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And with that information, Xena was finally relieved. 'Kay's all right! Oh boy, and she's queen now...' she almost grinned in delight but turned her attention back to Theresa.
"I have been sent to relieve the Amazon Nation of their responsibilities. Let me first introduce you to my Deputy Chief Commander, Ping. This is my Second Commander, Larissa. Shadow Warriors, Chin and Dan. The Co-Minister for Information, Gerias. This is Lan, our second healer. And here is a letter for the both of you and here's a letter for you, Warrior Princess." Theresa finished introducing the leading members of her group and handed over the two letters.
Ephiny nodded and Gabrielle opened the letter, both of them reading its contents together: -
"My dearest Queen Gabrielle and Ephiny. Thank you very much for looking after our wounded at the time of our greatest need. The people of Portia owe the Amazon Nation a favour. I owe the Amazon Nation one. And you may collect anytime, anywhere. That's a promise.
Kay, Queen of Portia."
They turned to each other and smiled, then they turned to look at Xena, who was also reading her letter: -
"X, well, yes, I'm still very much alive, in pain, but still alive. I guess that is what that counts, isn't it? Yup, it's no joke - I'm a queen now, fancy that. Guess me as queen kinda beats you as princess, huh? I want to say this before I forget, if you ever need a place to settle down when you're done saving the world, know that Portia is an option for you (and Gabrielle). You'll always be welcomed here. And you'll always have a place in my heart.
Don't worry, I'm not feeling the darkness anymore, I do have walls but I think they're very necessary for me. Other then my former companions and the Shadow Warriors, I don't know who else I can truly trust, so many have betrayed me. I feel very spent, maybe because I am.
I do hope that Mel is still hanging in there, X. because if she... well, you know what I mean, can you please do me a favour? Look out for Threez. She's not allowing herself to grief and I'm really worried about her. After you, she's one I trust the most. I don't want her to become what I nearly became, cold and distant, withdrawn from the rest of the world. Not allowing herself to feel anything.
I know that Tami will be all right, she may not walk again but at least she's still alive. And she's got Ping and Ping's got her. Their love can only grow stronger through this. I only wish that I be the only one to hurt and not Mel or Tami or you.
I miss you, X. I really want to see you again. Hope Gabrielle's gonna come too. I miss you both tremendously.
Yours forever and ever, Kay."
If it were not for her amazing self-control, Xena would have shed some tears by the end of the letter. She puzzled over some of the words and walked up to Gerias who was talking very animatedly with several Amazons.
Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged a look and followed behind Xena. "Gerias," Xena called for the other bard, "how badly was Kay hurt in the attack? And how is she now?"
Gerias looked momentarily surprised then glanced at Theresa, who shook her head and mouthed the words, 'Not here'.
Gerias nodded in understanding, "Xena, the story is quite long and we do have to head back. Why don't I tell you all the story when we're on the road?"
Xena had just opened her mouth to insist that she be told now when something or someone 'flew' down from the trees and landed right in the middle of the square.
Xena, Eponin, Solari and several of the Amazons drew their swords instinctively. The slender black-clad figure rose to her full height, placing her just about the same height as Xena. Chin and Dan fell on their knees while Theresa, Ping and Gerias bowed deeply, and they all said at the same time, "Master."
The Amazons looked at their queens for a lead, Theresa immediately said, "Master Ling, the Amazons of the Amazon Nation. Friends, meet Master Ling, our queen's Master."
Xena was surprised, 'she looks way too young to be anyone's Master.' She thought to herself.
"Looks can be deceiving, Warrior Princess." Ling answered Xena's unspoken query much to the latter's absolute shock. Ling then turned to face Xena and the two Amazon queens, she started in surprise when she first caught full sight of Xena but quickly recovered.
"But in my case, Xena. You are right, I am young. In fact, I am actually younger than Kay. I might even be younger than your lover here," she looked right at Gabrielle and then back at Xena, "but age means nothing when one is fighting for one's life."
Ling turned her attentions back to Theresa and Gerias, "I think Kay will understand any delays. I do want to see your bond mate first, Theresa. I might be able to heal her."
Theresa stood with her mouth wide open, "I don't promise anything, Theresa but I can be a miracle worker at times. And I might also be able to... hmm, aren't all of your arms tired from holding onto those heavy swords?" she asked and with a distinct nod from Ephiny, the Amazons sheathed their swords but Xena seemed too stunned to move.
Ling spoke to Xena again, "You had such a bright destiny, Xena. You're special, too special in fact, so much so that the Gods took note of you and chose to interfere in your destiny. You are now back on track towards the threshold of greatness, are you willing to go there?"
"Where?" Xena asked, still a little ruffled.
"Where your original destiny was. I'll tell you more soon."
"Original destiny?" Xena wondered aloud while everyone else stood still, completely entranced.
Ling stared deep into Xena's eyes, and it seemed to fill Xena with extra strength and settled her inner turmoil, "Xena, you have always been special. You have always been a chosen, but not of Ares. Ares 'stole' you away and claimed you for himself and you played straight into his hands.
"But like I said, all in good time. Digest all this first, believe that you are special, that will help you understand and believe what I will be telling you know soon. Now, I think I was saying that I might also be able to heal Tami's leg. But I'm gonna need some time alone with them. That is with Melanis and Tami. While the rest of you are waiting, Gerias, why don't you tell them the whole story as you know it."
Ling walked to Ping and Tami, she held one hand out to Tami, "Do you trust me?" Tami nodded once and grabbed hold of Ling's hand and at the same time, letting go of Ping's after one final squeeze.
Two Amazons stood nearby to offer their help, Ling glanced at them with a smile, "Yes, please bring her into the healers hut, where Melanis is. And then leave, I'll be there shortly." The two Amazons nodded and walked away, each supporting Tami. Ling stood there and watched them before turning back towards the crowd.
She placed the palm of her hand upon Ping's tear-stained cheek, "No matter what happens, I'm not to be disturbed. Do you understand?" she also looked at Theresa who nodded mutely, Ping though, said, "Master Ling, don't bring her and my hopes up..."
"Ping, one should always believe and hope. Nothing is impossible. Do you understand?" she asked again. This time Ping too, nodded. "Good," she smiled again, before facing the crowd, "Chin, Dan, you know your duties." Chin and Dan replied, "Yes, Master."
"Very well." Ling turned to walk towards the hut when she stopped and turned back, "Message from Kay, she said that as she is going to have her first coronation in a week's time, and as such she would like to have Queen Ephiny in attendance. I think she also meant Queen Gabrielle and you too, Xena. In fact, I think she's got something planned for you, Xena. Perhaps you three would consider joining us in our return journey?" with that, she finally turned and walked into the healers' hut. Chin and Dan took up positions to guard the door.
All other eyes now turn expectantly onto Gerias. She sighed dramatically and settled down on the hard ground, she looked up at the others, "It's a LONG story." And that got everyone settled down comfortably.
Xena allowed Gabrielle to settle back into her, still disturbed by what the Master Ling had said. 'Just what had she meant by my original destiny?' she shook herself mentally and prepared to listen to a bard other than her favourite one.
I'll start right from the start. This is quite bloody, so I hope you're all ready for it. After Theresa and Ping left with Melanis, Tami, Xena and the others the camp became quiet. Kay was still seated on the platform, she seemed so, so torn, so empty.
She had ordered Ming to take a rest first because Ming had many more things to take care of later. She stared at the traitors. Her former soldiers. Her one good eye never missing anything that was happening.
I was helping Joanis with the many slightly wounded soldiers. When Joanis was done, she moved to help the countless wounded traitors when Kay spoke calmly, "Don't bother," she said simply, "their lives were already forfeited when they chose to betray me. Let them die, it will be less painful for them." I couldn't believe my ears, neither could Joanis nor any other of the companions, or whatever that was left of us.
Joanis was prepared to argue but before she could Kay grabbed hold of her bandage, the wound had started to bleed again. Joanis ran over to Kay and tried to help, but Kay pushed her away, she stood up and walked back towards her tent when she noticed Ming had left his tent. She just said, "Make sure the traitors are not treated. We will not waste any herbs on people who are going to die by sunrise tomorrow anyway." Ming just nodded.
Then she turned towards the captives and said, "You give me no choice. The blood that you spilt today has to be repaid in kind. You can't expect mercy from me or your former comrades. Make your peace with your Gods, for tomorrow, those still alive will die by the executioner's blade."
She looked over at Han and grabbed hold of his dagger, she held the dagger in her right hand and straightened out her left arm. One downward motion and she sliced her left arm, saying, "Know that I bleed for each and every one of you." and she threw the dagger down as she walked back to her tent, not looking back.
Ming looked at me and said quietly, "Grand Marshal was betrayed once before. One banner had allowed themselves to be bribed. An associate of the Prime Minister paid them handsomely to assassinate the Grand Marshal. She barely survived, she wouldn't have if not for the arrival of..." he trailed off and I thought he wasn't going to continue but he did.
"The attempt failed and the entire banner were executed. Grand Marshal was in pain for weeks after that, not from the wounds that she had received. But from the guilt that she felt. I never understood why, I mean, she did what she had to and while to the rest of the army she appeared emotionless, but to me and her other close lieutenants, she was more open about her grief. Of course, that was how Juan and Jing managed to betray her as well."
The next day came and I noticed a bunch of female warriors dressed in black. I would later find out that they're called the Shadow Warriors and their job was, actually still is, to protect Kay. And another thing I noticed was that the camp was already cleared of all the captured.
I later learnt that the executions were performed very early in the morning. Their bodies were already burning in two piles. Anyway, the rest of the day was spent packing up the camp as Kay wanted to join the other half of her army, led by Lesi, Tian and Ching who were already beginning the siege in Portia, as soon as possible.
Constant reports came from the other half of the army as we prepared another funeral pyre for those who died, Nantra, Wan, Antonio, Steffi, amongst others. Kay's face was set in stone. Theresa and Ping arrived back at camp shortly after and we set off immediately after dinner.
We marched towards Portia. Kay hardly said a thing, she was constantly receiving reports and communications from the army at the front. She spent most of the time preparing the preliminary battle plans and we all knew that we would win, without question.
We rolled into Portia and were met with no opposition whatsoever. It troubled Kay, until she saw the people coming out of their homes and shouting words of greeting and waving happily at us. The people welcomed us as their saviours. They've all heard about the legend of Kiko and so many of them asked us if Kay was going to become the new queen of Portia.
They all wanted Kay to be their new queen. Kay was so taken back by the cordial reception that was accorded to us. She had never thought about the possibility that by attacking Minis it would also give her the kingdom of Portia and that she would have to be the new queen. Whatever her views on that matter, we don't know, because she never let on what she thought.
Nothing much happened for the next few days or so, just several tentative skirmishes with the enemy. And then well, the 'Ching Affair' happened. Not much is known about this, but apparently Kay had found out that Ching was betraying her, so she decided to send him away. She did not kill him, on hindsight, maybe she should have...
A couple more days passed with increasingly frenzy skirmishes. More soldiers were hurt or killed, on both sides. Portia took the brunt of it, but we also suffered. Then, out of the blue, a soldier came into our camp, he waved a white flag of truce and gave a message from Minis to Kay.
It was an offer for a discussion, a conditional surrender. It smelt bad to Ming and Theresa, but I... I convinced Kay that a peaceful solution was still not out of the question. She actually agreed with me... she said that she did not want any more blood on her hands. Then she added very softly, "I have to give peace a shot, I'm sure that's what Xena would have told me to do. Those people out there do not deserve to suffer or die, and if this goes on, they would, I can't have that on my hands as well."
She went with Theresa and a small squad. And, it was a trap. Minis had substituted the entire town where the meeting was held with his mercenaries. Kay walked right into a trap and was captured when Theresa and the others were too preoccupied.
Theresa and the rest would have been captured as well if not for the timely arrival of the Master and the rest of the Shadow Warriors. Master Ling seemed to know instantly that Kay had been captured without asking. She ordered Ming and the main army to surround the castle walls and await her signal. She would personally rescue Kay with the Shadow Warriors.
And she did. After waiting a day for her Shadow Warriors to properly infiltrate the castle, she entered the castle herself. We were now camped surrounding the castle, Master Ling had given us the order to kill anyone who tried to escape. Many of the rich Portian noblemen did and were torn apart. It seemed that Ming and many of the other soldiers needed to find some way to vent their anger and frustrations. And many more Portian ordinary citizens and soldiers deflected and were warmly welcomed.
The drawbridge dropped just as the sun was setting. Mei, Dan, Fang and the Shadow Warriors greeted us and told us to move in, they had secured the castle and rescued Kay. We were told to go to the throne room and wait there.
We were expecting Kay, but instead Master Ling entered the room. She told us that Kay was hurt and was resting and that Minis and Manis had been captured. She then brought them out and... announced to everyone present in the room, which included all the Portian ministers that had not attempted to flee, that Kay is now the new queen of Portia. She demanded the loyalty of all present in the room, a few Portian generals and ministers refused instantly. With one glance from Master Ling, the Shadow Warriors... beheaded them on the spot.
The rest of the ministers then agreed immediately. Master Ling then looked at the former king and prince and said, "Kay is a protected of mine and the Shadow Warriors, anyone who hurts her dies a painful death." She raised her right hand and... and... Manis just got thrown against the wall. I don't know how she did it, but... that's what happened. I swear, if you don't believe me, just ask Theresa and Ping. They were there, they saw it as well. Manis' body just got thrown like a rag doll onto the wall and crumpled into a heap.
Master Ling said, "Kay should never have let you live the first time. Like she should have steeled her heart and killed Ching when she had the chance..." And at that point, Ching was also brought in. He was quivering and shaking, his chains rattling. Ming was livid. He threw himself at Ching and would have strangled him there and then if Master Ling had not stopped Ming.
"Ming!" she said, "that is much too easy of a death for him. We shall make him and the king and his precious prince here an example to any foolish people here who might still harbour any thoughts about harming Kay." Err... things went quite bloody after that, needless to say none survived. I thought I would always have nightmares about the scenes that I had witnessed but I don't. I don't understand why, but I don't...
Kay was unconscious for the first couple days of her reign. Then when she finally regained consciousness, we were all prepared because Master Ling had warned us beforehand. Master Ling means a lot to Kay, almost as much as you do, Xena. The sparkle in her eye pretty much told us that. To my amazement, after a long and solo talk with Master Ling, Kay was strong enough to at least assign new duties and job titles to us.
That's when Theresa became the Chief Commander of the newly established Elite Guards, Ping became the Deputy Chief, Lesi, a First Commander and Larissa, a Second Commander. The Elite Guards is made up mostly of her Majesty's former companions.
The Royal Army is now made up of not only the soldiers who came from the Middle Kingdom it now also included most of the surviving Portian army who had deflected. In fact, many of them helped to convince the people that Kay was now the queen and a deserving one as well. They also told us all about secret passages and tunnels in the castle. That was a main reason why Master Ling and the Shadow Warriors had no problems getting into the castle when they had to.
And those soldiers also told Master Ling where they would find Kay. In the torture chamber...
"Torture chamber?" Gabrielle asked in a soft voice. Xena and Ephiny both looked absolutely stricken. Now Xena knew just what Kay had meant when she wrote about being 'in pain', just like her to understate matters, she thought to herself ruefully. 'Why? Why did you believe that Minis would have wanted to surrender? Conditional or otherwise.'
Gerias could only nod her head sadly as she returned to her narration.
"The first time I saw Kay, or I should say now, her Majesty, after the, err, demonstration by Master Ling. I didn't feel that what Master Ling did to them can be compared with what they put her Majesty through. Her Majesty was lying on her new bed, on her side because her back had been viciously whipped. Her right eye was covered in thick gauze. Master Ling said... she said... that eye was gone. When they were torturing her... they had... done something... horrible and absolutely inhumane to her right eye.
"Just listening to Mei describe the whole scene that she and Master Ling saw... it's...it's..."
Gerias struggled to finish her narration, shuddering and quietly accepting Larissa's strong arms around her now slumped shoulders, unable and unwilling to continue. Theresa and Ping, too looked very subdued their joyous mood at being close to something so familiar to them fast disappearing. They too had been around when Mei spoke of THAT scene, they too were disturbed by the Shadow Warrior's account. They were just glad that THEY hadn't been witnesses to the scene itself.
"...not a sight you'd wish upon your worse enemy." Ling finished as she appeared behind the enthralled crowd. Everyone snapped their riveted attention towards imposing figure of Master Ling. Then Ling stepped aside, revealing behind her Tami, standing upright and without any support or crutches. Ping's mouth opened in shock as she stammered in wonderment, "How... Tami..."
Tami smiled and walked up to the still seated Ping and gently hoisted Ping up. They hugged for a long time and then passionately kissed. Theresa stared hard, trying (but failing) to contain her disappointment at not seeing Melanis behind Ling as well. 'Well, Mel was more severely injured.' She thought to herself.
"Theresa," Ling spoke in a surprisingly gentle tone, "Melanis should be regaining consciousness in an hour's time. You should be the first person she sees when she opens her green eyes." Theresa looked up in utter astonishment but remained rooted in her spot.
Ping and Tami stopped their kiss as they glanced down on Theresa, chuckling as they pulled Theresa up roughly. "Go on. I'll take care of things out here. I'm sure her Majesty will understand why we were late in returning, I'm definitely sure Kay would be more than delighted for us."
Theresa stood up with Ping and Tami's help, she turned to Ling gratefully, "Master Ling, I don't know how we are ever going to be able to repay you..."
"Just remain completely loyal to your queen and serve her and her future successors well. That is the only repayment I ask for." Ling replied solemnly.
"Master Ling, we have long blood sworn to her..." Ping said.
"That counts for nothing." Ling looked gravely at the three of them, "Ching had also blood sworn to her, as did Jing and many others. They still betrayed her."
"We will NEVER betray Kay. You have my word." Theresa declared, Ping and Tami nodded their agreement firmly.
"And that is good enough for me, Chief Commander." Ling smiled widely, a real smile this time. Theresa smiled back in reply and rushed off towards the healer's hut to wait for her bond mate to return to her.
The Amazons, their queens and Xena had been watching the exchange between the four as well as the seemingly complete and miraculous recovery of Tami in stunned silence. No one could believe what their own eyes had witnessed. But yet, the evidence was right in front of them. "How did you..." Gabrielle was the first the regain her ability of speech.
"I can't explain that to any of you, so don't ask me to." Ling replied a little tersely. She softened her tone, "It wasn't their time, Gabrielle. It was Janis' and Wan's..."
She turned to glance at every person in the camp, "Every one is born with a specific destiny. Like mine was to become the Master of the Shadow Warriors because I was the chosen successor of my Master, now the 17th Grand Master of the Shadow Warriors. I, myself, will become the 18th Grand Master when my time comes. That is my destiny. Many, both immortals and mortals alike, have tried to derail it and prevent it from happening but to no avail. But some of such attempts do succeed." Then she added thoughtfully, "Unfortunately."
"Is that what you meant by my ORIGINAL destiny?" Xena asked, but she wasn't too sure if she truly wanted the answer to that, "Someone interfered and succeeded in changing my destiny?"
Ling looked straight into Xena's intense blue eyes, and silently studied her for what seemed to be an eternity for Xena. Xena was getting impatient, she had to know and she wanted to know now. She wanted to know why and who, though she did have a very good guess as to who could have changed her destiny. Xena opened her mouth to speak again but Ling stopped her when she raised her right hand.
"That is a very educated guess, Xena. Yes, he did interfere and he did cost you your original destiny. That interference also cost Lyceus' destiny to change dramatically as well. I will try to tell you whatever that I can. You have to understand this, there are certain things that I cannot reveal to you and sometimes it is better not to know everything, you have to trust me on this. Now is neither the time nor the place."
"How about..." Xena started but was cut off by Ling, "Yes, that same someone changed Kay's destiny as well." Ling now looked into Gabrielle's emerald green eyes, "Would have changed your destiny for the worse if it wasn't for Artemis. Isn't that so, Artemis?" Ling called out, lifting her head.
Suddenly a bright light appeared just behind Ling and the brightness made everyone, save for Ling, Xena, Chin and Dan, to turn their heads away from the glare. When they slowly turned back, the Amazons found their patron goddess in their midst. Their jaws collectively dropped. The Amazon High Priestess rushed out of the temple and stared straight at Artemis who was glaring angrily at Ling. Ling in turn looked completely unfazed.
"You have said too much..." Artemis started but was cut off by Ling, "If you Gods choose to interfere unnecessarily in the lives of mortals then you best be prepared for the whole, ugly truth to be revealed. Live with it."
"You cannot..." once again Artemis tried to start and again, Ling cut her off, "I don't have to answer to any of you on Mt Olympus, Artemis. Or have you forgotten about that?"
"No, I haven't." Artemis answered and paused. Ling kept silent. Artemis looked pained when she finally spoke again, "Us Gods have our own set of restrictions. You don't. Never had. There are so many times in the past that I could have interfered, but sometimes I chose not to, other times I was not allowed to. Like for Terreris, well, she had to die so that Gabrielle could become an Amazon. But Melosa...
"I wanted so much to interfere because I knew Gabrielle wasn't ready to lead my Amazons but he told my father and Zeus ordered me not to intervene. What could I do but watch my beloved queen die at the hands of that..." she turned away from the crowd, then she added quietly, "By the way, I never did thank you for what you did for Gabrielle."
Gabrielle heard it clearly and was stunned, "Thanks for what?" she asked softly. Artemis shook her head sadly, not answering. Gabrielle turned to Ling, "Master Ling, thanks for what? What do I owe you for?"
"Thessaly." Xena said suddenly, "You went to Hades to ask for Gabrielle back. Why?" she asked.
"Because Xena, if anything happens to Gabrielle, the chances of you reverting back to your warlord state is extremely high. Gabrielle calms your inner rage down, she helps in your fight against your demons. You need her. I can't have you reverting back to your old self because... I'll tell you the reason later. Going to Hades was, well, not a problem at all. He owes me several favours, I just called one in."
"How about when Xena died?" Gabrielle asked, "Did you help her..."
"Not now..." Ling voice started to have a slight impatient edge to it. She turned her attention back to Artemis, "Artemis, would you please pass this message around Mt Olympus? I do not wish to see any God anywhere near Portia, especially during the two coronations. ANY God. Don't make me have to go up Mt Olympus personally. I will not be responsible for any damage that I might cause up there."
"But it's tradition that Portia would pick a God to signify the beginning of every reign." Artemis argued, she had hoped that Kay would pick her.
"Kay doesn't need your 'protection' or that of any God's. She has the Shadow Warriors and me. Kay is a protected of mine. I think you will have to pass that round as well, especially to that war-loving brother of yours." Ling said firmly.
"I thought Kay is a chosen of yours." Artemis asked, slightly puzzled. The way Ling had always treated Kay led every God on Mt Olympus to believe that Kay was in fact the chosen of Ling's. Of course, the fact that the chosen was older in age than the Master concerned many of them, especially Athena, but, Ling was very different from any Shadow Warrior Master that the Gods had to deal with in the past.
Ling was much more formidable than any of them and Ling herself knew of the fact and she was also aware that the Gods themselves did not and could not dispute it. That knowledge empowered Ling to reach much greater heights than any of the previous Shadow Warrior Masters had been able to climb. And the fact that she will only become even more powerful often led to serious discussions up on Mt Olympus, especially after her previous visit.
Ling sighed, "No, Kay is NOT a chosen of mine. No one who is related to the Gods, however remotely, can be a chosen of the Shadow Warrior Master. That's a rule even I have to follow. But that rule does not prohibit me from making her a 'protected' of mine. Kay is an extraordinary mortal. As is Xena, Warrior Princess. As is YOUR Amazon Queen Gabrielle. I know of the sacrifice you had to make for Gabrielle... and Kay, 'Temis, I do owe you..." she trailed off, facing Artemis for the first time, sympathy evident in her dark eyes.
Gabrielle had opened her mouth and was about to interrupt when Xena placed a warning hand over her knee and shook her head. Gabrielle nodded and swallowed her question. It would be answered, that she knew.
"Raven, you have no idea how hard..." Artemis finally answered, a single tear rolling down her godly cheek. Ling reached out towards Artemis' cheek and with her thumb gently wiped the tear away. Artemis looked down, not willing to let the mortals around them see her tears.
"'Temis, I DO know. It is never easy to let anyone, let alone a chosen or a favoured, be killed. Especially if you know that they would die and you can't do anything about it, because any interference would mean change to another's destiny irrevocably. It's a hard choice that not many would have been brave enough to even attempt to make.
"You did what you had to. And I thank you for it. Though, you know, you could have called for me. The matter concerned Xena and Amazons, both reasons enough for me to intervene. Besides, a warlord like Krykus would be a piece of meat for any of my Shadow Warriors." Ling gently chided the Goddess of Hunt.
Artemis looked up into the shining eyes of Ling or Raven as she liked to call Ling at times. "I know I could have called for your help, but... you had just taken over as Master, I didn't... want to get you involved with Ares yet. I know that you have a soft spot for the Amazons, all Amazons, in fact. And no, I never knew of your 'interest' in the Warrior Princess. We only know of Kay." She finished with an unspoken question on her face.
Ling laughed as she withdrew her hand from Artemis' cheek. She looked down, concerned for the seated, tense figure of the Warrior Princess. Xena was gripping Gabrielle's hand tightly, she was not used to anyone talking about her in that way and it troubled her to know that her whole life had been the result of the interference of the Gods. Now she truly understood why she hated ALL Gods and not just Ares. ALL of them had meddled with her life at one time or another. She made a mental note to ask Master Ling more after she had gathered and accepted all that she had heard so far.
Xena was thinking so deeply that she was startled when Ling placed her hand on her shoulders and knelt next to her. "We will have a long talk soon but for now, is it all right if I tell them the basic stuff? Saves you the trouble of retelling it." Xena nodded, not sure if she could reply and still remained calm at the same time.
Then, Ling moved her hand down to Xena's heart and instantly Xena felt release. "I hope the day will come when you don't have to fight this hard every moment." Ling whispered into Xena's ear and then quickly stood up.
"The moment Xena was conceived, the 17th Grand Master laid claim to her. As she grew within her mother's womb, Grand Master made sure that Xena would be different from any other mortals. Grand Master gave Xena all the qualities to be faster, quicker, sharper, stronger, smarter and wittier than anyone else, even Zeus' own son, Hercules. Xena was also given the ability to heal herself. Xena became the Grand Master's favourite chosen one. Hence, Grand Master kept an eye out for Xena constantly, on top of her other chosen and favoured ones.
"Then came the fateful day when Ares first caught sight of the very young Xena. He was instantly smitten and endeavored to win Xena over. Grand Master knew of it and warned him off, she thought that it would be enough, as no God in their right frame of mind would dare to oppose any Shadow Warrior Master.
"So for a while, Ares did seemingly lay off on his interest in Xena, deciding instead, at his mother's urging, to secretly gather a plan to drive Xena to his arms. Grand Master thought she had succeeded in scaring Ares off and was justifiably proud that a little girl like Xena could draw the attentions, however unwanted, of the God of War. Grand Master would have named Xena her successor if she could, but she couldn't. No, not because of me, for I wasn't even born yet.
"Grand Master wanted so much to take Xena to live and train with her, especially after I was born and named as her successor. But Grand Master didn't, she knew that it would be cruel to take any child away from her natural parents, taking me away from mine was hard enough for her. There was no other choice, previous Masters had to kill the natural parents of their named successors so that the child would grow up treating and knowing her Master to be her only family. I was luckier... wait, this story isn't about me.
"Grand Master had such grand plans for me and Xena. Xena would lead the Shadow Warriors of the Western Realm while I would lead the Shadow Warriors of the Eastern Realm and when the time came, I would become the Master with Xena at my side. And M'Lila on my other."
"M'Lila!" Xena gasped in shock, "She was a Shadow Warrior?" Ling nodded sadly and continued.
"Yes, M'Lila was a true Shadow Warrior though she had disobeyed our Master when she went for Xena. Grand Master was not there for Xena when Cortese attacked Amphipolis because her spirit was with me at my first taste of solitude. And Ares knew that when it came to me or Xena, it would be me because I was the successor, Xena was 'only' one of the many chosen that she had. M'Lila communicated insistently that she wanted to be with Xena and finally Grand Master allowed her to. But by the time M'Lila got to Amphipolis, it was too late. Lyceus was dead and Xena went on a rampage.
"Grand Master was bitterly disappointed in Xena's lack of self-discipline and recalled M'Lila. I was puzzled. I felt that I know so much about Xena, although we've never met till today, I couldn't understand. Neither could M'Lila, so she disobeyed Grand Master's orders and stayed and even managed to get herself onto Xena's ship and taught Xena a few trademarks that marks a Shadow Warrior. Pressure points and that style of fighting.
"When Xena was betrayed and found herself hanging on that cross, Grand Master was ready to intervene but unfortunately, M'Lila got there first and rescued Xena. She didn't know that Grand Master would never allow Xena to die.
"M'Lila, in fact, unwittingly played straight into Ares' despicable plans. And when she died in Xena's arms, her death unleashed forth Xena's darkness fully. Grand Master was shattered but decided against fighting Ares for Xena. Instead, she focused all her energies in training me and making sure that I would be ready to take over her at anytime. She was so tired.
"I never gave up on Xena. Even though I was still very young, I took note of Kay and was glad that she was so close to you. I knew she was also filled with darkness but hers is one that's born in her, not created by a God. She grew up in a stable and loving environment until Ares had Cortese attack her village.
"Grand Master was not impressed and fought Ares, defeating him with ease. He had to make Cortese 'retire' from the warlord business and was not allowed to interfere in Xena's life while Grand Master was still in the mortal realm.
"Grand Master wanted Xena to return to the light by herself. Grand Master never believed in openly interfering with anyone's life, I was angry. I got even angrier when I saw the way Ares interfered in Kay's life and that made me determined to protect Kay from the Gods. I saw her frequently and had the Shadow Warriors help her in her wars and to protect her at all times.
"Years later, as Grand Master's health got worse, it was decided that I had to take over from her as soon as possible. Grand Master transferred upon me, all her knowledge, power, skills and strength, making me the single most powerful new Master, the Shadow Warriors or any God had ever known. The usual practice had always been, the Master conferring upon her successor some of her knowledge, power, skills and strength and transferring the rest equally upon her chosen ones.
"I was given all of Grand Master's 'gifts' because of Grand Master's two favourite chosen ones, one was dead and the other was as good as dead to her. But, Grand Master had decided to leave Xena a final gift and that her gift to Xena would be her final chance at peace and change. Grand Master called on some favours from Zeus and Artemis, bringing Hercules and then Gabrielle into Xena's life and Xena's destiny was changed again, this time for the better.
"Ares' attention had been distracted because back in the Middle Kingdom, at almost the same time, Kay was captured. He tried to intervene but to no avail. I couldn't intervene because I was in the midst of my thousand-day solitude after which I would be acting as the new Master of the Shadow Warriors. It broke my heart but Athena and Artemis promised me to send Kay her lights until I could get back to her.
"They kept their word with Janis and Tarsi but I knew peace for Kay would not last until I was truly the Master. So I bided for time and waited for that right time to come. And that time is now. It's about time Kay had her peace. Just as Xena is having hers. And for as long as I'm alive, I will allow nothing to change either because unlike my Master, I have no qualms in proving that I mean business. Be it God or immortals or mortals.
'If that was the basic stuff, I'm not too sure if I want to know about the rest.' Xena thought to herself, trying her hardest to reconcile with knowing that her whole life was not what she had thought it had been.
"Trust me, Xena, you would want to know." Ling promised.
Everyone was so caught up with Ling's story that no one noticed that Theresa had led Melanis out of the hut, arms around one another. Ling smiled and turned towards them, "Welcome back, Melanis."
"Welcome to Portia. You must be tired..." Kay cheerfully welcomed her unexpected visitors as they entered the castle.
"We're fine. Thought we heard that there was going to be a war here. What happened?" the tall, blond man enquired.
"Yeah, what happened? We rushed all the way here because we wanted to offer our help, so much so that we never stopped for a proper meal!" his much shorter companion complained and got a rough elbow in his ribs for his trouble.
Kay laughed, "My sincere apologies to you, Iolaus and of course to you too, Hercules. Fan, please show our guests to their rooms and then immediately to the dining room. Can't have two hungry heroes now can we?"
Iolaus shook his head in total agreement and gingerly rubbed his ribs, 'I swear sometimes the big guy doesn't know his own strength!' Hercules cordially shook hands with Kay and followed Fan's lead, Iolaus following slightly behind.
Kay smiled, 'Bet Xena would be surprised!' she thought.
After numerous hugs and greetings with one another, Melanis was warmly greeted back into the land of the living. Ling and her two Shadow Warriors stood at the side, just watching with smiles on their faces. Artemis stood, quietly amused by the joyous scene, beside Ling.
Finally, Melanis turned to face Ling again, "Master Ling, thank you for bringing me back. I owe you..."
"You owe me nothing, Melanis." Ling raised her hand, "you were the one who wanted to come back. All I did was to point you to the direction, you made the decision to come back."
"I have to return soon, Raven." Artemis said quietly. Ling merely nodded, "We have to make a move soon anyway." "And, Raven, I'll pass your warning to the other gods." Artemis said before disappearing from the village.
"See that you do, 'Temis." Ling added softly. Ling then turned to face the crowd and said loudly, "We had better make a move. It'll be dark soon and I would like for us to be at least near the borders by nightfall."
That was the cue for Ephiny to take charge, "Eponin, Solari, which of you would like to accompany me?"
"She did what?" Maiandra was speechless as she walked with Geni to the state dining room for a dinner honoring the arrival of Hercules and Iolaus.
"C'mon, Mai. Her Majesty just went down to..." Geni was beginning to regret the fact that she had made the passing remark that Kay had personally greeted Hercules and Iolaus at the castle gates.
"Exactly! SHE personally went down to welcome NON-royal guests! That's not..." Maiandra sputtered with barely concealed irritation, she willed herself to calm down, "Geni, she's the queen of Portia now... she can't do things like that! It's beneath her royal status. It's not right, not right at all."
"Fine. I'll mention this to her Majesty later tonight. Just don't do anything or say anything to spoil her mood during dinner, okay?"
"Don't you worry, I won't. I like her too much to purposely aggravate her in anyway. Her Majesty deserves a good dinner... but the fact remains, she can't just go and welcome every guest who arrives that she likes and not for the rest during her coronations, that will not be tolerated by some of the royal guests whom will be coming. So unless she wants to personally greet ALL guests, she had better get into the habit of NOT greeting anyone at the castle gates. I do have her interests as well as the interests of the queendom at heart, Geni." Maiandra explained with a passion.
"I know you mean nothing but well for her Majesty, it's just... she'll have to get used to it, I guess. Just as we have to get use to a new ruler. One whom is so, so different from the previous. Give her time, she'll get the hang of it. Leave it to me, okay?" The two senior ministers stopped right in front of the ornate double doors.
Geni rested her right hand on the handle and looked into Maiandra's eyes, "Promise?" she asked solemnly.
"Promise." Maiandra swore without hesitation.
Geni smiled as she swung open the doors and stepped inside the dining room, closely followed by Maiandra. Kay, Hercules, Iolaus, Ming, Lesi were already seated at the royal table. Other ministers, junior ministers and the various remaining noblemen still left in Portia filled the rest of the surrounding tables.
Many of the noblemen actually looked rather shell-shocked. They hadn't expected to survive let alone with their titles and basically their estates virtually intact. And not to mention being invited to the first royal dinner of the new regime. It would have to take some getting used to. A few of them made quiet notes to themselves to distance from Stevanos' plans.
Maiandra had also been extremely surprised when Kay told, no, politely asked, her to invite the surviving (or those who did not manage to flee when the Shadow Warriors took over) noblemen of Portia. And to reassure them that they would not be harmed during dinner, that is, if they do not do anything silly. Or vaguely suicidal, like challenging her or pissing her off.
"You two are late. We're ALL waiting for you... what kept you, Geni?" Kay asked from her head seat at the royal table, a little playful twinkle in her eye. She had not felt this good, mentally and physically, since... well, not for a really long time anyway, maybe not since just before she had sent Janis and Tarsi away from the camp...
And then it struck her by complete surprise. She wasn't feeling her regular companion for many years now. One that Xena was also very familiar with. Their mutual good friend, deep-seated, deeply ingrained guilt. 'How?' she wondered to herself, then, 'Master...'
Kay felt remarkably well, considering the fact that she was tortured severely not more than a week ago and had her right eye torn out of her, she actually felt quite good. And why shouldn't she? Her all-powerful Master's not too faraway, Xena's heading back and she would be able to see her again some time tomorrow. Kay was so looking forward to seeing Xena again.
On top of all that, she's the ruler of a vast and rich kingdom, no what was the word that Maiandra had used? Oh yes, 'queendom'. HER queendom. One day, if Kay had her way... it would belong to the descendants of the Warrior Princess. Kay smiled then realised with a start that the whole room was looking oddly at her. Her eyes rested on Geni's concerned green.
"Your Majesty? Are you all right?" the chief minister asked, worriedly. Kay nodded, "Just thinking about something very pleasant for a change..." she grinned at Geni who looked greatly relieved. And then the dancers took to the stage as general merriment took centerstage.
"Xena, I think it's time for our talk." Ling addressed the Warrior Princess who was seated on a boulder, Gabrielle at her side and surrounded by Theresa, Melanis, Ping, Tami, Larissa, Gerias and the Amazons, Ephiny and Solari (Eponin had to stay behind to be in charge of the village).
The rest of the escort was deployed such that they surrounded the main campsite. They had already crossed into the new borders of Portia and met up with Tian, the General in-charge of borders. A fast runner had also been sent to inform the castle of the impending arrivals.
Xena looked up from her usual night time duty of sharpening her sword (most of the other warriors in the camp were also doing the same), 'Finally.' She thought to herself. Xena had tried, unsuccessfully, for the better part of the entire trip so far to pose her questions, Ling had always been able to avoid answering or avoid her in general. In truth, Xena was starting to get very impatient, "Okay." She replied simply, without a trace of emotion.
Gabrielle had also looked up from her scrolls, an unspoken question forming in her expressive green eyes. No, Xena communicated silently to her love, hopeful that Gabrielle would indeed stay where she was and not to follow them into the night. Gabrielle looked disappointed, then gave her warrior her best reassuring smile and a quick nod before turning back to her scrolls.
Xena then acknowledged the curious stares of the Amazons present with a slight nod and turned to follow the already departing form of the Master.
After both had disappeared from view, Gabrielle dropped her scrolls on the ground carelessly and sighed deeply.
Chin looked up from her sword sharpening activity and at the young co-Amazon queen kindly, "Master means no harm to Xena. Xena is, in fact, sort of a spiritual big sister to Master. It's not Master any of you should be worried about, it's the gods."
Gabrielle dropped her head onto her propped up hand while the rest in the camp stopped whatever they were doing and stared straight at Chin. Dan was still nonchalantly sharpening her sword while Chin carefully placed hers against a rock near her. She remained silent, waiting for Gabrielle to say something first.
Gabrielle did, "Why can't everyone just leave Xena alone!" she said, more than a little annoyed by the cryptical words that the Shadow Warriors are using.
"Grand Master did not bestow upon Xena all her gifts for nothing, Gabrielle. She was destined to help save the world. The Warrior Princess would have existed in a vastly different form if it wouldn't for Ares." Chin replied, calmly and patiently.
"What do you mean by Xena is like Master Ling's spiritual big sister?" Melanis had picked up on this statement and asked from her propped up position within Theresa's warm embrace.
"Yeah, just what do you mean by that?" Gabrielle asked, catching onto Chin's words at last.
Chin just smiled, "Those were Master's own words, not mine. And I don't question Master. We've ALL learnt not to question Master at all, at any time. Master never says anything without thinking it over in her mind."
"Do you really wish to be rid of Ares' influence in your heart and your inner soul?" Ling asked Xena the moment Xena stepped into the small and secluded clearing that she had chosen for this very purpose.
"Of course... and I take it, you know how I can do that." Xena replied at once.
"Where there is a will, there is always a way... but one would have to sacrifice one thing in order to achieve or get another. What are you prepared to give up, Xena?"
"My life, if that is what it takes. Just promise me that you'll keep Gabrielle safe and I'll do anything I have to do."
Ling chuckled, "Let's not be so hasty... I can easily defeat Ares. And destroy him for you, but somehow, I don't think that's going to sit very well with the rest of the Gods and them Gods, they still have their uses. There will come a time where they won't be needed, but until then, I can't destroy ALL of the Gods. No matter how much I want to. So, Xena, I'm going to train you instead. I'm going to teach you how to defeat Ares. And when you do defeat Ares, I'll be there to make sure that he leaves you and Gabrielle alone for the rest of your mortal lives."
"You'll train me?" Xena wanted to be sure.
"Yes, and I can't think of a better training ground than that of Portia, can you?"
"Kay is my protected. You're, on the other hand, one of my master's chosen, which kinda makes you one of my chosen, if only by default. There's a difference, you know." Ling looked into Xena's eyes, shining bright with hope and just a slight trace of fear.
"No one will die, Xena. I can promise you that. Not Gabrielle and most definitely not you. I won't allow Hades to get either of you." Ling said softly and instantly saw the fear disappear from Xena's most expressive feature. Her own eyes softened, 'Oh, Xena... how alike you and my love look...' as Ling allowed painful memories of her lost love flood her briefly. 'The same face and features... the same blue eyes.'
Ling shrugged off those wayward thoughts - thoughts that her Master had told her she had to be rid off to be the greatest living warrior in the world. She had often wondered if it was all worth it. She knew deep within her that she would have been very happy living with her love at that peaceful village. And not have to deal with the troublesome Gods on such a regular basis. But for her damned destiny.
The slight change in Ling's eyes did not go unnoticed by Xena's sharp gaze. "I am human, Xena. I do have human emotions, like love, just like everyone else. Did you think that I was a Goddess or something? But then again, even some Gods need love..." Ling asked, trace of a faint smile tugging at her lips.
Xena was rattled, "I forgot you know what I was thinking about," she said a little sheepishly, more and more intrigued by this Master. Could she really help her get rid of Ares' constant interference?
"Although I am completely human, my skills are so developed that I can read or see into anyone's mind, even the Gods. I can also defeat the Gods in battle and many of them do realise that." Ling replied, rather calmly.
Xena nodded, "That explains some things..." she trailed off.
"Like?" even though Ling knew what Xena had wanted to say, she still wanted Xena to say it out loud. Sometimes speaking aloud can be good for any warrior.
"Artemis... how you knew she was listening in back at the village."
"True, I sensed a God. I wasn't quite sure which one it was. I mean, Artemis and Athena are quite similar. Hera, Ares, I know for sure... my senses are very attuned to their presence. It was just an educated guess that Artemis would be watching over her chosen Amazon Nation and her chosen queens." Ling explained.
"Of course, the most obvious choice." Xena said, seeing the logic behind Ling's deduction. She looked down at the ground, a little awkward and more than a little uncomfortable, she's got so many things to ask and now that she's got the chance to ask, she wasn't sure what she should and could ask Ling about. So many things that had happened in her life...
"Anything and everything you want to know, Xena, I'll try my best to answer them." Ling looked straight into Xena's eyes and said.
Xena nodded, "Why was I chosen? Or I should say, how was I chosen?" she asked.
"Your maternal great-grandmother was one of the first Shadow Warriors of the Western Realm. Tali did great service for the Shadow Warriors. So when she wanted to withdraw from the fighting circle, her Master gave her full blessings with the understanding that her descendants would always be fondly looked upon by the succeeding Masters. Your family has been in our attentions ever since. Even your own mother was considered, I don't know why she wasn't picked, all I know is that my Master chose you." Ling explained.
"What happened then? With Ares, I mean." Xena asked.
"Your abilities drew Ares to you like a bee to honey. Grand Master was so confident that you would be able to resist the attractions of Ares, that she adopted a 'wait-and-see' attitude. Unfortunately, she was proven wrong and Grand Master hated to be wrong. So she just let it be. She also detested ANY sort of contact with Mt Olympus and hated to interfere in the lives of any of her chosen ones. Except that of mine, of course, as her chosen successor." Ling said flatly but the last statement was said with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice.
"How did she interfere in your life?" Xena asked, she was oddly curious.
Ling replied ruefully, "I, like so many other mortals, Xena, fell in love. She's an Amazon warrior by birth with eyes as blue as yours. Grand Master forbid that love, she said that love would only make me weak. She's so wrong, Xena, so wrong. Because love can be a warrior's greatest strength, do you know what I mean by that?"
"Yeah, it can give you a reason to live, a reason to fight even when the odds are against you. It makes you want to live longer and that can be a very useful form of encouragement." Xena agreed whole-heartedly. Ever since falling in love with Gabrielle, she has found herself being more careful and less reckless whenever she fought. She had a strong motivating factor in not dying - her promise to Gabrielle.
"Yes, then you do know how it feels. It makes you more cautious, knowing that there is someone waiting for you. It is the greatest weapon any warrior can arm oneself with. Not so for the Grand Master. To her, it is the greatest weakness for any warrior to have. She despised the very notion of love. Grand Master threatened to destroy the whole City of Amazons unless I steeled my heart and never returned. If I ever stepped into the City of Amazons again, everything and everybody would be destroyed. That hurt. A lot."
"I can imagine." Xena added softly.
"I left immediately, I would much rather that she be alive hating me than die, loving me." Ling sighed deeply at the love lost forever.
"City of Amazons?" Xena asked.
Ling laughed, "And I thought this was supposed to be about you, Xena." she raised her hand to stop Xena's forthcoming apology, "No, Xena. It's okay. This is kind of cathartic for me too. Purging my soul to someone whom, I believe, understands what it is like to be a stoic warrior with seemingly no feelings."
She took a deep breath before continuing, "There are two major tribes of Amazon blood, one loyal to Artemis, led by Ephiny and at times by Gabrielle, this one's called the Amazon Nation. The other worships Hera and they are the Amazons from the City of Amazons, led by Queen Hippolytna. Enough of me though, I'm sure you have more questions you would like answered?"
"Gabrielle..." Xena said hesitantly, unable to continue. Words were never the warrior's strongest skill.
Ling smiled encouragingly, she had of course read Xena's mind for the unfinished question, "Yes, Xena. Gabrielle and you have always been destined to be together. The two of you were meant to be for each other. One way or the other. Interference by gods or otherwise. It has always been fated to be so. But the two of you would have met only after Gabrielle had become the Amazon Princess. And Melosa would still be alive right now. Well, Artemis did not, no, she could not step in and well... THIS is what we all have to live with now."
"All because of Ares." Xena was practically hissing.
"Well, truth be told, not just because of Ares' obsession with you. But he is a major factor in your life so far and the only way to force Ares out of the rest of your life is by defeating him, one on one, in a fair and straight fight. Place your trust in me, Xena and I'll help you be rid of him, for good." Ling exerted.
Xena could only nod in agreement, "How about Kay? Why did Ares interfere in Kay's life?" she asked soberly.
"Ares decided that you needed a... a 'sidekick'. Kay fitted the bill and besides, she's sort of family to Ares."
"Family?" Xena felt a shock running through her.
"Yes, she's daughter to one of Hera's many half-mortal sons. Technically that makes Kay Ares' niece. When she was conceived, Hera decided that she should be the new Goddess of War instead of Athena, hence Hera 'gave' Kay special abilities and a dark side. Zeus found out but he could only remove one of Hera's 'gifts' to Kay, he chose to remove her special abilities and make her totally mortal, therefore he could not remove her dark side. Zeus took Kay away from her natural parents and had her brought up by two other children of Gods."
Ling sighed and continued, "This arrangement worked very well and Kay was brought up in a stable, kind, loving environment and then, Ares found her and basically had Cortese attack Kay's village in an effort to turn her to the dark side as he successfully did for you. And for a while he did succeed, but Zeus did not take this lying down, he gave Kay a conscience and a sense of guilt. Slowly that worked and Kay could not take it any longer and left you. Ares was furious but there was nothing he could do, especially when Zeus sent one of his priestesses to Kay to try and 'guide' Kay back to the right side."
"Nantra." Xena said simply, 'So Kay is Zeus' chosen. That explains some things.' She thought.
"Yes, Nantra. But Ares had another trick up his sleeve and he played it to perfection. Damsel in need of a warrior's help, Kay jumped in and soon headed the strongest army the world has ever seen or will ever see. Their strength was not just in their sheer numbers but more to their blind loyalty to first, their King and then later to their Grand Marshal.
"Kay was swallowed in and revelled in the giddiness of it all. That was when I first made my entrance, the Shadow Warriors helped her in many a war, especially when she was in danger of losing. As long as she won, she was never overtly bloody but if she had ever lost... I think the damage she would have been forced to inflict would have been so much greater."
"That was when you decided to make her your 'protected'?" Xena asked, intrigued.
"It became a battle between me and Ares and I won because I could and I did appear to Kay and befriended her. Ares could not because he knew that Kay hates him for all that he did to you. So I claimed Kay to be my protected and that claim was supported by both Grand Master as well as Zeus himself. Ares could not win, so he tried another tactic. He planted the seeds of betrayal on Kay's trusted lieutenants and he chose the time when Grand Master was transferring her position to me to set the plan in motion."
"That was also the time when I decided to be rid of Hercules." Xena noted, remembering Ling's earlier brief explanation at the Amazon village.
"Yes, Ares had no idea about the deal struck between Grand Master and Zeus in allowing Hercules and yourself to meet in battle, even though they both knew the risks involved." Ling paused thoughtfully, "Xena, you know that day when you challenged Hercules in the plains just after you lost your army..."
"Yes, I remember. How can I ever forget? I almost succeeded in defeating Hercules." Xena said slowly.
"You could have defeated Hercules, still can, by the way. So what if Hercules is a demi-god? You could have killed him, but you didn't, you allowed yourself to be distracted. Hercules was lucky, very lucky, if Ares had been watching over you like he almost always did whenever you fought, Hercules would have been defeated."
"But then there would have been no turning back for me..."
"No, that's not true. Because there would still have been Gabrielle. Don't you see Xena? Gabrielle is the key, not Hercules. Hercules was just so that you would lose your army."
"Do you mean to say that Hercules was a dispensable part in the whole plan?" Xena demanded.
"No, Hades would never have been allowed, either by Grand Master or by Zeus himself, to let Hercules die. All I'm saying is that Hercules would have been defeated, who said anything about him dying?"
"What was Ares doing when all this was happening?"
"Well, he was busy in the Middle Kingdom, watching his small plan turn into something that he could no longer control and it resulted in Kay's arrest and imprisonment."
"But Ares brought Darphus back from the dead."
"Yes, that was because he found out that he wasn't allowed to interfere in Kay's affairs anymore, and since he was ordered by none other than Hera herself, he had to obey. So he came back only to see that you've turned your back against him and had allied yourself with Hercules and so in a fit of pure anger, he brought Darphus back and 'gifted' Darphus with invincibility and his pet." Ling chuckled.
"That dog was something else." Xena said, remembering back to those hazy days that seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Sure was and that was your first test and you past it with flying colours. Grand Master was so proud that you were finally able to turn back that she passed over feeling more at peace with herself than she would have thought possible."
Ling paused thoughtfully, regarding the silent warrior standing in front of her, she made a decision, "Xena, sit down, lotus position, back facing me. I'm going to unblock a few of your points and unleash some of your inner powers."
Xena did as she was told with just the slightest hint of apprehension, there was still so much she needed and wanted to know about this whole affair. Ling eased herself in position and readied her fingers.
"Xena, in terms of sword skills, other than certain Shadow Warriors and Warriors, you're second to none. Not even Ares can defeat you, but he has an edge that his godhood gives him. I'm about to shorten that edge by unblocking several of your acute pressure points. You are going to feel a tremendous energy surge. Don't resist it, don't fight it, instead I want you to embrace it. Do you understand?" Ling wanted to be absolutely sure before she went this irrevocable step.
Xena nodded her understanding and mentally readied herself for the unknown. But five quick jabs to her back by Kay later, Xena almost regretted her decision. Xena felt fire burning within her, she tried to control herself but could not, her entire body lurched forward and she gave a feral scream as energy poured through every fiber of her very being.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted in alarm as the unearthly scream found its way back to the uneasy campsite. She stood up in a frantic as did practically everyone else round the campsite. Gabrielle started to move towards the direction Ling and her beloved had gone. 'How dare you hurt Xena?!' Gabrielle fumed inwardly.
"No, Gabrielle. Please, they cannot be disturbed." Chin grabbed hold of Gabrielle and held her in place. Solari was at Gabrielle's side in a heartbeat, her newly sharpened sword drawn.
"Let me go." Gabrielle said calmly, she felt safe in the knowledge that the Amazons present would be able to protect her against any threat to her well being.
"I am so sorry, Gabrielle. I am so sorry, Amazon Warrior, but I cannot allow you to leave this campsite. Master would be angry and trust me, you wouldn't want the greatest living warrior who frightens even the Gods themselves angry at you." Chin tried her best to convince Gabrielle and her small band of Amazons not to proceed with what she was sure would be a mistake that they were willing to take.
"Gabrielle, Solari, take a step back would you? I don't believe Master Ling would do anything to hurt Xena." Ephiny stood by Gabrielle and gently led Gabrielle back to sit beside her. Theresa nodded in agreement as she and her deputies followed suit and settle back to wait for the reappearance of Master Ling and more importantly, Xena.
Gabrielle glanced towards where Xena had went earlier, willing her warrior to step back into the clearing and reassure her that all is well.
"Master is giving Xena the ability to defeat Ares." Dan said, looking into Gabrielle's now widely opened emerald eyes, "I would think that Master has just unblocked or should I say, unleashed, some of Xena's inner reserves. Her powers should increase by about five to eight folds if I'm not mistaken. Whatever Master is going to teach Xena later will now be absorbed even easier now by Xena. Don't worry. I've just been through that process myself... it hurts like Hades but the results are truly incredible."
"I, on the other hand, have yet to go through that process. I will when I reach grade 10. I'm only at grade 8 at the moment. I guess Master thinks Xena is ready for this..." Chin added.
"Guess so... it's just so... it's indescribable... I don't know how to..." Dan started and faltered.
"Dan, I only unblocked 3 of your points," the entire camp collectively snapped their heads and attentions round to face the speaker, only now slowly emerging from the bushes, "I've unblocked 5 of Xena's." Xena had her arm around Ling's shoulders, Ling was supporting most of Xena's weight. Gabrielle sprang up to hold Xena's other side.
Together they slowly lowered Xena on the ground and Gabrielle settled herself beside Xena, looking extremely worried. She had never seen Xena looking so haggard and weak. Xena's blues eyes were confused, slightly glazed and in a perpetual haze but she did her best to look into Gabrielle's eyes to reassure her that all is well. She thinks.
Ling knelt down behind Xena and before anyone could say anything, she hit several more of Xena's points and Xena involuntarily lurched forward. "What are you trying to do to Xena?" Gabrielle shouted, she hated to see Xena in obvious pain.
"It's all right, love. I'm okay." Xena whispered hoarsely, she lifted her tired hand to behind her love's neck, gently rubbing Gabrielle's tender spot there. Gabrielle leaned into Xena's touch and placed her own hand on Xena's sweaty but still beautiful face and her eyes started to brim with unshed tears.
"Rest up, Xena. Your training will start tomorrow. Allow yourself to sleep thoroughly tonight. Chin, Dan and myself will look out for you and your Gabrielle." Ling instructed from her position behind Xena.
Xena simply nodded and lowered her head tiredly into Gabrielle lap, falling asleep almost immediately. Gabrielle gently stroked Xena's hair, craving for any kind of contact with her love. She whispered, "Will she really be able to defeat Ares?"
"Don't you think she can, Gabrielle?" Ling asked as she sat down from her kneeling position.
"Of course I do... its just Ares is a God. How can a mortal defeat a God? Even if that mortal is Xena? I don't want her getting hurt, Master Ling. I love her too much." Gabrielle had a touch of pleading in her tone as she looked at Ling.
"I would NEVER allow Ares to hurt Xena again. In ANY way, physically or mentally, which also means, I won't let him hurt you either. Trust me, Gabrielle." Ling reached out and placed a reassuring hand gently on Gabrielle's shoulder to emphasize her point.
"Why are you doing this? Xena is not your chosen, why can't anyone just leave her alone?" Gabrielle shrugged Ling's hand off.
"She is my chosen now, Gabrielle. But that is not the only reason..." Ling said quietly, "In order to gain, one must feel pain and that unfortunately that is what Xena is feeling right now. But that is only temporary, tomorrow is another day and Xena will be fine. The points that I've unblocked at the end will help her relax her muscles and she will be as good, no even better tomorrow then she was today. Her inner powers would have been greatly increased."
"By how much?" Ephiny asked quietly, curious and amazed. Xena was already so powerful, she cannot imagine Xena's powers increasing even more.
"Around 12 to 15 folds." Ling smiled and stood up, "Of course Xena will have to slowly learn how to harness all of her newly released powers. It would be hard but the results at the end would be well worth all the sweat and pain."
"That much?" Gabrielle was stunned and more than a little astonished, "How can Xena's body..." the question trailed off as Gabrielle glanced down at the peacefully resting face of Xena's.
"Grand Master unblocked 20 of my points in one day and then 15 the very next. And what's more, I was only 17 at that time. I survived. So I think Xena will be able to handle this just fine." Ling shrugged.
At that moment, every non-Shadow Warrior in the camp realised fully just how powerful Master Ling is. They were all glad that she seemed to be on their side.
"And besides," Ling added, her voice losing its sharp edge and softening, "Xena looks almost like the woman who owns my heart. And if I can't protect my love personally, then I would never allow anyone to harm someone who looks so much like L..." Ling trailed off wistfully and stared into the night.
"Um... you have... err, a love?" Gabrielle coughed and stammered out. Then immediately she looked down on her love's sleeping face and felt her own turning red.
Ling threw her head back and laughed whole-heartedly, Xena never even stirred from her sleep. Gabrielle's face turned even redder. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle but... I AM still a human being. Very different, but still all mortal. I eat, I sleep, I will pass over and I fall in love. Just like everyone else here in this camp and everywhere else. Is that so hard to believe? Why does everyone just assume that I'm cold and have no feelings?"
She sobered up, "I've made decisions and I've had to make painful sacrifices, Gabrielle. Sacrifices because I had to, not because I want to. Love IS a warrior's greatest strength, Gabrielle. Always remind Xena and yourself of that. Love does conquer all, except your master that is."
She laughed humorlessly, "Things are going to get a little rough but you should never lose sight of this basic fact, Xena loves you and you love Xena. The love the two of you have is special and unique and it is the most powerful weapon, something that neither Ares nor even Hera can destroy. Remember that, always."
Ling turned to look at the rest of the couples in the camp, making eye contact with each one as she speaks, "The same goes for all of you, Theresa, Melanis, Ping and Tami. The four of you have had your love so severely tested but you all came through and the experience will only serve to strengthen your already unbreakable bonds. Being together, whole and healthy again, was the smallest thing that I could do for you. Gerias, Larissa, your love is new, treasure it always and it will serve you well for life. Solari, take the chance and bond with Eponin, you won't regret it and you would make your Goddess very happy."
Finally, Ling turned her attention to the other Amazon queen, sitting quietly, the odd one out, "Ephiny, soon, it will be your turn. You will find your other half again. Your Goddess would never allow one of her chosen to spend the rest of her life alone, but you must open your heart and mind to the very notion of love and you'll see it soon enough..." Ling snapped her head back, "And it begins so soon..." She mumbled, "can't even let Xena rest for the night, can you? All right then, you asked for it."
"Who is it?" Gabrielle asked, worried.
"Ares." Dan hissed through her teeth, there was no love lost between the God of War and any of the Shadow Warriors. "He's got company..." Dan said, matter-of-factly.
"Yes, three in fact. Can you tell who, Dan?" Ling questioned her fourth most skilled Shadow Warrior.
"Strife, Discord and another, one I've never felt before..."
"Markings of a recent god, Dan."
"Callisto." Gabrielle offered.
"Very good guess, Gabrielle." Ling smiled at Gabrielle and then sighed when her eyes caught sight of the still pleasantly sleeping Xena. "I would have to wake Xena up, she should not miss this." She said, a little regretfully as she knelt down beside Xena, she placed a hand on Xena's head and gently said, "I need you to wake up, Xena. We've got visitors to greet."
Xena stirred and slowly creaked her eyes open, Gabrielle helped her up. Xena shook her head to clear it and focused on a pair of extremely beautiful and concerned green eyes. She smiled and got a wide smile back, "Hey."
"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle hugged her love tightly. Ling cleared her throat, "Sorry, I hate to seem unfeeling and break this up but, um, I didn't wake you up for this. Plenty of time for that when all this is done..."
The lovers broke their hug reluctantly and stood up with the rest of the camp. "No, no, everyone, relax. Sit back down and Xena, let me handle this. You just nod your head or play along with me at the right times, okay? Let someone else handle your problems for once. Promise?"
"Promise." Xena said, arms entangled with Gabrielle's reassuring ones, settling down comfortably on the ground, "make him squirm." She added.
Ling laughed, "I make it a point to do that every time I see him because the very sight of him pisses me off." The by-now very interested camp seated themselves on the ground and awaited the next move by Master Ling, also eager to see Ares 'squirm'.
Ling looked round the campsite, "Ready?" everyone nodded their heads. Ling took a deep breath and shouted, "Ares, no need to sneak around, that's so... so..." Ling looked at Gabrielle.
"Unseeming?" Gabrielle offered.
"Hmm, okay, unseeming for a God of your caliber. Now, as for your companions, or should I say, your proteges, I can understand why they feel the need to hide around, but you..." Ling trailed off after a bright puff of light appeared in the campsite and the four Gods appeared. Ares, his nephew Strife and Discord and Callisto.
Ares looked insulted, he could never understand how Master Ling could have known that he was around, "My sister was kind enough to deliver a message..."
"Then you do know that I said NO Gods anywhere near Portia..." Ling started.
"During the two coronations. Now, in case you haven't noticed, isn't coronation time." Callisto chirped in, making eye contact with Xena. Xena returned the stare unflinchingly. Finally, Callisto had to break eye contact when Ling appeared right in front of her and forcibly lifted her head up to face her.
"I don't like any one interrupting me, Gods or otherwise." She let Callisto go and turned towards an increasingly uncomfortable looking Ares, "I'm surprised at you Ares, I would've thought that you would warn your proteges whom they are coming up against. I must say, I'm very surprised." Ling stretched out one hand towards Ares' direction and in a flash Ares found his sword and symbol of godhood gone from its sheath and in Ling's hands.
Strife, Discord, Callisto and the others in the camp, including Xena and Gabrielle were stunned. The only one who did not seem surprised at all was Ares. Ling twirled the sword round and flipped it casually to Xena. Xena looked at Ling in utter surprise but caught sight of a playful twinkle in Ling's dark eyes, she acknowledged and stood up with the sword. Twirling it round, "Not too bad..." Xena commented lazily.
Ling's eyes sparkled, glad that Xena had caught her drift so quickly, "Yeah, not as good as mine but okay, I guess. Better than yours that's for sure. Oh that reminds me, I've got to tell Hephtasus to make you a new sword."
"New sword? What's wrong with my sword... or this one?" Xena asked, faking hurt, but secretly excited that Ling wanted to give her a new sword forged by the God of Forge himself.
"You need a sword that befits your new position, Xena. You are now my chosen and the acknowledged chosen of any Shadow Warrior Master should carry a sword that is custom made for her and her alone to use. This... thing you're so expertly twirling right now is not right for you. Too long, too heavy... both in weight and responsibilities."
"You said it..." as Xena tossed the symbol of Ares' godhood back to Ling who caught it deftly.
"I think you've made your point, Raven." Ares said, too used to having his sword taken away by Ling by now.
Ling was at Ares' face in a flash, "I have never allowed you to call me that. I only let my friends call me Raven and you are not my friend. I don't like you and I won't pretend to like you any more than you can pretend to like me. Here's your precious sword, Ares. If you don't have anything to say, then leave now. While I'm still in a good mood not to throw you around."
"It's not your choice to make that Kay not choose a God for her reign." Ares seethed underneath, but keeping his temper in check, he knew he was no match for Ling. Not even close.
"Kay is a protected of..." Ling started.
"That's right, she's just your protected..." Callisto attempted to cut Ling off again.
"I said, don't interrupt me again!" Ling shouted as she raised one hand and slammed Callisto to a tree a distance away. Discord then foolishly decided to have a go at 'zapping' Ling but with a flick of her hand, Ling had the shot turned back and hit Discord squarely on her chest, throwing her back several metres, groaning in pain that she never thought she would feel again.
Ling was now furious, "FOOLS! Don't you know you can't touch me?"
"No, but I'm sure I can touch HER..." Strife said quietly, sneaking up on Xena while everyone was watching Ling in action. Strife struck Xena on her back savagely.
Xena fell to her knees, more in surprise than hurt for she hadn't paid attention to Strife's approach. She snapped her head up, blue eyes flashing in anger.
Xena got to her feet quickly and Strife threw another blow aimed at her, but this time Xena was prepared and withstood the blow, shrugging it off. Strife was stunned and he quickly turned his attentions to the Amazon queen standing beside her love but he found his hand held by Xena in a death grip.
"No." Xena said simply. Xena was as surprised as Strife that his hits did not affect her as much as they should. She figured it must be what Ling had done to her earlier, but she was sure Gabrielle wouldn't be able to withstand any hits that Strife might attempt to hit her love with.
Ling swung her head back towards Xena and Strife, she was boiling mad now, "How dare you?" she shouted. "How dare you puny little God touch my chosen one? You'll pay for this!" Ling lifted her right hand and Strife found himself doubling in pain, he would have collapsed but Xena still held his hand tightly in her grasp. Xena released him and he fell over, feeling pain like he never felt before.
"Everyone, stand back." Ling warned and immediately everyone, except the Shadow Warriors, backed up, they had never seen Ling so angry or so powerful before. Theresa, Ping, Gerias and Larissa had seen her in action, but she was dealing with mere mortals then, these were gods and still Ling was handling them like they were nothing more than rag dolls.
Xena quickly placed herself in front of Gabrielle instinctively and protectively, but Gabrielle was too curious to stay totally behind Xena. And besides, though she knew that she should be worried, she wasn't. Not at all. In fact, she felt very safe and protected.
Meanwhile, Ares could do nothing but watch it all unfold right in front of him. He knew to intervene now would mean even more punishment meted out, only this time to him. He had taken care to warn the three younger gods not to do anything rash, but just like them to defy him and ignore his warnings. He hoped that now they would believe his words.
Ling towered over the quivering Strife, she raised her hand, ready to struck a blow when she snapped her head up, "Hera! I want to talk to you NOW!" The air surrounding them immediately fogged up. "You know I want to talk to you in your human form. I DON'T talk to fogs or eyes!" And the fog immediately cleared, leaving behind a woman with a sharp face, dark hair and peacock blue eyes.
"Forgive my young and ignorant grandson, Master Ling." Hera said. Ling remained silent, "Please?" Even Ares was shocked, he had never heard his mother using that word ever. Silence. "I'll make sure he is properly punished and will remain out of your sight. Destroying his godhood will serve you no purpose, Ling." Ling stayed silent, still glaring at Strife.
Hera took a chance and stepped closer towards Ling, "Raven, we were all young once. We all need time to learn and I'm sure Strife has learnt a valuable lesson here and so have Discord and Callisto." She placed a tentative hand on Ling's shoulders and found her hand caught in a savage grip by Ling.
"He struck her." Ling growled, "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't destroy him."
"He didn't know. Like the Chinese say, those who are not aware should not be found guilty. He didn't know how much Xena resembles..." Hera said, trying not to grimace.
"My love. My heart." Ling said, letting go of Hera's hand roughly, turning slowly and facing Xena, an unspoken question in her eyes. Xena gave her an understanding look, "I'm okay."
"You're very lucky, Strife. Xena isn't hurt, but if she were..." Ling turned to a tree nearby and with a flick of her hand the tree was ripped out of the ground and went flying through the sky and exploding with a bang, "that would have been you."
Ling willed herself to calm down, 'that was too close for comfort.' She thought to herself and made a decision. "Hera, I want you to recognise Xena as my chosen. I'm sure Zeus will have no objections."
"Xena's MY chosen!" Ares shouted, forgetting for a moment who he was shouting at.
Ling smiled wickedly, "Ares, I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to your mother. You owe me one, Hera. You know I rarely listen to any god. In fact, I've always taken great pleasure in making things uncomfortable for you all and now, I've not destroyed Strife because you asked me so nicely not to and... I do expect something in return."
"I have no objections either." Hera raised her hand to stop Ares' protests, "Xena has always been a chosen of the Shadow Warriors, not Ares. But I can't help but feel that there would be a better way to end Ares' obsession with the Warrior Princess..."
"Are you suggesting a duel, Hera?" Ling raised an eyebrow in mock surprise.
"Well..." Hera trailed off, not wanting to be the one to say it.
"I challenge you!" Ares stepped forward.
Ling yawned, "I'll defeat you with one single flick of my little pinkie," Ling replied, unimpressed, "but I do have a suggestion, why don't you and Xena fight? You lose and you'll leave Xena and Gabrielle alone for the rest of their mortal lives."
"What if she loses?" Ares sneered, his swagger returning together with his confidence.
"Oh, then I guess she would not be worthy to be my chosen and, well, I won't ever stop you from trying to get her back." Ling yawned again, giving the impression that she was bored, "But until the day of the duel, no sneaking around, no tricks, no interference."
"No interference during the duel as well." Ares countered.
"Well said, Ares. No interference from any God, immortal or mortal. Or Shadow Warrior." Ling added the last after a slight pause.
"Agreed. When and where will the fight take place?" Ares asked.
"The day after the second coronation of Kay. In the clearing facing the castle."
"I'll be there. See you then, Xena. It would be so good to have you back, I've got big plans for us..." Ares laughed as he disappeared, taking the whimpering Strife with him. Hera turned to leave, after collecting the still slumped forms of Discord and Callisto.
"Leave Callisto here. I want to talk to her. Take Discord, I don't want to have anything to do with her."
Hera simply nodded and disappeared with Discord, leaving Callisto behind as requested by Ling. Ling looked at Callisto, her eyes turned sad. She looked up at Xena and Xena looked shamefully away, thinking that Ling placed the blame of what Callisto had become on her. Like she herself did.
"No, Xena." Ling said gently, "You're not to blame for Callisto or for Cirra." She sighed, "Indirectly, Kay was responsible. But the one who blew the wind that spread the flames into an uncontrollable inferno was Ares. He is the one who is responsible for the deaths of Callisto's family, but Callisto is the one who is responsible for Callisto. She chose death and destruction, like you. But unlike you, she... chose not to turn back. And like you, she too was a chosen of Grand Master."
Ling twisted her hand a little and shining ropes wound themselves around Callisto, "Now, it's up to her. I'm now responsible for her... I'll destroy her if I have to." She paused, "It's getting late, everyone had better rest. Long day tomorrow and for those vaguely interested, I will be starting Xena's training immediately. No time to lose and for those interested, I would let you know when you may seat in and pick up some tricks. But be prepared for a lot of hard work and pain. Lots of it."
She turned round and saw the many eager faces looking at her back, she smiled, "I can't guarantee that all of you would benefit the way Xena would, but picking up some pointers wouldn't hurt. I'll be up and around, so all of you rest up."
"The dinner went well..." Kay started as she and Geni made their way to her rooms.
"Yes, it did. Too bad Gerias was not around, or she would have been able to provide additional entertainment for everyone. Not that Iolaus wasn't good." Geni added.
"Did she manage to tell you all stories about us? I wouldn't have thought that she had the time..." Kay smiled at Geni fondly.
"Oh yes, Gerias will always have time for stories about Ki..." Geni stopped abruptly, unsure if the queen would be angry about mentions of her alter-ego. Her concerns grew when she noticed that Kay had freezed in her tracks and her smile had all but disappeared. "I'm sorry, your Majesty..." Geni started to apologise.
Kay raised her hand and stopped Geni, "Geni, it's okay. I really shouldn't look upon those days as all bad. We did a whole lot of good, just the last bit of that life was really hard to swallow. But I guess, Gerias would know better than repeat the horror stories to everyone."
They had reached the double doors to Kay's royal suites. The guards saluted Kay as she turned back towards Geni who was standing at the side. She hesitated for a while then spoke up, "Geni? Um, thanks for letting me know about Maiandra. And, err, I guess I'll see you tomorrow at the meeting?"
"Yes, your Majesty. Good night, your Majesty." Geni answered formally in front of the guards.
"Yes. Thank you. Same to you, Geni." For once Kay wanted the guards some place else rather than here. The guards swung open and held open the doors for the queen and closed as she entered. Geni stared at the door for a while longer before walking away slowly.
Kay removed her cape and flung it away. She was alone for the first time, without anyone hovering around her at all, though there was no doubt in her mind that there were several Shadow Warriors hidden in her rooms, protecting her. 'Like always.' Kay mused. She thought back to the time when she first met the then future Master of the Shadow Warriors, Ling.
It had been another easy victory for her all-conquering army. As she stood at the battlements on the castle of Ming, she wondered idly what rewards the King would be bestowing upon her for this handsome victory. As in all her other victories, civilian casualties were kept at a bare minimum, so was the damage done to the houses and shops in the city.
She never saw the purpose of burning and besides, she had always had something against the methods of the other generals in Qing. She never had to resort to their pathetic tactics to prove her point and to ensure the complete loyalty of those captured.
And as always there were some amongst her ranks who had defied her orders of no harming women and children. She had personally caught 2 of her sergeants leading their men into having their way with a group of women and children in the nearby land owned by the Great One. She personally made sure those animals were treated as such.
Now a black-clad warrior woman paid her a visit, quietly thanking her for saving her mother. The warrior woman vowed to 'protect' her for all eternity in repayment for the lives of her family. She never found out the name of that family, but she did find out the name of the mysterious warrior woman, "My name is Ling. I am a Shadow Warrior. You are now a protected of mine." Of course later, she found out more about the Shadow Warriors and more about Ling herself.
Kay closed her eye as she laid down on her soft bed and smiled at the memory. 'Master Ling... I owe you more than I could ever hope to repay. For my entire career in Qing, saving your mother was the most blessed thing I've ever done.'
"Protected?" Wei had to reluctantly awaken Kay up the next morning. She looked up and saw that her fellow Shadow Warriors had already drawn a bath and new clothes for the queen, their Master's protected.
Kay stirred and slowly came to her senses, opening her eye to see the welcome faces of the four Shadow Warriors acting as her 'servants'. She raised herself off the all too comfortable bed, "Good morning, Wei, Fang, Fen and Xiang. And all the others in here." She raised her voice a little.
The Shadow Warriors out in the open smothered their grins. "Protected, your bath's ready." Kay nodded and headed in the general direction of her bath.
Xena stirred open her eyes as the rising sun's rays fell upon her body. She closed her eyes back instinctively before opening them, a little more cautiously again. The smell of breakfast cooking reawaked her senses almost instantaneously. She rose slowly from her bedroll, careful not to jar awake the still peacefully slumbering Gabrielle.
Dan and Chin were stirring a pot of soup and Xena did not see Ling anywhere around. "Good morning, Xena." Dan said, without having to look up from her task. Chin though, gave Xena a smile and a nod, "Master is by the stream," and she pointed the direction to Xena, "she said you were to join her as soon as you were awake."
Xena nodded and looked back at her love. "Don't worry. We're under specific orders to see that you're not hurt. In ANY way. Physically or mentally. Better go, don't keep Master waiting for too long." Dan assured Xena matter-of-factly.
Xena took a deep breath and stood up, stretching her muscles, she allowed herself one last lingering look at Gabrielle before going to the direction Chin had pointed out to her. Walking briskly and limbering up along the way to the stream, it wasn't too long before she reached her destination.
And what she saw stunned her. Ling was seated, in a lotus position. It wasn't that that surprised Xena but the fact that Ling was in the middle of the stream. Ling was seated on water.
Ling snapped open her eyes and smiled at Xena, she rose from her position gracefully and WALKED to the shore. Xena's mouth dropped open in astonishment. "Wow." She finally managed, 'I HAVE to learn that trick' Xena thought to herself.
"That's quite a compliment from you, Xena." Ling's eyes twinkled in amusement. "One day, you just might be able to do that. But let's take it one step at a time, shall we?" Ling slowly pulled Xena towards the stream, "Wash up, then take off all of your clothes." Xena looked up, eyebrow raised.
"Or would you rather walk around the entire day with soaked leathers? Totally up to you." Ling explained matter-of-factly, "I have seen plenty of women naked and I have absolutely no interest in you whatsoever, so don't worry. 'Sides, this is lesson one, I'm teaching you how to run across a body of water. And anyone who tries running across a stream would fail the first couple of times, you need to develop a knack for it."
Xena quietly complied with Ling's instructions and listened with rapt attention as Ling began to explain the intricacies involved.
Gabrielle woke up with a start when she turned over and reached out onto nothing. No warrior beside her, she realised. Rubbing the last remnants of sleep from her eyes, she opened them to see a small quietly bustling campsite. Amazons and soldiers having their soup ladled by the two Shadow Warriors.
Not seeing Xena, she opened her mouth to ask. "Xena and Master are at the stream, Master is giving Xena her first lesson." Chin told Gabrielle as she handed her a bowl of hot, steaming, delicious smelling soup.
"But I thought..." Gabrielle started.
"Master thinks that this particular lesson is best given one-to-one. It might prove to be a little awkward for everyone else to be involved in." Chin explained, rightly guessing Gabrielle forthcoming question.
Gabrielle nodded in understanding and started to attack her soup with relish, as Ephiny settled down beside her. "It's good, isn't it?" Ephiny commented. Gabrielle just nodded, too busy with the vegetables in the soup to answer. Ephiny smiled widely and resumed her own breakfast.
Breakfast was a rather quiet affair, they all felt a little awkward with the two silent Shadow Warriors who kept everyone's bowls refilled and who ate nothing. "Why aren't you two having some of this? It's really good, you know?" Gabrielle asked, the silence was affecting her a little.
Even the normally stern looking Dan managed a smile, "Thank you, Gabrielle, but we do not break fast until Master has eaten."
"What if she doesn't eat?" was the curious question.
"Then, neither do we." Dan stated.
Any reply from Gabrielle was stopped by the re-entry of Xena and Ling. They walked side by side, laughing, Xena with her raven tresses wet, very wet. And Ling was dry. As they reached the small campsite, Chin was there with a big piece of cloth for Xena to dry her hair. Xena took the cloth with a big smile and dried her hair a little before handing it back to Chin who took it back with a slight bow.
Xena settled on Gabrielle other side and took the bowl offered to her by Dan. "Had your breakfast?" she asked Gabrielle gently. Gabrielle nodded, curious as to what her love and Ling could have been doing so early in the morning by the stream and Xena with her hair wet but not Ling. As she was trying to figure it out, Ephiny elbowed her non-too gently, she looked at Ephiny in surprise and noticed Ephiny quietly pointing to the direction of Ling.
Dan had also offered her Master a bowl of the hot soup and she and Chin settled down with theirs. They waited as Ling placed her bowl down on the ground. "Xena, you did very well for a beginner." Ling said, not touching her bowl yet.
For the first time, Gabrielle noticed that Xena too have yet to touch her breakfast, "Thank you, Master." Gabrielle was surprised as were the rest of the camp, especially the Amazons, they never thought they would hear Xena calling anyone 'Master'.
Ling smiled at Xena's acknowledgement, "It would be a pleasure to teach you. You already know the basics, like pressure points and the fighting style that M'Lila taught you... before her death. It wouldn't be very hard for you to rise through the levels and grades." Ling stated as she finally took a spoonful of the delicious soup. At her second spoonful, Dan and then Xena started and after their second spoonful, Chin took her first. Gabrielle was deeply intrigued.
Ling noted that her Shadow Warriors have started their soup and stopped, sighing slightly and shaking her head as she stood up. Xena had stopped and started to rise when Ling motioned her to sit back down, Dan and Chin had not stopped from their eating.
"Xena, I can do without much food, my body is used to that, yours is not. You need the energy food will provided. Trust me on that. Just sit back, watch and observe, and absorb, if you can."
She paused a little before continuing, "Xena, I know you're picking up cues from Dan and Chin, I know and I appreciate that. But, you don't really have to, you know? You're not one of my warriors like they are, you're my chosen and that puts you on a whole other place than the rest of them."
Xena looked down at her bowl, Ling had once again read her mind like a book. She had decided after Ling's 'show' with Ares last night that she was going to learn everything necessary from Ling to defeat Ares and if it meant calling her 'Master' or even getting the right cues from the other Shadow Warriors, she would.
Ling pulled out her sword from seemingly nowhere, twirled it around a bit and started. Her version of the dance of death. It captured the attention of the gaping Amazons and soldiers and one Warrior Princess. The Shadow Warriors though, having seen this display many times before chose to start packing so that everything would be ready by the time their Master was done with her morning exercise.
Before long, they were on their way. Some riding, most taking the time to walk and chat. Gabrielle was listening with rapt attention to some of the tales that Chin was telling to her and several of the other Amazons and soldiers. Dan covered the rear, while Xena and Ling were way out in front, having a private discussion. The journey was rather long and tiring but frequent stops were made, so no one had any complaints.
It was pretty uneventful until it suddenly struck Gabrielle - where was Callisto? Hadn't Master Ling tied her up last night? What had the Master done to Callisto since? She stopped dead in her tracks, grabbing hold of Chin's arm and swinging round such that she faced the Shadow Warrior, "Where's Callisto?"
"Callisto? Oh you mean her, well, Master handed her to the other Shadow Warriors and told them to bring her to a safe place ahead. She's fine... are you worried about her?" Chin answered in surprise.
"Well, it's just..." Gabrielle stammered a little, having no idea why she was worried about Callisto anyway.
"Your heart is pure like gold, Gabrielle. It is untainted and I pray to your Gods that it would remain like that for some time, but you must realise that to follow a warrior and to be a queen, one would have to do and make decisions that may seem wrong to some. And just to others." Chin smiled wistfully.
"Just how does one become a Shadow Warrior anyway?" Gerias asked after they had been silent for a while.
"Well, we have 3 different classes, the Shadows, the Warriors and the Shadow Warriors. Shadows are trained to be literally 'shadows', spying and gathering information as well as infiltrating camps, castles, kingdoms, etc. Warriors train in ALL methods of fighting and warfare, they fight, they lead. Shadow Warriors, of which I am one, train equally hard in both aspects, both spying as well as fighting. We have to be equally skilled in both.
"And one does not simply 'become' a Shadow Warrior, one has to be handpicked by the Master herself. We do have an academy in the Middle Kingdom, which is well hidden away. Most of us are orphans of war, death and destruction. Children who are rescued from the streets and brought into the academy. Once there, they would be trained either in the way of the Shadow or the Warrior. Only the ones specially picked by the Master herself gets to train to become a Shadow Warrior.
"Training to be a Shadow or a Warrior takes around 5 to 8 years, once skilled in either talent, you would be sent out into the field to help the peasants and your fellow Shadows or Warriors in their assignments. Training for a Shadow Warrior takes a lifetime, but you're sent out to the field for experience once you've completed 10 years of training. I myself was saved from my village when I was only 4 years old and I've been training as a Shadow Warrior for the past 15 years." Chin explained in the simplest way she knows.
"You're only 19?" Melanis exclaimed.
"Yes... Dan is 4 years older than I am and has trained for almost 20 years now." Chin said, slightly bemused by the shocked expressions so clearly evident in all of her audience faces.
"How old is Master Ling?" Gabrielle asked once she found her tongue again.
"Young... very young to be a Master of her stature and power." Was all Chin was willing to say despite the urgings of the rest of her current companions.
Ling had of course heard every single hushed word that had been uttered and she knew that Xena, with her incredible hearing, managed to catch some parts of it. But the two of them continued with their discussion about Ares and the rest of the Gods and Ling's past dealings with them. She grinned, knowing that her answer to that question was going to be greeted by several more raised eyebrows.
"We'll be reaching the castle by nightfall. I'm sure Kay would have prepared a welcome feast for all." Ling said to Xena who nodded, "Well, I'm looking forward to seeing her again." 'And seeing how you look now with that scar and the eye...' her thoughts trailed off.
"Xena, Kay doesn't need your guilt about her current condition, she doesn't feel sorry for herself so neither should you." Ling advised.
"But... I feel responsible..." Xena lowered her head and volume.
"Xena, we're going to have to correct that soon. You're taking responsibility for too many things in life that you didn't have control over. Get over it." Ling raised hers.
Xena nodded and looked ahead at the massive castle just beyond that ridge. 'So close, Kay. So close. I wonder what you have up your sleeves for me...'
"Good, we'll have a welcoming dinner for them and I'll meet them at the gate. Ah, Maiandra, before you even utter a word... the two Queens of the Amazon Nation are coming as is the woman who is going to be the first to place my crown on my head the day after tomorrow, I HAVE to meet them at the gate. End of discussion." Kay stated firmly, her mind made up.
Maiandra, who had indeed thought of protesting, sat back down reluctantly. Kay grinned at her small, minor victory over the normally extremely persistent Minister for Protocol.
"Great, no objections. That's it for today, keep up all your hard work. Li, I have several more decrees for you to pass out for today, I'll see you after lunch in my rooms. You're all dismissed." Kay stood up and calmly walked out of the meeting room. Her heart was beating very quickly and she would have skipped out of the room if she hadn't felt that that would be inappropriate for a queen to do. 'Maiandra would have a fit.' She thought with a large grin plastered on her face.
"Your Majesty!" Kay stopped and truly smiled, 'Ah, there's a sound for sore ears.' She thought as she turned back and greeted the owner of the voice. "Yes, Chief Minister? Did I forget something?"
Dusk approached, Kay was already waiting at the drawbridge for the arrival of Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazons as well as her former companions. She missed them all terribly, most of all, she missed the sense of complete security her Master always provided her with.
"Chief Commander approaches!" Kay smiled as she braced herself for their reunion.
"By the Gods!" Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and the other Amazons in the party muttered under their breaths when they first caught sight of the physically vastly altered Kay - with the right side of the once handsome face dominated by a thick, ugly scar and an eye patch covering her eye. They had known that she was severely hurt, they just didn't know it was to that extent.
'It's my fault, if you hadn't...' Xena thought to herself, tortured in the knowledge that Kay had suffered this injury saving her life.
"Don't feel sorry for her, she doesn't." Ling spoke in a low tone to Xena. Xena looked at Ling and nodded, bracing herself for the reunion.
Gabrielle didn't have the control Xena has. She had known that it was bad, but... her eyes started tearing as the party approached Kay and her greeting party. Kay noticed Gabrielle's distress almost immediately and ached to run towards Gabrielle and tell her that everything was okay but protocol demand that she wait for the approach of the royal Amazon party.
It was also taking a whole lot of self-control from Xena not to run to Kay and check on her like she had done numerous times in the past after every battle they fought. Every time Kay got injured, Xena's heart bled for her. And vice versa. It was tearing Xena's heart apart that she was the direct cause for Kay's ruined features.
Finally the Amazon party and their escorts crossed the drawbridge and into the main castle where Kay waited together with Geni, Maiandra, Li, Lesi and other Ministers and Generals.
"Our respects to your Majesty." Theresa and her soldiers called out. Kay smiled as she noticed the presence of Melanis and Tami beside Theresa and Ping. Her heart sang even as theirs fell, seeing their leader for the first time since that fateful battle.
Kay strode forward to hug them both, ignoring the glare of Maiandra. "Mel, Tami! I knew Master would be able to heal you both." She exclaimed then turning towards the silent Master Ling, she bowed deeply, "I owe you once again, Master. Thank you."
"Anything for you, Kay. You are my protected. And let me introduce you to my chosen... Xena." Ling replied with a returned smile.
Kay's eye opened widely, "Xena's your chosen, Master? I always thought that she was... different... special. Now I know that's true." She walked to Xena and hugged her tightly, once again ignoring the blatant stare Maiandra was giving her back. She knew she was going to get another lecture about court protocol from Mai again, but Kay didn't care. "Are you all right, Xena? Were you hurt badly?"
Xena smiled through watery eyes, "Kay, I should be the one to ask you this. Are you..." she trailed off, unable to continue.
"I'm fine. I don't hurt anymore." Kay looked down to the ground and released Xena reluctantly, "In ANY way." She added softly for both Xena and Gabrielle's benefit before turning away from Xena and walking back to her place, "All right, Maiandra, let's get this over with."
The Minister for Protocol stepped forward and began, "I bid thee, Queens Gabrielle and Ephiny of the Amazon Nation, welcome to the queendom of Portia. Neighbours, you are our most esteemed guests and... ..."
Kay rolled her eye and spied Xena doing likewise. Gabrielle looked slightly bewildered, while Ephiny looked exasperated as Maiandra drawled on and on about the special relationship Portia has with the Amazon Nation (they never had any kind of contact under the previous reign, but who cares?)
'Queendom?' Gabrielle thought to herself.
'Just how long is this gonna take?' Ephiny thought.
Finally, after what had seemed like an eternity for even Gabrielle, Kay decided to end everyone's misery, "I think that's enough, Mai. More than enough if you ask me. Thank you but please step back and let our 'esteemed' guests in before they collapse from standing too long in the same place." Kay's eye twinkled mischievously and she turned and led the way in, leaving the stunned Maiandra behind.
"Gods, I thought she was never gonna stop! And I thought us Amazons were bad..." Ephiny said as she flopped down a chair, thoroughly exhausted after going through the entire greeting 'ceremony cum welcoming dinner' several hours later. The party were finally alone in Kay's drawing room.
Kay shook her head, "Somebody just kill me right now. She expects me to go through with this for the hundred or so royal households invited for the second coronation? Urghh, somebody just put me out of my misery right now! Master? Can you do something?" she pleaded with her all-powerful Master.
"Just what do you have in mind, Kay?" Ling asked, mildly amused.
"I dunno. Make it rain or something..." at the look Ling cast towards her, Kay hastily added, "...or not."
"You're the Queen, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do." Ling observed.
"I KNOW that but... Mai... she's just... so... so..." Kay struggled to find the right words.
"Annoying?" Xena quipped.
"Long-winded?" Theresa added.
"Detailed?" Ping couldn't resist.
"Pest?" Geni sighed causing Kay to laugh heartily, much to the surprise of many in the room.
"No, but thanks for the suggestions, I think the word I was searching for is persistent." Kay said after that interlude.
Settling down in her throne, she looked down at the seating arrangement, Xena at her right hand side, Gabrielle was seated next to her and next to Gabrielle was Ephiny followed by the other Amazons. On her other side sat first Master Ling and then Geni followed by Theresa, Melanis, Ping and Tami respectively. Hercules and Iolaus completed the row and they were the only 2 men in the room. The mood was not as relaxed as she had wanted it to be and Kay knew part of it was because of her altered appearance.
"Wasn't your fault, Xena." Kay stated softly but firmly.
Xena was startled, she had not been able to tear her eyes off Kay's face for long since she had arrived. She lowered her head, "If you hadn't..."
"You would be dead and I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if that had happened." Kay stood up and walked to kneel in front of Xena. She grasped Xena's hands gently and placed then on her wounded face, Xena tried to draw her hands back but couldn't, so she gently caressed the scar, tears forming in her eyes.
"Not your fault. I made the decision to do what I did and I don't regret it one single bit. In fact, this is my badge of honor, I saved the Warrior Princess..."
"But you've already got one..." Xena said with a rueful smile as her hands found themselves free to drop from Kay's face.
"Ahh," Kay grinned, "that one, no one can see, well... excepting my lover for the moment. And I always make it a point to tell them where I got that scar from. 'Sides, Xena, I no longer have any woman that I need to impress, do I?"
"Kay..." Gabrielle started.
"It's okay. I know all about Janis and Tarsi and their purpose in my life now. Master explained it all to me very clearly. I know that they are in a better place now... as they deserve to be." Kay stood up from her position and started to pace.
"I just resent being the pawn in some Gods' petty games and bets. I may never be able to trust my heart again, for I'll never know if my feelings for Janis and Tarsi were ever real or just an illusion of mine."
"They were as real as you want them to be." Ling said enigmatically.
"And what does that mean?" Kay asked and as Ling opened her mouth to answer, Kay answered her own question, "Whatever I want it to mean, right, Master?"
Ling nodded affirmatively.
"Is there anything you CAN tell me?" Kay asked in an almost pleading tone.
"A few things, one, you have to pick a God to represent your reign." Ling stated.
"Don't you count?" Kay asked.
Ling laughed, "No, Kay. I don't count. I'm as mortal as one can get. I'm not even like Hercules. Hercules is a demi-god and I've been politely asked not to reveal whether or not he is immortal but he can get hurt and so do I. I just happen to have a highly developed source of power, that's all."
"That's all?" Ephiny blurted out before clamping her mouth shut.
Ling shrugged, "Try doing nothing but train, train, eat, train, train, isolation, train, train, sleep, train, train and practice. Do that repeatedly for 21 years and you'll have me."
"So when did you start all this?" Gabrielle asked, deeply intrigued.
"Since the day I was born, Gabrielle. My destiny was set in stone the moment I was conceived. I was taken away from my mother within the hour I was born. I never saw my mother until I learnt that her lands were under attack from the Qing troops led by an awesome and barbarian Grand Marshal named Kay." Ling smiled slightly at the memory.
"Kay had unknowingly saved my mother and in return I made her a protected of mine and by extension of that, a protected of the Shadow Warriors as well. I never acknowledged my mother and neither did she until her bastard son put her to death. She sent me a message forbidding any interference from me. It was the first and only time she had ever asked anything of me and I was compelled to follow. However much it tore at my heart, I could not refuse her final requests."
"Who was your mother?" Xena asked quietly, her heart already telling her the answer.
"Some one you're very familiar with, Xena." Ling looked straight at Xena.
"Lao Ma." They both said at the same time. Xena lowered her head at the mention of her deceased mentor and lover.
"In that her only letter to me, she convinced me that you were still capable of the greatness that you were destined to achieve and she pleaded with me to help you reach that plateau. I'm giving you this chance, Xena. Don't blow it." Ling said firmly, "I'm not as forgiving as she was."
Xena lowered her head to her hands and stayed silent. Gabrielle quickly leaned towards Xena and placed a reassuring arm on her back.
The room was eerily silent even though most of them don't know who Lao Ma was and Kay was struggling to remember WHO Lao Ma was. And how had she saved her? She had to know, she needed to remember.
"Lao? There was never a kingdom of Lao, technically, ever in Chin. So who's Lao Ma?" Kay mused loudly.
"Not the Kingdom of Lao, Kay, the House of Lao." Ling corrected Kay.
"House of Lao, but of course! I remember now, the territory belonging to the great one, Lao Tsu. Lao Ma's his wife?" Kay enquired.
"Yes." Was the answer from Ling, "But he's not my father." She clarified.
"I conquered Lao lands at the same time that I conquered the Kingdom of Ming. The royal household of Ming was the only one that I've ever spared because all that remained was the boy-prince, Ming Tien." Kay commented looking at Xena.
"You... 'spared' Ming Tien?" Xena looked at Kay disbelievingly.
"He seemed pretty harmless at that time, of course later I would come to regret..." Kay trailed off after Xena had risen from her seat angrily, "What is it, Xena? What's his connection with you?"
But before Xena could answer, Ling stood up from her seat as well and silenced Xena with a glance. "Let me, Xena." Xena bowed her head and slumped back on her chair, welcoming Gabrielle's quiet and comforting presence next to her.
"You know that Xena had made a trip to the Middle Kingdom before she met up with you?" Kay nodded her head in answer to Ling's question. "Xena hooked up with Borias while she was there. Together they threatened the houses of Ming and Lao. Xena kidnapped the child Ming Tien, got double-crossed by Borias, was captured and hunted like an animal by Ming Tsui and then was saved by Lao Ma. Recently, Xena went back and was almost put to death by Ming Tien."
"Was Lao Ma a Shadow Warrior? Is that how she got her powers?" Xena asked quietly.
"No. Mother's powers came to her in a different way. She was blessed or maybe cursed with those powers soon after she was born. Her inborn power was one of the reasons why Master chose me as her successor. I was born with some of those powers, and coupled with my intense training, that's how I came to be as powerful as I am today. But as powerful as I have become, I... could not save my own mother from her death." Ling struggled in vain to control her raging emotions, "Imagine that... me, the then future Master of the Shadow Warriors, not able to stop my own mother's execution from taking place!"
"Why couldn't you stop the execution?" Gabrielle asked.
"Because she forbade me to!" Ling shouted bitterly. "She wouldn't allow me to intervene and told my Master not to allow me to interfere. That bastard!" she lowered her volume, "In any case, I'm glad you killed him, Xena. I would have done the same if I were allowed to. No, I would have done infinitely worse." Ling smiled wickedly before snapping her head round.
"Ares! What are you doing snooping around here?" she shouted, "I'm not in the mood to deal with you petty Gods!"
Ares immediately showed himself in a bright burst of flash, "Master Ling, I was just..."
"Eavesdropping?" Ling asked sarcastically, "If it were not the fact that I've seen for myself how mere mortals would react without a standing God of War, for all that you've put Xena and Kay through, do you think you'd still be here?"
Ares was slightly taken aback, "How did you..."
"Ares, Ares, Ares. C'mon now, who do you think could have taken your sword away from you without you knowing? Hades asked me as a favor and I accepted, it was a breeze." Ling laughed, then she stopped suddenly, "Reveal yourselves!"
Everyone in the room, including Ares, snapped their heads towards Ling, nervous and not really knowing what to do. Reveal themselves? Who? They all thought. But suddenly 5 cloaked figures leapt down from the scaffolding and knelt in front of Ling.
"13th grade Shadow Warrior, Tas." Said the cloaked figure at the lead.
"10th grade Shadow Warrior, Tara." Said the one behind on the left.
"10th grade Shadow Warrior, Sara." The one from the right spoke.
"9th grade Shadow Warrior, Wilma." Said the one beside Sara.
And finally, "8th grade Shadow Warrior, Jan."
Then in a single voice, "Representing the Shadow Warriors of the Western Realm greet Master of the Shadow Warriors. Our deepest respect, Master."
Silence from everyone. Even Ares looked shocked, he had not known of the presence of Shadow Warriors in this part, HIS part of the world. 'Did mother know about them?' he wondered, silently vowing to ask the moment he could get back to Mount Olympus.
"Then go and ask her, Ares. What are you still doing here for?" Ling stated firmly to Ares who responded with shock. "I will not ask so nicely again." Ling growled. Ares swallowed a lump that had formed in his throat and disappeared with the tiniest of flashes.
Ling then turned all her attention to the still kneeling figures, "You may rise. You're late and where's Katana?"
The 5 Shadow Warriors rose from their feet as Tas answered, "Thank you, Master. We can explain our lateness and Katana's absence will be part of the explanation."
Ling walked back to her seat, "I'm waiting."
Tas cleared her throat and started, "Master, as we were on our way here, we came across tracks of a large army. We followed and found an army camp. The army is under the banner of Caesar and Rome so we infiltrated the camp and, Master, we found out that they're headed this way."
Ling's mouth twitched into a wicked grin. Xena's was almost similar as she perked up upon hearing the report. Kay's face was clouded as was Gabrielle's.
"The army is led by Caesar himself along with Brutus. Mark Anthony's legions are supposed to join them from Africa in 3 moons time. When that happens, the army's total strength will number in excess of 50,000. Right now, their size is around 35,000. Katana has sent a squadron to infiltrate Anthony's legions while she and the rest remain within Caesar's camp. I was sent to inform Master of the developments."
Ling's grin has turned into a full-fledged smile, "Well done. What have you found out so far? What's Caesar's intentions?"
"Greece. Portia in particular because of the Portian gold mines and her natural sea port. Perfect for Caesar to launch attacks on Athens and Sparta. But Master, he also claims that he was 'invited' to Portia and it was an invitation he could not refuse."
"Invited?" Kay exclaimed, "By whom?"
Tas was about to answer when Ling stopped her, "No, Tas. Kay, that is something you would have to find out for yourself. Who is the traitor?"
Kay's eye sparkled with contempt, "Stevanos! Who else would do such a thing?"
"Think about it carefully, Kay. Would Stevanos have the gall to pull something like this? In any case, I'm going to let you and Xena take care of Caesar. Unless..." Ling trailed off thoughtfully.
"Unless?" Xena prompted.
"Unless the 2 of you don't think you can handle him by yourselves. With the help of everyone here, of course."
"We can!" Kay and Xena replied at the same time and immediately exchanged a quick glance and a grin, excitement and anticipation showing in their eyes.
Ling broke into a genuine smile, "Good. Xena, you'll be given command of all the Shadow Warriors present here. Mei, spread the word round to the rest that Xena's command is as good as mine. Wei, brief Xena on the full capabilities and the limitations of the different classes and grades of Shadow Warriors so that she may better deploy the Shadow Warriors. Tas, you will brief Xena and Kay on exactly what you've found out so far at the Roman camp. Every single thing except the identity of the traitor from Portia. I'm serious, Kay. I want you to find that out yourself."
The Shadow Warriors lowered their heads while Xena looked slightly amazed that she had been handed the reigns of command over an obviously elite group of warriors.
"But, Kay, Xena. A word of advice, if you find out that you do need my help or advice, don't ever hesitate to ask. Do not let something as minute as pride get in the way of tasting the ultimate victory of right against evil." At Xena's and then Kay's empathic nods of agreement, Ling concluded, "It's time for my meditation. Xena, I'll be waiting for you at the courtyard. Join me there after you're done here."
With that Ling strode out of the silent room. The room stayed silent for a moment longer after Ling's departure before Gabrielle could not stay silent any longer, "Kay, what do you want the Amazons to do?" Ephiny nodded beside her queen.
"Um, I would ask you to leave..." Kay raised her hand to stop the forthcoming protests, "...but I won't. Simply because I know the Amazons have too much honour to stay out of this battle. And frankly, I cannot imagine what force could be the match for one consisting of Amazons, my companions and the Shadow Warriors. Together, we'll send Caesar running back to Rome, he WILL be stopped." Kay finished empathetically.
Xena smiled, "Yeah, what she said. And Hercules, you would be staying too, am I right to assume?"
For the first time. Hercules spoke up, "Yup, don't expect either Iolaus or me to leave anytime soon."
"'Sides, we came here for a fight. Seems like we'd be getting one after all." Iolaus was very much looking forward to the upcoming conflict.
"Right, Julius Caesar wouldn't know what hit him. But we must be prepared. Gerias, I would only reveal this Caesar coming to town business tomorrow at the regular Council of Ministers meeting." Kay warned Gerias. "Do not tell even Li." Gerias nodded her understanding.
Kay went on, "Xena, I would like to appoint you as my military advisor. And Gabrielle and Ephiny, I would like to have the Amazons sign a treaty. Let us become allies. That should take care of why the 3 of you would be attending tomorrow's meeting. Hercules and Iolaus, stick around. I'm pretty sure no one would dare to make the great Hercules leave the room." Xena wanted to protest about her 'appointment' but Kay had already gone on with other matters, but she vowed to talk to Kay about it later.
Kay was now in her element, "Gabrielle, I need you to do a favour for me at tomorrow's meeting."
"What is it?"
"Watch Stevanos, Ming and Tian carefully for me. I'm pretty sure one of the 3 is the traitor, or maybe all 3 of them are in cohorts with Caesar." Kay stated grimly.
"Are you sure? I mean about Ming..." Theresa spoke up.
"Something is not right, I just have this feeling in my gut. To be completely honest, I trust no one outside of this room. No one, Ming included. Ming betrayed me once, even though he has expressed his remorse over it, the fact remains, he betrayed me. I'll never forget that and I'll never completely trust him again. No one should." Kay warned.
"You're really acting like the Queen, Kay." Xena smiled even as Kay blushed to her roots.
"Well, that's me. I really know how to show my most esteemed guests a darn good time, don't I?" she blurted out and the room laughed. Even the stern-looking Shadow Warriors could not prevent a grin from forming on their faces.
"You can say that again." Eponin quipped glad that she was going to be part of what promises to be one butt-kicking ride.
"Ephiny, you might want to send a messenger to warn the rest of the Amazons to be prepared for anything. Better to be safe than sorry." Kay advised.
"You're right. As always. But I'll also ask for more forces to join us here. I'll do it now." Ephiny agreed as she rose with the rest of her Amazons and left the room.
The Shadow Warriors acknowledged one another as they too proceeded to leave the room. Mei spoke up, "Chosen, I have to start passing word round of your command, would you like Wei to speak to you now on the different classes of Shadow Warriors or would you rather have the conversation after your training tomorrow morning?"
Xena thought about for a moment before answering, "Now."
Wei bowed her head slightly as Mei and the rest of the Shadow Warriors made their way silently out.
"To begin, Chosen. We have Shadow Warriors, Shadows and Warriors, you know their individual capabilities?"
"Yes, Master has touched on it before." Xena replied.
"Good. Shadows infiltrate, they gather information, they scout ahead, they hide, they spring traps but they don't fight one-on-one combat. Warriors fight, they kill, they attack and they are skilled in ALL forms of fighting but they don't spy. A Shadow Warrior is a combination of both. Efficient and deadly, that's the motto of a Shadow Warrior.
"We also have different grades for each class. A Shadow grade 9 and below can do advance scouting, can gather information, can infiltrate towns and cities. Only Shadows of grades 10 and above infiltrate enemy camps and castles and spring traps. Different grades of Warriors are skilled in all the different forms of fighting. But only Warriors of grades 10 and above know the true art of pressure-point fighting.
"Shadow Warriors are skilled and proficient in all the disciplines. From infiltration to scouting, to pressure-points, to one-on-one combat and lots more. Shadow Warriors of grades 10 and above also learn the art of mind over matter or the way." Wei finished and turned to look at Xena, her Master's Chosen.
"All of you here are Shadow Warriors?" Xena asked.
"No, Chosen. Our Warriors are hidden all round the castle and in the surrounding towns. Shadows are everywhere in Portia, especially in the outlying towns. Shadow Warriors are scattered all over the castle, as well as the major towns in Portia. We number almost 10,000. And this is but a fraction of the true strength of the Shadow Warriors of the Eastern Realm. Shadow Warriors of the Western Realm number almost 20,000. Almost all are headed this way in subtle waves. All will be under your express command." Wei bowed again.
"My command?" Xena wondered.
"Yes, as per the instructions of Master. You are her Chosen, Chosen. Only Master herself can override any of your commands." Wei explained further.
Xena numbly nodded as the rest of the room listened with barely disguised amazement.
"I must leave now, but Chosen be advised that you are now under the protection of the Shadow Warriors around the clock. If you sense that someone is following you, some one probably is but please, don't hurt the less experienced Shadows for not doing her job well. And if I may remind you once again of Master's request to meet with you at the courtyard. If you should think of anymore questions, please feel free to ask Mei, Fang, Fen or myself. We are the most senior of all present." And with that Wei bowed and left the silent room.
Later after Xena had finally gotten Gabrielle to sleep, Xena made her way to the courtyard. She found Ling and surprisingly, Kay, seemingly in deep meditation, seated in lotus position.
"Join us, Xena." Ling's soft voice called out. Xena strode towards the 2 and seated herself beside Ling.
"Close your eyes. Think of nothing. Lose yourself in the dark. Embrace it, do not fear it."
Xena closed her eyes and allowed Ling's calming voice to slip into her subconscious. Time seemed to stand still until Ling's clear voice rang out, "That's enough for tonight."
Xena opened her eyes, feeling more at peace with herself as she looked towards Kay who also seemed much calmer than when she last saw her. Kay smiled sheepishly at Xena's intense gaze.
"We'll do this every night as long as I'm here." Ling's voice broached no disagreements. Xena and Kay simply nodded.
"Mother believed that only with the essence of purity would one be able to know and achieve the way. That is not all true. Xena, focus your thoughts on fire. The word and the image. Do it." Ling insisted when Xena looked at her a little dubiously.
Xena took a deep breath as she complied with the order, she closed her eyes and did as she was told.
"Now concentrate on the word and the image of a tree anywhere in this courtyard. Helps if you look at the tree, Xena."
Xena opened her eyes and cast it on an ordinary tree standing in the courtyard.
"Now, merge the 2 thoughts as one. And picture the tree burning with the flames of fire." Ling instructed.
Xena concentrated hard, her eye brows contracting and suddenly, the tree burst into flames. Shocking the watching Kay and most of all Xena, herself. She had done as she was told and it worked. It really worked.
"I... how..." Xena stammered out as Ling broke into a huge smile.
Ling did not break her smile as she focused her attentions now on Kay, "Your turn, this time I want you to focus your thoughts on water. Concentrate on the image of that burning tree. Now merge your 2 thoughts together into stopping the flames."
Kay also followed her instructions and concentrated hard, after what seemed like forever to Xena, a sudden, heavy and concentrated downpour fell around the area of the tree, extinguishing the flames. Xena and Kay could only stare at first the amazing tree and then at each other.
"There's nothing really amazing about this." Ling started, "Kay you were born with some natural powers because of your lineage. While for Xena, I released that power last night. Practice and train, with one another and alone, to fully comprehend the extent of this discovery. Learn to put it into good use and to great effect. It's all in the mind. Mind over matter. Do not abuse the power of mind over matter." Ling cautioned.
She warned them further, "All that you do, though you can undo, the damage would still have already been made. So do not focus on someone being dead in a fit of anger, for if the person does drop dead, the person would remain dead. There'd be no undoing that. See that tree? Kay was only able to stop the fire. She was not able to repair the damage that had already been done. So beware of your stray thoughts."
"We will." Xena and Kay promised.
"Good. I know the 2 of you would. Now, shall we try what else you're capable of doing? Shall we see what else in this courtyard we can destroy?" Ling continued with a grin.
It was very late into the night when Xena finally went back to bed. The silent warrior slipping her arm round her waist woke Gabrielle up.
"Hey..." the bard murmured.
"Shh, go back to bed, love." Xena said in a hush tone.
"Go back to sleep." Xena whispered softly into Gabrielle's ear, finding herself drifting off even as she was pulling her love closer to her.
Gabrielle snuggled in and immediately fell back to sleep. Xena smiled in the dark and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
"You're kidding me!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Nope, we really can do all that." Xena said as she guided Gabrielle through the palace halls.
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena in amazement, mind over matter, that was incredible. Incredibly scary, "I've got to see this."
Xena grinned, "Ah, I think this is it." She noted as guards opened the double doors leading to the banquet room and saluted.
They entered, most of the people who were in attendance to their 'welcoming ceremony cum dinner' the previous night were already seated there. They were led to a table just beside the ones occupied by the Amazons and Hercules and Iolaus. After exchanging greetings they settled in to wait for the queen.
They didn't have to wait long, "Her Majesty, the Queen!" a voice rang out and the ministers and generals in the room all shuffled to their feet and stepped out of their tables and knelt.
Kay strode in from a side door and the room was filled with one voice, "Our deepest respects to your Majesty."
Kay took her seat at the front and said regally, "Rise. Serve up breakfast." She turned to her side and greeted her guests with a nod and a twinkle in her eye. She looked straight at Gabrielle and said loudly, "I've specifically told the cooks to make nutbread this morning. I understand from Xena that that's your favourite."
Gabrielle smiled widely.
"Your Majesty? Did something happen last night?" Ming asked, he was offended not to have been included in the after dinner discussions, but well, he did have another meeting to attend.
"Yes. Oh here comes breakfast. I really hope you like the menu, Gabrielle." Kay grinned at Gabrielle, pointedly ignoring Ming.
Xena smiled at the exchange, glad that all was well, for the moment at least. The servers came in arms carrying trays filled with food that they proceeded to place on the tables. The server placed an extra large loaf of fresh nutbread right in front of Gabrielle, she licked her mouth with relish and started her attack.
After a while, Ming tried again, "Your Majesty? Last night?"
Kay looked annoyed as she motioned for her cup to be refilled, "Why are you so anxious?" she questioned Ming.
"Your Majesty! If the queendom is under any kind of danger, it is my responsibility..."
"No! It is MY responsibility." Kay stated firmly and loudly.
The room quieted down audibly.
"OUR responsibility, Kay." Xena said quietly as she drank from her goblet.
"Ah, yes. Now seems like as good of a time as any. Ladies and gentlemen of Portia, let me introduce you to my royal advisor, Xena!"
A stunned silence.
"She would help me run my queendom. In ALL matters." Kay continued looking at some of her ministers.
The room erupted to thunderous clapping led by Theresa and her commanders. Ming, Stevanos and his cronies reluctantly clapped their hands along with the rest of the room.
Kay held her hand up, "Li, make sure that information is made official. And prepare a treaty of friendship for me to sign with the Amazons. Also let it be known that Melanis and Tami are now Generals. I'll assign them to specific positions later."
"It will be done, your Majesty." Li said.
"That's what happened last night. After breakfast, Council of Ministers meeting as usual. By the way, Maiandra, can we move up the first coronation to tomorrow at noon? Is everything ready?"
"Well, yes but I'm..." Maiandra started.
"Good, tomorrow it is then. Is Xena's new armour ready?"
"Um, yes... she's going to crown you?" Maiandra asked.
"Yup, she sure is." Kay smiled at Xena's raised eyebrow.
"In that case, I would need Xena to try out her new armour in case we need to make any adjustments. I mean the royal armourer made the suit with the vaguest of..."
"That can wait till later in the afternoon. First things first, let's finish with breakfast. Don't you know breakfast is the most important meal of the day?" Kay said with a straight face.
"You didn't tell me about the part of me crowning you, Kay." Xena gently admonished the squirming Kay.
"I honestly forgot last night. Honest." Kay avoided Xena's eyes as she led the way to the meeting room.
"It's my honour, but wouldn't Master..."
"Nah, Master told me she wasn't interested."
"Oh, so I'm second choice, huh?" Xena teased.
Kay looked at Xena, "No! You've always been my first choice. I just asked Master if it would bother her or not and she said no. Speaking of Master, have you seen her yet?"
Xena shook her head. "She mentioned morning training but never said when or..." Kay stopped abruptly as they stepped into the courtyard and onto a sight - Ling training with several of her Shadow Warriors. It was a graceful and deadly sight. Swords edges flashing in the sunlight, the clanging sounds as they made contact with one another.
Ling stopped for a moment and addressed Xena and Kay, "Here after your short meeting."
"Yes, Master." Xena and Kay answered at the same time and they continued on their way, trying hard not to stare open-mouth at the skill of the Shadow Warriors as they held their own against their Master. The rest of the party following them were less successful in gaping in astonishment.
"Now, anyone has anything to report?" Kay asked her ministers after everyone had settled in their seats.
Geni stood up, "Your Majesty, prospectors have found yet another gold mine in the mountains. That makes it the fifteenth in that area."
Kay nodded as Geni sat back down and Stevanos quickly stood up before Theresa could. "Your Majesty, we have to talk about security arrangements for your coronations..."
Kay interrupted Stevanos, "Talk to Melanis. Mel, you'll be my security chief for my coronations. Ming, you'll provide Mel with the force she requires. Next issue."
Stevanos sat down after the obvious snub. He silently vowed revenge.
The ministers made their reports quickly, each knowing that their queen was not in the mood for any long reports. After the last minister made his report, the ministers were dismissed along with Ming, leaving the same people from last night behind.
"You didn't tell them." Gabrielle said.
"No. I thought it be better if I told them only after the coronation tomorrow. It won't make much of a difference." Kay answered.
"You're being too obvious in your dislike for Stevanos. He doesn't like that." Gabrielle observed.
"He's infinitely worse when it comes to talking than Maiandra could ever be. Watch him for me, Mel."
"I will." Mel promised with a firm nod.
"Well, Xena. I guess we should..."
"Yeah. Master wants us to, um, train..." Xena explained to Gabrielle.
"I'll go watch." Gabrielle said, excited and curious to see for herself all the wonderous things that Xena had described to her.
"Tell you what, Gabrielle. Why don't you and Ephiny discuss terms of our friendship treaty with my Chief Minister, Geni or go to the library here? If you can find the library in this maze that is..." Kay suggested with a grin.
Gabrielle smiled back warmly at Kay. A smile that warmed 2 once-dark hearts.
The rest of the day went by peacefully though there was an underlying sense of something major was about to happen. Kay breezed through the day with Xena and Gabrielle. Truly exploring her palace for the first time, she delighted in discovering the enormous library of books and scrolls with Gabrielle, even as she marvelled at the royal armory and the royal weaponry with Xena.
Walking and talking with Kay in way brought back pleasant memories for Gabrielle about the time when neither she nor Xena knew of Kay's true identity. The early days.
Xena also observed Gabrielle's interactions with Kay with a light heart, she too remembered back to the days when it wasn't so complicated. But she also pondered at what to do about Caesar, Kay had given no indications at all as to what she had in mind.
Dinner was a pleasant affair, just Kay with Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Hercules and Iolaus. Ling joined in slightly later. That was the first time since the training session in the morning that Xena and Kay had seen her.
"Been busy, Master?" Kay asked.
"Yes. Dealing with Callisto." Ling said flatly.
Xena took a deep breath, "Might I ask what?"
"Her insanity runs deep, too deep for me to delve into at one time. Ares really messed her up big time." Ling shrugged.
"Ares?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ares didn't know what a monster he had created when he asked the Furies to curse Callisto."
"Furies?" it was Xena's turn to ask.
"Yeah, Ares had the Furies curse Callisto for not avenging the deaths of her family and village. Now even the Furies cannot reverse what they had done." Ling sighed, "I might be too late for her." She shook her head, "Her destiny was almost as bright as you 2 before the Gods intervened."
Ling stared at the silent Xena, "Why are you still blaming yourself for Callisto? You're a fool if you think that Callisto is the way she is solely because of you."
"Stop thinking about Callisto, I'll deal with her from now on. She'll no longer be of any danger to anyone." She paused for a moment before going on, "So Hercules, enjoyed your day?"
Everyone looked at the big man. Hercules grinned, "Yeah, Raven, that was a great suggestion that I help in tearing down the temples of Ares'."
"Bet it really pissed him off." Iolaus added.
Ling laughed, "I think what pisses him more is the fact that he can't do anything to stop it from happening."
"Hey, can I join in tomorrow?" Xena asked, jokingly.
"Sure, but I think you'll have your hands full tomorrow." Hercules grinned from ear to ear.
"Speaking of that, I managed to persuade Maiandra to show me the crown, oh boy, is that a crown you're gonna have, Kay." Ephiny injected.
Kay cringed a little, "Overdone, huh? I told Maiandra not to go totally out of hand with the crowns. Yeah, crowns, with a 's'." Kay rolled her eyes.
"Why does one need more than one crown?" Gabrielle asked innocently.
"One for ceremonial purposes, one for regular use, one for..." Kay started to explain but faded away as she noticed Gabrielle's giggling form, "Oh, I get it. Tease me would ya?" Kay pretended to be offended.
"Sorry." Gabrielle squeaked out and at the look of mock annoyance on Kay's face, burst out laughing. She was joined by the others and the rest of the evening went by on that happy note.
"Tomorrow, let her have her day, for when Caesar arrives, we'll have ours!" the figure addressed his fellow conspirators and they toasted.
"That was fun." Gabrielle commented as she and Xena stepped into their guestroom.
"Yeah." Xena smiled at the stories that they had shared round the table. It was fun, she admitted to herself, moving to remove her armour and getting her hand gently slapped away by Gabrielle.
"That's my job, remember?" as she proceeded to help Xena out of her armour and leathers, "By the way, you looked really terrific in that new blue armour."
Xena cast an eye over the side table that had her new armour laid out, "Yeah. They got my measurements right."
"Kay would know, wouldn't she?" Gabrielle said.
"Nope, I don't think she was in a position to tell them my exact size, Gabrielle."
"I guess not, but look at her today. She looked great, didn't she?"
"Mm hmm, Master must have healed her or something. There's no way she could have recovered from a vicious whipping so soon and her eye..." Xena trailed off, not knowing what to say.
"Master Ling is wonderful, isn't she?"
"Yes." Xena said simply.
"Kinda like her mother?" Gabrielle asked, curious.
"No, Lao Ma is different. Different from anyone I've ever known, I just wish I could say my thanks and goodbye. I've so much to tell her..."
"She can hear your thoughts." Gabrielle comforted her lover.
"I know that, but... it just is better if I can tell her face to face, things like the fact that I owe her so much. That I've finally found my way. And that way is you."
"Really?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Really." Xena affirmed.
"Good." Gabrielle said as they lowered themselves onto the conveniently placed bed.
"Stop fidgeting, you look great." Gabrielle admonished her lover who was dressed in her new and unfamiliar leathers. "In fact, the whole room is looking at you because you look so fabulous."
"How about you?" Xena teased, remembering the fun they had putting on her new leathers.
"Xena, pay attention, you're coming up soon." Gabrielle poked at the warrior's waist.
Indeed, Maiandra's speech seemed to be coming to an end at last. Kay sat on her throne, also wearing her new suit of leathers and also fidgeting and looking utterly bored. She looked down at Xena and Gabrielle's exchange and wished that she could do that.
Or that she had someone she could do that with, she corrected herself mentally. Then she turned her attentions to Geni standing on the opposite side. Kay felt attracted to Geni for some reason she could not understand. She also could not understand why she did not detect any sense of resentment from Geni at all. Resentment would have been understandable, after all, Geni was the niece of the previous king.
Maiandra drooled on and on, until finally, she looked at Kay, "Whom have you chosen to crown you?"
"Xena, the Warrior Princess." Kay answered firmly.
Maiandra now turned to Xena, "Do you, Warrior Princess, accept this honour?"
"Yes." Xena answered, equally firmly.
"Then please rise." Maiandra instructed Xena as she nodded to a courtier standing by the door. The courtier returned with the pillow, upon which laid a huge, gem-encrusted gold crown. The small gathering gasped at the obvious finery and workmanship that went into the making of the crown.
Kay made her way down the steps and knelt before Xena. Xena hoisted the crown and was not surprised at the weight of it, she inwardly cringed for Kay as she placed the crown upon Kay's head and said her line, "With this, I proclaim thee as the new Queen of Portia."
Maiandra turned to face the small gathering, "All hail the Queen of Portia, Kay! Send the runners out with the news!"
Kay stood up and walked back to her throne, seemingly unaffected by the weight of her crown. As she sat down, her ministers and generals knelt down, "Long live her Majesty!"
Kay smirked and noted with satisfaction the disgruntled look on the faces of Stevanos and his cronies as well as on the face of Ming and several of his generals. She would remember those faces. As she would remember the look of pride on Xena's face. And the look of joy on Gabrielle's and the rest of the Amazons.
Kay always remembers. She forgives, but she never forgets.
To be continued...
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