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Time to Kill

by nighthawksm
nitehawksm@yahoo.com


Disclaimer: This story depicts scenes of extreme violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. Sorry all, but the devil made me do it.

 


"Are you sure this is the right place, Xena?"

"Yep. This is the place."

The two women stood in the leafy foliage and looked up at their destination. Where they stood, tall trees rose high into the sky, the dark brown trunks adding to the gloom of the woods behind them. At the edge where they stood, however, the sun was allowed an unhindered journey to the ground and it glistened off the lush green ferns that rose tall enough to reach the younger womanís chest.

All this enhanced the scene in the clearing before them. In the middle of a huge, flat clearing stood a tall, gloomy, gray castle. The place looked run down -- moss and vines creeped up the decaying stone walls of the fortress. Chunks of rock littered the ground around the castle, having fallen from their lofty perches atop the walls. The windows were hastily boarded up. Planks of wood went every which way, leaving cracks of space for an outsider to look into the dark recesses of the castle. Up at the top of a high, prominent tower, torn, faded black curtains blew through the window. The fabric was shredded and looked as though a wild animal had gotten hold of it. All in all, the place wasnít very inviting. Compared to the dark, forbidding forest that surrounded the castle on nearly every side, it still managed to look menacing. Any traveler who happened by would, despite conditions or need of shelter, continue past this hollow shell of a palace.

Gabrielle sighed as she looked at the desolate castle and shook her head in confusion. "Why in Zeusí name would Hercules and Iolaus pick this of all places to meet us at? Couldnít they have chosen a nice, cozy little inn somewhere? This place gives me the creeps."

"Oh, come on. Itís not that bad," Xena said lightly, putting her arm around the bardís shoulders to calm her. "Iíll protect you from any spiders and vermin you find in there."

Gabrielle shot Xena a dark look and softly backhanded her friend in the stomach. She shrugged the arm off her shoulder and resumed her trek through the leafy plants toward the castle. Xena laughed and in two steps caught up to the bard as she picked her way through the ferns.

"Look, Iím sure they must have had a good reason for picking this place. Weíll just have to wait until they arrive to find out what it is," Xena said.

"Thatís not supposed to be for several days yet. Xena, why donít we go to that nice village we saw a while back? Itís only a few miles away and we could come back here when weíre supposed to meet up with Hercules. Honestly, Xena, I donít want to stay here."

"What could possibly go wrong? This place has been abandoned for years! Besides, would you really like having to walk through all *this* again?" Xena asked as she swatted a tall fern out of her face.

"We could always take the road like civilized people do, Xena." Gabrielle pointed to the narrow dirt road that led up to the front of the castle. Xena grinned sheepishly when she saw the cleared path.

"Yeah, well I figured you could use the work-out," she replied.

"Right," Gabrielle said sarcastically, not believing a word of it. "And another thing. Why *was* this place abandoned? There must have been good reason for everyone to leave, and Iím not sure I want to find out what it was."

"Gabrielle, nothing is going to happen. Trust me."

Gabrielle sighed and shook her head slightly. "I do trust you, Xena, but you canít control everything. Some things are even out of your power."

Xena walked silently behind her friend for a few moments, thinking over what had been said. She dismissively swatted at some of the overgrown shrubbery before she spoke again.

"Look, Gabrielle," Xena started, reaching out with her free hand and turning the young bard around to look at her. Xena rested her hands on Gabrielleís shoulders and gazed into her eyes, searching for the words to relay her thoughts to her friend. "I promise that if we see anything suspicious in there, weíll go to an inn. Letís just look around here, though. Maybe youíll change your mind about leaving."

Gabrielle thought the offer over and closed her eyes resignedly. She was less than thrilled about the idea of going into the castle, but for Xenaís sake...

"All right," Gabrielle acceded, nodding her head. "But if thereís anything even remotely strange, we leave right away, right?"

"Right."

"Okay, letís go then." Gabrielle turned and started back through the brush. Just a few more feet...

The pair emerged from the tangled mess of plants, glad to be free from their unrelenting grip. Gabrielle sighed in relief before turning to Xena.

"Next time we take the road."

Xena sheepishly smiled her agreement.

"Good. Now come on. Letís get this over with," Gabrielle commanded, pulling Xena along behind her towards the entrance to the castle. Xena laughed.

"Bossy little thing, arenít you?" she joked.

"Donít call me little," Gabrielle told the warrior, her tone threatening. Still, she couldnít help smiling a bit.

"Yes, maíam."

The pair walked briskly though the brown dead grass towards the castle. Gabrielle picked her way through the stones littered throughout the clearing with her staff and the two eventually came to the front door.

A tarnished brass doorknocker hung loosely from the cracked, rotting wood door. The brown wood splintered in places and was weathered down all over. In the middle a huge gash mark was heavily indented in the wood, and in places the lighter colored wood could be seen beneath.

Gabrielle leaned forward and eyed the doorknocker intently. It was in the shape of a ghastly, twisted face. The eyes were slitted evilly, the ears pointed up, and sharp looking fangs appeared in the beingís mouth. The lips were curved in a disgusting, sick smirk. The brass handgrip hung from the pig-shaped nose on the ugly face.

"What a nice, inviting place," Gabrielle joked. Her spirits lifted by her light banter with Xena, and her resolve strengthened by the warriorís earlier promise, Gabrielle playfully reached out and rapped the knocker. At once, the large door fell backwards and hit the ground with a resounding crash and a large cloud of dust. The brass knocker hung limply from Gabrielleís hand as the young woman stared dazedly into the now-empty space before her.

"Nice," Xena commented, stepping past her shaken friend through the doorway. She looked up at the walls by the door and, upon finding what she was looking for, drew out a dagger and some flint and lit a torch upon the wall. Then she turned her attention back to Gabrielle. "Well, what are you waiting for? Come on."

Her pulse racing, Gabrielle blinked her eyes rapidly and shook her head to bring herself out of her shock. Done, she dropped the gnarled knocker to the ground and stepped in to stand beside her friend.

Gabrielle looked around the mostly dark room, trying to determine where it ended and what was inside. Nearly 100 yards away, a faint ray of light shone through a crack in one of the half-boarded windows and left a faint yellow streak on the floor. Just off to the right about 15 short paces away was a staircase leading upwards. Gabrielle couldnít tell how high it went since only the bottom two steps were visible in the torchlight, but she figured it must have been pretty high considering another ray of light shone in about 45 yards up.

"By the gods, Xena, this place is huge!" she whispered in amazement.

"Yes. Letís find out just how huge it is," the warrior replied, grabbing the torch out of the sconce and starting off along the left wall. Gabrielle hurried to get by her friendís side.

After quite some time, their survey of the room was complete. Every torch on the every wall had been lit, the boards had been pried off of each window, and the whole room was now visible. Gabrielle rubbed her bruised shins, which had managed to find every chair, table leg, and footstool long before the eye could.

"Xena, this place is magnificent! It really must have been something at one time," Gabrielle uttered in awe, her pain forgotten. Xena merely nodded.

The two friends gazed at the monstrous room they stood in. The large chamber, despite being covered in layers in dust and cobwebs, still retained some of its old splendor. The floor was made of a polished white marble that, had it not been for all the grime, would most likely have shone brilliantly. The walls were covered with a thin wood paneling, the sconces jutting out at angles every so often so as not to cause fire. Large stone columns rose majestically from the floor to the ceiling high above in each corner of the room. Hanging down from the center of the ceiling was a grand crystal chandelier with unlit candles interrupting the dazzle of the clear rocks every so often. Gabrielle imagined that when the candles were lit or when the sun was in the right position, it probably cast a sparkling array of colorful beams down into the room.

Furniture was scattered in various places about the room. Comfy seats surrounded a large fireplace in one corner, and a nice dining area was set up in the back of the room where many narrow windows let light flow into. A small wooden table was positioned near the curving stairwell, right below the dusty banister that protected anyone in the area overlooking the large chamber from a long drop. The wall on that side of the room held several doorways leading out of the room, and the tall stairway, covered in red plush carpet that led to the second floor.

"Do you want to go upstairs or keep looking down here?" Xena inquired of the awe-struck young bard.

The magnificence of the large room overrode Gabrielleís earlier apprehension and her face lit up.

"Upstairs! Iíll race you!" Gabrielle shouted, taking off towards the stairs. Xena shrugged and jogged after her friend.

Gabrielle bounded up the soft stairs, taking two and sometimes three at a time. When she reached the top she breathlessly ran over to the wooden railing overlooking the room below. She stood there with her hands lightly resting on the creaky, unsteady wood frame, gazing down. A moment later Xena was by her side.

Gabrielle turned her face to look at her friend, her eyes wide with wonder. As Xena stared at her young companion, she noted how young, innocent, and beautiful she looked. The torchlight from downstairs glowed on the right half of Gabrielleís face, making her golden hair sparkle. Coupled with the darkness upstairs that hooded the other side of her face, the contrasts gave Gabrielle a cherubic appearance.

"Itís amazing, isnít it, Xena?" Gabrielle exclaimed, showing her perfect white teeth in her dazzling smile.

"Yes, it is," Xena quietly replied, nodding her head slightly. Her pale blue eyes sparkled in the torchlight from below.

Gabrielle looked fondly at her best friend a few moments longer before her smile turned dangerous. "Donít you dare say I told you so," she warned.

Xena laughed in surprise. "I wasnít..." she loudly protested until Gabrielle narrowed her eyes suspiciously at her. "Well, maybe I was going to." She laughed again at the bardís knowing glare.

"Thatís what I thought," Gabrielle admonished, jabbing her index finger playfully into Xenaís leather clad stomach. Abruptly, she grabbed Xenaís hand and led her off down the dark hallway. "Come on. Letís see what other surprises this place has in store."

"Yes maíam," Xena replied, chuckling as she was pulled down the unlit corridor.

****

It took hours to fully explore the castle and by the time Xena and Gabrielle had finished, the sun was gone from the sky and night had descended.

Nearly all the rooms had been explored -- the kitchen, dining room, pantry, and all the many bedrooms. Each room had been thoroughly furnished, and despite the layers of dust that covered everything, the place still seemed fit to be inhabited.

Gabrielle had been thrilled to see the large library upstairs. Scrolls and manuscripts were piled on huge bookcases, and they reached up to the ceiling. Before Gabrielle could delve into the piles, however, Xena had dragged her off to finish their explorations, promising plenty of time to read later.

When the two had finished their search of the castle, there had still been one room that Xena and Gabrielle had been unable to enter. In the main hall downstairs, every room except for this one had been accessible. No amount of physical effort could wrench the door open, and finally Xena and Gabrielle had to give up.

Behind the castle in a small walled off area they had found an empty stable, the roof threatening to cave in at any moment. Light filtered in through a large hole in the corner of the roof where the elements had done their work. Xena and Gabrielle had decided that any further inspection of the stable would be unwise.

A woodsmanís hut was also in the backyard of the castle. A large pile of decaying wood was stacked up on one side of the building, a rusty old axe lying on top. There was hardly anything inside the shack, though. A few empty, crooked shelves hung on the walls, ready to fall down, and the center of the room was completely filled by a large, dirty tub. Other than that, there was nothing.

The tired duo walked slowly up the winding stairway towards the bedrooms. Gabrielle looked down at the large room below. The torchlight flickered in the small breeze that wafted through the windows. Compared to the darkness outside, the glowing interior of the castle seemed eerie.

The two friends finished walking up the staircase and Xena murmured goodnight. As she headed towards one of the bedrooms, a hand on the arm halted her advance.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked tentatively.

Xena turned to face her friend. "Yes?"

"Would you mind if I stayed with you? Iím not sure I like the idea of being alone in this place."

Xena raised her eyebrow and looked her young friend in the eye. Finally she nodded and resumed her walk down the hall. "Thanks," Gabrielle told Xena, relieved.

"You arenít still having doubts about this place, are you?" Xena asked.

"Well, not really, but Iíve still got a weird feeling... like somethingís going to happen."

"Donít worry. Everything is going to be fine."

****

A loud pounding noise from downstairs woke Gabrielle up.

"Gods!" she exclaimed as the insistent clamor, coupled with the bright morning light, assaulted her still sleepy senses. She grabbed the pillow next to her and held it tightly over her face, hoping to drown everything out and perhaps catch some more sleep.

It was not to be, however. The bed which Gabrielle and Xena had shared had been untouched for uncountable years. Despite their persistent attempts at cleaning, some of the dust remained. Gabrielle gagged, coughed and threw the offending cushion across the room.

Gabrielle sighed and kept still in the soft bed a while longer, her eyes squeezed shut against the blinding light. Finally the nagging clamor from below got to her and she sat up quickly, scanning the room.

Xena was gone, of course. She was by nature an early riser, sometimes beating even the sun in the mornings. Gabrielle couldnít remember actually seeing her friend sleep. Xena was always busy doing something when Gabrielle was turning in for the night, and Gabrielle never woke up earlier than the warrior either. Not that I really have any desire to, Gabrielle thought. I want as much sleep as I can get.

Gabrielle shook herself awake and took in her surroundings. The castle had been left pretty much as it must have been when it was occupied before, she surmised. Nearly everything in the room looked ancient and untouched. A large fireplace was on the far side of the room, ashes and dust mingled on the ground. A painting of a regal woman in emerald finery hung above the hearth, slightly crooked. Gabrielle wondered who the beautiful woman might be, but soon pushed the matter from her mind.

Over by the door rested a long wooden table, and a tall dirty mirror stood in the corner by the door. The ornately fashioned looking glass seemed to be ringed in an intricate gold weave, and Gabrielle marveled at the wondrous craftsmanship. It must really be something when itís cleaned up, she thought.

Gabrielle slipped from the soft, feathery comfort of the bed and an involuntary shiver ran through her spine. Gods, that stone floor sure is cold in the morning, she told herself. Gabrielle pulled a baby blue blanket off the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders to keep out the cool morning air.

Gabrielle walked over to the narrow window by the bed and looked out upon the new morning. The sun was peeking over the horizon, which was difficult to see in the distance. What made the horizon so hard to see was the huge, majestic forest, which filled much of the view. The castle seemed cut off from the world and civilization so far away, but Gabrielle could just see the drifting smoke reach into the sky from the village at the edge of the forest.

After a few more lingering moments appreciating the view, Gabrielle tore herself away and headed towards the door. She stopped at the table, grabbed her boots from among Xenaís discarded brass armor, slipped them on, and was soon on her way out.

Gabrielle paused at the railing and looked downstairs. Xena had replaced the door in the wall and was now pounding on it. The bard bounded down the stairs toward her very loud friend.

"Hey, Xena, what are you doing?!" Gabrielle cried out over the clamor when she reached the bottom of the stairs. Xena stopped her pounding and turned to face her young friend.

"Well good morning sleepyhead. What are you doing up so early?" Xena said, grinning at her friend and wiping some glistening sweat off her brow with the back of her hand.

"This loud noise could have something to do with it. What are you doing?" Gabrielle repeated.

"Oh, that," Xena responded, smiling sheepishly. "I was just putting this door back in its place. We donít want any unwelcome visitors in the night, do we?" With that she pointed towards the forest.

"Oh, well I guess that makes sense. Did you have to do it so early, though?"

Xena just shrugged and smiled her apology.

Gabrielle gave her friend a menacing, playful glare before turning thoughtful.

"Xena, hereís one thing I donít get. How come there arenít already some sort of creatures in here. A bird or something could have slipped through the window cracks. There arenít even any insects." Gabrielle pointed up towards the cobwebs. "Those spider webs are even empty. It doesnít look like thereís been anything here for years. W didnít even find anything more unpleasant than dust in the bed last night."

Xena narrowed her eyes. "That is strange," she agreed. Xena looked thoughtfully around the large room around her before turning her eyes back to Gabrielle. "Hey, donít get worked up over this, Gabrielle. Weíve already stayed the night and nothing has happened. Donít worry."

The two friends just stared quietly at each other for a few moments more before Xena broke the silence. She turned back towards the door, inspected it thoroughly with her eyes and muttered, "That should do it," before tossing a rusty hammer noisily into a toolbox.

As Xena picked the box up and headed towards the kitchen, Gabrielle fell into step beside her. "Whereíd you get that?" she asked Xena, motioning towards the toolbox.

"I found it in the pantry this morning."

"Youíve been busy. What else have you done today?"

"I had a little morning work-out and then caught us some food. I had to go deep into the forest before I could find anything, though," Xena mentioned, pushing open the kitchen door to allow Gabrielle through before following behind.

"How early did you get up?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.

"Early." Xena set the toolbox down in a corner of the kitchen and turned to face Gabrielle. "Iím going to go wash up at a spring I found nearby. Would you cook breakfast?"

"Yeah, sure, but Iím not so sure I like the idea of being alone here..."

"You were alone all morning and youíre still breathing, arenít you?"

"Itís not the same, Xena. At least then I wasnít consciously aware that you were gone."

Xena grinned and put a hand reassuringly on Gabrielleís shoulder. "Youíll be fine. Iím sure youíd rather I was gone a short while and came back clean than if I stayed here and smelled like a hog all day."

"I can see your point," Gabrielle acceded, waving her hand beneath her nose to shoo the odor away. Xena rolled her eyes.

"Ha ha. Look, after breakfast weíll go up and look through the library like you wanted. Howís that?" Gabrielleís face brightened and she nodded her head in assent. "Good. Iíll see you later." Xena smiled and quickly disappeared out a door that led to the backyard.

Gabrielle sighed and looked around the room, her eyes pointing skyward. "What could happen?" she assured herself before she set to work preparing breakfast.

****

"This place is amazing!" Gabrielle exclaimed, looking over the vast library. Plain wooden bookshelves reached to the ceiling 30 feet above, hiding each wall. Every inch of space was covered with a scroll or bound book, and then topped off with dust. A tall ladder lay against one of the shelves and in the center of the library a sturdy oak table with two chairs lying askew on the floor. Underneath it all lay a thick, red plush carpet. As Gabrielle stepped onto the soft fabric she sighed in delight. She spun quickly on her heels to face Xena, who stood cautiously in the doorway.

"Isnít it wonderful, Xena? Look at all these scrolls!"

"Itís nice," Xena said quietly before stepping into the room. For the life of her, she couldnít see what was so exciting about a bunch of dusty old manuscripts.

Gabrielle ran over to one wall and excitedly pulled out a scroll. She opened the parchment reverently and scanned its contents with a skilled eye. Xena couldnít help but smile at the sight of the happy bard.

"Hmmm, the syntax is rather old fashioned, but other than that I recognize the tale." Gabrielle returned the scroll to its place and picked up another. After reading the first few lines of that one she said, "Same here. It must have been written a long time ago but the plot is familiar to me."

"Iím not surprised. You know a lot of stories," Xena said absentmindedly, looking at a large leather bound book which had been haphazardly thrown onto the shelf. It was easily four times the size of any of the other books.

"Thank you." Gabrielle returned the scroll to the shelf and turned to Xena. She noticed the huge book that had caught her friendís attention and stepped towards it. "Now *that* looks interesting."

Gabrielle grabbed one end of the book and tried to lift it. It shifted slightly but there was no way Gabrielle could carry it. "Xena? Come help me with this thing," she grunted.

"Itís a book, Gabrielle, not Mount Olympus," Xena teased as she watched her friend struggle with the tome. She went over to help the bard and lifted the opposite end a little bit, groaning. "What in Zeusí name is this thing made out of?" she exclaimed.

Gabrielle just grunted and lifted her end of the book. Together they slowly carried the huge volume over to the table in the center of the room. They tossed it onto the tabletop and sighed in relief that the heavy burden was off their hands.

"Here." Gabrielle handed the light blue blanket sheíd had wrapped around herself to Xena and began a thorough examination of the book. "Look at this cover, Xena," she said, moving her trembling hand lightly across the leather. "Itís so strange. It looks like..."

"Human skin?" Xena answered. Gabrielle just nodded her head as Xena wrapped the blanket tightly around herself.

"And look at the writing. I think itís blood." Gabrielle quickly took her hand away. "This is disgusting!"

"Can you read what it says?" Xena asked.

"No, Iíve never seen anything like this before. This writing is totally unfamiliar to me." Gabrielle shook her head. "This is so sick!"

"Arenít you going to open it up? Maybe thereís something inside." Xena, her curiosity piqued, examined the book and the strange red symbols that adorned it.

"Iím not touching it!" Gabrielle exclaimed, stepping away from the table.

Xena looked at the frightened bard amusedly. "Are you afraid it will bite?" she teased. The warrior moved closer to the book. As she looked at it, she could have sworn she saw the symbols on top move in a fascinating pattern. Nonsense, Xena thought, and she threw open the book.

A shrill, piercing cry emanated from the open book and a thick black cloud arose, enveloping Xenaís face. A fierce wind blew through the room knocking scrolls from shelves all over. Gabrielle screamed in alarm and held her hands over her ears to keep out the ear-splitting sound.

Gabrielle turned her attention to Xena. The warrior stood transfixed in her place, eyes fixed on the book before her. She seemed oblivious to everything around her -- the loud, wailing siren, the strong wind blowing her raven locks straight back, and the dark cloud which moments before had hit her straight in the face. She merely stared at the pages open before her, limply hugging the blanket to her body.

Gabrielle, eyes wide in confusion, stared at her unaware friend. Finally she pulled her hands off her ears and slammed the strange book shut.

The shrill cry ended. The wind ceased to be. The two women stood blankly in the library. Finally Gabrielle found her voice and spoke.

"By the gods, what was that?!"

Xena merely stared down at the closed tome on the table.

"Xena, are you all right?" Gabrielle asked, concern overwhelming her. She hurried over to her friend and put an arm around her waist. She looked up into empty, glassy eyes. "Whatís wrong?"

Xena stared forward a few moments longer before she started blinking her eyes repeatedly. She moaned and held her eyes closed a while before opening them and looking right into Gabrielleís tender face.

"Hmmm? Whatís wrong with you?" Xena questioned.

Gabrielle stared at her friend incredulously. "Do you have any idea what just happened here?"

"What? What are you talking about?" Xena asked, obviously unaware of recent events. Gabrielle looked worriedly at the warrior.

"Maybe you should go lie down," the bard offered, steering the warrior out of the library.

"Good idea. For some reason, Iím exhausted." Xena allowed herself to be led out of the room by Gabrielle. Neither noticed the dark clouds lurking high up in the corners of the room. The shadowed objects swirled slowly before thinning out and dissolving into the air.

****

The sun had nearly set by the time Xena woke from her deep slumber. Gabrielle was worried. Xena was by nature a light sleeper, the slightest sound was enough to wake the warrior princess and cause her senses to be fully alert. After the incident in the library, however, Xena slept like a rock. Nothing could wake her. Even Gabrielleís stumbling through the room and causing all of Xenaís armor to crash to the floor went unnoticed by the sleeping warrior.

Gabrielle was both worried and panicked. What had happened when that book was opened, and what had it done to Xena? Gabrielle sat vigilantly by Xenaís side when she wasnít pacing the room and wearing a hole in the floor. She watched as her proud warrior friend lay quietly on the long, white bed, occasionally having involuntary muscle spasms. Xenaís face increasingly looked haggard and worn down, almost as though she was fighting a losing battle. Gabrielle could only watch and wait.

When Xena finally awoke, Gabrielle was right by her side. The bard looked down into confused, cloudy eyes. Xena stared up into Gabrielleís worried face.

"Xena, are you all right? Youíve been out for hours. You really had me worried there." Gabrielle brushed the bangs out of Xenaís face to feel for fever. Xena felt cold and clammy and she looked pale.

"Iím fine, Gabrielle. Just tired."

"Do you remember anything that happened before?"

Xena arched her eyebrow and looked toward the doorway inquisitively, searching for an answer. "I remember opening that book and getting hit in the face with something, thatís it."

"Well, at least thatís something. Youíre all right now, though, arenít you?" Gabrielle asked, gazing seriously at her friend.

"Yeah, of course. Why wouldnít I be?"

"I donít know, you just seem different somehow. Iím not sure how but you are. Maybe Iím just overreacting. You were in a trance there for a while, then you nearly pass out in exhaustion and now when youíre awake Iím surprised that you seem a bit strange. I must be imagining things."

"Yeah, that must be it." Xena glared suspiciously at Gabrielle for a second before changing the subject. "Hey, do we still have any food from this morning? Iím starving."

Gabrielle caught the odd look Xena gave her and sat deep in thought a moment, wondering what it meant. She finally passed it off as one of the side effects of the earlier mishap in the library. "Yeah, we should still have something. Itíll be cold though. Iíll go get it and warm it up for you... but Iím not sure I should leave you alone."

"Iíll be fine, Gabrielle. Go on and get the food. Oh, and while youíre down there could you get some firewood? I chopped some new stuff up this morning, and itís freezing in here." To emphasize her point, Xena started to rub her arms with her palms to warm them up.

"Okay, Iíll go and do that right now. Is there anything else you need?" Gabrielle stared at Xena, waiting for an answer. She couldnít help but notice the flush appearing on Xenaís cheeks or the sweat on her brow despite the insistence that it was cold. Maybe she was sick.

"No, thatís it," Xena said sharply.

"All right. Iíll be as quick as I can. Iíll be back soon." Gabrielle patted Xenaís arm before exiting the door.

As soon as Gabrielle was out of sight, Xena hopped out of bed. "Donít hurry back on my accord."

Xena quietly ran to the door and looked out in the direction that Gabrielle had gone. Her eyebrows bent wickedly and she grinned evilly at the retreating figure. When Gabrielle had disappeared she jumped back into the room and took in the appearance of the room with a glint in her eye. "Itís great to be free again," she chuckled as she headed towards the window.

****

Downstairs, meanwhile, Gabrielle slowly turned the events of the day over in her mind. What had happened in the library earlier? Even after all this time thinking it over she couldnít come to any conclusions. Whatever it was had sure messed Xena up pretty good. She sure didnít seem to be herself just a moment ago.

Gabrielle pushed open the door to the kitchen and walked in. Everything was as she left it that morning. The morn seemed so long ago to Gabrielle. It had started off better than usual but now things seemed utterly wrong. A feeling of dread assaulted the bard and she shivered suddenly.

After setting up the morningís leftovers by the firepit to heat, Gabrielle shoved open the rusty back door. She walked over to the small woodsmanís hut and got an armful of fuel for the upstairs fireplace. After turning back towards the castle she paused and looked up to inspect the place from the back.

Streams of yellow torchlight poured forth from the windows. The light softened the decrepit face of the stone walls, and the castle didnít seem quite as bad as yesterday. Looking skyward, Gabrielle once again noticed the high tower she had seen the other day. She cocked her eyebrow thoughtfully. When Xena and she had searched the castle, they hadnít found any staircases leading up to another level. Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully at the mysterious tower, wondering what was inside and how to get there.

The wind started howling as dark storm clouds moved in from the north. Gabrielleís blond hair began to whip into her eyes, and the whistling wind brought her out of her melancholy mood. She cast one more contemplative glance up at the tower before running back into the castle, the mysteries of the place weighing heavily on her mind.

****

The lightning flashed brightly in the sky followed seconds later by the heavy sound of crashing thunder. The wind blew through the small window, blowing the fluffy blankets up into Gabrielleís face. The bard snorted, absently pushed the covers away and groaned. It was just impossible to get a good nightís sleep here.

"Xena?" she sleepily called out, stretching her arms out above her head and yawning. "Xena, where are you?"

Gabrielle turned over on her side towards the middle of the bed, and half opened her heavy eyelids. Glaring down at her were intense, electric seas of blue. Gabrielle yelped in surprise and scuffled back a few inches.

"Xena?! How long have you been awake? Why didnít you say anything when I called for you?" Gabrielle asked, wide awake now.

Xena lazily propped her head up on her arm and stared at the bard. Gabrielle nearly started to tremble at the intense scrutiny of the warriorís gaze. "Long enough, and I didnít feel like it," she answered curtly.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak but no words would come. She was too shocked by the condescending tone of Xenaís voice.

"Whatís the matter? Cat got your tongue? Thatís a first." Xena rolled her eyes in contempt for the bard and turned on her back to look at the ceiling.

Gabrielle stared at her best friend, hurt and confusion evident in her features. After a few moments she came out of her stupor enough to speak. "Have I done something to upset you, Xena?"

"Heh, no, of course not. What could some one as *perfect* as you do?" The words seemed to drip from the warriorís tongue like venom.

"What... whatís wrong then?" Gabrielle gulped for air, fighting her growing panic at her friendís attitude. What could cause Xena to act like this? Xena turned over and glared victoriously into the dejected bardís face. She smiled dangerously before answering.

"Nothingís wrong. What makes you think anything is wrong?" Her toothy grin widened.

"Why are you acting like such a... Why are you being so harsh this morning?"

"Harsh, huh?" Xena laughed. "Thereís nothing Ďharshí about honesty." Gabrielle just stared wide-eyed at her friend. After a moment of reveling in the bardís torment, Xena kicked off the covers and jumped out of bed.

"Where are you going, Xena? You canít leave me alone in this place. Something really strange is going on. I just know that something isnít right," Gabrielle pleaded. She neglected to tell the warrior that *she* was mostly what didnít seem right.

Xena leaned in close to the bard until their faces were only inches apart. "Maybe you shouldnít feel too safe around *me*." A confused look crossed Gabrielleís face and Xena smiled. "Donít worry, I wonít be far."

With that she stepped away, laughed, and left the room. Gabrielle sat up and stared at the doorway, stricken.

What had just happened?

****

Gabrielle had sat alone in bed for some time pondering Xenaís behavior that morning. The warrior certainly wasnít herself today. In fact, she seemed even stranger than yesterday. Finally, Gabrielle decided to go find her friend and figure out what was going on.

Gabrielle exited the bedroom and headed downstairs. "Xena?" she called out. There was no response.

Gabrielle pushed open the door to the kitchen and stuck her head in. There was no sign of Xena there. Gabrielle stalked back to the pantry and looked there. Once again, Xena was no where to be found.

"Maybe sheís still upstairs," Gabrielle told herself. She ran back across the room, past the door neither Xena nor she could open, and bounded up the stairwell.

"Xena!" she yelled. Gabrielle checked the numerous bedrooms with no luck before she decided to stop by the library. Cautiously, Gabrielle walked into the room and looked for any trace of her friend.

The book that had caused so much distress the other day now lay on the floor about 20 feet from the table. Gabrielle looked curiously at the tome that lay propped up against one of the bookshelves. How had it gotten off the table? It had taken both Xena and Gabrielle to move it the day before, so how in Hades had it been moved ... and why?

Gabrielle stood entranced by the mystery before stepping closer to the book. When she was only a few scant inches away she stopped and examined it fearfully. Finally, she reached out a trembling hand and grabbed the book. She lifted it easily. Gabrielle looked surprised for a few moments before she remembered what she held in her hands and tossed it onto the bookshelf, knocking a scroll to the floor.

The book flung open as soon as it impacted the sturdy wood and Gabrielle tensed up and readied herself for the onslaught she had seen previously ... but nothing happened. There were no shrill ear-piercing screeches, no fierce winds, and no black clouds erupting from the pages. The book just lay open quietly on the shelf.

"What the..." Gabrielle quietly murmured, taking her hands off her ears. She stepped closer to the book to examine the pages, her curiosity piqued. The pages were all blank. Gabrielle turned them one by one, slowly at first, then furiously, before giving up on finding anything written inside.

"This just doesnít make sense," Gabrielle told herself as she slammed the empty book shut. She shook her head and turned to leave the eerie library but her boot kicked the scroll sheíd displaced earlier, catching Gabrielleís attention.

The bard leaned down and picked up the yellowing, frayed scroll and, curious, opened it. She read the first few lines before deciding this was one story sheíd never heard before.

"I tell the tale of Thaddeus, lord of the woods, who raised a great castle amongst the trees and created a bright and prosperous future for his people before his desires destroyed all he held dear, as well as his own life..." Gabrielle read the words out loud before the sound of a door being slammed shut downstairs interrupted her. Gabrielle rolled the scroll up, hid it in her waistband, and ran out of the library.

Downstairs, Gabrielle saw Xena exiting the kitchen, and sighed in relief. "Xena..." she started.

"Why donít you go get washed up, Gabrielle?" Xena said contemptuously. "If I have to smell you much longer I may need to take drastic measures to preserve my *sanity*."

"What?!" Gabrielle exclaimed, shocked. She put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth with every intention of letting Xena have a piece of her mind.

"I set up the tub in the woodshed. Now be a dear and go." Xena nearly spat the words out, and when she was finished she forcefully pushed her way past the startled bard and went upstairs.

Gabrielle stood open-mouthed, fixed in her position. Finally she shot a dark look up the stairs towards the warrior and stalked out to the woodshed. She just wasnít in the mood to be around Xena at the moment.

****

The small band of raiders looked greedily toward the castle, their teeth bared in delight. "Looks like we have some prospects," the leader sneered at his two compatriots. They laughed and he quickly joined in.

As the three trudged up the muddy path towards the front door the leader looked once again at the menacing stone structure. "Place doesnít look too friendly, but if other people are managing to stay here, we shouldnít have any problems. On the contrary, this could be good fortune indeed. Weíll get out of this damned weather, and weíll have the opportunity to restock a few things," he said, patting his money pouch. He snickered and reached up to straighten his rain-slicked mustache.

The small party moved through the darkness, their black cloaks and tunics helping them to blend in. Despite the fact that it was mid-morning, the land was nearly painted black. The dark storm clouds above blocked out nearly all the light.

The three stumbled over rocks and tree roots that had crept up out of the soil, but finally arrived at the battered wooden entrance. The leader turned to his two followers, smiled wickedly and slowly pushed open the creaking door.

He stopped the door when there was just enough room to slip his thin body through and entered. The two others quickly followed and closed the door. The group shook the excess rain off their cloaks, threw back the dark hoods of their cloaks, and drew out their short swords.

They blinked to get used to the bright light inside the castle, but once they could see their eyes opened widely. They turned slowly in circles, inspecting and admiring the grand room and gaping in awe at its splendor. This place was just ripe for the pickings, they decided.

"Hey boys, wanna play?" came a luring voice from upstairs. The bandits turned quickly to see who called to them but soon smiled. A sexy raven-haired woman in leather leaned seductively against the wall at the top of the stairs, beckoning the men and looking them over unabashedly. The leader turned to the other two and whistled.

"It looks like weíll have more fun here than I thought!" he said, his voice dripping with lust. He turned back to the woman and leered. "Donít worry, sweet thing. We wonít hurt you ... *too* much, anyway."

The group quickly ran up the stairs, occasionally tripping on their long woolen cloaks before finally ripping them off and flinging them away. When they reached the top they found that the woman had moved back a bit further down the hall.

"Come and get me boys!" she laughed, and she took off running. She was quickly down the hall and ducking into the last room on the right.

The three bandits laughed evilly, replacing their short swords to their sheathes before giving chase. The shorter of the two followers growled out, "I hope she puts up a fight," while patting a dagger at his belt.

The group arrived at the room in which the woman had dashed in to and sauntered in. A large canopied bed dominated the room, light blue ruffles protruding from the covers at the edges of the bed. A fireplace was on the near wall, a stand full of instruments pertaining to it, including a poker, shovel and vise, nearby. Close to the hearth, the woman sat on a short stool, her long legs crossed seductively. She smiled enchantingly, her perfect white teeth bared. The wind blew in from the slender window behind her, blowing her dark hair forward slightly onto her chest.

"Whoís first?" she asked, looking at each dark, unattractive fellow before her. She enticingly licked her lips in anticipation.

"I am!" the leader said decisively, stepping forward to claim his prize. The woman stood up and beckoned him closer. He advanced toward her, his eyes heavy with lust. His eyes ravenously took in her slender body.

When he was within reach, the woman grabbed hold of the manís tunic and spun him around, flinging him at the narrow window. Right on target, the manís head went through but his broad shoulders prevented him from flying out to his death.

The woman growled menacingly, her lips curled in a sneer and her eyes full of bloodlust. She jumped forward, gave him another firm shove to be sure he was as far through the window as possible, then twisted his body to where his neck was trapped in the small opening. With a tremendous yank, the woman wrenched the man terribly enough so that his neck snapped loudly, sickeningly. His limp body fell heavily down to the floor, his head still caught in the window.

"Are we having fun yet? she asked as she turned to the two shocked bandits by the door. She grinned wickedly and stretched out her arms, cracking her knuckles. "Iím sure you two are much better at this than he was."

"Get her!" the taller bandit screamed, taking control. The two men pulled out their short swords and spread out, treating the woman with a bit more respect and caution than before.

The shorter man charged forward, swinging his blade, while the other bandit stood back. He yelled a short guttural scream before swinging wildly at the womanís head. She ducked the blow and his sword went crashing into the wall, sending terrible reverberations up his arm and numbing it. He cried out in pain and dropped the sword from his now hyper-extended fingers.

The woman had taken the opening and grabbed the fireplace poker from its stand. She stood up again to face the pained bandit, laughing. "You havenít quite got the hang of it either," she admonished him, twirling the metal rod in her hand. She stopped it and inspected the end. It came to a sharp point, but another blade also curled off at an almost 90 degree angle. She fingered the metal appreciatively before turning her eyes back to the man, glaring at him. "This should come in nicely."

Before he knew what hit him, the women swung the poker around and the curved blade caught in his neck. A strange, gurgling shout erupted from his mouth and his eyes opened wide in pain. His scream was cut short as the woman pulled viciously on the poker, ripping out his throat and spraying blood all over. The contorted body fell in a heap to the floor.

The woman spun on her heel to look at the remaining bandit. He was whimpering in an odd, fearful voice as he stared at the carnage before him. All he had wanted when he came here was some quick dinars. Now, however, he just wanted to be far away from this horrible place.

The woman saw the frightened look in his eyes and chuckled. She raised the poker blade into the air to show it off. The woman admired the red gleam that trickled down its length and onto her hand, occasionally dripping to the cold, stone floor. The bandit, however, was not nearly so thrilled about it.

"Your turn," she said merrily, laughing in pure delight. The manís eyes turned to stare deep into her own. He was stilled by what he saw there. Cold, pure evil.

"Who ... who are you?" he whispered, his voice failing him.

"Oh, thatís right! We havenít been properly introduced." The woman threw the poker to the floor and extended her blood-covered hand towards him. "Iím Xena," she said. Then, more quietly and menacingly, she added, "Your worst nightmare." Her hand shot out quickly and the bandit was knocked to the floor, unconscious.

****

"Xena?" Gabrielle called out, stepping into the kitchen and out of the pounding rain. "Xena!?" Gabrielle hugged herself tightly, trying to stay warm despite the soaking clothes clinging tightly to her body. A strong gust of wind erupted furiously and slammed the door shut behind the bard, startling her and causing her to jump forward.

"This is getting old real fast," she murmured. "Where is she? Xena!?!" Gabrielle rubbed her hands over her arms insistently to warm herself up before setting out to find her friend.

Gabrielle pondered the wisdom of seeking out Xena. Lately, the warrior had seemed cold and distant. It wasnít so long ago that Gabrielle could look into the warriorís pale blue eyes and see the love and care that were apparent there. All that Gabrielle had seen lately, however, was contempt.

Gabrielle pushed open the door to the main chamber and walked in. The room was empty, of course. Xena just couldnít possibly be anywhere out in the open. "She always has to make it difficult, doesnít she?" Gabrielle mumbled to herself.

She walked over to the stairwell, all the while shivering, before something caught her eye and gave her another reason to shake. Three wet, muddy pairs of boot prints led up the carpeted stairs. None of the prints could have been made by Xena. They were all too wide, one was too short, and another set was too long. Someone else had been here.

Gabrielle quietly and cautiously walked up the stairs, listening for the slightest sound. She kept her back to the wall as Xena had always instructed her to do. If there was any trouble, Gabrielle would be ready for it.

When she got near the top she peered around the floor before silently stepping off the stairwell. She stealthily walked down the hall, peeking in every doorway she passed. As she moved by the room she shared with Xena, she ducked in to check on whether anything was missing. Xenaís armor and weapons still lay on the table, unmoved. Gabrielleís staff was propped up against the near end of the table, and the bard grabbed it before heading out into the hallway again.

She turned and continued down the hall. She was nearly at the last doorway when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle spun quickly and swung her staff at the bold intruder.

Xena, at the last moment, caught the staff and prevented it from striking her in the face. Angrily, she yanked it out of Gabrielleís hands and tossed it to the floor. "What was that for?!" she questioned.

"Xena! Iím sorry, I didnít know it was you!" Gabrielle whispered loudly.

"Who else did you expect? Thereís no one else here!"

"Iím not so sure about that. I saw three pairs of muddy, unfamiliar boot prints leading up the stairs. Thatís why I had my staff. You didnít answer when I called for you earlier so I thought maybe something was wrong."

"You thought you could handle something with your little staff that *I* couldnít?" Xena laughed heartily at that before turning serious. "You must be hallucinating, Gabrielle. I just came up the stairs and there werenít any strange footprints there."

"What? Thatís impossible! Come on, Iíll show you!" Gabrielle leaned down, scooped up her discarded staff and hurried to the staircase to prove that she wasnít crazy. She pointed down at the steps when she saw Xena get close enough to take a look. "There. What do you see?"

"Nothing, like I said. Just your boot prints and my own." Xena folded her arms across her chest and looked inquisitively at Gabrielle. "Are you sure youíre all right? Imagining things doesnít speak well for your sanity."

Gabrielle glared up at Xena before turning her head to the stairs and looking at ... nothing. As Xena said, only their footprints were visible.

"I ... I donít understand," Gabrielle stuttered in disbelief. She could have sworn sheíd seen three unusual pairs of bootprints earlier, she *knew* she did. But to look at it now, there wasnít a hint of them. They couldnít possibly have disappeared. "This doesnít make sense."

"Gabrielle, maybe you should go lie down. All that craziness from yesterday must finally be catching up with you." Xena forcefully grabbed the bardís arm and pulled her along to their bedroom.

"But Xena..."

"But nothing. Go to sleep. Iíve got things to do."

"Like what?! What could you possibly have to do?" Gabrielle argued.

"Things!" Xena shoved Gabrielle into the bedroom and pointed threateningly at her. "Stay here and go to bed if you know whatís good for you. You donít want to make me mad, now do you?" With that, Xena disappeared in the direction of the stairs.

"What are you up to, Xena?" Gabrielle quietly murmured to herself. She contemplated following the warrior, but then, considering Xenaís mood, decided it would be best to stay put. Xena wouldnít dare hurt me, Gabrielle reassured herself. But for practically the first time since she had known the warrior, doubt creeped into her mind. Would she?

****

Xena slowly descended the stairwell, each step causing her face to contort more into a mask of rage. That damn bard, didnít she know when to leave things alone? A murderous smirk crossed Xenaís face. Sheíd teach the girl a lesson later. Now was her time for a different type of fun.

Once she reached the bottom of the stairs, Xena headed toward the door Gabrielle and she had been unable to open earlier. This time, however, Xena passed her hand over the doorknob and it swung open easily, flinging back into the shadows. Xena sauntered confidently down the stairwell revealed by the open door. The door, once again untouched by human hands, swung shut as if by magic.

The stairwell was encased in darkness, the only light coming from the torches at the bottom of the winding stairway. When Xena reached the bottom, her terrible, homicidal visage was revealed completely by the orange light.

"Miss me?" she cooed. The bandit who she had knocked unconscious earlier was just now regaining his bearings. The sight that greeted his eyes was not a pleasant one, though. He was this crazy womanís prisoner, strapped to a wooden table reclining slightly from a totally usual upright position. His dull eyes opened widely when he saw the evil look on her face, and he struggled against the leather straps binding him tightly. "I thought you might," she laughed.

She ambled toward the bandit, taking her time. As she did so, her eyes appreciatively took in the room. She gestured around the small, dark dungeon and turned her eyes to look at the despairing bandit. "Do you like it? This room used to see a lot of business, but lately ... oh well, itís great to be back here. Itís like a second home to me, and I hope to make this place very busy again soon. Iím sure youíd like to help me with that, too."

The manís eyes darted around the dark room, taking in all that lay inside. It was obvious that the roomís main purpose was torture. Many different blades hung on the walls, ranging from huge scythes and axes to tiny daggers. An enormous, rounded, extremely sharp blade hung ominously from the ceiling, a pendulum to the stone altar in the middle of the room. A shelf of chemicals and potions lay on the nearby wall, but even they seemed dangerous. The most noticeable thing in the room, however, was the dark red substance splattered upon nearly every space. The bandit turned his eyes quickly from the sight. He didnít have to look too hard to figure out what that coloring came from.

Xena circled her prisoner like a cat, her eyes delighting in every squirming movement that he made. He kept his eyes fixed on his boots, trying not to look the beautiful yet deadly woman in the face. He knew it would be his undoing, and he didnít want to die like a coward. As long as he didnít look at her, he wouldnít start crying.

Xenaís index finger ran lightly across the gag on the banditís face causing a shiver to run down his spine. His breathing became more labored as fear tugged at his heart and lungs, and he could have sworn he just wet himself. Whatever slight degree of self-control he had was slipping.

"No, no, this just wonít do. Itís much more fun to hear you scream." Xena drew a dagger from her boot and cut the dirty gag in one swift movement, letting the cloth fall to the floor. Xena came to a stop before her prisoner, twirling the knife in her hand. "Now comes the hard part: deciding how youíre going to die."

The banditís lip started to tremble and he was ready to burst into tears. Xena laughed at his reaction. "Ready to cry, are you? Big man!" Xena quickly drew her hand back and struck him across the cheek. A long, thin, red line appeared where the dagger sheíd held tore into his skin. The man whimpered in pain as blood started to seep out of the wound.

Xenaís eyes lit up. "Thatís it, thatíll do nicely! Youíve given me the perfect idea!" Xena wiped the blood off her dagger with the manís tunic before returning it to the sheathe on her boot. The man hung his head forward, resigned to his fate. Xena joyfully moved over to the vials of chemicals.

"You know, most people always give some sort of speech about doing this the hard way or the easy way. I donít believe in that," Xena informed the man. "I believe that the hard way is the only way. Itís certainly more interesting." Xena chuckled to herself as she poured and mixed some chemicals in a crude glass beaker. She picked up a wooden rod off the shelf and stirred the mixture until it was a ghastly shade of yellow. She moved back toward the man and held it to his lips. "Drink up, dear," she ordered.

When the man didnít move to obey her command but instead kept his head limply hanging forward, Xenaís eyes flashed in rage. She grabbed hold of his dark, long, curly hair and slammed his head back against the wooden table. "I said drink it!" she shouted. The contents of the beaker were forcefully poured down his throat, and Xena held the choking banditís mouth shut until she was sure heíd swallowed it all. Then she smiled and playfully slapped his wounded cheek. "Good boy."

Xena carelessly tossed the beaker to the stone floor and it exploded into tiny shards of glass. Xena moved over to the wall to examine the many weapons hanging there. "Decisions, decisions..." she murmured, tapping her fingers lightly against her jaw. Finally she picked a blade and took it from the wall. When she moved back to the prisoner, he seemed more alert than before.

She held the tiny scalpel before his eyes and smiled. "Letís call this an anatomy experiment, shall we?" she laughed. Xena trailed the dull edge of the blade under the manís throat. He trembled at the contact.

"Youíre probably wondering what that drink I gave you was, correct?" The man didnít respond so Xena continued. "Itís a potion to keep you fully alert and awake no matter what. Itís rather useful at times, like now. It would take all the fun out of our experiment if you passed out before it was done. Now thatís just not a concern anymore."

The manís eyes widened in sudden understanding, and Xena laughed once again. "Oh, yeah, maybe I should warn you against the side effects. The potion also amplifies all your feelings of pain and such. Itís gonna hurt like Hades..."

Xena licked her lips in anticipation and eyed the manís distressed reaction. She brushed the blade lightly across the manís Adamís apple and giggled when he yelped. "Now, where shall we begin?" she asked, trailing the scalpel down his chest, looking for a good spot to begin her little experiment.

****

Gabrielle bolted up from her troubled slumber. She could have sworn she had heard a horrifying scream of pain moments before, but now she wasnít sure if it wasnít caused by her condition. Xenaís sudden mood shift had left the bard on edge, and in her state anything was alarming. Also, the thunderstorm outside had just ended, and the eerie stillness that was left behind troubled the bard.

Gabrielle hopped off the bed and debated whether or not to go searching the house for whatever woke her. She finally decided against it. Xena had told her, or *threatened* more like, to stay in the bedroom. Gabrielle had never been one to follow orders, but Xena had been acting unusually testy lately. It wasnít a good idea to try her patience.

Gabrielle paced by the bed, agitated. Without actually hearing the shrill screams, she *felt* them. And their intensity was growing. As she walked back and forth, the dirty mirror caught her eye. Grateful for anything to do to take her mind off other matters, she decided to clean the mirror. She needed something mindless to do.

Gabrielle pulled a rag out of her bag by the foot of the bed and stuck it out the window. It caught a few large drops of water that were running off the roof. Satisfied, Gabrielle turned to her work. The wet rag smeared the layers of dirt and grime on the mirror at first, and Gabrielle scrubbed harder. As the hair on the back of her neck stood up on end even more and her sense of the painful shrieks increased, the intensity with which she cleaned grew. By the time the sun sets, this damn mirror is going to be spotless, Gabrielle vowed.

****

A few hours later Xena entered the bedroom to find Gabrielle passed out on the edge of the bed, a dirty rag clutched in her hand. She walked over and stood next to the bed, examining the small bard for what seemed like forever. Finally she shook her head and started towards the door.

On the way, however, she noticed the newly shining mirror. She chuckled to herself and went to stand in front of it to admire her reflection.

Xena looked in the mirror, but it wasnít Xena looking back out at herself. Instead of the warriorís steely blue eyes, two blood red orbs shone out. The warriorís body was replaced with a black cloud of smoke in the image reflected back. There wasnít a trace of the warrior princess from Amphipolis in the mirror -- a demon stared back out instead.

Xena laughed and clapped her hands in delight before striding purposefully from the room. Little did she know that a pair of saddened green eyes were wide open and staring at the mirror in disbelief.

****

Gabrielleís heart was racing. "What in Tartarus is going on?" she silently whispered to herself. She closed her eyes tightly, trying to convince herself that everything over the past couple days had been a dream. The sound of the front door slamming shut downstairs dispelled that comforting thought and Gabrielle was left with the knowledge that Xena wasnít *Xena* anymore.

Gabrielleís hands shook as she sat herself upright on the bed, staring listlessly at the doorway. Her eyes moved toward the mirror and she looked herself in the face. Her eyes were blank and spiritless, her mouth was pulled in a despairing, grim line, and a nervous sheen of sweat dotted her eyebrow. Gabrielle reached up a trembling hand to wipe it away, but once she realized she still held the filthy rag she let it drop from her fingers. As she let her suddenly aching arm drop back to her side, she heard and felt the rustle of parchment.

Gabrielle looked down confused at the scroll sticking out from her waistband but quickly remembered picking it up in the library earlier. With no idea what else to do, she pulled it out, opened it up, and picked up reading where she left off.

The tale it told was a horrible one. The main character of the story, Thaddeus, had built the castle she now sat in and for years he ruled his dominion with a just and wise hand. He married his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful Sofia, and together they had to lovely children: an older boy, Kristopher, and a baby girl, Odele.

Thaddeusí passion was for books and knowledge. He collected any sort of writing he could get his hands on and pored over the words long into the nights. He could often be found in the library seated at his desk with naught but a candle and an open manuscript for company. To him, the thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. When one day he got his hands on a strange book covered with human skin and written in blood, it wasnít seen as unusual that he would look over the book into the wee small hours of the morning.

After his strange new acquisition, however, something in him changed. His behavior became more erratic and violent. Where before he would never think of laying a hand on his wife and children in anger, now it became commonplace. His servants were also prone to savage beatings, and little by little his staff disappeared. With his flared temper the dealings of his land were laid aside. The prosperous days of his kingdom were over.

One day Thaddeus took his young son hunting in the woods. From this little excursion, Kristopher never returned. When Thaddeus returned bloody from his expedition without his son in tow, Sofia became enraged. Her husband drew his hunting knife from his belt and savagely slashed her throat before turning the vicious attack on the baby Odele clasped in Sofiaís arms.

When the deed was done and mother and daughter lay dead in a pool of their own blood, Thaddeus went mad. He shrieked horribly, ran from the room in a rage and cut down anyone that got between him and the library. Once there he dropped his bloody knife, grabbed a book that he had acquired along with the human skin covered one, and ran down towards the end of the hallway. He disappeared in the last room on the right and was never heard from again.

The few servants that remained, as terrified as they were, hadnít left immediately. They scoured the forest for Kristopherís body, and once they found the boyís bloody hulk, they brought it back to the castle. The mother and her two young children -- Kristopher only a few days past his sixth birthday and Odele not even a year old -- were given a proper, respectful funeral pyre as the innocent victims that they were.

While all this was going on, the court scribe recounted all the horrific events on to a scroll. When he had finished writing, he decided that the tale was too horrible to go past the castle walls and the events best left forgotten. The scroll was left in the masterís library, and the castle abandoned. The few servants who had survived left and scattered across Greece to find peace and forget the terror of Lord Thaddeusí insanity. The tale would die with them.

Gabrielle rolled the scroll back up and wiped the tears from her eyes. Whatever demon had caused Thaddeus to murder his family was back, but this time Xena was under its control. Gabrielle tossed the scroll aside and stood up purposefully. "This canít go on," Gabrielle told herself. She looked up at the portrait of the woman above the fireplace. Sofiaís eyes burned brightly from the painting, and Gabrielle imagined the murder that put an end to their sparkle. "It has to be stopped."

****

Xena stalked silently through the forest towards the village that lay several miles away. It was almost night now, and with the dark clouds overhead the forest was pitch black. Perfect, she thought. Just how I like it.

The usual sounds of the woods -- birds singing, bugs chirping, and wild game racing around -- were not present this evening. Something had scared them all away. Something six feet tall with blue eyes and black hair to be precise. Something carrying a rusty old axe.

Xena neared the village a couple hours later. As she reached the outskirts, she peered through the trees, looking for a certain place. Once she saw it, she smiled and started skipping happily towards the building. Xenaís eyes shone with bloodlust as she loomed closer and closer to the small hut.

As expected, the small building had been built apart from all the others. The decrepit log hut had been placed close to the road leading away from the forest, but luckily for Xena it was also near enough to the trees for her to remain hidden a while longer. She whistled a jovial tune as she stepped from the woods and walked up to the front door. Xena rapped sharply on it before hiding her hands, along with the axe, behind her back.

An old fellow with white hair and a long, curly beard answered the door, peering cautiously through the small crack in it. He looked up into the face of a smiling, beautiful woman. She seemed innocent enough, but he could never be too sure. Evil lurks in the most unlikely places, he reminded himself.

"Who are you and what do you want?" he asked suspiciously.

"Are you Simeon? The scribe who used to work up at that old castle in the woods?" she asked, ignoring his questions.

He tightened his grip on the door, ready to slam it shut if she pulled any stunts, before answering. "Yes I am. Whatís it to you ... and how did you know who I am? Iíve never seen you before in my life."

"Oh, but Iíve seen you before," she answered ominously, her eyes twinkling. "Iíve come to deliver a message..."

The man sensed the evil in her voice and tried to slam the door shut in her face. She forcefully kicked it wide open, laughing at his feeble attempt to get rid of her. The old scribe flew back a few steps and looked up, eyes wide in fright, at the woman who hovered over him. She raised a hefty, old axe over her head and looked down at him, sneering.

"Say hello to Hades for me," she told him before bringing the hatchet down in a wide arc into his chest. A loud, guttural scream tore from his throat, but it was cut short suddenly by the blade.

Xena looked from side to side, checking to make sure there were no witnesses to be disposed of, before running out the door and fleeing into the woods. A ruckus erupted soon after in the village. Torches were lit in every house as the men cautiously went outside to discover just what had interrupted their peaceful slumber.

****

Gabrielle stepped into the last room on the right at the end of the hall. Her eyes passed appreciatively over the large canopied bed but she quickly pulled her attention away. She wasnít here to sightsee. There were far more important things to do than ogle the furniture.

Gabrielle set quickly to searching the room, trying to find a clue as to why Thaddeus had run into this room so long ago in his maddened state and where he had disappeared to. She checked under the bed. No secret panels or compartments. Nothing. She lay flat on her back on the dusty floor to see if there were any conspicuous objects from that vantagepoint. Something over by the fireplace caught her eye, and Gabrielle jumped up quickly, brushed the dirt off her palms, and ran over to that side of the room.

To anyone who wasnít paying attention it wouldnít be very obvious, but a slow trickle of crimson was flowing through some uneven stones in the back of the hearth, occasionally dripping down into a tiny puddle near the edge of the wall. The slowly growing pool of red would have been hidden behind the few logs piled in the fireplace, but as Gabrielle got closer she could clearly make it out. She didnít need to examine the liquid to figure out what it was, either. She recognized the sight of blood all too well.

Gabrielle averted her eyes from the messy puddle and determined instead to find its source. She crouched slightly and took a few small, tentative steps into the fireplace. She leaned her face in closer to the stones from where the trickle of blood emanated and reached out a trembling hand. She tried at first to probe the hole and make it wider with her finger but it wasnít working. Finally, she desperately strove to pry the stones apart or push them in with much more force. With no luck, she finally gave up. She glared darkly at the bleeding stone wall before her, wishing it would give her a sign. Something had to be behind it, but what?

After a few moments of quiet contemplation, Gabrielle cursed and pounded her fist against the wall. "Ow!" she yelped as a jagged edge on the rock scraped her hand. She stood up quickly, banging her head on more stones. Her search for answers had so far yielded no more than pain.

Gabrielle slowly backed out of the enclosure, nursing her wounds. When she finally reached safe ground, she stood up straight and eyed the fireplace again, determined to find whatever was behind it. "You wanna play it tough, huh?" she quietly growled at the stones.

Gabrielle looked up above the fireplace. A shelf fashioned from rock held a few trinkets, and behind that a large color portrait of a young boy hung on the wall. Gabrielle looked into big green eyes and noticed the golden hair that reached down to the shoulders of the handsome youth. Kristopher, Gabrielle thought sadly.

She gazed remorsefully at the young boyís visage a while longer before shifting her attention to the objects on the shelf. An ornately designed pewter box lay at the left end, and Gabrielle gently picked it up. She lifted the lid to find a couple of old coins stored away along with some finely forged bronze arrowheads. She closed the box and set it back in its place.

Next to that lay a short, wooden sword. Gabrielle picked it up and smiled. She remembered the boys in her hometown used to play with similar toys. Theyíd band together and defend the water well from rival boys, or whatever other mission they chose for the day.

My, how times change, Gabrielle mused sadly. All the young boys had grown up by now. The ones she remembered had by now set aside such playthings. Most were farmers with young children of their own by now, or else they had taken up the sword for real and were now killing and dying all across Greece. The times of innocent games were long gone now. Gabrielle set the small toy sword back in its place and shook the sad thoughts from her head.

The last thing on the shelf was a silver candelabra, three long candles protruding from their bases. Some of the ordinary yellow wax had dripped down onto the silver. Gabrielle had no interest in the candles, however, so she turned to look around the rest of the room. As she moved, a faint gleam from the candles caught her eye.

As Gabrielle went back over to inspect the candelabra, she found a small amount of blood smeared on the bottom of one of the candles and also on the silver. Gabrielle reached forward inquisitively to grasp the candlestick holder but the sound of a door slamming shut downstairs stopped her movement and made her jump back a few paces.

"Xenaís back..." Gabrielle muttered, different emotions raging within her. Normally sheíd be delighted to know that, but right now she was terrified. Quickly, Gabrielle raced out of the room and back to the bedroom the warrior would expect to find her in. There was no reason to make Xena suspicious or to provoke any confrontations. Not when Gabrielle felt so optimistic about her little discovery in the other room.

When Xena entered the bedroom, she found Gabrielle asleep on the bed. She narrowed her eyes at the bard, watching Gabrielleís chest rise and fall in rhythmic, even breaths. Satisfied, she stepped into the room and sauntered over to the window.

On the way over she kicked something and heard the crumple of parchment underneath her feet. She looked down and saw a half-flattened scroll on the floor. She eyed it suspiciously as she leaned down to pick it up. Once it was in her hands, Xena stood and opened the parchment, scanning its contents.

After Xena had read a few lines she quickly averted her eyes and stared at Gabrielle, asleep on the bed. The warriorís eyes narrowed in distrust and for a moment she rocked in place, debating whether or not to shake the bard awake and question her. Finally she decided against it. Xena crumpled the parchment up in her hand and stalked angrily out of the room. She didnít hear the large sigh of relief that Gabrielle let out soon after.

****

Gabrielle awoke with a start the next morning after a long, grueling, exhausting night. Sheíd tried to stave off sleep for as long as she could, afraid to sleep with the evil that was controlling Xena. And that was what she convinced herself had happened. It explained everything. Gabrielle had never had a reason to fear Xena before, the warrior wouldnít dream of hurting her. Whatever was in control now, however, *was* cause for alarm. She could feel it.

When she was rudely awakened, Gabrielle felt something else entirely. A strong hand was roughly strangling by the neck, causing her to gasp for breath. One of the fingers from the offending hand dug into a sensitive spot on her neck and Gabrielle cried out in pain.

"Oh, I see youíre finally awake. Good morning, dear." Xena leaned her face close to Gabrielleís face and looked her coldly in the eyes. She smiled as she tightened her grip on the bardís neck suddenly before giving a sharp shove and letting go. Gabrielle coughed and tried wretchedly to catch her breath. Xena just laughed and watched the little display. "Having problems, are we?"

Gabrielle coughed some more as she slowly backed away from Xena towards the headboard at the end of the bed. When she got her breath back, she gathered up her courage and spat out accusingly, "Who are you and what have you done to my friend?"

Xena slithered up the bed closer to Gabrielle, keeping their eyes locked. "Who am I?" she laughed. "Hmmm, I fear you have completely lost your mind once and for all. If after all this time you donít know, something must be really wrong." Xena pressed up against Gabrielleís body, pinning her right side to the wall. She grinned wickedly at the uncomfortable look on Gabrielleís face.

"I know Xena. Youíre not her." Gabrielle tried to edge away from Xena, but one of the warriorís hands shot out and planted itself against the wall by the bardís head, effectively blocking that avenue of retreat.

"Just where do you think youíre going, little girl?" Xena purred into the bardís ear, running her free hand through Gabrielleís tousled hair. Gabrielle cringed at every touch.

"Iím going to stop you and help bring my friend back." As soon as the words left her mouth, Gabrielleís head was slammed back forcefully into the stone wall behind the headboard. Gabrielle moaned in pain but didnít back off. She kept her defiant gaze directed into Xenaís eyes.

"Oh, really. Well Iíve got news for you. *Iím* in charge here. Youíd better just sit back and enjoy the ride, or I can make it extremely unpleasant for you." Xenaís tone was sharp and threatening, but quickly her voice and eyes softened. She craned her head forward, near the bardís neck, and saw Gabrielleís neck move with each belabored breath. "Your friend is history, my dear. Long gone," Xena whispered.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling Xenaís hot breath against her neck. Weakly, she whispered, "I donít believe you."

Xena slowly craned her neck to where her and Gabrielleís foreheads met. She pushed the bardís head back up against the wall again, gentler this time. She looked deeply into Gabrielleís eyes that had opened widely from the intense scrutiny. Xena, her voice slurring, chuckled and said, "You should ... and soon you will."

A loud, sharp rapping noise came from downstairs and a male voice drifted up through the window. "Hello!? Is anyone there?"

Xena kept her position against Gabrielle a few moments longer, trailing her fingers down the bardís jaw line. Finally she opened her mouth to speak. "Iíll be right back. I have to go take care of our *company*." Xena practically spat the last word out. Almost as an afterthought, she added, "Donít you dare go anywhere. If you cross me, I swear youíll be in for it later..."

With that, Xena quickly hopped off the bed and strode angrily out the door, grabbing her sword off the table as she left. Gabrielle regained her breath as soon as the warrior left the room. That had been a little too close for comfort.

Downstairs, Xena threw open the door to see two middle-aged, poorly clothed men. They looked shocked when the door suddenly opened to reveal an attractive woman in leather, but they quickly regained their composure and smiled at the angry woman before them.

"What do you want?" she impatiently growled.

"Uh, weíre from the village on the edge of these woods," one man, tall with dark brown curly hair, a mustache, and a short beard, told Xena. He pointed in the general direction of the town before continuing. "We saw some smoke coming from the chimney of this place so we figured someone must have moved in here. We came to welcome you and see if there was anything you needed."

"Did you?" Xena asked rhetorically, eyeing the two villagers. A smile crept slowly onto her face, replacing the darkness that was there before. "Well, since youíre here, there are some things I could use your help with..."

Xena stepped out of the doorway and motioned with one arm for the two men to come in. Once they were inside, she closed the door and stood in front of it, blocking it.

Gabrielle had overheard the whole exchange from the top of the stairs and blanched white when the men agreed to come in. She could let these two innocent villagers become victims to whatever controlled Xena. She stood up and ran over to the railing overlooking the large room below, shouting. "Run!! Youíre in danger! Sheís going to kill you!"

All three people downstairs looked up at the hollering bard. Xena bared her teeth in anger and turned her attention to the two men before her. While both were looking up at the hysteric woman at the top of the stairs, Xena picked the closest one -- a tall, stocky, red-haired man -- to start with.

She screamed in rage and her eyes flashed as she swung her sword around at the man. Surprised, he turned to look at her but it was too late. The sharp blade clove into his skull and dug deep before getting caught in the bone. He fell to the ground, dead instantly. Xena snickered at the easy victory.

The other man saw the savage attack and froze at the sight of his friend dead on the ground and the imposing woman standing over him. His thoughts were interrupted by the shouts of "Run!!" coming from upstairs.

He turned and fled up the staircase toward the young woman. As she watched the terrified villager, Xena put a foot on the dead manís neck and yanked hard on her sword, wrenching the blade from his skull. With a short outburst of laughter, she quickly ran up the stairs in pursuit, twirling the bloodied sword in her hand.

The man reached the top of the stairs and ran to the frantic young woman there. "Go!" he said, pushing her off in the direction of the hallway. "Iíll hold her off!"

"No, look, you donít understand. You canít!" Gabrielle insisted, knowing the man was no match for the crazed warrior running up the stairs.

"Go!!" he shouted again, louder this time. He shoved Gabrielle towards the hall, quickly spun on his feet, and struck out at Xena with his fists when she reached the top of the stairs. His punch connected solidly with the warriorís cheek and he laughed nervously in triumph.

Xena glared at the man who had just hit her and snapped. She tossed her sword over the railing to the floor far below and let loose with a flurry of punches at the manís face.

Gabrielle thought about jumping in to help the man but soon realized it was too late for him. There was no way she could hold Xena back, especially with her being so enraged. The only hope she had left of ending this whole mess lay at the end of the hall behind a fireplace. She took off towards her objective.

Meanwhile, Xena furiously kept up her barrage on the villager, pounding him into the wall. A movement off to the side caught her attention for a split second and she saw Gabrielle running down the hall. Xena bared her teeth in fury and threw a few more half-hearted punches at the manís bloody face.

He leaned battered and broken against the wall, his nose bashed in and blood gurgling from his mouth. Xena glared into his half-closed eyes and said, "I havenít got time for this." She grabbed him by his dirty collar and tossed him toward the railing. With a thunderous crack the villager and the wooden safeguard went plummeting down to the hard stone floor below.

Not stopping to admire her handiwork, Xena flew down the hall looking for Gabrielle. "Where are you, you little bitch!!" she screamed.

She stalked furiously down the hall, her face contorted into a mask of rage. That annoying little bard was about to find out just how painful the consequences could be when the rules were disobeyed. Sheíd make sure of it.

Xena looked into each room for a sign of Gabrielle, her breathing ragged and rapid from anger. There was no sign yet of the little blonde. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" the warrior shouted. Where could that girl have disappeared to?

Suddenly, Xena heard a distinctive sound coming from the room at the end of the hallway. She ran as fast as her feet could carry her towards the noise, determined to give the bard a piece of her mind.

Gabrielle tried to push the dead body off herself. The heavy corpse was disgusting to look at but even more so to touch. She felt a sharp object jabbing into her stomach and pulled a dagger off the dead manís belt. She switched the knife over to her left hand and used her right palm to topple the revolting carcass away. It landed on another dead body right behind it with a thud.

Gabrielle all of a sudden heard a scraping noise behind her and she quickly turned to see Xena at the entrance to the dark passageway behind the fireplace. "Uh oh, this isnít good," she muttered to herself. The warrior didnít seem too happy at the moment.

"Oh, here you are my insolent little bard. I warned you not to defy me. Now youíve got to pay the price..." Xena said, reaching forward to grab Gabrielle. Unmindful of the dagger in her hand, the bard tried to push Xenaís hand away. The warrior quickly caught Gabrielleís hand and pulled her forward. Off balance, Gabrielle lunged forward and the dagger dug deep into the warriorís thigh. A loud howl emitted from Xenaís throat, and she immediately let go of the bardís hand and grasped her wounded leg.

"Now youíve *really* got it coming..." the warrior warned, her eyes full of murderous intentions. If the bard thought she was in trouble before, just wait until she got her hands on her now.

Gabrielleís eyes grew wide in both regret and fear, and she ran off down the dark passageway, beyond the warriorís reach. She found a stairwell about ten feet back and took it, going up the short stone steps. Gabrielle hoped that the accidental stabbing would at least slow Xena down enough so that she could escape and perhaps find a way to end this craziness.

Once Gabrielle reached the top of the stairs, she pushed open a wooden door that was ajar a few inches and ran into the room behind it. She slammed the door shut behind her at once and put down a large, heavy wooden bar that was on the wall to block it.

Gabrielle sighed in relief at being away from Xena and leaned up against the door. It just didnít feel right to see her friend so enraged. Quickly she regained her bearings and her breath and turned her attention to her surroundings, looking for anything that could help her out of this predicament. Xena wouldnít be too far behind, after all.

Tattered black curtains blew slightly inside from the breeze coming through the window. To the right of that in the small, circular tower was a simple, weathered desk. Long scratch marks were dug into the desktop and raked over onto the side. A lone, long door in the middle of the desk was shut, and Gabrielle curiously stepped forward to open it.

On the way, however, Gabrielle tripped over a loud, clattering object. When she regained her balance, she looked down into the empty eyes of a large skeleton still clothed in tattered old rags. Gabrielle imagined they were once finely woven and beautiful, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. "Thaddeus, I presume," she whispered to herself.

After another long moment of staring at the bony remains, she turned and hurried over to the desk. She sidestepped an overturned, broken chair and grasped the handle of the drawer. She yanked hard but it wouldnít budge.

"Great, just great!" she cursed, and she jerked on the drawer once again, harder than before. It resisted for a split second before flying open, sending both the bard and the drawer to the ground with a thud.

Gabrielle winced at the shock of striking the stone floor as the drawer overturned due to the momentum. A single, old, gray book hit her in the chest and fell down to her lap. Gabrielle tossed the now empty drawer aside and looked hopefully at the book. The cover was worn, and the same claw marks that were engraved on the desk had carried over onto the book. The corners were also slightly torn.

An old scrap of torn clothing protruded from the middle of the book, marking someoneís place. Gabrielle opened the book up to that page but was dismayed soon after.

The writing was, although familiar, not something she could translate very well ... or quickly. A loud pounding on the door behind Gabrielle reminded her that time was of the essence ... if the book even really held the key to helping Xena, that is. Everything depended on the slim hopes of the bard. She hoped that the answer was indeed in the book, and that she would be able to read it in time to restore her friend to her sensibilities.

"Open this damn door right now!! I swear, when I get my hands on you..." Xenaís threats were muffled by the sounds of her new assault on the door.

"Okay Gabrielle, here goes nothing." The bard studied the strange writing before her, mentally blocking out the pounding at the door and Xenaís angry voice. Everything depended on her ability to read this book.

The language was one Gabrielle had studied briefly at the bardís academy in Athens one summer while Xena and her had investigated some mysterious murders in the area. The fact that her short time spent on the language was repeatedly distracted meant that her knowledge was little more than passable.

Gabrielle ran her index finger under the words, stammering a bit as she repeated them out loud, hoping the pronunciation would trigger some memories. "Okay, letís see what this is in proper Greek..." she mumbled to herself. "D ... d ... dispelling ... demons."

"Gabrielle, open this door!!" Xena shouted.

"I guess Iím on the right page here," Gabrielle commended herself. She moved down onto the next line. After a long while, she had it translated to the best of her abilities. "Take an object of the possessed oneís and place it on the proper shrine? Shrine? What shrine?"

Gabrielle looked around desperately. "What are they talking about shrine?" she repeated to herself. A loud banging on the door interrupted her thoughts momentarily, and she wondered how much longer the door would keep Xena out.

Gabrielle turned her head to search the room. As her eyes came upon the low stone altar on the other side of the room, a huge grin broke out on her face. "Yes! Thatíll work!!" she shouted. She jumped to her feet and ran over to the dirty altar. She wiped away some of dust and grime that had built up over the years on the sacrificial stone as she pondered the other part of the instructions. "I need something of Xenaís. Something..." Gabrielle snapped her fingers as a thought struck her, and she quickly lifted a necklace from over her head.

Gabrielle looked tenderly at the token Xena had given her the Solstice before. She had said that it signified their friendship and the bond that couldnít be broken. Gabrielle fingered the silver wire token that was carved into the design of never-ending knotwork before laying it down gently on the altar. Then she read the next part of the passage.

Suddenly a hole splintered in the rotting door. The wood was beginning to give way to Xenaís persistent pounding. Gabrielle shuddered at the sound of the wood giving way to Xenaís strength but continued on with her translation.

"A fresh drop of blood must join with the possessed oneís object. Great! How in Hades am I going to do that?" Gabrielle looked around the room in search of any sharp objects. The only thing she could fathom using disgusted her, but she decided it was the only way. Gabrielle slinked over to the skeleton in the middle of the room. Hopefully, she searched the ragged clothes, but there was nothing to be found. Tentatively, she reached down and grabbed hold of a bone. With an repulsed expression on her face and a quick jerk of her hands, the brittle bone snapped in half.

Gabrielle looked at the snapped edge of the bone. There was a jagged piece protruding from it that would do nicely, but it needed to be sharpened a bit first. She quickly scraped the uneven piece on the floor to put an edge on it.

Xenaís fist came crashing through the door while Gabrielle worked, causing the bard to jump slightly in surprise. "Oh, Iím almost there, my dear! Just wait Ďtil you see what I have in store for you when Iím through!" Xena threatened, laughing wickedly.

Satisfied with the sharpened edge on the bone, Gabrielle hurried back over to the altar. She held her trembling hand over the silver token Xena had given her and, after a deep breath, slashed her hand diagonally across the palm. While the pain was excruciating, Gabrielle didnít cry out. She squeezed her hand into a fist, causing a few drops of blood to collect together at the bottom of her hand. After a few tentative moments, the red droplets splashed down onto the silver token.

Gabrielle turned her attention back to the book and read over the next, and last, section. From the looks of it, this was the hard part. The other passages had been relatively short, but this last one was at least twice the size of those.

As Gabrielle read over the foreign text, all the letters started to jumble together in her mind, and a trickle of sweat fell into her eyes. She cursed and wiped at her eyes with her forearm, throwing the sharpened bone away. The sound of the object clattering on the stones over by the door distracted her, and she was getting very nervous. She couldnít fail her friend that was just not an option. Once again, she tried to focus on the words, and this time she succeeded.

The problem now, however, was Gabrielleís poor knowledge of the language. After a short while of studying the words, she had a vague idea of what it said but she wasnít sure. She couldnít decide whether the instructions called for her to repeat the next five lines in a chant or to translate them for more instructions. She growled to herself in frustration and slammed her wounded fist on the altar.

Suddenly, the image of her friend Orion, or Homer as he had finally admitted to being named, appeared in her mind. He had become a scholar at the academy, a master of this strange language, and he was the one who had been appointed to help Gabrielle learn it. "When you see this letter coming before this one, the word means to repeat. When itís the other way around, it means to read on," he had repeatedly advised her. She remembered being totally perplexed at all the strange, complicated rules of this language.

Gabrielle checked the letters in the word, and sure enough Homerís advice helped her: repetition it was. "Thank you, my friend," she appreciatively muttered before turning her attention to the text. After a short time looking it over, she began to chant the lines out loud.

Xena was making even more progress in her assault on the door. Both of her bloody fists had punched through the battered wood by now and a huge, gaping hole had appeared. She reached down through the space and lifted the heavy wooden beam that barred the door. It fell to the floor with a loud clatter, and Xena kicked the damaged door in. The hinges broke and it came crashing in on top of the skeleton, crushing the brittle bones into a large puff of dust. When the dust cleared, Xena was revealed standing in the doorway, bloodied. Her lip, thigh and knuckles all dripped the same red substance, and her eyes were full of fury.

"Oh Gabrielle!" she called out in a sing song voice. "Timeís up."

With that, Xena began to run towards the chanting bard. Gabrielle remained in her position behind the altar, loudly repeating the foreign text. She wasnít about to be distracted, not when she was this close. Hurried, yes, but not distracted. There was just one line left...

Xena stooped down quickly as she ran by and picked up the sharpened bone Gabrielle had discarded earlier. Once it was securely in her hand, she lunged toward the bard, holding the weapon out in front of her to stab Gabrielle in the heart.

"Sumani brak dala prandur!" Gabrielle shouted, finishing the incantation. A bright green light shone forth from the bloodied token on the altar and enveloped Xena as she passed over the shrine toward the bard. The intense light seized the warrior, and her momentum instantly halted. Xenaís body hovered over the altar, bound by the light, and frozen in place. Suddenly, bright electric bolts shot out from the token and struck Xena, the waves from the impact visibly moving down her body.

Gabrielle squinted her eyes against the blinding light and turned her head away slightly, but she kept her gaze focused on her tortured friend. The electric blasts sent Xenaís body into convulsions and Gabrielle had to try hard not to run into the dazzling light to help her friend. A loud scream pierced her ears and resounded off the walls. Gabrielle wasnít sure if the sound came from Xena or herself.

Suddenly a dark cloud started oozing quickly from Xenaís body and her eyes rolled back up into her head. The shrill cry that had been present when all this started reappeared, and Gabrielle clasped her hands over her ears. As the black cloud seeped through the floor and back down to the second level of the castle, the blaring sound died off.

The light disappeared a second later and Xenaís limp body collapsed onto the stone altar. Her weak arm still held onto the sharpened bone, and as she went down it narrowly missed Gabrielle. As her long arm struck the floor, the bone went clattering away from her infirm hand. The warriorís jaw struck the side of the stone altar, and her head went lolling off to the side.

Gabrielle looked silently at her unconscious friend and tentatively reached out a tired, shaky hand to brush the raven hair from the warriorís face. She used her thumb to open Xenaís eyelids and check on her. The electrifying blue eyes seemed normal, or as normal as they could be under the circumstances. Gabrielle shifted Xenaís body so that her head would rest comfortably on top of the altar before she lay down herself and passed out from exhaustion.

****

Gabrielle lay on the thick, cushy bed beside her friend. The bard had woken up a couple of hours ago, long after the events in the tower above. After treating the warriorís many wounds, sheíd carefully moved Xenaís body down to their bedroom. When ... *if* ... she woke up, sheíd be in terrible pain. Who will even wake up beside me, Gabrielle wondered. Xena or the demon? Despite all that had happened, or perhaps because of it, Gabrielle had learned the wisdom of caution.

A slight shift in the position of the warriorís body alerted Gabrielle, and she turned onto her side and looked hopefully at her friend.

"Ugh," Xena groaned, her throat dry and her voice cracked. She squinted her eyes shut even tighter than they were before due to the pain coursing through her body.

"Oh, thank the gods! Youíre awake!" Gabrielle exclaimed, caution taking a distant second place to relief. Hearing the distressed tone of Xenaís voice, Gabrielle quickly got the canteen from beside the bed. She put a hand behind the warriorís head and tilted it up a bit, putting the container to Xenaís parched lips. She drank gratefully before collapsing back to her pillow.

Xena lay there quietly before she gathered the strength to open her heavy eyelids. Her dazed, bloodshot eyes looked up into Gabrielleís concerned ones.

"Gabrielle..." Xena whispered, a small smile making its way onto her lips.

"Shhhh! Xena, youíll be all right. Itís all over now," Gabrielle said, fighting back tears. She could tell by the look in the eyes that Xena was back. She couldnít stand to see her friend looking so weak and helpless, though. This picture of Xena did not merge at all with the one she kept close in her heart and foremost in her mind.

Xena gulped and coughed a little bit, inflaming her dry throat. Gabrielle gave her some more water, gently wiping the excess liquid off the warriorís chin. She smiled tenderly at her friend and was rewarded with a lopsided, albeit somewhat fragile, grin from the warrior.

"What happened?" Xena quietly asked after a few moments of the companionable silence. For the life of her, she had no idea how she had become so battered. It hurt to just talk.

"Iíll tell you later. You got beat up pretty good, but you wounds shouldnít take *too* long to heal. You may limp for a while, but itís not that bad at all." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at Xena, trying to cover up the regret she felt at stabbing her friend in the leg, even if it was an accident. At least she could seek solace in the fact that the wound was not as serious as it had first seemed. Still, sheíd felt awful knowing that she had hurt Xena and that the warriorís sticky blood had, for a little while, been on her hands.

"What about you? What happened to your hand?" Xena asked, concerned by the bandages wrapped around Gabrielleís hand.

"Oh, that! Itís nothing. The bone didnít go very deep; itís just a flesh wound."

"Bone? What happened? I think Iíd rather hear this story now, Gabrielle." The smile disappeared from Xenaís face as she assumed a stern, commanding air.

"Later. You need some rest, miss warrior princess," Gabrielle ordered warmly. Xena tried to look intimidating at the bard, but she failed miserably. Gabrielle had her number. She groaned in defeat, but soon drifted off to sleep once again.

****

"Thank Zeus weíre leaving this place!" Gabrielle exclaimed, casting a wary eye over the dark castle, which had been home to so many horrors recently. There were many tales she immortalized in words about the adventures she and Xena faced, but this was one sheíd rather forget.

"Yes. Letís just hope that no one comes back here for a long time. This places is best forgotten," Xena added thoughtfully. Gabrielle had told her everything that she knew about that had happened in this castle, and a new sense of guilt weighed heavily on her shoulders. Even if she didnít remember actually doing any of the things that sheíd heard about, she couldnít help feeling responsible.

Sensing Xenaís thoughts and mood, Gabrielle rested her head on her friendís shoulder and put an arm around her waist. "Xena, you canít blame yourself for what happened here. That wasnít you doing all those terrible things." Xena responded by putting her arms tightly around the bardís shoulders and laying her cheek lightly atop Gabrielleís head.

"Maybe not, but I was the one who insisted on staying here, and I was the one who opened that book. I should have paid attention to you when you warned me about this place. Iíll try to listen to you more often." Xena closed her eyes and settled into the warm embrace. It felt so right to have Gabrielle in her arms. Nothing seemed quite as hopeless or intolerable in these moments.

"Yeah, well that would be a good move. You *should* listen to me and take my advice more often." Xena groaned and rolled her now open eyes. Gabrielle laughed. "Well, at least we hid that book. Now no one else can just stumble upon it like we did."

"Mmm hmm," Xena agreed, nodding her head. "Letís just get out of this place. Iím sure Hercules and Iolaus wonít mind if we arenít here when they arrive. Maybe weíll even run into them on the way out."

"Yeah, they probably use the road, unlike *some* people I know," Gabrielle teased, giving Xena a knowing look.

"Ha ha," Xena whispered in her friendís ear, but she smiled nonetheless at Gabrielleís good-natured ribbing.

The pair slowly turned, Gabrielle acting as a crutch to help Xena get around with her leg injury. Xena hobbled a few steps with Gabrielleís assistance before the two friends were stopped by a large mob of villagers coming up the road towards them.

"Hello," Gabrielle greeted them suspiciously. "Can we help you?"

"You two can turn yourselves in peacefully for a trial," an older man at the front of the crowd called out, planting his pitchfork firmly on the ground beside him. He narrowed his brown eyes hatefully at the pair.

"Excuse me?" Gabrielle asked, caught off guard. "What are you talking about?"

"You two will be tried for murder. We found old man Simeon slaughtered in his own home, this ax sticking out of his chest," another man from the crowd answered. Both Xena and Gabrielle immediately recognized the hatchet the villager held up, and the warrior began to lean more heavily on her friend, defeated. Another victim of hers, from the looks of it. She shouldnít have been surprised.

"If Iím not mistaken, we should also find two good men of ours in that castle back there. Dead, of course. You didnít really think that we would let you get away with this, did you? You didnít think weíd let you kill good men and just move on?"

"Look, I can explain all this..." Gabrielle started.

"Thereís nothing to explain. You have to pay the price for your crimes..."

"We didnít do any of this!" Gabrielle shouted defensively. "There was a demon..."

"Nonsense! Your lies will be held against you!" The lynch mob behind the old man shouted their agreement and raised their farm implements threateningly into the air. The murderers would be brought to justice, one way or another.

"Iím not lying!" Gabrielle insisted.

"She *isnít* lying. Sheís telling the truth," came a deep male voice from behind the crowd. Everyone turned to see who had spoken on behalf of the killers.

Two men walked up to Xena and Gabrielle through the crowd as the villagers moved from their path. Both were obviously warriors. One was tall, very muscular, tan and handsome. His long dirty blond hair reached down to his shoulders. He wore a yellow vest and brown leather pants that clung tightly to his body. His gait was long and powerful.

His companion was nearly a foot shorter, but he was no slouch either. His hair was more golden than his friendís, and his tan not as pronounced. He wore a purple vest and black leather pants, and he strode confidently beside his friend. Unlike his unarmed companion, he carried a sheathed sword in his right hand. His bright smile widened when he saw the two women accused of murder.

"Hercules! Iolaus! Iím so glad youíre here! Maybe you can help us explain whatís going on here since you seem to know. Weíre not murderers," Gabrielle swore. She put a small smile on her face to welcome her friends despite the hostility of the situation they were all in.

"We know," Hercules reassured her. Then he turned his attention to the crowd. "A few weeks ago we received word from a reliable seer that an evil spirit would be released into this province. He described this castle in detail and said that the demon, after being freed, would wreak havoc on the area. We sent a message to Xena and Gabrielle here to meet us at this castle. We figured we might need their help to defeat it."

"Yeah, I guess this was part of the prophecy, though. Itís already been out. What happened, and how did you two trap the demon again?" Iolaus asked, focusing on the two tired, battered women.

"It was all her," Xena said proudly, hugging Gabrielle to her side. Gabrielle blushed at the praise and smiled sheepishly.

The crowd was quieting down, many apparently satisfied with the story. In a last ditch effort, the leader of the mob shouted out, "And why should we believe you?"

"Heís Hercules, Philip. He wouldnít lie," one villager answered.

"Yeah, I recognize him. He saved my brother once," another chimed in. "I trust him."

His cause lost, the leader finally caved in and nodded his head. "All right, then. You can go. Just donít come back!" he shouted at the two women. Xena raised her eyebrow, and Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply but changed her mind. Itís not worth it, she thought, as the crowd dispersed. She sighed in relief that the tense standoff was over.

"Iím glad thatís over with. Thank you two," Gabrielle said, smiling at the two men.

"Hey, itís the least we could do. You two did vanquish a demon for us, remember?" Iolaus grinned.

"How could I forget?" Gabrielle laughed.

"So, howíd it all happen?" Hercules asked, curious. The four friends moved off down the road together, Xenaís arm around Gabrielleís shoulder for support.

"Well, it all started with Xena being stubborn, as usual..." Gabrielle joked, laughing.

"Gabrielle..." Xena warned her friend good-naturedly. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged confused glances but laughed anyway.

"Well, all right. Hereís how it went..."

 

THE END


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