, the area seemed completely devoid of life. Not even a trace of moss or lichen showed on the brittle rocks and pebbles that were strewn all around. And over the scene lay a silence so complete that the blood rushing through Xena's ears sounded like a raging torrent.
A small step, an impossibly loud crunch of gravel under her feet, and she suddenly knew that this was the warlord dream, or at least a variant of it. By stopping to want to get here, she had finally arrived.
A weirdly chilling sensation that raised goose bumps on her skin was all Gabrielle felt when she passed through the Mirror of Phantasos. The surroundings had not changed one bit, and she was beginning to doubt whether the mirror had worked for her at all. Hadn't Nyx mentioned that it was different for every person who tried to use it? Maybe it needed some sort of incantation or ingredient to make it work?
She did notice, however, that from this side, the mists in the portal were opaque and she could not see what lay beyond. When she walked around it to look at its other face, the picture was the same - she could not see the other side.
Cautiously, she touched her hand to the surface, and it passed through with only the faintest resistance. She followed with her head. Hades' chamber lay beyond, unchanged.
"Well, so far, it has been a blast," she murmured as she withdrew from the portal. Grimacing, the bard carefully touched her finger to the writhing mass that was the mirror's frame, after making sure no body parts were still in the portal. The same metallic buzz accompanied the closing of the portal as it shimmered more brightly before drawing itself together to become the small hand mirror once more.
"Now, to figure out how I'm going to get where I'm going." Gabrielle tucked the mirror into her pouch, marveling again at its steadfast refusal to change orientation, and set about finding her way out of Hades' chamber. She still wasn't entirely sure that this was really the Realm of Dreams, since it looked no different from the place she had come from. Yet it did feel somehow different, as if the surroundings were somehow less than substantial. When she rapped her knuckles against the smooth floor, however, it felt solid enough.
Gabrielle stood there for a while, uncertain how to proceed. Xena would still be in that strange and beautiful canyon, up in that cave. But the bard had no clue where that was.
Well, first, she had to get out of here. She was willing to bet that Xena was chewing rocks by now, being confined up there and unable to really do anything. She just hoped the ritual Mrtva had been about to conduct had not harmed her warrior friend.
She took a step forward, and felt a wave of dizziness as suddenly her surroundings blurred. After a sort of wrench deep in her gut she suddenly found herself standing on an empty, colorless plain that stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see. If the plain was devoid of color, the sky above was even more so, a dull, watery gray.
Gabrielle looked around, not daring to take another step before she had figured out where the first one had taken her, and why.
Well, at least now I know for sure this isn't the real world," she murmured, and winced at the sound of her own voice, strangely distorted by the surrounding emptiness and impossibly loud in her ears.
The bard considered. Apparently, the rules that applied in the Waking World had little or no meaning here. Whatever had brought her to this Gods-forsaken place in one step should be able to take her to that sandstone canyon, where Mrtva was, and Xena. And if Hades' chamber was any indication, the portal would take her to that same place in the Waking World when she activated it. Well, that was the theory.
Since talking to herself seemed to help her thinking, she did so, but in a tiny whisper to reduce the weird echo.
"Okay, Gabrielle, this is a place of dreams. 'Be careful what you dream there', Nyx said. Well it figures. Dreams and thoughts must have a lot more impact than in the Waking World. Now what was I thinking about when I took that step? Zeus strike me down, but I can't say... That canyon? Possible. Xena?" She chuckled softly. "Probable. Mrtva?"
Then she slapped her forehead, producing another eerily loud sound. "Oh, I'm such an idiot! I can still sense the woman, can't I? It's weaker now, but it's still there. Only now I really can't point a finger at her at all... it's as if she's all around me... kind of scary."
Murmuring to herself, Gabrielle tried to focus on that sick feeling in her gut that had pointed her straight to the witch's location ever since that vile ceremony. She was still focused inward, when something scraping across the ground caught her ears, and she turned towards the sound.
Her eyes widened as her hand instinctively reached for Xena's sword.
It was hard to tell how Xena knew this was no ordinary dream. But the very knowledge seemed to give her some limited conscious control over it. She had suspected this during her last dream encounter with Mrtva, but had not had a chance to experiment then. Mrtva, on the other hand, seemed strangely at home invading and manipulating other people's dreams. An innate power? Or simply her strength of will? A combination of both?
Xena certainly wasn't lacking in willpower. So, if she willed something to happen, would it? What she did lack, however, was imagination. What could happen in a place that was this desperately empty and void of life? Anything, of course. Then why was her mind as empty as this plain? Would you look at me? Standing here unable to think of anything at all! I bet Gabrielle would get a good laugh out of this. She is probably having kittens trying to get to me at this moment...
Abruptly, she fell forward, losing her balance. She landed smoothly on hands that were hands no longer, but large, black, furry paws. Momentarily disoriented, she tried to get back to her feet, only to find that she couldn't. Her center of gravity was somehow wrong for walking upright.
Lifting one paw - a paw??? - she flexed it experimentally, watching in fascination as a set of wicked, curved claws emerged and disappeared again. A cat, she thought incredulously, I've turned into some sort of cat. That was her last coherent thought, for suddenly some wild, feral instinct took over, smothering the human and freeing the beast within. Confused and disoriented, the Huntress was now more dangerous than ever. And hungry.
Falling into an easy, ground-eating lope, the black panther made her way across the plain, in search of a familiar scent burned into her memory. She must find.
The one who called herself Mrtva cackled softly. Stupid warrior! She had gotten herself into quite a fix there. It had only taken a tiny little nudge to make that dark, primeval side surface after Xena had turned into the cat. In that shape, Xena herself had been unconsciously convinced of her dangerous, feral nature. Mrtva had only helped her a little in making it real. It was quite easy for her here.
The beauty of it was that Xena would still be this way when she woke up, a mindless predator, unless she figured out a way out of this. This made the being laugh out loud. In her present state, Xena wouldn't be able to figure out anything beyond hunting down prey, and killing. She functioned purely on instinct, now.
What a fitting revenge on both the warrior, and that silly little chit, for ruining her plans! And Mrtva still would be able to feed off that powerful mind that was the warrior.
And now for the bard.
Reaching for the sword on her back, Gabrielle's hand closed on empty air. With a start she became aware that she seemed to be back in her own body, wearing her skirt and top instead of the leathers she had almost grown accustomed to. As soon as she realized she was herself again, her staff appeared in her hands as she nervously faced the shape that was approaching in the distance, moving in a lumbering, ungraceful gait.
From what she could make out, it must be enormous. It seemed to walk hunched over, and it had three - three for Zeus' sake! - legs that appeared to have a joint too much, somehow. Its spidery arms - two of them, it appeared - looked awkward, as if they were somehow attached backwards. They ended in writhing tentacles. There was no neck to speak of, and its head seemed to consist mostly of a mouth in the shape of a giant suction cup.
"This is only a dream," Gabrielle told herself firmly. "I'm in the Realm of Dreams, what else could it be?" But her hands fingered her staff nervously, grateful for its familiar and quite real wooden surface.
As the grotesque form shambled closer, the bard blinked. She could have sworn she had gotten a good look at it before. But now, it did not look like a monster at all, but definitely human. Her heart skipped a beat. In fact, it looked like...
The staff dropped from suddenly uncaring hands. Gabrielle's jaw went slack. Had she bothered to look down, she would have seen one staff vanish into thin air before it hit the ground. As it was, she found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the Warrior Princess, who was steadily approaching in that long, confident stride that somehow managed to make her look even taller than she already was. The leathers and armor combined with the easy grace with which she moved only added to the sense of calm menace that emanated from her.
She was easily the most beautiful thing that could possibly have appeared here at this moment!
Still not daring to take a step - now less than ever! - for fear it would whisk her away to some other place like the last one had, the bard waited with questionable patience for the warrior to reach her.
Xena, on the other hand, seemed in no particular hurry, but did not dawdle either. A cocked eyebrow and a half-smile was all the expression on her face when she finally stepped up to Gabrielle.
"Oh, Xena, am I glad to see you," Gabrielle blurted. "There I thought there was no way in Tartarus I'd be able to find you in this place, and then - just like that - there you are! I can't tell you how relieved I am to see you. This place gives me the creeps. Are you okay? How come you can move around here in this way? It seems as soon as I take a step, it whisks me away to some totally different place. I wish I could figure out how things work here."
Then she did a double take. "Waitaminute... you are real, aren't you? You're not just something I'm dreaming? And you're... you? You're awful quiet, even for you...."
The eyebrow twitched.
"Well, it's not like you've been giving me half a chance to get a word in," Xena said wryly.
"Um, well," the bard said sheepishly. "So, are you?"
"Am I... what?"
"Real. And yourself."
Xena smiled. "Gabrielle, who else would I be but myself? I've been looking for you. I'm so glad you're safe."
Gabrielle gave her a quizzical look. "Well, I'd hardly say we're safe, Xena. But I sure am glad we're together now. Anyway, how did you get here? What happened to Mrtva? Are you here physically?"
The blue eyes narrowed for an instant. "What do you mean, 'physically'? I'm asleep, I suppose, and my dreams took me here. I know I'll probably be dreaming about you right now, anyways." She flashed a grin.
Gabrielle found herself blushing faintly at the implication. "A pity, though. If you were here in the body, too, we could get the Tartarus out of here and try to get our own bodies back in the Waking World. And Mrtva... what?"
Xena was staring intently at her, an unreadable look flashing across her features. "You're here in the body? How in Morpheus' name did you..."
She suddenly whirled, at the same time as Gabrielle became aware of a dark shape moving on the edge of her vision. Before she had time to react, a huge black panther leaped snarling in between the two women. White fangs gleamed wickedly as the feline's steel blue gaze went from one to the other, calculating where to direct its first attack.
Xena's sword came out of its sheath with a metallic swish as the warrior took her battle stance. The blade twirled in her hand in a blinding pattern that immediately drew the panther's attention.
Apparently deciding that the warrior posed the greater threat, the huge cat suddenly flung itself at Xena, hissing and spitting. For all her intimidating display of prowess, it was all the Warrior Princess could do to stay mostly clear of those sharp claws and teeth. Once the cat did score a major hit, however, tearing four long, deep gashes into the tall woman's thigh.
At the sight of the injury, Gabrielle blinked. Though gaping wide and showing pulsating muscle underneath, not a trickle of blood appeared. Only a yellowish, translucent fluid trickled down the warrior's leg. Also, Xena never missed a beat as the wicked claws ripped into her flesh. While the bard was accustomed to her tough friend showing little pain, she had never seen her so completely ignore a wound of this gravity.
Hey, it's the Realm of Dreams, Gabrielle, she reminded herself, and she's only dreaming. It makes perfect sense for her not to feel any real pain... Then why did it make the bard so uneasy?
There was little time to dwell on this, however, for she saw that Xena was having extreme difficulties in fending off the panther. The cat was exceptionally large and agile, and seemed to know Xena's next move before the warrior herself did. Even after several lunges with her sword, the tall woman had barely even scratched the animal's hide. Some distant part of Gabrielle's mind wondered about that, but she was too caught up in the action before her to give it much attention.
It was mesmerizing to behold, cat and woman feinting and circling, with the panther slowly but steadily gaining the upper hand. Gabrielle watched breathlessly, unsure if she should intervene. Generally, Xena did not appreciate the bard getting within range of her sword when she was in a fight.
It was when the dark feline managed to pull the warrior into a tight hug and started raking with its hind feet that Gabrielle decided to take action. As if by magic, her staff sprang into her hands from out of nowhere. Approaching the pair that was now rolling in the dust, she whacked the panther smartly between the shoulder blades, barely jumping clear before it twisted around and whipped a paw out at her with blinding speed.
Before Xena could take advantage of being momentarily released from that deadly embrace, the cat had turned its attention back to raking the warrior's gut. It had somehow managed to pin Xena's sword arm to her body, so that all the dark woman could do was to pummel the cat's ribcage with her left fist. That, however, had little effect beyond angering the enraged cat further.
There was nothing for it - the bard took aim, gathered all her strength, and delivered a huge blow to the cat's skull. There was a sickening crack, and the feline's pupils dilated, before its body went limp. The warrior slid out from between suddenly lifeless paws and slowly straightened herself. For a moment Gabrielle thought she had seen a red glow in Xena's blue eyes, but she was certain that the weird light of this place must have been deceiving her.
"Well," the warrior said slowly, dusting herself off, "that was... educational." At Gabrielle's incredulous stare, she added, "never underestimate the fury of a wild beast. Or the protectiveness of a little bard." She seemed to find that excruciatingly funny, for she doubled over with helpless laughter.
"Thank you, Gabrielle, I owe you my life," Gabrielle murmured to herself. "Oh, you're welcome, Xena, that's what friends are for, right?"
Aloud she said, "What's so funny, Xena? That thing could have killed you! Are you... hurt badly?" While the warrior's leathers were shredded to bits, there was no blood on her. The bard glanced at the panther, who lay there with eyes glazed and staring. She rubbed her arms against a sudden chill.
"Nah," the other woman said cockily, "I assure you I had everything under control." She was still chuckling to herself.
"Yeah, right. You're acting strangely, Xena.... You're scaring me."
"Hey, what can I say? I'm a dream. I'm not supposed to make any sense, you know."
Gabrielle eyed her doubtfully. "No, I suppose you aren't." She rubbed her nose, thinking. After a pause she said, "You know, um, Xena, this sort of reminds me of the time when you had too much of that nutbread and started talking to rocks and stuff." She laughed shakily. "You acted almost as weird then."
Xena guffawed. "Oh, yeah, I remember! I'm sure that must have been something to see."
Gabrielle felt faint as the truth hit her. Her hands closed around her staff. "You're not Xena."
Blue eyes widened briefly. "What makes you say that, Gabrielle?"
"It wasn't Xena, it was me who ate the nutbread with the henbane. It's the one story Xena always insists on telling herself, especially when she's had one ale too many. You, obviously, didn't know that."
"No, the game is over. Tell me who you are, or I swear to Zeus I'm going to split your skull with that staff!"
"Ah, my dear bard, but the game has hardly even begun." 'Xena' spread her arms wide, a red glow springing into her eyes. This time, there was no mistaking it for a trick of the light. "Go on, hit me! Use your staff!" Mad laughter echoed all around them.
Something shifted. Suddenly the staff started to writhe in Gabrielle's grasp. She looked down at it, and found that she held a large, live snake in her hands! With a yelp, she flung the reptile from her, much to Mrtva's amusement. For it was none other than her that suddenly stood there in place of the warrior.
"You! I should have known."
"Well, it seems your wits went out the door when the warrior came in the window, didn't they? It was so easy to make you believe. You're just as hot for her as she is for you, aren't you?"
"Keep your filthy talk to yourself, witch. You'd better be ready, because I'm coming for you."
"Oh, but you're unaware of one thing: This," Mrtva took in the scene around her with her arms, "is my realm. You are only a visitor here. I don't know how you did it, but since you were foolish enough to come here in the flesh, you are now more firmly in my power than you were before."
Gabrielle retreated a few steps, tripping over one of the panther's legs and barely catching herself before she fell.
"Sooo, wench, you don't look so sure of yourself now, do you?" Mrtva cackled. "I'm sure your reunion with that warrior brute would have been so heartwarming. But alas, it is not to be."
"Then where is Xena?" Gabrielle demanded.
Mrtva's laughter became a hysterical screech. "Whose skull do you think you just cracked, twerp?"
Gabrielle stared at the prone form of the panther, stricken. Could it be true? "Gods, no," she whispered.
"I guess I'll leave you two to your chatter now," Mrtva said evilly. "Meanwhile, I think I have a bard's body to play with." With that, she was gone.
A wave of dizziness brought Gabrielle to the ground. Her eyes never left the panther, who still lay staring into emptiness, tongue lolling. It could not be true!
Not caring who or what could hear her, Gabrielle threw her head back and wailed.
Having vented her emotions, the bard calmed down after a while, finally able to sort through her thoughts. She heaved herself up and started pacing slowly, unaware of the loud crunch of gravel under her feet, or the fact that the scene around her did not change with each step she made.
Why should she believe a word Mrtva said? Especially after the way the witch had just made a complete fool of her? Gabrielle was being even more foolish if she allowed herself be unsettled in this way.
Could Xena really be the panther? This was the Realm of Dreams, so anything was possible. But from what Gabrielle understood, no normal person could be here physically without magical help. That must mean that, whatever shape Xena was in, she was here only in her dreams. Had she seen Gabrielle? Mrtva? What had they looked like to her? Had Xena even recognized either of them? If it truly was Xena that lay there in the dust. If you die in a dream, are you then truly dead?
She walked over to the black, motionless shape and knelt beside it. Gently, she stroked the cat's cheek. The empty, blue eyes did seem hauntingly familiar. "I have to find out." She felt her eyes sting with tears. "I'm sorry... Gods how could I...? We'll get through this. We will. You're not dead, Xena. I know it."
Getting up slowly, she knuckled the small of her back. Her body was starting to once again feel the strain of recent ordeals, and it was not happy with it. Gabrielle sighed ruefully.
And then she suddenly felt Mrtva's pull again, strong and clear. This time, there was a direction to it. "Well now, a good turn at last. Now all I have to do is find that canyon..."
The bard closed her eyes briefly, considering her options. It was frustrating how little she knew of this realm! She felt like a babe learning to walk on a length of rope spanning a chasm!
When she reopened her eyes, she cursed softly. She was balancing on a length of rope, a good ten paces away from the nearest ledge. Below her, sheer rock walls stretched down into bottomless depths.
Well, I guess I asked for that one, she thought wryly. Don't sneeze now, Gabrielle!
She had no time to curse her wandering mind before the familiar tickle in her nose set in.
The sound echoed weirdly along the chasm, as one bard struggled vainly, arms flailing, to regain her balance.
Leagues distant, half a thought away, a panther's paw twitched.
Gabrielle had always found dreams of endless falls quite exhilarating. However, she felt she had had enough falling in the last day or so to last her a lifetime! As she plummeted down into the chasm, she fingered the pouch that held the Mirror if Phantasos, feeling almost grateful for the one bit of reality and solidity it represented. Even now, the artifact stubbornly refused to change its orientation.
Thought. That's it! So obvious until I missed it until it was all but thrown into my face. I should be able to control this with my own mind... if I can control my mind, that is...
The cliff rushing by on both sides made her feel lightheaded. Also, for some reason she seemed unable to maintain her orientation, spinning slowly as she fell.
Without transition or any force of momentum, she suddenly found herself suspended in place, feet pointing up.
"Well, whaddya know..."
Experimenting, she discovered that she was able to control her movement to a considerable extent, as long as she concentrated. As soon as she let herself be distracted in any way, she started falling again.
Well, it was a start.
With consciousness slowly returning came pain. The panther's eyes fluttered shut against the too bright light as soon as her senses started functioning again. Every move of her head sent white-hot bolts of agony into her skull. So, she remained still long after both the upright ones had disappeared.
Finally, though, a deep restlessness overcame the desire to avoid the pain, and the animal stirred with a sound somewhere between a groan and a snarl. Stubbornly, she heaved herself to her feet and sniffed the air.
Two scents, and one thought to go with them.
Chapter VIII : Queen Of Aura
Before long, Gabrielle was thoroughly frustrated. She had tried forming a mental image of the canyon and the cavern, she had tried focusing on her awareness of Mrtva, and every time she had ended up in a new, weird and absurd place that looked nowhere near like where she was trying to go.
At one time, the bard had found herself under water, forests of tall, thin-stalked plants swaying gently all around her, large, colorful fish staring at her out of emotionless, bulging eyes. Once reason had poked through the stark panic seizing her at the thought of drowning, she found that she could breathe the water!
Now, though, she stood in a lush, green meadow, swaying like the waters of a green sea in a soft spring breeze. The gently rolling hills and that copse of trees in the distance looked suspiciously like the fields just outside the walls of Poteidaia...
On impulse, she took out the Mirror and activated it.
The portal opened, and out flared a roaring inferno. Flames reached out through the opening, licking at the grass close by and turning it into a blackened, smoking mass.
Gabrielle jumped back just before the fire could scorch her hair, and, squeezing her eyes shut and inching closer from the side, slapped her hand against the Mirror's frame. She backed off and waited for the portal to close, panting.
It didn't. The frame wavered and shrunk, but something seemed to hold it in place.
A long, hairy red arm reached through the opening amidst the raging fire, a sinewy hand clawing and groping. When it took hold of Gabrielle's ankle and started pulling her slowly towards the opening, she gave a strangled gasp. Why wasn't the portal closing?
Frantically, she slammed her staff down on the arm - hardly sparing a thought for the fact that her trusty weapon seemed to appear and vanish according to her needs - but with little success. The thing seemed incredibly tough, the grip on her ankle viselike. Closer and close it dragged her to the portal and the raging inferno that flared on its far side.
Whatever creature the arm belonged to obviously was not strong enough to keep the portal open and deal with a struggling Gabrielle at the same time. For at that moment, just when the bard's foot was close enough so the tip of her boot was singed by the heat, the magic doorway wavered once more and snapped shut with enough force for the backlash to throw Gabrielle back a pace. The arm - cut cleanly above the elbow - was still firmly clamped onto her leg.
Shuddering with revulsion, she pried it loose with shaking hands, finger by finger. She watched it drop to the ground twitching. Then, to her absolute horror, it started crawling away on wriggling fingers!
Shaken, Gabrielle picked up the mirror where it sat and tucked it into her belt. Obviously, there were still a few rules to this world that she knew nothing about! For her as a storyteller, it was a chore not to think in terms of fancy imagery, but the memory of her recent adventure on the rope across the chasm was still fresh enough to remind her of the consequences.
And once again, she was at a loss.
How to proceed, if she could not even be sure that, when she found the place she was looking for in this realm, the portal would open to that same place in the Waking World?
Suggestions, anyone? Whoever's in charge around here, I could use some help!
A fluttering motion up above caught her eye. A colored, rectangular piece of parchment about the size of her hand came tumbling down like a leaf on the wind, the light reflecting off its smooth faces as it floated gently down to come to rest lightly at the bard's feet.
She made a little surprised noise when she recognized it - one of Mrtva's 'Tarot' cards. It was lying face down, as if daring her to turn it over. When she did not do so immediately, an errant gust of wind found its way underneath, flipping it over.
The Queen Of Aura. The card that Mrtva had said was the bard's symbol.
Still hesitant, Gabrielle bent down and picked it up gingerly, afraid it might suddenly burst into flame, or worse.
For a wonder, it didn't.
The card was just as she remembered. While the background was a slightly blurred swirl of oranges and yellows, the intricate detail on the woman's face and clothing was enough to take one's breath away. In fact, it was so realistic that one could almost think it wasn't a picture at all...
And then it moved.
Gabrielle almost dropped the card. The figure on it, a woman in colorful Gypsy's clothing playing the violin and dancing, had raised her head and winked!
Dumbfounded, the bard stared at the moving picture and watched as the figure on it threw up her hands in a gesture of impatience, violin and bow still in her hands.
"What?" Gabrielle asked the card.
The figure rolled her eyes in exasperation, then she stood, hands on hips, tapping her foot, and looked at the bard expectantly.
"You're trying to tell me something," the bard surmised.
The woman in the picture nodded. Then she pressed her lips together and drew an index finger across them.
"But you can't talk," Gabrielle said when the meaning of the gesture registered.
The diminutive gypsy woman sighed visibly and gave her a thumbs up.
"Okay. You're a Tarot card, you can't talk, and I'm supposed to do something with you?"
A frantic shake of a tiny head.
"Not with you? But you're helping me?"
"A guide, then? You're here to lead me to Mrtva's cave?"
The gypsy bard nodded again as she silently mouthed the word "Yes". She rolled her eyes heavenward and shook her head slowly, as if to say, "At last, she's got it! How can anyone be so dense?" It was amazing how clearly her body language conveyed what she was thinking.
"Geez, you're an impatient little thing, aren't you?" Gabrielle murmured. The tarot woman just glared at her.
"What? I'd like to see you make sense of a scrap of colored paper with an attitude, that can't even talk, little lady!"
The Queen of Aura stuck out her tongue.
Gabrielle opened her mouth, but swallowed the biting remark she had been about to make. It would never do to antagonize the Queen of Aura, since the card might well be the bard's only chance of finding Xena in the Waking World.
"Listen, you've got to give me some time, okay? I've never communicated with a card before."
The gypsy woman pouted.
"Hey, I'm sorry, okay...? Please help me?"
Still pouting, the picture woman snapped her tiny fingers and then, crossing her arms in front of her, turned her back on Gabrielle.
"Hey, I said I was sorry.... Please, can't you-" She broke off as she saw a second card float down. She waited for it to come to rest on the ground, then she picked it up. It was the Ace of Aura, showing a snake biting its own tail, the thick coils forming two big loops placed side by side. This strange shape, Mrtva had said, was a symbol for infinity, as was the image of a snake swallowing its own tail. The background of the card was the same orange and yellow as in the other one.
"Thanks," Gabrielle told the Queen of Aura, who gave no indication of having heard. In fact, the gypsy woman seemed a normal picture now, though she was still pouting, with her arms crossed and her back half-turned.
"Okay, I get it. You've told me all you can, and now I have to figure out what's with the Ace. Right?"
When the Queen did not move again, the bard contemplated the Ace of Aura. She could see the serpent writhing, as if looking for a way to let go of its tail. She poked a finger at it gingerly, and could almost feel the smooth texture of its scaled hide. The serpent raised itself up as if to strike at her, but with its tail firmly wedged between its jaws, there was nothing it could do.
Gabrielle decided then and there that snakes' faces could show emotion, no matter what she had been taught. This one looked utterly frustrated because it couldn't get at her. Gabrielle suppressed the silly urge to tease the little reptile some more.
"As strange as it seems, I guess you're trying to tell me something as well," the bard told it.
The infinity-serpent writhed.
"I thought so. So let's see.... The Ace of Aura. Soul. Self. That's what you stand for, right?" She rubbed her nose, thinking.
Frustrated or not, the sinuous form bobbed its head once, agreeing with the bard's words. Tiny as it was, one of the serpent's eyes was clearly visible, watching her, unblinking, snake style. The little tongue flicked out occasionally, somehow finding its way past the partly swallowed tail.
"But what does that have to do with being lost here?
The reptile shrugged, a ripple passing through its entire length until it arrived at the tail and smacked into its snout. The snake squeezed its eyes shut in frustration and with a twist of jaws swallowed some more of the tail. Gabrielle bit back a nervous giggle.
"Okay... Soul. Self. My soul. Myself? The answer lies in my soul? I have to look inside myself to find a way out of here?
The tiny serpent bucked and went rigid, becoming a picture again.
"Well, I guess that was the answer."
At the same instant, Gabrielle saw a third card fall. She snatched it out of the air without waiting for it to hit the ground.
She found herself blushing once again at the explicit nature of the picture. With the added benefit of the two tiny figures on it actually moving, it was enough to fluster the bard.
She forced herself to examine it, her ears burning uncomfortably, and noticed one thing that was different from the way she remembered the card. There had been a man and a woman doing... these things... before. Now there were two women.
Captivated in spite of herself, she watched the act play itself out. She had never considered herself to be a voyeur, but watching the two women pleasure each other was acutely arousing. Especially since they actually bore a faint resemblance to Xena and herself...
When the smaller of the figures threw back her head and silently screamed in ecstasy, Gabrielle snapped out of her reverie and tried to focus once more on the task at hand, struggling to ignore the throbbing in her midsection. But the more she tried, the more insistent it became. And with it came the vision of one dark-haired warrior writhing underneath her...
"Okay!!" she shouted. "Okay, so I want her! I want her bad, let's not dwell on it now, shall we?" She was blushing in earnest now, hoping no living thing was close enough to hear, or see.
The picture went still.
"Hum. You wanted me to admit that I desire her? What does that have to do with finding her?"
She looked up automatically, and caught the card she knew would be on its way down.
"So, if I admit to myself that I love her this much, will it bring me closer? I have looked inside of myself, and found my deepest desire... What else do I have to do?"
She looked at the new card. It was the Queen of Staffs. Xena's card.
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" she murmured to herself. "I guess I'm getting better at this."
The woman on the card did not look anything like Xena, being blonde and clad in baggy black trousers and shirt. She did, however, have Xena's infamous "Look" down pat, and she was using it on Gabrielle now as she gestured impatiently.
The eyes, although tiny, held an intensity that easily matched the warrior's, but where Xena's were the color of burning ice, these had that almost violet shade of a cloudless evening sky.
She hefted her staff and looked at Gabrielle expectantly.
"I know, you wish I'd get on with it so we can get ourselves out of this fix..."
The woman on the card raised a questioning eyebrow..
"Well, not you," the bard amended. "Your real-life-impersonation. So, let's see, what's your message... we've got the Queen of Aura - me - the Ace of Aura," she blushed again, "... Desire," a shaky breath, "... and you. When you really look at these, I guess it's pretty obvious. This whole journey isn't about actually going places... it's about looking inside yourself. About dreams, right?"
The diminutive fighter looked at her as if she had just stated that water was wet.
Gabrielle chuckled ruefully. "I guess I forgot for a moment where I am. This is the Realm of Dreams, after all."
The Queen's lips quirked wryly.
The bard contemplated the images on cards she held. "So, this is all about discovering myself, is it? Well, we've established how I feel about a certain warrior. And to tell the truth, it feels wonderful to finally be able to admit it to myself."
She got a 'thumbs up' for a reply, and a toothy grin.
"But I've already discovered that. Then why are you still animated? Is there more?"
The Queen shrugged, apparently at a loss.
"What do you mean, you don't know? I thought you were here to lead me?"
The Fighter Queen put one hand on her hip and waggled a finger at the bard.
"Not lead me? Then what? I have to figure it out myself, and you're just a hint?"
Another 'thumbs up'.
"Ah well..." She sat down, tracing the outline of the Queen's card with her index finger. "You know, I never expected to feel that way about a woman. Do you think she feels the same way?"
The Queen shrugged. Then she ran her tongue along her teeth in a way that suggested that she could certainly be persuaded to 'feel that way' about the bard.
Gabrielle blushed again, but had to laugh. "You're sweet! I guess you wouldn't know about Xena, though... I guess I'm really afraid I might lose her if I come out and tell her. I'd rather spend a lifetime being 'just friends' than risk being rejected because she doesn't return my feelings. I couldn't bear that, I just couldn't."
The Queen made a movement as if to slap her, shaking her head frantically.
"You think I should tell her?"
An emphatic nod.
"And what if... no. I can't."
The fighter stamped her tiny foot, scowling.
"I'm a coward, I know. It's just... you see, losing her to anything would be bad, but being rejected by her... it's my ultimate nightmare."
My ultimate nightmare... Gabrielle gasped when the realization struck home.
"That's it, isn't it? That's what was missing. I acknowledged my dreams, and I also had to acknowledge my deepest nightmare. This place is all about dreams.... What do you think, Queen?"
But the Queen of Staffs was frozen. Curiously, her lips were pursed and her eyes closed, as if expecting a kiss. Gabrielle obliged by pressing her lips to the picture. "Thanks, sweetie. I promise I'll find a way to tell her."
She looked up into the air expectantly, and sure enough, there it was, fluttering down.
This one was the Eight of Cups. It showed four bronze cups reflected in a mirror to make a total of eight. With the inanimate objects it was hard to tell if this was animated, like the rest had been. But the picture did seem to have a certain depth, and when she turned it, she could see the reflection in the mirror change accordingly. Good enough.
She searched her memory for anything on this card. It represented "satisfaction", but she wasn't sure about all its ramifications.
"Satisfaction. So, you're satisfied with the conclusion I've come to, is that it? Or I'm satisfied that I've finally realized the depth of my emotions? What?"
The mirror, of course, gave no indication of having heard.
"Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe you're just trying to tell me it's time for the mirror..." Could she risk activating the portal now?
Among the cards she still held, pandemonium broke loose. All of them came alive again, each one in its own fashion gesturing. The Queens and the couple from "Desire" where nodding frantically and waving their arms, the Ace-Serpent was doing its best to rise up out of the picture, and the mirror on the Eight of Cups gave no indication of having heard. The cups sparkled quietly in the faded light. All of the Tarot cards - except the Eight - were saying one thing: "Yes, for Zeus' sake! Do it! Now!"
"Whoa," Gabrielle said, surprised. "Okay, I guess that answers that. Well, here goes."
Before she could change her mind again, she sat the Mirror of Phantasos on the ground and activated it.
The panther blinked, confused. Just a minute ago she had been loping across the plain. Now she was sitting on a ledge high up in a colorful sandstone canyon, weak, in pain, feeling strange. One of the scents that had been so firmly engraved into her mind filled her nostrils to the exclusion of anything else.
This place seemed vaguely familiar, though.
Had she had any comprehension beyond the primeval instincts of the predator, Xena would have realized her body had just woken from a dream that her mind was still a prisoner of. Had she realized, she could have broken out of it. But with the mind of an animal, she could not begin to grasp the concept.
All that was human in her mind was gone, to be replaced only by a vague sense of being trapped.
Now being trapped was something the panther could understand, and she did not like it one bit. Neither did she like that vile scent that she associated with pain. She snarled.
Suddenly a woman stepped out of nowhere. She was tall, dark-haired and blue-eyed. More importantly, she carried the other scent the cat had been hunting.
Had she not been so very weak, the panther would have attacked and killed the woman then and there. As it was, she crouched defensively and stared at the newcomer out of hateful eyes.
Profound relief at seeing the Stalactite Chamber on the other side of the portal warred with a trepidation about what Gabrielle would find there. Would Mrtva be there? What shape would Xena be in? Had the incident in the Realm of Dreams had an effect on the warrior? If so, Xena could be dead...
The moment Gabrielle entered the magical doorway, she felt a wrench that told her she was now once more in Xena's body. The Tarot cards she had been holding vanished as soon as they crossed the line to the Waking World.
Frantic, she looked around for any traces of Xena or the witch, while she closed the portal and carefully stowed the Mirror Of Phantasos away.
She found Xena - in the bard's body - propped up against the wall at the entrance of the cave. The light flooding in prevented her from seeing clearly, but the figure silhouetted against the opening looked like she had just woken up form a deep sleep. Gabrielle stepped closer cautiously.
She was greeted by a fierce snarl as Xena struggled to her feet and dropped into a crouch facing her. There was no sign of recognition in those mist-green eyes. The woman looked like a trapped animal.
"Xena, it's me... don't you recognize me?"
The snarl grew more vicious in response, as Xena retreated along the mouth of the cave. Gabrielle quickly took a step back, trying to keep her from backing up too far and falling off the cliff. In the state the warrior seemed to be in, that was a distinct possibility.
"I guess that's a 'no'," the bard murmured. She raised her voice a little so Xena would hear her. "What happened to you, Xena? You act as if I'm your enemy...?"
A hysterical cackle close behind her made Gabrielle start.
"Well, well, well, what a heartwarming reunion," Mrtva said pleasantly. "Who would have thought you'd have the brains to find your way here, strumpet! Must have been our unique bond that led you here" She paused, and spared a glance at at Xena who was sniffing the air. When she became aware of the witch's eyes on her, she growled.
"I'm sorry your sweetheart over there is sort of... stepped out," she added between mad giggles.
"What have you done with her?" Gabrielle asked in a carefully level voice.
Over by the mouth of the cave, upon hearing the bard speak, Xena turned her head to look at her, and hissed softly through her teeth. That distant look and the total lack of recognition in her eyes tore at Gabrielle's soul. Gods, she can't be gone!!! Please don't let this be permanent!
"What have I done to her?" Mrtva was saying. "I hate to break this to you, brat, but she did it to herself. You have to be careful what you're thinking in the Realm of Dreams. She wasn't."
"Why should I believe you?" Gabrielle said coldly. After all they'd been through because of this... this creature, now that the bard was finally facing her again, all she felt was a cold, simmering anger. She'd had no idea she was capable of this kind of emotion; maybe it was courtesy of the warrior's body she now inhabited.
Be that as it may, she had no intention of suppressing that rage now. Letting it seethe inside her - it felt exhilarating! Was that Xena's emotion, or her own? - she slowly turned to face the witch, knowing her eyes must burn colder than ice.
A slow, evil smile spread across Mrtva's features. "Yes, my child, that's it. Let your anger consume you. Feel that hatred. Let it burn. It undid your sweetheart over there, and it shall undo you."
By the mouth of the cave, Xena whimpered.
Something clicked into place inside Gabrielle as she suddenly grasped the nature of this creature's power over Xena. It was the warrior's dark, angry side that let Mrtva invade Xena's mind and slowly break her spirit. The rage and the fear's from the warrior's dark past made her vulnerable. The witch had been stoking those emotions like the embers of a dying fire, strengthening them and making them control Xena, rather than vice versa. It was only a matter of time before the warrior's mind would overload. Death, or madness would be the ultimate consequence.
And what did Mrtva gain from this? What was she, anyway? Maybe she was able to draw strength from the fear and anger of others. If that was the case, she must be extremely strong. Xena had enough anger and darkness bottled up inside her to inspire nightmares in an entire army!
As these thoughts flashed through the bard's mind, she never took her eyes off Mrtva, who met her stare without flinching. For some reason, Gabrielle no longer saw those green, vibrant eyes that mirrored her own, but recognized the two orbs as the pale and twisted lifeless things they were. And all of a sudden, her anger was dimmed, weakened by something akin to pity as she met that empty stare.
There was pain in there, Gabrielle realized - intolerable suffering long past, wrapped securely inside a soulless mind that was hard as stone, devoid of any emotion except hatred.
Mrtva's evil smile faded for just an instant, and she took a step back. Gabrielle almost missed the fleeting change, but it told her something that came as a bit of a shock.
By the Gods! She's afraid of me. Afraid!!!
Steel blue eyes in a cold, cold face betrayed nothing of Gabrielle's confusion - Thank the Gods for Xena's supreme self-control!!! - as she tried to figure out why this being, with its considerable powers, would fear a mere bard. What kind of strength could she possibly possess?
It was a sensation Mrtva had long since forgotten, and as such, it was initially a welcome one. But when the being realized that that pathetic human held the key to her undoing, she suddenly liked the feeling less. A lot less, for Morpheus' sake!
She had to find a way to feed some more. At top strength, she might be able to withstand the wench's attack. Provided the brat had the guts to confront the likes of Mrtva.
But, better not to take any chances. One more pass at Xena, while keeping her gaze firmly on the young bard in the warrior's body, even managing another taunt, and in the blink of an eye, she had opened the portal to her home Realm, and dove through.
The panther was deadly afraid. She knew instinctively that the creature that was not of this world was causing that fear. The sensation of something being drained from her became almost unbearable, until she collapsed with a pitiful meow, unconscious.
An interesting thought, that this thing, whom Gabrielle had thought cold-blooded and utterly emotionless, should be capable of being afraid.
But, as quickly as Mrtva's little slip had appeared, it was gone again, and her face that cold, empty, grinning, mask once more.
Then several things happened almost at once.
Behind the bard and to the side, Xena growled softly. Gabrielle could hear the scrape across the sandstone as the other woman retreated further.
Mrtva, who had not moved since taking that step backwards, said sweetly, "I suppose I should leave you two to yourselves - I bet you have sooo much to tell each other."
Close behind the witch, that dread portal suddenly sprang into being, shimmering malevolently. At the same time, Xena uttered a terrible, pained whimper and fell to the ground with an audible thud.
An instant later, Mrtva leaped backward and faded through the doorway to the Realm of Dreams. Gabrielle gathered herself to dive after her, but hesitated and glanced at Xena, who lay there, limp as a rag doll. There was no way she would leave her warrior again, especially not in the condition Xena was in. Whatever condition that was.
Thus she let the portal snap closed and turned, half afraid of what she might find. She wasn't sure what she feared more - that the warrior was dead, or that she alive. What had happened while they had been separated?
Xena showed no reaction when the bard knelt beside her. She was breathing low, but a quick check of her jugular told Gabrielle that her heart was beating solidly.
"Okay, warrior, here's where I could use some of your quick thinking. You're the one who can slip into the enemy's mind. What's her plan? Obviously she won't just leave us alone from now on... And besides, we can't leave her loose in this world. Who knows what havoc she'll wreak? That poor little hamlet she torched was just the beginning. And with that portal at her command - she can go anywhere she wants to! We can't let that happen, Xena. We've got to stop her!"
Squaring her shoulders and wriggling a bit to readjust her armor - how did Xena manage to look at ease and actually comfortable in that stuff??? - she got to her feet, gently lifted Xena's unconscious form - Gabrielle's own body! It still wrenched her mind to think about it - and slung it over her shoulders.
The weight made her grunt a little, but this body was strong. She could manage. "Well, I guess that means we go after her. Thanks for your advice, Xena. What would I have done without you?"
Securing the limp body with one arm, she fumbled for the Mirror in her pouch until she was able to set it on the ground. Then she touched its surface.
With that whooshing sound the bard was coming to dread, the portal zoomed into existence. As before, she could see beyond its barrier of swirling mists an exact copy of her surroundings. Only now she knew that that wasn't the real world at all, but its representation in Morpheus' World, the Realm of Dreams.
Gabrielle sighed softly, carefully readjusted her precious burden, and stepped through.
No sooner did she put a foot down on the other side, than she felt that peculiar wrench again. She groaned as her knees buckled under a load that had suddenly multiplied.
For draped around her broad shoulders was not the small body of a petite bard, but a full-grown, night black panther!
"Oh great", Gabrielle murmured as the first shock subsided. Her voice was definitely taking on a hysterical pitch. "She's a cat. The woman I love is a freakin' cat. No problem. I can deal with it. But Gods, she's heavy!"
Still on her knees, she tilted her body to let the feline slide gently to the ground.
"Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any weirder..." She sat down, regarding the senseless black animal silently for a few moments. Then something just snapped inside her, and she started giggling.
And, with the one she loved trapped inside the body of an animal that apparently did not even remember her, and the world facing a subtle but devastating threat it could not begin to grasp, the bard just sat there laughing till tears streamed down her face.
Unconsciously, Gabrielle's hand found her way to the prone panther and started stroking the velvety fur just under the creature's chin.
She never saw the cat's eyelids flutter, or registered the slight catch in the animal's breath as life gradually returned to the still form.
In that curious state between waking and oblivion, the panther did not feel the bard's caress as such, but rather a sense of peace and comfort that made her relax completely and forget the residual pain in her head, or the anger she felt at having been hurt in this way.
Gradually, as her senses returned, she became aware of the gentle touch, recognizing it for what it was. Strangely, though with consciousness came the recognition of one of the scents she sought, the large cat felt no urge to attack.
Confused and curious now rather than angry, the panther watched the woman, wondering why this felt so good, not wanting it to stop.
The mad laughter finally subsiding, Gabrielle sat staring blankly into the distance, her hand still running over the panther's soft coat.
A soft rustle - magnified tenfold by the strange acoustics of this realm - finally made her turn her eyes to the feline.
She found herself gazing into a set of intense blue eyes that must have been looking at her for some time, because the panther was very much awake now!
With a soft gasp, the bard withdrew her hand and gingerly got to her feet, eyeing the animal warily. Xena had not recognized her before. If she still did not know who Gabrielle was, she was now even more dangerous than in human form!
The cat growled low in her throat, and slowly raised herself, never taking her eyes of the bard. She looked more disappointed than angry, but Gabrielle was not about to take any chances, so she retreated cautiously.
"H-hey there, um, Xena," she said shakily. The panther's ears perked.
"I sure hope you're not too hungry."
Xena dropped on her haunches.
Gabrielle smiled uncertainly.
Xena licked her chops.
Oh, this is just great. What am I going to do with her? We've got to get back to the real world, and Greece!
"O-o-okay, so let's see how much you understand of what I'm saying, kitty.... Do you know you're Xena?"
Much to the bard's disappointment, hearing her name produced no reaction in the big feline.
"Would've been too good to be true," Gabrielle murmured. "How about some food? I'm sure I must look delicious to you." I can't believe I just said that! "Or maybe you'd prefer that I give you another good whack with my staff?"
Again, her words had no effect on the night black animal.
As before, Gabrielle had entered the Realm of Dreams in a place that looked almost exactly like the one she had just left. She looked around in the cavern, hoping to find something, anything, that might help her get through to the warrior.
Finally, she could take it no longer. They could not afford to remain too long in this realm. Despair won out over her fear of the wild animal in front of her, and the pain at not being recognized, as she took a slow step towards the panther.
A deep rumble erupted from the panther's throat when the human started to approach her. All her wild instincts yelled "danger!" and yet, something kept her from attacking. A memory that somehow did not belong into the feline's world...
She was at the cross, wanting nothing more than to pass over. The shape of the beautiful young slave girl who had died to save her was floating close by. And that voice, pleading, imploring...
"Xena, I know you can hear me, wherever you are. I know you always told me to be strong. I can't be - not now. You can't leave me. I know it's not your time. I can feel it in my heart. I feel this emptiness that I've never known before, and it scares me. Xena, above all, just remember your destiny. Remember it and fight. Just... fight to come back. This world needs you. I need you."
The panther squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to block out the nightmare. But words and images kept flooding her until she felt like she was going to blow.
I have to go back!
"Xena? Xena, can you hear me?"
The last voice was real. The cat snarled and raised a clawed paw threateningly.
I have to go back!
"Come on, Xena, you know me. Remember, the little redhead that talks a lot? Gabrielle?"
And then she was Xena again, getting her bearings just in time to catch a very relieved bard in a fierce embrace, holding her tight and stroking the red-golden hair until the sobs of gratitude subsided.
"You did it, Gabrielle," the warrior said softly.
Gabrielle pulled back a little to look at her companion. "We're not out of this yet," she said seriously. "And of course, there is the matter of the little trick you pulled with our bodies..."
"It was the only way, Gabrielle. I couldn't have..." She looked pained.
"I know," the bard said softly. "Don't worry about it. We need to get out of this realm before you-know-who finds us. She's mighty powerful here."
They were both in their own bodies, here, which made Gabrielle wonder some more about this strange place. She saw Xena's form waver and change briefly, and felt a corresponding wrench within herself. The bard decided hurriedly that such thoughts were better left alone. Who knew when things would be back to normal in the waking world. She might as well enjoy this semblance of normality while it lasted.
"Well, bard, lead on," Xena was saying. You're the one who's been here before."
"Right," said Gabrielle, thinking wistfully of the tarot cards that had helped her find her way the first time.
But of course they had helped her by letting her figure out a little bit of how this place functioned...
"Hold my hand, Xena. We don't want to get separated."
And besides, holding Xena's hand - Xena's human hand - felt good.
Suddenly, the warrior tensed.
"What's wrong, Xena?"
"I feel fear," Xena whispered tersely. "It must mean that she's close by." The grip on Gabrielle's hand tightened.
Sure enough, that faint twisting sensation in her gut that alerted her to the witch's proximity was there, mocking her. "Then let's get the Tartarus out of here! I'd much rather meet her on our own ground."
"Right," the warrior agreed.
Gabrielle looked at her askance. Xena agreeing with her, this readily? They had got to get away from here!
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to focus on her need to get to safety. She took a step, and felt that peculiar wrench in her gut that she had come to associate with this place. When she opened her eyes, they were still in the cave. A somewhat shaken looking Xena stood next to her, still clasping her hand.
"Well, that was... different," the warrior said dryly.
"I had hoped we would get away from here with what I did. We should have been whisked away to some other place," Gabrielle replied, confused.
Xena shrugged. "Something happened anyway. The fear is gone."
Gabrielle did a double take. She could not sense Mrtva now, other than a very faint nausea that might have been the aftermath of taking a step in the Realm of Dreams.
Before she had a chance to doubt her sudden instinct, the bard activated the portal.
It opened onto a scene that even her most outrageous nightmares could not have dreamed up.
The whole landscape inside her field of vision seemed to be made from flat planes of gray stone, even the ground. Block-shaped, impossibly high angular shapes, set with rows of squares that shone like the surface of a too calm lake, reached up into the sky at varying heights. A sky that was almost as gray as the ground.
And then there was the noise. The area was populated by multicolored, shiny things on wheels that zipped by between the strange granite objects. No horse, not even Pegasus himself, could have run fast enough to account for their speed - they must be propelled by magic! A droning hum permeated the air, filling ears, head, and stomach with a resounding thrumming. This only served as a foundation for a cacophony of sounds, screeches, honking noises, human shouts.
Lights, red, white, green and yellow, flashed everywhere, irregularly. It was Pandemonium.
Worse even than the insistent noise was the acrid smell that wafted out at them. Fumes seemed to rise from every single one of the diabolical vehicles, as well as from other places best not thought about.
Even safely on the other side of the portal, Gabrielle found herself gagging with nausea.
"Close it," Xena said in a strangled voice. The bard needed no further prompting. An instant later, the portal snapped shut.
"There were people in there," Gabrielle gasped. "How can they exist in... that? It's vile."
"Wonder what kind of place that was," Xena said thoughtfully. "I certainly don't know of a country that looks like this. And I've seen a lot."
The bard shrugged. "The way this Realm works, who knows. On my way here, I once opened a portal to some place that was all fire. Something jumped me from there, Xena. I barely got away."
"I thought you knew your way around this," Xena grunted, after her eyes briefly flashed with concern.
"I never said... Xena, this place is huge, and it has more rules than an Amazon ritual. I've only figured out a few of them. For the rest, I'm afraid I'm... improvising."
"Great," the warrior murmured. Her face softened a little when she saw Gabrielle's hurt look. "So, how did you get through the first time?"
Gabrielle felt a blush creeping to her face at the memory of what she had learned from the tarot cards. Maybe this would be a good time to.... No.
"Well, a couple of cards sort of took me through the steps," she said finally.
Xena cocked an eyebrow, both at the bard's slight hesitation, and at her words. "Cards?"
"Yes, cards. You know, the kind M- the kind that she uses." She tried to ignore Xena's disdainful snort. "They told me I had to look inside myself, and realize my deepest desire, and my greatest nightmare."
"And, did you?" the warrior asked slowly. She was certainly interested all of a sudden!
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Yes, I did."
"Then we should be all set. Because I have already realized mine."
Something in her voice made Gabrielle look up at her. Their gazes met for a timeless instant, blue melting into green.
"Right," the bard said finally, clearing her throat again. She touched the mirror that still sat on the ground at their feet.
"You're not going to open that ag-" Xena gasped, but the portal was already in place.
"Well, I'll be," Gabrielle said, quite pleased with herself, for the magic entrance led onto a grassy plain, with the outline of a familiar looking mountain range in the distance. Parnassus. The abode of the Oracle.
Xena stared at the portal. "How did you know it would open onto a different place?"
"Call it bardic intuition," the bard said with a smug smile that was marred only by her intense relief. "Well? You coming?"
Nodding dumbly, the warrior followed her through the opening.
The moment they passed through, a warping sensation told them that they now once more had the other's body.
There were still things to be taken care of. But it seemed they were back in Greece at last.
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