Part 6

by: SwordnQuill

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Lao Ma, Alti, Borias, and everyone else who sounds familiar belong to Pac Ren and Universal Studios. I am not making money off of this story.

Genre Disclaimer: Ok. Bear with me, please, because this is kinda tough to explain. Sometime last year, I read a story on the internet that moved me so much, I was inspired to write a sort of companion piece to it. That story was "Lost Soul Walking" by DJWP. In her words, "This is NOT UberXena fiction. It just starts out like it is." The same can be said for this piece. While not directly related to "Lost Soul Walking", "Desert Storm" can be considered a sort of prequel to it. It is a story, if you will, about the lifetime before the one depicted in that fabulous, outstanding story. (Can you tell I loved it?) In addition, this is somewhat of an ambitious piece of fiction, in that I am attempting (don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve attempted) to take the entire X:WP universe and modernize it. We start, in updated terms, with my version of Xena’s betrayal by Caesar (seen in "Destiny"), and continue up through the X:WP episode known as "Remember Nothing". The plot will be very recognizable to you. It’s meant to be that way.

Special note: Because of this, Gabrielle does not appear, except in offhand mention, in a great deal of the first half of this story. Do not look for her, because you won’t find her. After all, she was not a part of ‘evil Xena’s’ life. If she were, things might have turned out differently, but because this is based on the premise of "Lost Soul Walking" it cannot happen differently. Gabrielle will, however, make her presence known, and that quite strongly, in the second half of the story. If you can hang on till then, I believe that you will not be disappointed.

Sexuality and Violence Disclaimers: We’re dealing with an updated dark Xena through much of the first half, and an updated redeemed Xena through the second. There’s gonna be violence. There are gonna be naughty words. There are also descriptions of sexual activity in this work. There are allusions to heterosexual sex, but nothing graphic. There are some graphic (though I hope tasteful) scenes of sexual expression between women as well. That is how I see the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and that is how I will continue to write it.

And, finally, thanks: To, as always, the incomparable Mike. A better beta and a better friend one could never hope for. Thank you also, as always, to Mary D, who rescued this story from the refuse heap and begged me to keep going on it. If you hate it, blame her. <w> Grateful and heartfelt appreciation goes out to DJWP, for continuing to write stories that grab me somewhere above the liver and giving her kind permission to mention her story in these disclaimers. If you haven’t read her stories, please, do yourself a favor and do so. Finally, this story is dedicated to a group of people without whom I would most probably be living on the streets. Elizabeth, Rachel, Sulli, and the rest of the "Get Sue to Atlanta" crew, this one’s for you!

Feedback: As always is gratefully appreciated. If you wrote to me regarding "Redemption" during the month of September to early October and I haven’t responded, please allow me the honor of apologizing in public. It was then that I was at my lowest point and making ready to move to my new home. Your words of praise and encouragement for my writing kept me firmly out of the pit of depression I was falling into and I shall be forever grateful to each and every one of you who took the time out to feed this bard. And for those of you patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for Redemption’s sequel, fear not, for with the conclusion of this piece, that piece will be started. Any and all who wish to may write me at . I’ll continue to do my best to answer each and every email. An exploding mailbox is a good thing to have. Thanks again!



by: Sword’n’Quill (Susanne Beck)

Same Day. Hidden Room Deep in the Inner City. Chengdu, China.

Kael sat on a tattered sofa, eating from a slimy cardboard carton and trying to pay attention to the governmental drivel being spouted from the snowy television. Ming Dao remained silent through the whole ordeal, never taking his eyes off the tall woman who had taken him from his home. It was starting to get on the American’s nerves.

"You mute or something?" she growled, flicking a few pieces of rice at him with her chopsticks.

Though he made no move to remove the rice from his face and hair, Ming Dao shook his head slowly.

"Just not one for talkin’, huh?" Kael said around a mouthful of food. "I can relate."

The boy continued to stare, unblinking, at her.

"Ya know, I could put your eyes out with these, if I wanted." She jabbed the utensils toward the boy, snickering when she saw him flinch away from her. "That’s better." She slumped back into the couch, patting her stomach, then folding her hands over it. "Your daddy’s a really mean guy, Ming Dao. But he has one weakness. Ya know what that is?"

Solemnly, the boy shook his head ‘no’.

Kael grinned. "You. Yup. Your old man loves ya. So much that he had your mother killed just so she couldn’t love ya too." She laughed at Ming Lao’s wide-eyed expression of shock. "Didn’t know that, didja. It’s true, you know." She drew a finger across her throat. "Just like that. Dead." Her voice took on a sing-song quality. "He wanted you all to himself." Her grin widened, becoming malicious. "It’s gonna be his undoing."

She stretched luxuriously, then let out a contented belch. "When you grow up, assuming you ever do, remember one thing, little Ming. Love makes you weak. It gives your enemies a tool to use against you. And believe me, they’ll use it." Her grin was self-satisfied. "Just like I did. Remember that."

Ming Dao’s eyes were deadly serious as he nodded at her, absorbing the information deep into his soul.


A short while later, a polite knock came to the door and Kael flew off the couch, peering through the peep-hole. Smiling, she swung the door open, allowing her visitors entrance. Two stocky, heavily armed men stepped into the room, followed by a petite woman in a flowing silk gown. Ushering her guests inside, Kael returned to the couch, sprawling her rangy body down over the lumpy cushions. "Well?"

One of the guards stepped closer, a smile on his face. "He received your message and accepts your terms." His smile turned mocking as he set his gaze on Ming Lao. "His only concern is for his poor, dear boy."

Kael returned the smile. "I’m sure it is." She turned her attention to the other man. "You have the stuff."

Nodding, the man handed a large bag over to the American, standing silent while she pawed through the contents. "Perfect," she said finally, zipping up the duffel and laying it beside the couch. "Are we all set otherwise?"

The second man nodded. "Everything is in order."

Kael nodded, crossing her arms over her chest and smiling. "Good. Go on back to the estate and keep your eyes open. Anything looks strange, notify me immediately, understand?"

"It shall be as you wish," the man said, bowing deeply and turning to leave the room.

The American turned her icy gaze to the second man. "Take up a position outside. Contact me if anyone suspicious comes sniffing around."

"As you wish," the second man replied, bowing, then hefting his weapon as he let himself out of the rooms.

That left only the petite woman and the young boy. Looking at the woman, Kael’s smile deepened into one of seduction. Which, unfortunately, was ruined by a jaw-cracking yawn, reminding her that her last shot at sleep had been more than forty eight hours prior. She looked at the silken vision before her regretfully, pleased by the woman’s charming blush and downcast eyes. Kael sighed, then bent down and retrieved a semi-automatic weapon from the duffel she’d been given earlier. "Keep an eye on this little monster while I go in the back. If anyone knocks, come and get me. Don’t answer the door under any circumstances. Understand?"

The woman nodded silently, eyes still downcast as the tall woman moved to stand before her.

Kael hefted her weapon, pointing its lethal muzzle squarely between the staring almond eyes of Ming Lao. "Behave, little Ming," she growled.

The boy nodded solemnly, never taking his eyes off hers.

Grinning, she lowered her weapon and made for the back room, slamming the door behind her and sinking blissfully into the soft down of the mattress, her weapon at her side.


Kael woke from her deep sleep quickly, in the space between one heartbeat and the next, her senses fully extended, her being silent, even her breathing halted. The muffled sound of quiet voices was heard through the thin boundary of the room’s wall. It was difficult to pick up the words, but the tones were unmistakable. One speaker was her female companion, the other was . . .she strained still further . . .one of her guards, the one she had sent over to watch Ming Dao’s estate. Kael’s hand gripped convulsively around the gun at her side as her eyes narrowed, straining to hear the quietly murmured words, her body shouting out warnings of immediate danger.

Her eyes darted about the small, dark room, assessing her chances for escape, were one needed. They were very slim. Only a small, reinforced window sitting well above her bed gave her any hope. The sound of an almost silent knocking to the main door, and the further sound of that door quietly opening and closing, spurred the tall American into action. Quickly, soundlessly, she rolled from the bed, her weapon poised and ready in her hands. Almost without thought, she leapt on top of the tall, rickety dresser, knowing that if her betrayers burst in, they would aim for the bed first.

There she stayed, silent, waiting, her body pumping adrenaline through her system, infusing her musculature, readying it for action. A dark smile creased her shadowed features, despite the danger about to face her. Only at times like this, her death a very real possibility, did Kael feel fully, impossibly, alive. One long finger caressed the trigger of her weapon like the tender skin of a lover.

In the brief eternity of waiting, her mind had time to contemplate and chastise her for her stupidity in trusting people so easily bought with drugs and money. Further self-flagellating thoughts of that nature were mercifully silenced by the sound of confident footsteps leading to the door to her room. Her nostrils flared and she could fairly smell the scent of betrayal as it oozed its way under the crack at the bottom of the door.

From her place in the veiled shadows of the night, Kael watched intently as the moon-bathed doorknob twisted slowly, once, twice. Her fierce eyes glinted briefly in amusement she heard a muffled curse directed to the locked door. The footsteps backed away a pace and she readied herself for action.

The door blew open with a resounding crack, arcing gracefully toward the wall, its now impotent knob breaking through the wall’s weak plaster and sending puffs of white up and out to be caught by the moon’s light as it mimicked snow.

A large bull of a man burst through the open doorway, his weapon hefted and ready. The rapid sound of gunfire sounded loud in the tiny confines. Bits of shredded betting and wall plaster scattered throughout the room, drifting on the stained and colorless rug. As the man stepped in further, confident his goal had been met, Kael drew a bead on his bald, shining head and squeezed the trigger ever so gently. The man’s head disappeared in a fountain of blood and gore. His body bounced off the bed, then rolled to lay beneath her.

Two more heavily muscled men burst into the room, firing blindly. Kael picked them off easily, the grin of her bared and growling teeth a specter in the moonlight.

The fourth man to enter was a bit calmer, and was able to crease her shin with a bullet before his firing went awry, doing Kael’s job for her by splintering the room’s only avenue of escape. She finished him off as well, trying to keep her weight off her injured leg while still maintaining balance on the wobbling dresser.

Shouting in the other room told Kael her time had well and truly run out. Wincing at the pain of her wound, the American squatted slightly against the wall, then flung her body up and to the left, bracing for impact with the lethal shards of glass left behind.

Hot breath hissed through her teeth as razor sharp glass tore through her thin cotton shirt, imbedding itself into the warm skin below her shoulders. A brief instant of weightlessness and she was falling free, her long body propelled into the chill air by the strength of her legs. She maintained enough presence of mind to compact her body into a tight tuck and roll and sped toward the onrushing ground feet first. Her wounded leg gave out and Kael sprawled onto the broken pavement, glass shards showering over her bloodied form.

Quickly, she broke herself out of her mild daze, pulling herself up to her feet and grabbing her weapon securely against her. A quick look up at the broken window and the weapon muzzles suddenly protruding from it and she was off, limping and running down the midnight-deserted inner city streets, leaving several trails of blood behind to mark her passing.

Running steps and weapons fire came inexorably closer as Kael stumbled her way down the damp city streets, scraping her palms raw against the crumbling cement as her leg intermittently gave way, dumping her onto the pavement.

"C’mon, Kael, run," she whispered to herself, beads of sweat popping out over her eyes and lips. "You’ve been through worse before and came out just fine on the other end."

The gray haze of too many sleepless nights, too much opium, and blood loss threatened to take her under with it as she stumbled to the ground once again. Jumping back to her feet, she reached down and jabbed a finger directly into the bullet hole in her shin.

Agony sliced through her like razor wire, jerking her back from the precipice of semi-consciousness she had been about to fall into. Her eyes darted back and forth along the narrow street, looking for escape routes as she ran, just barely keeping ahead of the quickly approaching armed mob.

A tiny alley off to the left caught her vision and she darted into it, almost slipping in the accumulated water and debris littering the pavement. The alley stank of rotting food and the slimy mess squelched around her bare feet, turning her already nauseated stomach.

"Adapt and overcome," she muttered to herself, trying to make herself as invisible and silent as possible. The water and sodden garbage would serve to hide her blood trail, giving her just a bit more breathing room.

Easing back against one dirty, wet and crumbling brick wall, she peered carefully around the corner, ducking back quickly as she caught a glimpse of the onrushing men. She pulled back completely into the shadows as they flew past and watched as a sputtering streetlamp gilded their features in gold.

Her blood froze in her veins.

"Geraldo, you stinking son of a whore. You betrayed me." Her lips peeled back in a death’s head smile. "You’d better light a few more candles to the Virgin tonight, my friend. Cause you’re gonna need her help where you’re goin’."

Turning as quickly as she was able, Kael darted out the other end of the alleyway, making a complete circle so as to briefly confuse her pursuers.

Then she made another circle through intersecting alleys and headed back down the main thoroughfare, listening closely for any hint that the enemy was getting closer.

A loud shout echoed off the dank walls looming over the streets, causing Kael to shoot a quick look over her left shoulder, trying to pinpoint the sound. As a consequence, her next step was halted, unannounced, when she came into contact with a slight, warm body.

Her body stiffened as if galvanized and she brought her bloodied hands up in a defensive posture as she whipped her head around, stringy tendrils of her hair plastering themselves to her face.

Realizing that only a slight, if beautiful, Asian woman was the only thing impeding her path, she pressed her open hands against the woman’s narrow shoulders and pushed.

The woman didn’t move. Not the slightest inch.

Kael shoved harder, with the same result. It was like trying to push a boulder socketed into the earth.

"Come with me," the woman said serenely, her English barely accented.

"Get outta my way!" Kael snarled, pushing away.

Her eyes widened in shock as she found herself helplessly restrained by a woman half her size.

"You will die like a dog in an alley if you do not come with me now," the woman said, her intense stare cutting through Kael’s drug and adrenaline-induced haze. Her voice was calming, serene.

"Who are you?"

The woman didn’t answer. Instead, she looked past Kael’s shoulder. "You must make your choice now. I have no wish to lose my life with yours."

A short second later, Kael heard the shouting of the men trailing her. She looked back at the strange woman still holding her. It was like looking into the surface of an utterly still pool of water. She felt all resistance leave her.

The woman smiled, the expression lighting up her face and making it radiant.

Shifting her grip to Kael’s elbow, the woman gently ushered the tall American into the building from which she’d appeared. The door closed almost silently behind them.

Kael stiffened as she heard the sound of feminine giggling from above. Immediately in front of her was a long set of steps ascending into an unknown part of the building in which she now found herself. At the top of those steps, young, painted Asian women giggled behind the hems of their colorful robes.

The American turned to the smaller woman, her eyes again wide. "A whorehouse? You took me into a whorehouse?"

If the Asian was perturbed by Kael’s question, she certainly didn’t show it. "Safety is often found in the last place one would think to look," she replied.

Kael shook her head in amazement as the women above giggled once again. "Who are you?" she asked again.

"I am Mistress of this place. Welcome to my home, Kael Androstos."

Pulling the woman up from her formal bow, Kael bared her teeth. "How do you know my name," she demanded, her grip like iron about the thin, almost frail, woman’s upper arm. "How!?!"

"I know many things about you, your name the least significant among them," the woman replied serenely, not showing a hint of pain from the American’s tight grip. "Please follow me."

Shrugging off Kael’s hand as if it were but a minor annoyance, the woman gathered up her robe and began to walk up the steps, leaving the American to follow, bewildered, behind her.

When they got to the top of the stairs, the woman issued a terse set of orders to her employees in a dialect Kael, an expert on many foreign languages, didn’t understand. A moment later, several of the women scampered back down the steps, bearing towels and water which they used to wipe away any traces of the American’s passage.

The woman led Kael through a myriad of rooms which the drug lord guessed were part of the living quarters of the massive pleasure house. Everywhere they walked, groups of smiling, giggling women would follow their passage with sparkling almond eyes.

As they were just about to enter the largest of the rooms, which looked to Kael to be a formal sitting room, a loud pounding was heard from the downstairs door, the rear exit which Kael had been ushered through just moments before.

Her savior quickly grasped Kael by the elbow and urged her into the sitting room. The floor was made of highly polished wood and a simple white rug lay beneath a low, long table. The two women walked quickly to the northwest corner of the room, where the older woman released Kael’s arm and bent down, somehow grasping some hidden lip and pulling up a section of the flooring, exposing a dark space below. "Hurry inside. It is damp and small, but it will keep you safe. Go. Now."

"I’m not . . . ." Kael protested.

She was interrupted by a louder pounding and yelled obscenities from the other side of the door.

"Now. Please."

Nodding, the American jumped down into the hole, her feet hitting the ground quickly. Half of her body was still above the flooring, and she carefully, and painfully, shimmied into the space.

Tight, indeed.

She sat there, knees pulled up to her chin, her head bowed, as the flooring was lowered over her, encasing her in total darkness.

"Great," she muttered, her breathing loud in the tiny confines of the crawlspace.

Once the American was sufficiently hidden, the woman dusted off her hands and made her way back through the house and down the stairs. Taking a moment to make sure her appearance was nothing short of perfect, she opened the door, smiling serenely.

At the sight of her late night visitor, she bowed deeply. "I am honored that you have chosen to visit my unworthy home, Ming Dao. What might I do to assist you this evening?"

"I want the bitch. I know you have her."

"I’m afraid I don’t understand you, Ming Dao. If you are looking for a woman, I have many that might please you, Most Honored One."

Ming Dao lifted his hand to slap the woman, then appeared to think better of the action. "You know damn well who I’m talking about. The blue-eyed American bitch. I know she’s in here. Her trail leads right to your door."

"I assure you, Honored Guest, I have not seen the person of whom you speak. You may, of course, feel free to search my home, if it pleases you." So saying, she stepped away from the door, one robe covered arm bidding entrance to the Chinese drug lord and his men.

With a grunt, Ming Dao gestured to his men, and all pushed past the tiny woman and into the vast home.

When everyone had reached the top of the stairs, the drug lord motioned his men off in different directions while he remained behind. "If it pleases you," the woman said, bowing again, "allow me the honor of serving you while your men carry out their work."

"That . . .would be acceptable," Ming Dao replied, allowing his ‘host’ to lead him into the formal sitting room, where pots of tea, mugs, and Chinese delicacies already awaited the pair.

As the two seated themselves, another woman entered the room, clothed in formal robes, and began serving the two, pouring tea and arranging the finger foods as the sounds of a room to room search echoed through the cavernous building.

From her spot beneath it all, Kael struggled against the cramps that were threatening her contorted body. The bullet wound throbbed and stung. She gritted her teeth against the pain. With her sensitive hearing, she struggled to pick up the conversation taking place almost directly over her head, but the trap door had been seated so perfectly that only the tiniest of unintelligible sounds floated down to her from above.

She sighed softly in frustration before almost blowing her cover when something soft and twitchy brushed against the skin of her hand. In a lighting move, she lashed out and caught her visitor, knowing what it was by the shape of its body, even in the total darkness. Her lip curled in revulsion. God, do I hate rats.

A quick twist of her fingers and the rat was no more.

Dropping the corpse next to her body, she wiped her hand on her dirty, tattered pants and willed that none of the deceased’s family would come investigate the homicide.

Totally oblivious to the object of his search hiding almost below his ample posterior, Ming Dao finished the last of his tea and placed the mug down with an impudent clatter. Just as he was about to speak, one of his men came into the room and bowed. "The search is complete, sir. We have not found the woman."

Ming Dao slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the plates and cups. "What do you mean you haven’t found her? She is here! Search again!"

"But sir . . . ."

"Search again!!! Keep searching until you find her! Is that clear? Do you understand me?!?"

The man bowed again. "As you wish, sir."


12 May 1991. Very early morning. Chinese Pleasure House. Chengdu, China.

It was well into the hours of the early morning when Ming Dao was finally persuaded to give up the search. His men had searched the whorehouse from top to bottom, bottom to top, and hadn’t found anything. All the women had been questioned, several times each, without any leads.

Ming Dao’s face was flushed brick with rage.

He stood nose to nose with the petite Asian woman, his entire body trembling with barely suppressed anger. "That . . .woman . . .was . . .here!" he enunciated clearly from between clenched teeth.

The woman remained supremely unfazed. "If she was, she is here no longer. Your men have searched every inch of my home, Ming Dao. There is no one here."

"You know she was here! That door can only be opened from the inside. Tell me where you sent her or I will burn this place to the ground and you and all your whores with it!"

The woman smiled, then bowed her head. "This home, these women and, of course, myself are yours to do with as you will, Honorable Ming Dao. If it pleases you to burn all that we are, it is not my place to stop you. But, I assure you, I cannot tell you what I do not know."

Ming Dao looked deep into the eyes of the woman, someone he had known for years upon years. He could detect no sign of malfeasance in her calm stare. But, then again, he never could.

His fists balled in frustration, but, in the end, he was forced to go with the inevitable. Gathering up his men, the drug lord shooed them down the stairs and out the door. "My men will be watching this place very carefully," he warned. "If that whore is found within a mile of here, I’ll follow through on my threat. Do not be so complacent as to think that I won’t."

"I would never presume to believe such a thing, Ming Dao," the woman replied, bowing deeply. "Thank you for honoring my humble dwelling with your presence. It is my hope that we shall meet again, under more pleasant circumstances."

Damn the woman! Ming Dao thought as he threw one last warning glare at her before finally turning and leaving the establishment. I know she knows more than she is telling me. I can smell her treachery. I just can’t prove it. And I can’t afford to be wrong. Not with her.

With a last, frustrated glare, Ming Dao turned and left the building. The war is not lost, he told himself as the door closed behind him. If revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, I will wait until the very sun freezes into a ball of ice. I will have that woman. If it takes my last breath to do so, I will have her.


After seeing her guests safely from her home, the petite Asian woman returned to the sitting room after issuing orders to some of the women who rejoined her. Walking over to the area housing the underground crawlspace, she pulled at the nearly invisible joins at the flooring and, as if by magic, the opening beneath was revealed.

Kael, trapped within her enforced misery for several hours, threw her hands up and squinted into the sudden, blinding light, blinking rapidly. Her cramped body was coiled and tense, ready for action, if such would be required.

The woman simply smiled down at her, lowering an outstretched hand. "The danger has passed. It is safe now."

Ignoring the offer of help, Kael carefully braced her hands on the floorboards and hauled her long body out of the tiny hole, determined not to show any weakness to this strange woman. Her injured leg threatened to give way beneath her, but she managed to maintain a steady pose, eyeing the other woman expectantly, eyebrow raised.

"Please, come with me, Kael Androstos," the woman said. "It has been a long and no-doubt trying evening. A bath, clean clothes, and a bed have all been prepared for you. Allow me to take you to them."

Kael, who could easily smell the waves of stink radiating up from her filthy body, swallowed any objections she might have voiced, and instead nodded to the woman, opting to follow her through the house once again.

The woman led Kael into an enormous bathing chamber. The huge tub was filled with steaming water upon which lotus blossoms floated. "I will take your clothes and you may bathe at your leisure."

Looking down at the smaller woman, Kael was again struck by her delicate beauty. A cocky snicker curled her lips and she reached up slowly to begin unbuttoning her tattered, stained shirt. "I normally don’t get naked in front of a beautiful woman who’s name I don’t know," she purred, slowly revealing and displaying her body to its greatest advantage in the dim, humid light.

"You seem to have a strange fascination with names. Are they truly that important to you?"

Kael shrugged. "Sometimes. And since you seem to know mine . . . ." Naked, she spread her long arms out, her grin a mixture of cocky surety and outright sultriness.

"You’re a very interesting woman."

"So they say."

The woman was silent a moment, thinking. Then she gave the slightest of sighs. "I am known as Lao Ma."

Kael’s eyebrow ascended. "A very . . .historic . . .name. For a whorehouse madam, especially."

"One of my ancestors was wife to Lao T’su."

The American’s grin widened. "She must be spinning in her grave over what became of her line."

Lao Ma’s eyes narrowed. "As must yours be."

Kael dropped her arms, her aura fairly bristling with malicious intent. "What do you mean."

Lao Ma sighed again. "It is nothing. Please forgive my rudeness. You are a guest in my home. You would honor me greatly by accepting my hospitality."

Kael remained motionless, trying to read the woman before her. It was trying to look through a mirror. Her jaw tightened in frustration. Then her body signaled its fervent desire to give in to its insidious craving for relief. The bath called, its siren’s voice too seductive for even Kael to ignore. Shooting Lao Ma a glare that would have felled a lesser person in their tracks, she stepped over the lip and into the tub, pausing only as the hot water lapped stingingly at her open wound.

Fortunately, the wound, though painful, was less severe than she had first thought, being merely a crease to the muscled part of her shin and calf and managing to miss the bones entirely; a fact for which she was profoundly grateful.

The pause was but a brief one, and before a second had passed, Kael had immersed her long frame into water up to her chin. She bit back a groan of utter bliss as the water immediately started to work its magic on her abused body, loosening knots even she hadn’t known she had.

"I’m going soft," she hissed into a now empty room, Lao Ma having left silently as soon as Kael was fully immersed herself. Grabbing some pleasantly scented soap, she slapped her hand down into the water. "I can’t believe I let those bastards get the drop on me. Trusting a bunch of drugged out half-wits. What was I thinking?!? Since when have I ever trusted anyone but myself?"

Washing her skin so harshly that her flesh turned red from the abuse, Kael tried to think of the answer to her own question. When had she ever trusted anyone but herself? Iraq? Perhaps, to some extent. She needed to trust in her team in order to complete her missions. But that trust always went so far and no further.

She winced internally, trying to push that train of thought off the tracks before she would be forced to re-examine the steaming trash heap her life had become.

Some things just didn’t bear too close an inspection.

Placing the soap back into its holder, she leaned back, stretched out, and allowed herself to fall into a light, healing doze, confident that her senses would warn her if danger came lurking about.

And so it was with a nasty surprise that she jerked awake from her peaceful sleep to a soft voice whispering in her ear. "Keep your eyes closed," the voice advised.

Kael struggled to sit up, but the hand on her shoulder exerted more force than she was capable of resisting. Shock ran through her nerve endings as her languid muscles jumped to attention.

"Please, you are in no danger. I have merely come to ask if you should wish help in washing your hair."

The identity of the voice filtered through her panicked senses and Kael relaxed minutely, grunting out her assent, not trusting herself to do anything more than that.

Soon, warm water cascaded down over her head. Then a sweet-scented shampoo was massaged into her hair by fingers that were far stronger than they appeared at first glance. Against her better judgement, the American felt herself relaxing once again, calmed by a force she didn’t understand. That alone set her internal alarm jangling discordantly, but she didn’t seem to have the will to fight against it.

All too soon, the wonderful massage was completed, and her hair rinsed of its burden. As if in a dream, Kael allowed Lao Ma to help her from the tub and found herself standing silently and complacently as the tiny Asian woman gently toweled her skin dry.

Almost as serene as her much-venerated ancestor, this Lao Ma was also just as human. Like the woman many years dead, she found herself powerfully drawn to the tall, powerful and supremely willful person she had saved from Ming Dao and his thugs. Her body responded just as powerfully to the beautiful woman’s nakedness and she allowed that attraction to flow through her naturally. For it was the natural order of things upon which her whole philosophy rested.

Still, she kept her response from being detected outwardly. Lao Ma was a woman of great vision, and she knew that if she was to complete the task which her worthy ancestor had failed, she must step as carefully as one would upon entering an adder’s den.

After Kael was sufficiently dry, Lao Ma led her over to a simple chair on one side of the bathing chamber. "Please, sit and I will attend to your wound."

Kael did as she was bade, laying her injured leg on a footstool Lao Ma provided. The petite Asian’s hands were gentle, her touch soothing. Before the American knew it, her wound was cleansed and bandaged and she was back on her feet, accepting a simple, unadorned blue silk robe which Lao Ma slipped over her shoulders, tying the sash off and smiling at the taller woman.

"If it pleases you, I will show you to your room. The bed is prepared and you may sleep as long as you wish."

Still in an almost trance-like state, Kael merely nodded and once again followed Lao Ma through the cavernous building until they reached a small, sparsely furnished room. A narrow pallet, covered in silk sheets, took up most of the floor space. Untying the robe, Kael allowed it to fall to the floor before slipping between the sheets of the bed awaiting her.

She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Lao Ma stared down at the sleeping American for a long moment. A smile crossed her face briefly, then was gone. Desires move the mind to activity. Stillness is the Way of all things. Sleep well in your stillness, Kael Androstos.

Then, like a shadow among shadows, she was gone.

To Be Continued...


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