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King Democritus leaned his face into Gabrielle’s. He was so close, in fact, that the bard had to turn her head to avoid the stench of his breath. She flicked her face in a distasteful grimace just so the king would get the message. He only laughed and drew her gaze back to his with a firm grip on her chin.

"Now I only need to know one thing, that’s all. I’m not asking for much. I could demand a lot more you realize, don’t you....seeing as I’m the king of this fair city."

He smiled and chuckled again when the bard attempted to turn her head in the other direction. Gabrielle got a brief glimpse of Chemeclees’ frightened stare and the iron manacles that secured his wrists to the brick wall, one on either side of his head. Gabrielle was bound to the same wall in a similar fashion, not one foot away. The boy was watching the king and Gabrielle, his eyes flicking nervously from one to the other.

The king’s grip found Gabrielle’s chin once more and roughly pulled her attention back.

"Where is she, little one?"

"Where is who?" The bard answered defiantly.

"I don’t have time for games!" The king growled, squeezing the bard’s chin between his fingers, "Just answer the question."

"I have no idea what you’re talking about." Gabrielle hissed in response, "Look, I’m just passing through....a traveling bard....you know, telling stories in taverns, trying to earn an honest dinar. Next thing I know, your thugs drag me to this castle and now here I am chained against a wall in this smelly......" The bard looked around the laboratory, at all the various flasks and contraptions. "......in this smelly..... whatever you call it......your ugly face stuck in mine and your even uglier breath......"

"THAT’S ENOUGH!" The king barked, jerking her head as he withdrew his hand. It did nothing to deter the bard’s defiant stare.

"Do you take me for a fool?" Democritus gazed at Gabrielle with cold, unfeeling eyes.

"Well, if the sandal fits........"

Gabrielle felt the sting of the king’s hand against her cheek, the sound of the slap rang out in the suddenly silent laboratory causing Chemeclees to flinch and turn away.

Gabrielle slowly turned her eyes back to capture Democritus’ gaze with her own icy stare.

"You know, if that leaves a bruise, you’re gonna be in a world of hurt."

"Oh really? And who’s going to hurt me? You?" The king lifted his eyebrows, tauntingly.

Gabrielle did not respond. She did not even want to mention Xena’s name and worried that perhaps she had said too much already. The king chuckled and caressed the angry red mark on her cheek with rough fingertips.

"Or perhaps your warrior friend won’t take a liking to the way I’m treating you. You know who I mean. The one you said you know nothing about. The tall one with hair as dark as midnight and eyes as blue as the morning sky. Wait a minute....." The king touched his finger to his nose in thought, "Now, that’s not an accurate description, is it. She’s not that ‘tall’ anymore, is she?"

Gabrielle was not amused, but said nothing. The King lost his humor as well.

"You came into my home and took something that belongs to me. I worked long and hard on this project and I’m not about to let someone as insignificant as you thwart all of my plans. So, I’m going to ask you one more time, little girl, and you better answer me."

Democritus leaned in until he was nose to nose with the stubborn bard.

"Where is Xena?"

"Oh, you’re going to see her soon enough, I promise you." Gabrielle countered, "Your experiment didn’t work, you know. It didn’t last."

The King took a step back. Chemeclees stared at the bard in open amazement.

"I don’t know how long you wasted your time on your ‘little’ project, but it was a complete failure." Gabrielle lifted her eyebrows haughtily and chuckled, "She was back to normal size by the time we got back to the inn. And she wasn’t too pleased about the entire situation, let me tell you. As soon as she finds out you’ve taken me, she’ll be heading in this direction and you can believe me, she’s not going to be very happy. In fact, she’s probably going to burst through that door any second now and then you’re going to find out what it’s like to be smacked across the face......several times, I’m sure."

The King turned his head towards the door to the laboratory, expecting it to crash in at that moment. All three, King, bard and apprentice, waited in silence for the grand entrance of the warrior princess. The door remained closed. Chemeclees closed his eyes and cursed the day that Gabrielle came into his life. The king turned back around to glare at the bard.

Gabrielle gulped and smiled, "Well, maybe not at this very moment, but any minute now.....probably....if I know her....and I DO.....know her....."

"You’re lying...." The king hissed through clenched teeth.

"Me? Lie?"

A slight movement, a small shadow caught the bard’s attention around the shoulder of the angry king. She continued to taunt him, however, to keep his focus on her. The bard discreetly watched as a small warrior slid out from under the space between the floor and the door and crawled into the laboratory.

It was not the crashing grand entrance that the bard was hoping for, but it would do. Gabrielle continued to distract the king to give Xena a chance to act.

"YOU ARE LYING TO ME!" The king screamed at the bard. " I am the king of earth and water, Xena is my queen of fire and air! My experiment was a success!"

"Your experiment was just so much centaur poop!" The bard countered evenly.

"How dare you....."

"It didn’t work. It was a waste of time. Only the gods know the secret of creation, and they’re not about to share it with the likes of you."

"How DARE you...."

"And even if it did work, what makes you think that XENA would consent to be YOUR queen? Boy, you really didn’t think this through very well did you. Now you have Xena AND the gods angry with you. Not a position I’d like to be in at all, I can tell you that....."

"SHUT UP, you fool!"

Gabrielle continued bravely. She knew she had to keep the king distracted, but she had no idea what it was that her warrior was going to do. She had faith in Xena, though, and that was enough.

"The truth is...you are the king of nothing! Not even of this wonderful city. You gave up that honor when you starting using your own subjects as guinea pigs in your useless experiment. How many lives did you end, just so you could live longer? How many died at your hands for the sake of your experiment?"


King Democritus lost all control. He flung his hand and made solid contact with Gabrielle’s face once again. The blow did more than sting, actually bringing tears to the bard’s eyes. The ringing sound of it stopped Xena in her tracks. She stood frozen in the center of the laboratory, staring at the king’s back, the rage in her eyes boiling over into absolute fury.


The anger coursing through Democritus’s body was causing his skin and muscles to ripple and twist. By the time he had twirled around in response to the warrior’s furious cry, he had manifested into the old man, Paracelsus, blue veins still pulsing through thin, gray skin.

Both Chemeclees and Gabrielle stared in horror as they witnessed the change.

"There you are, my prize. You’ve come back to me. Couldn’t stay away, could you?" Paracelsus drooled in glee as moved away from Gabrielle and advanced on Xena.

"You keep away from her!" Gabrielle cried, struggling in her manacles, hoping that the brick of the wall might be rotted with age. Her cry brought back Paracelsus’ attention to the prisoners.

"Thank you for bringing her to me."

Paracelsus had shifted back into Democritus as he turned to face the bard and apprentice. The visage froze them both in alarm. The king was out of control. His face twisted and shifted from Paracelsus to Democritus and back again like a shadow made by a flickering candle.

Xena realized that Paracelsus was aging with every change, his body becoming more frail, his skin becoming more transparent. If he kept this up, he would die of old age before their eyes. Xena decided to help the process along.

"You want me, you smelly old bag of rotting bones! THEN COME AND GET ME!"

Despite her size, the ululation of her warrior’s cry filled the laboratory, as Xena performed an incredibly fast series of back flips across the stone floor and away from the insane alchemist. Paracelsus roared in anger, decaying flesh stretching across his skeletal features, as he ran after her.

Xena completed once last backflip, landing on her feet and took off in the direction of the hearth. She glanced over her shoulder to ensure that the alchemist was following. And he certainly was. His back was now hunched over, his bony fingers extended like claws. His appearance suddenly rippled into Democritus and he howled in frustration.

Xena reached the wall of the laboratory into which the giant hearth was built. She took two last steps and then flipped herself up and over and onto the brick ledge of the oven. She peeked back beyond her shoulder, very aware of the blazing fire and the huge cauldron bubbling with green liquid directly to her rear. To the small warrior, the hearth fire roared in her ears and she could feel the intense heat of the iron cauldron tickling her back. She suddenly realized what should have been burning her flesh was embracing her like a welcome blanket.

With a few feeble steps, Paracelsus was looming over Xena, wringing his arthritic hands happily. The warrior was uncertain if it was the wind from the chimney, but some power surged over her body causing her hair to whip wildly about in the air and a tingle to travel across hotly burning skin. She stood stock still and let it build, let it course through her, welcoming it with a knowing sneer.

Paracelsus’ energy had apparently abated. His shape shifted one last time and then settled on the old countenance of the alchemist, no longer able to revert to the revitalized visage of the king. The only recognizable feature which remained were his eyes, still clear and cold as glass. He regarded the warrior with selfish arrogance.

"Look how beautiful you are! The power runs through you. You feel it don’t you? Hard to resist, isn’t it? All that power is for you, Xena. Don’t fight it. Let it fill you. Become its receptacle. Use it for your pleasure. It’s what you always wanted anyway, isn’t it. Absolute power. Now you have it. USE IT!"

Gabrielle could hear Paracelsus and watched in fear as Xena’s eyes turned wild. The bard hardly understood what Paracelsus was saying, but she knew whatever it was, she didn’t want Xena to have any part in it.


The bard’s yell caught the warrior’s attention and her fury calmed just a bit.

"Do it or I’ll hurt your little friend. And you know I will, don’t you?"

Xena clenched her fists and stared at the alchemist in warning.

"Don’t... you ....touch.... her...."

"Do it or I’ll kill her."

"Don’t do it, Xena." Gabrielle pleaded from across the room.

"Do it..." Paracelsus growled. Xena stared, her eyes turning to burning flames.

"Do it....." The alchemist urged.

"GIVE IT TO ME!" The old man screamed at the warrior and made a move towards the bard.

"You want it...." the warrior hissed back, "You got it......"

The flames of the hearth surged out from the under the cauldron, engulfing Paracelsus in a huge fire ball. The alchemist screamed and fell back, the flames eating his clothes and licking across his skin. The smell of burnt hair and flesh filled the laboratory with such a stench that both Gabrielle and Chemeclees began to cough, turning their heads from the sight of the burning man in horror.

"XENA!" The bard cried out, squinting her eyes away from the brightness of the blast. She quickly looked back at the hearth, relived to find Xena standing on the ledge of the oven apparently untouched by the surging flames.

Paracelsus stumbled back and forth across the laboratory, knocking over flasks and turning over tables in a panicked effort to extinguish the flames. He spun around and was headed back in the warrior’s direction, the decision obvious in his eyes that if he was going to burn to his death, he was going to take the warrior with him.

Xena stood still as a statue on the ledge, watching in dark satisfaction as the alchemist burned. She stood silently, the power still surging through her, waiting for him to return in her direction. The warrior knew the blast would not destroy him completely. She would have to wait until he embraced her, then she could destroy them both.

It was the only way.

Paracelsus stumbled forward, a human inferno, reaching with blackened hands out from a body engulfed by fire.

"I’m taking you with me, my queen." Paracelsus croaked through cracked lips and burning flesh. Although his face muscles no longer moved, Xena could see his cold eyes smiling.

"I’m all yours." Xena bared unsmiling teeth and beckoned the burning man forward.

"XENA! NO! What are you DOING!" Gabrielle screamed and struggled in earnest against her bonds. She began to kick her legs in frustration. "Chemeclees, don’t just stand there. DO SOMETHING!"

Gabrielle’s plea brought the boy out of frozen shock and he began to struggle as well.

Paracelsus ignored them both and reached to wrap his hands around the warrior. Xena was practically pulsating with power, her skin glowing brightly and then fading with every beat of her heart. Her fiery eyes flicked briefly over to Gabrielle and caught the bard’s in a silent farewell.

The connection brought the bard’s struggle to a standstill.

"No." she whispered in despair.

One more step and Paracelsus would have her. Xena reluctantly pulled her eyes away from the bard and turned to face Paracelsus.

The flames of the hearth surged once in anticipation as the warrior readied herself for the blast that would hopefully blow them both to Hades.



Continued in Step 20


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