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WHAT ARE LITTLE GIRLS MADE OF?
Xena sat at the end of a large table. Not a very large table. Not a banquet-sized table as one would expect in the dining hall of a King. It was a moderately sized, beautifully crafted wooden table sufficient to hold a large enough number of guests to impress, but not large enough to overwhelm.
Even the palace was not overly impressive or ornate. It spoke of the considerable good taste of a king well aware of a sovereigntys tendency to ostentatiousness. This was a castle, a banquet hall, and a man that held wealth but did not shove it in your face.
It spoke volumes to the warrior; she was impressed.
Xena flashed a courteous smile and a nod at the servant as he filled her plate with a portion of food, then indicated her approval that he fill her goblet with wine. Xena looked across the table at the second servant who was serving the King simultaneously.
She waited until he was served and took the first bite before lifting her own fork. She did have manners after all. She was a warrior not a barbarian. The King smiled his pleasure and together they began to eat.
He was a handsome gentlemen, graying at the temples and gentle of face. He wore a robe but no crown, and rings but no ornate necklace or other finery. He appeared to be a simple man and to Xena, simple bode efficient.
King Democritus did have two features, however, that did not sit well with the warrior. He rambled on constantly about inconsequential matters, and he had the most peculiar eyes that the warrior had ever seen.
They were a clear blue, so clear they could have been white. The warrior mused that perhaps if she looked closely and deeply enough into them, she could probably see right through to the back of his head.
They were the kind of eyes that bore right through you. And people say I have eyes of ice, the warrior thought to herself. If he hadnt rambled on like the village idiot, Xena would have drawn her sword at first glance as his stare sent a chill down her spine right through to her toes.
The Kings friendly manner put the warrior immediately at ease, however. The guards had not even requested her weapons when she entered the castle. This was indeed a first. Not only had she been invited to dinner, but they sat the Warrior Princess at the dinner table fully armed. Gabrielles stories must be having a greater effect on her reputation than she realized.
Xena wasnt exactly sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
"Dont you agree, Xena?" The king asked, trying to draw her into the conversation.
"Hmmm." The warrior concurred, taken a little by surprise. In her musings, she hadnt been listening to the king as he rambled at all. He caught her with his question while she had a mouth full of food.
"I knew you would. Tell me then, what is it a warlord is looking for when he chooses a village to attack?"
Xena reached for her goblet and was forced to wash down her mouthful of food to answer.
"That depends on the warlord." Xena commented after gulping, taking another swig of wine to clear her throat.
"Why do you say that?" The king answered, his eyes sparkling with a strange amusement.
"Most are miserable, greedy idiots roaming the countryside stealing crops from farmers or selling their captives into slavery. They dont have the resources to attack a city of this size."
"You had the resources."
"Ah yes, but then, I wasnt like most warlords." Xena answered with a smirk, taking a another long sip of wine.
The king stopped eating and leaned forward to watch the warrior intently.
"No. You certainly werent. And what would you be after if you were to attack this city?" His voice seemed to drop an octave and his stare became serious.
Xena was becoming very uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation. She took another sip of wine and thought carefully before answering.
"There is nothing here that I would have wanted, as far as I can tell."
It suddenly felt very warm to Xena. She touched her forehead and noticed the faint beads of sweat beginning to form there.
"So, you are saying that, as a warlord, there is nothing that I have that you would have wanted. Nothing worth attacking my city for?"
Xena squinted her eyes. Did the King just go out of focus?
Xena put down her goblet and looked at her hand. It was trembling.
"Oh, but youre wrong, warrior princess. Very wrong."
Xena looked back up at the king, fighting the urge to close her eyes.
"I have you, now. I finally have you." The king hissed behind a malevolent smile.
"What are you talking about?" Xena was surprised to hear her own voice sounding slightly slurred.
"I finally have your power, Xena. Im sure any warlord would give his entire army to gain the essence of the power of the warrior princess."
What did he say? Xena knotted her eyebrows together as his voice echoed at her as if they were in a tunnel.
Damn! Drugged. Ive been drugged.
The King was smiling fully now. The friendly mask that he wore to meet the warrior had faded away. In its place was an expression of lustful, devious triumph.
He laughed. The laugh reverberated loudly in Xenas ears. She shot up from her chair and reached for her sword, but her legs felt like rubber and her arm was uncoordinated.
She swayed and stumbled, missing her weapon completely. The effort caused her to lurch against the table, knocking over the goblet of wine. The warrior made one last attempt at her weapon before the world began to swirl around her and black sparkles advanced against her eyes, blurring her vision in an ever increasing circle of darkness.
The king stood when the warrior finally fell to the floor. He walked slowly around to her side of the table, careful to keep a bit of distance between them still.
As he suspected, she continued to fight the effects of the potion. Xena was trying to lift her heavy body from the floor, but her attempt was in vain. The sleeping powder the King had slipped in her wine was fast, efficient and undetectable. He should know; it was his own concoction and he had tested it on the biggest and strongest of his own guard.
He watched with a bit of detached admiration as the warrior tried to crawl along the floor, and he shook his head at the folly of the attempt.
"Sleep, warrior princess. Sleep and rest. We have a long night ahead of us. You will be reborn this night. I will transfer your power to a higher consciousness, your very essence into a higher vehicle and then you and I, together, shall live forever."
He knelt down next to the now still body and gently stroked her hair.
"But first, my magnificent warrior princess......you must die."
Gabrielle smiled and bowed to the thunderous applause of the crowd. She was beseeched by voices here or there for yet one more story, but it was already very late and most of the crowd was more than ready to go home.
They threw dinars into the bowl at her side as they shuffled past the bard, shaking her hand and thanking her for the tales well told. She watched as the bowl fill with dinars and would have thought that the evening had been a tremendous success if not for one thing: where in Hades was Xena?
When the warrior had not shown after the third or fourth story, Gabrielle began to have a hard time concentrating. Each time the door to the tavern opened, she found herself halting her words to see if it was Xena. Every so often, the bard found herself scanning the back corners of the room to see if the warrior had taken her usual position in the shadows.
Gabrielle couldnt have told another story if her life depended on it. At this point, she was beyond worry and Mallika could see it written all over the bards face though she tried to hide it.
Lakme shuffled the last of the paying patrons out of the inn and began to pick up the plates and goblets left littering the tables throughout the room.
Mallika wound her way through the chairs towards Gabrielle, who was absentmindedly trying to count her nights earnings.
"You know, it would be easier to count your dinars if you looked at your hands instead of watching the door." Mallika teased lightheartedly.
Gabrielle gave up the count, deciding to simply pour the dinars out of the bowl directly into her pouch.
"Its late." Gabrielle stated.
"Yes, it is." Mallika put her hands on the bards shoulder and forced her to sit down in a chair. "You know, the king is a very gracious host and a very handsome man."
"What do you mean by that?" Gabrielle asked, not a little perturbed.
"I mean, maybe Xena is having a better time than she thought she would."
Gabrielle laughed, "Ha! Oh, I dont think so. Trust me on this, the King is not her type. No, you dont know, Xena. She hates fancy dinners, political discussion and all the trappings of royalty. She would have been in and out of there in two shakes of a centaurs tail."
"Unless, she were having a good time."
"Ive never seen her have a good time."
Mallika laughed at that, giving Gabrielle a doubtful expression.
"I dont mean that she never has a good time. I just mean that shes not one for parties and besides, Im almost certain she would want to get back here as quickly....." the bards small voice trailed off as she thought about the wonderful afternoon they had together.
Lakme came over and sat next to Mallika. She also was acutely aware of the worry building in the bard all night.
"Is she worried about the warrior woman?" Lakme asked softly. Mallika nodded.
"Look, Gabrielle." Mallika patted the bard on the arm, "Its not that late, really. Why dont you go up to your room and wait. If shes not here in a candlemark or two, the three of us will walk to the palace and find out whats going on? Is it a deal?"
Gabrielle considered the offer.
"I cant image Xena not being able to take care of herself." Lakme said, voicing the obvious.
Gabrielle snorted a laugh and rose.
"Youre right. Before I go up, is there anything I can help you with here in the tavern?"
Lakme smiled but shook her head, "No. Im almost finished. We can take care of the rest. Thanks anyway." She reached to grab a dirty plate that was on the table next to them and somehow her fingertips managed to knock the dinnerware from the table, shattering on to the floor.
"Oops. Sorry Mallika." Lakme blushed.
The blond woman smiled at her friend, "Thats only three tonight, Lakme. Youre doing much better. Dont you think Gabrielle?"
"Much." The bard concurred and then stepped over the broken pieces of glazed ceramics to head back up to her room.
Mallikas eyes followed the strawberry blond bard as she quickly ascended the stairs and disappeared out of view. She turned to her friend Mallika and shrugged her shoulders.
"Maybe Xena decided to stay the night?" The blond woman offered as an explanation.
Lakme shook her head before stooping to pick up the pieces of broken pottery.
"I dont think so, Mallika. I think Xena had good reason to get back here tonight."
Mallika knelt to help Lakme clean up the broken plate.
"And what reason might that be?"
Lakme looked at her friend softly and smiled, "Let me put it this way, if you were invited to dinner with the king, would you want to stay the night with him?"
"I dont know. Hes a handsome enough man."
Lakme frowned and regarded her friend closely, looking for a sign that she was teasing. The sparkle in Mallikas eyes confirmed her suspicion.
"Now why would I want to stay the night with that old fart of a King?"
Lakme forced herself to look away and back towards the scattered pieces of ceramic.
"I was hoping youd say that."
Gabrielle walked into their room and headed straight towards the window for a look outside. She had a perfect view of an alleyway below but not much else. She sat on the bed with a sigh. The sleeping pallet was still a jumble of blankets and pillows.
The bard picked up a pillow and smoothed out the wrinkles with her hand, then placed the pillow against the headboard and leaned back in the bed to try to relax. But she could still smell the heady scent of sweetness and leather that was particular to Xena and it caused her to miss the warrior even more.
"Xena, you better not come back drunk." Gabrielle said aloud, drumming her fingers on the mattress.
The room answered the remark with silence.
A soft rapping on the door woke the bard up from her sleep with a start. It was morning and the sun, along with the sounds of a busy village, were filtering into the cozy tavern room. Gabrielle squinted her eyes against the light and anxiously glanced around the room for any sign that Xena had returned while she was sleeping.
She knew one thing for sure; the other side of the bed had not been disturbed. Xena had not returned to their bed.
Another soft rap on the door caused the bard to jump up out of the bed.
"Xena?" she asked hopefully, opening the door wide.
Mallika half-smiled, more than a little concern filling her eyes.
Gabrielle looked back into the room and shook her head sadly.
"Im really worried now." The bard stated firmly, "This is just not like her at all. Why did you let me sleep? We should have gone to the castle last night."
"I came to check on you, but you were sound asleep. I thought it better to let you rest. I thought she would be back by now, but I guess I was wrong. Im sorry."
Gabrielle waved her hand in dismissal, "Thats okay. Dont worry about it."
The bard grabbed her staff and walked past Mallika down the stairs.
"Where are you going?" The tavern owner hurried after the bard.
"Im going to the castle. Where else?"
"Wait. Let me talk to Lakme and then Ill go with you."
Gabrielle waited by the front door, while Mallika gave some instructions to her friend and disappeared into a back room apparently to talk with her father, who was always working in the kitchen.
Within moments, she was hurrying from the back, removing her apron to escort Gabrielle to the palace of King Democritus. They left the tavern together and headed through the marketplace towards the castle.
There were no dreams. One moment, she was engulfed in unconscious blackness, the next she was awake but had no idea what had happened or where she was.
The dark warrior learned long ago, after many experiences as a captive prisoner, to obtain as much information about her predicament as possible before opening her eyes.
She listened closely and heard the sounds of one person fumbling around in a room. She smelled herbs, roots, and something else that was pungent and distasteful to her senses. She felt the chill of stone caress her skin and realized that she was completely naked; her armor was gone and, therefore, probably all weapons as well. The warrior carefully tried to move an arm, then a leg, and then her head and came to the full realization that she was completely bound to a table, arms, legs, and head, totally naked and vulnerable. This was not good.
She listened again carefully for the sounds of her captors and ascertained that there was only one individual in the room with her. This was good news.
Xena took a deep breath, concentrated, then with all the strength she could muster, she opened her eyes and attempted to rip off her bonds and vault from the table.
The sound of her growl and the creak of the leather straps threatening to tear pulled the old alchemists attention away from his work. He whirled around and laughed at the struggling warriors attempt at escape.
"Oh ho ho! Youre a sly one, warrior princess. How long have you been awake then? Lying there, planning to break your ties and attack an old man are you?"
He scuttled over to Xena and rubbed his hands together as he leered over the warrior.
Xena did not give up the struggle, but continued to pull and tug at the straps with such force that they began to cut into her skin. The old man patted her strapped, dark head sympathetically. His touch infuriated her even more, and she yelled a deep, throaty cry as she strained one last time against her restraints. Xena relaxed then, exhausted by the effort and panting in anger. If looks could kill, the old man would have keeled over then and there.
"Are you quite finished?" The old man snickered.
Xena regarded him closely, suddenly remembering where she had seen him before.
"Yes. Paracelsus. Im flattered you remember me."
"Oh, Im going to remember you, all right." Her eyes flashed angrily and she jerked her wrists threateningly against the restraints.
The old man laughed again and let his ice blue eyes take in the full length of her naked body.
"Oh, you are magnificent, warrior princess. If I had a mind to, I would enjoy myself quite heartily with you."
Xenas thoughts flickered briefly to a picture of the disgusting old man assaulting her and she became enraged. She revolted against the thought of his clear, cold gaze upon her, let alone his hands. The warrior stilled as another thought occurred to her. He had the same clear, ice blue eyes as Democritus. Could this be his father?
"What are you thinking, warrior princess? Are you still trying to plot a way to escape or are you finally wondering why you are here?"
His statement caught Xenas attention, but she did not want to let him see it.
"Im sure you plan to tell me all about it." Xena drawled, feigning disinterest.
Paracelsus pulled up a stool and sat close to Xena, gloating over his captive by playing with a strand of her hair.
"You cant see much from there, can you?"
Xena tried to turn her head and look around the room, but her forehead was strapped tightly to the table and all she could manage to do was roll her eyes.
"If you would remove this strap, I could get a good look." Xena commented calmly.
"Oh ho no no, my dear. I may be old, but Im not stupid. Ill tell you and you can use your imagination. I know you are a clever girl."
Xena gave him a condescending grin which turned feral.
The old man ran gnarly fingertips down the leather strap which crossed her chest barely missing the warriors exposed breasts. He smiled. She snarled.
"Youre in my laboratory. You remember that I am an alchemist, dont you?" He didnt wait for a reply, but continued to play with her hair.
"Well, it is here where I work with the miracles of alchemy. Do you know what alchemy is, warrior princess?"
Xena did not answer, but the fire in her eyes told Paracelsus that if she ever got free he would be a dead alchemist.
"Let me tell you about alchemy, my dear. Most believe an alchemists concern is with distilling medicines and potions like a common healer. But we are involved with much more than healing, much more than that. We are searching for the answer to death, for the secret of life."
"There is a mystery at the heart of all things. Alchemy seeks to answer this mystery. Let me explain."
The old man leaned over Xena and stared at her with his clear, penetrating eyes.
"The rules governing the universe and the human body are the same. Each of us carries around, each of us is, a miniature cosmos. We carry the power of the universe inside even as we are contained within the universe itself. The secret to the power of the universe lies within us. We dont need the power of the Gods. We have the power right here, within us. All we have to do is discover it, refine it...."
"Distill it?" Xena offered.
"Yesss.....you understand, dont you. Of course you do. You were aware of this fact all along. You are acutely aware of the power within you, Xena. You have drawn from it often. That is why you are what you are. Yes, you do understand. I knew you would."
Paracelsus sat up and stroked his white beard thoughtfully.
"Transmutation, Xena!" Paracelsus announced happily, "transmutation is the goal of alchemy. Most alchemists strive to create precious metals. Turn ordinary rock into gold. Wealth. Like warlords, motivated by greed. How stupid and common, eh warrior princess. But as you said about yourself, I am not like most alchemists."
"You and I are the same in this way, arent we my dear warrior princess. Who needs wealth, when you can have absolute power!"
"Why waste your energies creating gold, when you can create life! And in its creation, control it! That is the true power, isnt it Xena. The power of life over death! The philosophers stone! It is worth far more than gold, far more, far more....."
The old man stood suddenly and began to pace excitedly.
"I am close to the secret of the perfection of man, Xena. My previous transmutations were failures, but that was because my subjects were weak. They knew nothing of the power of the universe."
Now Paracelsus leaned over Xena, rubbing his hands and drooling in anticipation.
"But you, my prize, you know only too well the power of the universe. The power of life and death. After all, you did die, didnt you? And you came back. You are the only one I know of to have done that. You used your power to defeat death. Your transmutation will be successful because you have already made the journey and you know the path to take."
"What are you rambling about, old man!"
Xena began again to struggle against her bindings, realizing that Paracelsus was stark raving mad and she was in serious trouble.
"I am going to distill you, Xena. Distill you down to the purest essence of your power and then transfer your essence into a higher receptacle. A receptacle of my creation. I call it a Homunculus. I dont have time to describe it now, but trust me, it is a higher vehicle for your essence......"
The alchemist passed a light touch across the entire length of Xenas naked body.
"....despite the perfection of your current receptacle."
Paracelsus began to rush around his laboratory passing temporarily out of the restrained view of the warrior princess. She heard him stirring a liquid in what sounded like a large vat in the corner. She listened as he worked and mumbled, trying desperately to free herself from the leather bindings.
Paracelsus returned to the pallet pulling a table with him. Xena could barely make out the tubes and flasks as he arranged them carefully.
When the alchemist came back into view she watched him, a quiet panic building in the pit of her stomach.
"What are you going to do?" She managed to breathe.
"Im going to aid you in your transmutation to this higher metaphysical form. Consider it a resurrection of your spiritual soul. After your transmutation, Xena, you will be immortal."
Paracelsus smiled apologetically as he attached a tube to the end of a long, pointed needle.
"But first you must die."
The alchemist chuckled.
"Not to worry. Then you will be reborn. Dont look so frightened. After all, youve died before. Its not like you dont know what to expect."
Xena began to struggle frantically as Paracelsus plunged the tip of the needle into the vein in her arm. She winced at the pain, but did not stop her pressure against the straps, hoping upon hope that they would break.
"These straps wont break, Xena. You dont have the strength to break them yet. As a Homunculus, though, you will. Youll control forces that can act on an object without even touching them. And more. You should be thanking me, instead of struggling against me."
He smiled as Xenas blood leaked up into the tube that was attached to the needle. Paracelsuss insane smile grew as the level of blood rose with each pump of her beating heart. He reached up to the table and released a clamp that was stopping the flow of a liquid from a flask at the other end of the tube.
"Relax now, Xena. Prepare to die. Remember the path you took the last time. Whatever it was that brought you back then, you must use it now or you and I will fail."
Xenas eyes widened as she watched the bright green liquid rapidly plunge down the tube and make contact with her blood. It actually began to bubble as blood and fluid mix together within the tube. In moments, she tasted a strange, metallic flavor in the back of her throat and could smell the substance inside of her nose. The world began to spin and Xena felt as though she was falling down into darkness rapidly.
Oh gods, she thought hopelessly, Im dying.
She could feel her heart slowing. She knew her lungs were failing.
Paracelsus smiled as he watched Xenas eyes roll back into her head and then her lids closed. She tried to speak, but her breath was nonexistent and her mouth was suddenly parched.
"Xena," Paracelsus whispered in her ear, "Remember the path you took. Whatever gave you the power to return before, you must call upon it now."
Xena could hear him from far away, as though she were across the hall. She knew what would happen next and she waited for the moment when blackness would claim her and she would feel the surging momentum of being lifted out of herself and away from a dead, useless body.
The moment arrived and she spiraled up and away, pausing one brief moment, suspended over her own lifeless corpse.
"Gabrielle." The warrior barely whispered aloud.
And then she was dead.
Continued in Step 5
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